The Elder Scrolls® IV: Oblivion™
At A Glance
One of the most hotly-anticipated titles in the Xbox 360™ development queue is the sequel to the wildly successful role-playing game (RPG) The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind® for the original Xbox®. Though the game was originally slated to release at the next-gen system's launch, the developers at Bethesda Softworks made the tough call to delay the title until the first quarter of 2006.
Interact with lifelike characters in Oblivion .
While many were upset that they'd have to wait a few more months to lose themselves in the lush countrysides and dank dungeons of Tamriel, the overwhelming majority of fans agreed that they'd rather get a fully polished experience than a rushed product.
In the meantime, public desire for development updates and new imagery is at an all-time high. To make the wait for The Elder Scrolls® IV: Oblivion™ a bit easier, I contacted producer Gavin Carter and asked him some questions about the game's reportedly revolutionary artificial intelligence system known as "Radiant A.I." Here's what anxious RPG fans have to look forward to when the game releases in a few months.
Xbox.com: Hello. Thanks for taking time to speak with us at Xbox.com. For the sake of our readers, please introduce yourself and talk about your role in the development of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion for Xbox 360.
Gavin Carter: I'm Gavin Carter, a producer at Bethesda Softworks working on The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
Xbox.com: Work on Oblivion began almost immediately following the original Xbox release of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, did it not? What was it like developing a game for a console (Xbox 360) that didn't exist yet? What were some of the challenges you faced?
Gavin: The problem of predicting the future is a common one in software development, and one we've dealt with before. Since our projects generally have long, three-year or more development times, even on PC we still have to be able to predict what the technological landscape is going to look like around the time of our release. In the beginning, most of our work was focused on the PC and we used it as a test bed for researching and developing new technology.
As far as Xbox 360 went, all we could do was try and extrapolate performance data based on the leap in performance between previous console and PC hardware generations. It was very exciting to see our predictions pan out once more and more data on the 360 became available.
The Xbox 360 version should look identical
Xbox.com: We've heard a lot about the Radiant A.I. system your team has been working on, that each of Oblivion's 1,000 NPCs is controlled by its own agenda, schedule, and motivation. Why go this route? How will it impact the gamer's experience?
Gavin: The lack of interesting A.I. for NPCs was probably the top complaint people had with Morrowind, so we took that to task from the very first days of Oblivion's development. The intent was to develop a system that could give NPCs a wide variety of interesting behaviors, as well as be extensible enough to apply quickly and easily to all 1500+ people who inhabit our game world. The impact on the gamer should greatly alleviate the feeling of a static world like Morrowind.
Even animals possess enhanced A.I.
Xbox.com: Here's a silly question: Why is it called Radiant A.I.? What does that mean?
Gavin: The "Radiant" part of the title refers to the way a character's awareness isn't strictly limited to a few hard-scripted objects or activities. It radiates out into the surrounding environment and beyond. They can choose to interact with anything they come into contact with based on parameters we set up when we create them.
This includes having conversations with one another, sitting down and reading books, buying food and supplies from shops, farming, exploring, engaging in combat with creatures or one another, and a wide range of other activities.
Xbox.com: From what we've seen of the game in previews and marketing videos, it looks as if you are attempting some bold new innovations—things never attempted before in a console game. Has the Xbox 360 hardware enabled you to realize many of your goals in terms of artificial intelligence, or was the multi-core architecture viewed as a hindrance by your colleagues?
Gavin: Like any new technology, it has its ups and downs. It's definitely far different from the original Xbox, where we could pretty much take the game code wholesale from the PC, drop it in, and have it work. Now it takes a lot more massaging and reworking to get it going, but our efforts produce results that are often stunning.
The design of the 360 is much more elegant this time around, with a lot more control in the developer's hands. The multi-core architecture allows us to offload a lot of the background processing of the A.I., enabling us to keep everything on the screen as smooth and beautiful as possible.
Explore towns and chat up the locals.
Xbox.com: There is a common stereotype that console games are generally stripped down "poor-man's" versions of PC games, yet the original Xbox version of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind sold quite well—aside from the exclusion of mod tools, the game was virtually the same as its Windows PC counterpart. Is Oblivion on Xbox 360 the same game as the Windows PC version, or are there notable differences? If so, what are they?
Gavin: Aside from obvious differences in controls, Oblivion should function and look pretty much the same on both PC and Xbox 360. Both versions use the same art assets, so aside from minor differences resulting from your display quality, the Xbox 360 version should look identical to a PC running with the highest settings.
Xbox.com: Was it the runaway success of Morrowind that convinced your team to push forward and continue console development, or was there some other motivation to branch out? Are the members of your team console gamers or PC fanatics? Has the Xbox 360 version of Oblivion converted any non-believers?
Gavin: Our primary focus at Bethesda is to try and make a really good game that's fun to play, and then put it on as many platforms as possible. When you drill down to the basics of game design, what makes a game fun to play is pretty much the same whether you're using a gamepad or a mouse and keyboard.
We have a team of around 70 people now, so platform preferences run the gamut from hardcore PC fanboys to console lunatics and everything in between. The reaction to everyone in the company playing the Xbox 360 version has been extremely positive. We've got guys who have been testing the game since right around the beginning of the project writing in their playtesting notes about how much fun they're having with it.
Xbox.com: We've read some comments in the press that you're kicking around the idea of downloadable content via Xbox Live®. Can Xbox 360 gamers expect downloadable expansion packs in the future? How about new quests, characters, or multiplayer modes?
Gavin: Downloadable content over Xbox Live is definitely something we want to pursue. The exact form that will take, we're still discussing. The content we offer will vary from small to large—so everything from new weapons and armor to whole new quests. I wouldn't hold my breath for a downloadable multiplayer mode, though …
Radiant A.I. makes your enemies more cunning.
Xbox.com: One reason that the PC version of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was so successful was its inclusion of mod tools. There is an indisputably large mod community out there that's constantly cranking out some quality work, pushing the engine harder than ever. As you know, Xbox 360 comes with a hard drive, and the USB 2.0 ports allow you to connect things like a keyboard and mouse up to it. In other words, it seems logical that modding can be done on Xbox 360. Why haven't we seen mod tools for consoles in the past? Is this something you see as viable on Xbox 360? Why or why not?
Gavin: We've been and continue to be very impressed with the mod community surrounding Morrowind, and we expect they'll do even bigger and better things with Oblivion. Previously, mod tools have been held up for control issues. It's just not that efficient trying to build levels with a control pad.
I don't see Oblivion's editor making its way to the Xbox 360. It uses standard Windows programming libraries to handle all the mundane tasks of setting up windows, mouse interactions, and all the basic stuff you take for granted in Windows programs. These libraries aren't available on the Xbox 360, however, so we'd have to kind of reinvent the wheel to get it up and running.
Between the massive size of the game itself and our downloadable content offerings, gamers should have more than enough content to keep them going for quite a long time with Oblivion.
Xbox.com: Oblivion reportedly has hours and hours of recorded dialogue, unlike Morrowind where most characters spoke a greeting phrase only. In regards to NPCs, how has all this dialogue affected Radiant A.I.? Was it difficult to link all the conversation trees up to each individual NPC, or are you handling it some other way altogether?
Gavin: The tools we have developed for our dialogue and conversation systems allow very easy manipulation of our voice and dialogue data. All of the data exists in a database file, and the NPCs pull their speech out based on numerous conditions that can be as specific as their individual name, or as general as their race or the current weather. We took the system we developed for the spoken hellos and goodbyes from Morrowind and expanded it into a very robust dialogue editor.
As far as A.I. goes, the main effect of spoken dialogue is to personalize each character more. Also, it allows you to overhear conversations between NPCs in a natural way, instead of just reading text on the screen.
Xbox.com: What feature in Oblivion are you most excited about?
Gavin: There's very little I'm not excited about in Oblivion. The A.I. is certainly one that gets a lot of airtime, and for good reason. Even more than just bringing characters to life as they go about their daily lives, I'm excited about the use of Radiant A.I. in quests. Our A.I. system is very firmly rooted in our scripting and quest systems, and the difference it makes between Morrowind's "talk-fetch-reward" quests and Oblivion's much more involved quests is going to really wow people.
Xbox.com:Anything you'd like to add in closing?
Gavin: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about the game, and I can't wait for everyone out there to experience Oblivion.
Xbox.com: Thanks for your time.