Before the live (and livestreamed) presentation for The Elder Scrolls Online at QuakeCon 2015, I had a chance to sit with Game Director Matt Firor and ask him a few questions about the game and especially the upcoming Imperial City DLC. While most of what we talked about was covered in the later presentation – that's just the way the interview scheduling went – I think there's still some value in hearing these kind of things in a more private setting, away from the lights and crowds. Where appropriate, I've augmented Firor's replies with a little extra context from the presentation.
And yes, I managed to sneak in a couple question about that pesky DLC pricing and the switch to a sub-free game in general. Well, OK, they weren't “sneaky,” because I told him I'd start with the easy questions and move on to the hard ones. Don't blame me, he's bigger than I am.
MMORPG: The Imperial City has a major focus on PvP, so tell me what's in there for us carebear PvE players.
Matt Firor: The Imperial City broadens the PvP experience, certainly, but it also has two PvE dungeons that you get when you buy the DLC. Imperial City also introduces new Veteran Ranks and new Undaunted rewards, for people who are really into dungeon-delving. We're adjusting some of the treasure drops in non-Imperial City dungeons, so you'll get new rewards from there, too.
In the presentation, we learned about those two dungeons, the Imperial City Prison, where players will help and receive aid from and old “friend,” Lyranth; and White-Gold Tower, where players are tasked with recovering an Elder Scroll before Molag Bal can get his claws on it. Both dungeons are available in regular and veteran mode.
MMORPG: How familiar will the Imperial City look to Oblivion players? What's the balance between making it what players will recognize versus realizing it's a thousand years before Oblivion and you have to change a lot of stuff?
Matt Firor: We literally used the art assets from Oblivion to base our art assets off of. The Imperial City is far older than even that, but it hasn't changed a whole lot in the time between our game and Oblivion. We did do a little bit to scale it up a bit because we're more third-person-based. It's also in the middle of a huge daedric invasion, so there's a lot of Stalingrad-style fighting in the streets amongst Imperials and Molag Bal's daedra and players. So it's a little ruined, a little beaten up at this time, so there are some changes because of that, too. But it'll feel instantly recognizable, like you're right at home.
In general, the Imperial City represents Molag Bal's “last-ditch effort” to merge Tamriel with Coldharbour and will wrap up the Molag Bal storyline. Each of the six districts has its own look, just like they did in Oblivion, and its own storyline to progress through.
MMORPG: Speaking of Veteran Ranks, the long-standing plan has been to do away with them, which has left some people confused as to why more are being added (15 and 16) with this DLC. What's the reasoning behind that?
Matt Firor: We're committed to removing veteran ranks. We wanted to do it when we introduced the Champion System, but it's a really deep, systemic change to the game. It involves changes to itemization, to abilities, to skills... it's huge, and we want to take the time to do it right. It is our plan to remove Veteran Ranks and replace all veteran leveling with just the Champion system. It's going to come after the next DLC, so expect to see it after Orsinium.
Orsinium launches in Q4 of this year, and will feature about 25 hours' worth of content, with a greater emphasis on lore, open-world questing, and exploration.
MMORPG: How about the Dark Brotherhood or Thieves' Guild?
Matt Firor: Those are the two DLCs coming after Orsinium. We're committed to a quarterly DLC cadence. So this quarter is obviously Imperial City, fourth quarter is Orsinium, and then Thieves' Guild and Dark Brotherhood are two separate DLCs that will come in the first half of next year.
MMORPG: A few years back, one of the justifications given for a subscription was “we really want a steady forecastable revenue stream so we can do constant updates.” How have you had to adjust your approach now that you've done away with the subscription fee?
Matt Firor: We've added a separate revenue stream... we still have subscriptions and we still have a lot of subscribers, but we've added in virtual item sales as well. It adjusted our cadence so now we have a second stream of revenue, so you'll notice that we put in limited-time offers for mounts, and in the store we have costumes, we're about to put in experience point potions – they've been on PC for a couple weeks, and they're about to go up on console. We're making the revenue work by giving players the choice of how they want to pay for it.
MMORPG: Why put up a pay gate for content, in terms of the Imperial City? A lot of games shy away from separating their player base, especially in PvP, maybe by letting free players in but slowing their progress? Did you worry at all about the perception that might arise from this approach so soon after doing away with the subscription fee?
Matt Firor: Well, we're not changing the PvP experience in Cyrodiil at all. This is more of a layer on top of that, if you want to go participate in street battles, which is a really different kind of PvP. In Cyrodiil, we nailed the feel of giant armies, marching, sieging, all of that. PvP in the Imperial City is much more about tight quarters, small groups, more a “don't know what's going to happen when you turn the quarter” kind of thing. There's a three-level public dungeon that's PvP, a whole PvE quest line in there that's got a really cool reward at the end, though you'll find players from other alliances in there...
That's kind of the icing on the PvP cake. You don't have to do it, but if you want to buy the DLC, you're certainly welcome to, for the two dungeons and the broader PvP experience. But if you just want to go into Cyrodiil and do the regular PvP, that's fine, too. And of course, if you're a subscriber, if you're an ESO Plus member, you get it as part of your membership, and that includes all the DLC that's coming in the future.
This last point is the one that I think will still rankle some people, as well as something else I learned about during the presentation. Tel Var Stones are a major currency in the Imperial City, used to barter for the high-end loot. You acquire them by killing NPCs and by killing other players. When you kill another player, you acquire the Stones he was carrying; in other words, it's a form of corpse-looting. Lead PvP Designer Brian Wheeler explained that they were still testing this and taking feedback and that they didn't know whether you'd get “some or all” of a defeated player's Stones.
I realize that some players will love this idea, and I'm not dismissing it out of hand. It's the right thing to do for some games. But when you're talking about a game like Elder Scrolls Online, which has to attract and keep a large, mass-market audience, ancient MMO conventions like this aren't the way to do it. ZeniMax is conceding other points to make the game less “hardcore,” like the elimination of Veteran Ranks and allowing players of different factions to work together in PvE dungeons (which was announced at the presentation as coming later).
Whatever they decide upon, it's a near-certainty that the Tel Var Stones acquisition method will be adjusted so as to be “friendlier” in the future, and, once the initial surge in popularity and population dies down, I wouldn't be surprised if Imperial City content was opened up to non-paying players. It will be just like faction separation and the subscription fee, which were defended as “the only way it could be done,” until they weren't.