The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion Interview: 4/5/2005
Nick "bapenguin" Puleo and Jonathan Yi "Liquidize105" Shin Xu (Jashin) from EvilAvatar.com
Gavin “kathode” Carter and Emil Pagliarulo from Bethesda Softworks
bapenguin: Alright, let’s get the ball rolling. We’ll start with the obligatory “who are you and what do you do” question.
kathode: My name is Gavin Carter. I'm a producer at Bethesda for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
Jashin: What does a producer like yourself do exactly?
Emil: Yes Gavin, what DO you do exactly? Damned if I know :)
kathode: I do all sorts of stuff to "facilitate the development process." I think that's my job description. Basically I work primarily with the programmers and character artists to keep them on schedule and take metrics and make sure everything stays on track. I manage our database of bugs and development tasks, work with 3rd party contractors whenever it’s needed, and go to a LOT of meetings :)
Jashin: Ah yes, the lead position; lots of peeking over the shoulders.
Emil: As for me: I'm Emil Pagliarulo, designer on TES IV: Oblivion.
Jashin: Emil, you are a Thief guy, which Thief game did you work on?
Emil: Yep, I am. I did some level and voice acting work on Thief Gold, and was senior designer on Thief 2 and Thief: Deadly Shadows.
Emil: On Oblivion, I'm the designer tasked with the Arena and Dark Brotherhood quest lines. The Arena lets you join up as a combatant and compete in matches in all the cities. You can also bet on matches in all the cities, too, if you want to make some gold. The Dark Brotherhood is our assassin’s guild... That's our primary "evil" quest line, where you're a murdering psycho, and you like it. I've also been pretty heavily involved in the stealth gameplay as a whole.
bapenguin: What is the team size on Oblivion compared to Morrowind? Has it grown much, or about the same?
kathode: It's grown quite a bit. I think we're over 50 now, and that's not counting our internal QA staff. We've picked up a lot of really talented people in the time since Morrowind.
bapenguin: Let’s talk about the shadow comment, kathode. We've seen lots of screenies, but no shadows yet.
Jashin: Hold it. You can’t get into shadow just like that!
Jashin: Start with graphics first!
bapenguin: Works for me :)
Jashin: Oblivion's pretty easy on the eyes, wouldn’t you agree, bap? ;)
bapenguin: Yup, them graphics sure be purdy.
Jashin: Hehe, the underlying game engine is Gamebryo, right?
Emil: Yes, it is Gamebryo, but we've done a lot of "special modifications" ourselves, if you get what I'm saying. Gavin?
kathode: The underlying engine is a combination of our technology with a bit of 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.
bapenguin: SM 3.0?
kathode: We are using some SM 3.0 stuff, but it is mainly for optimization purposes so you will probably see all or at least most of the effects with a SM 2.0 card. It will run better on a 3.0 card though.
Jashin: “Bigger, longer, more content-saturated than Morrowind”… With such a beefy graphics engine, how would you make good on the promise of surpassing Morrowind?
kathode: Yes, Oblivion is bigger as far as land mass goes. On the art side, it is a challenge, as higher fidelity art does take longer to produce; we have developed several specialized tools to help us with these problems. For instance, we have tools that can procedurally generate landscape based on parameters we provide, which just beats the pants off of doing it all by hand like we did in Morrowind. Adding lots of really talented artists has helped a lot too :)
Emil: I think with Morrowind, one of the biggest criticisms was that the NPCs felt a bit stale. There were so many of them, and they weren't unique enough. With Oblivion, we're really taking pains to imbue the NPCs with specific personalities. That includes facial expressions, specific dialogue responses, and stuff like that. That's really just ONE way we're exceedingly what Morrowind had to offer. Another area of the game that has really gotten a stellar treatment is that of cities. When you look at the cities/towns of Morrowind, like Seyda Neen, they pale in comparison to the cities in Oblivion....
Jashin: Everything's on a 1:1 scale with the real world? So if a player looks up from beneath a colossal monument, would the player actually feel like he/she is being engulfed by its overbearing proportions?
Emil: Well, it depends on the city, really. They all have such a unique look and feel. You'll certainly feel that way in the Imperial City, whereas in Bravil the buildings are smaller, older, and generally more run-down. The world artists have done a fantastic job of creating these urban fantasy environments that rival anything I've ever seen. Walled fortifications, towering castles, creepy alleyways, etc.
kathode: Yeah, sense of scale is definitely something we're striving for in everything. Wait till you see the Imperial Palace. It's huge!
Emil: But yeah, the Imperial Palace... Yeesh!
Emil: When compared to Morrowind, there is a TON more variety. Adds a nice change of pace. Actually, we call Skingrad our "Thief" city, simply because the architecture is so reminiscent to that in the Thief games. Brings a tear to me eye…
Jashin: Rope arrow? lol
Emil: Ha! Don't I WISH!
Jashin: Thief it into the game ;)
bapenguin: Will there be seamless loading between zones? Does it still load when entering a "dungeons?”
Jashin: Yes, that's a very important, and often overlooked part of the gameplay experience.
kathode: We will still be going with loads between interiors and exteriors. This is because it allows us to dramatically increase the detail of our environments in general. You don't have to worry about keeping around or loading on the fly a lot of art for the interiors while you're walking around the exterior world. For exteriors we are doing everything we can to keep loading as transient as possible, including aggressive implementation of multithreaded code. I can't promise a completely seamless experience, but we are doing everything we can to maintain very high fidelity environments and keep loading down to a minimum.
Jashin: Fair enough.
bapenguin: Any plans for dual processor support then? Considering the upcoming dual core processors from Intel and AMD this year, which could be very beneficial.
Jashin: As you can see, bap’s all about tech.
kathode: Oblivion will definitely benefit from a multi-processor setup.
bapenguin: That rocks hardcore!
Last edited by bapenguin; 04-11-2005 at 08:02 PM..
Jashin: With this level of simulation, is the game story as well-planned? Is there a coherent story? An ultimate purpose?
Emil: There's definitely a coherent story and an ultimate purpose, and the player is thrust on this "main quest path" from the very start of the game. Whether or not he/she deviates from that path, well, that remains to be seen.
Jashin: Well, I’m what you’d call a “totalist,” you know. I like to do everything.
Jashin: Tell me, how does questing provide incentive for the player to advance the game story when it's so open-ended?
Emil: Like any Elder Scrolls game, the player is free, pretty much at any time, to go off and discover the world for himself/herself. Join a guild, go exploring, do miscellaneous quests, etc. Our journal system also gives the player a lot more immediate feedback on important goals. If you veer from the main quest, it's really easy to pick up those pieces and get back on it again.
bapenguin: So the journal entry system has improved over Morrowind.
Emil: Yes, journal is much improved. Not only the journal UI, but the way in which we, the designers, have been using it. We give the player much clearer goals, and state those in the journal so the player has a record of his/her adventures. The next objective in any quest is also right there at your fingertips.
Jashin: Is there a big likelihood that when a player wanders off, he/she will end up killing context-sensitive characters or forthcoming events?
Emil: It's possible, sure, but if that's the case, you can bet we're handling that contingency… That's the key word around here, "handling." It's about covering as many bases as you possibly can, handling every conceivable outcome, because God knows what the player is going to do, and in what order. And generally, the more freedom we give the player, the better.
kathode: Being one of the very few games where you can, in fact, kill anyone and everyone, is something we have to plan for and deal with. But the chances are slim unless you start going on murderous rampages.
Emil: For example, some Dark Brotherhood quests "enable” your target NPCs when the quest starts, but just as many have those NPCs already available in the world beforehand. If you kill one of those NPCs before you get the quest, well, the quest handles that. So when you get the quest, it may be completed a second later because you've already dealt with the NPC in question. Again, we try to cover all the bases.
Jashin: And the dialogue would take this into account?
Emil: Yes, it would.
bapenguin: Jashin, are you going to ask about the radiant AI now?
Jashin: A well-knitted web of quests, that's one of the purposes of “radiant,” or at least that’s the impression in my mind from reading other published info. Quest-giving is the task of NPCs, and the NPCs are controlled by the radiant AI system.
Jashin: Tell us exactly what the “radiant AI” system does.
Emil: You first, Gavin
kathode: The radiant AI system is our world-spanning 24 hr. AI system for NPCs. It's one of the things we really set out from literally day one to improve over Morrowind, and this time around it's so much better that I refer to our NPC AI as a brand new feature. The "radiant" part just refers to the fact that NPCs will react with their surroundings - so they might examine objects they find interesting, they might go look for food if they get hungry, they'll sit on a bench and read a good book, they'll have conversations with other NPCs about what's going on in the world. The cool thing about it is that it's not scripted at all. It's all governed by rules we can dictate in the editor. We give the NPC goals, and they choose how to complete the goals based on their personality traits - aggressiveness, responsibility, confidence, etc.
bapenguin: Will they react to things given to them by the player? Say you give NPCs books, will they sit down and read them? It would be kind of like how the NPCs act in Fable.
kathode: Those things are possible, though giving NPCs items would get handled through dialog. But yes, if there arose a situation where you gave an NPC a book, the possibility that he'll start reading is there. You could also very easily create a "book collector" character who loves nothing more than to go around buying up books. All these things are pretty easy to do with the system.
Emil: When you have NPCs you can schedule for 24 hours, and who actually have the ability to act autonomously, you as a designer really need to be careful. Because let me tell you, some unexpected things can happen. I had a Dark Brotherhood NPC who was sneaking around on her own, and I wasn't sure why. Turns out she was scheduled to eat, but didn't have any food, and because her "responsibility" level was so low, she was skulking around looking for some munchies to steal.
bapenguin: Nice, a junky.
Jashin: Is there a difference between the radiant AI and Gothic2's NPC AI?
kathode: I really can't make a comment on the inner workings of Gothic 2's AI. I think they were going for a small world with a lot of stuff going on and did a great job within those confines. I think our system is aiming to add in a bit more randomness and variety to our NPC routines, and better flesh out things like NPC conversations.
Jashin: We talked about autonomous gameplay, now let's talk about player-driven gameplay experience.
Emil: Okay, shoot.
Jashin: How does the range of weaponry/magic work or has improved?
bapenguin: And along the same lines, what’s being done about play balancing? Melee vs. Magic for example.
Emil: Man, such an improvement; mostly because the combat system itself has been completely revised, from the ground up. The melee system has undergone a complete renovation, but all of the combat skills (melee, ranged, magic) benefit from special moves the player gets as he/she increases in ability.
kathode: Yeah, balance is something we're definitely paying a lot of attention to and being very careful about. You should see some of the crazy spreadsheets full of stats our designers are generating. Magic is getting a real critical look to make sure the effects can stand on their own. Like we say, if you never want to touch a sword, you shouldn't have to.
Jashin: I bet play balance is a huge grind.
bapenguin: I bet it's also funny as hell when something doesn't work as you’d expect.
kathode: Yeah, it's a lot of playing, comparing notes, playing some more, comparing more notes, etc. But you know, we actually do have a lot of fun playing around with the new combat system and tweaking it and really polishing it up. I think people are really going to enjoy it.
Emil: We just recently got done with a big melee combat balance pass. That's the player against another NPC using a melee weapon and possibly a shield. Now we're deep into balancing the player's melee combat against monsters, so you can bet all the other attacks get the same sort of treatment.
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Jashin: When you say complete overhaul, what does it mean? What's been changed?
kathode: The basic change between Oblivion and Morrowind’s combat is the removal of the "to-hit" roll. So basically your attack is based on collision. There's no more having your sword pass through enemies mysteriously without hitting them. In watching people play Morrowind, that ended up being a huge source of frustration for a lot of people. It's like, “Why aren't I hitting him? My sword is going right through them.”
Emil: In Morrowind, every weapon had a "best attack," but really if you just whaled on an opponent you'd eventually bring him down. Melee combat, for example, is now much more tactical. When you face off against an opponent, you circle each other. He strikes, you raise your shield to block, and then you counterattack. Maybe you stun him, and then move in with a "power attack."
Jashin: Everybody hates playing an RPG and miss at pointblank. Jesus Christ.
kathode: So we started playing around with a system where it's more collision based, so if you see the hit happen, it hits. Once we got to playing around with that, we got to thinking about all the other cool things you could add into the system to make for a more dynamic combat system. Stuff like making block a button press, and making characters recoil when they get blocked.
Emil: Yeah, and it looks and feels solid. Oh my God, when you see someone get hit with a two-handed war hammer. Ouch.
kathode: It adds a layer of strategy to the combat that wasn't present in Morrowind - all you had to do was turn on "best attack" and wail away. Stats still have a large effect on determining damage. There are also skill perks that add in things like a chance to disarm your enemy, or extra knock-back, so it's not just all twitch. Go up against a guy with perfect weapon skill, and you better start saying your prayers.
Jashin: Does specific weapon/magic inflict specific damage? Like arrows would pierce, magic would burn, swords would puncture and lacerate? Or are things still point-based?
kathode: Hmm, not so much of that. I think it gets a bit complicated to represent all that different type of damage when you're playing a game with any kind of action-oriented combat, like The Elder Scrolls games have pretty much always been. Health damage and fatigue are the basic barometers of any enemy's status.
bapenguin: What about combat on mounts? I heard there is no mounted combat, any good reason for this? Balance issues?
Jashin: Tell us why mounts are only a speed boost and not an extension of standard gameplay.
kathode: It's primarily an issue of balance and focus. We poured a ton of effort into this combat system, and we want the primary focus to stay with player vs. player (or creature) combat. Person on person, with the guy right up in your face. We want to make this as polished and as realistic and gritty as possible. Once you've got guys whizzing by on horseback, that focus goes right out the window. It practically becomes an entirely different game.
bapenguin: That makes sense. An entirely different set of rules to test.
kathode: It definitely is an entirely different set of rules. We think of horses as a method of transportation. It just feels right to ride out into the wilderness on the back of your horse. Ride off into the sunset, you know. That sort of thing.
Jashin: Hmmm, what about a more practical solution to this, instead of removing it outright?
kathode: The balance of our combat system is a MAJOR focus for us. Once you toss in horses, the goal of the game becomes to get a horse, so you can get higher than everyone and start golf-clubbing them around. I'm not saying adding in all the extra features that mounted combat would require would necessarily be a bad thing, I'm saying that given how fully-featured our current combat is, we feel we need to keep our focus on polishing that and making it as good as possible.
Emil: Yeah… Other fantasy/medieval games have obviously offered horse-based combat. The Joan of Arc game, some MMOs, but none of them have offered the kind of intense, mano-a-mano 1st person combat like we're doing. On the ground, it feels fantastic; on a horse, different story, different rules.
Jashin: You said earlier hitting relies on hit contact, so wouldn’t a decrease in the chance to hit encourage the player to stop and wail on hostiles side by side?
kathode: Not sure what you're asking with that question. Do you mean the best strategy is just to stand still and click fast?
bapenguin: I think he's saying that if you are on horseback there should be a rule governing your hit probability vs. ground combatants.
Jashin: Well, I bet a lot of people take mounted combat as being charging a standing enemy on horseback.
kathode: Yeah, when I think of mounted combat, I don't think of just standing still and knocking on guys. I think of charging and making that feel really good. There are probably rules you can add to solve most of the problems I can think of, but again, you're taking away the focus of what we really want combat to be and feel like.
Emil: Jashin, I think at that point you're just better off getting off of the horse anyway, because really, being mounted is adding nothing to the experience. Not like that, anyway.
bapenguin: Do the mounts increase your inventory at all?
kathode: Right now I don't think they increase your inventory. As far as other solutions - don't know. What we really don’t' want to do is to throw in something half-assed just to say we have it. That's not being faithful to the wishes of our fans or anyone else, including ourselves.
Jashin: Okay, so mounts work as a boost of movement speed only. Would high speed movement impact the framerate? And are the ponies summoned, or like us guys, they have needs too?
kathode: Increase in speed shouldn't impact the framerate, no. Mounts are not summoned. You take them around with you and keep them in stables when you don't need them.
Emil: Mounts aren't artificially summoned the way they are in some fantasy games. You don't rub your horse figurine and have him magically show up in the world. Your horse is an actual in-game entity, like an NPC. Though your horse travels with you when you "fast travel."
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Jashin: Stealth, tell us about stealth in general.
kathode: I'll let Emil handle this one, he's the Thief guy after all
Emil: Well, the most important thing to remember about stealth in Oblivion is that, unlike in Thief or Splinter Cell, your ability is based as much on your skills (or more so) than it is the darkness level, or the sound you generate...
Jashin: But darkness and noise level are still factors in the overall equation, are they not?
kathode: Absolutely, they are still factored in. But like combat, your character's skill plays a big role as well.
Emil: If you approach a guy in total darkness, wearing soft leather boots, and your "Sneak" skill is 5 out of 100, he's going to see you, and he's going to kick your butt... We've also given the player much better audio feedback for stealth. NPCs will react as they do in Thief or Splinter Cell, with unique spoken dialogue for spotting the player; THINKING they spotted the player, losing the player, that sort of thing.
Emil: It’s tough, you know. I'm playing Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory right now, and SO much of it plays like the classic Thief. Shadows and darkness are all important, but both Thief and Splinter Cell are games with one core gameplay mechanic - stealth. Yeah, there's combat, but the game's primary development was in the area of stealth. In Oblivion, we need to deal with magic, dialogue, skills, etc. etc. In an RPG where you can play as ANY type of character, it’s tough.
bapenguin: It also becomes a balancing issue. If you focus too much on stealth, stealth may become too useful, right?
kathode: It can get that way, you're right. It doesn't mean we intentionally hobble it though. It just means that if stealth is really cool, we've got that much more pressure to make combat and magic really cool as well
Jashin: Stealth is a game by itself.
Emil: Yes, exactly. If we had a stealth model as good as that in Thief, where shadow was all powerful, an Orc in platemail could sneak up on a master assassin. One of the things I've been doing is utilizing the other core Oblivion systems to compliment the actual sneaking. Let me explain.
Emil: In Thief, Garrett doesn't talk to anyone in the world. Ever. He picks their pockets, he knocks them out. But in Oblivion, the player can join the Dark Brotherhood and play as a character who CAN engage in dialogue. So what would you say to someone you need to kill? How could you use dialogue as a weapon, to intimidate, to trick, etc. I've been having a lot of fun doing stuff like that, and I'm really hoping the player will enjoy that type of flexibility in Oblivion.
Jashin: Can I put on my poker face and bluff? You know, get the best of a higher level character?
Emil: Possibly. All of that dialogue is unique, so it depends on the quest, the NPCs you're dealing with, etc. But you'll always have a few dialogue options.
bapenguin: Hey! I just realized this, but kathode you never answered my question on shadows.
kathode: Liquidize smacked you down earlier, bap. I can do it now if you want.
bapenguin: Go for it.
kathode: Well a few people have noticed that in our screenshots, there's a distinct lack of shadows. We held off on shadow development for a while for technical reasons, but we recently got it off the ground. And I can tell you that at full detail level our shadow system is unbelievable!
Emil: Yeah, those screenshots were basically taken before the shadows were implemented. Well, they're in now, and they look pretty incredible.
kathode: Our graphics programmer really knocked it out of the park. Imagine Doom 3 done with soft-shadowing instead of hard stencil lines.
bapenguin: Release some fully shadowed screen soon
Emil: Shadow screens? I can imagine they'll be coming in the not-to-distant future.
kathode: It does self-shadowing, as well. The whole nine yards and then some. it's really quite incredible. I imagine we'll be putting out screens probably with our e3 stuff.
Emil: Yeah, I mean, the shadows look as good or better than any of the stuff you've seen in Thief: Deadly Shadows, Riddick, or Splinter Cell.
kathode: We're still working on optimizations for them and things like that. They'll take all the processing power you can throw at them, but I'm sure we'll work out some options so people with less than cutting edge systems will be able to enjoy them as well.
Jashin: bap, are you satisfied now?! >:]
bapenguin: Yes, thank you.
bapenguin: Personally I thought the music in Morrowind was amazing. Jeremy Soule did an awesome job. Is he doing the music for Oblivion? Is there going to be dynamic mixing of music? IE depending on the situation and area, different sections of the score would flow in while keeping the same underlying theme?
kathode: We can’t really talk about the details unfortunately. Hopefully soon. I can say that we're doing a lot more with contextually based music than we did in Morrowind, so places like taverns and churches will sound different than dungeons this time around. More stuff along those lines, and some ideas we're not ready to talk about just yet.
bapenguin: Anything to add about other aspects of audio production? What kind of variety can we expect in the voice acting?
Emil: Well, because our NPCs are capable of showing emotion in their facial animations during a dialogue, that gives us a lot of flexibility in the kinds of lines we can write. And those notes will be passed on to the professional voice actors. So you're going to hear a lot more NPCs who sound angry, or scared, or surprised, or what have you.
kathode: All of our dialogues are voiced, and I wouldn't be surprised to find that we've got more of them than any other game ever (a guess, but it wouldn't surprise me), so you should hopefully hear quite a bit of variety.
Jashin: Wow, the next Deus Ex of dialogues, perhaps?
bapenguin: As long as it's not Deus Ex 2.
kathode: I'll take one more question if you want to rake me over the coals about bloom or something
bapenguin: Haha. Bloom, for style or realism? And what are your thoughts about its current level of use in the game?
kathode: Well the take home point is that so far, everything we've released has been done with a SM 1.X image space effect.
kathode: We're very close to having a full 2.0 implementation of High Dynamic Range lighting up and running, the key difference is the "dynamic" part of it. The HDR lighting will tone up or down the areas of the screen that get brightened based on the overall screen brightness. It's a much more robust effect than standard image space stuff, and it looks a whole lot better.
Jashin: Oblivion's pretty bright and rosy, does stealth absolutely must happen in the dark?
Emil: No, not necessarily. It still depends a lot on your skill. Everything's factored into the stealth formula, but if you're a master of stealth with a "Sneak" skill of 100, you could walk up to a guy in broad daylight and he wouldn't know what hit him. It's no small thing to get your skill up that high; so if you do, you deserve the perk, believe me.
bapenguin: Alright, consoles. I know you guys can't comment on WHICH consoles you are working on, but there is more than one console version in the works correct? Will the console versions support HD?
kathode: Can't really say anything about next generation consoles, sorry. Hopefully the companies will release some more info at E3 and we can dive in deep to that topic.
bapenguin: Ok, had to try :-)
Emil: Okay, I have to go home now and kill some Peruvian mercenaries with my kids. After that, we may even play some Splinter Cell. Thanks for having us!
kathode: It’s been fun guys.
Jashin: No problem, the pleasure is all ours.
bapenguin: Thank you so much for all your time!
Last edited by bapenguin; 04-11-2005 at 08:05 PM..
I noticed that although they didn't confirm that they were developing for specific consoles they did seem to confirm in an offhand way that they are in fact developing for next-gen consoles. I knew it was widely speculated, but at least these guys have confirmed it.
The only question I came up with reading it was whether or not there will be a expanded item placement interface. Surely I'm not the ONLY giant nerd that spends time making the house I stole look sweet arranging all the weapons I've stolen and/or killed for.
It should go without saying that I don't expect this to make or break the game, but it would be pretty sweet to lay everything just the way you want it (books standing up, sword standing in corners, you know).