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.

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