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The Elder Scrolls Evolved: What's New in Skyrim
And much more from Bethesda Game Studios' Todd Howard.
March 31, 2011
There are a lot of huge games coming out in 2011, but there are few bigger than The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I don't just mean big in terms of popularity, but also sheer size. Bethesda Game Studios' flagship role-playing series offers huge, open fantasy worlds to explore. You can speed between quests to follow along with the storyline as swiftly as possible or simply wander the world hunting deer, exploring deep dungeons, and occasionally casting fireballs at innocent non-player characters just to see how they'll react.
To get a sense of what's new in Skyrim and what the team learned since The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3, IGN sent a few questions by game director Todd Howard and made sure to ask about unicorns.
IGN: Before getting into the specifics of the game, can you provide some context for what's going on in the fiction of The Elder Scrolls leading up to the events of Skyrim? From what we've seen so far it seems like in many ways the events of all TES games have been building up to this.
Todd Howard: We didn't plan any big buildup to Skyrim, it's more that we acknowledge those things happened, and some of them were pretty big, especially Oblivion. It all adds to the existing history you'd see in any of our games. After Oblivion, the Empire as it's known goes into a steep decline, and that's one of the main things that brings about some of Skyrim's conflict. But we want each game to stand on its own, so time-wise, we're a good 200 years after Oblivion.
IGN: When did development begin and how big is the team? At what point was it decided that all-new technology should be built in-house at Bethesda Game Studios for Skyrim?
Todd Howard: We have a team of about 100 people. We were doing some design during Fallout 3, but the real work started when we finished that game, with our tech staff moving over to work on the new technology for Skyrim.
We've always used a lot of our own stuff, mixed with other middleware that we liked. Coming off of Fallout 3, we made a pretty big list of what we wanted to change technically. So we redid the rendering, lighting, shadows, animation, faces, foliage, mountains, scripting, interface and more. And by the time we got through it all, it was clear the technology was new enough to give it its own name, The Creation Engine. Same with our editor, The Creation Kit. They go together as technology.
Some of that you'll notice as a player, like shadows, mountains, and the animations; some you won't, like how scripting or pathfinding works internally. If you looked quickly at our editor, it behaves similar to our old ones; it just does a lot more, and does some old things in better ways. But we don't change things just to change them. We still use the nif file format, because it worked fine for what we're doing and our modders know it well. We still use some middleware that we like, such as Havok. We're not just using their physics this time, but their animation system, Havok Behavior. It makes a dramatic difference in how the game looks and plays. Overall though, the paradigm for how we build these huge worlds has not changed dramatically, we just want it to look better and play more smoothly.
IGN: How familiar will the structure of Skyrim be to Elder Scrolls players? Will it still be an open-world style experience where you can choose to either follow along with a main story or branch off and spend hours exploring and completing side quests? Can you say compared to Oblivion roughly how much content is being included in Skyrim?
Todd Howard: It's similar to the classic Elder Scrolls structure, yes. It's always hard to compare size in games this big, but it has about the same amount of geography and content as Oblivion. I say "about" because the scale always changes some, and things like mountains change how that geography feels, and the time it takes you to get to and from places. It has a different flow when exploring.
IGN: For getting around the world, what methods will be available? Fast-traveling, and if so is it the same system from Oblivion? Horse riding? Any other travel options, such as something similar to the silt striders from Morrowind?
Todd Howard: If you've been to a location before you can fast travel back. We also have a carriage system that can take you to some major locations that you haven't been yet, so it's a bit of a mix.
IGN: Is the auto-leveling system from Oblivion that leveled enemies alongside your character returning in Skyrim? If not, will there be a modified version, and what informed the changes in the design?
Todd Howard: We've always had some amount of that in our games, from Arena to Fallout 3. You do need some in a game like this, it's just a matter of how and when you do it. It's clear Oblivion had places it didn't work well. That's something I think we addressed well in Fallout 3, so Skyrim works similarly to Fallout 3. We want peaks and valleys, where sometimes you're really challenged, and other times you feel really powerful. The trick is telling a player in a wide open game, without locking stuff off, that "this area is too hard for you, come back later."
IGN: Dragons seem like they're going to be integral to progression in Skyrim. Would you be able to say roughly how many dragons are in the game? Are the encounters determined by the story, or can you choose to lock into combat with a dragon whenever you want? What do you gain by fighting and defeating a dragon?
Todd Howard: I honestly don't know the exact number yet. Some are scripted to appear at certain times, and some are completely random. We're currently messing with that number, and it also depends on how you play the game. I got randomly hunted by three of them at once in the game last week, and I assure you that's too many at once. I can guess a low number of maybe a dozen, and a high number many multiples beyond that. Theoretically it's infinite I guess, since we put them in the world like any other creature. We went into the project being very conservative about how we'd use them, but they've turned out great, so we want them to get good screen time. When you defeat a dragon, you absorb its soul, and that's all I should say about that for now.
IGN: Random speculative question, but are there puzzle elements to the dragon encounters? Can certain dragons only be defeated after certain shouts or other items and powers have been unlocked? Do certain dragons only spawn into the world after others have been defeated? What types of attack patterns will the dragons possess?
Todd Howard: I don't want to spoil or get into all of that, but there are a few different types, with different powers, and they use the same shout powers the player uses.
IGN: Regarding the melee combat system, how is this being altered for Skyrim over previous versions of TES. From what we've seen in video that's been released, it looks as though there'll be finishing moves and there seems to be a lot more weight to weapon strikes. What's going on under the hood here? What were some of the areas of combat you felt should be prioritized for change?
Todd Howard: There's the gameplay side of it, which is that we wanted to slow down the pace a little, and give the player some more interesting choices in how it played based on what he was using - whether that was a sword and shield, two handed weapon, or he was dual wielding. You can also use the shields to "bash" enemies, which staggers them. The balance comes from creating openings and exploiting them. You can also power attack, by holding down the button. That uses stamina, but does extra damage and staggers also.
The other side of that are the visuals, the energy behind what you're actually seeing. So not only do we want the weapons to play a bit differently, we want the moves to feel and look different from how you swing them to how they kill opponents. They need to be entertaining on a basic level. Things like finishing moves are played randomly if you perform certain attacks as you're killing an enemy. At the end of the day, no matter what we do, the meaty gameplay is in the combat, and you're going to see it a lot. So simple things, like killing an enemy, need a lot of attention, even if it's just "wolf takes mace in the head".
IGN: How is the NPC conversation system evolving in Skyrim? What did you learn from player response to how it worked in Oblivion, and will there be similar methods of NPC persuasion in Skyrim?
Todd Howard: The main change is that dialogue is all done "real time". The game world does not stop, the view doesn't zoom in, it's just another type of interaction you can do with the world. We wanted to remove the feeling that you were entering a different "mode." Even in its presentation, it's simply a list of things that appear from the screen cursor you can ask about. We're also doing some side characters with personality that don't give you specific things to ask about, but just respond to you activating them. Activating them again is interpreted as "tell me more", so we found we can do quick conversations with the player this way and really fill out the world more.
IGN: It's been shown off that weapons and spells can be active simultaneously. Can you go into some of the reasons behind shifting to this kind of system and the types of combat opportunities it opens up?
Todd Howard: We felt that at a base level, your character is always defined best by what he's actually doing, not a list of skills he has, or menu choices he made in the beginning of the game, and that's been an Elder Scrolls goal for a long time. And it's an elegant solution to use the controller triggers, or mouse buttons, to act as your hands. It felt really natural once we did it. It started with wanting to give magic users a better feel, closer to how melee worked by using both your hands to do something, or make a more interesting choice. We actually added dual wielding weapons pretty late, once we saw how nice it was to just put what you wanted in each hand. It also makes you choose. You can't be all things. Figuring out what combinations work for your play-style is a lot of fun. When I play, I find I switch between styles frequently.
IGN: Will there still be an opportunity in Skyrim to create custom spells? Can you enchant?
Todd Howard: We do have crafting in each archetype, and the magic one is Enchanting, so you can forge your own magic items and tweak their properties.
IGN: How will skill progression and the leveling system in Skyrim work? What sorts of decisions will need to be made upon a level up and what do you need to do to qualify for a level up? Is the improve-by-use skill system still in place? Will all the skills from Oblivion be used in Skyrim or have there been changes?
Todd Howard: Skill increase works like Oblivion, the more you use it, the more it goes up. The skill list is similar, but tweaked for the gameplay we have now. The big difference is in how you gain levels. All your skills affect leveling. The higher the skill, the more it pushes you to the next level. So it's a nice self-balancing system, you're rewarded for using your higher skills. It urges you to focus. Skill increases become the equivalent of our XP for leveling. The higher your level, the more you need. When you level up, you pick one of your main stats to increase, and then you pick a perk. Perks are where a lot of the power is, and it's what defines your character, more so than your skill numbers. So each skill has its own "perk tree". And, those perks range from doing extra damage with a certain weapon to all new things like special moves, disarming and critical strikes.
IGN: How does the dragon shout system work? How are new shouts learned and what are some of their effects? Is learning new shouts crucial to progressing through the game, or is it more of a useful diversion?
Todd Howard: Shouting is based on certain words in the dragon language that, when used together, form magical attacks. You learn these throughout the game by finding the words on ancient wall carvings or being taught them. It's all part of the ancient nordic culture in Skyrim. Each shout is formed with up to three dragon words. Some are crucial to progressing through the game, while others just provide you with more power or interesting things to do.
IGN: As compared to Oblivion, will we see roughly the same amount of armor sets and weapon types in Skyrim, or will the number be drastically different? Will there be new sets that we haven't seen before, and what influenced their design and appearance?
Todd Howard: There's certainly more, but I haven't gone back and counted. Many of the classic Elder Scrolls ones return, but even something basic like "iron armor" gets a design and look that fits within the tone of the game and the environment of Skyrim. We do the art design with the assumption that the basic stuff was made in Skyrim, and the exotic stuff like Elven was made somewhere else.
IGN: Regarding the first and third-person views, are both included in Skyrim? If so, are both being designed as equally viable ways to play?
Todd Howard: Yes, we have both. 3rd person, with the new animation system, is better than ever, and people really seem to enjoy playing in it, seeing their character. But it's primarily designed as a first person game. I see the 3rd person as an extra, and certain things like picking up objects, talking to people, whatever, are always harder in 3rd person. Some people on the team think the combat is better in 3rd person because they can see their surroundings better. Personally, I usually play 1st person unless I'm just running through the wilderness and want a different view.
IGN: I know you probably get this question a lot but we have to ask, is there any plan to include multiplayer features or co-operative play in Skyrim, or will The Elder Scrolls continue to be a single-player only franchise?
Todd Howard: The two most requested features we get are dragons and multiplayer. We got one of them this time! We always look into multiplayer, put lots of ideas on the whiteboard, and it always loses. It's not that we don't like it. I can think of ways it would be a lot of fun, but at the end of the day, that dev time is going to take away from doing the best single player game we can, and that's where our hearts are.
IGN: Can you give an indication of how solid the 11.11.11 release date is across all platforms?
Todd Howard: As solid as any game can be. We're not worried about the date, we're just working as hard as we can to squeeze everything we can into the game.
IGN: Are all platform versions being developed in-house at Bethesda Game Studios?
Todd Howard: Yes, we did the same with Fallout 3.
IGN: Will the PC version support DirectX 11?
Todd Howard: Yes, but I guess the real question here is do we take advantage of DX11's big new features and the answer is 'not specifically'. Our graphics work centers around doing things that will look the same regardless of platform, and sometimes that implementation will be different on the 360, PS3, and PC.
IGN: Finally, a few silly questions. Is there a unicorn in Skyrim?
Todd Howard: That's DLC. For a hundred dollars.
IGN: Can you ride dragons in Skyrim?
Todd Howard: Not in the way you're asking.
Can you levitate in Skyrim?
Todd Howard: Another DLC. Three hundred dollars.
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