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Interview: ZeniMax Online's game director talks Elder Scrolls Online

By Darren Price
Fri 7 Dec 2018
FYI, this story is more than a year old

For over four years The Elder Scrolls Online has been delighting fans of Bethedsa’s meticulously realised fantasy world. Since launch the game has seen many changes, the switch from subscription to free-to-play being the most radical. The game has also seen two major expansions and countless DLC additions. 

FutureFive’s Darren Price sat down with Matt Firor, ESO’s designer and now president and game director at ZeniMax Online.

Hello Matt, thanks for taking the time to talk to FutureFive. I didn’t realise that you did Dark Age of Camelot, as well.

Matt Firor: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Back in the stone age. 

I spent many an evening on that, but I had more time back then! How much inspiration did you take from Dark Age of Camelot when you were designing Elder Scrolls Online?

Matt: I think it's safe to say every designer takes a little bit of every project they've ever worked on to new ones. The Elder Scrolls Online's player-verses-player system was very much influenced by Dark Age of Camelot.

ESO’s Alliance War and DAOC’s realms are very similar.

Matt: Yeah. I really like the three-sided PVP, because it's inherently more balanced than two sided. Because in two sided PVP, if one side has 2-3% higher population than the other, they dominate every time. But with three, it adds that sense of chaos that the other side could show up and make trouble. So, it's just much more fun to me that way.

Very true. Now, I remember speaking to Pete Hines back in the day just after launch, and we were discussing the subscription model, I was sceptical. From your point of view, how much of a big deal was it, swapping from subscriptions to the freemium model.

Matt: Technically it wasn't a big deal at all, but the perception, especially going to console because we hadn't yet launched on console, was huge. We sat down and thought about what we do well, and what we needed to work on in the game overall, before we went on console.  And that was one of the things that came up. Subscriptions weren't unknown on console, but they were not super well known.

And so, we decided to go to a model where, you could subscribe if you wanted, and you got in-game benefits from it. We also added a virtual currency system, so the stuff that you might get through loyalty rewards or stuff like that for subscribing, you could just go buy with virtual currency. Implementing this system turned out to be a very good decision.

Yeah, I think it was. From my point of view, I don't get the time I used to get, so I can't really justify a monthly subscription. But it's great to just be able to go on there, and have a go.

Matt: You don't feel like you need to rush through everything, because you're not on a monthly deadline

Yes, that's it. No more, “I need to get my month’s worth of value.” So, ESO is a prequel.

Matt: That’s right.

How much do you refer back to the other games when creating the lore and new content?

Matt: All the time. We have a lore master on staff whose sole job it is to work with Bethesda Game Studios, who are the keepers of the lore, to make sure that what we do is consistent with what they are planning and working on. There's a repository of information there that we keep updated so we know what to do and what not to do.

Okay, what can you tell me above ESO, moving forward? What about the game's road map? It’s a four-year-old game, how much life has it got left?

Matt: Yeah, ESO is more successful now than it ever has been. I think we hit on something really good with the chapter system. We do an update four times a year- because players love new content. We have two smaller dungeon DLCs for co-op multiplayer fans, and the people that love to grind for loot and run dungeons, and there are lots of people in ESO that love that.

We then do a smaller story DLC, usually highlighting an area of Tamriel that might not get the full treatment unless we did it. Clockwork City was one of our story DLCs, and now Murkmire which just launched. Then we have these two big moments in the middle of every year in June. 

We did Morrowind in 2017 and Summerset was just this year. These give us the chance for us to wave the ESO flag and say, "Hey, we're still here, here's a giant thing, it's in the stores, we have a new retail product." It’s a reminder to the media and fans, people who played the game but hadn't played in a while to remind them that ESO is there, they can just log in and play. 

It been very successful because the chapters are big drops of content, offering 30-40 hours of questing. We try to include new classes, or new skills and things like that to get, to shake it up a little bit with some new systems.

It has been so well received that we see no reason to change it. Maybe we'll mix it up a little bit with dungeon DLCs versus regular DLCs, but really that idea, four big updates, I think will go for a while. We're already playing next year's content, internally, and we're working on the design for the year after that, and we pretty much know what we're going to do the year after that, as well.

So, we should expect a big box treatment again?

Matt: I don't see any reason to change what we're doing.

I hadn't played ESO for probably nine months. Summerset come out and I was straight back in there. It's absolutely beautiful, as well. And to return to these areas that you've played in before, years ago, and see them again, it's magic.

Matt: I say this all the time, but if you ask five different ESO players to describe the game, they'll describe five different games. We have people, like you described yourself, that, as a chapter comes out or a big DLC, and you play through it for three or four months, and then you're like, "Okay, I'm going to go and play something else." And then the next time, you're like, "Oh, a big ESO thing, I'll go play it," and you end up playing kind of in spurts every seven or eight months.

Lots of people do that. That's fine. We also have people that log in every day, and we also have people that kind of log in three times a week. ESO supports all of those play styles.

I just love the exploration. I was playing on the media server, before release. I remember doing like a sort of crazy suicide run to see how far I could get, and I got all the way to Skyrim.

Matt: And now you could do that easily, because you don't have to level. We took levelling out so now you can legitimately adventure across the entire world, with no problems.

Are there any plans to give the game a graphical overhaul, similar to what EverQuest and World of Warcraft did?

Matt: We're always doing that, we just don't make a big deal out of it. When the PS4 Pro came out, we already supported 4K. We just added HDR. But we're continually doing things like that.

When we first designed the engine, we needed it to run on lower-power laptops all the way up to huge gaming rigs. Scalability was built in from the beginning. 

ESO has been going for four years now, what level of support will a new player jumping in now likely to get going forward?

Matt:    The best way to describe how the game feels right now is that the entire game is the end game. So, you don't need to grind up to level 50 in order to get to the fun part. With One Tamriel, where we took out levels, at level one, you can do anything. You really can just go across the world and you can hunt down world bosses. You PVP until you're level 10, until you get enough skills, but other than that, you can play how you want.

And with the chapters, they're designed just as much for beginners as they are for advanced players. Summerset is a great place for players to jump in and start. You start in Summerset, which is beautiful and the story's great.

What upcoming content are you most looking forward to?

Matt: I can't be too specific. But I will say Murkmire, which has just launched, is the best story we've told in ESO so far. And I'm not just saying that. It's amazing. It starts out one way and then it goes a completely different direction that you were not expecting. And Argonians are just weirdly funny.

You've had a bit of fun with that one.

Matt: Yeah. Yeah, it's good.

Well thank you once again, Matt, and I for one am looking forward to jumping back into Tamriel and checking out the new Murkmire DLC.

The Elder Scrolls Online is available on Windows PC, Mac, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The game does not require a monthly subscription, however, ESO Plus subscribers get free access to all the available expansions and DLC packs as well as monthly bonuses.  

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