Tamriel’s running like a well-oiled machine. Every quarter brings a fresh batch of content for Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls Online, engaging more and more players each time.
Yet, ESO’s success was not a foregone conclusion, as the MMORPG hit a few bumps when it launched back in 2014 and was met with mixed reviews.
Three years down the road, and with developer Zenimax Online Studios having worked hard to polish the title and provide regular content, ESO just released its eighth piece of DLC, Clockwork City, and reached ten million players earlier this year (and 2.5m monthly active users). A milestone that the studio celebrated last week by offering a Free Play Week and organising in-game events to please its community.
And the ESO community is something Zenimax Online Studio president and game director Matt Firor is really proud about.
“ESO has attracted a lot of players since launch, we announced we had ten million players last June so I think the community has evolved into a very stable group of people that love Elder Scrolls games and online RPGs,” he tells MCV. “We have a lot of crossover of console players, Elder Scrolls players, traditional MMO players and they all kind of mix together in ESO and it makes the game better for that because it’s not just one type of gamer. I was reading the message board and there was a console player who was playing for the first time and was like ‘How do I play this game? I’m used to Grand Theft Auto!’ But that’s why it’s so good, it’s because it has a really diverse mix of different player types.”
"We have a lot of crossover of console players, Elder Scrolls players, traditional MMO players and they all kind of mix together in ESO and it makes the game better for that"
Bringing the game to console a year after release is what helped ESO to diversify its fanbase, Firor explains.
“We had a big change when the console versions launched. That brought in all these players who played Skyrim and Oblivion on consoles. That brought in a lot of good energy because it brought in people who weren’t very much tied to traditional WoW-style MMOs. I think that was the biggest change. And it was all for the better because now different types of players mix and everyone learns to play the game they want to play.”
He’s keen to emphasise that knowing who your players are is the key to engagement as it allows the team to aim content at different types of players – and it probably explains why the game has met with so much success.
“You can have three different players who play ESO regularly describe the game and they’ll describe a completely different game because it’s so big and there’s PvP and there’s dungeons and there’s exploration… But, with each of our DLC, we try to aim the content at a different player type so that everyone has new things in the type of gameplay that they like. So in Morrowind, for example, we added a huge zone and a lot of stories and exploration but we also added a new PvP type. We also had the Horns of the Reach, which is a dungeon DLC, so we really try to keep new content coming to each of the different kinds of players.”
Morrowind was more than DLC though. It’s what Zenimax Online Studios calls a new chapter: a full expansion pack that released in June and also launched at retail. For Firor, boxed products are another key to maintain engagement, as they act as a reminder.
“Sure retail means boxes but it also means digital sales on PlayStation and Xbox consoles, or on Steam. So it’s definitely relevant. I would say in Europe it’s a little more relevant than in the States or Canada where a lot of people download, meaning mainly digital sales. But it’s always good to have a ‘new product’ [at retail] because it keeps the game very fresh in people’s minds. They walk into the store and they see it like ‘Oh, I remember that!’, so it’s always good.”
It proved to be a smart move as Morrowind had strong physical launch sales in the UK despite being a digital focused title. And there’s more of this strategy to come, Firor tells us.
“Morrowind was the ‘next level’ of our strategy and it’s proven to be very very successful so I think we’ll stick with, hopefully, annual chapters, like bigger things, and then DLC every quarter. We’ll keep up with that.”
"Sure retail means boxes but it also means digital sales on PlayStation and Xbox consoles, or on Steam. So it’s definitely relevant."
Chapters like Morrowind help to expand the community as well, as players are free to start from this point without knowing the base game. As such, Morrowind’s success marked the beginning of a shift of strategy for Zenimax – one that the company will continue to apply in the future, Firor says.
“Part of the strategy we started with Morrowind was when we release a chapter, we want players to start there, right? So it almost feels like a new game and it’s funny cause most single-player console games are 20, 30, 50 hours of content – that’s how big Morrowind is! It’s the size of a full console game. And so if a player wants to buy the game, just play through Morrowind and then stop, that’s fine. It has its own tutorial and it’s a little better than the old tutorial because that was done so long ago.
“So every time we do a chapter, we’ll do that, we’ll have a tutorial and you could just start and play there or you can bring your own character over. And that gives new players the chance to jump in and they don’t feel like they are behind the curve.”
FINDING A BALANCE
Despite 2017 being a troubled time for micro-transactions, ESO’s economy doesn’t seem to be affected by such controversy (though you’d always find complaints about it on the game’s forums), with its business model having found a balance between non-compulsory subscriptions, microtransactions and in-game currency purchases.
“We still have subscriptions and a lot of players still subscribe, it’s just optional, and so our DLC model is that if you subscribe you get access to all the DLC [for free], or you can buy them with in-game currency. So that has been very successful. And, of course, we have the Crown Store which is more for customisation and cool mounts and stuff like that and that’s done super well too.”
Having finally found its pace despite middling beginnings, ESO is now here to stay, as Matt Firor and his teams have ambitious plans for the MMO’s future.
“We have a good thing going, we’re extremely successful, we just want to make sure we keep DLC coming, make sure we fix bugs and polish combat and keep a lot of content coming through chapters,” he says. “We have two years, at least, of things I know are going in and then we have ideas for after that.”
He continues: “Regular content, keeping players happy, that’s all we’re doing. ESO is very much a game-as-a-service, which is a term we don’t use a lot but it really is a service at this point, and so we want to make sure that it works and keep a lot of new stuff coming in.”
With ESO being well on track to keep achieving great things, and having worked at Zenimax Online Studios since day one, we dare to ask Firor if he and his teams will ever work on a new project anytime soon. He smiles: “At some point maybe but we have so much more to do on ESO that it’s hard to think about that.“