General: Redguard Todd Howard Interview
Recently I had the opportunity to talk with Bethesda’s long-time designer, and current Project Leader for The Elder Scrolls: Redguard, Todd Howard. Get the scoop on everything there is to know about the game in this interview (well, almost everything...).
AVault: The last Elder Scrolls game, Battlespire, took the epic series in a more action-orientated direction; where is Redguard taking us?
Todd Howard: Redguard is taking us in a different direction, but there are still a lot of similarities to our previous titles. When we sat down and decided what kind of game we wanted to make, we found there are things across many genres that we enjoy, some of the adventure game things; talking to people, getting information and exploring detailed areas is really a lot of fun. But we also enjoy action-based things, and we wanted to do a game that had swashbuckling overtones; so obviously you are going to get in some sword fighting and action things. But we also like the things we were doing in Daggerfall and the other Elder Scrolls games, where you had this role-playing feel with fantasy overtones and you could get lots of items and talk to lots of people. We wanted to keep that feel, but on a level that was a little more immediate. So as opposed to having thousands of characters that are kind of generic and random, we wanted a place that has a "real" feel to it. We have a city where every NPC has a specific voice. So I guess with this game we are getting a little more toward the drama of the whole thing, The drama, the story, the characters, and how you fit into that.
AVault: Arena and Daggerfall were massive games with unprecedented scope and environment. They both took place within a continent, but Redguard is focused on only one island. Can you explain this?
Todd Howard: From the size standpoint? One thing I think is how you generate that sort of size. Yes, Daggerfall was very, very big, but a lot of it ended up being the same. So you generate a certain amount of artwork, and then you hope that the program, and the parts that are being put together randomly (dungeons and so forth) are interesting. And a lot of them came out interesting and a lot of them didn’t. We’re really looking at taking all that effort and putting it into an area that is hand built. So when I say to people the world of Redguard is only one island, they say, "Wow, that’s really small for you guys." But when you get on the island and run around it, you find that it’s like eating a rich dessert; sure it’s really tiny, then you have a bite of it...man, I’m full. There are things around every corner; you can leave town and follow a path and there’s something to find. There are many things to find within the game. So we are trying to take all that effort and put it into more of a hand-built immediate environment so there’s a lot of play in this game. It’s very very big with lots of detail, so we wanted to limit ourselves to just the island, the areas on it, the areas inside it, so that we had some focus and spent all our effort on detailing everything that was there. Every tree was placed down by hand; it’s that sort of detail we’re going for. No two buildings in town look the same. We probably have the same amount of buildings as we built for Daggerfall. I’m probably exaggerating but it’s very close. It’s that sort of detail that we are going for in Redguard.
AVault: Redguard takes place 400 years before Arena, is that correct? Why? Is this so you don’t affect the timeline in the next epic, Morrowind?
Todd Howard: Yes, Redguard takes place 400 years before Arena, but going back in time helps tie together some things we are actually going to be doing in Morrowind. In Arena and Daggerfall you hear about the Empire of Tamriel, which are the provinces of the world joined into one empire. And you hear about this guy, Tiber Septim, that joined the whole world together. The ultimate story in Daggerfall deals with this machine he eventually creates to conquer the world. Redguard actually takes place during the time when Tiber Septim is trying to conquer Tamriel and join all the provinces into one empire. Ultimately it deals with how Hammerfell, which is the land of the Redguard, becomes part of the Empire. It’s a more interesting time as far as how things are changing, and it plays an overall part in the story of Tamriel. Actually we’ll be leading into some things pertaining to Morrowind as well.
AVault: The Elder Scrolls series has a very devout following, namely for its depth and "can do anything" worlds; are you afraid that Redguard might alienate those followers?
Todd Howard: If somebody is looking for one of our hardcore RPG experiences, this game definitely isn’t it; it’s not a stats heavy game and we are very conscious of that. Those type of people are going to look for our largerDaggerfall/ Morrowind-type games. As far as "can do"-type worlds, you mean like in Ultima VII where people were baking bread and doing all sorts of things? Yeah, Ultima VII is probably my favorite game ever, being able to paint on the paintings, shoot arrows into the archery targets; it’s a very interactive world. People like to tell stories about things they did in that world. I think Elder Scrolls has that same sort of appeal, not necessarily in interactivity but rather people like to tell stories about their characters that exist in TES. There are so many skills, so many things they can do, there are so many stories they create in their minds-like here’s my guy and here’s what he’s all about. One of the reasons those people will also like Redguard, even though they won’t be developing their character or those stats, is that they really get to see, feel, and touch the world of Tamriel that we’ve created for Daggerfall and Arena, and much, much more up close and personal. That was really our main goal, to make it more interactive. You can pick up lots of things and see the people; people in Tamriel created High Elf characters but they really don’t know what one looks like in a crowd...they’ve never seen that. They really don’t realize how much taller they are or how the Khajiits talk. We are trying to make the whole world a lot more tangible to people, so they can walk up and touch these things. I think there are experiences in this game, especially with how the NPCs talk, move, animate, and walk around the city. The people who have played Daggerfall will really enjoy this aspect of the game. On top of that, there are things only they will understand, like what specific temples mean. It won’t affect the inexperienced player, however, just make it more enjoyable for those that have played our earlier games. We’ve tied the whole thing together so the people who’ve played those games and enjoyed them will really get a kick out of seeing a lot of things that are in Redguard, and seeing them up close and real.
AVault: There is a comic book based on Redguard, correct? The manual comes with a comic book that gives history of recent events, especially those events pertaining to the lead character Cyrus. For those game players who don’t read the comic books, can you tell us a little bit about who Cyrus is and introduce the game’s premise? Also, why does Cyrus have such a bad reputation? Who is his sister -- was she an important person?
Todd Howard: We sort of made our own comic book telling the past story of Cyrus, who he is and how he came to be. The main back-story of the game deals in Hammerfell, land of the Redguards. They’ve undergone a civil war and one side of the civil war decided to ask for the Emperor’s help as he’s trying to conquer the world. This side lets the Emperor come in and conquer Hammerfell, which was one of the sides of the civil war. Cyrus, the character you play, could really care less about all the civil war stuff. He left long ago; he’s been wandering the Empire as a pirate and a mercenary for hire. The reason he left is because he killed his sister’s husband for infidelity, in a tavern brawl. He’s not going back and doesn’t want anything to do with his homeland anymore. One day he gets a letter from a friend telling him his sister is missing. He decides to return to Hammerfell, set things right for himself, and make sure his sister is okay. Cyrus gets wrapped up in the larger politics of what’s going on in the province. The island the game takes place on is more or less the capital city of one of the sides of the civil war, which the Empire took over. Things revolve around this premise and sort of steamroll from there. As far as Cyrus’ reputation, not that many people know about him killing his brother-in-law. He doesn’t feel bad for doing it; he feels bad for doing it and then leaving. His brother-in-law had it coming, and he would do it again, but handle the aftermath differently. He ran away and his home fell into a civil war and his family got caught up in it. He basically said "I don’t think I can go back, I can’t face all that." Redguard takes place ten years after the killing and he finally feels the need to set things straight.
AVault: The world of Tamriel is very complex, with governments, warring provinces, and all sorts of political intrigue. Can you give us some background on the political state of affairs in Hammerfell and how much the other provinces will affect the situation in Stros M’kai?
Todd Howard: We wanted the game to be familiar to experienced Elder Scrolls players. Those players will recognize many of the references and specific details going on about the island. This will make it more interesting for those players, but not alienate those not familiar with the history.
About seventy percent of the inhabitants of Stros M’kai are Redguards, however all of the races have been represented. In fact, the bartender is an Argonian; he licks flies off the bar. You mentioned Dram a few questions ago; he is the only Dark Elf in the game (I can’t say much about the Dark Elves). He has been hired by the Empire and is watching over the governor of the island.
AVault: How have you handled situations where the player tries to go somewhere he shouldn’t, or do something that’s not available? Can I do what I want, when I want to?
Todd Howard: That’s a really good question, one that we’ve spent a lot of time deciding which option to go with. As the game takes place on an island, we can basically keep the player where we want. You can swim around, and if you swim too far off the island there are evil sea creatures that kill you. We have sharks and tentacles that pretty much tell you, don’t swim away from the island; you’re not going to make it and it’s too far away from anything anyway. The other thing deals with what you really want to do; you give someone a nice gunslinging type sword and their first reaction is to try killing everybody with it. They get to the island, whip out their sword thinking I’m going to kill everybody in town (it’s part of the gamer mentality; there’s a guy, he has to die). Forget that the guy is vitally important to the story, he’s going to die. We tossed around what we were going to do in that instance. I remember that inUltima VII, if you killed someone who was important to the game it wouldn’t let you save; so you’d kill someone off, and then play for a while, then try to save, and not be able to. That was our first idea, but then we realized that it’s not really fun when you’ve been playing for a while and you do something and you don’t know what you’ve done, and now you can’t save your game. What we decided to do, is make Cyrus honorably, morally opposed to attacking anyone who doesn’t have a weapon drawn. If they are not going to take him on, he’s not going to take them on. So, if you try to attack someone in town who doesn’t have a drawn weapon, you can’t. The character on screen will say, no, he’s unarmed. That’s how we got around the instances of killing people who are important to the story. Most of the guys you can fight; there are guards in town and if you pull your sword they’ll pull theirs. So there are enough guys to fight without killing off the important people.
AVault: In the olden days of adventure games, players could type in the exact actions they wanted their character to accomplish. Why hasn’t anyone adopted this style of interactivity, especially with the advances we’ve made in game design and databases?
Todd Howard: I miss that level of interactivity as well; it makes you feel that your choices are limitless. I used to make those games. The challenge we developers face today is creating an asset for every action. As asset is a piece of code, an animation that depicts the player’s action. In the olden days it was easy to make those games; we didn’t have to create any assets. Today, the gamer expects a visual for every action. Creating visuals for every action in a game as large as Redguard would be impossible.
AVault: AVault feels the one element that’s really been lacking in adventures/RPGs has been an extensive conversation system. What is Redguard’s approach to handling this dilemma? Is all conversation spoken in the game?
Todd Howard: The dialogue works by something we call the pick list. It looks like the conversation system in Monkey Island, but it’s much more advanced than that. The Monkey Island system is ok if you’ve got a linear game. Ours is more comprehensive and lists multiple types of conversation choices. Ask someone a question about your sister in the tavern and depending upon the response you get, additional topics will be added to the conversation tree, which you can talk to other characters about at other points in the game.
There are over 5,000 lines of spoken dialogue. Every character has something to say. Walking around the streets of Stros M’kai is like walking around a real city.
AVault: Is the game primarily flag-based, whereas the story progresses only when the player trips a flag by accomplishing a task?
Todd Howard: Yes, it is mostly flag-based, but it’s not linear. You can do most of the adventuring in any order you want to. We didn’t want to trap players into having to do things at a particular time or place. We wanted to give them a choice. So in order for the game to progress, yes, you do have to accomplish all the objectives but you can do it however you see fit. Look at it like the Ultimas, and you’ll have a good understanding of what the adventuring is like.
AVault: Tell us about some of the NPCs, how they work. I’ve seen a lot of pictures of the Dark Elf Dram. He looks intriguing...who is he?
Todd Howard: We have three dozen or so NPCs. Some of them are more important than others, but everyone has their own role, individual characteristics, individual voices, and each one of them has their own individual personality. Over the course of the game the player will be able to recognize NPCs like recognizing a friend. Depending upon your style of play you’ll be able to develop friendships and enemies.
AVault: Will NPCs communicate with one another? How will your actions and dialogue with one NPC affect relationships with others?
Todd Howard: That happens, but only when we want it to. There’s not a global model for NPC to NPC communication.
AVault: Will there be a lot of killing in the game? How gratuitous is the violence?
Todd Howard: There’s lots of killing, but it’s not that violent. We wanted to stay away from the hardcore violence, dismemberment. There is a lot of death happening in the game especially around you, but it’s got more of a Saturday afternoon adventure feel to it.
AVault: One of my favorite elements of the Elder Scrolls series are the spells and magic. I haven’t heard anything about magic in Redguard...what’s going on?
Todd Howard: Redguards aren’t into magic -- they are warriors. Cyrus doesn’t use magic, except for some items he can obtain, such as potions and talismans. Don’t get me wrong, there is magic in the game, mostly used by NPCs. There’s a Mages Guild and that’s where you’ll find most of the magic users. Redguard is a swashbuckling game, a pirate adventure, so magic isn’t a focal point.
AVault: What is the adventuring portion of the game like? Can you give us some examples of how the puzzles will work?
Todd Howard: We tried to cover all aspects of the adventure. We wanted to keep the gameplay flowing not using repeating puzzle types. We have exploration puzzles, where Cyrus has to find something by searching an area. We have inventory puzzles, where objects found in the game are essential to solving the puzzle. We have inspection puzzles that require Cyrus to closely examine objects; all objects can be examined up close and in 3D. We have dialogue puzzles, where the objective is to obtain information by getting a character to talk about what you want. We have awareness puzzles -- these are really cool. In these puzzles Cyrus will have to make astute observations about certain people and things, like when the guard goes to the tavern and then the store and back to the tavern repeatedly; you have to notice patterns developing. We have stealth puzzles which require you to get NPCs away from the area you want to explore; convince the old lady to go into town so you can examine her house. We have fighting puzzles.... And of course how could this game be complete without a pirate treasure map puzzle?
AVault: Can you give us an example of the attention to detail in the game? What about the objects a player collects? How detailed are they?
Todd Howard: They are very detailed. Each object has hundreds of polygons. An object can be picked up, put in your inventory; you can throw them away; you can break them, and you can examine them up close, all rendered in beautiful 3D.
AVault: What happens when a player gets stuck in the adventure? What has been done to keep the story going?
Todd Howard: The bartender -- you know, the one who likes to eat flies -- well, he’s a source of good information. If you get stuck, go talk to him. He won’t tell you exactly what to do, but he’ll point you in the right direction.
AVault: The story sounds really intriguing. Will there be any plot twists or changes that are a direct reaction to choices made by the game player?
Todd Howard: Sure, there are a few times the player will be presented with choices. The consequences of those choices are a mystery so the game is always unfolding in a different manner.
AVault: Have you played Unreal?
Todd Howard: Yes.
AVault: You know the scene where all the lights go off after tripping a switch, and you get trapped in a completely dark hallway; then red flashing lights come on, and before you know it you get your head lopped off by some monster? Any there any incidents like this in Redguard?
Todd Howard: I loved that part; I wonder why they didn’t make more of them. A lot of our game involves scenes like this. For that reason, we wrote our own scripting language and compiler. We’ve even implemented our cutscenes by using the game engine; they transition seamlessly without a break in gameplay. There are five pre-rendered cutscenes, however, and each one is played after reaching a major milestone.
AVault: About how many hours do you expect it to take to complete Redguard? What would be the minimum?
Todd Howard: This is a big game, with a lot to do. I’d say the minimum time for completion would be forty hours...sixty hours is probably average.
AVault: Are there plans to take this adventure series into other parts of Tamriel? Why was Hammerfell chosen?
Todd Howard: Hammerfell was chosen because I really like swashbuckling and wanted to do a pirate adventure. We have specs on a sequel, depending on the success of Redguard.
AVault: The cinematics feel and look great. The introduction is amazing. What kind of promise are you going to make us that assured the ending won’t be a disappointment?
Todd Howard: We spent a lot of time with this story. The story gets more interesting as the game goes on. It really picks up steam at the end. I like the second half of the story more than the first half.