Because of anticipated burnout, wrist aches, and the unusually large volume of questions, I’ve set aside this Saturday to post my answers to as many of your queries as possible. We’ll probably start with Skyrim next week.
Da Mage asks: Considering Oblivion's other guild storylines, do you feel the more action-adventure MQ that they went with was the right choice over the proposed politics storyline?
The sluggishness of conveying complex topics through slow, deliberate voice acting, the orientation of Oblivion towards fast-paced adventure rather than ideological intrigue, and the overall amicably goofy tone its art style and physics convey meant that it was a very good idea to stick with a nice neat fantasy plot rather than a sprawling drama on the order of Daggerfall.
Note that even Skyrim‘s clash-of-ideologies storyline is told mostly through scripted visuals and in-universe components: things like Stormcloak patrols and public executions do most of the work of conveying that a civil war is going on intractably in the background.
Grey Cap asks: Do you think that the switch (from Morrowind) to a bland, standard fantasy skin was necessary for the franchise's growth? Or could the developers have kept the weird and allowed the new style of gameplay and storytelling to carry the sales?
That’s a really tough question, one I’ve heard asked many times before–one that’s inevitably loaded with the biases of the responder. So here’s my biased response: yes, the game had to migrate to a broad approachable fantasy setting to reach mass appeal. Morrowind‘s style of alien transport was very good at getting a medium-sized devoted audience, the sort who would generate the day-one sales that allow for Oblivionesque productions in the first place…but the problem with the truly alien is that it alienates. By its definition, it drives away potential sales. It’s totally survivable to market a niche product to an eager and devoted fringe, but that does not represent the kind of franchise growth Bethesda clearly wanted.
Maybe nobody anywhere is as crazy about Cyrodiil as some of us are about Vvardenfel. So what? They’re only trying to make us buy each game once. When Skyrim came out and it was grey snow and grey snow zombies I grumbled, I pined, I bought the videogame. “Somewhat boring” is rarely a dealbreaker in AAA videogames.
Neko asks: What did you think of Shivering Isles?
The original game’s dungeons are linear corridors scattered with twenty versions of the same obnoxiously tough boringly-themed monsters. The area added by Shivering Isles is a beautiful, creative, and vibrant world populated by linear corridors full of the same obnoxiously tough interestingly-themed monsters. It’s cool, but it’s not fun.
Henson asks: What's your opinion of the switch from a keyword-based dialogue system to a system where your PC's dialogue is fully written, given how these systems work in an â€˜Elder Scrolls' game? Would certain changes have to be made to the â€˜Elder Scrolls' formula to make one or the other approach more viable?
Pretend you’re a voice actor, go back, and try to read all of an NPC’s topic responses from Morrowind aloud and dramatically. You will suddenly realize a.) that there’s a lot of really redundant information that sounds stilted and stupid when read aloud over and over, b.) that the amount of information being conveyed verbally really slows down the pace of whatever you’re doing, and c.) what had felt sort of like a conversation when you were abstractly digesting information now feels like you’re touring a museum with a malfunctioning headset. It’s a literary approach: it works to get the largest chunks of data into your characters’ head as possible, it stinks for moment-to-moment drama facilitated by voice acting. What changed between games to make this switchover necessary? Basically everything.
Kikito asks: What is your opinion on the “portals to the daedra dimension” (or whatever they were called)? I personally found them a bit repetitive and boring, but the loot they provided was too good to pass.
I resented that because enchanting is now solely the purview of the Mage’s Guild, and prohibited unless you a.) do a bunch of potentially tedious quests or b.) know how to glitch your way through the gate (which I did), Oblivion Gates are the only way to get enchanted weapons. It’s one of the few times the game really twists your arm about doing content. You need enchanted weapons. It knows exactly what it’s doing by making you literally jump through flaming hoops to get them.
The sole redeeming quality of the run through lots of Oblivion Gates schtick is that it was presumably easy on the developers. From a player perspective it’s annoying and repetitive.
Kaljtgg asks: How much did you mod the various games and did you feel that once you did, the game improved in a significant way?
I never modded the games until Skyrim. That was the first game where I felt like there was some genius level of gameplay hiding just below the surface, waiting for the touch of a sufficiently-gifted modder to bring it forward–stuff like hunger/thirst, cold weather exposure, big bright colors–stuff that felt like it honestly should have been in the basic game, stuff that could be implemented skillfully without any ugly and obvious hacks. The biggest mods for Morrowind and Oblivion had a kind of fanfiction quality to them, a sense that their game is not my game and we should probably keep it that way.
Mersadeon asks: What is your opinion on the introduction of pregenerated traps in Oblivion?
I feel like there’s two implied questions here. What did they add? They added a novel showcase of the physics engine, a level of variety to the very repetitive dungeons, and tools for generating scenes and emergent scenarios with NPCs and monsters. Could the resources needed to make them have been spent better? Honestly, probably not. They needed something to spice up dungeons and given the materials they had to work with, this was the most parsimonious and practical solution.
Tzeneth asks: What was your favorite quest in Oblivion? Whether you take that as to complete or to examine or story wise is up to you.
It says a lot that this is a genuinely hard question, because I can’t really say that about any of the other games. I’m going to tentatively say Sheogorath’s quest where you trick a town into thinking the world’s ending. It’s funny, it’s devoid of combat, and it has a neat reward.
Decius asks: Across The Elder Scrolls games, the quest rewards don't include â€˜experience', since the leveling mechanic doesn't use that concept. How do you think that changes the quest design and incentives to complete quests, and in what ways are those changes notable to the design space and play space?
I think the fact that you don’t get a direct pat on the head for cashing in a quest is a huge part of why the Elder Scrolls games are the kings of single-player open world titles: they show conspicuous respect for the player’s time. In any game where quests give XP for completion, you are inevitably going to end up doing something you don’t really give a shit about so you can cash in and level up faster. You’re trapped between your desire to play in the most optimally fun and productive ways and your inability to reconcile those will make them both less appealing. To put it another way: the satisfying thing to do is the thing that is both smart and enjoyable. If you have to choose, you won’t be satisfied.
That’s so rarely a problem in Elder Scrolls titles. If somebody tells me to go collect a dozen mushrooms, I know the main reward of that is going to be that I have collected a dozen mushrooms. If I feel like rounding up fungi there’s just enough incentive to reward my labors; if I don’t, I’ll probably be okay. It’s hard to go back to MMOs after tasting that.
SoranMBane asks: An inordinate number of Elder Scrolls players never bother to finish (or sometimes even touch) the main questlines of these games (for example, only 28% of Skyrim players on Steam have the achievement for beating the main questline). Why do you think that is, exactly?
Most players don’t finish most games, and in Elder Scrolls games “completion” is presented nebulously and lukewarmly enough that I’m surprised even 28% of customers:
- Install the game
- Start the game
- Decide to keep playing the game past the intro
- Remember that the main quest is a thing/distinguish it from all the other storylines presented
- Pursue it all the way through, ignoring other distractions
- Do so while signed in or otherwise able to record an achievement (I know I lack badges for about a hundred of my own gaming accomplishments)
James asked: Is the Dark Brotherhood quest in oblivion set in the manor house (i think its called summerhome) perhaps the single best quest Bethesda have ever made?
It’s a perfect Bethesda quest. It’s a clever idea, you don’t have to think about it too hard, and it’s so much fun you don’t notice it’s completely broken.
Here is a 13 part series where I talk about programming games, programming languages, and programming problems.
So what happens when a SOFTWARE engineer tries to review hardware? This. This happens.
The Mistakes DOOM Didn't Make
How did this game avoid all the usual stupidity that ruins remakes of classic titles?
MMO Population Problems
Computers keep getting more powerful. So why do the population caps for massively multiplayer games stay about the same?
The Game That Ruined Me
Be careful what you learn with your muscle-memory, because it will be very hard to un-learn it.