Designed by: Vijay Lakshman, Julian LeFay, Ted Peterson (Arena), Julian LeFay, Bruce Nesmith, Ted Peterson (Daggerfall), Todd Howard, Ken Rolston (Morrowind), Todd Howard, Ken Rolston (Oblivion)
Inspired by: Ultima Underworld, pen-and-paper RPGs
Series: Four main games, with a few expansions thrown in
Legacy: Fallout 3, also created by Bethesda Softworks, follows the open-ended style of the Elder Scrolls games, among other influences
The Elder Scrolls games take the non-linear approach to its height. Each is a full world to explore with many things to do which are not strictly necessarily to win. Morrowind, infamously, a multi-CD game, could be won in under eight minutes if the player knows what to do.
Of course, doing that, you don't get to see much along the way. And there is much to see! These games create huge expanses of territory to explore, huge caverns and dungeons, and have thousands of people to speak with along the way. Lead designer of Morrowind, Ken Rolston, an old hand in pen-and-paper RPGs design, has said this was to try to bring that kind of the free-form experience to the game.
How successful is this free-form experience? How wide-open is the game? Well, according to the game's Wikipedia page, the second Elder Scrolls game, Daggerfall, contains not one, not ten, not a hundred, but 15,000 towns. Italics, indeed! It takes several hours just to walk across the game's gigantic map.
How did something like this become possible? Wouldn't it take millions of man-hours to create all that space, and logic-defying compression techniques to squeeze it onto a CD? Well, no -- not if you create it all through fractal generation techniques, like the game world in space games Elite and Starflight. In other words: they used a pseudo-random generator, seeded with set values tied to each sector of game world, to algorithmically create terrain and contents.
The drawback of that approach, however, is that it's really hard to make interesting random content. Roguelikes are generally best at it (although those space games mentioned are no slouches). As a result, most people only say dull placeholder text, dungeons tend to be fairly lackluster and lacking in design, and because of some bugs in the generator there are a good number of bugs that make playing the game difficult, if not impossible.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Later Elder Scrolls games went to using handmade terrain, and as a result have much smaller (but still huge) game worlds. And yet, the problem with creating thousands of game characters remains; many of the basic man-on-the-street inhabitants of the games' towns could nearly be clones of each other.
One advantage of the huge-world approach of game design is that there is room for a great number of sub-quests. Players can run assassination missions for important people, join and rise up the ranks in the guilds or military, join clans and houses, steal from merchants, create spells and potions, and permanently enchant items.
It's not quite as bizarre as Might & Magic, I notice, but there does seem to be considerable non-placeholder content there. The depth of the subquests is surprisingly deep considering that many people never see much of the content developed for the game. Daggerfall, Morrowind, and Oblivion all allow players to become vampires as a side-quest.
The initial state can be acquired as a status ailment in a fight, and then either cured or encouraged. While a vampire, players can drink the blood of sleeping characters and participate in vampire scripted quests, provided they stay indoors during the daylight hours.