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Interview

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Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion Interview

Bethesda Softworks' Pete Hines talks about the upcoming next game in the fantasy RPG series.


Bethesda Softworks's Elder Scrolls series of fantasy RPGs have been highly praised in the past, including its last outing, the first person themed title Morrowind. However, their latest game in the series, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, could be its best yet. Screenshots and movies have blown people away at E3 and the game will not only be released on the PC but will be one of the launch titles for Microsoft's Xbox 360 console. Gamecloud got a chance to chat with Bethesda's PR head Pete Hines to find out more about Oblivion.

Gamecloud - Oblivion has gotten some of the biggest advance praises for a game that's still not scheduled to come out for a few months yet. How much pressure does that give the development team to meet the game's expectations?

Pete Hines - I guess you’d have to say it does increase the pressure because we obviously have very high expectations to meet, but at the same time we have had those expectations of ourselves and our game all along. I also think it’s a motivator as well, though. All these people getting excited about the game and talking about it…it’s very rewarding to know that people care about what you’re doing, a lot.

Gamecloud - Morrowind made big advances in open-ended gameplay. When the time came to create Oblivion, what ideas did the team come up with to improve that aspect?

Pete Hines - The things we tried to do with respect to that part of the game focused more on how we present information to the player; how we organize it, how we let them know where to go next when they want to know. It’s about getting out of the way when the player wants to walk around and explore the world and do whatever he/she wants, but when they say, “ok, I’m ready to do the next part of the main quest, where do I go?”, we have to be ready with an answer so there’s no confusion, no downtime.

Another aspect we improved is in the way that quests work. We created quests and things for the player to do that they can not only choose to do (or not do) in any order, but they can accomplish in a variety of ways. Part of that is the AI system and the way our NPCs behave and interact. This gives the player more freedom to try some creative things in solving quests that they might not normally try in a more restrictive RPG.

Gamecloud - Even though it can be played in first person, Oblivion is supposed to be a true RPG rather than an action-RPG. How hard is it to make the game a real role playing experience?

Pete Hines - Well, most good RPGs have action. Somebody is always whacking someone or something with a sword or axe or blasting them with a gun or whatever. The trick is to find a balance where the player controls the action and understands what’s going on, but the skill of the person playing the game doesn’t override the stats and abilities of the character they’re playing. The way we handle that is to have combat that feels natural and realistic.

You swing or block when you want, if the sword hits the enemy, or the shield blocks an attack, it hits or blocks. There are no “to hit” rolls or anything like that. Instead, the stats govern everything that happens after that. How much damage you do with a sword or a magic spell, how much damage your shield absorbs…all of that is determined by the stats of your character. So it feels both natural to the player (understanding everything they see happening on the screen) and at the same time, we’re able to keep it as a true role-playing experience where, ultimately, the success or failure of your character will be based on his/her stats, not yours.

Gamecloud - What can you tell us about the main storyline in Oblivion?

Pete Hines - The main storyline is about your character finding the long lost son of the emperor and getting him to take his rightful place on the throne. It’s a bit of a twist from what we’ve done in the past where you were the person who had to save the world. We’re really asking you to find the only guy who can save the world and help him do it. In a sense, it’s almost more noble and heroic than being the guy who does it all, because you’ve got to find him, protect him, and clear the path for him to do what needs to be done…things he can’t do himself.

Gamecloud - What are some of the more memorable creatures that the player will encounter in the game?

Pete Hines - I think you’ll find some of everything: undead like zombies and skeletons, classic fantasy creatures like goblins and trolls, and of course the Daedra, which are some of the more memorable creatures in the game for sure.

Gamecloud - How will the magic and combat systems in the game be handled?

Pete Hines - We’ve designed a system that allows magic and combat to work together seamlessly. You don’t have to unequip armor or weapons to be able to cast spells. So it’s great to be hitting a guy with arrows or bashing on him with a big weapon and then cast a quick heal spell or fireball and not miss a beat.

We did three whole new combat systems before settling on the one that’s in the game now. We really are striving to get the feeling of guys bashing each other with swords. So it plays better and it looks better. You’re in control of it more and you understand what’s going on in the game. There’s no hidden “to hit” rolls that cause you to miss when your sword clearly hits the guy. The stats control the damage you do when you hit, not whether or not you hit. There are special moves you can perform and the blocking is active. So the timing of it becomes a key strategy in fighting.

Gamecloud - How will the AI and conversation systems for NPCs in Oblivion work?

Pete Hines - Our new Radiant AI system allows for full 24/7 schedules for every NPC and they also think on their own. We give them general goals to accomplish and the NPC figures out how to accomplish it. Radiant AI allows us to have that kind of advanced behavior on a massive scale. And that’s the trick for us, you may see something scripted in another game, and we have to figure out a way to systemize that so we can do it on a large scale.

NPCs will engage in dynamic conversations in streets, in buildings…wherever they run into each other. You can listen in on these conversations and pick up useful pieces of info, new quests, or simply listen to them talk about a quest you completed or are currently working on. When you talk to NPCs, you have a list of topics you can ask them about. Any topics where they’ll only tell you something you’ve heard before will appear in grey so you don’t have to bother asking them again. The journal tracks everything useful for you automatically. There’s so much information in the game that we had to work really hard at making sure the player never felt overwhelmed or that there was too much to try to remember.

Gamecloud - What other important gameplay elements will the game have?

Pete Hines - More than anything, it’s just the freedom you have to do what you want. Be it good or evil. Join any guild you want, or all of them. Become the Arena champion, or just go to watch fights and place bets. Pick ingredients to make potions to use or poison your weapon with. Finish the main quest, or not.

Gamecloud - How hard is it to make a game as graphically intensive as Oblivion?

Pete Hines - Very. It’s funny how often we interview people here for jobs who, after seeing the game and what we’re doing, simply don’t understand how in the world we’re able to do the stuff they’re seeing…on this kind of scale, to this level of detail. I know I’m a bit biased, but as a guy that plays a LOT of video games it impresses the heck out of me every time I play it and I’m always finding something in the game I’ve never seen before. It takes a lot of talented programmers and artists and a lot of time and hard work to pull it off.

Gamecloud - What sort of mod support will the PC version have?

Pete Hines - We’ll be providing a new version of the TES Construction Set that PC users can use to create all kinds of plugins and mods for the game. We’ve obviously added some new functionality and changed some things to make it easier for us to make the game, and modders will enjoy the benefits of those improvements when they go to make their mods and plugins.

Gamecloud - Are there any plans for a demo of the game to be released?

Pete Hines - No, no demo. It’s really impossible for us to take a big, huge, open-ended world and try to cut it up or somehow restrict it for folks to be able to play just a little bit of it. It either is too restrictive to give a good representation of what the game is about, or it is far, far, far too big to ever release as a demo.

Gamecloud - What is the current status of the game's progress and when will it be released?

Pete Hines - Right now we’re spending all of our time on testing the game, fixing problems, and optimizing the code. Once everything is “in” the game there’s still a lot of work to do. A lot.

Gamecloud - Morrowind had a number of commercial add-ons for the PC version. Are there any add-on plans for Oblivion in the works?

Pete Hines - We definitely have plans to do downloadable content almost immediately after the game ships. With respect to add-ons/expansions, we prefer to focus on the game itself and make sure it’s great and get it done and in people’s hands. Until that happens, nobody cares about expansions.

Gamecloud - Finally is there anything else you wish to say about Oblivion?

Pete Hines - We appreciate everyone’s interest in the game and promise that we’re doing everything we can to make the game everything you hoped it would be, and more.