E3 2017: Elder Scrolls Online’s Matt Firor on Morrowind, nostalgia, and PvP
The Elder Scrolls Online released its first expansion, Morrowind, shortly before E3 2017. MMOs rarely come up with mainstream media, but with Morrowind’s nostalgia power, I heard the name mentioned a few times off the showroom floor. While I’d heard of Morrowind, of course, I didn’t personally get on the Elder Scrolls train until Skyrim — it’s been one of those games making “best of” lists for as long as I could remember. However, some of the things I’d read about the upcoming expansion gave me pause, so I brought them up with ZeniMax Game Director Matt Firor during our conversation at E3.
The nostalgia factor
I had to ask Firor how the team was feeling this month’s formal launch, and of course, with Morrowind being the title, I wasn’t terribly surprised that it was “good.” Critics are focusing a lot on Morrowind as many have been around long enough to remember the single-player original. However, Firor notes that the huge time gap between their game and the main series has allowed his team space to create its own tales and characters, rather than rely on nostalgia alone. Seven hundred years is a long time for most people, although with long-lived elves at the center of the stories, you can still keep some connections.
Going with Morrowind seemed like an easy choice based on nostalgia alone, but there were other factors at play. Even before the One Tamriel update, the team was looking at other Elder Scrolls games, especially Skyrim. It wanted that sense of single-player freedom in the online game. At launch, Firor said, the devs had an MMO, but they wanted Elder Scrolls. I asked whether the team was inspired by any other MMOs that have also seen success rebuilding their image, but Firor said that it was the TES series itself that they looked to. However, to keep the game firmly in the MMO realm, they reassessed each zone as part of the One Tamriel update to try to make sure there was a mix of solo and group content in each zone, rather than spread out across the game world. They also tried to make sure guilds were the center of community activity, not just in terms of combat activities, but commerce as well.
With Morrowind, Firor said the team is building on the past. They wanted to give players a new class, new content, and updated PvP, but also make it accessible for new players. This made Morrowind and Vvardenfell a natural choice, but you’ll notice that upcoming DLC isn’t just Morrowind all the way down. ZeniMax plans on releasing more of everything, not just in terms of ES nostalgia or basic MMO-ness but in quality of life features like changing ground targeting indicators for colorblind players.
So now we know now that Skyrim was a big factor in the ESO equation. I’d been living in Japan when the MMO launched and barely anyone knew the series beyond Skyrim on PlayStation. Especially because Japan doesn’t have much of a PC gaming scene, it didn’t surprise me that it wasn’t being launched there was well, but my last Tokyo Game Show saw ESO making an appearance. Despite the risk, the team figured Skyrim had made enough of an impact to risk a PC-only release of the MMO. (Japanese players are on North American servers, but they have their own Japanese UI and chat channels.) As the world gets more Skyrim, it seems like that may end up becoming the new Morrowind for ESO, though Firor and I didn’t explicitly discuss it beyond its influence on the MMO.
Riding high into the future
Trying to figure out the future of ESO, or any other MMO, isn’t an exact science. Firor noted that the warden “issues” people freaked out about were mostly about descriptions and testing issues. The class went through a few iterations and wasn’t meant to be a solo class, just a jack of all trades. The final product seems balanced, even in PvP so far, but again, high-level meta play may reveal something beta didn’t.
MOP ESO columnist Larry Everett and I had actually looked at one area in particular as an interesting talking point: the introduction of small, instanced-based PvP in a game known for having huge, zone-specific PvP. However, Firor says he isn’t currently worried that world PvP will die due to interest in instanced PvP via battlegrounds. He feels they complement each other, and perhaps because of ESO’s mega server technology, I realized I had to concede that he probably has a point. Traditional MMO servers are so much more at risk when you make these kinds of additions to a game. PvP is generally a bit of a niche, especially world PvP, and that risk of fracturing a niche community is something that tends to worry me, but with large servers, especially for a popular game, there should be plenty to go around.
Keeping the game as an MMO while catering to soloers is something the team still works on. One of the biggest changes to make ESO seem more TES in the One Tamriel update was to allow for exploration and playing with friends easily. A side effect of that, however, was it actually helped a lot with guild recruitment. Massively OP was once told that guild specific housing and overall guild improvements were things the team wanted to do, so I decided to follow up on that. Firor didn’t want to reveal too much, though. He noted that most people who bought the larger houses were guilds whose members pooled their money together, but he also mentioned that players should expect something like more guild permissions and levels at some point.
While the game’s at a high point, nothing’s perfect. Combat is still sometimes described as floaty or laggy. Firor notes that there have been recent combat changes, including going back and changing animations, so it’s not as if ZOS is ignoring it. That being said, Firor didn’t specifically mention changes that might address this concern.
On the showroom floor and in the press-only areas of E3 2017, few people were discussing the minute details of Morrowind. Its nostalgia, combined with a lack of time to play more at E3, at least temporarily takes precedence.