Studio Director’s Letter: 2020 Retrospective

23/12/2020

Read a letter from ZeniMax Online Studio’s Director, Matt Firor, on The Elder Scrolls Online’s challenges and triumphs in 2020.


Greetings ESO Community! Well, we've done it—we’ve made it (almost, as I type this; don't want to jinx it) to the end of 2020. All of us at ZeniMax Online Studios have been working from home since March—a huge change for us. We've managed to ride out the year (mostly) safely and have overcome the difficulties posed by the entire team working remotely. We are very fortunate—and thankful—to have been able to make the transition to working from home and emerged at the end of 2020 with our jobs and health intact.

This was a year of contrasts for The Elder Scrolls Online. The number of players joining the game, playing more often, and playing longer increased to a point we’ve seen only once before—in 2015 just after console launch. Our year-long story arc with its focus on Western Skyrim and vampires certainly helped, but so did a combination of other factors including the excitement generated by our first-ever live announce show in Las Vegas last January, a tease of what was coming last December at The Game Awards, and of course, the pandemic. However, we also experienced game instability, far too many bugs, and very rough update launches.

We can't talk about ESO and 2020 without talking about the pandemic. Having much of the world shut down led to huge changes in player behavior in the game: far longer play sessions and far more people playing. We are very much aware that ESO is an escape for many of you even in the best of times, but during the many months where the outside world went awry, ESO became a refuge—a place to escape the reality of our not-so-awesome situations for at least a few hours at a time. Engagement in our housing system spiked, as many of you virtually nested—so it wasn't just about the number of you playing, it was how you changed and adapted during the pandemic. We are very humbled by the amazing outpouring of thanks from the community for helping you through a very trying time, and we will endeavor to continue being your safe port in the storm.

Things were not always so rosy for the ESO dev team, though. We kept our aggressive development schedule that, in hindsight, might not have been the right strategy. A combination of the normal ESO content cycle, investigating/fixing long-standing issues, optimizations to improve performance on lower-power devices (also fewer blue-screen errors), and the lack of team (both dev and QA) cohesion brought on by work from home led to a poor experience in many cases for you. The short version is that we kept up our usual frenetic pace, but didn't allow for the realities of working remotely. Each of our four Update launches were marred by errors and problems of various types. Patches to fix those issues sometimes led to more problems. Obviously, this is unacceptable, and we will be addressing this as a team throughout 2021.

You already know that the 2021 story arc is called Gates of Oblivion, and I'll leave it up to our reveal show next month to go into the specifics—but I want to highlight that in 2021 we will devote more time overall to stability and game performance and less time to new game systems (with our standard content updates continuing unchanged). We will still be working from home for the foreseeable future, and I want to ensure that our 2021 updates and patches are smooth and the player experience is enjoyable. This is an ongoing process—and remember that we are usually working on updates six months or more before they launch, so when we started WFH in March, we were already working on Q3 and Q4 content, which led to the issues outlined above. We now have planned for the team working remotely for roughly the first half of 2021, so the "introduce fewer new systems" program will continue throughout 2021.

I want to give a special shoutout to everyone at ZeniMax Online—all of you in the community should know how awesome the ESO team is. It was a very, very difficult year for us, and the team made it through with a combination of humor (sometimes very dark), hard work, and perseverance. We could never have held together as a team during this year without the many years of teamwork behind us and respect that we have for one another. Even though we were stressed sometimes to the breaking point, we made it through because it is what we do.

And of course, in closing: please know that everything we do on ESO is for you, the community. Even if we occasionally fall short, we are working diligently to provide you with the fantasy virtual world that you love. Your passion for the game is truly amazing and keeps us going through the dark times. 

Thank you all, have a safe and peaceful holiday, and we will see you in 2021.

Matt

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