When Elder Scrolls Online launched back in 2014, I didn't find much exciting about it. It was an MMO that stuck close to the template established by World of Warcraft, rather than the Elder Scrolls games that preceded it. Elder Scrolls Online wore the clothing, but it lacked the heart and soul, and fans were open with their disappointment. Five years later, Zenimax Online's exploration of Tamriel is celebrating 13.5 million players, up 2.5 million from the previous year. It's a fantastic turnaround, one which Bethesda attributes to the players that kept enjoying the game.
"Obviously, there was a ton of feedback from the PC launch," Elder Scrolls Online game director Matt Firor tells USG. "That was the core of what we then used over the next year to make changes in the game. Even during that period, there was a pretty large group of people that were playing the game every day and a lot of the changes that we made were just as much looking at what those players were doing. That and the player feedback is what we used to create the roadmap that went all the way through One Tamriel."
MMOs and service games not having the best launch isn't that rare occurrence these days. Some games live and die on that one update that makes everything better, the moment where a tired and beleaguered community is able to turn to their friends and go, "See? This is a good game!" For Final Fantasy 14, it was A Realm Reborn. For The Division, it was the patch 1.8. For Elder Scrolls Online, it was more of a one-two punch. 2015 saw the release of Tamriel Unlimited, which offered a free-to-play tier and transitioned subscribers over to ESO Plus. Zenimax Online followed that in 2016 with One Tamriel, which tore down the level-based gameplay and switch everything over to a level-scaling model. This meant players could jump in and play whatever they wanted, including the newest content.
"It seems like ever since our One Tamriel update back in 2016, which leveled out the leveling curve and let everyone play with everyone else, that's when the game really started taking off," says Firor.
Part of Elder Scrolls Online's success has also been the strong contingent of console players on Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Both console versions launched in 2015, and Firor points to "a series of really successful free trials" on Xbox One as part of the reason for its growth. Elder Scrolls Online launched on Xbox Game Pass last year, bringing a whole host of new players into the game. Given its free-to-play tier, players can transition right from Game Pass into everything ESO has to offer.
"Do we think it helped? For sure. It got more people into the game. More people got to see what the game was, which was a good thing for us," says Elder Scrolls Online creative director Rich Lambert.
While players wait for The Elder Scrolls 6, Elder Scrolls Online is there to provide some version of that experience, especially with its thriving community. So far, ESO has gone from the alien swamps of Morrowind, the shining shores of Summerset, the cutthroat lands of the Gold Coast, and the frozen peaks of Skyrim. Zenimax Online has fully firmed up its vision for Elder Scrolls Online-an MMO based heavily in story, with significant player build options-and is commitment to delivering further on that vision. Just don't expect another update as sweeping in terms of changes as One Tamriel.
"We have a roadmap of things that we want to do. We're already working on next year's things. We are already planning the year after that and the year after that as well," says Lambert. "I don't know that-at least for the short term-that there's anything that's is that massive of a change. One Tamriel especially was a massive undertaking. We essentially changed the entire world in one update, and went from a leveled playing experience to a levelless playing experience that opened up the world. That being said, we're always looking at where we can make improvements. That's always first and foremost in our mind."
Firor notes that One Tamriel should show players that Zenimax Online isn't "afraid of taking risks when we feel they're warranted," but the team feels great about the current state of the game. The most recent change to how Elder Scrolls Online is delivered is rooted in storytelling. Elsweyr is part of Elder Scrolls Online's Season of the Dragon, which started with the Wrathstone DLC in January, and will continue with additional DLC releases in the third and fourth quarter of 2019. The content release cadence has been largely the same for ESO since the Horns of the Reach DLC in 2017, which new updates every quarter. What's changed with the Season of the Dragon is having all of the related DLC rooted in similar story threads, rather than jumping around from plot-to-plot. Lambert says this model will likely continue into the future of ESO.
"From my point of view, the single story for the entire year works really well. We did the jumping around, and it was really hard for players to grapple with what was going on and how they should interact with the game. The 'Season of,' which is kind of a natural evolution, is working really well right now. It's probably safe to assume that we will do more of the same," he tells USG.
Continuing to Tell A New Story
Player feedback led to One Tamriel, but for an MMO, that feedback never ends. According to Lambert, most of the current feedback surrounding current Elder Scrolls Online is related to performance issues or story content. In terms of performance issues, as ESO has grown, players have had to deal with disconnects and queueing problems. Firor says the recent growth caught the studio off-guard, but now they're more prepared for a greater influx of players.
"We did have a pretty hefty explosion of players from late December through February that took us off-guard. We didn't know we were going to be that popular, which is a great problem to have. A lot of the server overcrowding and queue problems happened because of that. We added server capacity," he admits.
Part of that was the launch on Xbox Game Pass, but Firor says that seasonal in-game events have also been a strong driver of new players. "There were a couple in the first quarter that got an insane number of people to log in. Those players were doing generally the same content. When Elsweyr launched, we saw another big influx. It's a good problem to have, but we need to make sure that we're supporting the players we have," he tells USG. Lambert agrees and says that the team is "definitely looking at those events" as a strong part of Elder Scrolls Online content heading into the future.
Under the new levelless system, players can jump into any part of Elder Scrolls Online and play which content strikes your fancy. If you want to start on Morrowind, you can. If you want to jump back to the beginning, that works too. This means new players have a lot of choices, and never have to worry about not being able to play with friends. But it also means that it's a little more confusing to experience the older content that ESO has to offer. The community has resources to let players know where older storylines begin, but some have asked for a way to experience ESO in release order. Lambert says that Zenimax Online is "always interested in making sure that we put our best foot forward," which is usually the newest content available. That said, the team has talked about a way for players to enjoy ESO in chronological order.
"[What] we're trying to avoid there is the gen one MMO problem. The cool new content launches, and new players have to play through 18 years of old content. We definitely wanted to avoid that. If they're seeing marketing images about dragons, we want them to play Elsweyr," says Firor.
Elsweyr is front-and-center as the focus of Elder Scrolls Online, and it brings with it a rage of dragons. Dragons are a new world event in the Elsweyr region. You can see them flying overhead, and join other players in pitched battles to take them down. One thing you won't see is the dragon system expanding beyond Elsweyr itself. "For lore and continuity, we can't just have a giant dragon invasion that goes across all of Tamriel," says Firor. Elder Scrolls Online actually pulls an Old Republic, taking place hundreds of years prior to the mainline Elder Scrolls games. "The way we worked it into the lore was that this was an isolated event that happened just in Elsweyr, and then a 1,000 years later when the rest of Elder Scrolls began, people forgot about this event in history," explains Lambert.
Even with dragons appearing only within a single region, players are saying that the dragons themselves are a bit too similar and easy to take down. Lambert says that "we have plans" to offer more unique encounters with the dragons, and Firor adds that players are currently fighting the dragons in a fully-populated Elsweyr. That won't always be the case in the future. "When there's only 10 people fighting it, it's going to be a lot harder, rather than the 30-man zergs you have right now," he says.
Finding the Proper Balance
The relative ease of content in Elsweyr and Elder Scrolls Online as a whole has been a common complaint as the game's playerbase ages. Players have asked for alternate difficulty options for the open-world questing experience, to have a challenge outside of dungeons and trials. Lambert says that this probably won't be coming because Zenimax Online wants the entire storyline to be accessible.
"Balance is obviously a tricky thing. What is too easy for one player is impossible for another," he tells us. "We try to balance so that the average player can have a good experience, especially with the main story content. That's our critical path. If they want to challenge themselves, they can go and do Public Dungeons, or Trials with 12 of their friends. We do make that conscious choice with the crit path to make it playable for as many people as possible."
"As for the extra difficulty, that's something our playerbase has talked about for a long time. A lot of our original players forget that we had that with [Cadwell's Gold and Silver] way back when. The feedback that we got about that was they didn't like it. It wasn't fun. The extra difficulty wasn't what they wanted. They wanted to enjoy the story. It's a catch-22."
Since launch, Elder Scrolls Online has only added two classes to the roster. Morrowind allowed players to infuse themselves with the power of nature as the Warden, while Elsweyr introduced the Necromancer, masters of the dead. Compared to some MMOs, ESO has a relatively small roster, with only six classes in total. This is due to the freedom in terms of player builds, as any class can fill any role, and in a variety of potential ways.
"Adding classes to ESO is a little more difficult than it is in other games, just because we have so many shared abilities. It means, that the variety of builds is that much higher. We have to make sure that we're not introducing a super-meta, or a class that no one wants to play. We're going to do it sparingly, but players love new classes," says Firor.
Even with ESO's class flexibility, there are preferred builds coming from veteran players and min-maxers. For example, the Dragonknight is known as one of the preferred tanks in the game, especially if you're doing harder content. As part of Elsweyr, Zenimax Online did start to take a stronger look at their class balance, and Lambert admits this is an ongoing process.
"With Elsweyr, we started on an audit of all the classes and class abilities," Lambert says. "That's where a lot of the balance changes came from. We only got through the class abilities, we didn't get through the guild lines and stuff like that. We're slowly going through them. Once we get through that, then we'll look at the various roles: What makes a [Dragonknight] Tank so great? What makes a Sorcerer Damage Dealer so good?"
Before I wrapped up my interview with the pair of developers, I also wanted to know if the team was to address one of Elder Scrolls Online's major issues: inventory space. Currently, your inventory is rather limited per character, and bank space is shared across your account. The best way to fix the problem is by becoming an ESO Plus subscribers, which gives you a Crafting Bag that greatly lessens the strain. I asked Firor and Lambert if there were any changes coming in this regard, like allowing purchased inventory increases (and mount improvements) to be account-wide instead of character-specific.
"We've definitely heard feedback about inventory and inventory management. It's one of those things that's on a lit, that we're looking at. I wouldn't say that we're opposed to changing them, but there's a lot of technical reasons why they are the way they are. And changing that is not easy," says Lambert.
Elder Scrolls Online continues to grow and evolve. The Season of the Dragon will stretch on throughout 2019, offering further stories featuring the community's favorite characters and more challenges to overcome. With One Tamriel, Morrowind, Summerset, and now Elsweyr, ESO has a firm foundation for that future. "Players enjoy the content updates we're giving them. We're looking at roadmaps for the future, but we like where we are right now," admits Firor. With 13.5 million players, it looks like community likes where ESO is too.