When Zenimax Online Studios formed in 2007, Matt Firor says the studio had one goal: turn Elder Scrolls and Tamriel into a massive-multiplayer online game.

It’s been seven years since “The Elder Scrolls Online” (ESO) first released and now the studio is preparing to launch the game’s fifth major chapter — an expansion into a southern marshland of Tamriel called Blackwood, filled with additional storylines, dungeons and a new companion system that provides allies to fight beside you.

Along with the Blackwood expansion, Zenimax will include a free “Console Enhanced” update for the new generation of consoles, which Firor says “is the best version of ESO that we’ve made so far," and is aimed at making console-play as good as the experience on any PC. Both of the updates will release in June.

The Washington Post spoke with Firor about how ESO has evolved over the years. Maybe it’s a side-effect of the pandemic, but 2020 was one of the most successful years for the title. Firor said the community around ESO is still growing — and, that’s not something he necessarily expected when this all began.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When the studio first started talking about building an Elder Scrolls MMO, did you guys ever expect the game to run for seven years? What was the long-term plan?

Firor: We could talk for a whole hour just on that question alone but the short answer is ... We were founded in 2007 with the purpose of making an Elder Scrolls MMO. So, it was kind of our mission-statement. But, by the time we launched in 2014, which of course was seven years later, the industry had changed so much that we really no longer considered it an MMO.

If you remember back seven, eight, 10 years, MMO meant “Everquest,” “Dark Age of Camelot,” “World of Warcraft” and it came with a whole lot of assumptions that it would be hardcore, it would be tab-target based with keyboard rotation combat. It would be a lot of text quests. You know, it would be very grindy gameplay. We didn’t want to do that part of MMO. We wanted the fun parts of a fantasy game, online with lots of people, but we didn’t want to have the baggage of all of the older games. And, I say that with full knowledge that I worked on some of them.

So, we decided internally at first just to call it an online RPG which — to us — was much more in the spirit of what ESO is. ... I’m not saying it’s not an MMO. We just don’t call it that because we want to make sure that everybody understand that it’s an iteration on those earlier games."

Was there a roadmap for two, five, specifically, seven years out? I’m just wondering about the iterative process ESO has found itself in and how much those updates were talked about early on.

Firor: You don’t make these kinds of games without anticipating that they’ll run for a long time. I think we all knew that ESO would be running seven years after it launched. The question is, I don’t think any of us really expected it to be running so successfully seven years after launch.

What we managed to do is take the 2014 launch of ESO and really evolve the game over time to make it more approachable to the people playing the game. That ended up meaning that our later years, like last year especially, were more successful than most of the years before that. In many ways, ESO is still growing, which certainly we did not expect.

When is ESO done? Will it ever be done? Do games ever end anymore? I don’t even know if that actually is a question.

Firor: That is a question we ask ourselves all the time. And, I think the answer is pretty easy. The community will tell us when the game is starting to be done and they have not at all yet. We’re still, in many ways, growing.

ESO is a worldwide game. We have people from almost every country in the world logging in at some point. It’s huge and it’s very, very much played by a disparate group of people. It’s not just “hardcore MMO fans.” ... People are going to keep playing it and we’ll keep making content for them as long as they’re around.

How would you describe the upcoming console update? Is it a fresh coat of paint, if ESO were a house? Is it rewiring? What would be the accurate comparison for players?

Firor: I think, if you’re living in a house that was built with 2014 construction and you were then going to move to a house that was built with 2021 tech construction ... it’s hugely different. The new generation of consoles are very, very, very powerful.

You can talk about it as a fresh coat of paint, and the fact that everything just looks fantastic, but it also runs better. Most importantly, we have a 60 frames per second mode on all three next-gen consoles.

Are people returning to the game? Are there new players who are coming seven years in? Is it just a core, devoted fan group? What is your sense of the player base?

Firor: We have three different groups of players, generally. We add millions of new players every year, like millions, and we have every year since 2014. So, there’s always new players coming in. We also have players that come in and play certain pieces of content, like our chapter, which launches pretty much every June. ... And then we have players that log in regularly, every week, every day, to do dungeons and co-op content and so forth. So, you know, it’s always kind of these three groups are always kind of intermixing with each other. And some of our new players end up becoming long-term players and some of our long-term players churn out and then they come back a year later. And, so, it’s really a healthy mix of all three of those right now and has been for a long time.

How do you get a new player in 2021? How do you make seven years of content approachable for somebody who is just jumping in?

Firor: This is why we don’t call our yearly expansions ... we don’t call them expansions. We call them chapters because expansion in the MMO world is freighted with a lot of preconceived notions that it’s only for max-level players. You have to grind through all the other content to get there. ... But, in ESO, levels don’t really matter. They’re personal to your character. New players are encouraged to jump in and play the new content first.

Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s a little daunting for a game this old, but we really try to funnel players into making choices that they want to do right off the bat so it isn’t so overwhelming. But, it is a giant game. And, I hazard to guess it is probably the largest game of its type out there.

I’m wondering how you see the new genres that are taking up bandwidth in gaming. Specifically, with battle royales, when you have quicker rewards and feedback loops in 15-minute cycles. That’s a lot different than grinding dungeons. Are battle royales threatening to what MMOs or online games have established?

Firor: That’s a great question. And, we have this discussion a lot. So, I’ve been in the industry since the late 1980s, and I can truthfully tell you there is nothing new under the sun. ...

As these new types of games come out, I think just more and more gamers are added to the “online gaming crowd.” ... A lot of those games are distilled versions of previous MMOs, in some ways, with people working on them that had tons of deep experience working on the early games. A lot of the gameplay in those, are distilled versions of what games like ESO do. It just takes a key component of it and focuses on that.

It’s almost like “Fortnite” and those games take a really cool idea from a larger game and then distills it down into its own meaningful experience. And, I think there’s always going to be room for those types of games. I mean, I play those games, too. ... It’s just a different experience. It’s like, I watch American football but then I also watch soccer. It’s just two different activities and I think there’s plenty of room in the industry for all of that.

Read more: