How Bethesda’s taking the Elder Scrolls online
The cover of our next issue, which hits newsstands on June 6, features The Elder Scrolls Online, the game that marks the first time Bethesda's 18-year-old RPG series will open the gates of Tamriel to the world as an MMOG.
The game sets players as members of one of three factions, blending a singleplayer campaign in Tamriel's outer provinces with player-versus-player battles raging across Cyrodiil. Developer Zenimax Online has wound the clock back 1000 years from the events of Skyrim, and cracked open huge public raid dungeons for many players to tackle at once. It's pitched to tackle The Elder Scrolls' scale and its freedoms, too, taking the singleplayer open-ended sandbox for which the series is now legendary, and reforging it for millions to play together.
We speak to The Elder Scrolls Online's game director, Matt Firor, about how the whole project came about, how he's building on the MMORPGs that have come before, and his take on the very DNA of an Elder Scrolls game.
What do you make of the current state of the MMO scene?
It is an interesting time. The first generation of MMOGs was Ultima Online and Everquest, the second generation was probably things like Dark Age Of Camelot, and WOW. Now, the modern generation is much more focused on the game part than the MMOG part. They’re much better games. They’re more fun, they’re not so punitive. It was found, in the 13 years since Ultima launched, that it’s fine not to punish the player constantly, and to actually have fun while you’re playing. Then there’s a lot of the social stuff from things like Facebook – getting groups of people who know people who know people – a lot of that web and social stuff are starting to permeate MMOGs to make it easier to meet people.
Do you think the third generation template is still basically the same as the second generation, then, and it’s about refining game elements and improving ease of access?
It’s definitely that, but it’s more, too. WOW became what it is because it solved this one problem: it’s okay to play it like a game rather than a virtual world. It’s okay to teleport halfway across the map to meet people, because that’s fun. It’s not fun running for 15 hours to get between cities like in Everquest. That was the big thing that changed. It was okay to subvert reality in the interest of fun.
It seems that there’s a lot of interest in new MMOGs, but not mass loyalty? How do you encourage that huge migrating audience to stay with your game long-term?
You give people lots of different types of things to do. You make it replayable so that it’s fun to play a different character – not even in a different alliance, in the same alliance, for example. You can go through our content in a different order, make different choices, power-level or stop and smell the roses – we support both those types of gameplay and that’s a big part of keeping people around.
The docks outside the city of Sentinel
With the Elder Scrolls in particular you seem to have spent a long time thinking about incentivising players. Are incentives even more important in MMOG design than they are with other game designs?
Yes! MMOGs are collections of games. They’re a bunch of different things all going on at once, and a different type of player will focus on a different type of gameplay. Personally? I’m not a crafter. I want to go explore. That’s me. I tend not to do instanced dungeons a lot, but that’s a separate kind of game again, and if it’s the whole endgame where it’s a raid, it’s a different kind of game yet again. The incentives come from having experienced people working on different types of systems and knowing what people like and don’t like about each of those systems. The philosophy is: give them something to work toward, don’t hit them over the head.
Can you take us back to 2007 and the start of the process on Elder Scrolls?
From the start, Zenimax knew it wanted to make an Elder Scrolls MMOG. The IP’s fantastic, fantasy MMOGs are always a little more successful than others and I think there’s a reason for that, and they knew they wanted to do that. Other than that, it was a blank slate. I proposed the three alliances, the fight over the imperial city, and the setting 1000 years in the past. That got traction, and we went from there.
Why is fantasy an easier sell?
This is my personal opinion, but I’m pretty set on it. If I say there’s a fantasy game coming out, immediately you know there’s magic, there’s guys with swords, armour, there’s probably an elf and a dwarf, and they hate someone who’s probably pretty bad. When I say sci-fi, it could be anything. Just by saying fantasy, it’s all the stories you were told as a child, rolled up into one game, and you don’t need to explain anything.
Judged on previous projects, a lot of people will be thinking: Bethesda can’t even make a stable single-player game, how are they going to make a stable MMOG?
[Laughs] It’s not only that, but there’s also many different types of tech problems when you create an MMOG. Account creation, servers, latency. The critical difference with MMOGs, though, is that you have a long beta test where you build up to thousands and thousands of players, and you tackle those problems as you run into them there.
Are you using the Skyrim engine?
No. It’s a distinct engine.
Can you say a bit about the exploration side of the game? Rather than just relying on quest trees, players are encouraged to explore the landscape with just their compass, Skyrim style?
That came out of our internal playtest. Our original model was still exploration-based, but not as much as it is now. Our original model, we didn’t have quest hubs, but we had NPCs in strategic locations around, and we left it to you to find them. Then, through playtest, we had people in the office who were not MMOG players, and they said, ìI can’t find the content.î We realised somebody had already solved this problem for us, and it was Skyrim and the compass, and it just made sense that the compass points you to those NPCs, and they give you the quest.
What do you think truly makes this an Elder Scrolls game?
Lore. Even now, I come across lore that I didn’t know existed. It’s just so deep. People play games for different reasons, but the people who respond to Elder Scrolls the most like to get immersed in a world so that they feel they’re living there. They like to have freedom of choice to do what they want to do, and that’s the part that resonates with us the most. This is what makes the IP so great for an MMOG already: people already know it’s the kind of game where they can head out and explore and be rewarded for it. That’s the one thing that player will learn immediately that’s different about us: if you see something in the distance, you can go and investigate and be rewarded for it.