To hear it from some folks, the massively multiplayer online roleplaying game as a genre is at death's door. World of Warcraft, the once unassailable behemoth, is struggling to retain subscribers. Players by the hordes are flocking to team-based games like Overwatch and League of Legends instead of open worlds. And yet here's Matt Firor, game director of ZeniMax Online Studios' Elder Scrolls Online, telling me that things are actually getting better for his game. What gives?
Over 7 million people, he claims, have purchased and played his game since its launch two years ago. Not bad, considering that number reportedly doesn't include the many players who partook in the beta or those who jumped in on the free trial on the Xbox One last December. It's been a rough climb. When the Elder Scrolls Online first game out, criticisms swirled about how it allegedly failed to live up to its Elder Scrolls moniker, whether it was in the way you couldn't strike out in any direction you wanted as in Skyrim, or in the way it locked you into classes despite an otherwise great deal of freedom.
And now, two years later, it's finally closer to the ideal. With the upcoming release of the patch Firor calls "OneTamriel"—due out sometime in the fourth quarter of this year—there will be no more level limitations to the zones. Want to head out to Skyrim's Rift, which used to be a level 40ish zone, moments out of ESO's starting sequence? By all means, do so. New to the game and want to play with your level 50 friend who's been playing ESO for years? Now you can. Much like some of the game's existing downloadable content, you'll now be able to play with anybody. Outside of the instanced player-versus-player combat, in fact, there's not even any more alliance restrictions, which means I can finally group up with my elf-favoring friends whom I've been unable to play with for years out of pride. It's a testament to the work Firor and his team have done that ESO's managed to weather the storm of mixed reviews and other sweeping redesigns. And now that Elder Scrolls Online is at last closer to what many people would think of as a Skyrim "MMO," it'll be worth seeing how the wider world picks it up. Firor seems rather excited, and he thinks ESO's unique position between the likes of Skyrim and World of Warcraft might help serve up a sweet spot that's so far been missing. "We don't like to look at ESO as an MMO because it's really not," he said. The game has the usual genre multiplayer trappings like dungeons, raids, and sweeping PvP battles, but he notes that players "can also play it as a single-player game." That design may have grown out of the desire to deliver a true "Elder Scrolls" experience, but it's also a ready-made method of dealing with the vagaries of a genre in transition. Firor has been trying to find what surviving in this transition means for months now. He avoids talking about the specifics of that magical 7 million number and he just laughs when I asked him how many of them are still around. The majority, from what I can tell, are now on consoles (although he eagerly interjects that the "PC version is doing fine"), which in itself warrants attention. MMORPGs traditionally don't do well on consoles, but I find ESO's Tamriel is hopping every time I log on to my account on my Xbox One.
"There was a big market that was ready for an Elder Scrolls game on consoles," he said, noting that single-player Elder Scrolls games like Skyrim and Oblivion had huge audiences on the Xboxes and PlayStations of yesteryear. I suspect this push toward consoles was always part of the plan, as I wrote about how comfortable it was to play ESO with a controller way back during the beta when ZeniMax's game was just a PC thing.
But as good for the game as the addition of console play was, Firor says, nothing bolstered ESO's prospects so much as the shift, in January of last year, to a buy-to-play model. Previously Elder Scrolls Online operated under a subscription system like World of Warcraft, but after the shift, players only had to buy it once and then play when they chose. An in-game cash shop offered goodies like new mounts and costumes, but it wasn't necessary to use it in order to play. Not only did it inject some new players into the mix, but it also changed how players interacted with the game.
"Players' play habits are different than they were when we had a required subscription," he said, "because you don't feel like you have to play all the time." Some players will suddenly drop off the map, he says, and come back just as suddenly weeks or months later and play for days and weeks.
That's been the story of ESO for its whole life—this little dance of readjustments and redesigns to fit the needs of a changing audience and genre. The success of Elder Scrolls Online proves that the once venerated MMORPG genre isn't doing so bad as some people claim, as survival just demands adjusting to the needs of the situation.
For ESO, that means giving us what many of us wanted all along. But as things are, maybe this is at last the right place and the right time for such a shift.