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TVG chats to the Producer of the highly anticipated sequel to Morrowind...
Many are calling Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion one of the finest RPGs they have ever seen. In this sequel to Morrorwind, trying to pick one or even a couple of the gameâ??s distinguishing features is impossible for it has so many. With its lush graphics, an impressive spells and combat system, not forgetting to mention over 200 dungeons and the kind of in game interaction that weâ??ve not seen to date, we could ramble on for hours. Better still, our very own Derek dela Fuente, a die hard fan of the brand, was able to put a fistful of questions to Gavin Carter, the Producer working on The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion!
TVG: Have you seen and been surprised by the amount of positive coverage by UK and European press pertaining to Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion?
Weâ??ve seen a great deal of attention given to Oblivion by the European and UK press, and couldnâ??t be happier about it. Itâ??s great to see your hard work garner worldwide attention, and weâ??ve certainly poured a great deal of work into Oblivion.
This is now the fourth Elder Scrolls title. What kind of progression do you feel that the game has made, and what would you say is the biggest change from the last release?
Oblivion represents a quantum leap over Morrowind. Every system has been worked on, polished, taken apart and put back together, and even totally reworked from the ground up when necessary. Tons of changes have been put in place â?“ Radiant AI breathes life into NPCs with full 24 hour dynamic scheduling. Our combat system has been reworked from the ground up to be more kinetic and fun. Weâ??ve implemented Havok physics into the game in major ways. Weâ??ve implemented a complete facial animation system with full lip-synching and all spoken dialogue. Thereâ??s not one system that hasnâ??t been touched. Picking out one change and calling it the biggest would be a disservice to all the other work thatâ??s gone into the game, I think.
With hindsight, would you have changed anything in Morrowind?
I would have given our team a lot more time and a lot more money. Hindsight is always 20/20, and I could certainly pick apart Morrowindâ??s flaws. But at the end of the day, Morrowind was a critical and commercial success, and even three years after its release it remains a vital touchstone for the RPG genre. I donâ??t think thereâ??s any more you could ask as a developer than to have your game still be a source of heated debate so long after it was released.
Please tell us about the story to Elder Scroll IV and how it continues on from Morrowind?
The actual plot is not a direct continuation from Morrowind. It takes place in the same world, and many themes hinted at during Morrowind will be plot points, but the game requires no knowledge of Morrowind whatsoever to enjoy. The story of Oblivion is the story of the fall of the Empire of Tamriel. The game begins with the Emperor suffering assassination by mysterious forces. The absence of a blood heir on the Dragon Throne loosens the magical bonds that shore up the barriers to the demon realms of Oblivion. As demons begin to swarm the land, you find yourself caught up in the hunt for the assassins, as well as a desperate search for a way to â??close shut the jaws of Oblivionâ??.
Would it be fair to say â?“ considering the relocation to Cyrodil and the hinted at exploration of Oblivion â?“ that this will be a much darker title full of courtly intrigue and black arts?
I think itâ??s fair to say that a game involving a demonic horde invasion qualifies as a dark game. The political landscape of the game world is highly fractured following the emperorâ??s assassination, and you will have to be cautious of the motives of those who would befriend you. There are even rumours circulating that in this black time, some have turned to the dark art of necromancy, and seek to raise armies of the dead for evil intentions.
Will â??new to the franchiseâ?? gamers be able to pick up Oblivion and play it easily without having played any of the previous titles?
Absolutely. As I said, knowledge of past games is not a requirement for Oblivion. The plot stands on its own, and players will find a lot of improvements to help them pick up and play the game a lot faster and easier.
Leading on from that, Elder Scrolls has traditionally been a very hardcore offering. Would you say this was a fair evaluation?
The Elder Scrolls series has always been rooted firmly in the hardcore RPG tradition, going all the way back to the original Elder Scrolls title, Arena. Oblivion follows the same tradition, with player skills and stats playing a major role, and player choices having a large affect on the game world and its characters. However, with Morrowind I think we saw that our kind of game appeals to a wider audience, given the gameâ??s success among more casual gamers who are neither â??hardcoreâ?? nor â??RPG geeksâ??. It turns out people like the kind of options and freedom we give them, and the pretty graphics donâ??t hurt either.
Please tell us about the character creation system and some of its options?
Character creation is similar to Morrowind in that you play through it as part of the gameâ??s opening. We like this approach as itâ??s far less of an abstraction from the menu-based character creation most games seem to employ. You get a greater sense of how the different game systems work before you commit to a certain class archetype. The mechanics of our character creation system work very similarly to our previous games â?“ you can choose a class or custom-tune your own by picking your major and minor stats. You also further enhance your character by choosing a birth sign, which grants advantages and disadvantages in some cases. Weâ??ve also tied our face creation tools into the process, so you can play around a lot with how your character appears. This includes pulling on the face to create new looks, as well as picking eye colour, and hair colour and length. You can even age your character and change your complexion as well. The possibilities are just about endless.
What are some of the progression awards that are available, and are the skills as extensive this time round?
Skills have gotten a few tweaks here and there. Mainly weâ??re focusing on balance. There are now 21 skills total, with seven skills in each category â?“ combat, magic, and stealth â?“ which makes things a little easier to balance. The big addition is skill perks. These are added abilities that you get as you increase in skill. These can be very simple â?“ such as the ability to repair an item all the way back to full health when you hit a certain skill in Armourer â?“ or more involved â?“ such as a chance to disarm your opponent at high weapon skills.
Of the many distinctive features of all Elder Scrolls games, their sheer beauty and attention to detail stand paramount. What 3D engine are you using, and was stretching the envelope a target for the team?
The technology of Oblivion is a combination of our own tech with some really great middleware. Gamebryo is the renderer we're using, and it has been tricked out by our own graphics programmers with the help of the NDL guys to go toe-to-toe with anything out there. We've developed our own AI systems on top of that, integrated Havok physics, SpeedTree, and a bunch of special modifications to really punch up the visual capabilities. Stretching the envelope was without a doubt a focus for us from the very start. We talk a lot about doing â??the RPG for the next generationâ??, and as you can see from our screenshots and trailer, visuals are a big component of that.
Tell us one technical feature you are most proud of so far, and what has next-gen development been like for the team as a whole?
Very tough to choose just one feature Iâ??m proud of. Our AI system, Radiant AI, would be a front-runner. It allows us to breathe life into the world with very little scripting. On the more technical side, our shadow implementation is very impressive. At the highest detail level, the system provides for full soft-shadows on every object, including self-shadowing. It is really a sight to see!
You must play and see many other games. Could you tell us what influences or inspirations have found their way into Elder Scrolls IV?
Across the entire team, we play literally everything thatâ??s out there. We even have people big into pen-and-paper games and even a few LARPers. So ideas for the game come from everywhere, even books and movies and television. One reason we like to take our sweet time with pre-production on our games is that weâ??ve got so many ideas. We usually have too many, and have to pare them down. Our biggest influences by far, however, are our own games. We look at what worked, what didnâ??t, and try to improve on everything.
Mounted steeds now make an exciting introduction within Oblivion; can you provide us with a little more information about this feature and how itâ??s implemented within the game?
You will be able to acquire a horse in Oblivion, and ride it around to your heartâ??s content. Horses grant you a nice speed boost, as well as really help capture that feel of being a knight riding around on horseback. There are several different varieties of horses to get, each with varying stats and look. While in town, you can store your horse in the stables, and pick it up when youâ??re ready to go. NPCs can use horses as well. If youâ??re not careful, they may even steal yours!
Melee combat in a first-person perspective has never been implemented with great success. So how are you going to change this, and what can we look forward to?
Improving the first person combat experience over Morrowind was a major focus of Oblivion from the very beginning. For starters, weâ??ve removed the â??to-hitâ?? roll, meaning you better forget about random dice rolls and move if you donâ??t want to get smacked down by your enemyâ??s warhammer. Weâ??ve changed block from a passive, random ability, like in Morrowind, into an active button press. When you block an enemy, they recoil for a moment, giving you an opening for attack. There are also staggers, where if you hit an enemy hard enough, theyâ??ll stumble backwards. You yourself will also recoil and stagger as well, so it adds a bit of strategy into the action.
Weâ??re particularly intrigued by the improvements being made to the AI, with promises of NPCs making their own choices dependant on the world around them. How dynamic will this Radient system be?
We have a lot of control over the system through the use of NPC stats and AI packages. Packages are basically bundles of instructions that the NPC executes under conditions we specify. The dynamic nature of the system allows us to be as specific or generic with those instructions as we want. So we can tell a guy to go shopping at a specific hour and leave it at that. So he will set off toward the shop, and any number of things could happen â?“ he might have a conversation with a passer-by. He might browse the shop items for a while. In rare cases, he might see a friend of his under attack from a monster, and run to help. We can override any of these behaviours whenever we see fit, so it allows for a great deal of variety in their behaviours.
Will the experience for one player be vastly different to another and, if this is the case, could you give us a few examples?
We try to design our quests with multiple solutions as much as possible, so the experiences of players who charge straight through the most obvious path and those who search diligently for backdoors will be substantially different. Our character systems have a great deal of variety built in depending on whether you play as primarily a fighter, thief, or mage. The experience of a skulking, stealing thief will be substantially different from the battle-hardened Conan types.
Could you talk a little about scope of the game â?“ i.e. will Oblivion have the same richness and diversity previously encountered in Morrowind?
Richness and diversity is our middle name here at Bethesda. Weâ??re working around the clock to make sure that this game, given its massive size, maintains a good deal of variety through the playing experience. Our landscapes vary from multiple types of forest environments, to mountainous regions, and even windswept fields and a swamp or two for good measure. Weâ??ve got a wide variety of dungeons â?“ ruined forts, ancient Elven ruins, caves, mines, and more â?“ and every town features a unique look. And thatâ??s all without mentioning the entirely alien landscape of the realm of Oblivion itself!
Thrown weapons have been removed in favour of bows and arrows. Can you explain the reason behind this decision, and does it represent an overall restriction to the fabulous sensation of â??choiceâ?? usually offered by the Elder Scrolls series?
There will always be an uproar whenever any feature that was present in previous games, no matter how small, is removed. But letâ??s face it - when you talk about ranged combat in an RPG, youâ??re talking about bows. We really wanted to focus all of our development efforts on bows and get the feel of those as close to perfect as possible. So we took bows and added in Havok physics, so arrows arc through the world and fall off with gravity. And we made arrows stick in enemiesâ?? bodies, as well as in materials like wood, while they will bounce off things like stone. You can even pluck spent arrows out of your enemyâ??s body. Weâ??ve added in a skill-based bow zoom to help out higher level characters pull off some slick sniper shots. Stealth bow attacks have their own animations. Weâ??re really excited about our bow implementation and think players are going to really enjoy using them.
Full speech for all dialogue sounds mightily ambitious. Can you describe the improvements that lay in store for conversation?
Ambitious doesnâ??t begin to describe it. The amount of voice recording we have in the game is staggering. For conversation, weâ??re doing full speech and lip-synching for everyone. Weâ??ve done some great work on our lip-synching tech and it is really impressive. Weâ??ve also got a full range of facial animations for different emotions. Surprise, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness â?“ we can assign them to wherever we want in dialogue, and give them varying intensities. NPCs will have random conversations about events in the game world with one another when they pass each other, and these conversations will vary depending on how much the NPCs like each other.
Can we expect anything more from factions within the game? For example, will they offer more than just missions to the player by forming more of a dynamic equation within the game world?
The highlights of faction gameplay are the big four from previous titles â?“ Fighters Guild, Mages Guild, Thieves Guild, and Dark Brotherhood. Each faction has been written as a complete storyline, so they have their own plots and individual character arcs. We like to think of each faction as almost its own game within the larger game. So elements of the larger plot will weave in and out of the story of whatâ??s going on with these factions. We also spent a good deal of time considering what happens when you hit the top of each faction, so it feels like a more rewarding experience once youâ??re â??doneâ?? with them.
Will we still be able to wander into a library and get lost reading the various history and heritage books of Tamriel?
Absolutely. We should have more books in Oblivion than ever before. Lots of old favourites and new ones as well.
For a group of people who traditionally spend a lot of time indoors, the development team has conjured up some impressive pastoral vistas. Was this the result of actual field trips/picnics or did they just research off the Internet?
We have gigs upon gigs of reference materials on our servers. Tons of pictures that the team has gathered from all manner of sources, including mountains of photographs snapped from ventures outside the dark confines of our office. We have huge numbers of nature books that our artists use for recreating authentic trees, grasses, and plants. Many team members have taken trips overseas and come back with reams of material â?“ texture images, reference photography of architecture, natural formations, etc. We pull from as many sources as we can get our hands on.
TotalVideoGames would like to thank Gavin Carter, the Producer of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblvion at Bethesda for taking the time to answer our questions. We look forward to losing ourselves in the world created by the development team when the game is released on PC and Xbox 360.