The development history of The Elder Scrolls series began in 1992, when the staff of Bethesda Softworks, which had until then been a predominantly sports game-producing company, decided to shift the focus of their upcoming Arena from arena combat into role-playing. In 1994, the team released the first-person RPG The Elder Scrolls: Arena for DOS PC systems. The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, the next series game, was published in 1996. Fuelled by the modest success of Arena, Daggerfall attempted to create a game world larger than Great Britain, rendered in a fully-3D engine, and build a skill-system that revolved around skill building rather than experience gains. Daggerfall suffered from that very ambition: rushed to publication, the game was found tortuously buggy, and prohibitively hardware-intensive.
Following Daggerfall's release, Bethesda ceased any development on any numbered series title until 1998, developing in the interim The Elder Scrolls Legends: Battlespire, released in 1997, and The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard, released in 1998. Both games had a smaller focus than the numbered series titles: Battlespire limited itself to dungeon-romping; Redguard was a linear third-person action-adventure game. The release of Morrowind in 2002 saw a return to the old-style expansive and non-linear gameplay, and a shift towards individually detailed landscapes and items, with a smaller game-world than past titles. Morrowind was released on both the Xbox and the PC, and saw popular and critical success on both, selling upwards of 4 million units by mid 2005.
Work began on The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion in 2002, immediately after Morrowind's publication. Oblivion focused on providing a tighter storyline, improved AI, physics and graphics. The game was released on the PC and Xbox 360 in early 2006, and the PS3 in early 2007. Further content was distributed over Xbox Live and the Internet through micropayments. Bethesda released two expansion packs for Oblivion in late 2006 and early 2007: The Elder Scrolls IV: Knights of the Nine, which included all previously-released micro-content releases, and The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles.
Prior to working on the Elder Scrolls series, Bethesda worked predominantly with sports games. In the six years from their founding to Arena's release, in 1992, Bethesda had released ten games, six of them sports games—games with such titles as Hockey League Simulator, NCAA Basketball: Road To The Final Four ('91/'92 Edition), and Wayne Gretzky Hockey—and the remaining four adaptations from other media—adaptations predominantly from the Terminator series.
Bethesda's history as a sport and port game developer did not help it when it began its first action-RPG venture. Designer Ted Peterson recalls the experience: "I remember talking to the guys at SirTech who were doing Wizardry: Crusaders of the Dark Savant at the time, and them literally laughing at us for thinking we could do it." Ted Peterson worked alongside Vijay Lakshman as one of the two designers of what was then simply Arena, a "medieval-style gladiator game."
Peterson, Lakshman and Julian LeFay were those who, in Peterson's opinion, "really spear-headed the initial development of the series." Game journalist Joe Blancato, however, credits company co-founder Chris Weaver with the development: "If Weaver had a baby, Arena was it, and it showed." During the development of Arena, Todd Howard, later Executive Producer of Oblivion, joined Bethesda, testing the CD-ROM version of Arena as his first assignment. Ted Peterson had joined the company in 1992, working assignments on Terminator: 2029, Terminator Rampage, and Terminator: Future Shock, as well as other "fairly forgettable titles".
Peterson, Lakshman and LeFay were longtime aficionados of pencil and paper role-playing games, and it was from these games that the world of Tamriel was created. They were also fans of Looking Glass Studios' Ultima Underworld series, which became their main inspiration for Arena.
The influence of Legends of Valour, a game Ted Peterson describes as a "free-form first-person perspective game that took place in a single city", has also been noted. Peterson, asked for his overall comment on the game, replied "It was certainly derivative...". Aside from the fact that Bethesda had made Arena "Much, much bigger" than other titles on the market, Peterson held that the team "[wasn't] doing anything too new" in Arena.
Initially, Arena was not to be an RPG at all. The player, and a team of his fighters, would travel about a world fighting other teams in their arenas until the player became "grand champion" in the world's capital, the Imperial City. Along the way, side quests of a more role-playing nature could be completed. As the process of development progressed, however, the tournaments became less important and the side quests more. RPG elements were added to the game, as the game expanded to include the cities outside the arenas, and dungeons beyond the cities. Eventually it was decided to drop the idea of tournaments altogether, and focus on quests and dungeons, on making the game a "full-blown RPG".
The original concept of arena combat had never made it to the coding stage, and so few artifacts from that era of development remain: the game's title, and a text file with the names of fighting teams from every large city in Tamriel, and a brief introduction for them. The concept of traveling teams was eventually left aside as well, because the team's decision to produce a first-person RPG had made the system somewhat less fun.
Although the team had dropped all arena combat from the end game, because all the material had already been printed up with the title, the game went to market as The Elder Scrolls: Arena. The team retconned the idea that, because the Empire of Tamriel was so violent, it had been nicknamed the Arena. The title remained awkward. It was Lakshman who came up with the idea of "The Elder Scrolls", and though, in the words of Ted Peterson, "I don't think he knew what the hell it meant any more than we did", the words eventually came to mean "Tamriel's mystical tomes of knowledge that told of its past, present, and future." The game's initial voice-over was changed in response, beginning: "It has been foretold in the Elder Scrolls ..."
The game's release was disastrous. Bethesda missed their Christmas 1993 deadline, and was forced to release the game in the "doldrums" of March 1994, "really serious for a small developer/publisher like Bethesda Softworks." The misleading packaging further contributed to distributor distaste for the game, leading to an initial distribution of only 3,000 units—a smaller number even, recalls Peterson, than the sales for his Terminator: 2029 add-on. "We were sure we had screwed the company and we'd go out of business." Nonetheless, sales continued, month after month, as news of the game was passed on by word-of-mouth.
Soon, despite harsh reviews, general bugginess, and the formidable demands the game made on player's machines, the game became a cult hit. Evaluations of the game's success vary from "minor" to "modest" to "wild", but are unvarying in presenting the game as a success. Game historian Matt Barton concludes that, in any case, "the game set a new standard for this type of CRPG, and demonstrated just how much room was left for innovation."
Work on The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall began immediately after Arena's release in March 1994. Ted Peterson was assigned the role of Lead Game Designer. Originally titled Mournhold and set in Morrowind, the game was eventually relocated to the provinces of High Rock and Hammerfell. Daggerfall's plot was opened up beyond Arena's clichéd and linear "find the eight missing pieces of the "Staff of Chaos" and use it to rescue the Emperor from a dimensional prison", and, said Ted Peterson, "that most cliched of all role-playing conventions, slaying the wicked wizard", to a "complex series of adventures leading to multiple resolutions".
With Daggerfall, Arena's experience-point based system was replaced with one that rewarded the player for actually role-playing their character. Daggerfall came equipped with an improved character generation engine, one that included not only Arena's basic class choices, but also a GURPS-influenced class creation system, offering players the chance to create their own classes, and assign their own skills. Daggerfall was initially developed with an updated 2.5D raycast engine, like Doom's, but it was eventually dropped in favor of XnGine, one of the first truly 3D engines. Daggerfall realized a gameworld twice the size of Great Britain, filled with 15,000 towns and a population of 750,000.
Daggerfall, in Peterson's opinion, was little-influenced by contemporary video games, as they simply "weren't very interesting". "I can remember playing the latest King's Quest, Doom, and Sam and Max Hit the Road while working on it, but I can't say they had any profound impact on the story or design." Daggerfall's most profound influences came from whatever analog games and literature Julian LeFay or Ted Peterson happened to be playing or reading at the time, such as Dumas's The Man in the Iron Mask, which influenced "the quest where the player had to find the missing Prince of Sentinel", and Vampire: The Masquerade, which influenced "the idea of vampire tribes throughout the region".
Daggerfall was released on August 31, 1996, within the game's intended release window. Like that of Arena, Daggerfall's release suffered from buggy code. It was patchable code, however, a fact that nonetheless left consumers disgruntled. The yearning to avoid what were, in LeFay's words, "all the stupid patches we had for Daggerfall" led to a more cautious release schedule in the future.
Following the release of Daggerfall, work began on three separate projects all at once: Battlespire, Redguard, and Morrowind, for it had become clear that the gaming audience hungered for more games, more often. Battlespire, originally titled Dungeon of Daggerfall: Battlespire, was the first of the three to be released, on November 30, 1997.
Originally designed as an expansion pack for Daggerfall, Battlespire focused on what Bethesda has since called "the best part of Daggerfall": dungeon romping. Battlespire would be smaller in scope than previous titles and would feature "intense level design". It was also to offer multiplayer gaming,—player versus player deathmatch, as it were—the only series title to do so, as of 2008. Later in development, Morrowind was put on hold, and its staff transferred over to Battlespire and Redguard. Battlespire was repackaged as a stand-alone game, and sold as An Elder Scrolls Legend: Battlespire.
Redguard was the second of the three titles to be released, on October 31, 1998. With the inspiration of Tomb Raider, Prince of Persia, and the Ultima series, Bethesda was to create a new series of pure action-adventure games under the Elder Scrolls Adventures label. Players would talk to NPCs through keywords, use items to solve puzzles, and follow an "epic" storyline, all the while moving through dungeons, swordfights and chasms.
With Redguard, the team focused its art time on achieving great detail in one particular area with the XnGine, creating the real-time 3D environments of the island and town of Stros M'kai. Redguard did not offer the player the chance to create their own character. Instead, players would play the prefabricated "Cyrus the Redguard".
Both games were failures with the gaming public. Players used to the vast open spaces of Daggerfall did not take well to the reduced worlds of Redguard and Battlespire. There was a downturn in sales in The Elder Scrolls franchise and elsewhere, and Bethesda flirted with bankruptcy. Asked if he had ever been worried, Howard replied: "Oh, sure. Over my 13 years here, that's a long time, you're going to have bumps. The years immediately following Daggerfall were probably the worst. We made some bad decisions and some bad games."
A third title in the Elder Scrolls series was first conceived during the development of Daggerfall, though it was originally to be set in the Summerset Isles and called Tribunal. Following the release of Daggerfall, it was set up around an SVGA version of XnGine, which Bethesda later used in Battlespire, and set in the province of Morrowind.
The concept was "much closer to Daggerfall in scope", than the finished product, encompassing the whole province of Morrowind, rather than the isle of Vvardenfell, and allowing the player to join all five Dunmer Great Houses, rather than the three available in publication. The blight was conceived as a dynamic force, progressively expanding and destroying cities in its wake. It was eventually decided that the scope of the original design was too grand given the technology current at the time. According to designer Ken Rolston, something was said approximating "We’re not ready for it, we don’t want to jump into this and fail". The project was put on hold in 1997, as Bethesda went on to develop Redguard and Battlespire, though the project remained in the back of the developers minds throughout this period.
The completion of Redguard in 1998 led to a return to the Morrowind project, as the developers felt a yearning in their audience to return to the classically epic forms of the earlier titles. Finding that the gaps between their own technical capacities and those of rival companies had grown in the interim, Bethesda sought to revitalize itself and return to the forefront of the industry, an effort spearheaded by project leader Todd Howard.
XnGine was eventually scrapped and replaced with Numerical Design Limited's Gamebryo, a Direct3D powered engine, with T&L capacity, 32-bit textures and skeletal animation. During their promotional campaign, Bethesda deliberately paralleled their screenshot releases with the announcement of NVIDIA's GeForce 4, as "being indicative of the outstanding water effects the technology is capable of".
The scale of the game was much reduced from the earlier concept, focusing primarily on Dagoth Ur and a smaller area of land. It was decided that the game world would be populated using the methods the team had developed in Redguard; that is, the game objects would be crafted by hand, rather than generated using the random algorithmic methods of Arena and Daggerfall. By 2000, Morrowind was to be unequivocally a single-player game, with no chance of multiplayer extension. In the words of Pete Hines, Bethesda's Director of Marketing and PR: "No. Not on release, not three months after, no no no."
The project, despite the reduced scale, became a massive investment. According to the team's reasonings, the endeavor took "close to 100 man-years to create". To accomplish this feat, Bethesda tripled their staff and spent their first year of development on The Elder Scrolls Construction Set, allowing the game staff to easily balance the game and to modify it in small increments rather than large. According to project leader Todd Howard, the Construction Set came as the result of a communal yearning to develop a "role-playing operating system", capable of extension and modification, rather than a particular type of game.
Despite the increase in staff, Rolston still felt that the game had few designers, in contrast to the multitudes employed in the production of Oblivion. Ted Peterson, who had left following the release of Daggerfall, returned to work as an author of in-game material, and as a general consultant on the lore-based aspects of the work. "Ken Rolston and Todd Howard have a very firm grasp on all the game aspects of the world, but sometimes they like to have someone to bounce ideas off of, usually about real minutiae of the world."
Morrowind had an impressive showing at E3 2001, demonstrating a beta build to the public. The same beta build was demonstrated to the staff of PC Gamer for another preview, and was kept around the office as late as June 19 as the subject of later previews, while another test build was developed alongside.
On May 5, 2001, Bethesda announced the development of an additional Morrowind release for Microsoft's Xbox. The project was, according to the same release, something that Bethesda had been working on with Microsoft since they had first known of the console.
In May 2000, Bethesda set the first expected PC release date in late 2001. Later order forms, such as those by Electronics Boutique, set the date in November. On October 10, 2001, GameSpot reported that Morrowind's release date had been set back to March 2002. On October 12, a press release from Bethesda gave the date of "Spring 2002", confirming GameSpot's supposition of delay without agreeing on the more specific date of "March". Though no rationale behind the delay was given at the time, developer Pete Hines later attributed the delay to a need for game testing and balancing.
Although the PC version of Morrowind had gone gold by April 23, 2002, and was released on May 1 in North America, the Xbox release was delayed further. On April 15, GameSpot suggested an Xbox release date sometime in May and a scheduled "going gold" date for the Xbox version in the first week of the same month. In contradiction of the GameSpot supposition, a June 4 Bethesda press release set June 7 as the Xbox release date.
On January 3, Bethesda announced that game publisher Ubi Soft would take control of Morrowind's European distribution, in addition to those of eight other Bethesda games. Under Ubi Soft's supervision, Morrowind's European release took place in two stages: releasing a "semilocalized" version of the game, translating only the manual while leaving the game text in English, in May; and a fully localized version of the game in August. Ubi Soft group brand manager Thomas Petersen described the difficulties of translating a "universe featuring more than a million words" as "quite a task".
In a break from standard industry practice, Bethesda decided to publish their strategy guide in-house, rather than contracting it out to a third party publisher like BradyGames or Prima Games. The decision resulted from a belief among Bethesda staff that they believed in and understood Morrowind more than any external agency, and deserved more royalties than were commonly rewarded. Bethesda Peter Olafson, a noted games journalist and friend of the company, and began work on the guide in January 2002, four months before release.
The resulting product, Morrowind Prophecies Strategy Guide, sold over 200,000 copies as of September 24, 2003. Although the royalties from most third-party game publishers approach 25% to 30% only infrequently, Bethesda managed a 70% profit margin on their own. Despite this success, Bethesda decided to allow Prima Games to publish the "official" game guide for the release of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
The Elder Scrolls III: Tribunal, announced on September 2, 2002 and scheduled for a PC-only release, went gold on November 1 and was released, with little fanfare, on November 6. Tribunal puts the player in the self-contained, walled city of Mournhold, an enclave within Morrowind's provincial capital of Almalexia; the new city is not connected to Morrowind's land mass, Vvardenfell, and the player must teleport to it. The storyline continues the story of the Tribunal deities.
The choice to produce the expansion was primarily inspired by the success of Morrowind's release, as well as a general feeling that Elder Scrolls series games are ongoing experiences, that merit new things for their players to do. Development on the game began immediately after Morrowind shipped, giving the developers a mere five-month development cycle to release the game—a very fast cycle for the industry. The prior existence of the Construction Set, however, meant that the team "already had the tools in place to add content and features very quickly". Interface improvements, and specifically an overhaul of Morrowind's journal system, were among the key goals for Tribunal's release. The new journal allowed the player to sort quests individually and by completion, reducing the confusion caused by the original's jumbling together of every quest into a single chronological stream.
Morrowind's second expansion, The Elder Scrolls III: Bloodmoon, announced on February 14, 2003 and scheduled for release in May of the same year, went gold by May 23, and was released on June 6. It had been worked on since the release of Tribunal in November 2002. In the expansion the player travels to the frozen island of Solstheim and is asked to investigate the uneasiness of the soldiers stationed there. Throughout the travels across the island the player is required to complete a number of rituals in order to investigate the growing population of werewolves.
Work on The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion began in 2002, immediately after Morrowind's publication. Rumors of a sequel to The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind began circulating June 2004, and were confirmed with Oblivion's official announcement on September 10, 2004. Oblivion was developed by Bethesda Softworks, and the initial Xbox 360 and Personal computer (PC) releases were co-published by Bethesda and Take-Two Interactive subsidiary 2K Games. According to interviews with Bethesda staff, the publisher-developer relationship—one of the few independent relations in the industry—worked well, and Bethesda was not subject to excessive corporate guidance. Originally scheduled for a November 22, 2005 release, in tandem with the Xbox 360's launch, Oblivion was delayed to a March 21, 2006 release for Windows PCs and the Xbox 360.
Developers working on Oblivion focused on providing a tighter storyline, with fewer filler quests and more developed characters. The developers sought to make information in the game world more accessible to players, making the game easier to pick up and play. Oblivion features improved AI (courtesy of Bethesda's proprietary Radiant AI), improved physics (courtesy of the Havok physics engine), and impressive graphics, taking advantage of advanced lighting and shader routines like high dynamic range rendering (HDR) and specular mapping. Bethesda developed and implemented procedural content creation tools in the creation of Oblivion's terrain, leading to landscapes that are more complex and realistic than those of past titles, with less of a drain on Bethesda's staff.
A PlayStation 3 version of Oblivion was released on March 20, 2007 in North America, and April 27, 2007 in Europe, following delays similar to those for the Xbox 360 release. The PlayStation 3 release was touted for its improvement over the graphics of the PC and Xbox 360 versions, although some of the improved shader routines optimized for the PlayStation 3 release were set to be ported over to the other releases through patches. A plan to distribute downloadable content through micropayments was initially met with criticism by customers due to its alleged low value, but later releases—at a reduced price, and with more content—proved more popular.
|The Elder Scrolls V: TBA|
|Developer(s)||Bethesda Game Studios/Zenimax|
|Publisher(s)||Bethesda Softworks/ZeniMax, Ubisoft|
|Series||The Elder Scrolls|
|Genre(s)||First/third person Computer Role Playing Game|
|Input methods||Keyboard, Mouse|
The quote was later refuted by a statement from Bethesda, which clarified that they had simply not determined a release window for the fifth TES game, but that it would be developed and sold.