The Elder Scrolls Online is perhaps one of the most unique MMOs on the market. Speaking to PCGamesInsider.biz at Gamescom 2018, the president of developer ZeniMax Online Studios Matt Firor said the aim was to make an experience that players could come to in a more casual basis than your typical entry in the genre; this year, he says that he barely thinks of the game as an MMO anymore. We caught up with Firor at this year's Gamescom to see how this approach is working, what advice he has for Bethesda and Fallout 76 and why the studio is bringing The Elder Scrolls Online to Google's Stadia streaming platform.
There are some similarities to be drawn between The Elder Scrolls Online and Fallout 76. Both were online versions of popular single-player RPG series that had rather messy launched. Did the team working on Fallout 76 turn to you for advice on how to combat the issues it had had?
There's not that many studios at Bethesda, so we all talk all the time. We didn't officially consult with them, but we talk. The industry is so small that all of us have worked with the other developers in different capacities over the years. There's just a lot of back of forth and advice and playing each other's games before they launch and giving feedback.
What advice did you give them?
These games are big and what you launch with isn't necessarily the game it ends up being - just look at The Elder Scrolls Online. We launched one way and we've evolved over time to be something similar but we focused it on a certain part that it wasn't focused on before. It was very much a level-based older school MMO back then and I wouldn't even use the MMO to describe ESO anymore because it's not level-based. It's like Grand Theft Auto - you can just jump in and play with your friends. You don't really care what level everyone is. That wasn't something we weren't thinking about when we made the game. It just shows the way that games can evolve over time. That was the feedback that we gave - listen to what people are saying.
So what's new with The Elder Scrolls Online since we spoke last year?
I keep telling myself this but every 12 months seems to be a little better than the year before it. It's a good place to be. We hit this rhythm where we have four updates a year ever since we launched on console. We started doing chapters - Morrowind, Summerset, Elsweyr. This year we added this season of and year of stories like the Season of the Dragon. That's been really, really good. It's great to have one message like dragons and Elswyr for a year. It's been really well-received. E3 was huge for us. We got a lot of users and we're doing what we can to keep content coming out.
Why move to that more 'seasonal' approach?
During 2018 the chapter was elves but before that was undead dragons and we ended with Argonians in Murkmire. We look back on it as being cool but it's also all over the place. Since our content comes out every 12 weeks, our users were actually getting confused. They'd read about Summerset but all the marketing is for Murkmire, and there's also lizard people. That's where the thought process started. We then decided to tell one story with one message over the year but still keep the content coming.
Given that your users are perhaps a little bit more casual than your typical MMO, I imagine this helps communicate what's going on with the game.
We have people who play every day, of course, but we have a lot of people who dip in and out as we do the bigger content updates and that's fine. This keeps them apprised of what we are working on easily. We can go: 'This is the Year of the Dragon' and the next 12 months is the year of whatever. We'll keep with that focus from now on.
In June, you announced that The Elder Scrolls Online had 13.5m players. It feels like userbase growth has sped up somewhat. Why have you seen this growth?
Morrowind was good, but Summerset was really good. We were on a high from Summerset at the end of the year and then we announced dragons and Elsweyr. The CGI trailer we used to announce it on Twitch had so many viewers. The coverage of that stream was actually one of the big things that actually got people on board with the Season of the Dragon. Don't ever underestimate the memories people have of Skyrim and the dragons. Having them in the game is another hallmark Elder Scrolls moment and having a gorgeous CGI trailer introducing how dragons come into the world and within weeks, we allowed users to play that segment from that advert where you're unleashing the dragons. It was very well done and immediately people understood what we were doing.
The biggest blessing of my type of games - and the biggest curse - is the size of the game. When you think about streaming, I can just pick up a Chromebook or Chromecast or business laptop and instantaneously login and play without downloading anything. It's really cool. It's almost like magic when you see it work. We've been collaborating with Google for a while now on this because we're such a big game and that leads to lots of edge-case problems. It's really, really cool. Accessibility is the big key there. It lets you have a great gaming experience