Q&A: 'Skyrim' Creator Todd Howard Talks Switch, VR and Why We'll Have to Wait for Another 'Elder Scrolls'

Q&A: 'Skyrim' Creator Todd Howard Talks Switch, VR and Why We'll Have to Wait for Another 'Elder Scrolls'

Bethesda's Todd Howard talks Nintendo Switch, 'Skyrim' and football Illustration by Bram Vanhaeren

He's an NCAA fan, designs games with action figures and is acutely aware of what the entire world is waiting for

He's an NCAA fan, designs games with action figures and is acutely aware of what the entire world is waiting for

Bethesda Game Studios makes big games for even bigger audiences. Fallout 4, the studio's most recent title, earned $750 million in the first 24 hours after it went on sale last fall. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the studio's previous game, may have been an even bigger hit, selling 30 million copies in the five years since its release. The average Skyrim player, according to Bethesda, has spent 150 hours inside the game's vast open world. They fight dragons, hurl magic spells, talk to elves and dwarves, buy houses and get married, or become thieves or assassins or even werewolves.

Todd Howard, the director and executive producer at Bethesda, leads the development of the Fallout and Elder Scrolls games, a role he has filled since 2002's The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Yet despite directing Morrowind, Oblivion, Skyrim, Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 – not to mention the mobile hit Fallout Shelter – Howard is not as widely known as some game designers with lesser pedigrees. Glixel talked to Howard about why Bethesda released a remastered special edition of Skyrim for PCs, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, whether Skyrim's success changed him, and why he's excited for the Nintendo Switch.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has sold 30 million copies, which makes it a hit on the scale of Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, Mario. They joked about the game on an episode of NCIS. You can't get more mainstream than that. What did that kind of success mean for you as a creator?
Each of our games has found a larger and larger audience, which we never take for granted. A lot of us have worked together for 10, 15, 20 years – in many respects, making the same game. Skyrim was kind of this tipping point. It seemed to hit an audience that we had never had before.

It didn't change us. But it did make us aware that some of the things we do speak to people who don't traditionally play games, or don't traditionally play role-playing games. They make it their own experience, and that was what was most important to us. Putting somebody in a world where they can do what they want. I think that's what's special about video games as entertainment.

Of all your games, I feel like Skyrim is the one that gets closest to delivering that experience, which you talk about a lot. It's a game with a lot of "verbs" for the player, a lot of different ways to approach situations, lots of multi-part side quests that feel just as important as the main quest.
I think that's true. The game has really good flow. When I sit down and play it again, even I get kind of lost. It's giving you choices at a nice pace.

In 2012 you said the design document for Skyrim was a Conan action figure. Really?
I'm looking at him on my desk right now. We start with tone. This is it. This is the tone.

That gets at one way the game constrains the player. It's all based around exploration and combat. You can't all of a sudden decide to become one of the shopkeepers or something. It's still a game about killing people.
Or killing creatures. It's not something we've thought about too much, "Are there other occupations in the world?" If that's your question.

I can't "do whatever I want" is all I'm saying. I'm trying to figure out what it means when you say that.
We try to do it as much as possible. Role-playing is a genre that could be anything. There's no feature that you would just say, "Oh, it's an RPG. I wouldn't do that." In our games, we can do anything.

You can't become a merchant, but there are skill perks that let you invest in the stores, and now you're becoming someone who can barter and deal with gold, or persuade people.

Do you have a preferred play style?
I play at a slow pace. I like to take in the scenery. So I'll sit there and watch the sunrise, and pick all the flowers, and talk to all the people.

Are there Skyrim mods that you wish were part of the main game?
There are really simple ones where you go, 'Duh, we should have done that.' There's one that adds fast travel markers when you own a house. That's like a 10-minute thing that we probably should have done. There's a really popular mod that makes the cities open, so you can just walk in. We didn't do that, originally, for technical reasons on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

There are also ones that we like that rebalance the game. On the surface, it seems like it makes it harder, but can make it a bit more interesting for people who have played it a lot.

Is there any part of Skyrim that you would fix?
I think if you look at our worlds and our environments, they're really rewarding. I think on the character side, how the NPCs react to you is still not quite where we want it to be.

There really isn't a part of the game where we can't say, "That could be better."

But you decided not to change it. You didn't want to make the George Lucas special edition version of Skyrim?
That's well said. Very well said.

Does someone in the studio have knee trouble? Why are adventurers always taking arrows to the knee?
No, that was just a one-liner. You can thank Emil Pagliarulo for that. We wrote all these lines for the guards. They happen to be people who just walk by you a lot. And we had to build this big suite of lines. We did not intend that to stick out. It's just a funny line.

If you combined us, we could see the whole game. But no one person knows it all.

It isn't said more than the other lines? It's just memorable?
I assure you it's not. I promise you that. It's a great line. But it wasn't a thing to us until it became a meme online.

Your games really flatter the player. Characters talk about how amazing and special the player is. What do you think of games like Dark Souls that punish the player? Or even The Witcher, where Geralt can get abused and insulted by the world?
I think both of those are good. When they're commenting on you, we try to reflect back on the player as much as you can. Because it always feels good. But the opposite is really good. I remember playing the original Deus Ex. I was in a level, and I get into this fight. These two guards kill me. And then one guard says to the other – I don't remember it exactly, but it was basically, "Let's go have some lunch."

I was so pissed that this combat was so meaningless to them. I've rarely been angrier. I still remember it. It had to be 10 or 12 years ago. I reloaded. "I'm going to kill these fuckers."

Speaking of your personal video game habits, how have you replaced NCAA Football in your life? Electronic Arts hasn't released that game in more than three years.
I haven't! I would like to use this platform: If there's a headline to this, it should be, "EA: Bring Back NCAA Football." I miss that game. Every fall now, it sounds stupid, it's part of my life that I miss. I love college football. And that was one of the ways I would experience it.

Who was your team?
Notre Dame. So I could use that game right now to make up for their shitty 2-5 record.

You've talked about learning from the role-playing aspects of sports games, with their multi-character rosters and statistical character attributes, or from the progression structure of the multiplayer in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Is there a surprising game that you're borrowing from, or stealing from, right now?
I'm playing a lot of Forza Horizon 3 right now. I don't want to say what I want to borrow yet. It does a lot of great things.

How do you keep a game the size of Skyrim in your head while you make it?
I don't know that I can. There are probably three or four of us that, if you combined us, we could see the whole game. But no one person knows it all. The one thing I do more than anybody else is, "What is the tone of the game? How does the game flow?" So when you do sit down and play it, it doesn't feel like 12 disparate games or experiences, but it all comes together.

I heard you say once that you start with the interface. Is that right?
I'll start with, "Where is the game set? How does it begin? What's the tone of the world?" And then what's the interface feel like? I think, visually, "What's the image?" If I showed you a screenshot of the game, how does it feel? Interface is a part of that.

It's probably just an idiosyncrasy of mine. I wouldn't suggest that to people, you know what I mean?

How does your role change over the six or seven years it takes to make one of your games?
I'm most involved in the beginning, and then at the end. I'm involved throughout, but those are the parts when I'm pretty much focused. Because we have so many things going on in a game, I enjoy the last year of a project: "Here's everything we created. How are we putting this all together?" That last year of a game is very hectic. It's very intense. You're trying to find the best version of what you've already created.

When I first started playing your games, it took me a while to figure out how to approach them. If I'm in a dungeon and I'm dying a lot, it probably means I should go do something else. That's different from a Call of Duty game, where dying means I'm doing something wrong and I just need to put my head down and succeed through trial and error. 
Honestly, we've struggled with that one. We debate it. We've still never quite solved it. It actually is rare that a gamer will go into a situation and say, "Nope, I'm going to turn around. I don't want to keep going at this." You can change the difficulty whenever you want. But most people don't want to do that, because they don't want to feel like they wussed out.

And we make sure we give them some powerful potions or whatever. But they end up hoarding them. It's kind of a joke in role-playing games. Everyone finishes the game with like, "The Potion of Ultimate Might" that they never drank, because they're always waiting for something worse to turn around the corner.

Do you care if players follow the main quest?
Only if they didn't like it. If they're having fun and doing what they want, great. But if they put it down because they were bored or, worse, confused, then we did something wrong.

Fallout 4 has a much more urgent main quest – you're a parent searching for a missing child – than Skyrim's civil war amid the mysterious return of dragons.
We've tried it both ways. Fallout 4 was obviously intentional. We wanted to put pressure on you to do this and make it really engaging. But if you don't, it ends up falling flat. Because the time pressure is kind of fake. In Skyrim, it is intentionally, "Well, this is important, but when you want to look into it." It's not personal in that way.

I can't say which way is better yet.

But you do think there is a conflict between openness and narrative. It's a problem that you're trying to solve.
Yes. We haven't quite cracked it yet.

Fallout 4 is also much more focused on combat and gunplay.
We didn't intentionally do that. When Fallout 4 is giving you certain quests, there are probably more that are, "Just go kill this," because there are more random things. But that wasn't an intentional goal of any kind.

Do you want to make Elder Scrolls and Fallout games for their rest of your life?
In some respects, yes. They're worlds that we really love. I would be sad if we stopped. We want to do other things as well, but those are worlds that are part of who I am.

We make little games, too, like Fallout Shelter. We have some other mobile games that we're starting to look at. We can try some things that we usually wouldn't do with the larger games.

We're definitely going to be supporting it. It's the first time we've done something on Nintendo.

You have more mobile games on the way?
We definitely do, yes.

What do you think of the Switch, Nintendo's newly announced console that is portable but also hooks up to your TV?
I love it. I got to play it. I will tell you – well, maybe that's an N.D.A. thing. One of the best demos I've ever seen. Probably the best demo I've ever seen. At E3.

Was it a Nintendo game?
I mean the device itself. I think it's really smart what they're doing. We're definitely going to be supporting it. It's the first time we've done something on Nintendo. If you don't count the old NES stuff. Home Alone. Or Where's Waldo?

Can you really bring Skyrim with you on the go?
It's the same game on the TV and on the other screen.

Should we talk about Fallout in VR?
We're trying the VR thing now. We'll see where it heads.

You're trying to put all of Fallout 4 in VR?
We definitely are. That's the promise of VR, being in a big virtual world. The core experience, meaning you put on the headset and you're standing in the world of Fallout and can go where you want, just that little bit is every bit as cool as you hope it would be. Once we did that, we were like, "OK, we gotta see where this goes."

We're not so worried about how many we're going to sell or what the market is. That will all sort itself out. We have an opportunity to make something really unique. We'd rather do that than make some other tiny experience. I don't think that's what people want from us.

You're 45. If your games take six or seven years to make, how many do you have left?
Earlier this year, at the Game Developers Conference, they gave me – I'll say us – the Lifetime Achievement Award. That's when I thought about it. You start adding it up. I don't dwell on it. I enjoy it too much. I'm going to do it for as long as possible.

Do you think your games will last? Even though there are some great classic video games, there was a time not all that long ago when a five-year-old game felt dated.
It's something I used to dwell on more. You can watch an old movie, but it's very hard to play an old game.

We just wrapped up updating Fallout 4 for the PS4 Pro. We're used to that in the PC world. We can update the games, and people keep playing it. Microsoft's Scorpio is coming next year, and we'll update Fallout 4 and Skyrim for that. That's our hope, that these consoles keep that spirit going forward. It's also the pride of ownership. I like browsing my library of games. Whether it's on the shelf physically or digitally, that's all my stuff. And I don't want to feel like I could lose it, or it has no value, other than sitting there.

Even though I'm not going to play 99 percent of them.

It's why I have books on my bookshelf. When I look at my PlayStation 4 digital library, I think, "Those are all mine." And I don't want them to be taken away from me. There's something about digital distribution and the iPhone that makes people expect that they will continue to own their games on new hardware.
Exactly. I think the iPhone, that model proves that you can have a new device every year, but here are all the apps. And some of them get updated and work better, and some of them are the same. It just keeps moving forward, but things don't shut off.

You're making a new Elder Scrolls game, but you're not going to tell us when. We'll probably see other games first?
It's not what you would call a big, active project right now. There are some other ones that we have going. We know it's important to our fans, and we need to be careful about setting expectations.

It's certainly a game that we'll be making one day. I could sit here and explain to you exactly what we want it to be.

To what extent do your games, when they are finished, reflect the ambitions you had at the outset?
They're pretty close. They admittedly have some rough spots, but we'd rather aim really high and land as close to that as possible. We're going to keep trying big things. And the new things we're doing, I can easily say they're bigger than anything we've done before.

This interview has been edited and condensed.