"I guess we just kind of know," Howard told us at PAX. "Content wise, we want to have a lot, and we want it to work well together. Mainly we're looking for a saturation of activity -- is there always something to do, without being overwhelmed. As the project goes on, we're finding areas where there isn't enough to do, and we keep adding. So the game always ends up a lot bigger than we anticipated. Though the theme of Skyrim is obviously "bigger and more," some aspects of Oblivion have had to be scaled back in the sequel. But Howard said that those decisions were motivated less by time and budget and more by a desire to present the richest overall experience.
"In Oblivion, we did ... maybe nine big cities? And here, we decided 'let's do five, and make them more unique.' There are fewer of the really large cities, but the ones we have here ... there's more to them," he said.
"We're also scaling back on some skills that didn't have ... like, you can still do hand-to-hand. In Oblivion it's a skill, but the way our skills work now, it's something we weren't going to pay off on. So we left it in, but it's not a skill. It's that type of thought process."
"The audience we have for our kind of thing is big enough that we don't have to tone it down."
That depth over numbers approach is also part of Bethesda's DLC plan for Skyrim.
"When we did Fallout 3's it was like a mad rush. We had two overlapping DLC teams and doing five of them and it was just ... a frantic pace getting these done," Howard said. "Our feeling is 'Well, let's slow that pace down.'" There's certain DLC from Fallout 3 that we're prouder of, that we think are a higher level of quality. So that's like, 'OK, let's try to do more in a single DLC, take some more time, spend some more people on it and do something a bit more substantial."
With all the growing Skyrim has done and will continue to do in DLC, it seems that Bethesda has omitted the most obvious opportunity for evolution: An online component. We asked Howard why Dovahkiin is a lone wanderer in a gaming industry that seems to be increasingly obsessed with finding a foothold in the MMO market. The answer, as it happens, comes down to a matter of taste.
"I like this kind of game better," he said. "You know, it's what most of us are into. I'm not really an MMO guy. I respect them, I look at them, but I don't play them. It feels more real to me when I'm the hero and it's crafted for that. A community aspect to it, I recognize a lot of people would want that in a game like this, but it changes the flavor for me.
It seems that audience will get everything it expects from Skyrim, including just a smattering of the ... well, let's call it "technical quirkiness" that Bethesda games are known for. Though Howard and co. have heard the complaints and try to address them, the occasional bug may not be entirely unintentional.
"We try to solve most of it, we're sensitive to a lot of it. There is a subset of that where we say 'Well, that's what can happen.' If there's entertainment value in that, whatever it is, we'll leave a lot of it. If it's gonna break the game, or unbalance the game in some way, we do try to solve it. If the solution is gonna make the game less fun ... well, hey, leave it in," Howard said, before adding with a smile, "It's their game."