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Building a $2bn online game by breaking the rules

Ask anyone to name a successful online multiplayer game and you’re likely to get a handful of names in response.

Fortnite, Call of Duty, League of Legends, Roblox, Helldivers II.

But there’s another title, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, that’s been a relatively quiet success.

The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO), a spin-off of the hugely popular fantasy RPG series from Fallout makers Bethesda, has been played by 24 million people and made $2bn since it launched.

Developer Zenimax Online Studios began work on the game in 2007 following the huge success of single-player game The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion two years earlier.

At the time, massively multiplayer online role-playing games, or MMORPGs, were all the rage, with World of Warcraft, Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot attracting millions of players.

So an Elder Scrolls take on the genre seemed, on paper, like a sure-fire hit to many.

But the game didn’t meet expectations when it was first released.

Creative director Rich Lambert and studio director Matt Firor tell BBC Newsbeat the first version of ESO failed to fully land with either Elders Scrolls fans or MMORPG players raised on those titles.

“We didn’t really pick a lane,” says Rich.

“We tried to appeal to both, and we didn’t particularly meet either of their needs as much as those groups wanted.”

MMORPGs are, traditionally, all about levelling up your character by performing quests and other tasks to gain experience and unlock new areas.

This was a big feature of early ESO versions, and Rich says it made it harder for friends to play together.

“That causes this friction, this really painful thing for you and your friends where you have to always be kind of in lockstep,” he says.

Although the initial reception of the game was below expectations, Matt says it was successful enough to attract a “hardcore group” of players that logged in daily.

Matt says this spurred the team on, but also revealed something surprising.

“They were questing and exploring,” he says.

“But they also did lots of things that I called virtual world activities. They got together and chatted, they danced and played drums and musical instruments.

“Players, even back then, spent a lot of time just living in the game with a virtual character.”

Matt says this observation made the team realise that what players really wanted was “an Elder Scrolls virtual world where they can establish an identity and go from there”.

Today, ESO includes standard story quests and battle arenas but some players will spend most of their time doing various side activities including housebuilding, a card game and a detailed fashion mode.

“We have a whole in-game economy of players that are home decorators,” says Matt.

But the decision to make this pivot was divisive within the studio, which employed a lot of “old-school MMO developers”, according to Matt.

“There were a lot of meetings and a lot of whiteboards,” he says.

“I made the statement in a meeting that I wanted ESO to be more like Grand Theft Auto.

“Does anybody care what level they are in Grand Theft Auto? No, they just log in and play. And that we need to copy that feeling.

“Looking back, it was the right decision. But it wasn’t an easy decision.”

Rich adds: “Honestly, it wasn’t up until people actually got to play it, that they started to really understand where the magic was.

“But those those first few months were challenges within the studio, for sure.”