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Interview: Todd Howard On The Scope, Vision Of  Skyrim
Interview: Todd Howard On The Scope, Vision Of Skyrim
July 7, 2011 | By Kris Graft

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.

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Philip Michael Norris
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I have been playing Elder Scrolls games since Arena. All core TES games have never disappointed me and I am more than excited to see their next installment -not to mention some heavy modding.

Soroush Khodaii
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Yes, people make amazing mods that greatly improve the playing experience... I mean for oblivion there were 1~2GB mods!!! That's like 1/6th of the entire vanilla game!!! And it was all for free!!!

Michael O'Hair
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Even Daggerfall? Daggerfall was a NIGHTMARE to play before the patches were released.

sean lindskog
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Good interview. Sounds like a designer I'd enjoy working with.

Dave Sodee
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Morrowind, Oblivion Fallout 3 all some greating gaming for me with hundreds of hours I have been playing in these worlds. Looking forward to the next installment !

Peter Teeche
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The part where talking about accessibility is really great- Yes, it's right! Many players have problems with choosing right class/character for them- I'm really exciting about how it going to be in Skyrim.

Alex Leighton
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Yeah it's always taken me a go or two to get a guy started that I like, I don't see this as a problem though, I think it comes with learning the game.

Gabriel Kabik
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You know, this may be one of those instances where a problem isn't really a problem. Are there really people who quit playing the game because they don't like having to "re-roll" once or twice to find the right fit? I trust BethSoft to find an elegant solution to the mysteries behind character creation, but fear that in the end this could backfire, making the early stages of a character's development too slow for the hardcore mindset of TES players. I honestly kind of like not knowing how my character is going to turn out until I play it for awhile; makes me more invested in understanding the game's dynamics. I hope they keep that in mind when fixing this thing that may not have been broken in the first place.

Tore Slinning
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There is no Right nor wrong class/character for a given player....

This is the challenge of an RPG...choices and have chosen to build your character that way you have to sacrifice some aspects in another way.

Peter Teeche
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Yes, but many games nowadays want to be more casual(Oblivion is more casual than Morrowind and Skyrim is going to be more casual than Oblivion...) and I don't think this solution of choosing class/character is right for this age of games. Today's RPGs must be dynamic and your progress in game must influence your character more than in the past, and if you choose wrong class/character in begining of game, the progress in game may be problem for players.

Tore Slinning
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The whole "casual" lable is thrown right out the window here, these are 60+ hours games, when you dedicated that much time into a game you have no problem comming to terms with mechanics and finding ways handle encounters based on your weaknesses and strength.

RPG's are not rocket science for gods sake.

Jason Schwenn
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Good interview. Highlights many of the reasons why many gamers value Bethesda's games.

However, I was as excited for Oblivion as I have been for any game ever (pretty much got my 50" TV at that point to coincide with the game's release), and I was staggeringly disappointed. Other than graphics, it was beneath Morrowind in nearly every aspect for me. Not just the scaling of the NPC's, but other aspects as well. Don't think I ever played it again after the first week or so.

I have faith Skyrim will be more enjoyable for me and am very impressed with what has been released so far.

Joshua King
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I'm with you there. Oblivion is not a crap game by any means and I look forward to Skyrim but yes Morrowind is a better game. I struggle to sum up why concisely so I'm just going to cop out. :)

Jim Murphy
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Oblivion for me was a different experience to Morrowind , i just played both games with different characters which evolved depending what i discovered and where i thought the Character was from what he belived in , id exchange game saves with freinds which had quests i created within them ie hid the highly enchanted 7 swords of Wayland around Cyrodiil for a mate to find them .

The same will happen to Skyrim , my characters will evolve as they are, some may get involved in completing the main quest at all.

One thing i do know is One character will be for the empire and one will be totally against just like in Morrowind one became a Nerevarine wizard the other Nord warrior character slaughtered every dark elf he came across from his base at Raven rock .

Ive played ES III and IV for over 2000 hours ech id reackon and theres always something new id find, and i dont see it changing when Skyrim arrives .

Scott Gilbert
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"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'd say the characters and how they perform on the screen was probably our number one [focus]."

I hope so. As a character artist myself, this stands out to me.

The less than stellar character interactions destroyed my immersion in Oblivion. It wouldn't take much to make even non scripted NPCs more animated than Disney animatronics from the 70s. Just as there's a collection of recorded dialogue, there should be a collection of animations for mood to go along with them. It would be a relatively small collection, shared across many speeches. They should be full body as people move their heads and hands when they talk. Sometimes they pace or fidget. They have irregular blinks and even when appearing to be maintain eye contact, their focus shifts momentarily across the face of the person they are talking to (each eye, nose, mouth, etc...) Animation talent and a little reference of actual people talking is the first step to achieving more realistic character interactions. Better face models and textures would be the next step (real faces aren't perfectly symmetrical and humans can subconsciously pick up on that detail and know something looks off without knowing why). Then proper lighting and composition tricks used in movies would be the final touch to show off the better looking character and animation (making them stand out from the background and not locking them in the dead center of the screen). They should know better unless the artists are all straight out of school and have no experienced artist to direct them.