Earlier this week embargoes lifted on a truckload of information regarding ZeniMax Online Studios' upcoming expansion chapter for The Elder Scrolls Online, named after the third entry in the Elder Scrolls series released way back in 2002: Morrowind. We've posted information about the game throughout the week, leading up to my full interview with ZeniMax and ESO director and general Elder Scrolls and Morrowind guru, Matt Firor.
My conversation with Matt was both informative and casual, spanning topics from specific new features planned for Morrowind to general musings about PvP, lore, and the MMO landscape. The full transcript (lightly edited) of our conversation can be found below. It's lengthy, but fascinating. You might want to plan for a bathroom break.
I want to ask about is the significance of the original game as it pertains to this expansion. I’m someone who actually didn’t play recent titles as much; Morrowind was my big Elder Scrolls game. So Morrowind is the Elder Scrolls game that I’m the most familiar with.
Okay, well you are our target demographic. Because we built Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind to be very nostalgic, for people that had played Elder Scrolls III. So we actually took the world map from Elder Scrolls III and that became our guideline for the ESO: Morrowind world. So it’s the entire island of Vvardenfell just like it was in Elder Scrolls III. Generally speaking we’re 700 years before that, but generally speaking if there was a town or point of interest or a map pin in Elder Scrolls III, there will be one in ESO: Morrowind. So, you know, it might be if there was a village there in Elder Scrolls III, there will be a guy there talking about how he wants to found a farm to make a village. So we have a lot of cool easter eggs like that, that are kind of cool if you never played Elder Scrolls III, but if you played it you’ll definitely get the joke and laugh.
I think it’s fair to say that this isn’t just an expansion, considering historical importance of Morrowind and the players likely to be brought in. You talked about nostalgia. In terms of developing this expansion, has the focus changed? Generally for MMOs, the goal is to keep the people still playing engaged, and bring back those who stop playing. But I’d imagine that here the goal might be to bring in a lot of new people who hear “Morrowind” and think “oh my god, I’ve gotta play this.”
That’s actually a good point, and that’s why we’re referring to it as a chapter, not an expansion. ESO isn’t level-based in the same way that other traditional MMOs are, so we are doing exactly what you said. With Morrowind, not only is it an expansion for existing players, but it’s a new game for people who haven’t played yet before. So it’s kind of different things to different people. So we have a new tutorial, there will be a retail box in stores that says Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind on it, if you’ve never played ESO before you just buy that, you get the new content, you get the new tutorial, you get the island of Vvardenfell, but you get the entire original game also, which is the way we’re looking at it. If you’re a new player, this is a great way to get introduced to it, but if you’re an existing player and you already have a character, just bring your character over and play.
And yes, Morrowind has a name that people recognize, you know, maybe it was their older brother that played it, so it’s a name that people know. Even if they haven’t played the game, they know it’s cool and it’s important, they probably read some of the lore if they’re an Elder Scrolls fan, or if they’re old enough like you and I, they actually played it. And so we’re trying to hit on all of those needs. Give the people that played Elder Scrolls III a great experience that will bring nostalgic memories. But if they haven’t played it, it’s a really cool part of the world, it’s alien, it’s got a lot of insect-based creatures, it’s got a culture that’s completely different than the rest of Tamriel, and people get to experience that for the first time, which will be awesome.
Regarding the alien nature of the world, it’s something I’ve been super into recently and maybe didn’t appreciate as much back then. I recently played Xenoblade Chronicles X for close to 200 hours, so I love getting as much of that vibe as possible.
Yeah, Vvardenfell was cool because Elder Scrolls III just felt different from all the other high fantasy games that were out there at the time, and you know, we have to remain true to that obviously, but we’re also remaining true to the Elder Scrolls Online IP. You’ll see characters or players from other parts of Tamriel journeying through Vvardenfell with you, and they’ll have their own armor and stuff, so it’ll be a little more cosmopolitan. But definitely the vibe is there.
Going off of that, say there is a player who just picks this up and says “Oh cool, there’s an online Elder Scrolls game? I loved Morrowind.” What is the early part of the game going to be like for those people, as opposed to if you started ESO before this new Morrowind chapter?
So if this is your first character you will go to the Morrowind tutorial. We’ve learned alot from our original tutorial, so it’s much more integrated into the game. So interestingly, you’re a character of unknown background, just like you always are in every Elder Scrolls game. Your ship that you’re on is captured by slavers, and then crashes. The tutorial begins with a hallmark character from the original Elder Scrolls Online game, a Dark Elf assassin, and she helps you and introduces you to the culture and so-forth. From there they spit you out at the docks at Seyda Need, just like they did in Elder Scrolls III, and you start there. So it’s a very nostalgic beginning for people who have played it before, so it’s cool. But if you haven’t, it’s a good story and it leads you right into the main story from there.
That’s great, I was wondering about that. If you just start the standard way and you have to venture to Vvardenfell, you don’t know if people are going to have the patience for that, especially if they just heard about ESO on a whim.
Yeah, and you know, we have a whole bunch of players who play every day, but we also have a lot of players who played it at launch and went for a month or six weeks, got through the main story, and this a chance for them to go “oh, there’s a new Elder Scrolls Online chapter, I’m just gonna jump right in and play the story.” And they can buy the upgrade to Morrowind, jump in and play for another month or six weeks. And then hopefully next year we’ll have a new chapter, and the year after that a new chapter, and we’ll go with this story-based approach moving forward.
Games like World of Warcraft have become pretty notorious at this point for the following: new expansion, blast through all the content, cancel your sub. That’s not something you guys have to worry about in terms of a monthly subscription, but have you found that your player counts and engagement are more steady as a result of that? And is that something you also expect with the Morrowind expansion?
One of the things we really love about ESO is that it’s different from those old 2004-style MMOs like Everquest or Age of Camelot. Since we’re not level based, we can make the chapter, which is Morrowind, appeal to characters of any level. It also means, since we’re not level based, that you don’t really ever finish the game. We have a ton of content in the game, an absolute ton. And since you don’t have to do it in any order, you can kind of go through it how you want. I’m sure some players have done everything, because there are players like that, but we have a pretty vibrant raiding system that we call Trials, we have a great PvP system and we’re introducing a new PvP variant in Morrowind that will give players near-infinite content in Battlegrounds. So while I’m sure there are some players who are just going to chew through the main story in Morrowind and then wait for the next chapter, and you know, that’s fine! You can play how you want, and if you want to do that, that’s OK with us.
Watch: New The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind Trailer Shows Off Gameplay And Vvardenfell
You mentioned Battlegrounds, and I do want to talk about some of the new features that are going to appeal to presumably everyone eventually, but people who already play ESO in particular. Can you give an overview of Battlegrounds, the new PvP features, 4v4v4, things like that.
Sure. So, ESO has had a very vibrant PvP system since launch, centered around the ongoing war in Cyrodiil which is a giant open-world zone, it’s about nine times the size of a normal zone. It revolves around the alliances fighting, and you get to crown an emperor, and it’s a cool open-world system.
The problem with open-world systems are, it’s possible to walk in with no allies and 100 enemies, as by definition it’s open-world. That can be awesome, but sometimes players want a more balanced start and end, more of an arena-style PvP. And so that’s what we’re introducing in Morrowind. It’s 4v4v4, group vs. group vs. group, it’s not tied to the alliance system so it doesn’t matter what alliance your guys are in. You log in, get in a queue, and you get assigned to a pickup group if you’re not in a group when you get in. You go into one of three maps, and each map supports three game types, like Domination, Capture the Flag, and one other one.
We’ll add more maps and more game types in the future, but for now it’s three maps and three game types. It really is a way for players to show how good they are at PvP, because with Cyrodiil there’s also some PvE in there, you do some quests. In Cyrodiil I always says this; the big difference between the Battlegrounds and Cyrodiil is, in Cyrodiil you can hide. You can run away. There’s no running away in Battlegrounds. Not at all. They’re very small, there’s line of sight everywhere, and it’s you and your group against everyone else.
It’s more of a structured match, then, than just this open free-for-all.
Yes. And it has leaderboards, and we’ll probably have tournament support in there eventually. But yeah, you’re in there to show your dominance over the other players.
Playing Battlegrounds internally, which game types have you guys had the most fun with?
Well you know, different people respond to different types. I like Capture the Flag the most. We have an Elder Scroll in the middle, and you run, grab it, and take it back to your flag and try to hold it. It’s cool when it’s open-world, because we have that in Cyrodiil too, but with three teams of four there’s no room for error. You’re either attacking or defending. And of course when you defend there are two other teams that you’re defending against. You’re gonna lose it eventually, so it’s all about slowing them down, stealthing in and trying to grab it, we feel like it’s a very cool dynamic.
For me in MMOs the draw of the Battlegrounds style has always been, yeah there’s a show of skill when facing off against other players, but also less of a demoralizing effect when you lose because it’s like Overwatch, or a structured competition. Whereas with PvP in the PvE world, you just realize how much everyone else can kick your ass or kill you or whatever.
Yeah, team tactics are super important in Battlegrounds, because if one of your group dies, you’re down 25% compared to the other teams, and that’s a big, big disadvantage. So you want to work as a group, you want to have each member knowing what their role is in the group. You gotta have it down, or it’s going to be over pretty quickly.
Also Read: Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind Director Details Clockwork City Based Trial
I noticed that the new chapter cannot be purchased with in-game Crown Points. Is that just because the update is so substantial, or is that something that’s being phased out?
So we have DLC, which we launch two or three times per year and have had since launch, and which you’ll continue to be able to buy with digital currency. Our next one is third quarter this year, and we have another in the fourth quarter of this year. So we’ll have two this year that you can buy with Crown Points. We just launched Homestead, which is free DLC, and that’s launching actually as we speak on console and launched two weeks ago on PC. So with the chapters we’re aiming for something a little larger. DLC is generally a 12-week development cycle, and we want to introduce new classes and new PvP types, and those just don’t fit into that cycle. You need a much longer window to develop for. So that’s why chapters are different. And you can buy Morrowind new, as a new game, and that will be the Elder Scrolls Online game in stores, but if you're an existing player you can just upgrade to it.
Regarding past Elder Scrolls history and lore, have you guys already begun to let your imaginations run wild with regard to taking a similar approach to other large or historic chunks of Elder Scrolls past after Morrowind is released?
Well, in many ways this is what we’ve been doing with Elder Scrolls Online since we began developing it. The whole world is based on IP that people are very familiar with. But our goal is to, as much as we can, flesh out the map of Tamriel over time, with DLC and with the chapters.
Getting back to Battlegrounds, from what I’m seeing some of the maps actually seem pretty vast. What kind of UI tools do players have to follow the action?
Well actually, you can see a lot on the horizon in the footage here, but it’s only a 20 or 30 second run across these maps. So yes they look big, but actually they’re very self-contained, and visually in the distance we designed it to seem like it’s part of the world. But the gameplay part you can actually get to is actually very small, by design.
I’m especially excited to see what kind of strategic approach people come up with. I’m guessing as with any multiplayer or PvP development, there are going to be things you guys had no idea players would be doing.
Yeah, the first thing we noticed in playtesting which is interesting is that the Domination game, where there are five flags, obviously with 4v4v4 you simply can’t hold a flag for very long. So the strategy turned into figuring out where the two other teams were and running away from them to an empty flag. And then taking that and running to the next one. So it’s more coordinated, slowing down the other team and figuring out where they are so you can go somewhere else. Which is not what we intended at all, but it’s a lot of fun, it’s just a different game style. It’s different than just standing there slaying everyone, you know? You’re using your abilities more to slow down and stop them rather than kill them, because that takes too much time.
You mentioned how the Ministry of Truth is not established, but there is the sort of “impending doom” coming down due to Vivec’s weakening. Does the story involve finding out how that comes to be, or not necessarily?
The story resolves what happens, but it doesn’t reveal why it’s there to begin with. That’s actually already established in lore. Vivec put it there as a symbol of his power, and he says as long as the people worship him it’ll remain there, and when they stop worshipping him it will crash into the temple and kill everyone.
Right, I remember now. No pressure.
Yes, exactly. *laughs*
I’ll close with one last Morrowind question. Obviously this release will encourage Elder Scrolls III fans to try out ESO if they haven’t already, but are you expecting younger ESO players or those who missed Elder Scrolls III to go play Morrowind now?
Yes, absolutely. We have two zones of Morrowind in ESO already, just the mainland Morrowind, so there is a familiarity. Dunmer is already a playable race, and they’re familiar with the culture a little bit. And I think they’ve heard from their guild-mates, or whoever, who have played Morrowind and are like “yeah I really wish they would do Vvardenfell.” And you can actually see Vvardenfell from parts of our existing map, you couldn’t quite see Red Mountain but you could see the coastline, and there was always speculation. People would try to swim out there and get killed by sharks and such, so it’s been kind of a running joke.