The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Interview – Ins, Outs and Dragon Shouts With Matt Carofano
Written Saturday, November 05, 2011 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
Inarguably one of this year's biggest and most hotly-anticipated games, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim seems like so much more than just an RPG, and indeed, getting into it, you realise that it really is so much more than an RPG.
It's an action game, it's an expansive open world, it's an experience... It's art. And as a work of art, we thought it wholly appropriate to have a bit of an old chinwag with Skyrim's Lead Artist, Matt Carofano, who also happens to be an old hand at this stuff, having worked on Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout 3 and more.
So, we managed to take some time out of Carofano's hectic schedule of formulating, creating and building vast, ambitious fantasy worlds to talk dragons, environments, characters and the art of Skyrim. Beautiful, beautiful Skyrim.... Read on, friends.
How did you set about formulating new concepts and ideas for Skyrim following Oblivion?
The main thing was that Oblivion was sort of a traditional medieval fantasy game, so we knew coming off that, we wanted to do something that explored a new area that had a bit more culture to it I guess, and a bit more of a distinct look. Skyrim was a perfect location, and we were excited about doing the home of the Nords and what that could be like. That's where it came from. And every time we make a new game, we want to make the biggest RPG that we possibly can and have as much stuff to do as we can, so we make a big list of stuff we want to do and how we can improve the game. We don't stop putting things into the game until the very end, and then we have to cut it off and say that's enough. But we try to improve ever aspect that we can.
How daunting is it to have such an enormous game world that you have to fill with interesting and immersive things for people to do?
It is a hard challenge, but it's also very fun. We like making these huge open world games and the challenge of that is, you don't know where the player is going to go. They might just start the game and head off straight into the mountains, so our job is to make sure that there's something interesting and fun there. We have a good balance of how many dungeons there are in the game and where they're located, how we lead you to things like that and we've done a better job on this game in directing you towards quests and other content.
What kind of lessons have you learnt in creating Oblivion and Fallout 3?
When we began, we wanted to make a world that didn't feel generic, so the style was a big change we wanted to make and we wanted to give the player a little more focus, but also a little more freedom. The system for how you level-up has completely changed. We found that in Oblivion, people would play for a while and realise that they didn't quite have the character they wanted to play, so they'd have to start over, and we didn't like that. So now if you don't like that you're heading down a certain path of skills, you can just try out new ones and it's not really going to hurt you in developing your character. There's more freedom there, and we also found better ways to lead the player to quests. You can get rumours about quests and overhear people talking about them, you can talk to people in the taverns and they'll give you things to point you in the right direction towards things to find.
So there's more flexibility in your character's class as well as in the customisation then?
Yeah, absolutely. There's more customisation not only in the look of your character, but also in how you play. Now you can use both your hands to equip weapons and spells, so that allows a lot more complexity in combat and a lot more options. It's more fun.
What kind of rare and unique items are we going to be able to discover in Skyrim?
There are a lot of rare and unique items, and a lot of those you'll get by playing quests. Often they're a reward for finishing quests, but one of the cool things you can do is actually craft your own items. You can go around the world, collect ore, melt it down to make ingots and then turn that into a sword, then you take that sword and sharpen it, [and] make it more powerful. And if you're really crazy and get into it, you can enchant the sword and you can poison it. There's so much you can do with the crafting system, and it's a really good way to become a powerful character.
We've heard a lot about your character acquiring Dragon Shouts in Skyrim. Can you explain a little bit more about what they are exactly?
Dragon Shouts are actually the language of dragons, so when you see a dragon breathing fire, they're actually speaking these magic words, and you as the player – you're called Dovahkiin (Dragonborn) – you're the prophecised returning hero, who can defeat dragons. That means you have the soul of the dragon within you and you can learn their language, and actually speak their words of power, so you can shout their dragon magic back at them.
Fighting dragons is an epic thing, but if you haven't encountered one, it can seem like a daunting task, actually taking on a dragon. It might be a good idea to explain how it actually plays out...
Well, the dragons are very dynamic in what they do, so have a lot of different abilities. They'll land and eat people on the ground, or swoop over and shout magic down on them. What happens early on, is the first dragon you're going to meet, we want to make sure you have a little bit of help with you, because you're not going to be used to it. A good way to fight dragons is to get help from other people, whether it's a companion follower who will venture with you, or whether you're fighting a dragon near a town, the guards and some of the townspeople will come and help. Once you've fought a few dragons, you might begin to form your own kind of tactics in how to handle them, but definitely go into them prepared with lots of potions or whatever preparations you want to make for the fight. They're going to be a difficult challenge.
But you don't necessarily need to have levelled up to a certain point to fight a dragon?
No. They'll be really hard if you're at a very low level, so early on in the game, they're going to be pretty difficult and there are different types of dragon that are more difficult than others. But the challenge will remain throughout the game.
On the topic of levelling up, what changes have you made to the player levelling system?
The main difference is every skill counts towards levelling, so you can play every skill now and not feel like it's sort of a waste. And every time you level by raising your skills, you'll be able to pick either health, magicka or stamina, so that'll increase, and then you get one perk. The perks are really what's important in becoming more powerful, because they can give you new abilities and just make you a lot stronger. Most of the power in the game is gained through the perks and there's a lot of strategy in that, because you can level up a lot in the game, but ultimately you're only going to get maybe a third of the perks at best, and that's going to take playing the game a lot to get that far. You really need to pick which perks you want to play with.
In terms of Skyrim's environments, we've primarily seen a lot of grassy expanses, forests and snow-capped mountains. What else can we expect to see in Skyrim as far as locations are concerned?
Somewhere in the middle of the game, there's a big open tundra area, so you get tons of really distant views and open grasslands. Then on a similar side, there's a volcanic tundra, so you get bubbling mineral pools and steam vents. We also have a frozen marsh to the north, there's a canyon region, a northern coast of ice floes. We added a lot of different landscape environments to make the world feel varied. We were very worried and didn't want to make a game that was just snow and mountains, as that would be a bit boring after a while, so we tried to mix it up a lot.
There must have been literally thousands upon thousands of pieces of concept art for such a huge and varied world then.
Yeah. There's thousands of sketches and paintings. We've done more concept art on this project than we've ever done in the past, and that was a tremendous help in figuring out all of the different items and locations we wanted to make. We have an art book that's actually in the Collector's Edition and it's a good coffee table sized book with over 200-pages of the art of Skyrim, and it's mostly the concept work.
Do you think you'd ever consider making the art book available separately for anyone not buying the Collector's Edition?
Possibly. I'm not sure actually. At this time, it's just part of the Collector's Edition.
How do you go about starting development on a game as large and ambitious as Skyrim? Do you simply start with a map and fill it in, or is it more complicated than that?
That's pretty much what I did. We knew we wanted to do Skyrim, so we have a rough map that exists and just from the other games, we sort of know the shape of the country of Skyrim, the province. So, I drew the map and started figuring out what kind of landscape regions went in it, found some reference pictures for ideas for cities, creatures and things like that. Then we just started working with the designers and Todd (Howard, Game Director), and fleshed out what this world was going to be. Then from there we presented it to the team and they just started generating a lot more content based on this central idea of what Skyrim is.
Are there going to be any wild departures from the norm in Skyrim, like escaping into the painting or swanning off to The Shivering Isles in Oblivion?
There are some more fantastical elements in Skyrim, but I don't want to spoil them. There's definitely some interesting stuff there and we're finishing Skyrim now, so we're getting ready to start on the DLC. We'll be making some new content, but we're not sure what that's going to be yet, but it's always a good place to try out some new things.
Was it good to move away from the device of the Oblivion gates in the last game? While they were an occasionally welcome departure from the world, they became a bit too samey.
I think the main thing for us was that Oblivion marked the end of an era in the realm of Tamriel in Elder Scrolls, so we wanted to put some time between the events in that game and the current game. 200 years have passed and that gives us a chance to see what has happened to the world during that time, how the empire has declined and how that has effected the world, giving us a fresh start on what is The Elder Scrolls.
And I'm right in thinking that the same ten races return too?
The same ten races are back, but we've definitely spent a lot more time making them unique and adding a lot more customisation into how you make your character. It's the same system we use to make all of the NPCs in the game.
Do you have anything like the arena in the Imperial City? I remember having a lot of fun fighting through those arena battles.
There's a lot of content in the game but the arena isn't something that's in the game right now. There are some similar ideas, I guess. Like if you join The Companions' guild, they're a mercenary faction, so you get a lot more fighting and combat missions from them.
We joined The Companions in our hands-on demo having stumbled into what seemed like a random fight. At the beginning of the game we also encountered a man hunting down a fox with his dog. There seem to be a lot of these apparently emergent events. How many are scripted and how many are randomly generated?
It's a mix of both things. Sometimes we decide we want this encounter to happen specifically in a spot and we'll set it up to do that, and then we have a whole system for how these things are generated and where they happen. It really adds a lot of uniqueness to the game, because you keep finding these little events all over the world.
Going back to the art side of things, were there any ideas or environments that you had conceptualised but couldn't fit into the game?
There were a few things that we made or had ideas for that didn't work out, but some of it I don't want to tell you, because I want to see if there's a chance we can maybe get it working and bring it into the DLC. There were a couple of creature designs that just didn't make it for whatever reason, but in general I've found we've actually added more content in the game than we thought we were going to. We don't know when to stop. We'll just keep adding more and more things. More dungeons, more creatures... Kind of late in the game we made a push to add things we call 'critters'. Just little animals like bugs, butterflies, rabbits, foxes, things like that. A lot of those things went in very late, but they really helped to flesh out the world, as being a more realistic place with these little animals that aren't going to fight you, but just add to the environment.
One final question. If it was your call as to where The Elder Scrolls heads next post-Skyrim, where would you like to go?
Honestly, it's too hard to say this early. We kind of want to let the game be out there for a while and see how the fans react to it, and that gives us a chance to decide what we might want to do next. Generally, we'll focus that energy on the DLC and then after that we'll figure out where we want to go and what we want to do.
That will probably be on the next-generation of consoles, I imagine.
Yeah. Who knows?
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is out on November 11th, 2011.