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Interview With Morrowind's Developers

Librarian Comment: 

Early interview with Morrowind Developers, transcribed by Qwerty. It contains some photos from Bethesda 'War Room'. 

This information is reprinted with the permission of Game.EXE, a Moscow, Russia computer gaming magazine. They solicited the interview in the 1st place. It was published (in Russian, of course, and slightly cut), in the July 2001 issue.

Some parts might not make much sense. I was writing it down from a rather bad phonogram I made.

the Bethesda team

Standing: Matt Carofano, Andy Nunn,
Craig Walton, Ken Rolston, Todd Howard.
The guy in front is Michael Kirkbride.
Ken's hairstyle underwent some radical changes since.

Qwerty (Q): Would you please introduce yourself and the rest of the team?

Ken Rolston (KR): I’m not sure I know these guys... I’m Ken Rolston, internationally celebrated game designer, and Michael Kirkbride, internationally celebrated writer and artist, although he does both very well, Todd Howard, internationally celebrated Lord High Poobaah, project leader, designer, programmer, the only thing he does not do very much is art, as far as I know. And he essentially keeps the focus of the project going, which we celebrate him for.

Q: We kept hearing about Morrowind pretty much since Daggerfall. But the first real rumor of it being in development came a year and a half ago, approximately. I wonder when the first line of code was written?

Todd Howard (TH): For Morrowind? Now that’s a good question, because the first real line of code was probably written right after Redguard was done. But there was probably a real line of code written right after Daggerfall was done! It’s a huge project, and we wanted to do it right after Daggerfall, but we looked at and said “We’re not ready for it, we don’t want to jump into this and fail.” During Battlespire and Redguard we knew Morrowind was going to be next, and we’ve been preparing for it during that time, and as soon as Redguard was done, we started more or less full production. But we changed engines…

Q: The engine - Is it Direct3D?

TH: We’re holding back all the details on the engine, but I can tell you that it’s Direct3D.

Q: Any optimizations specific to certain hardware types?

TH: T&L.

Q: Did you scrap any pieces of code?

TH: We did some demo code, tried some stuff out, we tried to take some parts from the other games, see how they worked. So, what you see running here, that started, probably, in this iteration - in November.

Q: I was wondering if there was any pressure from your parent company or management, to finish this project? After quite a while, weren’t you guys somehow pushed to finish this project?

TH: Any company wants to ship the game right now, but they really listened to us and they realized this is a big deal, which is why we didn’t do it right away, you know, they didn’t want to do it right away either. The Elder Scrolls, the classic series is our franchise, it’s our bread and butter. We’re not going to do it fast. We’re gonna wait, we’re gonna check things out, and do it the right way.
Beth's Wall

Q: Aren't you guys afraid when you go to inventory screen or something, they'll hack him in pieces?

TH: Time stops.

TH: And that is fast-travel.

Michael Kirkbride (MK): A Silt-strider.

Q: So, the fast-travel isn't as dull as in used to be in Daggerfall. You just take a bus. Or a bug...

TH: This is a very cool travel system. There will be a man up here that you talk to, and ask him, tell him where you wanna go...

TH: Your journey is an adventure. You don't just decide "I wanna be across the world". It should be an adventure, we should take advantage of it, y'know, getting somewhere. Finding a dungeon travelling up in the mountains, battling away through stuff. Roadside adventures are cool. Finding a guy on the side on the road, like "Have you seen my wagon?" That's cool, we're missing this opportunity by just having fast travel.

Q: The PotionMaker is around, huh?

MK: There is a PotionMaker and alchemy, it's changed somewhat.

Q: OK, how 'bout the SpellMaker? Wall 2

MK: Yes. It's there. It's all better now!

Q: I wonder if Mages' Guild is around in Morrowind?

TH: It's around. It's not as prevalent.

MK: It's an Imperial sponsored guild.

TH: If it wasn't for the Empire, the Mages' Guild would not be. So there is, I guess as you would say, the, sort of, Tamrielic standard Mages' Guild you can join, and then there is the Telvani, which is the much crueler Dark Elf form.

Q: I was wondering are you modeling this world after some earthly culture, or you wanna come up with something completely alien?

MK: Yes, we are modeling after several cultures, Egypt, for example...

TH: I think it's kind of Middle-Eastern, early Japanese. A lot of different input.

TH: The Empire is there, so you'll get settlements that are... very Imperial/Nordic. We'd like to have that built into this kind of environment, because it sorta says "Well, I'm comfortable with that, but I don't know what's on the top of that hill." You're supposed to be an outsider here, so it puts you into that mindset.

Q: And the PC is the Imperial? Wall 3

TH: No, he's just not born here. He can be, you know, whatever he wants. Even if you play Dark Elf, you're still not born here. So, they still treat you as an outsider.

Q: The skill system is getting pretty much from Daggerfall?

TH: The character system has gone through do some tweaks, but it’s very intact from Daggerfall, we’re very happy with it.

Q: The same stats and pretty much the same skills?

TH: The skills have been tweaked. I’ll tell you about it a lot more much later on, but all I can say about it is - we looked at every skill and said, “would somebody choose this as a major skill?” If the answer was “no”, we got rid of it or combined it with something else so that every skill could possibly be a major skill for somebody.

Q: How ‘bout the reputation system? Is it going to be the same?

TH: It’s different. It’s the disposition system. It’s like reputation, except everybody has it internally, how they feel about you. So, when you ask him for information, every piece of information they have also has a disposition rating on it, whether or not they’ll give it to you. So, the whole idea with the game, since you’re an outsider, is - make friends. Pick your friends, pick your friends wisely, work on making them your friends, and then go to those guys for information.

Say you wanna know about general Darius, you got somebody, and you see this dialog thing is red, you ask about general Darius, and he says: “Go away!” OK, he knows something, but does not want to talk to me. What if I do something for him, or I join his faction…

Q: So, factions are around? Team 2

TH: Absolutely. Huge part of the game, huge. A lot more than in Daggerfall. We found everybody who plays Daggerfall likes to join guilds and stuff, and so we’ve made that a big part of it.

So, you talk to the guy, and raise his disposition, and he’ll give you more information, and you can do this through doing a quest for him, joining his faction, there’s like a whole table of things that change his disposition, if you attack him it lowers it, if you give him money it raises it… The total value of your clothing matters. On the screenshot, there’s a “Persuasion” column for dialog, if you go to persuade him, like, admire him, it will raise his disposition. But if you’re not good at this, this is based on skills, if you try to admire him and you fail, he’ll like you less! You walk up and say “Hey, man, that’s a really cool watch!” and he’s like “You’re a dork!”. He doesn’t like you. It depends on what kind of character do play, whether or not the information is easy or hard to come by. So, here’s a big stupid fighter - the guy’s in the Fighters Guild like you, you’re not really good in going out and influencing people.

The personality skill now is very important, it’s pretty much your access to information.

Q: Will there be NPCs that activly help you?

KR: We're going to have actively helping NPCs. The idea might me, you know, yeah, you could go and hire a thug or a slave... My idea, I really want that you really can do is that you have, essentially, a player's character who is a burro, and NPC who is a burro, he carries your stuff, because encumbrance is so serious in Morrowind, you'll be really sorry if you're carrying too much stuff, so, if you could hire a dopey guy to follow around behind you and carry all your suits of ebony armor you find, then that'd be really handy. And we believe that's something we can implement. It has to be great for Morrowind.

Q: So, basically, information is the key to the game?

MK: You can beat your way through the game.

TH: You can beat it without that, but it gives you access to things, lets you know where things are, let’s you know what people are up to.

Q: So there is a chance for complete dummies?

TH: Even the complete dummies are going join factions and get into that stuff.

Q: What should I expect from those Dark Elves? Ken Rolston

KR. Every one is hostile to you in Morrowind. They are all your enemies, you are the outlander. I think the Dunmer are not very hospitable to start with; they’re serious, by contrast with all the other races; the High Elves are serious, but they are serious in a haughty way; the Dunmer have very strong sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, and they know that no outlander knows those things.

MK: They don’t know jokes!

KR: Yeah, don’t have a thing like jokes, I’m not even sure they have irony. They don’t see irony. Bitterness, they can perceive bitterness, but they can’t perceive a joke.

MK: They know what a joke it is.

KR: Right, they understand the structure of a joke, they’re able to approach a joke from the literary point of view, but they don’t see anything funny about their lives.

MK: There’s another thing. They don’t lie. They either won’t tell you upfront…

KR: There’s a complex tradition there. (laughs) Their notion of honor is that you don’t lie, but there is the outsider, and there are no rules whatsoever.

Q: This has to do something with Tribunal worship? Did religion make them like this?

MK: They just were like that.

KR: The thing that distinguished the Dunmer from the High Elves originally, the reason that the Dunmer left Summerset Isles, had to do with that fundamentally different attitude toward what is worth doing and what life is about. I think they left with the prophet Veloth, and I accept that he was a prophet, it's no longer <...> a prophecy, but he was referred to as a prophet Veloth, because there was a fundamental difference between the way some people thought about it. The High Elves were aristocratic, they divided into the people who was supposed to be in control and people who was supposed to do things, and the Dunmer were, actually, more egalitarian, they were more sense of personal individual freedom rather than the freedom of the aristocracy.

MK: The sundering from the High Elves was probably the most joyous thing that ever Dunmer.

Q: But they ended up in a slave society. 

Bethesda's own chef is the best ever. 

KR: There's nothing wrong with slaves.

Q: As long as they are other races.

KR: Oh yes, precisely. They're not human. In that sense, to use the word "human" in the sense "Dunmer" - not Dunmer. They're very patronizing toward everyone who isn't a Dunmer. Beastpeople are just animals. And human beings are a bit of a problem.

MK: Certain conditions within the Armistice bypass certain Imperial anti-slavery laws. The concession Tiber Septim made.

Q: At what timeframe does the action of Morrowind take place?

MK: I believe that - and it changes - I believe the official date is 427, Third Era.

Q: I see. It's when the player's character is dispatched in Balmora. So you start in Balmora.

MK: I didn't say that!

Q: At least, you start in a dungeon or...

MK: You're dispatched and you're supposed to go in Balmora. You are on continent of Vvardenfell. Subcontinent of Vvardenfell. But like in Daggerfall, you can ignore your orders to go in Balmora.

Q: Are you going to keep the same per-quest structure of the main storyline? I mean, are you having quest as the main entity of action, or would things be more streamlined? Basically, will you have to go somewhere to take a quest to proceed in your understanding of the storyline? Will the story force itself?

MK: In my understanding, the structure is more like Redguard - there are checkpoints, if you wanna follow the main storyline, but it's unlike Daggerfall, you'll have really do one after the other. So you know, in Redguard, you kinda stumbled upon the storyline...

Q: Sure did.

MK: ...and you kind of at times did not know exactly what you're supposed to do? But you always had the option of going to have fun somewhere, and by the end all the threads were solved. That's pretty much how the main quest works in Morrowind. They're very few "do this, and then do that, and than do that."

KR: We also are maintaining a perversely non-main-quest-line solution, that is, we're going to make it possible for you to refuse the main quest, and still complete the end of the game. It just would be very difficult - playing fair, in other words, by exploring the game - to try to figure out how to make this way to solve the game without going through the main quest. But we think it would be kinda interesting to see if any players do discover.

Q: Like, keep the Totem to yourself, speaking in Daggerfall terms?

KR: Or to discover the existence of the Totem outside of any of the characters that you meet on the main quest. We're gonna make it at least theoretically possible. It's not that difficult as long as we, you know, place certain constraints on ourselves.

Q: But if you follow the main storyline, there's gonna be a point where you have to align yourself with one of the powers, right?

KR: No. It used to be. That was our original design conception, we were going to make you have to align yourself with one of the main groups, and then you were essentially be doing a faction quest as part of the main quest, but right now, even though you do have to do one quest for each of the major factions, we no longer make you have to work your way up in that House. You can do that as a free-form quest.

I think it's an interesting question in its own. I'd be very interested to see to what degree the free-form game becomes more fun than the main quest game. That's sort of my goal. I think main quests are cool, but they also are very arbitrary from my point of view. From my character's point of view, when my character enters a world, he wants to explore the world, not the plot that the game designer put out there. I can do some cool things with the plot, I think that's really great, I love Torment, Torment is the classic case of well-executed linear plot, but Daggerfall was great in the sense that you could have done something that you wanted to do once you've created your character. Just gone anywhere, done anything, work your way up in the factions... It did not pay back, I mean it did not pay off on all of its promises, but we wanna pay off more.

Q: Experience and lots of fun!

KR: Oh no, it's wonderful, and again, whatever you bring to the game, you could play that game without the game recognizing your character. You could decide that you're a merchant prince and do the things that the merchant prince does - my goal is that the game responds to you as you were a merchant prince. Or if you're interested in Dwarves, and the mystery of the Dwarves, or evolution of slavery, whatever it is that your character is interested in, that to me is more important than the main plot. And I don't give a rat's ass about the Totem. Who cares about that crap? That "save the world" stuff makes me laugh. I want to work at more personal level of it.

Q: I was wondering what will the dialog system be like - will you be selecting from a bunch of questions, or, like, typing something? Like, I wanna ask someone about Underking, and Underking is not on the list, can I just go and type "Underking" and he'll tell what he knows?

KR: No. We don't want players have to experiment with all the words that know in order to find what the character knows. There's a list of topics presented to you that the character can comment on and you at least know that those topics are the only things you can talk about, so therefore you can't improvise or imagine.

MK: It also tells that they might know something, even trough their disposition won't let them tell you. So, you can see the immediate obstacle in front of you. Like, say, for example, you ask about Underking 'cause it is a topic but he won't talk to you about the Underking. You have to figure out some way within the game to get him to like you.

MK: And I believe certain objects and certain other characters can bring up topics within another character.

Q: Will there be a log? Like in Redguard?

MK: Much better than in Redguard! It'll be more like a Windows help file.

KR: One of the most important things we're working at is - since Daggerfall was such a huge text game, we wanna have a huge text game too. All that nonsense that Michael can spew, it's no fun if you can't get to that information easily, so we're gonna use that hypertext system, using those topics, so that you can use your journal to link to other references to that topic in your journal. For example, if you've talked about someone, who you know to be the Gatekeep Captain of the East Gate, Ghost Gate, you can find out from one person that that person has an artifact, and then you can find out where he is, because you remember in you dialog that that person has been talked about in some other context.

MK: So, your journal not only records of your deeds, but also becomes some kind of living encyclopedia on working progress, so, like, by the end of the game, suddenly, man, you know a lot of topics, you can go and cross-index it, and check out where you've been, you know, and yes - like a Windows help file.

Q: Text search? Full-text search?

MK: Keyword search.

KR: No, I don't think so. I think what we will have is the ability to do it alphabetically, that's the best we have.

Q: OK.

KR: No, I mean, I would love to have text search, that is an input text, but one of the problems is whether we will have text input by the player.

MK: You've just stumbled on a incomplete, as of yet, design.

KR: We don't really know. I want something like text input, but, you know... Remember the text input in Daggerfall?

Q: Yeah.

KR: That was extremely lame, extremely weak. Text input is so cool, such a wonderfully powerful tool, but if you don't implement it at a very large scale, then it looks stupid.

MK: I did not mean - within the dialog, actually, within the encyclopedia.

KR: Yeah, yeah. To be able to search through the topics, I mean - that's different than hypertext linking, and that's, actually, a functionality we may not be able to provide. But at least, you'll be able to scroll through your list of topics alphabetically and find your way to a given topic.

Q: Imagine you have a chance to redo Daggerfall. Any resources, any time, any people.

TH: The only thing I would make different, literally, the only thing I would make different is the factions; that is, the factions as advertised did not function very well, and someone who wanted to do the same level of work we were implying for player party NPCs that would be a whole new focus of intention, that would be really cool, because I think the setting and the character would lend themselves to it.

TH: And the interface.

TH: Oh, yeah, that's nasty. Talk to artists about that. That's a good point, although I would disagree in that sense; I would keep Daggerfall just the way it is. Tons of procedurally determined garbage, because that was what it was, and that was great. We don't want to do that, it's been done, but it's great that it was done in Daggerfall.