General:Ted Peterson Interview I

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This interview, conducted by Morrowind Italia of Planet Elder Scrolls and posted on April 9th, 2001, asked Ted Peterson about the history of the Elder Scrolls series and about the development of Morrowind. Originally posted on Planet Elder Scrolls and archived here.

Welcome back everybody! This time around we have a couple of words with Ted Peterson. For those of you who don't know him, he has been Lead Game Designer for Daggerfall (what Ken Rolston is for Morrowind). Now, he covers the same role in Savage Entertainment, an independent software house located in Los Angeles. After reading this interview you will surely want to check their site at

Ted, first off tell us about your professional experience. For which software houses have you been working in the last years, and for how long?

I worked at Bethesda for four years, from '92 until '96. Then I went to a series of start-up companies, Film Roman (they're an animation company best known for "The Simpsons") in Los Angeles and AnyRiver Entertainment (they were founded by Stewart Bonn, one of the guys who founded EA, so I figured they'd have some staying power) in San Francisco. I was at both of those companies in total for about a year. After that, I went back to Los Angeles to work at Activision for a year and a half, and since then I've been at Savage. It's going on three years now, so I might bypass my previous record at Bethesda.

This is going to make me sound a little fickle, but I swear that in the context of the game industry, I'm practically a homebody. I know lots of people who have been in the industry for half as long who have worked at twice as many companies. Shy of releasing a hit game, it's the best way to improve your salary.

What are the titles you've developed, aside from Arena and Daggerfall?

At Bethesda, I started off making add-on missions for a game they made called Terminator: 2029. It was a tile-based, first-person perspective game in the days before 3D engines, meaning you could only turn 90 degrees to the left and to the right. After that, I worked on two other games based on the Terminator license, Terminator Rampage and Terminator Future Shock, which for the record was the first totally 3D game with polygonal enemies, even before Quake, and also I did ... some fairly forgettable titles. The games I worked on at Film Roman and AnyRiver were never released after the companies went under. At Activision, I worked on Zork Grand Inquisitor and Heavy Gear II.

And which have been those you enjoyed more working on?

They've all been so different, it's hard to say which was the most fun. Terminator Rampage, which is generally seen to be a Doom clone even though we came out a good six months before Doom, was a blast because we had such a ridiculously short schedule -- something like four months. There was me, a programmer, and an artist, and we went through a level a day for forty or so levels until it was finished. A lot of hysterical laughter ensued.

Daggerfall was without question the hardest game I've ever worked on. The fun in working on it was more intellectual -- we really felt we were doing something new and exciting. Added to that, we had a huge fan base from Arena, and there's nothing like the feeling that you're working on something people can't wait to play.

Zork Grand Inquisitor was the first and still only comedic game I've worked on, and that was a blast. My own personal contribution to it was what I like to call the deconstruction of the adventure game. There's a puzzle where you need to open different sluices in the famous Dam. I came up with the idea that you can't just push this button and then that, but you had to decimate the stupid board with a mallet to get it to work.

Of course, the game I'm working on now is fun too, but I can't really talk about it right now.

Well then, let's get to the beginning of the TES experience. Arena. The awards this masterpiece won were truly deserved. Never before had an RPG boasted so much freedom in such a huge world and with a First Person interface. What was your role in the development?

I was one of two designers on it, the other being Vijay Lakshman, who along with Julian LeFay really spear-headed the initial development of the series. Up to that time, Bethesda had never done a role-playing game, only action games like the Terminator series and sports title like Wayne Gretzky Hockey. I remember talking to the guys at SirTech who were doing Wizardry: Crusaders of the Dark Savant at the time, and them literally laughing at us for thinking we could do it. Thinking back seven or eight years ago, I remember primarily writing the quests for the game, laying out the dungeons, writing dialogue, coming up with damage systems with Vijay. He was the lead designer -- I was more of the grunt.

What was the main inspiration behind the the first TES chapter?

Julian, Vijay, and I were all long-time pen-and-paper role-players, and fans of the Looking Glass Ultima Underworld series, which was certainly our main inspiration. There was another game that came out while we were working on Arena called "Legends of Valour," which was a free-form first-person perspective game that took place in a single city. It got pretty pitiful reviews and not many people bought it, but I really had fun with it. It's completely forgotten nowadays, but I probably logged more hours playing it than any other game.

Arena, though, was intended as being an action game with a little bit of role-playing on the side. The initial idea was that there was a series of tournaments in arena, and your character fought in a team to win the coveted title against other teams. A story developed that there was an evil wizard named Jagar Tharn who you could only fight once you made it to the final tournament in the Imperial City. Along the way you could do side-quests which were more role-playing in nature. Eventually during the development, the tournaments became less important and the side-quests became more. We eventually dropped the whole tournament idea altogether, and just focused on the quests and the dungeon-delving.

In the end, we had a game that almost didn't resemble our original idea at all. It was really a hard-core role-playing game, but we had already done the advertising and printed up boxes with the name "Arena." Someone came up with the idea that the Empire of Tamriel, because it was so violent, had been nicknamed the Arena. That explained, kinda awkwardly I guess, why there was no arena combat in a game named Arena.

I think Vijay was the guy who tacked on the surtitle "The Elder Scrolls." I don't think he knew what the hell it meant any more than we did, but the opening voice-over was changed to "It has been foretold in the Elder Scrolls ..."

The best part of developing it?

Arena didn't have quite as speedy a schedule as Terminator Rampage had, but it was still amazing how what I'd write up as a quest or draw (in Dpaint!) as a dungeon quickly turned into reality. It was on such a huge scale that we had to work in broad strokes and the smallest adjustment would have massive consequences to the world. I mean, we were creating a continent. Developing Arena was like playing one of those God games like Civilization.

The worst part?

At the end of development, we missed our Christmas deadline, which is really serious for a small developer/publisher like Bethesda Softworks. We released in the doldrums of March, which is disastrous. That, coupled with the fact that the distributors discovered we had essentially not made the arena combat game we said we were making, meant we initially shipped something like 3,000 units of the game. Even the Terminator: 2029 add-on that I made shipped more than that. We were sure we had screwed the company and we'd go out of business. Month by month, though, people kept buying it, hearing about it word of mouth, and after a while, it turned out we had a minor "cult" hit.

Things you would have loved to do differently, but that were limited by technology/budget/release date?

In hindsight, it would have been nice to make the cities more distinctive, but we had to reuse so many assets to populate a continent. Also, we had no idea that side quests were going to be so popular, that people would be running around doing quests for kings instead of following the linear progression of dungeon to dungeon to defeat Jagar Tharn. I don't remember how many side-quests I wrote, but it couldn't have been more than two or three dozen. So it got pretty repetitive.

That, and the pressure to get the game out quickly meant that we didn't have much time to beta test. I think that aside from those of us who played the game regularly just to make it, we had just two beta testers. Thus, Arena was released very buggy, which didn't help Bethesda's reputation for quality products. And, unfortunately, it didn't help later when Daggerfall was released very bug-ridden.

In the end, give us your overall comment on Arena, in relation to the CRPGs that were published at the time.

It was certainly derivative of a lot of games. Our experience system was straight out of Dungeons and Dragons and the Goldbox games from SSI -- kill the monster and get experience points. Between the influences of Ultima Underworld and Legends of Valour, we weren't doing anything too new. We just did it bigger. Much, much bigger.

On the other hand, I think because it was essentially a simpler game than something like Daggerfall, frinstance, it was probably more successful in its aims. There's a good amount of argument between fans about which was the better game, Arena or Daggerfall. Since I was the lead designer on Daggerfall, of course, I tend to side with my baby, but I can certainly see the argument from the other perspective.

Then came Daggerfall in 1996. Being the Lead Game Designer, I suppose you are one of the people we must thank the most for giving us so many hours of entertainment. The game had huge goals, considering the state of RPGs at the time. What changes from Arena was on top of your "To Do" list?

In terms of gameplay, the goal was to create the feeling of playing a pen-and-paper role-playing game, like Dungeon & Dragons or Vampire: The Masquerade. We wanted to give the player absolute freedom to create whatever kind of character you wanted to make, and go off on any adventure you pleased. We wanted you to be able to be the sterling knight if you wanted or an utterly evil creature of the underworld. Compared to Arena, and the single plotline that would bring you to that most cliched of all role-playing conventions, slaying the wicked wizard, we wanted a complex series of adventures leading to multiple resolutions.

In terms of setting, I really wanted to make Tamriel less generic. In Arena, we had really created a world that could have been Greyhawk or any of a number of generic fantasy worlds. We decided to focus in on one area of the map and really figure out the history and the character of the place. By contrast to Arena, we wanted our villains and heroes to have more well-rounded personalities. The Underking, for example, who had been introduced in Arena, was not going to be a simple boogie man intent on evil for no reason at all. The idea that he had given his heart to help Tiber Septim conquer the Empire and had been betrayed made him more sympathetic and, I think, more interesting.

The games and literature that influenced you when writing it?

Daggerfall was written continuously over a course of two years, so whatever I -- or Julian -- was reading or playing at the time probably had some influence. I think, for example, "The Man in the Iron Mask" by Alexandre Dumas influenced the quest where the player had to find the missing Prince of Sentinel. The pen-and-paper game "Vampire: The Masquerade" influenced the idea of vampire tribes throughout the region. We actually ran a Dungeons & Dragons campaign while creating the backstory for the game, some of the stories of which ended up in quests and books.

I don't think any computer games influenced Daggerfall very much, except for Arena, of course, which had been influenced by Ultima Underworld and Legends of Valour like I said. Computer role-playing games weren't very interesting while we were working on Daggerfall. I can remember playing the latest King's Quest, Doom, and Sam and Max Hit the Road while working on it, but I can't say they had any profound impact on the story or design.

One cool feature in Daggerfall createdly directly from you?

The character creation system, probably. Julian and I had decided to go with a skill-based advancement system rather than Arena's kill-the-monster-and-advance system, so each of the classes had been assigned different skill sets. Given that, it made sense to allow players to create their own classes assigning their own skills. Then, thinking about GURPS, we added additional bonuses and special abilities and disabilities that the player could assign.

I've always enjoyed character creation systems in games of all kinds. I don't like playing Gamma World, but even now when I'm bored, I'll sometimes roll the dice and see what kind of mutations my character would develop if I actually wanted to play the game. I know. I'm weird.

The developers of Morrowind said theat [sic] MW will be what DF should have been if the technology had not been an issue at the time. And indeed the second installment of the TES series contains tons of unused stuff in its CD. The thing you wanted to implement the most, that didn't make it in?

I could go on and on. All of those rumors you hear about in the game, that this faction is warring with that faction, was meant to have real world consequences. You were originally going to be able to go and see a city under siege, but it was an impossibly complex task to work out. No one wanted all the important NPCs to be sprites who just yabbered their quests and never developed a relationship with the player. And definitely, to me, most regrettably, we fell short on the multiple resolutions of the game. All that lead up to who you give the token to, and things remain the same in the Iliac Bay.

And, of course, dragons. Sigh.

A funny event you remember during your presence in this software house?

Lots of 'em. We bought a "random name generator" bit of software from someone to make names for NPCs in Arena, and we ended up coming up with our own after I was attacked by a spellsword named "Bad Bad Bad Bad Blad." That became a big in-joke. Related to that, I remember in Daggerfall staring at a list of inventory objects in a shop trying to figure out what a "Longs Word" was. Eventually it dawned on me that it was a "Long Sword," and the junior programmer who had inputted it just didn't know better.

And then there was the rating system, which is more black humor than anything else. Between Arena and Daggerfall, the United States Congress, led by Senator -- nearly vice-president -- Joe Lieberman, had decided that we needed to have a rating system on computer games to save the kids. I got a questionaire for Daggerfall which was obviously made for much simpler games. It asked questions like "Is there nudity in this game?" "Yes." "Is there bloodshed?" "Yes." "Can an innocent person be killed?" "Yes." "Can there be a reward for killing an innocent person?" "Yes." We got slapped with the worst rating for a game, needless to say. And later, Lieberman listed us as being one of the top ten worst corrupters of children ... Of course, I'm sure that sold a few units.

Bethesda surely left a mark in the RPG community with these two titles. Where do you think computer RPGs are heading to, after the Baldur's Gate Renaissance, and what is the influence of the TES games on this evolution?

It seems like they're heading in a lot of different directions, which is a good thing. Almost everyone last year was working on a persistant on-line world, and everyone else was working on a Diablo or Baldur's Gate clone. And then there's Bethesda Softworks, doing something almost entirely different -- as usual.

Before all the on-line games like EverQuest and the huge world games like Baldur's Gate, I would have said that the TES games' only influence on CRPGs was for developers not to do it the way we did it. Diablo came out a little after Daggerfall and sold something like five times as many copies. It seemed pretty evident with all the copycats of Diablo and none of Daggerfall that the lesson was that simple dungeon crawls was where the smart money was. I talked to Richard Garriott while he was making Ultima Online, and he said that everyone on the title was playing Daggerfall, which isn't surprising since the on-line games by their nature have to have a non-linear atmosphere. So I guess that we have had an influence, though I wouldn't say it was major by any stretch. At least, now. But things look to be changing.

Talking of Morrowind, you are probably interested in its development given your experience in the TES games. What is the feature of this game you like the most?

The construction kit is definitely the most obviously exciting part of the game. I think I like it from a different point-of-view than most fans, namely that if the tools of creating the game are user-friendly enough to be generally released, then the designers working on Morrowind must have a lot of freedom to create the main game. If they can easily crank out quests, then there will be a lot more variety than there was in Arena and Daggerfall. And you're talking to someone who gets very cranky when people talk about the repetitive nature of Daggerfall, since I know for a fact that I wrote hundreds of quests for the game, and Bruce Nesmith and some others wrote many more.

Personally, though, I enjoy hearing about how the world of Tamriel keeps evolving, becoming more and more distinctive. The screenshots and concept drawings are wild, a huge change from the simple Olde English or Arabic style houses and castles in Daggerfall. I'm not very creative when it comes to architecture, certainly in comparison. The vocabulary is becoming more exotic too -- everyone's calling Dark Elves "Dunmer" and Dwarves "Dwemer." It's fun from the point-of-view of someone who thinks of himself as one of the parents of the TES games to see how the kid is doing while you're away.

As a game designer, what is in your opinion the hardest task when creating such a huge and complex title?

Everything's hard. There's honestly not a single easy thing about it -- except, well, except that if you're doing a fantasy title, magic can be your fall-back. If you can't figure out any other way to explain something you've just got to do in the game to make things work, you can always explain it away by saying, "Well, magical forces are at work."

Daggerfall was a bear to do, and I have to imagine Morrowind is even harder. At least in Daggerfall, I could feel free to create my own history as sparse as Arena was in any kind of antecedents to what was going on. But you have to imagine that the gang working on Morrowind has to look at not only Arena, but Daggerfall, Redguard, and Battlespire, and try to keep the traditions while creating their own. It's enough work just to create content, lots of quests and locations and dialogue and characters and books, without having to go back and make sure that you're not using the wrong word or contradicting something in the history. It's almost mind-boggling to imagine what they're going through right now. I'm happy to watch from the side lines.

Given its unique nature, its there any game that could be even remotely compared to it? And if yes, why?

I'm in a little better position to know what Morrowind's about than most fans, but I can mostly only speculate, which isn't really fair to Todd and Ken and all the people working on the game. I haven't played it, but Nihilistic's computer version of "Vampire: The Masquerade" with its Storyteller feature, where you can create your own tales, might be somewhat similar. If you take that and Dungeon Keeper and Unlimited Adventures, and combined them all with Daggerfall, it's probably in the ballpark.

But, again, I come back to the unique (and I use that word very seldom) atmosphere and look of Morrowind, which I can't think of any comparisons to.

Again, give us your overall comment on Morrowind.

Lets put it like this. When Bethesda was working on Battlespire and Redguard, I talked to Julian and Ken and Todd from time to time, just out of general curiosity about what they were doing. I had some interest in the projects as spin-offs from Daggerfall and Arena, but that was about it. Now, I'm a huge pest. I literally can't get enough information from them. What's happened in the last twenty years since Daggerfall? What did Numidium do? Is there a new Emperor? Has Queen Barenziah returned to Morrowind? I saw Todd at the Game Developers Conference and asked him point-blank what the new player race is, and he told me. I think I was being a little overbearing. And no, I can't tell you. But it's a good 'un.

Suffice it to say, I'm excited.

At Activision you developed Zork Grand Inquisitor and Heavy Gear II until you were offered your current position at Savage Entertainment. What attracted you to this company?

Without giving the who's and where's, I've had some bad experience -- not, I should add, at Bethesda -- of working at companies where the people in charge didn't know how to make games. I'm really the last person in the world to complain, but there are a lot of people in high, decision-making positions in the games industry who don't know anything about games. If you mention Wizardry or Wolfenstein to them, they'll offer you a blank stare. But everyone at Savage is a veteran: they all have a page or two of game titles under their belts. I felt very comfortable dealing with them.

Plus, they're all virgins, and none of them drink or smoke or do drugs. I like being the Bad Influence. Do I need to add, "I'm kidding"?

What are the pros and cons on working in such an environment?

The big con is that no one here's very impressed by me. I can say, "Daggerfall" and they'll say, "Mechwarrior II" and I can't knock them down. I guess the other con is that as a developer, we're more or less a slave to our publisher. We get paid in milestones and if we're late or they don't like what we give them, we don't get paid. Obviously, this is not as nice as working for a company that has lots of money saved up from past projects and can afford to do whatever we want to do.

The pros are that it's a small studio filled with people who know what they're doing, and you don't get lost in endless marketing meetings like you do at bigger companies. Don't get me wrong: working at Activison had its own rewards, but I didn't know most of the people I passed in the halls on a daily basis. At Savage, if I want to get an answer about something about the Sabertooth engine, I can literally shout out my question through the wall.

Could you tell us in short the story of Savage Entertainment?

The story was that the three principals, Tim Morten, Chacko Sonny, and John LaFleur, had all been at Activision for a number of years -- they had been responsible for Mechwarrior II to give you an idea -- and they were thinking about starting their own game company. Activision didn't want to lose them, so they worked out a deal where Savage Entertainment as a company was spun off from Activision. They were given money to start up their own studio and hire whoever they wanted. Within reason. When the time came for them to chose a lead designer, Activision gave them a list of designers that they would be permitted to work with. For some reason, I was included. You'd have to ask Tim or Chacko or John if I was their first choice or if I was just the cheapest.

Anyhow, we started to work on a game for Activision, who funded us and was publishing us, while we developed the Sabertooth engine. It didn't pan out, but in the meantime, we got another deal with Universal Interactive, who will be publishing the game we'll be announcing at E3 in May. It's an awesome license, and the game should be fun for the whole family.

Here's the kicker. The VP at Universal in charge of making sure we deliver? My old boss, Vijay Lakshman. We're working together for the first time since Arena.

And the company goals?

The same as any company's, I think. To get rich and have fun making the kinds of game we like to play.

Thank you Ted for your time! I hope to see you around the Morrowind board!

Talking about Savage Entertainment, while developing the Sabertooth engine in the last 3 years, they have been working on a title based on a very famous movie, which is yet unrevealed. Nothing is still known about this game, but the company will be present at E3, so don't forget to keep an eye on them!

This article courtesy of Morrowind Italia.