Judging at the reaction from May's Electronic Entertainment Expo, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion isn't just one of the brightest gems in the Xbox 360's upcoming launch lineup, but it's also perhaps a perfect example of a next-generation role-playing game. Due out on the PC and Xbox 360 later this year, Oblivion looks to combine cutting-edge graphics with an immersive and believable world to explore. And since Oblivion is the fourth game in the long-running Elder Scrolls series, you can bet that there's a lot of history in it. We caught up with executive producer Todd Howard for the latest news about the game.
GameSpot: So, now that E3 is done and over with, what were the reactions coming out of the show? Oblivion garnered a lot of praise, but were there any helpful comments that you took back with you to Maryland? Could you briefly explain to our audience what exactly you showed behind closed doors?
Todd Howard: It went very well; everyone seemed to enjoy the 25-minute demo we gave. We got a lot of positive feedback, and you kind of have to sift through those comments to see what parts of the game you want to polish or reinforce even more. Everyone liked the graphics, but it was small things that got many excited, like the easy fast travel and compass systems...little things that we put in to make the game easier and more directed to play, and not just a big, sprawling directionless mess.
GS: It sounds like Bethesda wants Oblivion to truly be a next-generation game. Of course, there are the stunning graphics, but what else makes this a next-generation game? How will this be more than a better-looking version of Morrowind? How will it be different from its predecessors?
TH: It's so different in so many ways I wouldn't know where to start. We do each game fresh; we start over each time. We like each Elder Scrolls game to stand on its own and not be a direct sequel to the previous, and Oblivion is no different.
GS: We learned that the gameworld is approximately 16 square miles in size. How large is that in comparison to Morrowind's world, roughly? Will we see the same kind of variety in terrain and locales like we saw in Morrowind, which had deserts and mountains and lush forests? Tell us about how this world is being generated, and what the new terrain generation system adds to the game?
TH: The outside world, in terms of square miles, is a bit larger than Morrowind's, but it doesn't feel that way with the fast travel. So each of our games has had a different scale, and we mess with that early on and change it depending on how the game is flowing. So if you had to walk everywhere, I'd make it much, much smaller. In terms of terrain, there are several varieties, from beaches, to mountains, to open planes, to forests, snow, etc.
GS: How will the non-player characters in Oblivion have more personality than those of Morrowind? In many cases, NPCs in Morrowind recited the same lines, and they were virtually indistinguishable from one another in terms of personality. How will the Radiant artificial intelligence system, along with such things as facial animation, and participation from well-known actors like Patrick Stewart, let you create more memorable characters? How else will the game make characters distinctive and memorable?
TH: Big question. It's really a combination of using procedural faces to give each NPC a unique look, writing bits of custom dialogue for each one, doing full facial animation to show emotions, and making sure every line is recorded dialogue. It all comes together to create the illusion of artificial life.
GS: We know that physics will play a role in the game. How large will that role be? During the E3 demo, we saw several examples of physics at work, including triggering a trap by throwing a pumpkin. Do these physics allow you to do other things you weren't able to do before in an Elder Scrolls game? Will there be actual character professions that benefit more directly from manipulating object physics, or even monsters that are more or less vulnerable to manipulating the environment?
TH: That's really been a learning experience for us, and the first time we've really played with it in an RPG, so the main classes it benefits are the stealthy ones, either for stealing items, or sneaking around and setting off the traps on other people or creatures. It's just another layer we use to make the world believable.
GS: There was the equivalent of several books' worth of readable text in Morrowind, for those who enjoyed exploring the rich history of the world. Will there be an equivalent of this in Oblivion? Are there other ways that the team is attempting to build out the lore of Tamriel besides putting books on shelves at various points in the game?
TH: We have over 400 books in Oblivion, so that's a number that grows with each game, and we do reuse books from previous games that work in this part of the world. We've sort of been building this library over time and writing more for each game. Actually, the best way to easily pick up lore is by walking around and just listening to townspeople chat to each other. Most of our recorded dialogue is for dynamic conversations between townsfolk.
GS: Morrowind was a game that appeared on the Xbox as well as the PC, and now Oblivion will appear on the Xbox 360 and the PC. What lessons did you learn while making the Xbox version of Morrowind that you applied to Oblivion, or in a larger sense, either developing for consoles in general or developing for two different platforms in general? Will there be any tangible difference between the PC and Xbox 360 versions of the game, aside from interface tweaks to optimize each version to each platform?
TH: We learned a lot and took those lessons when we started Oblivion. When working with a console, you really have to be careful with memory allocations and pay a lot more attention to streamlining the whole code base. As far as difference between versions, our plan is to have the same game regardless of platform, but there will obviously be differences in terms of interfaces.
GS: At what stage is the team at in development and what's left to do? What kind of hardware should PC owners look at to run the PC version? Can we expect both versions to ship simultaneously, or do you see a staggered launch, similar to that of Morrowind?
TH: We're in alpha, so the gameworld is built, we're polishing it up, balancing, optimizing the game for speed and other new graphical features. In terms of system requirements, can't say yet. But if you want to turn everything on, expect to buy the best PC available when the game comes out. It will certainly look perfect on every 360, so I'd probably go for that if you're not sure what kind of performance your PC will deliver. Regarding launch dates, we hope to make them available at the same time.
GS: Considering that the game is being developed to have a huge world and characters that act more or less independently, have there been any surprising moments for you so far in the game?
TH: Oh jeez, too many. Just yesterday I saw some skeletons pick up leftover weapons that were lying around so they could kill me easier. It was one of those, "Where's he going? Oh crap," moments.
GS: Is there anything else you'd like to add about The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion?
TH: Thanks for all the attention and support; we hope everyone likes the game.
GS: Thank you, Todd.