We chat with the project leader of Morrowind to get his thoughts on the final game as well details on what kind of effort it took to construct a massive RPG.
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Without question, the Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind had much to live up to. The game promised to deliver an epic open-ended RPG, in which you would be free to take just about any course of action. When the game was released, most found that the game lived up to these expectations for the most part, with its massive world, large number of characters, and detailed visuals. We had a chance to speak with project leader Todd Howard to get an idea of what it took to create Morrowind, how the development team felt about the final game, and more.
GameSpot: Now that both versions of the game are "done," has the development team had any time to relax?
Todd Howard: A little, but we've quickly moved on to supporting the game through plug-ins we're making, support patches, German and French versions, and a few other things.
GS: How much time did it take to create both versions?
TH: Overall it was about a three-and-a-half-year project. We started design and PC work in January of 1999 and started Xbox in November of 2000.
GS: Morrowind is different from most other console RPGs in that it's actually a role-playing experience and not simply a stream of cinematics. Was there any worry early on that console gamers wouldn't be willing to give Morrowind a chance because of this, or did the development team actually see that as an advantage?
TH: I wouldn't say it was a worry, but we discussed it a lot. We discussed how much we should change the game for a console. We felt the overall game style would translate very well, that we had the kind of game that walked the action/RPG line and that people would respond to it. We sort of felt if people knew what they were buying, they would love it. But if they were looking for Final Fantasy, they would hate it. So we just tried to get the message out. We also didn't want the two versions to be very different. We wanted people to just know "Morrowind" and not "Morrowind PC" or "Morrowind Xbox."
GS: When creating a game with such a large scope, how difficult is it to decide what the player can and cannot do? Letting players read entire books that are simply sitting on a shelf must have added quite a bit of time to the development cycle.
TH: It's very difficult to decide what people can and cannot do. So we try to create a set of world rules that the whole game can adhere to. It's odd, but with an RPG, there really is no feature that you can dismiss immediately. Since these games are about playing other roles, the sky is the limit. It's not like a shooter or a sports game where your features and gameplay are very well defined by the genre. RPGs can be anything and let the player do anything.
GS: What sorts of features were cut from the final version of the game?
TH: Not many really. We took a few weapons out, like slings and throwing axes. We stuck pretty close to our initial design. We did cut a lot of dungeons out. Our initial design had like 700 dungeons, which was just way too many. There would have been one every 50 feet.
GS: The locations in Morrowind all have a unique, stylized look. How much time was spent on creating the art for the game? Is the final product close to what the development team originally envisioned?
TH: I'd say it looks better than we originally envisioned, in how it all comes together, in how the world feels when you walk around it. We spent the bulk of our time creating art and building the world. We do a lot of concept work, but often those things are isolated--you don't get the sense from concept work of walking from one town to another. So that's one of the first things we did--build a town and a road and walk to another location. Part of that is figuring out how far things need to be apart to feel right.
GS: A patch was released for the PC version that shows how much damage an enemy receives during a battle. Do you plan on incorporating any of these additions into an "append-disc"? Are there hooks in the game that will enable people to download updates to the Xbox hard drive?
TH: It's something we're looking into, and we've built some things into the Xbox version to allow for plug-ins. Note that the enemy health bar is not a plug-in change, but a patch change. We're still looking into a nice way of delivering those things to the Xbox. It may or may not happen.
GS: Were there any substantial problems in porting the game over to the Xbox?
TH: Oh yeah. About six months into it we realized we were doing just about the hardest kind of game you could possibly do on a console. That is, taking a huge world and squeezing it down to fit a console. That really becomes a memory issue. We're going from 256 megs of ram on the PC to 64 on the Xbox. And we really don't want to change the art, so it becomes a world storage issue. That was hard. It also grows and grows over the project, and it's not until the later parts of the project that you can see the problem in its entirety. There was a period of time where I was like, "This is never going to work." So we just kept trying stuff until it fit. I'm ecstatic on how well it came out. I really like the Xbox interface too. I think it's much easier than the PC's.
GS: What has been the overall reaction to the game? Have you noticed any difference between what people are saying about the two different versions?
TH: Reactions have been great so far. They've been the same across versions, which surprised me a little, but in a good way. I thought we'd see more Final Fantasy or console RPG fans saying, "This is not what a console RPG should be." But there's very little of that, which I think shows the level of sophistication that does exist in the console market. Game companies have been underestimating what that market wants. There is a large part of it that wants something more--deeper games--and we should give it to them.
GS: How did the music come together? Did the team have specific themes in mind, or was Jeremy Soule given free rein over the project?
TH: Jeremy really, really wanted to do it, and his stuff is awesome. We had some ideas, but the music really was his vision. He sat down and looked at all our stuff, played the game, and sent me some themes to discuss. Once we nailed one down, it was off to the races. I love the main theme he did--it's exotic, heroic, and epic.
GS: What aspect of Morrowind is the team most proud of?
TH: That we finished it and it doesn't suck. Really, just finishing a big game these days is hard. Ultimately we're most proud of the fact that we pulled off the "free-form" gameplay promise as well as we did.
GS: Any hint as to what your next project will be?
TH: We know what we're going to do, but I'm not going to tell you. Right now we're focusing on supporting Morrowind. It's going to be around for a long time.
GS: Anything else you would like to add?
TH: Part of our success is due to the fans. Their support is great. The word of mouth on something like this is huge. They're also a big factor we consider and take suggestions from, like the enemy health bar. Their support means that we'll be able to continue to make big RPGs that get better and better.
GS: Thanks for your time.