Retrospective: 15 Years of The Elder Scrolls

Fifteen years ago, something extraordinary happened. A small bunch of geeks in Bethesda, Maryland, published the first in a series of games that would lead them from being a modest sport and port game developer to one of America’s largest independents. Their history is as dramatic as any of the games.

First off, The Elder Scrolls: Arena wasn’t actually supposed to be an RPG. Bethesda were chiefly known for Gridiron! – a football game – and its pioneering real time physics engine, which led to a commission by EA for development of the first John Madden game. The relationship was not without problems, and Bethesda sued Electronic Arts for $7.3 million claiming that they’d stalled the cross-console release of Gridiron! after grabbing the best bits for their own Madden NFL.

With their roots so firmly established in sports titles, designer Ted Peterson says he was “laughed at” when he described the first Elder Scrolls game to other RPG developers. Arena was to be a simple gladiator game in which the player would travel throughout the world, fighting matches and rising in rank. Then the idea of adding side quests came in, and then areas were added outside of the arenas, until the initial plan was abandoned altogether and a full role-playing game was devised. The team then retconned the game’s name with the suggestion that the Empire of Tamriel had been dubbed “the Arena” due to its violence.

Ted Peterson, Vijay Lakshman and Julian LeFay were the brains behind the Elder Scrolls, under the guidance of Bethesda’s leader, Chris Weaver. The historic release was, however, beset with disaster, and the crucial Christmas 1993 release deadline was missed. Publishers felt that the packaging was misleading, and only 3,000 copies of the game were shipped on release. “We were sure we had screwed the company and we’d go out of business” noted Peterson.

They didn’t.

Word of mouth drove sales and Arena became a sleeper hit.

The Elder Scrolls had been envisaged as a series and work began immediately on the next chapter, again with Ted Peterson at the helm. The new game was initially titled Mournhold, and was to be set in Morrowind. Although the name and location was changed, the fundamental approach to its design was not – Daggerfall’s unique contribution was to be the development of a success-based levelling system to wrap around the GURPS-inspired character generation. Even the game engine was changed from Doom’s 2.5D Raycast engine to the innovative true 3D of XnGine. Its world was immense, with 15,000 towns and 750,000 inhabitants.

Daggerfall’s true contribution went beyond mere stats and skills – it was the eclectic approach to game design that has defined Bethesda as a company. The second Elder Scrolls game was not really influenced by RPG videogames but by Doom, Sam and Max, and The Man in the Iron Mask. These elements inspired a plot that broke away from the cliched linearity of Arena’s story and further developed Tamriel’s rich history and culture.

Daggerfall released on time but was dogged by technical issues, being literally unplayable (to conclusion) without a patch to prevent players falling through its scenery. LeFay was keen to avoid a repeat of these problems, and Bethesda’s release schedules since have been considerably more cautious.

Two spin-off games bridged the long gaps between Elder Scrolls releases: first An Elder Scrolls Legend: Battlespire, released in 1997, and then The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard a year later. They were small, linear games that were enjoyed by fans but did not have the historical or commercial impact of their RPG cousins.

For the third time, an Elder Scrolls RPG was brought to market with a different setting and title to the one originally proposed. During Daggerfall’s development, the game was to be called Tribunal and set in the Summerset Isles, and would have been built using the SVGA version of XnGine, as used in Battlespire. Even when moved to Morrowind, it was to be “much closer to Daggerfall in scope”, and included the entire province and all five Great Houses. In its original incarnation, the Blight-cloud would have done more than harm the player; it would have destroyed whole cities. It was eventually decided that it was too grand and ambitious and Lead Designer Ken Rolston – legendary designer of Paranoia, RuneQuest and Dungeons & Dragons – scaled back the plans. Ted Peterson had left after Daggerfall’s release, but this was not the last major change in Bethesda’s tumultuous history.

The dawn of the new millennium was not kind to software companies, and in common with most of its peers, Bethesda was in trouble. In dire financial straits, the company split, with the departure of Chris Weaver and most of the Daggerfall-era staff, and the arrival of parent company ZeniMax Media – whose board includes Jerry Bruckheimer and Robert S. Trump. Bethesda had been allowed to continue making games with considerably more freedom that they might have had elsewhere, and their Hollywood backers’ attitude seemed to be dauntingly simple: make anything you like, but it absolutely must succeed.

The recruitment and promotion of a young preppy finance major from Pennsylvania is interesting for several reasons. Bethesda were to that point another technology company in trouble, and they chose as their project leader someone with an unusual mix of personal characteristics. Todd Howard was breathtakingly bold and ambitious, driving down to Bethesda Softworks and demanding a job there before he’d even graduated. He has the steely glint in his eye of someone quite used to playing corporate hardball – but it’s tempered with the twinkle of mischief and normally set into an expression of enthusiastic delight. It’s this warmth and charm that others latch on to, and has been instrumental in the development of Bethesda’s personality-based corporate strategy.

The next piece in the puzzle was finding the Tigh to Howard’s Captain Adama; like himself, someone whose expertise was business but whose passion was games. In 1999, Pete Hines left his day job in medical marketing and his hobby of games journalism to combine them as Bethesda’s new head of marketing. Although they’re the public faces of Bethesda, they’re not pulling all the strings. The industry schmoozing is taken care of by president Vlatko Andonov – someone who “stole” the corporate chef from his favourite restaurant when they wouldn’t give him his usual table – and there are dozens of non-designing staff who are less well-known alongside the celebrated development teams.

Bethesda have fostered a “people culture” – or, as their mission statement proclaims, “great people make great games”. It’s not a unique attitude – other companies refer to it as the No Asshole Rule – but it’s a thoroughly modern approach in which the thinking is that if people like their boss and like their colleagues, they’ll work harder and make better products. It’s certainly a rationale that seems borne out by the continuing success of the company.

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind’s development was a steep learning curve for the company, which ditched the XnGine and used instead a Direct3D powered engine to make use of NVIDIA’s GeForce 4’s outstanding water effects. Like Redguard, game objects were hand-placed rather than randomly generated (like Daggerfall). It was an immense undertaking and Bethesda tripled their staff, spending a year on the Construction Set that the developers used to build the game. It was slated for release in late 2001 on PC and xbox. Bethesda had courted Microsoft as soon as the xbox was announced, and showed off their beta at E3 2001 – though the game’s release was pulled back to the following year to avoid another disastrous release.

Morrowind was, of course, successful, and won over 60 awards including Game of the Year. By the time two well-received expansions – Tribunal (set in Mournhold) and Bloodmoon (a werewolf adventure on icy Solstheim) were released, the game had sold over 4 million copies. One of the things that marked out Morrowind was its unique setting: unlike Daggerfall or Arena, it was not cookie-cutter Tolkein territory. Throwing in the odd mix of mushroom-houses and medieval timber frames, Morrowind was somewhere between standard D&D fare and Dune-style steampunk mysticism. The Construction Set was released to the public, spawning a modding community that surprised the developers with its enthusiasm and scope. A number of modders were even recruited into Bethesda’s growing ranks, and work began on a new chapter of The Elder Scrolls.

Aside from the three mobile phone titles – Stormhold, Shadowkey and Dawnstar – Bethesda released no other games until 2006. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was announced in September 2004 and was intended for release in November 2005. It was to be made for the PC, the xbox 360, and the brand new PS3 console.

Oblivion would be fully voice-acted, and in contrast to the rather static characters of Morrowind, would feature Radiant AI – an exponentially more sophisticated version of character scheduling and behaviour than had been seen in Daggerfall and Morrowind mods. Radiant AI would have characters programmed to engage in unscripted actions – to seek food and a bed to sleep in, to steal from other characters and react to player-character behaviour. This being an Elder Scrolls game, it didn’t all go according to plan. Radiant AI was too clever and – just like the LOTR films’ MASSIVE AI system – misfired spectacularly in practice. Testers would go to a village to find all the inhabitants dead after a fight had broken out in the players’ absence. Having an NPC steal from the player wasn’t actually fun. The whole system was off-kilter and off-balance, and much of it had to be scaled back prior to release. Even the pre-release footage looked slightly erratic as though even top-end systems couldn’t cope with its demands, and it was clear that the game could not be completed on time. Oblivion was pulled back to April 2006.

All was not lost though, and Bethesda’s showing at E3 2005 was described by Pete Hines as “the greatest moment of [his] professional life”. When the game finally shipped the following spring, it sold 1.7 million copies on release, and a good 2 million more in the following year alone. In addition to another public release of the Construction Set, a number of official mods were released. Most were small, inexpensive additions – player homes and mini-quests along the lines of most fan-made mods – and though the fledgling “DLC” format took a while to find its feet (Horse Armour, the first, being particularly derided for being too brief for its cost) – a more robust business model was found in the lengthier and more substantial Knights of the Nine. It would be the template they used for Fallout 3’s popular DLCs.

Oblivion had been the overall Game of the Year in 2006 (winning more than any other game), but had faced strong criticism on certain aspects of game design: the levelling system, the re-use of voice actors (and different actors voicing the same character), the unattractive appearance of the NPCs, and the Uncanny Valley the game had been stuck in – where even though animations and actions were more lifelike than Morrowind, the game seemed more artificial. Morrowind did not place the player at the centre of the world – you were a stranger in a strange land, and NPCs would talk about each other without reference to the player-character. Much reference was made to the rich political lore of the game, with faction wars that the player was not fully involved in and could often not resolve. It all led to a strong sense that the world continued even after the player logged off the computer, even though Oblivion was the first game in which characters actually did act when the player wasn’t around.

That wasn’t the only fire the game would come under, after a player-made nudity mod sparked a row shortly after release. The American censors reviewed the game and – after satisfying themselves that the game was not pornographic – claimed that they hadn’t spotted the violent content when the game was originally submitted, and demanded that the game be re-rated, recalled, relabelled and redistributed.

There was no sensible way to address the levelling system until Fallout 3 came out in 2008, but Oblivion’s expansion – The Shivering Isles – could at least take care of the rest of it. It had fewer, prettier characters, each individually voiced with individually-crafted personalities, and its mushroom-laden hills and valleys seemed specifically geared to those pining for Morrowind’s exotic landscape. There was a greater emphasis on politics and faction wars, and a more grown-up approach to storytelling that came with the game’s new Mature rating.

If anyone had doubted that Bethesda could handle a Fallout game, Shivering Isles should have satisfied them that the team could easily pull off dark, complex themes and emotionally-resonant story-telling. Anyone can throw drugs, sex and torture into a plot and call it “mature”, but few games can pull off the emotional impact of that awful moment when Sheogorath’s transformation takes place, or throw in some of the sad, everyday grown-up conversations that take place in that world. Put simply, it was a masterpiece. Had Shivering Isles – and not Oblivion – been the full game, it would have been the greatest game Bethesda had ever made.

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Following its successful release, Bethesda acquired the Fallout franchise and outstripped even Oblivion’s fantastic successes by shipping 4.7 million copies of Fallout 3 in its first few days. Fallout 3 was an astonishing game, pulling together the best bits of the Elder Scrolls games and blending them beautifully with Fallout’s interesting premise and setting. It was as acclaimed as it was popular, winning over 60 Game of the Year awards – nearly twice as many as BioShock, the previous year’s overall Game of the Year – and was arguably Bethesda’s finest work to date.

As of yesterday’s interview with Todd in Planet Elder Scrolls, no announcement had been made on the future of The Elder Scrolls. We can only hope and assume that there will be an Elder Scrolls V, and they’ve given us no indication to the contrary. What we have to look forward to is fifteen years’-worth of legacy – of bold ambition and innovative use of technologies. Fifteen years’-worth of rich lore and Tamrielic history, culture and politics. Fifteen years of wild flights of fancy and astonishing attention to detail. Fifteen years of genre-blending and eclecticism, taking the most fun and interesting ideas and turning them into great level design and lifelike artwork. Fifteen years of memorable characters and unforgettable settings, including four times spent blinking in Tamriel’s light, devastated by the drama and beauty of a huge new world to explore.

Fifteen years of great games made by great people.

Bethesda during the development of Fallout 3

Bethesda during the development of Fallout 3


Interview with Todd at Planet Elder Scrolls


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