The Elder Scrolls Online: Reinventing a Franchise in an Online World
ZeniMax Online's Matt Firor talks about the challenges of creating online worlds, dealing with fan feedback, and the future of MMOs
Matt Firor, head of ZeniMax Online Studios, has been in the industry for well over two decades. He's watched the massively multiplayer online space evolve from a niche to a huge industry in that span, and he knows a thing or two about creating good online game design - he's responsible for the critically acclaimed Dark Age of Camelot from Mythic Entertainment.
Now Firor has the somewhat unenviable task of taking one of the most beloved single-player role-playing franchises and translating it into an MMO. The uproar from fans when Bethesda first made the announcement in May was palpable. Firor doesn't appear to be losing any sleep over it, however. He's confident that by simply building the best online game he can, he'll win over fans, whether they are veteran players of The Elder Scrolls or not.
GamesIndustry International recently chatted with Firor about the big challenge of creating The Elder Scrolls Online, what the future could bring to the MMO space, and more.
Q: As soon as the game was announced, the biggest concern for Elder Scrolls fans was "how can they be taking this online? They are missing the point of what Elder Scrolls is!" What has always made Elder Scrolls so enthralling for them is that it's this huge, massively single-player game. Skyrim, which sold over 10 million copies, proved that you can still do single player in a world where everything is supposed to be going online. From your point of view, being from ZeniMax Online, what was the conversation like internally with Bethesda about taking this property online?
Matt Firor: You said the thing that is the most important. It is the franchise that we are taking online, not the single-player game. The single-player games are still the single-player games. We're taking the license and the franchise online and doing something with it that hasn't been done before, much like the Elder Scrolls novels. But all of those concerns are valid by the community until they actually see it and play it. We've taken a lot of effort to make the lore consistent and make sure that it's the experience that they expect. The places they can go, the characters they can play and the enemies are all based very much on the world that they know, and that's where it works.
"It is an online game. MMO is a tired expression"
Q: Do you see this as something all the Skyrim fans are going to play, or is it more like you just want to create an MMO and it happens to be using Elder Scrolls lore? Who's the audience?
Matt Firor: We just want to make a good game and let people who want to play it, play it. It is an online game. MMO is a tired expression. It is an online RPG and we designed it to be a great game. People who like other Elder Scrolls games will probably want to try it, but people who play other MMOs like WoW or Star Wars are also going to want to try it too. So if it's not a good game, no one is going to want to play it. First and foremost, we want to make sure the game is sticky and fun, and that was our first priority. If we do that, all of our other questions are answered.
Q: Reading through the message boards, and seeing the complaints from people, some fans were really harping on the idea that if the game is super successful it could result in Bethesda at a corporate level turning away from single player titles in Elder Scrolls down the line. What do you say to those people?
Matt Firor: Speculating on the future is never good because who knows what is going to happen. We are two separate organizations. ZeniMax Online is a separate organization from Bethesda Game Studios. Resources from Bethesda Game Studios are not being dedicated to ZeniMax Online because they are two different things. We're online developers and they are console developers. That being said, the future is the future and I cannot make any predictions on that, but they are going to continue to do what they do and we'll continue to do what we do.
Q: So with two teams, do you guys continually check in with Todd Howard on making sure everything is perfectly within the Elder Scrolls lore?
Matt Firor: In the early days, when it was just me when I was starting the studio up, we spent a lot of time together to go over the basics. Making sure the lore was consistent, how that was going to work, how the team was going to be set up, how the world was going to be set up. We're set in the past, which is easier for him, because a lot of that is already documented. We're not going out and doing a lot of crazy things. We're in a part of Tamriel's history that is a little less known, but we still know what happened before and what happened after.
Really, what happens now on a daily basis is that we have a team of people who are writers and editors that talk with the writers and editors at Bethesda Game Studios. Those guys talk all the time; there is a shared lore library that everyone uses that ensures everything is consistent.
Q: Does Todd have any kind of say in game design choices, or is it all you and he doesn't offer suggestions?
Matt Firor: He's made it clear that this is an online RPG and he is not an online RPG developer. We need to make the decisions that we need to make.
Q: The game currently is for PC and Mac and you've said you want it to run on laptops, so you're designing it to run on low-spec machines as well, but has there been any consideration at all given to the console world? There aren't too many MMOs on consoles, though SOE has tried to push it on PS3. The Elder Scrolls franchise has many fans on Xbox 360 and PS3, so were there ever any discussions on getting the game on Xbox Live, for example?
Matt Firor: That is a very long answer, as there are a lot of rumors swirling around the next-gen coming back together with PCs. I haven't seen any of that, but I read all the rumor sites just like everyone else. It seems like things are going back to a more standard platform. That being said, we haven't thought about it heavily right now. The worst thing you can do is worry about new platforms while in development. We want to do what we're doing right now and then look around for further opportunities. Certainly we're open to new opportunities, and we're going to be looking into new territories beyond North America and Europe.
"All fears have been erased after the success of Skyrim. It just shows that the IP, fantasy or not, is giant and very popular"
Q: So hypothetically speaking, would you keep the console universe connected to the other players? Would it be the same game?
Matt Firor: We would have no idea; we'd have to look at the technology. That's a technology question because we obviously would want it to be the same community. The main reason for previous titles is because the technology has not been there. I can't speculate.
Q: Why do you think it is that we don't see successful MMOs on consoles? It's been the realm of PC for a long time now, but console players want to play, right? Is it the game balancing, the mechanics or the hardware? Why have we not seen it?
Matt Firor: It's the classic desk vs. couch argument, but it is blurring over time. The current-gen and previous-gen MMOs were all about using the keyboard and mouse, and sure, everyone used things like Ventrilo and other voice chat services, but that only works in a small group. A lot of that has been thanks to design problems that people haven't focused on a lot, such as typing and controlling at the same time.
The 360, when announced was a pretty ridiculously cool device, but it is not so good anymore compared to PCs and even when it was announced PCs were still better than it. The technology was a little limiting for the size and scope of the world you could have. It mostly comes down to PCs being wide open. Online game development is all about doing whatever you want, pushing limitations, and it's just easier to do on an open platform. Someday, it may all change.
Q: In terms of business models, obviously free-to-play is a big buzzword, and most MMOs are going F2P. WoW and EA with Star Wars are pushing subscriptions, but there are few out there. What are the considerations for the Elder Scrolls Online?
Matt Firor: We're not discussing business models right now, and we are still working on it. We're really just trying to introduce the game to people. There are parts of MMOs that people never talk about such as customer service, platform and network considerations. All of this is tied to the business model which we'll talk about later.
Q: How many people are working on the title currently?
Matt Firor: About 250 is where we are at right now. Again, we work with a lot of partners on the service side, such as our network operations. It's a big project.
Q: All MMOs generally are. You want to keep the fans engaged with content and be pretty sure that the title is going to be very successful. EA said their Star Wars title will be keeping people playing 10 years from now. Do you have similar aspirations for Elder Scrolls?
Matt Firor: I often, when people who aren't in the industry ask me about the complexities on online games, I tell them that I am working on a major triple-A franchise on top of a giant IT exercise. That's pretty much the way it works. You have to put all the elements together correctly, and if you don't then the littlest thing can make it all blow up, so we have to make sure it all comes together.
Q: What have you learned from past experiences, like Mythic, and what are your key takeaways with your current project at Elder Scrolls Online?
Matt Firor: I think it all goes back to if you concentrate on all the peripheral stuff, you miss the whole picture. You have to concentrate on the whole game first and make it a fun game. In our terms, that means making a fun role playing game in the Elder Scrolls universe. If you don't do that and you worry about all the other stuff, then things go off the rails pretty quickly. I've learned that I need to focus on the things that matter. For example, answering your question on platforms, on consoles... we're focusing on what we're doing now. If we don't do that, then we won't go anywhere.
Q: Do you have any concerns about being in the high-fantasy genre, which continues to be dominated by World of Warcraft? Blizzard is about to launch the next expansion and of course, they're working on their next big MMO. Is there a fear about competing in that space?
Matt Firor: All fears have been erased after the success of Skyrim. It just shows that the IP, fantasy or not, is giant and very popular. It resonates with a lot of people in a lot of different parts of the world. It is perfect for an MMO, so I am not worried about that at all.
"We have people that have been around for successful MMOs and people that have worked on failed MMOs. It is very important to have people around that saw a game go bad so we can see that life lesson"
Q: So with the beta, how much are you going to tweak the design based on your feedback? In the social space, that's key and I think those metrics are starting to creep in more and more for traditional console and PC development.
Matt Firor: Yep, if you don't listen to your community then you end up paying the price eventually. That's why we have giant betas so we can come across those problems and fix them.
Q: How do you know what feedback to take seriously? You have to get all sorts of crazy feedback. So how do you separate what's valuable from what is insane?
Matt Firor: That's where experience comes in. We have a very experienced team that has done a lot of MMOs. We have people that have been around for successful MMOs and people that have worked on failed MMOs. It is very important to have people around that saw a game go bad so we can see that life lesson; they can show you when a game goes bad. You have smart people, you have experienced people and they look into that feedback. If someone says they want to fly like Superman, we probably won't see that happen.
Q: Looking at emerging technologies, could you see in the future, your MMO, being played on the iPad or other tablets? Will streaming and the cloud help push MMOs to tablets?
Matt Firor: I think those days are coming. Things are changing pretty quickly. I think probably, and I'm not giving any insight into what we're doing, but I think eventually you will be able to connect to the same world with many different devices; I think that's where it will all go. So you can connect via iPad and have a game experience, and then go home to your PC or Mac and have a different experience and be able to type, but all tied to the same world. The Xbox SmartGlass is exactly that, and I thought that when I first saw it.