The jaws of Oblivion: Saving the Elder Scrolls Online MMO

How do you take one of the biggest franchises in games and move it to an entirely different genre without losing what makes it special?

That was the question posed by the team at ZeniMax Media when it formed ZeniMax Online Studios in 2007. Its answer was The Elder Scrolls Online, an ambitious project to take the world of Tamriel — made famous by single-player games like The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind and The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion — and reshape it into a massively-multiplayer online game.

But in 2011, four years after work began, studio director Matt Firor and his team started to think they might be on the wrong track. The feedback from internal playtests was mixed. ESO was just OK, and OK wasn’t anywhere close to good enough.

The jaws of Oblivion: Saving the Elder Scrolls MMO
A chill wind
“Basically,” Firor told Polygon last month, “the feedback was [already telling us] it’s not the next Elder Scrolls game.’”

And, at least chronologically speaking, it wasn’t.

The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim launched in November of 2011. It was the product of ZeniMax Online’s older sibling, Bethesda Game Studios. The game was a critical darling, giving the Elder Scrolls formula a kind of clarity and fidelity that enabled the franchise to add millions of new fans. It was a smash hit at retail and online and, to this day, it remains one of the most actively played games on PC.

But for Firor’s team, Skyrim’s success led to an unexpected crisis. The potential audience for an Elder Scrolls MMO was bigger than ever before, piling on fans who were intimately familiar with what made the series so special — an expansive open world that players could lose themselves in.

Skyrim had changed player expectations completely. The bar hadn’t simply been raised for ZeniMax’s MMO. It had been welded into place in an entirely different location.

So Firor and his team did the only thing they could: They set about rebuilding their vision for the game. It was a transformation so vast that when ESO launched on Windows PC in April of 2014, the list of changes was barely halfway done.

Their work wasn’t over when the game changed its name to The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited, or when it launched on modern consoles just a few months later in June. They weren’t finished when the game abandoned its subscription model in favor of something different, or when it launched five major pieces of downloadable content in quick succession.

And the transformation of ESO won’t be truly complete until next Tuesday, on Oct. 18. That’s when the next free content update, called One Tamriel, launches on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

Only then will ESO finally achieve the goals Firor’s team set in early 2012.

To tell that tale, ZeniMax Online recently invited Polygon to its headquarters in Hunt Valley, Maryland. The story begins, like any good epic, in the middle of things.
Civil war
“Son, you’re in the wrong faction!”

Late last year, Pete Hines, vice president of public relations and marketing for ZeniMax Media’s publishing arm Bethesda Softworks was screaming at his youngest son in the next room.

He had had one job, and he’d screwed it up.

“I’ve played Elder Scrolls Online on PC and I’ve played it at home on the Xbox One,” Hines told Polygon. “One day, my youngest son asked, ‘Hey dad, can I try ESO?’ I said, ‘Yeah sure. Here ya go!’ And I loaned him my copy and set him up with an account.”

ESO is unique among MMOs in that it’s built with a single, unified server infrastructure. The entire game is hosted on what ZeniMax calls its megaservers, a proprietary system that lumps all the players more or less together in the same virtual world.

With MMOs that had come before, games like World of Warcraft and Matt Firor’s previous project, Dark Age of Camelot, player communities were separated into various shards. Each shard was a mirror image of an identical game world, and players on different shards could never interact with each other.

But players in ESO have always played in the same world and on the same megaservers, hundreds of thousands of them at one time. And yet, a year and a half after it had launched, there was still something keeping them apart.

In the fiction of ESO, the Aldmeri Dominion, the Daggerfall Covenant and the Ebonheart Pact are locked in a three-way battle for control of the continent of Tamriel. Set in a timeline hundreds of years before the events of Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim, this war is the central narrative element that drives ESO.

It’s also what kept Hines and his son from playing together.

“I told my son, ‘By the way: This is the faction that I’m in, this is my character and you should join my faction so we can play together.’

“At the time, he was 11 or 12, and of course he doesn’t listen or he didn’t remember. When he got around to playing, he joined a different faction. He and his friends had been playing and playing and playing, and one weekend he said, ‘Hey dad, we should play ESO together!’ I said, ‘Let’s go!’ And we went, and we both loaded up the game and we went to go play and I’m yelling, ‘Tyler! You’re in the wrong faction!’”

Hines said that he could have made another character to play with his son, but he had already grown attached to his character.

“It seems like such a small thing,” Hines said. “But you make these choices in the game, and you start investing all this time in a character. One of us could have started over again, but that totally defeats the purpose.

“It’s just funny that little things like that are so frustrating. Why can’t I just do this?”

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