The success story of MMORPG The Elder Scrolls Online in an interview with the developer

The success story of MMORPG The Elder Scrolls Online in an interview with the developer

The Elder Scrolls Online turns ten years old next week, but things haven’t always been so smooth with the game for the team at ZeniMax. The MMO has seen its share of challenges since its launch in 2014, and over the past decade it has changed and evolved to meet the needs of the players who keep Tamriel alive.

With the removal of mandatory subscription fees, a release on consoles, and then, most importantly, the removal of content tier requirements, today’s Elder Scrolls Online is very, very different from the one it launched ten years ago. Even though the game has been in development for 17 years (since 2007), the team at ZeniMax Online Studios doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

During GDC 2024, portal journalist spoke with ESO Game Director Matt Firor about the MMO’s longevity, especially as one of the few multi-platform MMOs.

“ESO has very few direct competitors for what we do: cross-platform fantasy play, with live service in the virtual world,” Firor said when asked how he thinks the game has changed in the last ten years. “Obviously there are others, but they all came out around the same time as us. Which was just wonderful for us and we are very happy about it. But I think the industry, right around the time we launched, turned away from these types of games because they’re hard to make.”

As Firor explained, it takes an experienced team to keep these games running. He also notes that as the industry has evolved over the last decade, the tools that MMOs used in their early days are beginning to be adopted en masse by the rest of the gaming industry.

“All games are now online: looter shooters, king of the hill – and all this is rooted in MMO technologies of the early-late 90s and early 2000s. [Это просто поиск другого способа использования игр, ориентированных на сообщество, для создания отличного опыта».

Фирор отмечает, что взрыв онлайновых игр, использующих технологии MMO, только помог The Elder Scrolls Online на протяжении всей ее жизни, поскольку все больше и больше игроков увлекаются только онлайновыми играми.

Поиск собственной опоры

Когда в 2014 году The Elder Scrolls Online вышла на рынок, она не вызвала восторженных отзывов и энтузиазма фанатов, на которые, возможно, рассчитывала студия. Хотя у нее определенно были свои защитники, данная ММО ощущала недостаток в нескольких ключевых областях. Бывший главный редактор Билл Мерфи назвал ESO «очень веселой, но не идеальной», указав на разрыв между одиночным и групповым PvE-контентом, а также на ошибки, которые досаждали в самом начале.

В значительной степени раннее недовольство игроков было связано с тем, что ESO как будто находилась в ничейной земле между попыткой быть хардкорной PvP MMO и попыткой претендовать на мантию настоящей игры Elder Scrolls, что неизменно означает свободу действий игрока в мире.

Еще одной серьезной жалобой была обязательная подписка, которая в начале 2010-х годов начала считаться все менее и менее нормальной. Хотя многие MMO — большинство из них — монетизировались с помощью обязательной подписки в самом начале, рост числа free-to-play MMO на Западе начал менять менталитет многих потенциальных игроков. Не помогло и то, что ESO в то время для многих не казалась достаточно премиальной, чтобы оправдать цену диска плюс абонентскую плату.

Команда ZeniMax вернулась к чертежной доске, решив оправдать ожидания игроков. Они отложили консольные версии MMO, отказались от обязательной подписки через год после запуска MMO, когда был проведен ребрендинг Tamriel Unlimited, и сделали все возможное, чтобы мир стал более увлекательным, живым и интерактивным.

Updates like the justice system allowed players to dynamically interact with the world by stealing from NPCs and pickpocketing – with consequences if you get caught. The world became more interactive as books, weapons, food and other items scattered around the world could now be picked up and added to inventory. This addition alone is, for many, the reason Elder Scrolls Online lived up to the expectations of both an MMO and a true installment in the franchise.

“When I came out [The Elder Scrolls V:] Skyrim, it changed everyone’s perception of what the Elder Scrolls is. And then we started to change towards making it – and, of course, using the term “more Elder Scrolls” – which really means more player freedom, less restrictions. Skyrim is the best example of a single-player virtual world game you can have, right? And we wanted to get that feeling.”

“And so we started making these changes before launch. And then, if you remember, between the launch on PC and consoles, the sixth update came out, which introduced the justice system, removed the mandatory subscription, and was another change towards turning the game into an Elder Scrolls virtual world.”

However, it was in the Orsinium update that the Elder Scrolls Online team found success. By opening up a new area for any player, regardless of their level, ZeniMax used the key that became the key to the game’s success.

For many, Orsinium was and remains one of the best zones created in ESO. It combined incredible spaces with a compelling story and characters, many of which we returned to over time. But it was the ability to take any player with you, veteran or new, that made it fresh, new and exciting.

“We had a problem: “What level should Orsinium be?” Because we have players who by that time had been playing the game for a year and a half, and some had only been playing on the console for three months. And then the question arises, should we make this zone for endgame players so that it is like a carrot that everyone is striving for, or should we make it entry level, and then endgame players won’t want to play there because they will have to come back and they won’t get as much experience and so on? Because, yes, back then it was a very level-based game.”

“So we decided to make Orsinium without levels, used our PDP technology to balance the levels, and applied it to Orsinium just because it was so good. We wanted as many players as possible to visit the location. And then it became the most popular in the game, because you could bring a friend there and play. Guilds began to recruit recruits in it, because they could teach lower-level people how to easily master such content, public dungeons, and so on. And then we really thought, ‘Oh my God, we have to do this for the whole game.'”

Firor claims that over the next year the team effectively implemented level scaling technology and balanced it across all of Tamriel before launching One Tamriel in 2016, which became the linchpin of ESO’s long-term success. With the One Tamriel update removing level requirements, it also broke down the alliance segregation that, while making sense in PvP, limited access to the wider game world outside of Cyrodiil depending on faction. These two changes have come to define ESO since 2016.

Firor mentions a quote he saw in one review of One Tamrie that basically said, “The entire game is endgame.” And indeed it is. While ESO has fun things to do like 12-player challenges, battlefield battlegrounds, and of course factional PvP in Cyrodiil, it no longer has the rush of other MMOs. Almost every zone here is playable, whether you disembarked on Seyda Nina or can trace your character’s lineage back to waking up in Coldharbour.

Support for 10 years

During GDC, Firor revealed that ESO has spent “nearly $2 billion” on players since launch, which is a huge number for any game. While Firor declined to explain how exactly this figure was reached, it’s still impressive—especially since MMOs have come and gone over the last ten years without even approaching this milestone.

Interestingly, during his GDC talk, Matt said that every time the team made major changes to the atmosphere and scope of the MMO, the number of players increased.

“If you look at all the changes we’ve made, most of them are in response to problems we created and then fixed. We fixed them in a way that made the game even more popular among people who weren’t really familiar with the type of game that ESO was, right?”

One of the key figures was Firor’s statement that in two months after the console launch, The Elder Scrolls Online added three million new users. Since then, the MMO has simply grown steadily, and Firor cited the example that 2017 revenues were 60% higher than 2016 and even more.

Players always feel rewarded when they log into ESO, which is something that can’t be said for most 10-year-old MMOs. While games like WoW and The Lord of the Rings Online have endgame areas full of life, early areas feel like ghost towns.

The success story of MMORPG The Elder Scrolls Online in The success story of MMORPG The Elder Scrolls Online in an interview with the developer

It’s different in The Elder Scrolls Online, and part of the secret lies in the layering technology. As the editor of noted, he considered ESO’s layering system to be one of the best in an MMO today, especially when it comes to keeping the game world alive. Players are never far away, whether you’re in the city of Daggerfall on High Rock or running around the rich Breton playground of the High Isle.

“Our technology helps maintain a perfect population balance,” Firor says with a smile.

Additionally, thanks to the One Tamriel update and chapter structure (ESO’s version of expansions), players can jump into the game and efficiently complete quests anywhere. Morrowind, which released in 2017, was the first of a series of chapters ESO would release over the years, with Gold Road continuing the trend this June. Opening up new content for everyone—whether champion-level character or level 1 newbie—each new addition serves as a valuable starting point for new players, maintaining the level of freedom and social interaction that has made Orsinium so popular.

However, the chapters are not without their flaws: over the years they have begun to feel too formulaic and out of touch with the rest of the world. However, it looks like ESO is going to solve this problem in Gold Road by tying its narrative directly to the previous chapter, Necrom.

When asked if Elder Scrolls Online ever plans to move away from its chapter release schedule, Firor said that while they’re comfortable with it, the team isn’t afraid of change if it needs to happen.

“We did all this work to create One Tamriel, and then we put a chapter system on top of that and we tell great stories. And it’s been great for the last seven or eight years. But I think if you look at the entire history of ESO since 2007 – not even just since launch – you will see that we are not afraid to make changes if we think they are necessary.”

“And, you know, the chapter model works great for us now, but if in the future we need to break it up into four updates and talk about the store in a more coherent order, we’ll do that, right? We are not going to continue to do something just because it was the way it was before. We will change as necessary.”

Many companies would be afraid to completely change tactics, especially after investing so many resources into the project. However, it seems that the ZeniMax Online Studios team has very understanding parent companies – first ZeniMax and Bethesda, and now the giant Microsoft. However, Firor argues that these changes were backed by data and analysis that proved the need for change, although ultimately it took a lot of trust in the ZOS team to make it work.

Towards the players

For many, The Elder Scrolls Online still seems to fly under the radar as one of the best MMOs on the market. Despite numerous “MMO of the Year” awards, there is always a misconception that ESO is just quietly hanging on. However, the MMO has only grown since its launch, with 24 million registered players announced in January of this year, and part of that is because people simply have something to do with the MMO.

“If you asked five players to describe ESO, you’d get five different games,” says Firor, talking about the breadth and scope of the activities—and what makes them special. “Some people literally only do housing, right? They just come in and get a decorator’s permit and people pay them to come and decorate their home. We have a whole community dedicated to this. We have a whole community that just plays PvP, a whole community that just does challenges, a whole community that just steals things and kills people. And that’s what makes ESO so special – you can play the game in many, many different ways.”

Sometimes it’s nice to have that freedom to just choose chaos. Walking into Alinor and deciding to satisfy your vampiric lust while fleecing as many High Elves as possible will never get old. Raising the dead in the city center of Anvil and watching the guards go crazy is also fun.

The ESO team doesn’t seem to be slowing down either. With its 10th anniversary celebrations approaching in Amsterdam, and the main chapter of Gold Road set to release this June, the MMO feels ready to enter its second decade with full enthusiasm.

What the next ten years hold for The Elder Scrolls Online remains to be seen, but if the first decade is any indication, it’s going to be a busy one.

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