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Oblivion interview - Gavin Carter of Bethesda

No matter what your preferences in terms of gaming, be you a first-person shooter obsessive or otherwise, the name 'Elder Scrolls' will almost certainly mean something to you. Failing that, 'Morrowind' should certainly show a flicker of recognition. If you're still lost, then to put it simply, the Elder Scrolls series of games is one of (if not the) most popular RPG franchises out there, with a history that goes all the way from 1994 up to the most recent release, the already mentioned Morrowind.

Click for full-size image

Now anticipation for Elder Scrolls fans is at fever pitch once again, with the next game in the series, Oblivion, drawing ever closer to its release date. The game is already looking like becoming a major success of both the PC and Xbox 360, thansk to its blend of immersive gameplay coupled with a simply fantastic looking graphics engine. We've been lucky enough to catch up with one of the producers of Oblivion, Gavin Carter of Bethesda Softworks, and fired off a slew of questions about this highly anticipated title.

Click for full-size image

So, without further ado, on to the questions:

Elite Bastards: Can you give us an overview of the main features used by the games graphics engine (i.e. Shader Models, texture sizes, HDR etc)?

Gavin Carter: Oblivion’s renderer is a mix of the Gamebryo renderer with a healthy dose of our own internally developed technology. The engine fully supports shader models up to and including 3.0. We employ a full HDR lighting solution throughout the game. Textures utilize all the latest shader technology including normal maps, specular maps, and parallax maps. We’re hammering away on our soft-shadow model. There shouldn’t be any technological buzzword out there that current games are using that we don’t have built into our renderer.

Click for full-size image

Elite Bastards: A previous interview mentioned using multi-threading to help speed up area/cell loading for when players move about the game world. Are the devs using multi-threading in other ways to facilitate game performance?

Gavin Carter: The game’s code takes advantage of the multithreaded nature of the Xbox 360 and multithreaded PCs to improve just about every aspect of the game. The primary function is to improve framerates by off-loading some work from the main thread to the other processors. We do a variety of tasks on other threads depending on the situation – be it sound and music, renderer tasks, physics calculations, or anything else that could benefit. Loading also gets spread across hardware threads to aid in load times and provide a more seamless experience for the player.

Elite Bastards: With the Xbox 360's advanced Xenos graphics chip from ATI, are there going to be any graphical differences between Oblivion on the PC compared to MS' new console? What are some of the technologies supported by the Xenos chip Bethesda's programmers are most keen on taking advantage of?

Gavin Carter: The performance of the Xbox 360 GPU is something we’ve been extremely impressed with even going back to the alpha kits. It’s really a beast thanks to innovations like the unified shader architecture. It tears through our longest shaders like a hot knife through butter. As far as differences, if you’ve got a fast PC with a graphics card with full shader model 3.0 support, the differences should be miniscule in nature.

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Elite Bastards: If it doesn't support it out of the box, will you patch to add support for the PhysX card, not necessarily to add new features, but just to hand off the physics work?

Gavin Carter: The PhysX card is an exciting piece of technology, but it came about far too late for Oblivion to support. We rely on a heavily tweaked version of the Havok SDK for our in-game physics and it does a bang up job on its own.

Elite Bastards: In these days of pixel shaders, AI, and physics, it's very easy to overlook another key component: sound. How have you improved/what new features have you introduced for sound?

Gavin Carter: One of the new features that really improves the game experience is the use of physics-based sound. We associate sound categories with material types on objects and have ways we can mix and match up sounds depending on collisions that occur in the game. So dropping a sword on the stone floor of a cave will sound different then dropping it on the floor of a wooden house. The system is global, so even things like combat sounds get modulated by it. So striking a guy in full armor will give you a nice clang, while smacking a goblin with a warhammer will give you a satisfying flesh impact sound.

Elite Bastards: In the early days of nailing down the Oblivion design, what were the key features that you held off implementing in Morrowind that you were determined to implement in Oblivion?

Gavin Carter: There are innumerable elements that we wanted to improve from Morrowind. The AI was a primary focus, so we developed the Radiant AI system to allow us to breathe life into a world with well over 1500 characters. Physics are another feature that we made a priority from the start and they are incorporated into every facet of the game from magic to combat to traps. Other things we’ve done as direct improvements to Morrowind include jacking up the view distance to extreme levels, providing mounts for the player to ride, and changing up combat to be less of an abstraction and more of a visceral, kinetic experience.

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Elite Bastards: Which element were you most disappointed at having to postpone until a future game?

Gavin Carter: We generate tons of ideas for every single project that don’t make it into the game. It’s way too difficult to pick just one! Of course, none of these are thrown out, so you never know what you’ll see in an expansion or sequel.

Elite Bastards: What were the most challenging elements of your design to actually implement in the game? What's been the most frustrating element to implement and how did you finally overcome it?

Gavin Carter: The AI has certainly been the most challenging element to implement. It turns out that giving any sense of autonomy to a world with 1500 NPCs that are running 24 hours a day (no matter where you are) can be a dangerous proposition. We’ve had to deal with everything from NPCs killing plot-essential characters off-screen to them breaking the economy by purchasing everything in a town. However, our programmers have done a tremendous job plugging the holes that form and it’s grown into a very tight system that is fascinating to observe and interact with in the game.

Elite Bastards: The economy in Morrowind is widely considered to be somewhat broken. What steps have the designers taken for Oblivion to avoid repeating this game flaw?

Gavin Carter: Economy has been a much bigger focus for us in Oblivion than it ever was in Morrowind. Our designers have produced reams upon reams of spreadsheets, charts, graphs, and statistics examining player advancement and linking it up to the world economy. One major step we’ve taken is providing the player with higher level economic goals – things like houses and horses and high level weapons and armor in shops. These are meant to be goals to save your money towards over the course of the game.

Also, we’ve introduced the concept of investing as a skill perk. Once you achieve a high enough mercantile skill, you can invest in a store and permanently raise the maximum amount of money the merchant has to purchase items from you. Over time you can use his increased wealth to your selling advantage because he’ll have more money to buy your loot.

Elite Bastards: With the significant advancement of graphics, particularly in the portrayal of characters, what were the key challenges you faced in making sure that Oblivion's graphics didn't outstrip its gameplay, which would have left you with a pretty, but vacuous, game?

Gavin Carter: We always try and think of ways to work improved graphics into our gameplay formula. For instance, physics are great to have in the game just from a suspension of disbelief standpoint, but we took it a step farther with physics-based traps. If you see a trap that hasn’t been tripped, you can lure an unsuspecting foe into it, increasing your strategic options in combat.

For characters, we have worked our system of facial animation into the Speechcraft skill. Whereas in Morrowind persuasion was simply an invisible die roll against your skill, we’ve created a persuasion system where you look carefully at an NPC’s expression to determine how they’ll react to certain forms of persuasion.

Click for full-size image

Elite Bastards: The devs claim to have over 200 hand-crafted dungeons for Oblivion. How many hours on average does it take the devs to create a typical dungeon?

Gavin Carter: It really depends. We spend a lot of time during pre-production constructing elaborate dungeon “sets” which can be split up into prefab parts and reconstructed in a variety of ways. That process takes quite a bit of time, but once we have our prefabs constructed, the actual production of a dungeon becomes far less time intensive. All dungeons also go through several different iterations as they get reviewed and improved.

An average dungeon will probably take up about a week of man hours from a level designer before it is put in the game and played through by testers. At that point, feedback is gathered and based on that we can revise further or put a final stamp of approval on it.

Elite Bastards: Can you tell us about how weather has been implemented in Oblivion to add to its realistic feel?

Gavin Carter: Weather is similar to Morrowind in that it is dynamic in nature and region-based. For instance, the farther you travel north, the more frequently you’ll find yourself in the snow. We’ve made a number of improvements from Morrowind, such as a double-layer sky to provide more realistic cloud movements. Also, wind speed can affect the motion of trees, grass, and even store signs. We’ve really taken the weather concept to the extreme in the planes of Oblivion, as well.

Elite Bastards: With Emil Pagliarulo hired on to help with Oblivion's stealth aspects, we're wondering if Oblivion is going to allow one of the more fun tactics from the Thief games, which is incapacitating human opponents by sneaking up behind them using stealth?

Gavin Carter: Stealth got a big upgrade from Morrowind. The formulas for whether or not you’re detected now take into account light and sound, so marching around in those heavy iron armored boots probably isn’t your best option for sleuthing. Also, we’ve included special sneak attacks as skill perks. They aren’t instant kills all the time, but depending on your skills, a successful sneak attack can put a big multiplier on your damage.

Elite Bastards: Will NPCs move between interior and exterior areas or are they limited to the area in which they're placed by the designers?

Gavin Carter: Both NPCs and creatures can pursue you wherever you go.

Click for full-size image

Elite Bastards: The new combat systems sounds like it requires more interaction from the player, but it also sounds more twitch based since it'll test the player's reflexes to be successful in a hard fight. Will there be difficulty levels players can choose that'll make combat easier for us old timers who no longer quite have the reaction times of our younger years?

Gavin Carter: There is a difficulty slider that functions similar to Morrowind – increasing the difficulty causes you to do less damage while enemies do more damage, and vice versa.

Elite Bastards: Is the player's relationship with the Daedra purely one of defending Tamriel against them, or is it more ambiguous than that?

Gavin Carter: You’ll get to interact with the various Daedra in a variety of ways. Finding their shrines scattered across the world will yield quests for the higher-level player.

Elite Bastards: To what extent are the guilds competitive with each other, and to what extent is that competitiveness open to play?

Gavin Carter: The guilds are definitely aware of one another and you’ll hear them refer to each other as part of the plot. Since the whole “Oblivion gates opening everywhere and spewing monsters” theme is a global crisis, you get some overlap between them. We like to keep guilds largely separated though, both to keep the plotlines more coherent and to allow the player to better wander from one to another at will.

Elite Bastards: As a writer I'd like to know how you keep track of all the (creative) writing that needs to be done for a game like Oblivion, especially when there's so much dialogue, and when aspects of the game might change in development? How do you keep the writer(s) involved so that they don't end up 'adrift' from the development of the game?

Gavin Carter: It really boils down to having the proper tools for the job, and the tools we have this time around for tracking and maintaining dialog are a quantum leap over Morrowind. We have much more control and changes are far easier to make and track. The writing for the game, much like the dungeon design, follows a very iterative process of drafting, review, and redrafting. The writers had most of the plots drafted out and most of the dialogue written before even putting them into the game.

Early on, we actually made them present the plotlines of their quests to the entire team. Of course, then we play it, and things can and frequently do change drastically from that point. But everyone here plays the game and is always looking for ways to improve the quests. I think the strength of our dialogue and characters in Oblivion are actually going to surprise a lot of people.

Elite Bastards: Your motto for the Elder Scrolls games has been 'Live another life'. Does Oblivion deal with sexuality at all? This has been an area you've shied away from before, so if you're not allowing play of it I'd be interested to hear why when it's such a key element of individual identity and life.

Gavin Carter: It’s not something we pay a lot of attention to, mostly because we feel like it distracts from the dramatic focus of the plot. We like to keep the focus much more on the heroic than the domestic.

Elite Bastards: Given how long you've been creating games in this setting, do you have a reference library for writers and other creative staff to refer to so that they can accurately create new in-game books for example? If so, have you ever considered making this library available online as an Elder Scrolls encyclopaedia?

Gavin Carter: We have just about everything ever written pertaining to the lore of the Elder Scrolls world on our servers. Most of it has made it into our games in one form or another. A small amount remains internal as it could come into play in future games. Any lore aficionados who want to read up on more of the backstory on the Elder Scrolls world should head over to the Imperial Library, a fansite that has collected every piece of Elder Scrolls lore out there.

Also, those interested in lore should keep their eyes out for the announcement of the Oblivion Collector’s Edition contents.

Elite Bastards: Can segments of the `invisible wall' surrounding the Oblivion player area be dropped for expansions, either unofficial or in mods, to increase the playing area?

Gavin Carter: Certainly. Players have the ability to construct their own worlds completely separate in every way from the main world of Oblivion. Though there are theoretical and practical limits to the size of the world you can create, the ability for modders to create worlds several times the size of Cyrodiil is there.

Elite Bastards: The MW_Children_1.0 mod (which added 330 children to Morrowind and its 2 expansions) added a significant feeling of reality. What have you implemented in Oblivion to give similar illusions of reality?

Gavin Carter: Children are problematic not only for ratings board issues, but also because doing dramatically different body sizes presents problems for our clothing system. The system we use to mix and match different pieces of armor and clothing to each character is very complex, and altering it to handle the differences in proportion and size between adults and children is not something we pursued for Oblivion.

Elite Bastards: Has there been any considerations yet for a Deluxe/Collector's edition release of Oblivion for the PC?

Gavin Carter: Yes, we are definitely doing a Collector’s edition for both versions of the game. Look for full details on our website soon.

If you want to find out more about Oblivion, then check out the official web site here.

Many thanks to Gavin Carter and co at Bethesda for their time and consideration in arranging and conducting this interview.

Also, many thanks to our forum members John Reynolds and Craig (aka Voudoun) for compiling the questions for this interview - Without their input this wouldn't have been possible!

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