Arena. Daggerfall. Morrowind. Oblivion. Skyrim. The games of the Elder Scrolls series are loved by many. They are games of great scope, of gods and mortals. But they are also personal, and carry great thematic meaning to the player. Today on Origin of the Series, we are going to go through the history of The Elder Scrolls, from before the founding of Bethesda to Skyrim and beyond. As always, I have a few guests joining me to speak about the impact the series has had on them. Welcome to Origin of the Series: The Elder Scrolls.
Born in Bethesda
Chris Weaver wore many hats before founding Bethesda. He was what he considered to be a technology forecaster for the TV and cable industry. In that role Weaver held positions with ABC, the National Cable Television Association and even Congress, working for the House Subcommittee on Communications. It was there that he did minor things like help break up the telephone monopoly.
When he moved back into the private sector he created his own media consulting firm, called Media Technology. One of Weaver’s employees, an engineer by the name of Ed Fletcher, had the idea that Media Technology should expand into video games. Specifically, he wanted to create a football video game, something that Weaver wasn’t terribly familiar with. However, Weaver was an expert on something extremely critical to understanding sports gaming. Physics.
The result was the first Football Video game to use real physics called “Gridiron!” and Bethesda Softworks was born. The name comes directly from the town the company was founded in, Bethesda, Maryland. In the early days, the principals were Weaver, Fletcher, and a Danish programmer named Benni Jensen, but Elder Scrolls fans know him better as Julian Lefay.
Electronic Arts, was interested in the way Gridiron worked and contracted Bethesda to develop the first John Madden Football. Bethesda would not end up completing the programming- but the underlying physics engine belonged to the work that Weaver and Fletcher created for Gridiron.
The young company left EA to the football simulations and shifted focus to Ice Hockey. They worked with the Hockey community and legends like Bobby Orr to create their next series of games which featured Wayne Gretzky on the cover. Eventually, Weaver and Bethesda began work on their first nonsports game, which was a movie to game adaptation of The Terminator. Weaver says that the focus on sports wasn’t intentional, but because of the real-time physics tools they had created they were looking for as many areas to apply them as they could.
The Importance of Pen and Paper
Jack Chick, the infamous author of the heavy handed fundamentalist Christian comic strips known as Chick Tracts, died in 2016. He believed that Dungeons and Dragons, and roleplaying, was the path to hell and damnation. Thankfully the developers working at Bethesda Softworks were unfazed by the father of the satanic panic’s proclamations of fire and brimstone. Because in the early 90s, staff at Bethesda held a weekly Dungeons and Dragons game which they had set in a world very familiar to Elder Scrolls players. Tamriel.
Arena is the first entry in the Elder Scrolls series. As a game, it doesn’t have the grand scope of Daggerfall or the growing 3D polish that entries Morrowind and beyond would receive, but it was one of the earlier first person RPGs to have that kind of scale. However, the game didn’t begin its life as an RPG. Initially, the game was true to its title, functioning as a Medieval-style gladiator combat simulator. As the player you built a team of fighters and took them from city to city, tournament to tournament until you reached the grand stage of them all, fighting in Imperial City.
The designers of the game were Ted Petersen and Vijay Lakshman, with the project being spearheaded by Julian Lefay. According to Ted, the story was that there was an evil wizard that you needed to fight at the end of the game when you reached Imperial City. Gradually they began adding side-quests that you could do in each town. Then came the dungeons. Eventually, the idea of there being a tournament vanished from the story, as the role-playing side-quests and dungeon diving became the primary focus.
The game had evolved from a first person fighting game to a hard-core D&D inspired RPG over the course of development, but the name Arena remained. Why? The story in the “lore” is that the land of Tamriel was so violent that it had been nicknamed “The Arena.” However, the real reason was that they had already printed up a bunch of boxes and materials with the name Arena on it and it was too costly to change the name. Vijay is credited with giving it the series title “The Elder Scrolls” mainly because it was vague enough that they could work with it without having to develop much more story.
The story of the finished game went like this. Uriel Septim’s battlemage Jagar Tharn used the Staff of Chaos to imprison Uriel in an alternate dimension and take the Septim’s place on the throne in disguise. Your player character works for the Emperor (ostensibly, this is not made crystal) alongside a character named Ria. The two of you attempt to expose Jagar but are thwarted. Jagar kills Ria and imprisons your player character in the dungeon. Ria’s ghost helps you get free and teleports you to your home province where you must begin your quest to piece together the now shattered Chaos Staff and rescue Uriel Septim.
The game featured a character creation system which allowed you to select your character’s gender, class, and home province. The map in the game features all the ones we’ve come to know and love, such as Skyrim, Morrowind, Hammerfell, and so forth. While the size of the map is smaller than later iterations, especially Daggerfall, the scope of the game is immense given the game’s historical context.
The release of Arena begins a thread of tenuous existence for the franchise that doesn’t truly develop into a sturdy rope until Morrowind. The game missed its holiday of 1993 release window and ended up coming out in March 1994, which was considered to be one of the worst times of the year to release at the time.
Additionally, distributors were not thrilled that the game did not resemble the original gladiator action game pitch. Thankfully for Elder Scrolls fans everywhere, the game spread by word of mouth and became, in Ted Petersen’s words, a minor cult hit. The next year, Bethesda would re-release the game on CD-Rom as the Elder Scrolls: The Arena Deluxe and testing that would be Todd Howard’s introduction into The Elder Scrolls world.
Todd Howard’s Arrival
Todd Howard has been firmly rooted in geek culture his entire life. As a kid he loved Star Wars and gaming, specifically spending a lot of time in games like Ultima which would eventually have an influence on the Elder Scrolls series. While Howard was in college at William and Mary, he spent much of his time teaching himself programming and playing video games when he wasn’t in classes earning a Finance degree. Todd actually mentions that William and Mary is a terrific school and that he, unfortunately, did not take advantage of that fact.
While playing one of Bethesda’s Wayne Gretzky Hockey games, Todd noticed the address for their offices were way home from college, so during Christmas break, he boldly stopped at the headquarters and asked for a job. Though rejected, Todd continued to pester Bethesda for work each time he encountered representatives for the company, including at expos like CES. Eventually, his perseverance paid off, and Bethesda hired him in 1994. Todd’s first games as a designer were in the Terminator franchise that Bethesda had been producing since before Arena and then he was pulled in to assist on Daggerfall as a new designer.
With Arena out the door and achieving minor cult hit status, attention turned to the inevitable sequel, Daggerfall. Over the course of two years, Ted Petersen and Julian Lefay wrote the story while consuming many influences. Ted’s stated goal was to make the world of Tamriel less generic. New influences included additional bits of Dungeon’s and Dragons, but also the pen and paper version of Vampire: The Masquerade as well as the Alexandre Dumas classic “The Man in the Iron Mask.” Whereas Arena had been influenced heavily by other games, such as Darklands, Legends of Valor, and Ultima Underworld, Daggerfall was influenced more by the pen and paper, and literary sources.
Daggerfall was ambitious. The game had large portions of procedurally generated landscape and came out to be approximately 62,000 square miles. Arena’s map technically didn’t have any boundaries, therefore was undefinable, and travel between provinces was only available on the fast travel map. Daggerfall though was designed to be one continuous map over parts of High Rock and Hammerfell. For years it held the record as the largest game until No Man’s Sky procedurally generated it right into second place.
All that ambition came at a price, however. Daggerfall had numerous bugs at launch, and many of the features that the designers wanted in the game were never fully implemented. Ted Petersen mentions that the intent was to have warring factions that actually having real world consequences, like seeing cities under siege. The sieges, as well as dragons were left on the cutting room floor of the game because of technical and time limitations.
Reading preview articles from old gaming magazines is an enjoyable past time for me. Something about the optimism married boundless speculation is charming, especially when you know the outcome. One found in NEXT Generation Magazine proclaimed that if Daggerfall were able to put all the pieces that they had in motion into place for the release of the game, then Daggerfall would be the “best role-playing game ever made.” While I don’t believe Daggerfall is in the consideration, it is a truly remarkable experience. By the game’s release in 1996 however, there was some pushback from the gaming press. Computer Gaming World put Daggerfall as one of the top “vaporware” titles of all time.
Strange that being delayed a few years in the mid-90s was enough to earn the title of vaporware, whereas presently, game delays are met with groans but not enough to deem a game vaporware. See The Last Guardian, and No Man’s Sky as examples.
Despite the success of the game, the goodwill earned by Arena was dissipated by the bug-ridden Daggerfall. Things would get worse before they got better for Bethesda.
Between Daggerfall and Morrowind
Sales took a bit of a decline for Bethesda after Daggerfall. Daggerfall’s follow-ups were not met with the same enthusiasm, or sales, that Daggerfall initially had garnered. Follow up games that used Daggerfall’s code included Battlespire and Redguard. Battlespire was the first and was considerably pared down compared to Daggerfall. A lot of the free-roaming exploration that made Daggerfall the game that it was tossed for a focus on combat and very specifically designed dungeons.
Battlespire wasn’t met with particular enthusiasm. Like the game it was based on, it launched with bugs and was found to be a tepid entry into the Elder Scrolls gaming catalog. It sold poorly, as did the next game, Redguard. Redguard was played entirely from the third-person point of view, which until that point was not available in The Elder Scrolls games.
Bethesda was nearly bankrupt, so Chris Weaver made a bold move and founded a new company with Robert Altman named ZeniMax Media, and then moved Bethesda into it from its original shell of Media Technology. The move saved Bethesda’s existence from an untimely end, but at the expense of Chris Weaver’s position in the company. He moved from CEO to CTO in favor of Altman, but within a few years, he would find himself out of the company that he founded.
If you strictly compared the map sizes of Morrowind and Daggerfall, you would think that the series took a significant step backward. But size truly matters not when it comes to creating a memorable experience. As we said Daggerfall was huge – possibly even too big. It was also procedurally generated. What it had in scope, it lacked in story and theming. Morrowind was different.
Morrowind entered the concept phase during the development of Daggerfall, and at that time it was going to be created in a very similar fashion. However, it was determined that with Battlespire and Redguard needing more staff and the technology not being available yet, Morrowind would be put off for a spell.
When Bethesda returned to Morrowind, the thinking was that it would not be another game simply like Daggerfall, it would be redesigned from the ground up. Every inch of Morrowind was designed with intention. What resulted was a much more immersive, and satisfying experience than Daggerfall had to offer. Don’t get me wrong, Daggerfall is still a great game and tremendous achievement, but Morrowind’s intentional design made it instantly the best game in the series.
Morrowind marks the first main Elder Scrolls game that Todd Howard lead the development for. His lead designer for the project was Ken Rolston, representing a complete change of leadership for the franchise. Although Ted Petersen was no longer with the company, he still made his presence felt by contributing much of the text you find in books and poems throughout the game.
Morrowind is also the first entry in The Elder Scrolls for someone who is nearly impossible to imagine the games without, Jeremy Soule. Soule’s score for Morrowind gave the game a depth and character that was not present in the previous titles. Jeremy has continued to make his indomitable musical presence felt in the rest of the series.
Quite possibly the most important thing for the longevity of the series though was the introduction of The Construction Set during the development of the game. The Construction Set allowed the developers to quickly iterate and add new content to the game. It would be this tool that would be available for the gaming community to create new mods for the game, which enhanced and elongated the staying power of both Morrowind and the rest of the series to come.
The game was a critical and financial success for Bethesda, a big part of that was the agreement to publish it for the Xbox where a majority of the games sales would come from. The game was also validation for Todd Howard’s new vision for the direction of the games that he would manage.
Daggerfall was intended to have expansion packs, however as we have discussed they were spun off into their own games. Morrowind was the first entry into the Elder Scrolls series to have true expansion packs and because of development of The Construction Set, they were relatively easy to create. The development of Tribunal lasted five months, starting on the day that Morrowind was released.
Tribunal was set in within the city of Mournhold, which was not accessible from the main Morrowind map, players would have to teleport there. The storyline continues to tell the tale of the Tribunal deities.
Tribunal also made some other cosmetic improvements to the game, and the overall reviews were positive. The second expansion was called Bloodmoon which had development started the day of Tribunals release – just as Tribunal was with Morrowind’s release. Unlike Tribunal however, Bloodmoon actually expanded the main map of the game to include a new island, which players felt added more to the free form feel of the vanilla game. Reviews were mixed however on the added Lycanthropy element.
The Elder Scrolls series can be probably divided into two groups. Before Morrowind and after Morrowind. Before, you have Arena, Daggerfall, Battlespire and Redguard. They were games that all had value, especially Arena and Daggerfall, but had yet to put the entire “package” together.
Morrowind and its expansion packs were the first big step in the direction of creating a complete experience. In terms of crossover mainstream appeal, Oblivion was the next step. Todd Howard mentioned in an interview that when he would look at the forums, there would be only a certain amount of people discussing Morrowind at any given time, and that when Oblivion came out, that number jumped quite significantly. It’s more of an anecdotal appraisal of the games popularity, but the observation does bear out when you see that Oblivion’s a few million more copies than Morrowind. (vgchartz.com)
Oblivion entered production as soon as Morrowind was published. While half of the Elder Scrolls dev team worked on the expansions to Morrowind, the other half started its work on Oblivion with Ken Rolston and Todd Howard steering the ship once again.
In a trend that started with Daggerfall, Oblivion was not so much a sequel, but another game taking place in the same world. Oblivion would take place after Morrowind, but the player character and location would be completely different. Howard’s stated goal for the game was to take a look at what worked and what didn’t work for Morrowind and try to make adjustments for the next entry but to also take risks, something that he felt emboldened by doing on Morrowind. An “RPG for the Next Generation” he called it, in a blog post on the now defunct Elder Scrolls website, a web archive link will be in the description below (https://web.archive.org/web/20070320172701/http://www.elderscrolls.com/codex/team_rpgnextgen.htm).
One of the anecdotal criticisms of Oblivion I have seen around the web was that it was “dumbed down.” While that is a more subjective opinion, it may be based in the truth that during the design of the game, Howard stated that the game would be more focused. The game while overall larger than Morrowind, would end up having fewer NPCs and Quests in favor of more meaningful NPCs and longer quests with more variety in them. This lines up with the philosophy that they took with Morrowind, which did not have the grand size of Daggerfall in favor of more meaningful interaction. Not all may agree, but it does seem consistent. One major change, at least for Oblivion only, was the return to procedurally generated landscape. The design team used procedural generation and then hand sculpted the finer details into the game.
Technically, Oblivion, like Morrowind before it, stretched the capabilities of the machines that could run it, but Bethesda did a much better job giving players control over the graphics settings so that a wider variety of computers could play it. The game also shipped with an updated version of The Construction Kit. Additionally, an Elder Scrolls game was ported over to a Sony console, the PS3, for the first time.
The game was another critical and financial success, as mentioned previously it would become the best-selling game in the series, outpacing Morrowind’s numbers. The sharpest criticisms for the game came against the voice work, which included many high profile names, like Patrick Stewart and Lynda Carter, but would feel repetitive as the player progressed. The game would go on to win a number of game of the year and other industry awards.
Prior to Oblivion, most additional content for games came in the form of big, bundled expansion packs. Think of the expansions for Morrowind, or even going back to the expansions for Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. (Both of which, ironically, are published by Bethesda now!) Oblivion took a different approach. While it did have expansions, and we will get to those in a moment, the initial release saw the use of small DLC for a minor price. Not all things were priced appropriately though.
Horse armor, it all started with horse armor on April 3rd, 2006. The horse armor, which provided the player’s horse a set of armor, cost $2.50. Players were none too happy with the price of what seemed to be a minor addition to the game and Bethesda listened. Following content would be released at a lower price with more content, including new quests and new homes for the player character.
Morrowind’s content expansion packs were clearly defined as such, but Oblivion’s first official one existed in a bit of a roundabout way. Initially it was rumored that there would be no official “expansions” to Oblivion as had been done in the past. Only a focus on the micropayment DLC. Suddenly however an expansion, titled Knights of Nine began to hit the rumor mills. Initially billed as a PS3 exclusive, the expansion came to all platforms and added a new faction to the mix. However unlike other types of expansions, the new content didn’t call itself out, the player would have to discover it.
Knights of Nine added more mission content to the game, but didn’t expand the map like previous Morrowind expansions had. Shivering Isles, the next expansion, would however by introducing the titular isles by way of a gate that the player had to pass through. Shivering Isles was also well received.
Skyrim: War Never Changes
With all previous Elder Scrolls games, work on the following game started when the previous one was released. This time however, Todd Howard and company were focused on something different. Bethesda had acquired Interplay, the company responsible for the Fallout series and set out to work on Fallout 3. I won’t go into too much detail because the history of the Fallout series will be covered in another video that I have planned. Let’s just say that Fallout 3 was hotly anticipated from legions of fans that had been teased and tortured by screenshots of vaporware as well as games like Brotherhood of Steel that failed to capture the essence of the original games.
Fallout 3 made it through a relatively brief development cycle, brief when compared to Morrowind and Oblivion. When Fallout 3 was released in 2008, development of Skyrim began in full. Howard, with lessons learned from both Fallout 3 and Oblivion got to work with changes that he had in mind. Oblivion had returned to some of the procedural generation that was used to develop Arena and Daggerfall, but Skyrim, like Morrowind would once again abandon that method of landscaping. In fact, it would not be crazy to say that Skyrim takes what worked best of Morrowind and Fallout 3, and used those ideals to develop a new Elder Scrolls Game.
The plot of Skyrim takes place 200 years after Oblivion and begins with your character in a dire situation, much like the opening of the other Elder Scrolls game. Your player is about to be executed for unknown, possibly non-existent crimes. Just before the execution a dragon, which will be revealed to be the dragon Alduin interrupts and kills just about everyone. You escape, and eventually make your way to the city of Whiterun and after slaying a dragon alongside the city guard, absorb its power and reveal yourself to be a Dragonborn, one that can take the souls of Dragons.
The art direction of Skyrim sets it far apart from Oblivion. Art director Matt Carofano said in an interview with Game Informer that the typical fantasy style of Oblivion would not work in Skyrim, which is a colder, harsher world inhabited by the Nords. The phrase he uses to describe it is epic reality, meaning that wherever you go in the world of Skyrim, you have a sense of amazement at what you are walking through.
One of the big changes in terms of game play, and possibly an inspiration from working on Fallout, was doing away with Character class. In Fallout, players can develop their character’s abilities however they wish by way of assigning perks and through the distribution of the SPECIAL attributes. In Skyrim, it works in somewhat of a similar way, without the inclusion of SPECIAL. Instead, each race provides a particular bonus, which you can use to your advantage when rolling a new character.
Skyrim received critical acclaim despite, like most Elder Scrolls games, or any game of such breadth, a certain amount of bugginess. Skyrim is the bestselling Elder Scrolls game to date and won numerous game of the year awards from media outlets across the globe. It is estimated that the game has sold 22.7 million copies worldwide.
Skyrim like Morrowind and Oblivion had multiple expansion packs, but some of the best additions to Skyrim came from the modding community. Mods like Requiem added a level of realism to the game while Endereal added expansion level content. I spoke with my friend Belmont Boy about the Skyrim modding community.
Future of the Elder Scrolls Series
Whew! This was a long one, before we go, let’s talk a little bit about the future of the Elder Scrolls series, and its legacy. There is not a whole lot of information about what the next Elder Scrolls game has in store, no release date or location have been confirmed. If Bethesda has a pattern though, it is that they being work on their next big thing after the last big thing has been released. With the introduction of Fallout on the docket, I can imagine that pre-production of the next TES game only started with Fallout 4’s release in late 2015.
The matter of that pre-production though is uncertain. Todd Howard himself said “Of course we are making it…it’s a long way off.” Now as I did in the last video, I’m going to turn to my panel to see what their take on the legacy of The Elder Scrolls series is.
Thank you so much for joining me in the third episode of Origin of the Series. I will be deciding on the next episode shortly, so stay tuned for that. If you enjoyed this video, please like, comment, subscribe and share! I will be putting the sources of the video in the description down below. Check out my previous episodes of Origin of the Series, and I will see you guys, next time.