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Interview: Chatting Wtih Elder Scrolls Online Game Director Matt Firor About The MMO's Longevity

Joseph Bradford Updated: Posted:
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The Elder Scrolls Online turns ten next week, and it’s not always been smooth sailing for the ZeniMax team. Since its launch in 2014, the MMO has seen its fair share of challenges, and over the course of the last decade its morphed and evolved to meet the needs of the players who keep Tamriel alive.

From dropping its required subscription fee, launching on console, and then, most monumentally, removing level requirements for content, the Elder Scrolls Online of today is very, very different than the one that launched a decade ago. Despite being in development for 17 years now (stretching back to 2007), things don’t seem to be slowing down for the ZeniMax Online Studios team any time soon.

During GDC 2024, I spoke to ESO’s game director, Matt Firor, about the MMO’s longevity, especially as one of the few multi-platform (though it should be noted not cross-save or cross-progression) MMOs out there. 

ESO has very little direct competition in what we do: cross-platform, fantasy, virtual world live service game,” Firor said when asked how he feels the landscape has changed in these last ten years. “Obviously, there are others, but all the others pretty much launched about the same time we did. Which has been fantastic for us and we’re very happy about that. But I think the industry just kind of pivoted away from these kinds of games about when we launched because they’re difficult to make.”

Firor explains that keeping these games running requires a commitment to keeping them alive with an “experienced team that’s done it, and not that many people have done it.” He also notes that as the industry has grown in the last decade, the tools that MMOs cut their teeth on in the early days of the genre are starting to see mass adoption across the rest of the games industry. 

“Every game is online now: extraction shooters, king of the hill - and all of that has its roots in the early to late 90s, early 2000s MMO tech. [I]t’s just finding a different way to use community-based gaming to make great experiences.”

Firor notes that this explosion of online titles using the tech that powered MMOs has only helped The Elder Scrolls Online throughout its life as more and more players get into online-only games.

Finding Their Footing

When The Elder Scrolls Online launched back in 2014, it wasn’t to the glowing reviews and fan fervor the studio might have hoped. While it definitely had its defenders (I was certainly one back in 2014), the MMO felt lacking in a few key areas. Our original review by former Editor-in-Chief Bill Murphy called ESO “very fun, but not perfect,” citing the disconnect between solo and group PvE content, as well as the bugs that plagued the experience early on.

Much of that early consternation among players was that ESO felt like it was in a no-man’s land between trying to be a hardcore PvP MMO and still trying to claim the mantle of a true Elder Scrolls game—which invariably means player freedom and agency in the world. 

Another major complaint was the required subscription, which was becoming less and less the norm in the early 2010s. While many MMOs - most really - monetized using a required subscription in the early days, the rise of free-to-play MMOs here in the West started to shift the mindset of many potential players. And it didn’t help that ESO at the time, for many out there, didn’t feel premium enough to warrant the box price, plus the sub-fee.

The team at ZeniMax went back to the drawing board, determined to meet player expectations. They delayed the console versions of the MMO, dropped the required subscription a year after the MMO had launched when it released its Tamriel Unlimited rebranding, and did what they could to make the world feel more engaging, alive, and interactable. 

Updates such as the justice system allowed players to engage in the world in a dynamic way by pickpocketing and stealing from NPCs - with consequences should you get caught. The world became more interactable as books, weapons, food and other items littered in the world were now able to be picked up and added to your inventory. This addition alone, for me at least, started to make Elder Scrolls Online live up to the expectations of being both an MMO and a true entry in the franchise.

“When [The Elder Scrolls V:] Skyrim launched, it kind of changed everything about what Elder Scrolls is, the perception of it. And so that’s when we started to make the change towards making it - and of course we use the term ‘more Elder Scrolls’ - what that really meant was more player freedom, less restrictions. Skyrim being the best example of a single-player, virtual world game you can probably have, right? And we wanted that feeling.

“And so we started that change before launch. And then update six, if you remember, was between PC and console launch, and that introduced the justice system, dropped the required subscription, and that was another change towards making it an Elder Scrolls virtual world.”

Yet it was the Orsinium update where the Elder Scrolls Online team hit paydirt. But opening up this new zone to any player, regardless of level, ZeniMax unlocked the key that would be critical for its lasting success.

For many, myself included, Orisinium was (and still generally is) one of the best zones created in ESO. It combined incredible vistas with engaging story and characters, many of which we’ve revisited over time. But it was the ability to bring anyone with me, veteran and new player alike, that really made it feel fresh, new, and exciting.

Player level didn’t matter for Orsinium, and even then I started to wonder how the MMO would feel if this level scaling was broadened to the rest of Tamriel. I apparently wasn’t alone as Matt Firor mentions the conversations in-house were spinning up as well after the DLC’s successful launch.

“We had the problem of, ‘What level was Orsinium?’ Because we have players [that] have been playing the game for a year and a half by then, and some on console who have only been playing three months. And so it’s the, ‘do you make it for endgame players and make it like a carrot that they want to go towards, but very few people play it?’ Or, do you make it entry level and then endgame players don’t want to play it because they have to go back and they don’t get as much experience and everything? Because, yes, it was a very level-based game then.

“So we decided to make Orsinium no levels, and we used our PDP tech for level balancing and applied it to Orsinium purely because it was so good. We wanted as many players to go and experience it as possible. And then it turned into the most popular zone in the game because you could bring your friend and play. Guilds started to run recruiting drives inside of it because they could actually teach lower-level people how to just do content, public dungeons and all that stuff. And so that was when we were really like, ‘Oh my God, we got to do this to the whole game.’”

Firor states that the team spent the next year effectively applying the level scaling tech and balancing it for the whole of Tamriel ahead of the One Tamriel launch in 2016, which has become the linchpin to ESO’s lasting success. From the One Tamriel update, which removed level requirements, as well as broke down the alliance segregation that, while in PvP made sense, restricted access to the wider game world outside the bounds of Cyrodiil based on your faction. These two changes have fundamentally come to define ESO since 2016.

Firor mentions a quote he saw in a review for One Tamriel, paraphrasing the author (which, in my searching, I’ve been unable to locate the source of as well), who effectively said, “The entire game is the endgame.” And that’s so true. While ESO has end-game activities like 12-man Trials, battlegrounds, and of course, Cyrodiil’s factional PvP, there is no longer that rush to an end-game like you find in other MMOs. Every zone is playable pretty much, whether you’re just stepping off the boat to Seyda Neen or can trace your character’s lineage back to waking in Coldharbour.

Maintaining growth over 10 years

During GDC, Firor revealed that since its launch, ESO has seen “nearly $2 billion" in player spend, which is a monumental number for any game. While Firor declined to explain exactly how that number was reached when we asked him, it’s still impressive — especially as MMOs have come and gone in the last ten years without even sniffing anything close to this milestone.

Interestingly, Matt revealed during his GDC panel that every time the team made a major change to the feel and scope of the MMO, the player counts increased. 

“If you look back over the changes that we’ve made, most of them are responding to problems that we created, and then fixing them. We fixed them in a way that made the game always more popular with people that really weren’t familiar with the type of game that ESO used to be, right?”

One key number was Firor’s revelation that within two months of its console launch, The Elder Scrolls Online saw three million new users. The MMO has simply steadily grown from there, with Firor using an example that 2017 revenue was 60% higher than 2016, and more. 

The player population always feels healthy as well when logging into ESO - something that really can’t be said for most 10-year-old MMOs at this point. While end-game zones in games like WoW and The Lord of the Rings Online feel full of life, early-game zones feel like ghost towns. 

The Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor

Not so with The Elder Scrolls Online, and part of the secret lies in its layering technology. I’ve always maintained that ESO might have one of the best layering and phasing systems in MMOs to date, and this is especially true when it comes to keeping the game world vibrant and full of player life. Players are always around, whether you’re in the city of Daggerfall on High Rock or running around the rich Breton playground of High Isle.

“Our tech helps maintain the perfect population balance,” Firor said with a chuckle. 

It also helps that players can jump in and effectively quest anywhere because of the One Tamriel update and the way Chapters (ESO’s version of Expansions) are structured. Morrowind, which was released in 2017, is the first of the chapters that ESO would release over the years, with Gold Road continuing the trend this June. By opening this new content up to everyone - Champion-level character of level 1 newbie alike - each new addition acts as a valuable entry point for new players, maintaining that level of freedom and social interaction that made Orisinium so popular.

Chapters haven’t been without their faults, though, as through the years they have started to feel a bit too formulaic and disjointed from the rest of the world. However, it seems that ESO is changing to combat even those criticisms with Gold Road by connecting its narrative directly to the previous chapter, Necrom.

When asked if Elder Scrolls Online would ever move away from the Chapter release schedule, Firor says that, while it works for them, the team isn’t afraid of change if it needs to happen.

“We did all this work up to One Tamriel, and then the chapter system sits on top of that, and we tell great stories. And that’s been great the last seven, eight years. But I think if you look at the entirety of development of ESO since 2007 - not even just since we launched - [you'll see] that we’re not afraid to make changes if we think the changes need to be made.

“And, you know, it’s a Chapter model that works great for us now, but if we, in the future, need to break it up into four updates and tell the store in a more sequential manner, we’ll do that, right? We’re not going to keep doing something just because it's something we used to do. We’ll keep changing as needed.”

Many companies would be afraid to completely change tactics, especially after sinking so many resources into the project. Still, it seems the ZeniMax Online Studios team has been blessed with very understanding parent companies - first ZeniMax and Bethesda, and now the behemoth that is Microsoft. Yet, Firor states that those changes were backed up by data points and analysis that proved that a change needed to be made - though it still required quite a bit of trust in the ZOS team to pull it off in the end. 


The Elder Scrolls Online: Necrom Review

Meeting Players Where They Are

The Elder Scrolls Online feels like it still flies under the radar for many people as one of the great MMOs on the market right now. Despite winning multiple MMO of the Year awards (many from our site and readers as well, including last year's first "Best MMO Expansion" category), there is always this misconception that ESO is just quietly holding on. Yet the MMO has only grown since its launch, with 24 million total registered players announced this past January, and part of that is there is just so much for people to do in this MMO.

“It’s so true that if you ask five ESO players to describe ESO, you’ll get five different games,” Firor says when talking about the breath and scope of things to do - and what makes it special. “Some people literally just do housing, right? They just go in and have home decorator permissions and people pay them to go in and decorate their house. We have a whole community that does that. We have a whole community that just PvPs, a whole community that just does trials, a whole community that just steals things and murders people. And that’s what makes ESO so special - you can play the game in many, many different ways.”

As one of those players who have embraced the Dark Brotherhood and love the justice system, it fun to have that freedom just to choose chaos some days. Walking into Alinor and just deciding to feed my vampire lust while pickpocketing as many High Elves as I can will never get old. Raising the dead in the city center of Anvil and watching the guards freak out is also a treat. 

The ESO team doesn’t feel like it’s slowing down either. With an upcoming 10th anniversary celebration in Amsterdam approaching, as well as the release of this June’s major Chapter, Gold Road, the MMO feels poised to spring into its second decade with a full head of steam.

What the next ten years hold for The Elder Scrolls Online will remain to be seen, but if the first decade is any indication, it’ll be an eventful. 


Joseph Bradford

Joseph has been writing or podcasting about games in some form since about 2012. Having written for multiple major outlets such as IGN, Playboy, and more, Joseph started writing for MMORPG in 2015. When he's not writing or talking about games, you can typically find him hanging out with his 10-year old or playing Magic: The Gathering with his family. Also, don't get him started on why Balrogs *don't* have wings. You can find him on Twitter @LotrLore