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.
A new game, a new look.
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."
From what's been shown so far, Skyrim is gorgeous.
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.
The armor designs look great.
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".