Interview: Matt Firor on ZeniMax Online, MMO Design Philosophy

The opening of a new MMO development studio is not something which occurs every day… as long as you aren’t counting Korea. The opening of a new MMO development studio headed by someone who’s been in the industry longer than a good deal of the genre’s playerbase has even been alive is rarer still.

So, when the opportunity to interview Matt Firor about his new position as head of ZeniMax Online came across my desk, I accepted the assignment eagerly.

Naturally, I wanted to learn all that I possibly could about what they had lined up for the studio’s debut project, and I had no shortage of questions:

Will it be Sci-Fi or Fantasy? Evolutionary design or revolutionary? Hardcore or casual appeal? And what about player created content, something for which Bethesda is rightly famous for?

Unfortunately, almost immediately after I began my research for the piece, I was informed that he would not discuss any specifics regarding future plans, and that my areas of inquiry were limited to “the industry, trends, his background, etc.”

At this point I was a bit confused… why was he agreeing to interviews if he did not want (or was unable) to discuss the most readily apparent interview subject?

But, the more I thought about it, the more I began to see it as a golden opportunity. It’s not often that you find someone with his degree of experience who doesn’t want to talk about what they’re doing.

And, in the due course of our discussion, I was sure I could engage in some roundabout ways of ascertaining the sort of game he’d like to make…

The MMO Gamer: Let’s get the ball rolling with my standard interview starter: For those among our readers who may be unfamiliar, tell us a little bit about yourself, and what it is you’ll be doing as the new head of ZeniMax Online Studios.

Matt Firor: My name is Matt Firor and I’ve been making online/multiplayer games for a long time—about twenty years. I’m best known for being the Producer of Dark Age of Camelot—I was a founder of Mythic Entertainment and was there for almost eleven years. As head of ZeniMax Online, I’ll be in charge of designing and developing MMOs.

The MMO Gamer: With those nearly twenty years in the industry you could have written your own ticket into almost any studio on the face of the Earth, or gotten the funding to start a new one of your own—which wouldn’t have been the first time.

Why ZeniMax Online?

Matt Firor: Well, they made me the best offer I could possibly want. Getting funding yourself and setting up a studio is not as easy – or as fun – as you would think. With ZeniMax, I have a corporate structure already, with all the services that go with it, so I can concentrate on getting my team together and making a great game.

The MMO Gamer: For something that isn’t easy or fun, the industry—and the MMO genre in particular—seems to be rife with examples of it. From Raph Koster and Anthony Castoro, to Brad McQuaid and Jeff Butler… even Trip Hawkins left EA behind.

I know that you can only speak from your own personal experiences, but I wonder if you could extrapolate those into some sense of what drives a man to walk away from a company that in many cases he himself helped build from the ground up to start out fresh all over again.

Matt Firor: Well, I was at Mythic for almost 11 years, and it was just time to leave. With the EA acquisition, it was a perfect segue, so I left then. It was hard to leave the company that I’d been with so long, and had such success with (with Dark Age of Camelot, etc.). However, there comes a time when you want to strike out on your own, and this was the perfect time to cut ties and leave.

The MMO Gamer: Unless I’ve completely misread your biography, it would seem that you and I both got our online gaming start in MUDs.

Matt Firor: Yes, although I didn’t really know about MUDs when I started working on my first games. They were text-based online roleplaying games, but we wrote them ourselves from the ground up – never having heard of mainframe-based MUDs. We found out about them later. Kind of like reinventing the wheel, when you think about it.

The MMO Gamer: Fair enough. MMOs obviously owe a great deal to MUDs and other text-based RPGs—some would say they owe a bit too much, as when the creators of Diku accused EverQuest of plagiarism—but, if you could select one feature or concept from the games of yesteryear that got lost in the transition to MMOs, and bring it forward into a game today, what would it be?

Matt Firor: With MUDs—and all text-base game formats—you could be wildly creative, for it is much easier to describe a landscape/area/situation than it is to draw it. This is the same reason why books can always be more creative than movies, for the simple reason that you can describe something in words that is very difficult to portray in pictures.

So, in the transition to visual-based online games, we had to scale back the creativity a bit for the simple reason that we had to visually portray the player’s surroundings instead of write about them.

The MMO Gamer: So aside from the general loss of creative freedom, there is no definitive concept or feature that you could point to and say, “I wish that would make its way into an MMO”?

Matt Firor: MMOs are about entertainment. If they entertain their audience then they have done their job – any feature or concept that leads towards this end is required. I know this is a roundabout way of answering the question, but sometimes I think the forest of “MMO fun” is lost in the trees of “must have” features that most players don’t care about anyway.

The MMO Gamer: Personally, I’d like to see a return of some form of Online Creation; giving MMO players robust development tools, and the freedom to use them to produce new content and experiences for each other. Your new sister company, Bethesda Softworks, is already quite famous for this in the single player world with The Elder Scrolls Construction Set.

As a developer, what is your stance on player created content? And, do you see it ever becoming viable in a mass-market “game” MMO, as opposed to being relegated to niche titles, or “virtual worlds” such as Second Life?

Matt Firor: That is a great point. I always say that there are two major forms of online entertainment right now: online games and online worlds. They are two separate beasts that happen to share similar technology – but they are NOT the same.

Second Life is a virtual world. It is not a game. It can have games in it, but its main purpose is not game-related. World of Warcraft is a game. Everything in it relates to the game – the world design, the races, the art style, etc.

People tend to get these two things confused and wonder why WoW doesn’t allow the same sorts of user-created content that Second Life does – the simple answer is that it would make it a far less compelling game.

The MMO Gamer: Is that indicative that we can put you down on the “averse to player created content” list? Do you believe there is any way to reconcile player created content within a game-type MMO, without the game itself becoming less compelling in the process?

Matt Firor: This is the crux of the question – we need to find ways to let the player “make” content without ruining the game experience for everyone else.

One answer is to find game systems that allow the player to experiment with different tactics without needing a developer to script out encounters. A PvP system would be an example of this. So yes, there are things you can do, but allowing players to create their own encounters in a AAA MMO is not a good idea, as the potential for ruining others’ play experience is just too great.

The MMO Gamer: Shifting gears a bit… John Smedley recently gave an interview to The New York Times in which he mentioned that Sony Online Entertainment is creating an MMO marketed towards children, particularly young girls.

What do you think the overall implications of this are? Should we really be trying to involve children in what is arguably a very addictive genre? And, is this the beginning of a new strategy of “get ‘em while they’re young,” or simply a company going where the money is?

Matt Firor: Kids are being marketed to in a huge extent these days, so I’m sure anything that SOE is thinking about pales in comparison to say, Disney.

Kids are already being introduced to online worlds – just look at WebKinz, where you can buy a stuffed animal for your child, who can then log on and see the animal in real 3D in a world and play with it.

So, I think SOE is just moving with the others in this regard, and it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

The MMO Gamer: On a tenuously related subject to an MMO marketed towards children, I’d like to hear your take on the quote-unquote “dumbing down” of MMOs.

Everyone has their own particular definition of what that phrase means, but, to me, it’s the steady erosion of the launch feature base (and thereby overall complexity) in the genre with each subsequent release.

You said earlier that you believe that the concept of “MMO fun” has been obscured by features that most players don’t care about anyway–but, how do you know when you’ve crossed the line from “cutting a few unnecessary features” to cutting ones that are selling the game?

Matt Firor: The market will answer that one for you. The best solution is to have a game big enough to allow different playing dynamics for different players.

That way a game can be both casual, if played one way, and hardcore, if played another. So “dumbing down” doesn’t mean much to me, as it is usually a pejorative hurled at games by groups of hardcore players who represent a very small percentage of the market.

If you have a good game design, it’s a good game design. Stick to it.

The MMO Gamer: Coincidently enough, you just invoked the subject of my next question.

Gameplay and design are, of course, only half of the equation. We also have to consider the other half, without which there wouldn’t be much of a game: The players themselves.

It seems to me that the average MMO has more schisms in its playerbase than all the world’s religions combined, but, two groups in particular stand out in nearly every dispute: the so-called “Casual vs. Hardcore.”

Few words can evoke such virulent hatred among men as those two can among MMO players. What do you, as the person developing the games which the arguments are derived from, think of that whole debate?

Matt Firor: I’m not very happy with the label system of “hardcore” and “casual” anyway – after all it was possible to play EverQuest casually (as I did, never attaining max level) and still have a great time.

Hardcore/Casual to me is the way that a game is played, not descriptive of the game itself. You can play Tetris obsessively for hours a day, making you a hardcore player of a “casual” game. On the other hand, you can also play WoW one or two hours a week, if you want. So, to me, hardcore/casual describes a playing style, not a genre.

The MMO Gamer: Indeed, the playing style was what I was referring to.

Specifically, the arguments among adherents of one particular play style or another accusing favoritism among developers towards the opposite play style.

Recently, someone even asked me to include a question in my next interview about why developers seem to focus on casual at one end of the spectrum, or hardcore at the other, while leaving out the “middlecore,” who he seemed to feel were the true majority, lost in all of the hubbub.

Can any MMO ever hope to be all things to all men? Should any even try?

Matt Firor: Again, I see “hardcore” and “casual” as the amount of effort you want to put into playing a game. If you’re playing 80 hours a week on Yahoo Games, you’re still being hardcore, even if you’re only playing bridge. If you’re talking about games like World of Warcraft, you can certainly play it casually (as I do) or hardcore (like when you’re a member of a raiding guild).

As to your question directly, I think that if both casual and hardcore gamers are playing your game in large numbers – even if they are complaining about it – then you are on to something. The casual market is going to be far larger than the hardcore, but it is the hardcore group that evangelizes for you and makes the core of your community, so you have to appeal to both.

The MMO Gamer: This next question pertains to a larger issue with gaming in general, but I’d like for us to focus it on the MMO genre.

An ever-increasing number of MMOs are being released these days, yet there doesn’t seem to be a corresponding increase in innovative gameplay, or original design concepts to go along with them. Rather, most new games seem to be nearly carbon copies of whatever happened to be at the top of the sales charts when development began.

I was pressing hotkey 1 to kill rats in 1999, and I was still pressing hotkey 1 to kill slightly better looking rats in 2007.

With development costs in the tens of millions, team sizes rising from the dozens into the hundreds, and investors wary of betting on all but a sure thing, what do you think it’s going to take to break this trend?

Matt Firor: Arguably, I have a problem with the premise of your question. I was killing rats in Ultima II in 1982 and I killed rats in Wizardry VII in 1989, in Fallout in 1997, in Baldur’s Gate in 1999, and in Oblivion in 2006.

These games (all single user RPGs) are quite different in terms of story and background, and overall gameplay. It’s like saying books are all the same because they are all comprised of words and pictures. It’s the story and experiences that matter, not the form.

MMOs are stories, experiences – not just combat systems. You are focusing on the mechanics, not the story being told. In 1999 in EQ, you were killing rats while learning about the history of Freeport, probably considering a trip down to the Desert of Ro, avoiding D’vinn, and wondering what all the buried pyramids were. In 2006 you were killing “rats” in WoW while exploring the area around Ogrimmar, anticipating your first Zeppelin ride, and finding out that the Barrens are not so barren. Completely different characters, different settings, quests – and most of all, stories.

The MMO Gamer: While as a writer I can agree with your sentiment that story and background should play a larger role in MMOs than mechanics, as a player I rarely see things working out that way.

To most MMO players I know, story is at best a tertiary concern, after mechanics, gameplay, and, for some, graphics. Quests are generally the primary method of disseminating lore (and thereby the story) in an MMO, yet it’s hard to find interesting and engaging quest text when an NPC is just telling you to kill ten rats, or collect a dozen boar hides. As a result, many simply skip it.

Looking at it from that point of view, if every book written in the past ten years was about a guy with a quest to kill ten rats, would anyone still be reading them?

Matt Firor: I would humbly opine that the people you talk to are playing the game to dominate, not for entertainment. If your primary interest in a game is how the systems work, then you are squarely in the mainstream of hardcore gamers – but not in the majority of gamers as a whole. Far more people play the game just because they like being in the world, exploring it, and enjoying the fruits of going up in level more than sheer dominance.

This group is not vocal, doesn’t get involved in message board forums or talk to reporters; they just log in, have fun, and log off – hence they are underreported. If you look at the size of the community that is posting on message boards about mechanics, etc. and compare that to the size of the user base in general, you’ll see that it is a very, very small percentage.

The MMO Gamer: On the background side of things, to what do you attribute the overwhelming prevalence of fantasy themed games in the genre?

Matt Firor: Fantasy is a well known property in and of itself. With Sci-Fi and other genres, you have to educate the user on some basics before they enter the world – what type of technology is available, movement, what the races are, etc.

With fantasy, this information is instantly known – for the most part – up front. Gamers know when they pick up a new fantasy MMO that it will be semi-medieval, will have magic and swords, and probably will have elves.

It’s a well known, understood genre, and that means people feel comfortable with it right off the bat.

The MMO Gamer: Comfort and familiarity with the setting are decidedly selling points, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

Going back to my book analogy, I know a great deal of people who enjoy a good fantasy novel, myself included, but it’s very rare to meet someone who reads fantasy novels to the exclusion of all other genres.

Do you believe the market may be nearing saturation?

Matt Firor: There are plenty of other genres out there, if you include non-MMOGs. And for this, I can talk about my tastes, personally – if I want to do Sci-Fi, I play BioShock, or Halo, or any other of a number of shooters, RTSs, etc.

But, when I want to experience an online world, there’s just something inherently comfortable about fantasy/medieval. When you tell your kids bedtime stories, they usually don’t involve giant robots and stun rays; instead they revolve around Knights, magic, evil witches, and other such fantasy elements.

There’s a reason for that: We have a couple of thousand years of telling stories that involve fantasy elements, which makes it just right for an online world game setting. It’s the right mix of comfort for the players (by knowing basically what the genre is going to be) and the unknown (exploring a new world).

The MMO Gamer: I’m going to be tarred and feathered by an angry mob if I don’t at least try to get one question pertaining to ZeniMax Online in. I know that you can’t delve into specifics, but let’s try some generalities:

Both ZeniMax Online and Bethesda Softworks are owned by the same parent company, ZeniMax Media. Hypothetically speaking, if ZeniMax Online were so inclined at some point in the future, would you have the ability to create an MMO based on one of Bethesda’s IPs… for instance, the Elder Scrolls universe?

Matt Firor: We’re in the formative stages of getting the team up and running, and we’re just not ready to talk about specific game ideas or settings yet, even hypothetically.

The MMO Gamer: Alright, no hypotheticals, let’s stick to the real basics: Will ZeniMax Online be up to the challenge of producing something gamers have never experienced before?

Matt Firor: Sure. I wouldn’t be in this position if I wasn’t ready to give something new to gamers. But our philosophy is to incrementally build on what gamers expect – to ease them into the game, make it feel comfortable, etc. before introducing too many new concepts to them. Introducing too many new concepts too quickly is a great way to drive your user base away before they get accustomed to the game.

The MMO Gamer: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us, and we look forward to continuing the conversation once ZeniMax Online gets closer to announcing its first project.


  1. Apache99 says:

    Excellent interview and a good read. Good job Steve.


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