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TVG looks back at the development of the most significant games from recent years...
Released to a rapturous reception on the PC and Xbox 360 during 2006 (followed in 2007 on the PS3), the latest chapter in the venerable Elder Scrolls series quickly established itself as the most successful instalment to date in terms of sales and mainstream acceptance. Following the release of Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind in 2002, Oblivion continued the trend of distancing itself from its hardcore roots, bringing a world of fantastical wonders to an audience more akin to SMG's and battle rifles than swords and sorcery.
With over 3 million sales to date for Oblivion the series' future certainly seems bright, yet underneath such success lies the backlash from an original hardcore fanbase who perceived the fourth chapter as being one-step too far in terms of accessibility and mainstream appeal. It's an opinion that Bethesda seems to acknowledge, yet the company's ambition to continue expanding its audience appears to be the prime motivator.
"Ultimately it has to please that core audience or it won't please anybody," claims Peter Hines Bethesda Softworks Vice President of PR and Marketing before adding, "for the most part it can be tough to point your finger at one person, or one group, and say 'this game is for them...they have to like it.'"
Hines refuses to elaborate on whether or not the consoles played a part in the issues that hardcore Elder Scrolls fans voiced after the release of Oblivion. Nevertheless it seems Bethesda Softworks remain fiercely committed to the home formats, upholding the mantra "as many people as possible," with the provision that, "the platform can support the game we intend to make."
At a time when development costs continue to spiral towards the stratosphere and the pressure to sell more units is higher than ever before, Bethesda's intent to continue delivering detailed, rich, and deep games means that such a strategy is inevitable and understandable. Despite some cries for a return to the complexities and rough edges that characterised the series prior to Morrowind, it's worth noting that the Maryland based developer still takes its time with each Elder Scrolls chapter and refuses to budge on quality - even if it meant delaying the release.
"Certainly our titles aren't cheap or easy to make," explains Hines "but fortunately we as a company have an understanding about what it takes to reach a certain quality bar and we allow teams the time and resources to get there."
Since the first Elder Scrolls emerged back in 1994, technology has been at the forefront of hitting such lofty targets and maintaining the series' principles of "[be] who you want, [do] what you want". Whilst Oblivion's 16 square miles of gameworld may seem a little measly compared to the 63,125 square miles available in Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, it's a classic case of bigger not necessarily being better. One thing remained true throughout much of Oblivion, away from the central search for the heir to the Emperor's throne, Bethesda had once again pushed the boundary with a game that encouraged exploration and rewarded curiosity.
Key to Oblivion, particularly in terms of the pre-release hype, RadiantAI promised the most authentic NPC behaviour to feature in an RPG. Unfortunately the hype appeared to have been just that as the final outcome found it's fair share of criticism with largely static routines that failed to deliver. It's a feature that Hines and Bethesda consider as an area to improve upon, "We feel like we're only scratching the surface of what we can do with AI for our NPCs," before adding, "I think we can make a lot of improvements and enhancements to that system. For other areas, we may blow something up altogether and start over if that's what we need to do."
Ultimately whether or not technology will empower developers such as Bethesda to continue pushing the gameplay boundaries with further Elder Scrolls titles remains unclear, "at this point, it's hard to say," says Hines, "the most important thing for us to stick with is that we don't rest on anything we've done in the past."
Regardless of the apparent concerns over reductions in Oblivion's scale, scope, and feature list, one of the game's most contentious issues surrounded the balancing system. Going against the time-honoured tradition of levelling-up and looting, Oblivion introduced a setup that Bethesda hoped would cater to both hardcore RPG fanatics and console newcomers alike. The result was a system that zealots were keen to dissect, quickly highlighting the slightly oxymoronic concept of completing the main quest and becoming the arena champion whilst still a lowly Lvl.1 character.
"Any time you have a game that lets you go wherever you want and do whatever you want, it can make it difficult to get the game balance right in every situation," explained Hines, perhaps recognising that the system wasn't entirely faultless. Naturally, such a large and ambitious concept is always going to be hard to bring to fruition and attempting to bring that realisation to two entirely different audiences makes the trick twice as hard. It's something that Hines assures us, however, is being looked at in their latest title Fallout 3.
"It works very different in Fallout 3 and, even though it's a different series and type of game, I'll be interested to see what folks think about the way things work in that game once it's released."
While Bethesda Softworks seemed intent on pushing the technology boundaries as far as possible with Oblivion, employing Emergent Game Technologies' GameByro game engine and making extensive use of Interactive Data Visualization, Inc.'s SpeedTree middleware solution to generate the luscious forests, Bethesda remain adamant that they didn't place too much emphasis on the perceived restrictions of licensing technology.
"We did so much of our own work in customizing our engine and technology that it didn't matter as much what is going on with the stuff we licensed. For example, we ported over all the rendering stuff for PS3 on our own rather than waiting for someone else to do it, so what platforms they formally support isn't as much of a factor for us and what we wanted to do."
"We did use middleware where it made sense, but you also have to understand that we did huge amount of custom coding in every part of the game," Hines adds, "So in the example of Speedtree, we used one part of that to help with the creation of trees, but everything else, including all the rendering, was done by us."
Despite the yearlong wait that PlayStation3 owners had to endure for Oblivion to arrive on the format, Bethesda maintains that developing on the much-maligned format shares the same sense of strengths and weaknesses as the Xbox 360. "Both the 360 and the PS3 have some advantages, but at the end of the day they're about the same thing...they just go about it in different ways." While the talk always seems to centre upon the trinity of the Xbox 360, PlayStation3 and PC, Hines assures us that Bethesda "always look at every available and upcoming platform when we go into development on any game (not just Elder Scrolls games) and will continue to make games available on platforms that will support them and make sense."
Released shortly after the launch of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Bethesda's initial foray into the world of downloadable content met with a vocal and voracious reception. Few Elder Scrolls fans will forget the uproar that surrounded the dubious release of the infamous 'Horse Armour Pack'; however, Bethesda quickly atoned for it with a series of packs that provided considerably more substance. Making what would traditionally be the expansion packs available online gave an early indication that the downloadable policy would work, proving the grounds for plenty of others to follow.
"I think it's worked out extremely well for us," Hines proclaims. "Certainly we took a few lumps at the start, but with nothing to go on we sort of had to blaze the trail and find out what worked."
Although development on Oblivion began four years before its eventual release, Elder Scrolls fans longing for confirmation of the fifth chapter are probably going to have to wait a little longer. Due for release towards the end of 2008, Hines steadfastly maintains "We're not talking about anything but Fallout 3 right now." Quizzed further about the possibilities of the next Elder Scrolls title exploring other areas of Nirn, Hines suggests that he personally feels "Tamriel still has a lot to offer", but notes, "That opinion has no bearing on what happens going forward."
Trying to gain any information on the secretive PSP port of Oblivion with the latest Elder Scrolls Travels title is equally ambiguous, "Still not talking about what's up with Oblivion PSP. We'll let folks know when that changes." Exactly "what's up" with the game remains unclear, though we'd imagine talk of its cancellation seems a little premature at this stage.
Despite the Elder Scrolls central focus always being upon delivering a single-player experience, the recent emergence of Zenimax Online Studios suggests that the parent company is looking at the possibility of securing its own share of the MMO loot. While we'll have to wait for the official confirmation as to whether their first attempt will be tied to the Elder Scrolls series, Hines elaborates a little on their work:
"ZeniMax's new company, ZeniMax Online Studios, was created to focus on the MMO space and so we'll have to wait and see what comes out of that studio when they're ready to tell us what they're up to."
If the thought of an Elder Scrolls MMO is enough to make you shudder with dread, it seems as though Bethesda are not ready to drop the single-player experience just of yet. "I think there is a huge difference between what a single-player game can offer and what an MMO can offer," adds Hines, "they are very different types of games and experiences. As you can see with Oblivion and the upcoming Fallout 3, the folks making those games are still very interested in expanding what can be done in a single-player game."
TVG would like to express its appreciation to Peter Hines for providing a look at the development of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Lookout for a further TVG.RETROSPECT soon.