The Elder Scrolls Online seven years in: How it evolved into a hit that rivals World of Warcraft

Few gaming franchises are bigger than The Elder Scrolls.

The fantasy role-playing series kicked off in 1994 and has sold more than 58 million copies since then.

Beyond the numbers, the influence of this franchise and the depth of the lore of its world are without compare.

But when The Elder Scrolls Online launched in 2014 as a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), it wasn't immediately the rousing success fans nor publisher Bethesda wanted it to be.

Now, seven years later, the game's director Matt Firor reckons it's a better time than ever to jump in.

"We don't have leveling in the traditional sense, so you haven't missed anything if you haven't played it yet. You can start the game right now and literally do any content you want," he tells Newshub.

"You don't have to grind through the seven years of stuff we've done already just to get to the good stuff, you can do it all straight away. That is pretty transformational if you're not used to that style of gameplay."

When The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) launched, players had to pay for the game up-front and then pay a premium subscription fee to keep playing it.

That was scrapped after a year in favour of a free subscription model supported by microtransactions. But that wasn't the biggest change.

"It took us seven years to make ESO and the gaming industry changed a lot between 2007 and 2014. So although we set things up great, we also made a lot of mistakes along the way," says Firor.

"The way that fans reacted the most when the game first came out was 'Hey this is a great online game but it doesn't really feel like an Elder Scrolls game'. So we focused on that for the next two years, essentially, trying to make it feel more epic and more like an Elder Scrolls game.

"We ended up in 2016 with One Tamriel, which was where we made it so player levels didn't matter to grouping - so a level 5 player and a level 50 player can group together and do the same adventures and still have fun."

The Elder Scrolls Online 2021 screenshot.
Photo credit: ZeniMax Online Studios

To someone who doesn't play this sort of game, that might not sound like a big change - but it's a fundamental one. What helped inspire Firor in making it was another huge multiplayer game still beloved and played daily by millions around the world - but one with nary an elf or wizard to be seen.

"My statement to the designers was: 'Does anyone care what level they are in Grand Theft Auto Online? No, you just jump in and have fun.' We got rid of the punitive levelling system and restricting where players could go based on their level," he says.

"Guilds could recruit new players and play with them immediately. Fans can get their friends in and play with them from day one without having to re-roll their own characters - that was huge, we're still one of the only fantasy online games that do this. It was the best decision we ever made."

That shift in the game didn't just make ESO feel more like a traditional Elder Scrolls game, it also differentiated it further from the other enormous fantasy MMORPG everyone talks about - World of Warcraft (WoW).

But Firor says ESO always intended to be different from WoW.

"I've played a ton of WoW and it's a great game too. But we took the other approach - we wanted to make a good RPG, you could play with friends, you could play hardcore MMO style or you could play by just questing and story-style," says Firor.

"We intentionally didn't refer to ESO as an MMO, but rather as an online roleplaying game. I know that sounds just technical, but that was our way of telling the team we're not copying anyone, we're our own thing - a roleplaying game like Skyrim, but it's online.

The Elder Scrolls Online director Matt Firor.
Matt Firor. Photo credit: Bethesda

"That's why we don't have tab-target, you can just walk up to monsters and swing your sword at them. You can fire your bow and arrow just like you do in Skyrim, you don't have to target anyone. It's basically who you're aimed at is who you're going to hit," continues Firor. 

"We only have five skills on our button bar, because we didn't want to overwhelm Elder Scrolls players with too many options like WoW does, where you have an immensely complex HUD depending on what you're doing."

The Elder Scrolls franchise is very deep. The main single player games told increasingly ambitious stories in increasingly vast gameworlds, with the last main one - 2011's The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - taking a completionist around 229 hours to clock, according to

There's so much lore players have spent untold hours exploring and studying for decades, it's only natural they want to show that off in ESO.

"We have our own community culture, but we also have the Elder Scrolls culture that comes with the IP. That can be really weird at times, in a good way," says Firor.

"Players lean into some of the more esoteric parts of the lore, like what differentiates the Khajiit from the Argonians from the Dunmer. Players love to play-act those, talk in funny voices and such. It's wonderful to see."

Over the seven years since its launch, a great deal of new content has been added to ESO.

But the real world has changed a great deal over that time, too.

When the COVID-19 pandemic set in last year, games like ESO saw big increases in player numbers. It makes sense - you're locked in your house, the real world is scary, so why not adventure off in a different one?

The Elder Scrolls Online 2021 screenshot.
Photo credit: ZeniMax Online Studios

"I'm especially proud that we're giving people a safe harbour from the everyday world with this virtual world," says Firor. 

"I think it's because when the real world gets crazy and chaotic, you want to go somewhere where you know what the rules are, you can do what you want and not worry about depressing news.

"That's the great thing about creating virtual worlds like ESO, it gives people an alternate existence they can go and lose themselves in. In times like the pandemic, that's something that is very, very useful for a lot of people's mental health."

Firor says players have been doing thins a bit differently during the pandemic, too. Many are spending a lot more time building and decorating their in-game houses - as well as partying.

"People have been throwing impromptu dance parties in game. They gather in a town around a wayshrine, they strip down or put on party clothes that are all dyed super colorfully, then they cast spells so there's lots of sparkly effects, then they just play music and dance." 

In June, a whole army of new players will have ESO available to them when The Elder Scrolls Online: Console Enhanced is launched for the Xbox Series X and S, along with the PlayStation 5.

The Elder Scrolls Online 2021 screenshot.
Photo credit: ZeniMax Online Studios

That's going to mean playing on console at 60fps with increased draw distance, high resolution textures optimised for large TV screens, improved antialiasing and more.

"Both Sony and Microsoft approach their current generation consoles in a way that allows us to really leverage our PC code to really make it look good," says Firor.

"When you play ESO on Series X, it feels as good or better than our best PC version. With PC there's always going to be a little bit of wiggle room because you have to support 58 different graphics cards, a bunch of different features because you're not quite sure what the environment the PC is on is.

"On console you can custom code everything directly for the platform, so we take advantage of that and it's ended up looking and feeling really breathtaking."

People who have only played Elder Scrolls games on consoles and never gotten into ESO will definitely think of the franchise as a single player-based set of experiences.

While there is a lot of multiplayer stuff to do in ESO, there's also more to do alone than in any other Elder Scrolls release to date, if you want.

"You can play the game single player. You can't do some of the group-based trials which are like 12 person, super hardcore content, or some of the more hardcore dungeons in veteran mode. But if you want to play it like an Elder Scrolls single player game you can absolutely do that - all the quests, all the stories, all the content we come out with every year except for a very small fraction," says Firor. 

The Elder Scrolls Online 2021 screenshot.
Photo credit: ZeniMax Online Studios

"We did that on purpose, as we know that a large percentage of the base fans of Elder Scrolls comes from that single player world so we wanted to make sure they felt at home."

Indeed, it makes business sense for the game to appeal to all the customers of the franchise's previous releases. And as many other people as possible, too.

"If you ask five ESO players what the game is they'll give you five different answers," says Firor.

"One is a single player gamer who never talks to other players, one is a person who just bakes food for their guild, one is a PvP player who never plays the PvE content they just fight other players, one will just run co-op dungeons and play it like a four-player co-op game. 

"They're all valid ways to play it. It's a giant virtual world so we have lots of different activities for people to experience in it. "

This year, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion marks its 15th birthday. To celebrate, ESO is bringing in 'Gates of Oblivion', including a massive Blackwood expansion offering around 30 hours of new story content, a new zone, a companion system and more.

That's out in June alongside the Console Enhanced release and will give players a mighty Daedric Prince to go up against.

But it'll also offer a whole lot of new opportunities for players to build and decorate a house, bake a bunch of food for their mates or throw a dance party.