It's hard to believe that the last game in Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series came out more than five years ago with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The sprawling RPG was a hit, and helped set the stage for a genre that would continue to increase in popularity on consoles.
Gamasutra recently sat down with Todd Howard, design director on Bethesda Softworks' long awaited Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which is launching this November on PC and high-definition consoles.
Here, the long-time game developer talks about working with the game's all-new Creation Engine, how the studio changed up the Oblivion formula, and whether it's possible to convey the vision of a single designer through such a massive project.
Howard also explains how the studio approaches accessibility (hint: "It's not something that we think about a lot"), and the bugs that manage to sneak into Bethesda's massive, do-what-you-want games.
How hands-on are you with [Skyrim]?
There are a lot of great people who work on the team, we've worked together for a long time. We're focused on one game at a time, so I'm extremely hands on, design a lot of the systems, and play the game every day and give the guys feedback.
But we have a great group -- Matthew Carofano, who's our lead artist and was on Morrowind and Oblivion as well, Bruce Nesmith and Kurt Kuhlmann, are lead designers on [Skyrim]. I worked with them on Daggerfall, so they've been with us for a while.
What's kind of nice about our group is that a lot of us have worked together for a long time. So the amount of time that I have to "manage" is low. We can focus on the game.
When you have a game with so many different components and lots of content, how reasonable is it to expect the game to have a singular vision?
I view the game as -- the first line in the credits is "Game Design: Bethesda Game Studios." I view it as a studio project. It is too big for one person. I don't know all parts of it. In each of the games we did, there are probably three or four people -- from myself to usually the lead artist, lead designer, lead level designer -- you'd have to combine those four people to know everything.
We like to remain very flat as a studio. One of the reasons our games end up so big is we put a high premium on tools, and then we let people run wild. We think that gives us the best game. So the main thing that we try to instill in people is really the tone of the game, and then they'll create content that matches that. And the work will be checked by lots of people, and it won't be me all the time. It often isn't.
So a priority is having your programmers make tools for designers and artists to go crazy. Some studios don't work like that.
No, we put a big premium on our editor, which we then ship with the games. It's going to come out again with Skyrim, the Creation Kit. So when it comes to content creation, we just have so much of it that we have to put a lot of development time into the tools, because the game is so big.
We're hoping [the Creation Kit] will be available as a download on launch day. I don't know if I can promise day-one, but it will be very close.
What aspects of Oblivion did you look at when planning Skyrim? What did you want to change? I know Skyrim began development a long time ago, so you may have to reach back into your memory banks.
Each game is its own thing. There are certain things that Arena does better, or that Daggerfall does better than Morrowind or Oblivion, or even better than Skyrim. There are certain things, depending on the game you make, that you'll sacrifice to make that particular game. But I think we tried a lot of new stuff with Oblivion, and it was new -- it came out four months after the Xbox launched.
So that was very difficult to get all of those systems running on a console that was still in development at the time. So we sort of came out of it very happy with what we got on the screen, but knowing that there were things we could do a lot better. Some of that we did better in Fallout 3.
But I think the big things for us are still -- and we still struggle with -- are the NPCs, the interaction, and how they act. That's because the game is so dynamic, we don't want to script them, so weirdness can ensue sometimes. So we came out of Oblivion thinking, hey, how do we get more believable characters on the screen who are reacting to you.
I always thought we did environments well, and we want to keep doing it well. But I'd say the characters and how they perform on the screen was probably our number one [focus].
That's something too, that maybe some gamers don't understand when you have a game that big, that there will be "weirdness." Do you think you could ever ship a game that squashes all of those bugs? Would you say Skyrim has less of that "weirdness" going on than your other games?
It matters how you define "weirdness." There's going to be some [weirdness], like the player did X, Y and Z that we didn't expect, and now he's attacking the town, sleeping in this guy's bed, he killed his wife [laughs]... We sort of learn each time how people play these games and experience them. So we get better each time, but we do at the end of the day sacrifice, say, a well-paced story. It's almost impossible for us to do. We'd rather let you go do whatever you want. So that's a sacrifice that we're willing to make.
People give you guys a hard time about bugs. You have very well-received games, but there are also plenty of fun clips on YouTube that originate from Bethesda games.
[Laughs] You know what though? Those things are there, and it's fair that people call us out for them, we've got no problem with that.
How does the new engine handle the world's size in Skyrim? What's the scale of the game?
It's about the size of Oblivion. The scale changes with each game, based on a number of factors. The factor in [Skyrim] that messes with the scale are the mountains. So putting mountains on the screen, they feel like mountains when you see them, but they're at the same time small enough where you can scale them without taking a really, really long time. And they cut up the terrain.
In Fallout 3 or Oblivion, you can cut across the landscape, for the most part. You can draw a line and say, "I wanna go there." But in Skyrim, you can't. You might run into a mountain, and you might have to scale a mountain. In general, we try to make the game harder the higher the elevation you're in. That changes the flow of the game.
As a design director, is there an overarching design philosophy that you follow that has worked over the course of so many games?
We have one for the studio. Our motto is "Great games are played, not made," meaning you can spend a lot of time on paper coming up with great ideas, then as soon as you put it in the game, you're like, "I was thinking wrong." So we try to just bullet point things on paper, then get it in the game, play the game, and get ready to throw your ideas out.
With Skyrim, the dragon's design was a one-pager. "Those are gonna work." A couple bullet points was what we were going for. One of our other rules is "define the experience." With dragons, it was more about defining the experience we wanted to have as opposed to "here is the feature set and technical design, etc. etc."
As far as Skyrim, what is the experience? It's the experience you had with the other Elder Scrolls, in that you be who you want to be and do what you want, but the tone of Skyrim involves a more rugged world, a more lived-in world, where magic is more low-fantasy world. There is more violence in it, not for gore's sake -- there's not a ton of gore in the game -- but it just seems like it would be a more violent place.
When it comes to game features, we are more about iteration. The only area we're document-heavy in is the content of the world. We have to be, with all the people, quests, items. We're very document-heavy and we have a really slick wiki at work, and have an interactive map and you can see who's building what today.
But when it comes to game features -- the more time you spend on paper, the more incorrect assumptions you're making, and it's just going to pile up on you.
What about accessibility -- making Skyrim a game that's inviting to people who might not play RPGs as much, and also the hardcore people who have been playing The Elder Scrolls since the beginning?
Honestly, it's not something that we think about a lot, in that we've found that we're getting a pretty big audience making a game that we want to make. We want to make it for whoever it is -- even if you've played Elder Scrolls before, you haven't played this one, so you don't understand what a skill does yet.
... We want to remove confusion, that's what I'd say. As opposed to making it more accessible, we'd like to remove confusion for anyone who's playing. What we're trying to do now is lead you into it more... In our games or others' games, they give you a character menu and say, "Who do you want to be, what powers do you want?" [Players think,] "I don't know, I haven't played yet!"
What happens in Oblivion is you start the game, play for three hours, and then think "I want to start over, I chose wrong." So we'd like to sort of alleviate some of that. I also think the controls work better [too] ... it's more elegant.
You look at Call of Duty, the most popular game in the world, and that's actually pretty hardcore. At the end of the day, it's a hardcore game, has RPG elements in multiplayer, making classes, picking perks. I think the audiences are there, and we tend to make our game more for ourselves and other people who play a lot of games.