Q: The Elder Scrolls Online launched to lukewarm reviews, but since then it has quietly grown into a popular powerhouse of an MMO. How did you and the team manage that?

Matt Firor: Oh man, we could talk for hours! I think when ESO launched on PC in 2014, yeah you're right it was received okay, but it was obvious that it wasn't being received by Elder Scrolls fans super well. And that's because it needed a little more of that Elder Scrolls freedom is how I guess you'd put it. We had put a lot of time into making the game very deep, so it had lots of content – lots of quests, dungeons and all the things you expect – but it didn't have that sense of 'I leave the tutorial and I can do whatever I want' that Elder Scrolls games are known for.

Over the time between PC launch and console launch – there was about a year there – we really spent putting together things that made the game broader not deeper, things like the justice system. So if you log in and you don't wanna do quests, you just wanna run around and steal things from NPCs and loot their homes and sell to a fence and make money, you can do that. The game doesn't encourage it, it doesn't discourage it – it's just something else you can do. That's kinda the hallmark of what makes an Elder Scrolls game an Elder Scrolls game.

How The Elder Scrolls Online won over its detractors
Matt Firor.

You just see something you wanna do and you do it, and eventually you might ask yourself, 'Is this what I want my character to be doing? Do I want him to murder people in the streets and take their stuff?' We leave that up to the player. We added the champions system so you can modify your character when you get to max level and kinda steer it in the direction of the game style you wanna have by giving yourself bonuses to different game styles/play styles. Like if you're a PvP player: if you want damage, if you want defence, that kind of thing. Those are just two examples, and we really put a lot of time into just making it feel better. We did a lot of combat enhancements, so that it feels weightier, your decisions in combat are more fun, and there's more chance of critical, so you do more damage and kill monsters or enemies in a couple of swings if you're lucky, that kinda stuff. Just things that made it more fun and more engaging and kinda broader.

How The Elder Scrolls Online won over its detractors
it was obvious that it wasn't being received by Elder Scrolls fans super well
Matt Firor, game director

And then, we of course changed the business model so that we still had a subscription but it wasn't required, and that got us a lot of attention in the media of course because not a lot of games do that. And that was very, very, very successful 'cos it got a lot of players back that hadn't subscribed in a while. Because now there was no drawback to dropping the game and leaving and coming back – you could just play it as you would any other game. That really got the community interested, and then we launched on console with all of that stuff. Then of course the success story really started, 'cos we really killed it on console.

We are now at seven million people playing since launch we said at E3, and that number is even higher now. So we have a very large community, and I think it really goes down to learning by listening to players over the last two years; what they really want, and evaluate how they play by looking at game metrics and everything. Reading forums, reading direct feedback, figuring out what they're saying, and making content and systems that meet that. And I think we've been really, really, really good at that, and the success kinda speaks for itself. That really steered the game in a better direction after launch. That's how we did it.

Q: With such a massive community, how do you know who to listen to and who to ignore?

Matt Firor: Boy, that's another multi-hour conversation! It really comes down to: players say what they think, but they don't always ask for what they want. They express frustration a lot with things, but they're not always good at telling you what they like. So a lot of the times you're looking at negative feedback to fix problems, and you're looking at metrics to figure out what players really like to do. So you look at the positive stuff in the logs and the negative stuff that people write. But metrics are like statistics, you can read them different ways, and you can make wrong decisions going off game data. And you can make many wrong decisions just going off player feedback, so you really need to triangulate what's happening and look at where players are engaged and where they are not engaged in the game.

How The Elder Scrolls Online won over its detractors

We have a group at the studio that basically just looks at play habits and makes sure that for example if 30 percent of our players quit after level eight, we know we have a problem at level nine. Those are the things we really look at, like when players leave the game, how long did they play? What made 'em leave in the first place? What else was happening in the industry? When Fallout launched we saw a small drop-off in players but then they came back two months later, so there are external factors at work too that we have to take into account. It's an art not a science, it's not like a mobile game that has 15 or 20 metrics – we have hundreds and thousands of them! So we just have to look at the game as a whole, listen to players, and really apply some thought and logic to it, then make decisions from there. And of course we're a pretty big ship to steer right now. It takes a long time for us to add things to the game. We're a live service right now, and we don't wanna create too many problems. We take it slowly and we go from there.

Q: Do you think it's possible to launch and find success with a paid MMO in 2016?

Matt Firor: I think it's certainly possible. Back when we made that change over a year ago, it was… back when we made that change I talked a lot about it. The general sense is there's no wrong answer in general for any game, but every game has a right answer for its business model. So, depending on the market you're going for, depending on the type of players you're trying to attract – y'know, a lot of players love subscription games. We still have a lot of players subscribing to ESO, like, we have more subscribing now than we did before we made the change. Players like to feel like they're part of something, and we made our subscription optional, but it's super attractive: you get a lot of virtual currency, and you get some bonuses in-game. It's certainly not required, but it's a good deal. And I think that's the way for this game.

players say what they think, but they don't always ask for what they want
Matt Firor, game director

That's the way to do it, you wanna incentivise players to subscribe, you don't wanna force them to. 'Cos it's an Elder Scrolls game, they're not used to it, you know? Most of our players never played a subscription game before, so the concept was alien to them. We have a big MMO contingent in the game and they were used to it, but we have a huge Elder Scrolls contingent, and they're just not used to it. You need to do what's right for your game. I've been in this industry long enough I can tell you that it's all cyclical anyway [laughs]. So, who knows? In 10 years it could be all subscription. Right now this combination that most people call buy-to-pay, where you pay for the game and then you can subscribe if you want. You can buy virtual currency if you want, that seems to be a pretty perfect situation for us. But I certainly wouldn't say it's perfect for everyone.

Q: You've just launched Update 11 for ESO.

Matt Firor: Yeah that launched last week on console. Shadows of the Hist is a DLC pack that is two dungeons, so players that really like dungeon runs and grinding for gear and things like that, it gives them a new set of dungeons. Every quarter we release an update, and that update usually has a DLC associated with it. We really try and make sure that each DLC will appeal to the different types of players in the game, because ESO is such a giant game that there are players who only do PvP, there are players who just do solo questing, there are players who love dungeons and trials, and we need to make sure that every quarter each play style has some new content to explore. That's really what Shadows of the Hist is all about.

Q: That's a brutal update cycle. How far ahead of it do your plans go? Is there any fear of running out of content?

Matt Firor: We have plans that go out years, so we're nowhere near… the Elder Scrolls is great 'cos the world is giant. Games change all the time, so we can always bring in new things that are coming into the industry. For example, our next update after this is One Tamriel, which is where we make the game level-less. So the minute you get out of the tutorial, you can walk anywhere in the world and explore anywhere you want – you're not gated by level. That is a very modern game concept, it's not a 2001 MMO design anymore, it's a 'hey players just wanna log in and play and have fun and they don't necessarily wanna grind through 100 hours of gameplay to get to this one zone, they should just go there'.

How The Elder Scrolls Online won over its detractors
How The Elder Scrolls Online won over its detractors

So we are doing that, and that's a big change for the game, and for us as designers. It's a big change with levels, and making sure the formulas still work. But for players it's a huge social thing, because right now in the game I can only group with players really plus or minus four or five levels around me, and I can only group with players in my own alliance. After One Tamriel launches, I can group with anyone in the game no matter what level they are and we're dropping the alliance restriction.

There's a lot of kindergarten policing in some parts of feedback, but that's the world we're playing in now
Matt Firor, game director

Those are the kind of changes that we're not gonna make too often, but we're reacting to what players want. It's a more modern game feel, it's much more social. We really wanna be a social and socially-enabled game and removing these artificial barriers that we created originally really makes the game feel new and fresh. That's an example of things that you wouldn't think we would be doing, but which we think are good ideas for the game. We'll keep it moving in the direction we want it to.

Q: Blizzard recently made changes to the chat in Overwatch so that some shitty comments that were constantly being used now appear self-deprecating. How do you deal with more toxic players?

Matt Firor: Yeah, you know we've been in this industry a long time. So, there a lot of things that happen behind the scenes, we have a community team that looks through player feedback and makes sure that especially if it's in public that it's civil, and they look for feedback to send to the dev team also. There's a lot of kindergarten policing in some parts of feedback, but that's the world we're playing in now. Twitter and social media is not always a happy place when it comes to feedback. But it's there, and you manage it the best you can. In-game we have a lot more features that help us do that. For example, one of our most useful features is players have a one button command to complain about other players so it's self-policing in a way. And when they do that it captures the chat logs for both players for the last hour or so, and it goes to our customer service group who read it and take action from there. That happens every day.

When Fallout launched we saw a small drop-off in players but then they came back two months later
Matt Firor, game director
How The Elder Scrolls Online won over its detractors

Q: How do you decide when to release a sequel rather than just update your game? It seems MMO-style games like Destiny and The Division favour sequels over updates.

Matt Firor: First of all, I think that Destiny and those games have just as much right to the MMO term as any one else – they are massive online games. The term MMO itself is getting kinda outdated because it means different things to different people. I think 'MMO' pretty much refers to a technology not necessarily a game design, so I understand why they call themselves that and I'm fine with it.

But yeah, I think every game finds its cadence and its release type. So for example, Madden and FIFA, they have retail launches every year and that works for them. And Destiny does a retail launch and then an expansion which is also a retail launch, and that works fine. We have been very successful with a retail launch and then DLC which you buy inside the game because we have a virtual currency system. So just whatever works for your game and resonates with the players. That's not to say that some day we won't do a retail expansion. For example, we have the gold edition which is a new retail ESO product coming out in three weeks, and that's a bundle pack where you can buy all the DLCs and the original game at one price. So, we are thinking about those kinds of things – it's just our focus right now is on quarterly updates and DLC.