Designing a magical world: Skyrim
Big worlds are everywhere in videogames these days. The likes of Batman: Arkham City, Saint’s Row and the Rockstar trio of Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto and L.A. Noire all featuring the ‘open-world’ approach.
Few worlds are as large as those created by Bethesda, however. Having played the first three hours of their upcoming Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, we can vouch for the size of that world too. Read our full report on our time in Tamriel here.
In the meantime, read our interview with Skyrim’s lead artist Mike Carofano in which he talks about the difficulties that comes with building a world so large, whether or not the current hardware can handle what they throw at it and how to wrap everything up in an engaging narrative.
IncGamers: How do you go about beginning the design process on a game of this scale?
Mike Carofano: The first thing for us was deciding on where the game was going to be set. Coming off of [Elder Scrolls IV] Oblivion – that was a very classical medieval fantasy game – we wanted to do something that had a bit more culture to it. We wanted something more like [Elder Scrolls III] Morrowind, but not as alien as that, and Skyrim was a good fit as a next step from Oblivion’s environment.
Once we were set on that it helped to define everything we did afterwards. I worked on a map of the world and what the world was going to look like; the landscape region and ideas for cities. That helped us to identify our characters, creatures and everything that lives in the world. It also helps the designers to work on story ideas.
IG: This is the fifth Elder Scrolls title, has it now reached a point where it’s a self-contained universe? Do you still take inspiration from external sources?
MC: It’s a mix of everything, really. We have a lot of lore that we’ve produced – books and backstory on the world of Tamriel. When we start each game we re-read everything that we’ve got so far so we can pull out whatever we want and need, but we definitely look at other games, movies or whatever.
For example, when it comes to the look of the game I looked at real-world examples of landscape environments that might fit. I was excited by a lot of stuff from Iceland, and how you could get a lot of beautiful areas that were also bleak and rugged at the same time. That was a big inspiration. Then you just mix it all together and see what fits and what doesn’t.
IG: Does Skyrim’s whole world play into that bleakness?
MC: Only a little bit of it. Coming off of Fallout 3 we wanted to do something that was a prettier looking game, something that had more colour to it. Still, we wanted it to feel harsh because Skyrim takes place in a colder world where the inhabitants are hardier.
On the one hand we’ve got cold, hard mountains, but then we’ve got the flowers you can pick and turn into potions. We really try and mix things up.
IG: The fantasy genre is a popular one, perhaps to the point of saturation. How do you keep things fresh, and do people even want something fresh from this genre?
MC: It probably works both ways. In a lot of games you see ideas and themes that are repeated. You know, lots of games ask you to explore a world, become more powerful, learn new abilities, save the day and all that stuff. Things like that don’t really get old; I think players will always want those things. But we try and put our own twist on that each time.
The challenge for us is to reinvent the roleplaying game each time we make one. We try to make things more dramatic, more interesting and build a more realistic world. I don’t think that you can ever get the perfect world, there’s always so much to improve upon – so much so that everything game is exciting and challenging for us to make.
IG: Skyrim is one of those games where the expectation is through the roof. Is it possible to ever satisfy those expectations fully?
MC: Honestly, I don’t know. We’re really happy with what we’ve made; I think everyone at the office believes that this is the best Elder Scrolls game we’ve done. It’s incredibly awesome that so many people are excited about the game. I really just hope they enjoy it.
IG: For many players, Fallout 3 would have been the first Bethesda RPG they had played. Do you think this game will appeal to the ‘post-apocalyptic’ crowd?
MC: Definitely. Fallout 3 was a massive game for us, and it certainly helped make the Bethesda name more famous. I’m sure there will be players playing Skyrim that haven’t played an Elder Scrolls game before, and that’s great. You don’t have to have any experience with the previous games, the story stands on own.
You’ll get a lot more of the backstory if you’ve played the other games but it’s not a requirement to understanding this one.
IG: Do you ever think about continuing a story through multiple games?
MC: We like the idea that it’s a whole new thing with each game. It lets players become a new character, rather than locking them into playing the same one that they were before. Skyrim is set 200 years after Oblivion and a lot of the reason for that was to wrap up Oblivion’s story.
That time 200 years ago has now passed and it gives us a chance to show what has happened to the world since then and how it’s different. In Skyrim the empire is in decline and you’re the chosen one to help deal with the dragons and find out why they’re back.
IG: Some other art directors that we’ve spoken to talk about clashes between the art teams and the level designers. Does that kind of relationship also occur in an open-world game like Skyrim?
MC: [Laughs] Sometimes we clash, sometimes we don’t. Level designers are very concerned with moment-to-moment gameplay and working out the excitement possible in a given space – it’s my job to make sure those spaces look polished and visually interesting.
It’s a case of trying to balance the two. As the game is so huge we can’t always apply the level of polish that we would like to in every area, but we do try and work through every bit several times to make it as good as we possibly can.
IG: How close is the working relationship between the two departments? Do you work together constantly, or are you sending things back and forth to be altered?
MC: There’s a bit of back and forth like that.
Usually the art team will make what we call ‘kits’. So, a dungeon kit will consist of bits that can be stuck together to build a level out of. The level designer will take a kit and make a basic level out of it, with gameplay and pacing and stuff all locked in. Sometimes they’ll mix and match between different kits.
Then it’ll go back and forth as we look at the lighting and they place the creatures/enemies and then we both look to see whether it all fits from our own perspective.
IG: Things like the rain and the wind seems to change as you explore the world. How does that work?
MC: We have a dynamic weather system, so the same area might have different weather depending on when you arrive. On top of that the whole world has been hand crafted, so some of the special weather effects have been placed by hand. The special weather effects can be altered depending on the weather type affecting that area at that time, though.
IG: How about having the players affect the world for themselves, what level of mod support are you allowing?
MC: There’s a whole new editor that we’re hoping to release right around the same time as the game. We’re still not sure of the exact day.
The mod community have done some really amazing stuff with our previous games, so we’re really excited to give them the tools to allow them to do that again. We’d like to bring that same thing to console but it’s not in the works yet, hopefully that’s something we can do in the future.
IG: Would it be possible to release select mods from the PC game as console DLC?
MC: Maybe, yes. We’re not sure about that yet, but it is something we’ve been talking about. I really hope we can do something like that.
IG: How does the console version compare to the PC version in general? Can the consoles do everything you need them to?
MG: Yeah, absolutely. This is our third time around on this generation of consoles and we’ve learned how to push them to get what we want. Just from an art perspective, it’s been a massive improvement compared to Oblivion.
We’ve learnt graphical effects and techniques we can use as artists to put more on the screen and increase the draw distance. Obviously, on the PC you can run higher resolutions and you can push the draw distances out even further. It will look a bit better on PC but it is the exact same game, we haven’t missed anything out.
IG: Earlier on in the current console’s lifecycles many developers were finding it difficult to create games for the PS3, compared to the 360 and PC. Is that now a thing of the past?
MC: Yeah, I don’t think that’s an issue anymore. This is our third game on PS3 so we’ve got a lot of experience about how that console works and how to make the most out of it. The key is to take advantage of the PS3 in a different way than we would the Xbox 360 or the PC.
IG: How do you play the game? What character types do you enjoy?
MC: I’ve played the game through multiple times at this point, but I try to play as most of the main types of characters. I particularly enjoy playing as the ‘thief’ because there’s so much you can do – I like the sneak attack, and if you apply archery skills to the thief you can do some great stuff.
Then again, magic is great because it’s so varied. You can burn guys down or re-animate dead enemies and have them fight with you, for example. Or you can control people’s minds and turn them against each other. There’s a lot of tactics to consider when using magic, which makes it more varied than straight up stealth or melee.
IG: And what’s your view on the ‘traditional’ first-person viewpoint vs. the ‘new-skool’ third-person camera? I play in third-person and I get some stick from friends and colleagues who say I’m playing it ‘wrong’…
MC: I kind of agree with them [laughs]. I like to play in first-person and we design it primarily as a first-person game. However, we know that a lot of people play in third-person so we’ve put more focus on how third-person plays this time around.
The controls are better for third-person now and the camera adjusts depending on what you’re doing and where you are in the environment. It’s generally much more polished than it has been and hopefully you notice that. It was quite clunky before.