Skyrim's Todd Howard On What Makes A Success

by Jim Reilly on Feb 20, 2012 at 12:26 PM

Earlier this month at DICE in Las Vegas, Skyrim game director Todd Howard gave a peek into his studio's development process, and even showed off Skyrim projects the team worked on during a Game Jam session. We sat down to talk with Howard about the game's success, where the series might go, and all those nasty bugs they had to iron out.


Game Informer: As far as sales goes, Skyrim is the best-selling game in Bethesda history. Is there something about the game from a design standpoint that made it more popular and mainstream? The Elder Scrolls series has been typically thought of as very hardcore RPGs.

Todd Howard: The short answer is "I don’t know." I can give you my guess, which is people underestimate how many core gamers there are; people who want a lot of depth and will play a game for a long time. There are a lot of them. If you give them something unique and good, you don’t have to dumb it down.

There are things we changed to make the game better, but not to appeal to a wider audience. I think we always benefited in Elder Scrolls early on, the fact that it is first-person and kind of walks this action line sometimes. We’ve always benefited from that. Even our own lofty expectations for how the game would be received or sell, it’s way, way beyond that.

I don’t have a way of explaining it.

There a lot of platforms for developers now to create games. Skyrim lands on three of them. Are you starting to think about the larger picture to create games that can span everything? Or are you comfortable with that certain piece of the pie?

We take it how it comes. If somebody announced a platform tomorrow we think would be appropriate for one of our games, well take a look at it. But we have to choose our battles because there has to be time spent making it the way it should be on each platform.

There’s lots of talk now about the decline in the AAA game market and that if you make a game that doesn’t have a high Metacritic, you probably won’t make any money. Do you think about where the industry is going or do you mainly just worry about the games you make?

I mostly just make our stuff and say, "Okay, this will find an audience," and we’ve been very lucky when it comes to that. I do think about the industry as a whole a lot. I think it’s a price point thing. I think it’s starting to get better with the mobile platforms and Xbox Live, for example. Developers can make games and put them out for $10 and be successful there.

Right now, if you go to a store, there’s a stipulation that if it’s on a DVD or Blu-ray it has to be $59.99. Everyone knows they all aren’t created equal. I would like to see an avenue where more games can appear at multiple price points and be successful. There are sitcom shows and there are 14 hour epics.

Our industry is getting way better, but people are getting comfortable spending that amount of money and it’s changing their perception.

Double Fine recently started a Kickstarter project to fund an old-school adventure game. Do you see this working for big-time developers down the road?

For a company like Double Fine, fans know what they want.  I don’t know if that’s a model that’s going to work for lots of people. I don’t know a whole lot about it, though.

Skyrim seems to be the exception to the rule that single-player only games can’t sell. Is it just about making sure you have enough content for customers so they don’t sell them back too soon?

Consumers are smart. People trade in stuff they like a lot and don’t want to keep. For things like online passes…make a better game and people won’t trade it in. I don’t know.

Well there’s the rumor that the next Xbox could lock out used games. Is that even feasible?

It’s clearly feasible. In any business, everybody wants to find a way to monetize what they’re doing so they can be successful and do more. But also, if a consumer buys something and they’re done with it and want to sell it to somebody, isn’t that the way the world works?

When you first envisioned Elder Scrolls all those years ago, was it anything like what Skyrim looks like right now or is it not even close?

Usually what I envision is colored by the current technology. Obviously there’s going to be new systems and the graphics are going to get better and better. Graphics are really important for what we do. So when there is some new system that makes graphics that much better, it will make for a better experience because we can make a more believable world.

During your DICE speech, you showed off your Game Jam where your team created new content for Skyrim.

That video also isn’t everything; it’s only like 60 percent of what we did. It was nice to show how we work sometimes. I think a lot of studios do it, but not show it at an event like this. I’m not entirely sure I should have showed the video. Everyone is asking me when that stuff is coming out. [Laughs]

Before Skyrim came out last November, how aware were you of the bugs that people began to run into shortly after release?  Is the game just so big that trying to test it to perfection is nearly impossible and you just have to wait until millions of people begin to play it to get additional feedback?

We can always do a better job.  All of our internal and external data show that it’s our most solid release, including the PS3 version. But it’s also our most successful. The percentage of people that have a problem on any particular system ends up a low percentage, but the raw number ends up being larger than we would have expected.

We learned a lot about this. In particular with the PS3 version was,”Why aren’t we seeing this?” We saw some of [the bugs] that we were able to solve very quickly, but we eventually had to go to the consumer and ask for their saved game files. You’re looking at saved games where, not everybody, but certain people played for 100s of hours, and lots of different reasons it was happening. Fortunately we were able to fix it with the latest update.

It’s hopefully a much smaller number now. When you put all this time into something and someone can’t play it, you feel terrible. They have every right to be pissed off. We already have more updates out for this than Fallout 3 and Oblivion in their lifetime. So we’re really committed to fixing everything.

How much of a learning process was this for you? People tend to joke that while Bethesda’s games are great in the end, players come to expect the products will have bugs.

We don't think that's funny, and we know sometimes people give us a pass on things, and that's nice.

The main thing we did learn, now that we have the beta program on Steam, because we realized that no matter what we do internally, we have 10 million people playing the game and their saves are in all sorts of states, even if we test something to the nth degree, we’re still looking at this microcosm of everybody’s current live game. So that was new for us.

Our fans have been awesome. They have been great with us and they’re helping us do that. What we do in the future I don’t know yet. It’s something we’re going to look into.

Do you ever think about exploring the rest of Skyrim’s world through other forms of media?

I’d like to keep the content itself in the games. For example, if people like the dragon priests and what they do, then let’s maybe get that in some downloadable content. But I’d rather it be that avenue than a comic or something like that.