Interview: ZeniMax Online's Matt Firor

Earlier this month, Mythic co-founder Matt Firor was named as the new leader of ZeniMax Online Studios. ZeniMax--the parent company of Elder Scrolls and Fallout 3 developer Bethesda--is charging Firor with putting together a team that can compete in the MMO market. Not an easy task, but one that Firor is particularly suited to.

Having worked on MMOs years before they became both graphical and wildly popular, Firor is perhaps best known for his work in the role of producer on Mythic's Dark Age of Camelot. I questioned the man about his distant past, his time at Mythic, and his feelings on the current state of the genre.

Shack: In the late 1980s you founded Interesting Systems Inc. with Rob Denton. What's the story behind that?

Matt Firor: Now that's going back in time. Basically Rob and I met on a multi-user game that was running in the Washington, DC area in the early 1980's called Scepter of Goth. With some other friends we decided to license Scepter and install it in Atlanta. This failed because we were young and naive, but this failure led to the formation of Interesting Systems a few years later where Rob and I (and two others) developed Tempest, the text-based multi-user role-playing game that we ran for a few years in the DC area.

Shack: Tell me about the MUD-style game Tempest/Darkness Falls. How expansive was the world? How many users did it support? Also, I read that it actually provided the code base for Dark Age of Camelot?

Matt Firor: Tempest--renamed Darkness Falls in 1993--was Interesting Systems' first and only title. It was a text-based multi-user role-playing game based in an original fantasy world. It was a huge world that was developed over a couple of years--I think we were up to 10,000 unique "rooms," as areas were described back in those days. After we merged with AUSI and became Mythic we resurrected Darkness Falls, made it a three-realm conflict game, and introduced many of the concepts that were later used in Dark Age of Camelot. And yes, Darkness Falls served as the server codebase for Camelot, just like [the first-person shooter] Spellbinder served as the client codebase.

Shack: How did the formation of Mythic come about?

Matt Firor: After a certain point, we had to make a decision to keep our day jobs, and as I was very successful in the job that I had, I decided to leave Interesting Systems and concentrate on my fascinating IT programming career. Soon after, Rob learned that our lawyer had a partner, Mark Jacobs, who was representing another DC-area game developer, AUSI, and brought the two together. Mark had just landed some contracts and needed help fulfilling them, and Rob/ISI was available. So, the two merged, and I was brought back on board as one of the earliest employees to start work on the game that later became Splatterball, a fun, kids-oriented first-person shooter.

Shack: A relatively small team worked on Dark Age of Camelot. Is that an experience you'd like to emulate again, or is the reality that an MMO needs a large team and budget to compete in this market?

Matt Firor: I don't think anyone's going to make a game as big as Camelot with as small a team as we had--27 when we launched. That being said, I'm a firm believer that given unlimited time, the fewer people that work on a game, the better the game will be. Of course in a real world we don't have unlimited time, but I now try to set up my projects to have as long a dev period as possible with a relatively small team--especially in the early days of the project.

Shack: A lot of people are still very fond of DAoC's player vs. player combat. What is it about that gameplay that really took hold of people?

Matt Firor: It was the first major system in an MMO that was open-ended and ever-changing. Other games had epic raiding and other encounters, but this was the first time you could go out to the frontiers and battle other players in a meaningful battle over territory--and every time you did it, it was a different mix of players, classes and location.

Shack: Online games are deceptive in that they are not totally persistent. Does the idea that DAoC might eventually be shut down for good bother you? Should there be an MMO museum?

Matt Firor: Yes, I'll be sad when or if Camelot shuts down. As for an MMO museum, I'm not sure, but hopefully there will be at least one server with Camelot running on it somewhere for a long time.

Shack: If you had been a lead designer on World of Warcraft, what would you have changed and/or added to the game? How does your design philosophy differ from Blizzard's, if at all?

Matt Firor: Hmmm. Tough question. I think this is what most MMO developers are thinking about these days, but the simple answer is that any MMO starting development today isn't going to have to worry too much about competing with WoW--it'll be in its decline by the time any new game launches. It's the games that haven't launched yet--that may be even unknown right now--that keep me up at night.

Turn the page for Firor's opinion on gold farming, content expansions, price points, and NPCs. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: What is your opinion on gold farming in MMOs? Good thing? Bad thing? Can it be taken out of a game from a design standpoint, or will it always be an issue?

Matt Firor: You can take care of "gold farming" and make it not an issue, but it'll just rear up again in another form somewhere else in your game. I think you have to police it as well as you can, but understand that it's going to happen and try to minimize its effect on the playerbase.

Shack: How often is your preference for content updates with MMOs? Do you like games that attempt a constant stream of content, or are you more of yearly-expansion fan?

Matt Firor: A good mix of both. If you do your job right, you'll be adding in some content on a monthly or bi-monthly basis, and then a retail expansion every 18 months or so.

Shack: Pricing models: Are you happy with the common $10-15 per month subscription fees, or do you want to see some more experimentation?

Matt Firor: I think the market is comfortable with that price range, but I wouldn't be surprised to see games launch with a $20/month subscription for more advanced services, [with] more characters allowed, etc.

Shack: At the recent Develop Conference, Richard Garriott made some comments regarding the under-usage of NPCs in the genre, saying: "NPCs are largely ignored in MMOGs. This reduces overall immersion." What is your take on that?

Matt Firor: I don't like to speak for others, but if he's talking about the fact that NPCs in most MMOs just stand around and act as quest or skill terminals, then I understand what he's talking about. Initially, we had wandering NPCs in Camelot that frustrated the heck out of players because they never knew exactly where the NPC was going to be--so we had to make them stationary. Sometimes "cool design" and "playability" clash, and you always have to err on the side of playability.

Shack: Garriott also criticized the process of "grinding" out levels. Do you think that's always going to be an element of MMO gaming, or can developers find a way to get around it?

Matt Firor: All games are a grind to some extent. Do you talk about a rhythm game like Elite Beat Agents and complain that you're "grinding" out a song? Or "grinding" out a match in FIFA Soccer? Of course not. Leveling via combat and quests are the core gameplay of many MMOs--it's what gives you a sense of purpose and an incentive to reach the next level, next skill, etc. Where the "grind" in MMOs comes from is when the developer adds too much time between player attainment plateaus. Obviously everyone wants to be max level at the beginning of the game, but it wouldn't be a game if you let them do it. So you build in levels and quests and attainment plateaus. If you do it right, it doesn't feel like a grind. If you make it overly punitive, it becomes one.

Shack: I know you're not ready to announce anything about upcoming projects, but what are some general ideas you've been kicking around that you'd like to implement in an MMO?

Matt Firor: Ha! Nice try. Seriously, I'll talk more about specific ideas when we are ready to start talking about the game ideas we're thinking about.

Shack: Do you have any interest in exploring online games outside of the MMORPG genre?

Matt Firor: I play lots of games that aren't MMOs. Right now I'm playing Wii Sports--my tennis skill is almost to 1000, but I don't consider it grinding to get there! FIFA Soccer is one of my all time favorites and has been for years.