What To Expect From Skyrim Special Edition And Mods, From An Expert

by Jeff Cork on Oct 25, 2016 at 12:15 PM

When Bethesda announced the current-gen special edition Skyrim, it lit a fire underneath me. After jealously looking at screencaps of mods for the PC version of the game for years, I was going to dive into that scene myself. My new gaming machine could handle it, so the only thing holding me back was my complete ignorance of how it all worked. Fortunately, I stumbled onto a fantastic resource: Dirty Weasel Media’s extensive step-by-step video tutorials covering how to do it all in exhaustive detail. Cal’s YouTube channel is loaded with helpful tips and overviews of some of the biggest mods around, as well as alternative choices for people who want to stray from the path a little bit.    

The release of the Skyrim Special Edition marks the end of an era for Skyrim modding, as well as the beginning of another. In addition to appearing on current-gen consoles for the first time, the PC version of the game has been reengineered for 64-bit versions of Windows. Both of those developments open up new possibilities for modders, but they also mean those developers are going to have to either retool or rebuild some of their creations to work in the new versions of the game. I spoke with Cal to get a sense of where modding is at on the new game, how things are shaping up on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and to get some recommended mods for players who don’t know where to start.

The biggest thing to keep in mind is that some of the tools that people currently use to mod Skyrim won’t be available at the Special Edition’s launch. That’s not to say that mods won’t be available – you’ll have plenty of things to choose from on day one – but the transition won’t be seamless. Most notably, SKSE, the Skyrim Script Extender tool that many of the game’s more ambitious mods currently use, isn’t going to be ready at launch. 

“The team that does that is having to do a ton of work, and they’re starting from scratch,” Cal says. Contrary to what you may assume, Skyrim Special Edition isn’t running on the Fallout 4 engine. Instead, Cal says people he’s spoken with have said that it’s somewhere in between Skyrim and Fallout 4. Because of that, Cal says the team that works on SKSE is optimistic that we’ll be seeing it running soon in Special Edition. “You could see the really big mods, the ones that require SKSE, the ones that make Skyrim really great, coming out in a couple of months rather than six months down the road. We should have SKSE functionality hopefully by the end of the year, which is pretty amazing.”

That’s for PC, though. Things are a little different as far as consoles go. Neither the Xbox One or PlayStation 4 versions of the games will allow mods that use script extenders. “The SKSE will not ever be available, because it overrides the game itself,” Cal says. “It adds functions to the game, and that’s exactly what happens. When you create a mod, you’re telling the game to operate in a different way, or you’re adding something. What a script extender does is adds more functions to the game through scripts. Anything with a script that uses the Skyrim Script Extender can’t be used.”

On Xbox One (and on PC until SKSE is released), mod authors can create light versions of mods that normally rely on that kind of functionality. “Things like quest mods, armor mods, character companions, followers – a lot of them will work just out of the box, with minor changes,” Cal says. More complicated tweaks, such as mods that add additional dialogue or more complicated facial mods, however, likely do require scripts.

Things are far more restrictive on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, unfortunately. “Because of copyright issues, anything that adds assets – if you create a mesh or a texture, that’s a no,” Cal says. “If you write a new script, even if it doesn’t use a script extender, even if you write a scripted mod, that’s considered an extra asset. Even if you use the script engine, Papyrus, to do something different, that’s considered an external asset and you can’t use it. … If you are unfortunate enough to buy a PS4 thinking it’s your favorite platform before all of this came down with the restrictions, then I feel really sorry for you.” You may be able to download mods that remove encumbrance restrictions or add structures based on existing in-game models, but don’t expect major tweaks on PS4.

Shifting back to PC, the move to 64-bit architecture is a big leap forward, thanks in part to the way the game previously operated. Due to limitations with DirectX 9, the game had a hard limit on the amount of video RAM it could access – at just over three gigabytes, it’s a number that’s laughably small as far as contemporary hardware is concerned. That limitation throttled the modding experience in significant ways. “All those creatures, all those people, all those buildings, textures – all those things you add to the game suck more VRAM usage,” Cal says. “At some point, as you get closer to your VRAM limit, the game slows down. Eventually it will slow down to the point where it will crash the game because you have exceeded your VRAM usage, or you will get major stutters. By having a 64-bit structure with DX11, the shared VRAM doesn’t stop at 3.1 gigabytes anymore. So all the stuff you put in – all the particle effects that a mod like Vivid Weather throws in, all the lighting, suddenly the sky’s the limit because of that shared usage.”

I asked Cal to provide a few recommendations for mods that will be available at launch, for both the Xbox One and PC versions of the game. He came up with a short list of downloads that will fundamentally change the way that you play the game, such as giving you freedom for your game’s start and adding intense survival elements. If you’ve modded Skyrim before, you’ll probably recognize more than a few of these must-downloads.

Unofficial Skyrim Special Edition Patch
Unofficial Patch Project Team
The popular Unofficial Skyrim Patch has been adapted to work on the Special Edition. It addresses a host of major and minor issues for the game, fixing quests, textures, and other annoying problems. The link is to the Legendary Edition’s version, but the patch notes will give you a sense of how comprehensive this download is.

Alternate Start – Live Another Life
Tired of starting your journey on the execution cart? Why not choose your own origin? “It completely changes your perspective on the game,” Cal says. “You can start any way you want. That’s an amazing thing to be able to do.”

Campfire – Complete Camping System and Frostfall – Hypothermia Camping Survival
Both by Chesko
Campfire and Frostfall add survival elements to the game, including the ability to break camp. Players will also have to endure the elements, with damage accruing based on what you’re wearing, whether you’ve taken a dip in the water, and more.

Open Cities Skyrim
Cal says this mod was notoriously buggy on the original version of Skyrim, but that it’s working on the Xbox One. That’s a testament to the advances to the game’s engine and VRAM usage. It removes loading when entering walled settlements, so when the gates open you can see the town inside.

Carry On Skyrim – Professor Benjamin Doon
“If they’re looking for a follower mod, there’s a very funny one called Professor Benjamin Doon. It’s like Monty Python meets Skyrim – the guy’s just hilarious,” Cal says. As a bonus, he’s a change of pace if you’re tired of Lydia’s constant complaining.

Cal plans to keep making Skyrim-modding tutorial videos, even as the 2016 Guide to Modding Skyrim approaches obsolescence. He says he’ll have some videos getting Xbox One players up to speed, since players won’t have access to some of the load-order tools that PC players rely on to keep things running smoothly. He’s also working on a series of role-playing machinima videos. In the meantime, he’s looking forward to checking out the Special Edition and trying to figure out how everything all works. 

“It’s what I love. And with the Special Edition coming out, I’m also thinking, ‘I can just play it.’ I don’t have to roleplay, I don’t have to record myself talking – I can just play Skyrim, add some mods, enjoy the pretty, pretty pictures, and bash things over the head with a hammer.”