AGDC 07: ZeniMax Online Interview with Matt Firor

A common refrain from MMO developers at the Austin Game Developers Conference was that even if they had thought of and made World of Warcraft, they wouldn’t have that many subscribers because their name isn’t Blizzard. Reputation carries a lot of weight among gamers and only a handful of companies operate in the same stratosphere as Blizzard. Thus, when Bethesda’s parent company ZeniMax Media announced a new MMO development studio had been created, it created quite the stir. We met with ZeniMax Online Studios studio head Matt Firor – formerly the Executive Producer at Mythic Entertainment – to unearth any nuggets of information he might be inclined to share.

Firor left Mythic Entertainment – now EA Mythic – when the company was purchased by Electronic Arts last summer. He went on to start his own MMO consulting company, Ultra Mega Games, and when we last saw him at GDC in the spring, didn’t seem particularly inclined to go back into development. So what changed?

“They gave me the perfect opportunity,” Firor told us of ZeniMax. He explained how his new studio has all the benefits of a start-up in terms of flexibility, hiring, location etc., but few of the drawbacks. He doesn’t need to hire a legal or human resources department, worry about funding, seek out a publisher or worry about many of the other challenges any start-up typically faces. Plus, his parent company as the developers of Fallout and Oblivion, obviously have a few intellectual properties in their back pocket.

That does not mean people should assume that their first project is Fallout or Oblivion Online. Firor made it clear from the outset that he has absolutely no comment as to what potential existing IP, if any, his studio will pursue. Believe me, we asked in every clever way we knew how. If he’s half as good at developing the game as he is not talking about it, it should be a classic.

All was not lost though, Firor did speak to us about some of the themes and principles the guide him.

“The game itself is not based on innovation, but has innovative features,” he explained. At a conference like AGDC, there are usually two armed camps of developers. Those that believe the basic MMO is doing well and needs to be built upon and refined and those that believe everyone should do everything entirely differently. Firor is clearly a member of the former camp. He’s happy to take lessons from games like EverQuest and World of Warcraft and put his own spin and innovative features into it, but he doesn’t anticipate the reinvention of the wheel.

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He also believes firmly that he is in the business of video games, not virtual worlds. Whatever he creates will be undeniably a game. The difference is a belief in a fun, directed experience, rather than a completely open world full of player created content. In short, since ZeniMax Online will create an evolutionary product, their jump off point is not Second Life.

Firor also believes firmly in smaller, close-knit development teams that work in concert. He doesn’t want a team that is so large as to be unmanageable or disconnected. This kind of thought falls directly in line with ZeniMax Media’s corporate philosophy, followed by their main studio, Bethesda Softworks, and means that while they may take a little bit longer to achieve their goals, it will be a tighter, better product for it.

Like BioWare Austin and Blizzard before them, ZeniMax Online carries with them the weight of a major RPG developer on their first foray into the MMO universe. Firor admits that with that hype comes a great amount of responsibility, but ultimately, the game has to speak for itself. Blizzard’s label may have raised World of Warcraft’s ceiling, but they still needed to produce a great project. It’s the same for them and that is one reason why we won’t hear much about the game until quite simply there is something to say.

ZeniMax Online is so early in the development process that one major part of Firor’s day-to-day job is the search for appropriate office space. There are five people on the development team, currently working at temporary office space in Hunt Valley, and they made the announcement of the studio’s founding largely to facilitate recruitment.

“Please email me and send me your resume,” was Firor’s core message at the show. He hopes anyone interested will give him a shout through the company’s job website.

The new studio will be located in Hunt Valley, Maryland, a sometimes forgotten hotbed of game development. Once the home of Microprose, the area now has companies like Big Huge Games, Firaxis, BreakAway Games and Day 1 Studios. Bethesda Softworks and EA Mythic are also nearby, And, unlike the Silicon Valley, the cost of living is also relatively sane.

This is the second go at it for Matt Firor, one of the founders of Mythic Entertainment. There he contributed to a successful company, now one of the biggest MMO operations on the planet, but at the time on a shoestring budget. With a little more leeway, Firor believes he can apply the lessons of what a small, focused team can accomplish and apply it to a larger, modern game.

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