While the Elder Scrolls role-playing series has been around for years, it arguably came into its own in 2002 with the release of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind for the PC and the Xbox console. That game let you choose a single character from certain fantasy races along with skills or a profession for yourself. You could then head off into a vast, sprawling 3D world, taking on quests, gaining experience points, and exploring a huge world that only got bigger with subsequent expansion packs and fan-created content, thanks to the game's loyal fan community and the included editing tools. But Bethesda is now at work on its next Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion, which promises to offer even more fantastical areas to explore with some extremely impressive graphics. Executive producer Todd Howard explains.
GS: Tell us about what Bethesda is trying to accomplish with The Elder Scrolls IV. Will the next game expand upon the huge and open-ended framework of Morrowind, which let you travel pretty much anywhere and talk to (or fight) pretty much anyone, or will it feature a completely different structure? What lessons has the team taken from Morrowind's development, launch, and postlaunch support? How is this being brought to bear in the new game's development?
Todd Howard: All of our Elder Scrolls games follow a similar philosophy: "Live another life, in another world." With each game, we go back and look at how we can make that come alive for the next generation of hardware and gameplay. So the "big-world, do-anything" style remains, and I think that's an essential element to what we do with the series. The player needs a certain size and a large number of choices to really make role-playing feel meaningful. Lessons we learned? I think we learned that taking risks works. We took a lot of risks in changing our game systems to create Morrowind. Also bringing it to the Xbox was a big risk for us. Both of those paid off huge, particularly the Xbox, which is where the majority of our sales came from. I think a lot of publishers really underestimate how much a console player wants out of game, and how much they can handle. They're not stupid, and they love deep games done well. So going into this one, we knew we wanted to reinvent a lot of the game again, take on big technology jumps, and bring the game to as many platforms as possible.
GS: What can you reveal about the story of The Elder Scrolls IV? Will it pick up where Morrowind left off, or will it begin an all-new story in an all-new land? How will the events that transpired in Morrowind shape those in The Elder Scrolls IV, if at all?
TH: It takes place after Morrowind, but really has nothing to do with the Morrowind story at all. We like each game to stand on its own, so it's in another part of the world with an all-new story. The story itself deals with the death of the emperor and a demonic invasion into this world from "Oblivion." Oblivion, in the Elder Scrolls world, is essentially hell. It's another plane of existence where the evil gods live. So the game takes place in both Tamriel, the land of men and elves, and Oblivion, the land of demons.
GS: One of the most uniquely enjoyable (and some critics would suggest, unbalanced) aspects of Morrowind was its open-ended character creation and advancement system. Is a similar system planned for the new game?
TH: Yes, and I would agree that parts are unbalanced and that's something we hope to do much better this time. We really like the skill-based system, as it rewards you for role-playing your character class. Now, the number of skills and what they do has been changed again, and you have a huge variety of choices you can make, but hopefully you'll see pretty quickly in the game that we have a better balance between combat, magic, and stealth skills. We've really overhauled each area so that people could play the whole game using one set of those skills. So combat gets much deeper with different attacks you learn as your skills increase. Magic is similar to our past games in how it's used, but now it's more effective to use as your only means of playing the game. And with stealth, we've totally changed how we handle this, thanks to Emil Pagliarulo who joined us from the Thief series of stealth games.
GS: Another distinctive feature about Morrowind was, again, its remarkable breadth, not just in terms of the size of the gameworld, but also in terms of quests, lore books, and character skills. If players wanted to, they could spend hours and hours just wandering around looking for plant components for use with the alchemy skills, for instance. Are there plans in place to add the same kind of peripheral breadth (that is, content that's nonessential to the main story) to the new game?
TH: There's a lot of that--it's one of those things that really makes the world come alive. You see something, and you can use it. So this time, there's even more depth to those aspects--particularly now with the forests we're doing. We really want to make them good places to explore, since they are so visually dense.
I'm Sure They'll Let Us Go
GS: And along the same lines, can we expect to see the return of life-altering conditions such as vampirism and lycanthropy in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion? Are there any specific plans for either extended character-altering states like lycanthropy, or other elaborate, nonessential side quests that you'd care to share?
TH: We're not ready to discuss those yet.
GS: It's easy to remember Morrowind as the graphically impressive, sprawling role-playing game it eventually turned out to be when it was released in 2002, but prior to that, RPG fans the world over had to endure a delay or two--though they were assured at the time that the game would tax the limits of modern computer systems at launch, and it did just that. Will technology continue to be as important for The Elder Scrolls IV, even to the extent of extending the game's development schedule? That is, is the team taking a similar approach to the new game--purposely building in and planning for technological features that may take some extra time to implement, but into which current hardware will grow?
TH: Yes. Since it takes us a good three to four years to make one of these [games], we have to think far in the future when we start. We've always seen the series as something that will really show off the latest hardware, so we do add things right until the end, while also making educated guesses as to what hardware of the future will do. The hardware companies do a very good job of giving us early info so we can plan ahead. At the same time, we hope to have options for the player to turn a lot of these graphics down so that it can run on a wider variety of PCs. That's something we feel we didn't do enough of with Morrowind; there just wasn't enough you could tweak down to get it running well on a nonsuper computer. We'll address that better in Oblivion.
GS: Are there plans to release any kind of editing tools for fans to create custom content, as there were with Morrowind?
TH: Yes, The Elder Scrolls construction set will ship with the PC version. Obviously, it's a new version compared to Morrowind's.
GS: What, if any, are the immediate future plans for the game at or near release? Can we expect to see the game on a next-generation console, for instance, and/or supplemented by retail expansion packs?
TH: We'll have more announcements in the future on that. We plan on supporting as many platforms as we can.
GS: We have to ask--how, if at all, has Bethesda's recent acquisition of Black Isle Studios' Fallout license and confirmation that it will work on a Fallout 3 affected The Elder Scrolls IV's planning and design? How will the two games be different, or complementary? It seems safe to assume that Elder Scrolls IV will be Bethesda's next huge, sprawling role-playing game, while Fallout 3 will be a more-compact, self-contained adventure. Is this the case? Has Bethesda found itself forced to rethink or adjust its plans for The Elder Scrolls IV so as not to compete with its own plans for Fallout 3?
TH: Oblivion has been in development since 2002, so getting the Fallout license recently hasn't changed our plans for Oblivion at all. By their nature, I don't think they compete with each other. They will be very different games--not just in style, but in how they play. Also, for some time our plan had been to use this technology in other games, and Fallout is a great fit for that.
GS: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add about The Elder Scrolls IV?
TH: I would just like to give special thanks to all the gamers who've supported what we've done over the years. It's great to be allowed to make these kinds of games for so long and to have them find such a big audience. This is the kind of project that would make many other publishers run for the hills, but because we control it all, and the audience wants it, we get to keep making them. It's truly the game we'd love for someone to make, so we get to make it. Feel free to visit our official site and let your voice be heard.
GS: Thanks, Todd.