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The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - An Interview with Bethesda Softworks
game: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - An Interview with Bethesda Softworks
posted by: Chris Martin
publisher: Bethesda Softworks
developer: Bethesda Softworks
date posted: 12:00 AM Wed Mar 9th, 2005
last revision: 09:04 AM Mon Mar 27th, 2006

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It might seem like the next generation of consoles is far away, but a glance at the screenshots for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion will make you long for the days to come. Recently, Bethesda Softworks\' producer Gavin Carter was kind enough to take the time to answer our questions regarding this highly anticipated title. So sit back, relax, read, and salivate.

GamesFirst!: Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was a breakthrough for single-player role playing games in part because of its open-endedness. Other sources have reported that you are continuing this trend, but what can we expect for advances in this open-ended game structure?

Gavin Carter: The Elder Scrolls games were pioneers in open-ended gameplay going all the way back to Arena. You can certainly expect us to continue the trend with Oblivion. Our advances come in the form of refining and improving the gameplay elements most basic to RPGs - combat, exploration, dialogue - and adding in new features like Havok physics and our new AI technology. Also, taking steps such as putting markers on your compass and maps, and refining the journal to make sure the player is never at a total loss for things to do. The goal is to make Oblivion one of the most entertaining RPGs ever and create what we like to call the RPG for the next generation.?

GF!: We\'re all excited to know about the new races. What new races can we expect and what drove the decisions to create them?

GC: All of the races that were featured in Morrowind will be making a return. You\'ll be able to play as human variants, like Nords and Imperials, Elf variants like Wood Elves or Dark Elves, Orcs, and the two beast races? - Khajiits (cat-people) and Argonians (lizard-people). All the races feature individual perks and powers, and the options we give you for customizing your individual character\'s looks are much more powerful than in any of our previous games.

GF!: Each race interacted with the NPCs in an altogether different way and allowed multiple times through Morrowind with new content. How have you expanded on this interaction, what affect will it have on the gameplay?

GC: On top of the individual bonus powers and skill perks you\'ll get for each race, your race has an effect on how NPCs will react to you. We build in racial prejudices to some of the races that modify one NPCs disposition to you, or their disposition to another NPC. So, for instance, High Elves are haughty and don\'t care much for the Wood Elves. So when you see a Wood Elf go walking by a High Elf, the High Elf might turn and look and give him a sneer. If the Wood Elf tries to engage the High Elf in conversation, you\'re probably going to get a short, unfriendly talk between the two of them. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Khajiits are a tight-knit race, and have a strong positive bonus when dealing with each other. So you\'ll see Khajiits warmly greeting one another, smiling, and having engaging conversations. As a player, this bonus will manifest itself in better or worse prices from merchants, as well as having to persuade or bribe NPCs who don\'t like you into giving up their information.

GF!: I look at games like Everquest II and World of Warcraft and think, \"Morrowind combined the feel of a MMO game with the overall balance of a single player role playing game.\" In which direction has Oblivion veered, if at all? More towards the feel of a MMORPG, or a single-player only game such as Knights of the Old Republic II?

GC: The only similarity I believe our games share with massively multiplayer games is the massive? aspect. With Oblivion, our focus is squarely on doing a content-rich, entertaining, and engrossing single-player experience on a massive scale.

GF!: I love single player, but one of my biggest hopes is for the ability to join up with a friend and play the quests together, fight alongside another person cooperatively - even if it\'s just one person. It\'s probably not going to happen, but could we maybe see this happen in, say, an expansion to Oblivion, or maybe in Elder Scrolls V?

GC: You won\'t see any multiplayer functionality in Oblivion. As I mentioned, we\'re focused on providing the ultimate single-player experience. Doing a multiplayer component opens up a whole new host of technical and design issues and would seriously detract from the single-player experience. We\'d rather focus 100 percent of our efforts on doing a fantastic single player game.

GF!: Even without multiplayer, we here at GamesFirst! have this feeling of awe just talking about Oblivion. How has the game become grander than Elder Scrolls III?

GC: In many ways. For one, there\'s not a single game system from Morrowind that we haven\'t taken a critical look at and tried to improve upon. Skills have been rebalanced, combat totally revamped to be more exciting and fun, and our NPCs have fully voiced dialog and a completely new AI system. Every NPC in the game has a unique face. The game world itself is larger than Morrowind, so you\'ll be able to spend a great deal more time traversing through forests, plains, and mountains, looking for new and bigger monsters to slay and dungeons to plunder. We\'re really going all out for a sense of epic feel? in all our environments. We\'ve pushed our view distance extremely far out, so you can see for miles - mountains, towns on the horizon, grand forests in the distance, everything. We\'re also pushing multi-level environments to a higher degree than we did in Morrowind. For example, we\'ve built cavern environments with narrow paths that circle around massive pits and crevasses. You can leap down, fight some monsters and collect some loot, then discover a tight, winding tunnel leading up to the surface. Varying the environments like this keeps things fresh and interesting as you explore.

GF!: How have the NPCs been revamped for Oblivion as opposed to Morrowind?

GC: Reworking our NPCs is a major focus for us with Oblivion. Everything about NPCs has been redone from the ground up. For starters, all of their dialog is fully voiced. Being able to actually hear the characters speak out loud really adds to the atmosphere. We\'re making revisions to how dialog functions in the game as well. Gone are the encyclopedic database characters of Morrowind who had lists of generic topics that scrolled off the screen. We\'re trying hard to give all NPCs a sense of personality and keeping their topics down to things that are interesting and unique. The dialog system itself has been revamped to remove the hyperlink-style keywords sprinkled in among the dialog. You\'re now presented with topics and dialog choices in between NPC dialogs. We find this helps you focus on the information (as well as our incredible facial animation system) much more, instead of just hunting through the dialogs for the colored words like in Morrowind. The biggest change, though, is probably our world-spanning 24-hour AI system, dubbed Radiant AI.? We use this system to provide a goal-based framework for an NPC\'s daily schedule. We can dictate when they get hungry, where they sleep, what type of items they want to acquire, where they like to shop, and any number of other things. All of this is accessible through menus, so no scripting is involved. We\'ve used this system to set up everything from normal NPC town schedules, to rival adventurers you run into in some dungeons who are out looking for the same treasure you are.

GF!: Morrowind offered many chances to capitalize on a chosen speciality, such as stealth, casting, archery, or good-\'ol fashioned combat. How has Oblivion maintained the balance and how has it improved upon it?

GC: Improving the balance between classes is something we knew we needed to focus on in Oblivion. In Morrowind, playing a pure? thief or mage was something of an unreasonable challenge given the game balance. In Oblivion, we\'re striving to make each specialty - magic, combat, and stealth - be more of a full-fledged system that can stand on its own. So stealth now is based on light level as well as your stealth skill. A thief will want to stick to the shadows. Magic is getting love in the form of tying the system in with Havok physics in a lot of ways, and rethinking how certain spells function to make everything be more useful. Our goal with Oblivion is that if you never want to pick up a sword, you won\'t have to.

GF!: We\'ve seen screenshots from Oblivion and they look gorgeous - it seems to be shaping up quite well. What difficulties did you encounter trying to redefine the world of Elder Scrolls visually? Have any of these choices impacted the way you designed dungeons or towns?

GC: The only difficulties we encountered is that our vision of how to bring the world to life visually required a lot of technical innovations to bring to life. We\'ve implemented our own shader systems, fantastic middleware packages like Havok, and much more of our own technology to make sure our artists have total control and freedom to create what they imagine. It\'s impacted our design process in that our world has an order of magnitude more artistic detail than even Morrowind had. We\'re taking a lot more care to make sure there\'s a good deal of variety in each and every dungeon

GF!: When you\'re sitting there, playing the game, testing it, do you go: \"Wow, I can\'t believe we created this!\" or, \"We need to make this better, more streamlined!\" In other words, how many versions of each area have you gone through before getting it right?

GC: Our design and production pathways follow a fairly iterative process. I\'m not sure anything at all you\'ll play in Oblivion will be truly version 1.0. We tend to be our harshest critics internally, and we\'re constantly reworking things to make them better. Everything we do gets passed around, discussed, picked apart, and reworked until we\'re sure it\'s as good as it can be.

GF!: I remember how awed I was when I saw the water effects in Elders Scrolls III, then with the water effects in Half-Life 2, I was just blown away. What kind of \"Holy crap!\" exclaimation are we going to have when we see the water in Oblivion?

GC: Morrowind was one of the first games to feature pixel-shaders in its implementation of the water, and we were very encouraged by the positive response we received. So much so, in fact, that virtually every object surface in Oblivion will feature some sort of shader to more accurately model its real world counterpart. This includes specular shaders for wet stone and metal, parallax and normal mapping to bring out structural details like bricks and rocks, and special shaders for magic visuals and a host of other effects. We hope the water is just another amazing looking aspect to an already amazing looking scene. As far as the water itself goes, other games have done some impressive stuff with water, and you\'ll definitely see us keeping up with the Joneses and then some.

GF!: As for the next generation consoles, how are they shaping up? And have you had any issues building the game on them?

GC: Sorry, that\'s not something we can talk about.

GF!: What about the new construction set? I mean, it was already incredibly flexible in III. Any notable improvements or additions?

GC: The Elder Scrolls Construction Set that will ship with Oblivion will feel very familiar to anyone used to doing Morrowind modding. We\'ve made some changes to the overall flow, and how data gets laid out, but the basics of being able to just grab any object and drag it into the world remains the same. The biggest changes are in the areas of dialog and landscape creation. For dialog, we\'ve totally reworked the way it\'s constructed so that everything is organized by quest. In Morrowind it was very difficult to just look at just a single quest in the editor, so we\'ve made that workflow much easier. The landscape tools allow you to do large-scale land generation procedurally. You pick an area, set up your parameters such as what types of objects you want, how close together you want them, and about a hundred other options, and hit Generate.? If you want, you can go in and tweak the result by hand, or set up your options again and re-generate.

GF!: How will Oblivion be scaled down for lower-end video cards, and will Oblivion run on my GeForce FX 5200?

GC: We hope to include even more options than Morrowind had for scaling the visuals up and down. We\'re still finalizing what the specific options will be, but you\'ll be able to toggle specific shader effects, reduce lighting complexity, and some other high-level things in addition to the usuals like changing resolutions. Since we\'re still optimizing the engine, we\'re not ready to talk about specific requirements just yet.

GF!: Finally, what key feedback and criticisms influenced the changes in Oblivion?

GC: We\'re constantly listening and talking to our fanbase about what they want to see in the game. We like to think of each successive game in the series featuring More of what you love, less of what you hate.? So we listened to the fans on things that they wanted improved, and some stuff kept coming up over and over again. Things like NPC schedules, improvements to the combat systems, and mounts are all things the fans have wanted, and things we made sure were a priority from the beginning. Also, no more cliff racers. Like I said, More of what you love, less of what you hate.?

GF!: Thanks for taking the time to respond. We\'re all biting our nails with anticipation of Oblivion. Take care!

GC: Thanks for the opportunity.