The Elder Scrolls Online is getting another major expansion this year, and this time ZeniMax Online Studios is taking players to Summerset Isles. This is the first time players will have a chance to explore Summerset since the original Elder Scrolls, and the studio plans to use this setting to tell bigger stories that are different than what players experienced in Morrowind or previous areas. Summerset launches May 21 on PC and Mac. Console players can get it June 5.
Delivering that content to its players is crucial for the studio because it is trying to maintain the momentum it built up throughout 2017 leading up to its four-year anniversary April 4. I interviewed ZeniMax Online Studios president Matt Firor at PAX East in Boston earlier this month, and he revealed that the company is finding a balance between keeping players satisfied and keeping them wanting to come back for more.
“Last year was the best year we’ve had, three years after launch,” Firor told GamesBeat. “We had our four-year anniversary on PC and third on console. It’s still growing. We’re still riding the wave. It’s fantastic for us, but there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. We have a lot of players who want more content. Summerset, and then the DLC we launch the rest of the year, is our way of keeping the train rolling, giving them stuff to do.”
Summerset is a massive new area of the world map. It opens up the southwestern home of the high elves. When it launches, it will have multiple, beefy story lines for players to get involved with. That will set a tone for the rest of the year, but Firor’s team will also attempt to fill in gaps with regular, smaller updates.
I asked the ZeniMas Online Studios boss if he was happy with its content-release cadence.
“Yeah,” said Firor. “It’s funny. I can’t name another studio or project that delivers as much content. But of course, to our players, it’s not fast enough. ‘I can’t believe you haven’t done anything!’ But that’s fine. That’s what you want them to think. They want more stuff. It’s good.”
And the truth is that ZeniMax could never make enough content because The Elder Scrolls Online doesn’t end. It’s an online massively multiplayer online adventure that people could come back to forever. That means even as Summerset gets ready to roll out, Firor’s team will have to get right back to work on what ever is next.
“It’s not much different from working on, say, a giant TV series,” said Firor. “There’s a core of the story, and then as people keep watching it, you have to make more episodes. This is the same thing. We have an audience. They love the game. They’ve bought into the world, because it’s Elder Scrolls. We need to keep feeding them more episodes.”
For The Elder Scrolls Online, those new episodes will come in the form of new quests, new characters, returning characters from previous chapters or games, and similar content. Throughout 2018, that will primarily take place in Summerset, but the studio is promising to continue finding new ways to keep its audience coming back for more.
You can read the full transcript of my interview with Zenimax Online Studios boss Matt Firor below:
GamesBeat: What’s new? What are you working on?
Matt Firor: Just announced the next chapter for ESO, Summerset. Much like Morrowind last year, it’s a brand new zone, tons of stuff to do, learn a new skill line. Go to the Summerset isles for the first time since 1994 in Elder Scrolls 1. So it’s the home of the high elves. Cool place to visit. If Morrowind is the northeast dark elf place, now we’re in the southwest high elf place, so it’s almost like an exact opposite, 180 degree difference. It’s a new story, which is awesome. It expands the lore. Players can join the Psijic Order, which is awesome. It’s a lot of stuff in a cool chapter.
GamesBeat: When you go to make a new expansion like this, what’s the motivation?
Matt Firor: Well, because it’s bigger, we can tell bigger and better stories. With our DLCs, they’re great, but they’re smaller. This gives us a chance to take a big zone, the big 30 hours of stuff, and probably a lot more than that. But just take the time and tell an intricate story that Elder Scrolls fans have come to expect. What it lets us do is fill in the map of Tamriel, which we’ve been doing since we launched. We’ve been doing a chunk at a time, and this is a big chunk.
GamesBeat: What factors go into deciding what area of the map to open up next?
Matt Firor: It’s almost like every part of the world has its own vibe. Morrowind is kind of alien. Summerset is high fantasy. Tall soaring architecture, really manicured grounds and environments. It’s super high fantasy. It lets us tell that kind of story. If Morrowind was all about a god getting sick and needing to help him, this is about paradise having a problem. The queen needs your help to come in and figure out what the problem is.
GamesBeat: With each one of these big expansions you guys get a chance to bring in new players and keep old players happy. How do you balance that? What players do you have in mind?
Matt Firor: ESO is different from most other games in that player levels really don’t matter a lot. When you think—this is why we tend to avoid the term “expansion,” because for a game of this type it always comes with the expansion that you have to be level 80 to get into it, that there’s a requirement to do hardcore leveling. We’re not like that at all. This is a new story being told. Older, more experienced veteran players can bring their existing characters over to play it like they always have, but a new player can buy the game and start right in Summerset and have the same experience as the veteran player. It gives us a chance to redo the tutorial, tell a new story so new players can come in, almost as if it was a sports game and there was a 2015 version, a 2016, a 2017. This is kind of the 2017 version of ESO. But it includes all the rest of it.
GamesBeat: How do you keep it interesting for players who have stuck around?
Matt Firor: This is a new story, a new area to go to. I always say, you ask four different players of ESO what kind of game it is, you get four different answers. But it gives that core Elder Scrolls experience of exploration in a new area, cool stories, cool quests. But of course we have new systems. There’s a skill line you can learn from the Psijic Order that makes you character different and cool. We’re trying to bring in lots of different things for different kinds of players.
GamesBeat: Are those systems on the back-burner for a long time? Are they things you thought about a year ago, two years ago, and now you’re finally getting to it? Or is it more like you need a new system and you came up with something on the fly?
Matt Firor: Every game developer has a list of things they want in their game. Every year when we sit down and talk about the next year’s chapter, we always think of, well, here’s the pool of stuff we’ve talked about. What makes sense for this story? We wanted to do the Psijic Order because it’s a cool NPC faction. It’s been in Skyrim and other Elder Scroll games as a bit player, but not as a full on player. We wanted to bring them in because they have cool lore that’s kind of associated with that part of the world. We’ve always wanted to use them and this gave us the perfect opportunity to do so. That’s just one example.
GamesBeat: In general, how is ESO doing?
Matt Firor: Last year was the best year we’ve had, three years after launch. We had our fourth year anniversary on PC and third on console. It’s still growing. We’re still riding the wave. It’s fantastic for us, but there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with at. We have a lot of players that want more content. Summerset, and then the DLC we launch the rest of the year, is our way of keeping the train rolling, giving them stuff to do.
GamesBeat: Is the audience happy with that cadence?
Matt Firor: Yeah, yeah. It’s funny. I can’t name another studio or project that delivers as much content. But of course, to our players, it’s not fast enough. I can’t believe you haven’t done anything–! But that’s fine. That’s what you want them to think. They want more stuff. It’s good.
GamesBeat: What’s it like making a game that never ends?
Matt Firor: It’s not much different from working on, say, a giant TV series. There’s a core of the story, and then as people keep watching it, you have to make more episodes. This is the same thing. We have an audience. They love the game. They’ve bought into the world, because it’s Elder Scrolls. We need to keep feeding them more episodes. More stories, more quests, bring in old characters from previous seasons, which we do all the time, like [name – 6:50] in Summerset. Bring in older characters to interact with. If they haven’t interacted with them before, then they’ll have a new character they can meet, and they can go on to older parts of the game and see them again. It really works in a good way. Since we come out so regularly – a dungeon DLC, a chapter, another dungeon DLC – players are used to the cadence and they know where to expect the content they love the most.
GamesBeat: Do you ever consider changing that up?
Matt Firor: Oh, all the time. If you look at anything we’ve done in the last four years, there’s no set in stone anything. We will make changes as long as we feel they’re the right things to do.
GamesBeat: It’s driven by a combination of what’s best for the team and for the audience?
Matt Firor: And community feedback. Obviously they want more content, but definitely, it’s—we listen to what players are saying and we try to do more of the stuff they like and less of the stuff they don’t. Again, we have those four or five gamer types that love the game. We have to keep giving them a piece of the pie every year.
GamesBeat: Is there anything that’s important to you guys that you wanted to talk about?
Matt Firor: It’s all about Summerset. The game’s going great. We’re pinching ourselves every day. It’s killing it right now.