The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim Q&A With Lead Designer, Bruce Nesmith

Richard Walker

Games simply don't get much bigger than The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Arguably, it's the year's most-anticipated, biggest title and whether you're into fantasy or not, you'll no doubt be keeping an eye on the game. Having conquered Cyrodiil in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and checked out Skyrim once already we still had more burning questions to ask though.

Enter Lead Designer, Bruce Nesmith, who via the magic of electronic mail answered our Skyrim questions with sharp, succinct answers, ahead of another long overdue look at the game at this year's E3, which is nice.

If you want to know more about the fifth Elder Scrolls in the series, including info on weapons, combat mechanics, monsters, dragons and how it'll raise the bar for open-world action RPGs. Read on!

So if we can kick things off from a more theoretical standpoint. Now, it’s quite clear that Oblivion was such a huge success and was a standard setter from early on in the console life cycle. What lessons did you learn from your first console outing that you brought forward into Skyrim?

There are so many great games that come out every year; that bar is constantly going up. We’ve challenged ourselves to push the limits of the console like never before. One look at the detail level of the world proves that.

Fallout 3 was often described as “Oblivion with guns,” does the natural evolution of things mean that “Skyrim is now Fallout with swords” then? Obviously Skyrim says a big hello to perks and the world levelling is more akin to Fallout as opposed to Oblivion’s, but what else did you bring forward or maybe learn from the adventures of the wasteland?

Once Fallout 3 was released, we heard a lot less of “Oblivion with guns,” because it really wasn’t.  In the same way, I don’t think you can call Skyrim “Fallout 3 with swords.” Obviously all three games share the big open world treatment that we are famous for, but that’s really where it ends.

I think one big lesson we learned is that players want the world to feel alive. They want the characters to feel real and they want the world to change and react to the things they do. Fallout 3 did this much better than Oblivion and we think Skyrim will do it much better than Fallout 3.

At the BFG Showcase in Utah, Todd Howard briefly touched upon the ecology in the game world, specifically mentioning packs of wolves hunting mammoths. What sort of effort has been put into the ecology and what can we expect to see wandering the various environments of Skyrim?

When we first sat down to make the lists of creatures and encounters, we organised everything by ecologies. Every creature fits into a set of creatures so that the group makes sense as a whole. You won’t find random mixtures of monsters in a dungeon, or wandering the frozen steppes. They have defined predator/prey and ally/enemy relationships. So we have giants that keep herds of mammoths -- if you don’t disturb them, they won’t bother you. We have wolves that hunt deer. We have undead draugr that climb out of coffins to attack those that disturb their rest.

What can we expect to see in terms of item/weapon drops? Are they random? Scripted? Should players expect plenty of neat, unique items and plenty of loot?

All of the above. I like to describe our loot drop system as controlled randomness. The sets and groups of things you can find are tailored to the situation. Necromancers don’t drop the same loot as bandits. Within those groups there is randomness. We might know the bandit chief will drop a magic weapon, but not which weapon. The Necromancer will drop a staff, but exactly which one is random.

The rewards from the quests are much more controlled. Rescue the son of a clan’s matriarch and she will give you a specific reward. Frequently these are unique items that aren’t found elsewhere in the game.
One of the hallmarks of our games is an abundance of loot. We have thousands of different weapons and pieces of armor, not to mention potions, scrolls, alchemy ingredients, jewelry, gems, etc. Also many of the unique daedric artifacts are making a return. So we’re giving the player the best of both worlds.

Obviously there’s a lot of attention being put into the world and dungeon diversity, but what can we expect from inhabitants of Skyrim itself? Should we expect a huge diversity in monsters/creatures/townsfolk/wildlife? What about any non-cliché and wholly original creatures?

A lot of familiar creatures are making a fresh appearance in Skyrim, although all have been reimagined and have new looks and behaviors. The troll from Oblivion is also in Skyrim, but he’s far cooler this time around. Our number one new creature is of course the dragon. We’ve put a tremendous amount of effort into making them great. As for other creatures, we do have some new ones that are in our lore, but that we’ve never used in a game before. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

There’s a lot of chatter about the new skill system in Skyrim and what you’ve taken off the table and what you’ve streamlined... like Mysticism for example being cut, as well as acrobatics and athletics, what other skills have you cut from Oblivion and what new ones are you introducing in Skyrim?

We looked at the skills from Oblivion for their usefulness and clarity to the player. Some skills just weren’t very useful as skills, such as Acrobatics. Others were confusing, such as Mysticism. We wanted to pare the list down a bit to get to the best and most fun skills.

Melee weapon skills are now distinguished by the single most important attribute they have. Can you use it with one hand, or does it take two? The differences between Blade and Blunt in Oblivion were minor. You didn’t really have a reason to choose one over the other. In Skyrim, the choice is between using a weapon and shield, or a really big two-handed weapon and no shield. The differences between swords, axes and maces comes out in the perks you choose. So you will still have a reason to choose axes over swords.

In the case of magic skills, we liked the spells from Mysticism and have kept most of them. But they got redistributed to the other skills. So we didn’t so much cut it as we reorganised it.

It’s already been revealed that sharp weapons such as axes and son on can leave wounds that can bleed over time. Will we be able to see these wounds and such visually? And is there any possibility for any sort of dismemberment?

You can’t see every sword cut on your opponent’s body, but you do see them getting progressively bloodier as you hurt them.

If there was one thing at the BFG Showcase that stuck in my mind with what Todd said, it was the whole “everything they can do, you can do” mantra. Can you maybe go into a little more detail on that... Can you really do every job and such that the townsfolk are doing?

Absolutely. They chop wood, you chop wood. They sharpen axes on a grindstone, so do you. They mine ore, and you can too. We’ve always allowed you to sit in their chairs and sleep in their beds. This is just an extension of that.

I think it’s fair to say that Oblivion’s combat probably didn’t stand the test of time. You’ve done things like dual-wielding, mix and matching spells/weapons, etc with different hands for Skyrim, as well executions and mapping melee movements to the analogue stick; what else can players expect from the combat to keep it fresh?

The rhythm of block and strike is much better. You really feel like you are engaged in a duel. With a tough opponent, if you just flail away and don’t use some tactics, you’ll find yourself in a tight spot. You get knocked around by blows and can knock your opponents around too. A number of the perks open up new combat options, like hitting multiple opponents with a single blow or zooming in and slowing down time with a bow. Todd likes to describe the combat as much more visceral, and I have to agree with him.

Todd said recently that the game world was roughly the same size as Oblivion’s. Can we expect a more concentrated world this time though? In Oblivion there tended to be lots of wide-open spaces and nothingness... or do you think that’s more important to the illusion of creating this world? More importantly... will you even get it all on one disc!? Does the Xbox’s new disc size help in respect to that?

This was a big lesson from Fallout: always have something interesting to look at and or do no matter where you are. Sometimes a wide open space can be a cool vista view. But if you travel through it, you’ll find interesting points of interest or encounters. We definitely have taken the old saying “half the fun is getting there” to heart when it comes to filling up the world.

What’s your approach with the achievements/trophies this time? They’ve come a long way since Oblivion and Bethesda have already proved with Fallout 3 that they’ve changed with the times. Is there a science to it or is it what makes sense at the time of developing it?

Listen to the players. We have far more achievements and trophies dedicated to general gameplay. Players really like those; Fun things like amassing a lot gold, serving time in a prison, finding a large number of dungeons, or find a daedric artifact will all get you an achievement/trophy. Of course we still have a substantial number of achievements dedicated to progress through the quest lines too.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is out on November 11th, 2011.

  • SKYRIM, SKYRIM, SKYRIM!! 11/11/11 can't come soon enough
  • So stoked, there better be a collectors edition
  • Already EXTREMELY excited for this :P
  • I need to change my pants
  • im not really looking forward to skyrim at all. But i will still get it and see what its like
  • How was Mysticism confusing? Taking out Athletics and Acrobatics? One weapon skill? No classes? It sounds like they're dumbing down a lot of things I liked in the previous games. And I really hope there's no auto-leveling system like in Oblivion. It wasn't terrible but it was really annoying sometimes. They should use the system from Morrowind. Even with those complaints I'm still excited to play it.
  • I love it!!!!! Can't wait for details on a limited edition :D
  • I'm still a little upset that the achievements were never transferred over to the PS3 when trophy support was put in place. I feel as though that was a little lazy on Bethesda's part. Regardless, I am still super excited for Skyrim, come on 11/11/11!
  • Can't wait to loot and pillage.
  • Wow This ill be amazing!
  • Looking Good :)
  • They better treat this game like they did TES:4 or Fallout 3, because if Brink and Hunted are any indication of the gameplay, then this game is fucked.
  • Wetting myself in anticipation....
  • @13 they didnt make Brink or Hunted, they published it
  • Good interview. Nice to hear that the trophies will have more variety than Oblivion's achievements. That was a pretty boring list, but a fun game. Not enough variety though. Hopefully the new engine in Skyrim will be more stable than in Oblivion and Fallout 3.
  • OK, it's still not exactly crystal clear for me... Does anyone know for sure that you can duel-wield knives/swords? One in each hand?
  • @15: They had better start reveiwing the games that they publish then, otherwise the developers failures will be associated with Bethesda for now QA.
  • @17: Todd Howard said that you can duel-wield weapons in a the Game Informer magazine. If Two Worlds 2 has a fairly decent duel-wield system then I am confident that TES:5 will be able to pull it off-be.
  • Skyrim > BF3 AND MW3 Put together...
  • This looks AWESOME. already preordered and still cant wait for release. It's such a good sign that they seem to forget that they helped develop fallout: new vegas. it wasnt that bad a game but it was nowhere near the standards of oblivion or fallout 3. Well if they arent acknowledging it then maybe that means they know it was bad and have ignored their design for that. Bethesda always work better on their own anyway. Bring on November!
  • cant wait to play this one
  • doesnt it look abit like demon souls
  • meeean
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