In an entertaining keynote presentation at DICE Summit today, Skyrim director Todd Howard said gaming has become the premiere entertainment medium – and showed off some amazing Skyrim brainstorming.
Revealing that Skyrim’s total player base had reached more than ten million, Howard said the “millions” of PC players among them had clocked up an average of 75 hours playtime each.
If that weren’t proof enough that games are winning the battle for our free time, Howard made reference to a US Supreme Court decision of 2011 ruling games are an art form, arguing that games combine art and technology with something even more important – letting players be their own “directors”.
The veteran developer said games can give an emotion most entertainment and art media cannot – a feeling of pride in accomplishment. He gave a personal example: Winning an NCAA championship on the PS2.
“You can design for this,” he urged attendees, asking them to make great games however and wherever they can, “because games are the greatest form of entertainment.”
Citing Skyrim as an example, Howard said Bethesda’s goal was to tell the story through the player’s actions, and other character’s reactions to it, creating a loop of surprise, learn, play, challenge, and surprise again – but with the player in control at all times.
One example of this design manifesto is the game’s opening, in which the player can travel with another character or immediately pursue independent goals, and what that character does next depends on this choice – granting ownership of what’s happening.
Skyrim Feature Glut
Howard entertained the audience by giving some insight into Bethesda’s creative process. After the team wrapped up work on The Elder Scrolls V, they spent a week pursuing whatever projects they chose, and bringing it all back to Skyrim.
In an amazing video reel, Howard showed off a huge number of ideas Bethesda tossed around during this jam, from graphical effects like flowing water shaders, seasonal foliage, and better underwater visuals, to new enemy types, like different kinds of giants and gitan crabs. On the combat side, he showed different kinds of arrows, mounted combat, more stealth options, spears, kill cams for non-melee attacks, expanded follower commands, and a werewolf skill tree.
New mounts were spotted – a burning horse, and even a dragon – as well as fast travel waygates and building your own house.
Howard said some of these ideas might be developed into patches, mods, or premium DLC, while others were just for fun.
He also gave examples of ideas which had troubled development histories – horses were nearly cut, and at one point could carry items for you; dual wielding was added after Howard was inspired by a Conan statue; Bethesda considered a “Cinekill” system like Fallout’s VATS; and at one time dragons were going to remain in the air rather than fight on the ground.
One of the developer’s two golden rules of game design is “keep it simple” – he commented that feature glut is all too easy with RPGs, and commented that some of the ideas the team tossed around, like the a scrapped Sims-like relationship management system, were cut because in the end they couldn’t see any point to them.
Howard’s other rule is “great games are played not made”; he said for the last six months of development, the art team played Skyrim non-stop, and that ideas were trialled internally instead of through external focus testing. Bethesda wants to streamline design so developers can play games sooner.
You can watch a full replay of Howard’s keynote on Gamespot.