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Zenimax - A Good Guy Developer

Ryan Getchell Posted:
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A lot of people gave Zenimax a hard time when they first announced The Elder Scrolls Online. They were a new company that had no experience developing a game on the scale that ESO (with the exception of the team members' pedigree, of course)I have to admit, even I was a bit skeptical as well at the start. Even though Zenimax Online Studios is a sister company to Bethesda, it is a grand undertaking to take such a beloved series and convert it into a MMO. I’ve been playing these games for years and this series is one that has some of the most dedicated, involved fan base I’ve ever seen (some truly take the term fanatic to the extreme). In this week’s article we’re going to ask a bold question, could Zenimax be the perfect company to develop ESO after all?

Zenimax has taken a game that needs to balance perfectly on the edge of a sword. Favour too much to the single player fans or the MMO fans and it’s going to hurt. The Elder Scrolls Online is the epitome of that balance, a sublime merger of both single player features and MMO.

When you’re taking a game like The Elder Scrolls, a single player RPG and trying to make it into a massively multiplayer RPG, there are going to be some hurdles. The biggest is the fan base. How do you make a game that is designed for the MMO fan, yet still make the game a powerful draw for the single player Elder Scrolls fan? You do that by listening to what the fans have to say about the game.

Back in late 2012 and early 2013 there was a major debate amongst the ESO community. Zenimax announced that you would not be able to view your hands while in first person view. The community was outraged that such an iconic feature of the single player experience was going to be absent in the multiplayer game. People began posting videos about how Zenimax is ruining the franchise, making lengthy posts on the forums claiming ESO is not an Elder Scrolls game. All because a simple (and in my opinion not so important) feature wasn’t being included.

Zenimax heard the pleas, and in some cases cries of the community, and on March 19th 2013 news outlets all over the internet were announcing that they can confirm hands in first person.

Implementing this feature wasn’t as simple as some people might think. Not only would they have to have animators creating the movements for the hands, but you’ll need art departments doing higher detailed artwork for all the weapons and armour, and spell effects would have to be updated as well. They had to dedicate entire teams to implementing this feature, all because the community said it needed to be in it for it to be an Elder Scrolls game.

This wasn’t the only time Zenimax has listened to the community about how to change and develop the game. Zenimax is constantly taking the beta tester’s feedback and implementing it into the game. Mind you, these are much smaller in scale when comparing it to the first person implementation.

How about changing the complete beginning leveling experience less than two months before launch?

That is exactly what Zenimax did. Three weeks ago, Zenimax removed part of the NDA for the media and fansites, and a common theme seemed to have showed up. People found the beginning part of the game slow to start, saying the game doesn’t really open up until level 10. The beginning part of an MMO, is one of the most important aspects in terms of player retention. It is what will determine if the player enjoys the game or finds it boring. Apparently, players were finding it rather boring, so Zenimax once again, listening to the community changed how we experience the beginning parts of the game.

Before, when you left Coldharbor you were placed placed in either Stros M’kai, Bleakrock Isle or Khenarthi’s Roost (depending on your faction). Here you’re stuck on a relatively small island doing quests. It took roughly an hour before you could leave this starting area. Once you’ve completed this island you’d leave and then go to another isolated area. Again, stuck doing quests until you get off and finally get to main part of Tamriel where the world truly opens up for you to explore, just like an Elder Scrolls game.

Like I said, no one found that enjoyable, even writing it, the beginning experience as it was sounds boring. However many of the reviews stated that once you progressed through these areas the game really started to feel like an Elder Scrolls game. That is what Zenimax needed to hear.

In the most recent build of ESO, Zenimax has changed the beginning leveling areas. Now, when you leave Coldharbor you’ll be transported right to your main city. Ready and able to explore the world of Tamriel if you are brave enough.

Some of you are probably thinking, big deal, all they did was change the spawn location. Well, you’re right. Essentially that is all they did. Instead of spawning in the starting islands we now start in a city.  They also tweaked those early areas in the wide world to allow progression from 1-10 to go faster. But think about this as a developer.

You’ve spent years designing the game, building it the way you want, feeling it is ready for release. Launch is less than two months away and you’ve produced a top quality game. You’d be feeling pretty good about yourself. Now let players review the game you’ve dumped your heart and soul into.

They tell you the game is boring at the start, it isn’t as good as it can be. Those are pretty harsh words and some other developers might have looked the other way, their ego would get the better of them, we’ve seen it before (SWTOR). Zenimax didn’t, they took the feedback and said, what can we do to improve the experience? Then they essentially threw out hundreds of man-hours of work, by making it entirely optional.

That isn’t something you’d typically hear this close to launch. So I ask you, is Zenimax one of the best companies that has developed an MMO? I think so, strictly because they are concerned about their player experience.  And that bodes extremely well for the future of Tamriel in their hands. I have always preached that if a MMO company was going to take anything from Blizzard, it should be their customer service. I think Zenimax has done just that, but also raised the bar. 


Ryan Getchell