Bethesda's Todd Howard on Skyrim's biggest development hurdle, fan-made mods, and what happens next

Xav de Matos
X. Matos|03.12.12

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Todd Howard and his clan of designers from Bethesda Game Studios walked off the stage with top honors for 'Game of the Year' at the 2012 Game Developers Coice Awards last week, for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. As the large group shuffled off to party, Howard, the company's boss, took a few moments to speak with the media.

Topics of discussion quickly merged into one frame of thought: what happens next? Everyone wants to know when the first piece of downloadable content will launch, how will it change the award-winning experience, and more.

Howard, being as used to sidestepping media inquires about unannounced items as he is working with a talented team, quickly shot those questions down.

Our focus, however, was slightly different. With a game as large as Skyrim, we wondered what complications arose during development. What is the hardest part about crafting a world meant to live on its own, away from the player's eyes?%Gallery-139026%"For us it's probably the amount of processing power we keep to rendering on the screen. So, we have a game that we can put all this stuff on a screen, but we have a ton of processing we're doing that isn't on the screen," Howard explained.

"Most games, all your processing you see on the screen, but we're calculating a thousand NPCs. Do they want to travel from one city to another? Is there a dragon coming? Technically, we want to be pushing the game and have it look new and look exciting, while also processing all of the stuff you can't see ... in case something happens."

According to Howard, the balancing act between processing situations around players as well as far off in the distance is the biggest technical hurdle the team at Bethesda faces.
It's easy to make a video of [new Skyrim] content, Howard said, but taking those ideas and forming them to completion so they fit into the game is a different story.
At DICE 2012, Howard revealed an internal video featuring content Bethesda employees created for Skyrim as part of a 'Game Jam.' The direction for the week-long event was simple: make anything you want, but make it in Skyrim. Some of the added content included a lycanthropy skill tree, rideable dragons, and more.

"They liked all of it," Howard laughed, when asked what feature the community was clamoring for the most. "There's two responses we get: 'Wow, that's amazing. When do we get it?' and 'That only took you a week? Why don't we have it now!'"

It's easy to make a video of that content, Howard said, but taking those ideas and forming them to completion so they fit into the game is a different story. Howard wouldn't tell us his favorite feature from the Game Jam -- "That will lead your readers on a certain path," he joked -- but he said that he was impressed with the amount of content his team was able to produce in such a short period of time.

"There was very little of it that was 'meh,'" he said, "but that video only showed about sixty percent of it. The rest we just didn't have video for. I was impressed by the amount of stuff everybody created and how great it was as a totality for that week. It blew me away."

Howard's tone was gleefully proud. Yes, Skyrim has been awarded multiple awards, but his pride appears to be focused on his team more than anything.

As for the Creation Kit content, Howard hasn't personally used any of the mods but notes some of the team have added fan-made content and/or enhancements to their games. He didn't want to call out any mods specifically for fear of leaving people out, but Howard did say that the community is "very, very good" about picking their favorite mods "and they're usually right."

Now that Bethesda has two established franchises in its pocket -- with Fallout and Elder Scrolls -- the question becomes whether or not the Maryland-based development house alternates between the two franchises or does something new.

"People think we plan further ahead than we actually do," Howard laughed. "The games are a big undertaking and we kind of take it as it comes. Right now, we're focused on supporting Skyrim and DLC.

"[Skyrim] still excites us, and there are so many people playing it that we want to support them." There still is no timeframe on when additional content will come to Skyrim, we're told.
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