General:Douglas Goodall Interview

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In this interview, conducted in July 2005, Sinder Velvin (formerly one of the librarians at The Imperial Library) asked Douglas Goodall (a game designer for Morrowind) various "behind-the-scenes" questions about the development process for Morrowind and Elder Scrolls lore.

Sinder Velvin: First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself as a person? How would you characterize yourself?

Douglas Goodall: Nerdy. Heterogeneous. Synthesizer. Kind of a know-it-all. The kind of person who enjoys arguing and adopts contrarian opinions robotically.

Sinder Velvin: I know how you managed to get a job at Bethesda Softworks, and I know why. But could you tell us when and for how long?

Douglas Goodall: I worked at Bethesda Softworks from January of 2001 to June of 2002.

Sinder Velvin: Once you became part of the Bethesda team and were able to see how the game was like, what surprised you and what disappointed you about it?

Douglas Goodall: The thing that surprised me the most was also what disappointed me the most: procedural content. Arena and Daggerfall had more in common with random games (Rogue) than with traditional RPGs (Ultima et al.). Arena and Daggerfall were way ahead of their time, perhaps too far ahead of their time. I felt Morrowind was a step backwards in some ways.

I was also disappointed with the main quest in Morrowind. Frankly, the main quest never made sense to me, and I felt it contradicted too much existing lore. I couldn't get emotionally involved in the main quest or discern the motivations of the key players.

Sinder Velvin: Could you enumerate a few of the design decisions that you disagreed with?

Douglas Goodall: I didn't like the combat at all. I won't claim that the "move the mouse to control your sword" combat of Arena and Daggerfall was perfect, but at least it felt interactive. Morrowind's combat was too simplified, too automatic.

I liked the dialogue system on paper, but in practice I think it makes it too hard for players to develop their characters (in a roleplaying sense). I don't like "putting words in the player's mouth," which is what all but the simplest dialogue choices require. But when playing more traditional RPGs, I noticed that I connected with my character more when I had to choose different dialogue responses. Am I playing a goody two shoes? A greedy bastard? Do I always choose the sarcastic response, even if it gets me in trouble? Light side or dark side? Lawful good or chaotic evil? Paladin, Fire Mage, or Mercenary? I felt Morrowind lacked even binary character development choices. I could be very good in Morrowind, and I could be very bad in Morrowind, but I rarely had the chance to tell anyone about it. The game didn't react to me being good or bad, except when I was caught committing a crime.

Also, Ken Rolston and I have very different writing styles. I tend to make plots based on characters instead of starting with a plot outline. I like to make a few interesting characters, put them together, and see where it leads. Everything in Morrowind was designed top-down, and I had a hard time adjusting to that. There were only a few quests where I could give the characters some character.

Ken and I also disagreed on "relativism" and "betrayal," among other things. I appreciate disinformation, but I believe it works best when you know what the truth is. I like to write a true account and then conceal it among carefully designed false accounts. Ken wrote a dozen different accounts, apparently without any personal preference to which, if any, was accurate, and ignored the contradictions. I wanted to have NPCs betray the player in a few quests, but Ken had a "no-betrayal" rule (and some other rules, like "only one coincidence allowed"), which didn't make sense to me. I can't say that I'm right and he's wrong. In fact, I often felt that he was talking past me or over my head. I understood all of his words, but they didn't combine into sentences that made sense to me.

Sinder Velvin: Can you remember any other rules that Ken Rolston had?

Douglas Goodall: There were quite a few of them, but since I didn't understand most of them, this is something you ought to ask Ken if you get the chance. The only ones I'm sure I understood were "no betrayal" and "everything must be a metaphor/everything must be based on something."

"No betrayal" meant that key NPCs couldn't turn on the player, lie to the player if they were honest in the past, nor could an NPC steal an item from the player, etc. This is good as a general rule, but it's the kind of rule that begs for exceptions.

"Everything must be a metaphor" is how the quirky Cyrodiil of Daggerfall and the alien Cyrodiil of the Pocket Guide became the Roman Empire, how the Bretons got French names, etc. I felt Tamriel had been moving away from generic fantasy and medieval history with every game until Morrowind. I wanted this trend to continue and resented having to squeeze a Hermaeus Mora-shaped Vvardenfell into a Roman Province-shaped space. I think Ken uses historical examples to make the world more believable. If you just make stuff up, there's a good chance you'll make something wrong and break suspension of disbelief. That's true, but I'd argue that if you use an inappropriate or easily recognized metaphor, you have the same risk. Besides, making stuff up is more fun for both the creators and consumers. Did I mention I enjoy arguing?

I don't want to sound too hard on Ken. In many cases where we disagreed, I think he made a good choice. It wouldn't have been my first choice, but that doesn't mean the Elder Scrolls isn't in good hands. Note that I didn't expect Morrowind to be nearly as popular as it was, at least not among "classic" Elder Scrolls fans, which basically proves me wrong.

Sinder Velvin: Which of the game's factions did you work on?

Douglas Goodall: House Redoran, House Hlaalu, House Telvanni, Mages Guild, Fighters Guild, Thieves Guild, Imperial Legion, Tribunal Temple, Morag Tong, and a couple of random things here and there.

Giving credit where it is due, as best as I remember: Ken Rolston did the Main Quest, the Imperial Cult (which I wanted to save for an expansion, since I didn't feel we had time to do it justice--it turned out much better than I expected), and a couple of random things here and there. Mark Nelson did most of the "non-faction" quests and encounters, including the vampires. Mark was also responsible for most of the humor in the game, such as Fargoth, Tarhiel, and The Lusty Argonian Maid. Todd Howard took over the Imperial Legion later on (when I was getting behind schedule, having way too many factions to deal with). Most of the quests were written and in the editor at that point, but he added a lot of details to the Imperial Legion. Bill Burcham helped a great deal with all of my quests, particularly testing. He put a lot of details into his quests when he had the chance. The Fighter's Guild quest where Larienna helps you clear out the Dwemer ruin (Nchurdamz? Dwemer is hard to remember.) was one of his.

Those were the major contributors. Most of the people credited with world building contributed to quest design and vice-versa. Mark Nelson and I started out doing interiors in Ald'ruhn, not quests. Lots of people worked in more areas than the credits suggest, and there's no way I could remember all the details now.

Sinder Velvin: Do you have any favorite Morrowind quests (made by you or otherwise)?

Douglas Goodall: The Vow of Silence quest for the Tribunal Temple was my favorite, even though it's the kind of quest that was more fun to create than to play...

Sinder Velvin: What's your favorite RPG quest of all times?

Douglas Goodall: Harlequin for Shadowrun was pretty good. So was the Transylvania Chronicles for Vampire. Hey, you didn't say they had to be computer RPGs...

Sinder Velvin: I understand that you loved Daggerfall (you played it for nearly three years, right?). Do you think Morrowind turned out to be a better game than its predecessor? If not, what do you think were Morrowind's greatest flaws?

Douglas Goodall: Personally, I liked Daggerfall more. That doesn't mean I think Morrowind is a worse game. Daggerfall wasn't really the same kind of game. I don't think they're directly comparable.

Sinder Velvin: How do you feel about Michael Kirkbride and his 36 Lessons of Vivec?

Douglas Goodall: No one writes like Kirkbride. I admire him. He's a genius. A little crazy, maybe, but still a genius.

The 36 Sermons are impressive. I don't think the fans have come anywhere near figuring them out. For that matter, I'm not entirely sure I've figured them out. I think he gets a little too weird at times, but without Kirkbride's work, the Elder Scrolls would be indistinguishable from dozens of fantasy games and trilogies. Ted Peterson's stories bring the world of Tamriel to life, and Michael Kirkbride's work makes it unique.

Sinder Velvin: Talking about the Lessons of Vivec, why did you write Sermon Zero? Should it be interpreted as being official lore?

Douglas Goodall: I wrote it is as a kind of "me, too!" after reading the 36 Sermons. It was a tribute and a refutation.

I don't have any say anymore about whether it is official lore. I probably didn't leave extensive enough notes for them to make it official...

I figured that, regardless of whether the 36 Sermons were true or not (something that was not decided at Bethesda when I worked there), the author (whether it was really Vivec or not) would have competition. An opposing faction. An alternate take.

Note that Sermon Zero isn't actually present in Morrowind, as far as I remember. Books that are actually published in one of the Elder Scrolls games have precedence over ramblings on the forums.

Hint: The best place to hide something is in plain sight. I believe this hint also applies to the other Sermons.

Sinder Velvin: I understand that there is at least one secret message in Sermon Zero that has not yet been discovered by the fans - the third secret of the thrice-secret word. However, it is uncertain whether the fans will ever discover it, so could you tell us what the secret is? If not, could you give the community a hint (preferably not a very vague one, hehe)?

Douglas Goodall: The third secret isn't something else to decrypt. It's the meaning of the other messages (and of the sermon itself). As I said, the best place to hide something is in plain sight.

I wrote Sermon Zero in a few hours. I was in a hurry, so I stole the wording (though not the meaning) from the overly complicated Rennes-le-Chateau hoax. That might be a good place to start, as it will lead you to all kinds of nonsense, some of which will help you interpret my nonsense (and Kirkbride's nonsense). Assuming you have time to spend on nonsense.

Sinder Velvin: Could you tell us a few of the influences for the Great Houses?

Douglas Goodall: The design documents were sparse when I started working on them, so I had a lot of freedom in their creation. I didn't steal from any single source. Stealing from all over the place makes it harder to sue.

Sinder Velvin: How do you explain the notoriety of Fargoth?

Douglas Goodall: Bosmer magnetism.

Sinder Velvin: Why did you leave Bethesda Softworks? Was it because of Ken's rules?

Douglas Goodall: Ah, one of the difficult questions. It was partly due to my constant disagreements with Ken and Todd. "This game isn't big enough for the three of us." I loved the original Elder Scrolls too much to stop arguing in their favor, but I could tell that these arguments were bad for the team and for the game. I spent over a year working 70-100 hours a week, gained about 50 pounds, and had turned into an obnoxious, vitamin-D deficient zombie. My health and sanity were failing. I became someone I didn't like. There were a lot of other factors, but I'm not going to turn this into several hundred pages of real or imagined grievances.

It does have a happy ending. I am now fully immunized against complaining about by job. I've really enjoyed every job I've had since.

Sinder Velvin: What have you been doing for a living in the last three years?

Douglas Goodall: It will make more sense if I start before Bethesda. I lived in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I worked at a series of very odd jobs. Bethesda Softworks wasn't my first job in the game industry, but the game companies I worked for failed before any of them actually managed to release a game. These failures, along with the usual "Quality of Life" complaints, gave me a negative (though probably accurate) view of the game industry.

After the last game company ran out of funding, I started my own business by accident. People started giving me money for computer repair, web design, custom programming, etc. I started taking the money and soon realized that I'd have to start my own business or go to jail for tax fraud.

I was still running my own business when Bethesda Softworks announced that they were hiring. I was reluctant to go back to the game industry, but this was Bethesda Softworks! So I wrote a story or two and some quests (in Daggerfall's format), drove up to Maryland for an interview, and got the job somehow.

Immediately after leaving Bethesda, I didn't have any other job lined up. I took a few temp jobs in Maryland, but none of them turned into anything more permanent. I went to Raleigh to see some friends for Christmas, and they mentioned that they needed a roommate, so I moved back to Raleigh. I've since gone back to doing the same kind of work (tech support, custom programming, etc). I have several part-time employers (the biggest one is NCSU), but it's all W2 labor now, so I don't have to worry about the IRS anymore. It's like having my own business, except now my clients are the ones stuck with the paperwork. It's perfect.

Sinder Velvin: Do you think Oblivion will turn out to be a great game?

Douglas Goodall: I don't know any more than any other fan. I think it's safe to say that if you liked Morrowind, you'll like Oblivion.

As for people like me who didn't like Morrowind as much, there are promising signs. Many of the things I complained about are getting attention, such as the character art, animation, combat, AI, and physics. I didn't have any confidence that any of these would be fixed, so I was pleasantly surprised to see these very issues being discussed in press releases and interviews. I heard that Mike Lipari was working on the AI, and he's the second best programmer I've ever met, so I have high expectations.

I'll probably buy Oblivion for the construction set, if nothing else.

Unless the game is horrible (which I doubt), I will make a mod or three. In these mods I will include new books, possibly Ta'Agra For The Unclawed, Six Views On Divine Metaphysics, Wulfric And The Snow Elf, The Soft Doctrines of Magnus Invisible, etc. These will not be official, but they will give clues to "what Elder Scrolls lore would be like if I was King."

Sinder Velvin: Why were you unable to answer Adanorcil's questions over at Part II?

Douglas Goodall: I had a basic Khajiiti vocabulary and grammar written out. Alas, it is on one of Bethesda's file servers (assuming they kept it for some reason). While I have a good memory, it is not good enough to remember the kind of details I'd need for questions about Ta'Agra. Re-creating the partial language would take more time than I have right now.

Sinder Velvin: Can you tell us what really happened during the Battle at Red Mountain? Who killed Nerevar and how did the Dwemer disappear?

Douglas Goodall: When I was at Bethesda, there was officially no answer. No one knew what really happened. They may have made up their minds now, but you'd have to ask a current employee.

Sinder Velvin: Can the two Dwemer books Divine Metaphysics and Egg of Time ever be translated?

Douglas Goodall: Egg of Time and Divine Metaphysics are, as far as I know, random Dwemer letters. The letters don't have any real pattern or meaning. Dwemer books probably appear meaningless to anyone but a Dwemer anyway. I have some ideas on how Dwemer books might be misinterpreted by modern scholars, but it has little to do with the actual contents of the book.

Sinder Velvin: Will we ever find out the names of the Eternal Champion, the Hero of Daggerfall, the Hero of the Battlespire or the Nerevarine?

Douglas Goodall: As far as I know, they will always be nameless. This is a needlessly complicated way to avoid "playing favorites" and cheapening the player's experiences. For all I know, it wasn't my Breton Sorcerer or Khajiiti Assassin that re-assembled the Staff of Chaos and defeated Jagar Tharn, but your... Well... Whatever you played.

Sinder Velvin: There's a book called On Oblivion where a certain Daedric Prince called Jyggalag is mentioned. Who is it? It sounds to me as if it's just a simple Lesser Daedroth mistaken to be a Daedric Prince.

Douglas Goodall: Ask Mark Nelson. I believe it was originally a kind of placeholder in case they needed a new Daedra in a future game.

Sinder Velvin: Do the creatures from Solstheim that are called Rieklings have anything to do with the elusive Snow Elves?

Douglas Goodall: I never played Tribunal or Bloodmoon.

Following this interview's publication, Douglas posted this on the offical Bethesda forums.

"There's no easy way to express creative disagreements politely. When I was asked about doing an interview, I figured I'd try. I also figured I wouldn't succeed and people would see more accusations than mea culpas. So I'm not surprised by the reactions here. Nevertheless, I feel I should respond to them, surprise or no surprise.

Perhaps I should have "cheated" and told Sinder Velvin (who did a very good job on the interview, by the way) a few good questions to ask. Or perhaps I should have been dishonest or taken the easy route and refused the interview (although it's very difficult for me to avoid any invitation to talk about myself at great length).

The key point is that I failed, not just with the interview, but with Morrowind itself. No one else burned out on Morrowind. I did. Everyone turned into vitamin-D deficient zombies, but only I became obnoxious. I disagreed about a great many things, but I thought Morrowind would do poorly in the marketplace, and it did rather well. I was wrong.

Basically, Morrowind was a worse game than it could have been because I was stubborn and cared too much about consistency. I let the fans down because I was too wrapped up in what the fans of Daggerfall would think that I wasn't paying enough attention to what the future fans of Morrowind would think.

I disagreed with Ken partly because I was stubborn (and because I enjoy arguing--I did mention that, right?) and partly because I didn't understand what he was saying most of the time. This is not his fault, but mine. We came from very different backgrounds and had different vocabularies. I'm not a very "academic" game designer. I say "Rock-Paper-Scissors," not "Intransitive Power Balance Relationship." Ken probably wouldn't say that either, but in the absence of any legitimate game design vocabulary, most designers make up their own words for things. I stole my game design vocabulary mostly from game theory and board games. Ken came from a tabletop RPG background (Runequest, Paranoia, etc), so he had entirely different terms for the same concepts. I could have put more effort into understanding where he was coming from, but I didn't. For no good reason, apart from a lack of time.

I disagreed with Todd a lot because Todd and I do not like the same kinds of games. This is not his fault or mine. Whether it is more fun to smash things with a huge axe or coax secrets from obfuscated texts is pure opinion. Whether it's better to play against dice or against an intelligent designer is pure opinion. Frankly, most gamers are more like Todd. It is in Bethesda's best interests to appeal to those gamers, instead of making a game that appeals to me. I selfishly didn't want to work on a game that didn't appeal to me, but that wasn't my job. My job was to work on Morrowind, regardless of whether I liked it or not.

Besides that, I was the new guy on the team. I should have deferred to Ken and Todd instead of arguing, regardless of my personal feelings about Morrowind and the Elder Scrolls series. If I didn't argue as much, I would have gotten more work done, and I think the game would have been better. I should have given up on Morrowind being the kind of game I enjoy when I read the design docs my first day there. Instead, I was pigheaded. I still feel that Ken was squeezing a Hermaeus Mora shaped Vvardenfell into a Roman Province shaped space. But he was the lead designer. If he wanted to do that, it was his business. I should have gone along with his plan, instead of trying to change the map. Just keep in mind that from his perspective, it was the other way around. From his perspective, I was the one who was trying to cram the moldy and flaking third claw of Hermeaus Mora into a Roman Province.

Even I stole from history when I was in a hurry or feeling uncreative. Sermon Zero came from the Rennes-le-Chateau hoax. The Bal Molagmer came from the Carbonari. Etc.

I expected disappointment from lore fans about things like Divine Metaphysics, but I think it's better to know the truth. This is just a personal opinion, but as long as real mysteries remain unsolved, I'd want someone to tell me when I was wasting my time. I should have done it sooner. In fact, I did do it sooner, but no one believed me the last dozen times I've said Dwemer books were probably random letters, and I don't expect that to change.

I didn't make the Dwemer books myself, but I did have a hand in them. One of the artists made the books. I didn't give him any particular message to include. I just said to make some drawings based on the design documents and put some Dwemer letters in it. This is something else that was my fault. I should have included an actual message, but I wasn't up to the task. I can't write Dwemer the way Michael Kirkbride does. I know. I've tried it (see "Hanging Gardens" as a particularly bad example of me trying to write Dwemeri style). I decided that random letters were better than another bad attempt at writing like MK, or writing something like "drink your Ovaltine," so that's what I did. Besides, I figured it would be obvious that it was just random letters... In retrospect, this was another mistake.

As for there not being any official answer to several lore puzzles, I can see that upsetting people, too. In this case as well, I think it's better to know the truth. Look at it this way: If the official lore isn't perfect, if the official lore is ever-changing, you can do whatever you want.

In fact, since there wasn't an official answer to several things, debates on forums like this may alter the "official" lore more than you know. If you have a really good (or cool sounding) argument about what really happened at Red Mountain, it can influence the designers. Far from making such debates meaningless (in that no one will ever be "right"--no one ever wins a debate anyway), it makes lore discussions much more important.

I'd still prefer an internally consistent game world, but unless you keep the same lead designer for every game (or hire only designers with unusually small egos and an unusual respect for stare decisis), that's not going to happen. Tamriel is not a living game world because it has deep, well-documented consistencies (like Tolkien). Tamriel is a living game world because it has very little consistency.

Khajiiti Spaghetti

Think of Tamriel as a plate of spaghetti that a dozen designers have cut, chewed, and swirled around on the plate. Not a pretty thought? Maybe not, but it means that anyone else can come by and cut off a string or add a few strings or push the fork around a little without ruining the plate. I prefer artificial worlds that are more like Legos. Legos that glue themselves together, so that you can add new Legos, but you cannot alter or remove what's already there. But that's another personal opinion, and if you have to remove one of the Legos near the bottom (say, for technical reasons), you're in bigger trouble than you are with spaghetti.

Before I worked at Bethesda, I thought about writing Elder Scrolls fanfiction and putting some of my characters up on Andel Crodo's Fashion Gallery (after several name and ownership changes it is now The Imperial Library, though I believe the original stories and biographies are gone). The only thing that stopped me was fear. I was afraid I'd make mistakes or have egg-of-time on my face when the next game came out, since I didn't know the lore as well as the creators. When I got to Bethesda, I discovered that I did know the lore as well as the creators. The same is probably true of most lore-oriented Elder Scrolls fans. So if you have an idea for a plugin or a story, but you don't want to contradict the lore, just do it. Don't worry so much. If it contradicts a future game, so what?

This is a lesson I learned after leaving Bethesda: don't worry about the fiction. Tamriel isn't a carefully constructed pyramid of magically sticky Legos. Tamriel is spaghetti. It can be anything you want it to be. That is a plural "you," including the fans as well as the current designers. If I learned that while I was still working for Bethesda, or if I was just a little less obsessed with Daggerfall, I might still be there.

Doug "AFFA MU" Goodall Game Designer Emeritus Dark Lord of Negativity

P.S. I'm not angry with Bethesda Softworks anymore. If I were angry, it would be unmistakable. Anyone who knows me can confirm that."