After churning in the rumour mill for years on end, Bethesda finally confirmed that a massively multiplayer online version of Elder Scrolls was in the work last year. And it's a hefty undertaking, combining the expansive, freeform exploration the series is known for with the social aspects of the genre. We chat with game director Matt Firor about the upcoming beta, first person controls, how the team put multiplayer elements into Elder Scrolls and the realm of Skyrim. How has The Elder Scrolls Online changed since it was revealed last year? "We are constantly refining ESO, polishing, and responding to feedback - currently with internal playtest feedback and soon with beta testing. "So in that sense, it has changed a bit since April 2012 - we've done a lot of work refining the controls, making sure combat is fluid, responsive and balanced, etc. "We've also reproportioned some of our NPC (non-playing character) and player figures, and retextured and tweaked some of our structures and buildings. "Still, the basics haven't changed: Elder Scrolls combat and content in a MMO with a minimalist interface and awesome visuals." During the beta announcement, it was said that "invaluable feedback" would be received. What sort of data are you hoping to receive that you couldn't get otherwise? "I know it's sometimes hard for gamers to think about it this way, but the "game" part of The Elder Scrolls Online (and any online game) is just half of the development effort. "There's also the giant IT project that goes on alongside it - you need a place to sign up for accounts, maintain your account, security considerations, network traffic shaping and tons more. "When you go into a beta test, you are not only testing the game systems, you are also testing - in some cases for the first time - external user access to the game. "So, not only are we getting invaluable data on player behaviour, bug reports and direct feedback on the game - we are also making sure that the systems underlying the game support our user base." What does setting The Elder Scrolls Online hundreds of years before Oblivion and Skyrim allow you to do? "It allows us to be able to tell stories about a time that is not well documented in lore, but what is known is very useful - mid 2nd era is known basically as a time of destabilization, lack of central control in Tamriel and lots of outside influences causing problems (invasions, pandemics, etc). "It's a perfect setting for The Elder Scrolls Online. It has the familiar provinces and races, but a different cast of characters and stories. "Also, it gives the player another era of Tamriel to explore, a time that is a little more unsettled than the Tamriel that they are used to in the other Elder Scrolls games." How do you balance creating an experience that's familiar to both MMO players and fans of the single-player Elder Scrolls games? "First on the list is to make a good game - very easy to say, very hard to do. If you totally concentrate on features, you can miss the overall goal that they all have to fit together in a fun, compelling way. "That being said, we have taken the best of the Elder Scrolls - freedom to explore, mouse-driven combat, awesome lore, setting and world - and the best of online RPGs - social systems, co-op gameplay/PvP gameplay and tons more." Elder Scrolls games are known for allowing players to walk in one direction and freely discover dungeons and missions outside of specific quest lines. Will The Elder Scrolls Online offer a similar level of freedom? "Absolutely, our quest/exploration system was designed around this idea. In general, you can just walk across the area you are in, and the game's compass will lead you to areas to explore. "When you find those areas, you'll find something fun to do, and you'll be rewarded right there - you don't need to go talk to an NPC to direct you to a quest. "You can just find it yourself. We do limit somewhat the area that a player can explore based on level - if you get too far afield, you start running into enemies that are more difficult. Still, there's so much content that you don't have to do it all to progress to the next area." How will the first and third-person perspectives differ from mainline Elder Scrolls games to better suit an MMO? "We are still working on this system, but as it stands right now, we have first and third person support, just like in any other Elder Scrolls game. The only difference is that you don't see your hands and weapons in first-person mode. "The main difference here is that in an online RPG, enemies can spawn in a 360 degree radius around you, especially in PvP - so third-person view mode, if you use it, will give you a far greater ability to see enemies behind you. "In many situations, this will be the difference between living and not surviving a combat sequence." Competitive, Player vs Player combat is new to The Elder Scrolls. How did you approach this traditional MMO feature to make it feel part of the series? "We took the world setting - alliances in conflict with no central power - and designed the PvP system around that idea. The player is a member of one of three Alliances, all fighting over the remains of the Empire and the Imperial City. "There are strongholds and keeps and towns scattered around Cyrodiil which the player's Alliance can control and defend - the Alliance that controls enough of these strongholds will control Cyrodiil, and can crown a player Emperor. "By tying the reason for fighting into the lore of the world, we made it understandable to Elder Scrolls players and MMO players alike." How will you encourage teamwork in the game? "Our philosophy for player interaction is to reward everyone. Older MMO design punished players for helping one another, leading to MMO terms like "kill stealing", "ninja looting" and the like. "In ESO, we want players to help one another - so any time you come across another player in trouble, you can help kill his enemy, and both of you will get fully rewarded. "Forming social connections is the basis for a long-lived and healthy player population, so we want to be sure that players are encouraged to help one another. "Another way we do this is with public dungeons - these are non-instanced dungeons that are solo-able but designed to be harder and less forgiving than normal above ground content. "When you explore a public dungeon, you'll often find players in trouble - as it is more difficult - so you can help others out at no cost to yourself - and who knows? You may make a new friend." The Elder Scrolls Online will feature Skyrim as a region. How will it differ to that in the full game? "This is one of the coolest parts of having the game set in Tamriel's remote past. Skyrim is there, along with its major towns. "It "feels" the same as it did in The Elder Scrolls V, but because ESO is set in the past, we have our own stories and characters. "Also, Skyrim at our time is a bit destabilised because of the recent Akaviri invasion, which was repulsed just a few years before ESO's setting. As a player, you will get to explore Windhelm and Riften - in the same place, but with altered layouts, and familiar ruins will dot the landscape." Do you envision The Elder Scrolls Online tying into future mainline Elder Scrolls games in some way, or will this be regarded mainly as a separate entity? "All of the Elder Scrolls games are tied together through lore. We work with the designers at Bethesda Game Studios to make sure that all lore is shared, so there is one contiguous Elder Scrolls timeline." The Elder Scrolls Online will launch on PC and Mac later this year. Players can register their interest in the beta now.