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Going Beyond Skyrim: Modders Build Bethesda’s Entire World

by Ben Reeves on Jul 25, 2013 at 12:33 PM

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Anyone who played Bethesda’s massive hit Skyrim constantly heard NPCs talking about the eight other countries outside the game’s borders, but you couldn’t actually visit these places. One modding community is working to change that.

Beyond Skyrim is a fan-made, unofficial expansion pack for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which aims to allow players to visit every corner of Tamriel. A goal as ambitious as this is no easy undertaking, so we talked to community modder Will Hillson about how the team came together and how they’re constructing environments that have never been featured in a game before.

How did the project get started? How many people are involved?
I suppose that the idea of recreating the whole of Tamriel has existed ever since Bethesda released its first modding tool with The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind back in 2003. But Beyond Skyrim itself was started in a discussion thread on the Bethesda Forums back in 2011, during the run-up to the release of Skyrim. We originally envisioned it as a talking shop for separate projects working on building different areas of Tamriel, so that we could co-operate and avoid duplicating work. But it’s grown to become much more than that. Today, Beyond Skyrim is a full-blown collaborative effort between six autonomous teams working on different areas, all of which are housed together in a dedicated section on the Skyrim modding website Dark Creations.

This requires modding on a huge scale, with a separate dedicated team working on each country. Landscapes need to be shaped, cities need to be built, scripts need to be programmed, and hundreds of lines of dialog and in-game books need to be written. Each country will feature new architecture, a different culture, and of course a whole host of different dungeons to explore; activities and quests to complete; and weapons, armor and items to loot, buy and sell. The objective is to make each country a brand-new experience for even the most jaded of Skyrim players. It may sound ambitious, but we are making steady progress towards our goals. Currently we have around 20 core members, and roughly the same number of less-frequent contributors.

Some continents have been featured in Elder Scrolls games and some haven’t. What did you use as a resources for designing the other continents in Tamriel?
The earlier games in the Elder Scrolls series are of course the most important sources for our designs. However, this has to be balanced against the fact that a lot of the way those games looked was due to technical limitations that no longer apply to Skyrim. For example, most of the towns and cities in The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall were procedurally generated to conserve resources, so for those parts of Tamriel we've relied more heavily on the written descriptions from in-game books and stories. Our version of Morrowind will be much closer to the original game, but we've taken the opportunity to go back to Morrowind’s original concept art, which contains designs that are a lot more complicated and detailed than what was technically possible at the time. Our plan is to use this extra information to bring our version of Morrowind up to a graphical par with Skyrim.

We have also got some mileage out of the pre-release concept art from the Elder Scrolls Online. Because ESO is set almost a thousand years prior to Skyrim, we have a lot of flexibility to incorporate those elements that fit in best with our planned aesthetic for Beyond Skyrim, whilst adapting those that don't. Any differences can be ascribed to the many changes that these countries have undergone during the intervening millennium.

What has been the most challenging aspect of a project this size?
The most formidable challenge that we’ve had to face so far was creating the Height Map, the 3D topographical map of Tamriel on which all of our work will eventually be built. It was hand-drawn by an exceptionally dedicated team member who goes by the name of Morcroft on the forums. The problem was that our landmass was more than five times the size of vanilla Skyrim, and the game’s engine simply wasn’t designed to handle worldspaces that big. The farther away from the game’s borders we got, the more weird bugs started to appear.

What kinds of bugs?
The strangest bug has got to be the one we christened the "+/-64 worldspace bug", in which everything started bobbing up and down through the ground as soon as you moved more than 64 in-game distance units away from the exact center of Skyrim. (You can see it in action here) Bethesda still hasn't come up with a direct solution to that one, but fortunately a very talented modder who goes by the name of shadeMe managed to figure out a workaround. It turned out that Skyrim's Havok Physics wasn't calibrated for a landmass that big (the whole of the vanilla game fits neatly inside the 64-square box). ShadeMe's solution was to manually tweak the Havok settings in the game's configuration file.

What aspect of this project are you most proud of?
The crown jewels of Beyond Skyrim have got to be the original 3D models and textures created by our own members. One of our key goals has always been making each nation of Tamriel feel like its own distinct place and culture, and creating completely new buildings, rocks, and plants are an enormous part of that. Although much work remains to be done, highlights so far include a recreation from scratch of the 3D models for the city of Bruma featured in Oblivion, two enormous new dungeon tile sets for Morrowind, and an imposing set of buildings for the Redguard capital city of Sentinel.

When do you expect this project to be completed?
We’ll progressively release in several stages. To keep the file sizes under control, each nation is going to be released as a separate package. We are currently working on the regions, which directly border Skyrim, and once that is completed, we plan to slowly spread out from there to the rest of Tamriel. All being well, we are aiming at releasing these first slices of Tamriel in the first half of 2014.

Of course, the more contributors we have working, the faster we will be able to make releases. So we always encourage anyone who wants to see all of Tamriel in to learn to use Bethesda’s modding tools and lend us a hand.

Learn how you can melt the ice with this other Skyrim mod or read our review of the original game.