Julian “LeFay” Jensen Reddit AMA (2017)

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Julian Jensen (known as Julian LeFay during his time at Bethesda) is colloquially known as the Father of the Elder Scrolls for his role as the designer and programmer for Arena and Daggerfall. This Ask Me Anything thread was posted on November 2017, and continued to receive questions and answers for the rest of the month. Only Elder Scrolls relevant information has been republished here – you can find the original thread at r/daggerfall. I've also attached an answer of his from a Quora thread about Elder Scrolls development to the bottom of the transcript.

What books influenced the creation of Daggerfall? 

I can’t remember most of what I read in those days, with a few exceptions. I can definitely remember reading “The Riftwar Cycle” by Raymond Feist. I had an opportunity to spend some time with him and we ended up mostly talking about doing that series as a Daggerfall-style RPG. Just idle chatting, of course, but it was an interesting thought.

Do you have an opinion about modern Bethesda? 

Well, I’m not privy to the inner workings of Bethesda after I left but it seems to me that with Altman taking over and Vlatko becoming a part of the operations (and after a (rather lengthy) period of adjustment and growth), Bethesda has stopped being a penny-pinching shoestring-budget outfit and has become a proper developer. They are much more likely to make successful games under those circumstances and have, indeed, proceeded to do so. I still know people who work there, of course, all of whom I like, and I’m glad to see them successful. As for any controversy, I have no idea. I never pay any attention to those kinds of things

I might have mentioned the following in the interview, not sure and I didn’t watch it, but it bears repeating. I was on a panel (at GDC many years ago) on role-playing games along with Sandy Petersen (Chaosium, Microprose, id Software, Ensemble) and he said something very interesting, that “the best computer role-playing game you’ll ever play is about as good as the worst pen-and-paper RPG session.” The reverse of that was the definition of what Daggerfall aimed to accomplish, well, maybe not quite that extreme, but at least bring the two to an even plane. With that in mind, I think that Daggerfall moved well along in trying to achieve that goal, but still fell well short of getting there. As a stepping stone on that path, however, it showed that that goal is achievable and, frankly, I’m surprised that no one has tried moving the bar in all the years that have passed. So many things that could be done with proper knowledge of various techniques, unknown to me at that time, now so familiar: finite automata, CFG, machine learning, feature detection, and many many others. Obviously, I haven’t played any games that try to accomplish what Daggerfall did. They might be out there but I don’t know of any. That being said, I have played some truly excellent CRPGs, my favorite being Witcher III, which was a fantastic game.

What would you improve about modern Elder Scrolls, if you were still with the company? 

I can’t argue with the success of the series and the fact that it’s well-made for what it is. What it is now, however, is not what I intended with the series. That doesn’t make it wrong or bad, of course, just different. I would have liked to see TES become something different from every other RPG, something that strive for an experience closer to pen-and-paper RPGs rather than a CRPG, even if it is better than most out there.

Did you include anything in Daggerfall that you regret?

There is nothing I wished weren’t in the games (except maybe that “yuck” thing) but I do wish that more of the features that did make it in were more polished.

What did you think of Arena and Daggerfall at launch?

The problem with the launch was the usual for the game industry. “Oh, my god. We must launch this game now or we’re doomed! Advertisement money has been spent and we’re running out of cash!” There was not much I could do, sadly. I had way to many tasks to do any of them well. Pushing too close to the deadline to finish up the features that did make it in there and then trying to fix bugs on a work schedule that could mildly be described as “hellish,” a work schedule that remained so almost constantly for a period of years. More than 3 years of crunch-time really takes it toll. Since those times, I’ve never really felt that I’ve worked hard or had any pressure from my work. Even when everyone around me is breaking under the strain, I leisurely go about my business with a smile; everything seems so easy after having gone through the gauntlet of the first two Elder Scrolls games.

What was your role in Battlespire and what are your opinions on it?

Battlespire was my creation, concept, and design. I wanted to do something with the TES world but something that doable by a handful of people and be completed in roughly 9 months and that was the result. It was never intended to be any more or less than what it was.

I very much liked Battlespire. It came about because of timing of other projects. People wouldn’t be free for the next Elder Scrolls game for months, so I took the time to make another, smaller, more focused Elder Scrolls game. This time, however, I started out with a plan and a focus on proper and realistic scheduling and kept the features within something I could actually accomplish. I wrote the design for that game and the code. I had some good graphics going and Ken Rolston to write my dialogue (which was brilliant and hilarious). The game got developed like clockwork and released on time. It was not much a success, few people ever found out about it. Personally, it was quite a success after the two main TES games. I liked it because it was an achievable one-man effort (plus graphics and writing by others), that I controlled and completed as planned. A rare thing for me back then.

On bugs.

Releasing a buggy product sucks. It hurts you as a programmer and a person. I would never release it if I had a choice but I didn’t, just as other programmers in other companies who release buggy products don’t have any choice in the matter. Management makes those decisions for reasons that appear good to them and they probably are good most of the time. There is just an inherent conflict there, one that will always be there. Sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t. Yeah, a tautology but you get my drift.

Much of the faction functionality was cut from Daggerfall, could you elaborate on the original design?

Factions were always meant to be a much bigger deal but, as with most other things in the early ES days, it ended up woefully underdeveloped. Sometimes I wonder if it would have been better to focus my ambition on just a few things and really push them, or, as I ended up doing, try for everything and get many things, none of them quite where I would have liked them to be. Factions is one of those under-realized features that I would have continued to develop much more, had I had the opportunity to do so.

Did you know anything about the planned location of future games? Ted Peterson had mentioned Summerset as a possible next location.

I knew about Morrowind before most, of course, since I was still working there at the time. When it finally got underway, quite some time later, I was no longer an employee at Bethesda but was called back in as a consultant, but the project was in its very early stages at that time.

I definitely remember Summerset being on the table at some point. I think most places were at one point or another. However, Ted’s memory is far superior to mine, so I’d go with what he says.

Was Daggerfall designed around giving each player a unique experience through its use of procedural generation?

Everybody’s experience is always different. Without multiplayer, we knew that it would always remain so even beyond the obvious philosophical point. But the idea of a partly generated, partly crafted world is not just that each player gets a different experience, indeed that’s entirely incidental, but that each player can continue to get a different experience because the world should adapt and grow along with the player. I won’t claim that we achieved anything close to that but that was the driving idea, being, at the time, somewhat assured that we would have more games in the future in which to push that envelope.

A bit about the early days of Bethesda and game development.

I was 27 or 28, I think when we started Arena. I had been with Bethesda Softworks since 1988 when we were just 4 people, the owner, the CFO, and two programmers. I had already done several games in Denmark, minor titles, and, by 1993, had completed quite a few titles (mostly Wayne Gretzky Hockey and several Terminator games). The rest of the team was very green, Vijay had worked with me on some of the Terminator stuff and one graphics guy had some prior experience (Mark Jones). I think we also had Ken Mayfield at this time, who also had some prior experience. All in all, not a lot of experience. I had, by far, the most because I had started programming very early in life, so by the time I was 28, I was already close to 10 years in as a game programmer.

However, there were so many new things, so much that had to be invented, that there was more than the usual amount of trial and error. Trial and error, innovation and invention, these are all very common in game development, far more than in any other field of programming. Bethesda Softworks never had a lot of money back then and we couldn’t hire experienced talent and usually had to make do with people fresh out of college. They were paid a pittance and soon left. That meant that we never had a real persistent team that would grow in experience, we started most projects with completely inexperienced greener-than-green members which hurt us tremendously over the years. Penny-wise, pound foolish. Our CFO was not very good and caused us more harm than anything else that ever happened to Bethesda Softworks.

What, besides D&D, inspired early Elder Scrolls?

The Elder Scrolls was inspired by all the vanilla fantasy out there, not just D&D which is more of a game system than an actual world. I read a lot of fantasy novels in those days. It’s hard to point to definite sources of inspiration as it was really just a bunch of influences accumulated over years of playing fantasy RPGs and reading fantasy novels.

There’s an unfinished dragon named Skakmat in Daggerfall’s files. Can you give us more detail about it?

I don’t recall anything specific about that but I do like the name, being Danish for Checkmate. I remember talking about dragons and I have a vague memory of actually having one modeled but there my memory fails, sorry to say.

How do you feel about the change from a massive, randomly-generated world to a more dense, hand-crafted one we see in today’s format of the series?

That’s the contrast between my style of game creation and that of Todd. We have very different ideas about what The Elder Scrolls should be. I can’t argue against his success, he has done extremely well with the series, but they’re not the games I would have made. If I were to make another ES game, I would continue along from where Daggerfall left off, and not the path that Todd chose. I prefer the large-scale epic feel of discovery, whereas Todd prefers a more firm and scripted approach. Both have their merits but they are clearly different and his ES games are not mine. Different philosophies and, more importantly, different ultimate goals.

A number of localized versions for Daggerfall were planned, but never released. Any details behind that?

I did the localization. I actually went to Hamburg and lived there for a month or more. I went on to live some considerable time in Paris and Madrid to do localisations there, as well, since I speak all three of those languages (at that time, at least, these days…).

The German localization was the hardest, by far. Not because of the letters but because there are grammatical inter-dependencies between words that are not relevant in English. So, in English, you can just drop in a different name (the text has placeholders for these words) or a different noun and all is well. In German, however, the article changes based on gender, relative pronouns change accordingly, and so on. I had to completely rework the entire system working out of Virgin’s offices in Hamburg. You could smoke in the office there in those days and everybody smoked, including myself, except for one guy, poor fellow. 😀 I finished the translation work but didn’t follow-up on what happened to it. I also went to Tokyo for some time to deal with a Japanese version (I spoke a decent amount of Japanese in those days, as well) but I also don’t know what became of that.

Translating the books was a trivial effort. It was all the quest dialogue that was challenging because of the many text placeholders that could be substituted with words of different grammatical gender that caused the real problems. The problems were solved but where the solution is and what happened to it, I have no idea.

Could you tell us a little about Daggerfall’s cut features?

Lots of things were cut from the final product since we were out well out of time and couldn’t do the final bit of polish to get them into the code. Looking at that page, I remember how unhappy I was that furniture didn’t make it. The whole idea of buying a house or a boat was a late feature and it ended up largely unfinished. Furniture was part of the plan, the ability to customize your house and, for balance purpose, spend money on something that didn’t yield in-game powers.

Favorite part of Daggerfall?

It’s release and, to a lesser extent, it’s success. Boring answer but true. By the time you’re done working on a game, you’re thoroughly sick and tired of it. It’s all you been dealing with and thinking about for the better part of two years.

What features were planned but not included?

Multiplayer [is] a big one. I would also have liked much more time with the quest system. And dwellings, which are very useful from a design balance standpoint. We never really got them fleshed out. But, mostly, I would have like much more persistence and growth of NPCs. The more NPCs feel like real people and the more continuity there is over an extended period of time, the more real the world will feel. Oh, and hardware acceleration. 🙂

Could you tell us about the real world influences behind Tamrielic cultures?

As much as I would love to say that there was a real plan as to what the various cultures were like, I’d be lying if I did so. I’m sure they have wrangled things under a tighter control, seeing how the franchise is now a cornerstone of the company, but when we made the first ES games, there was no anticipation that they would be anything special, or even be released, at all.

How did the Daedra come about?

The Daedra are pretty much like fantasy demons. I didn’t want to call them demons because of all the baggage and religious non-sense that invariably gets dragged along when those types of words are used. So I decided to come up with a new word. First I thought of Linux daemons. The word is originally from Greek mythology and refers to a minor deity. Perfect. Except the word was still too close to the word “demon.” At the time, I was reading a variety of Plato, and came to think of “Phaedrus” and “Phaedo” and from there it wasn’t much of a leap to “Daedra.” They were meant to be demons or minor gods, something that could be used as a powerful antagonist to the player where a god would be too much (where do you go from there?) and a normal mortal would be too little, too mundane. An old and useful tool with a new name. And, having finished my tangential ramble, to answer your query, I suppose they could be summoned however they felt was appropriate; no reason not to let cultural influences dictate the methods. Good for gameplay and, I can’t help but think, that it would somehow please them.

What made you decide to set Daggerfall in High Rock and Hammerfell?

When we started with Arena, there was no map and no world, hence no decision. When Daggerfall rolled around, it just kind of came to be decided. Sorry, not much of a story there. There was not really a lot of lore in those early days. There is so much now but that’s the result of years of effort and aggregation. Everything has a beginning and most creative beginnings have none of the easy handholds later works enjoy from the years of accumulated knowledge, traditions, notes, and sundry fan works. Quite a lot of material in Daggerfall was supplied by fans and, very frequently, testers, especially the books that appear in the game. What an abundant source of fantastic lore, where every little thing adds depth to the game, springing from the sheer enthusiasm of the people who play it. It’s great when it starts to take on a life of its own, but in the beginning, there is none of that.

Again, sorry, no well-considered decision, nor deep conversations weighing the pros and cons of where to set the next ES game. It just kinda happened…

Why are so many Tamrielic names ‘borrowed’ from other fantasy universes?

Yes, a lot of the names do seem to be, ahem, heavily inspired by a variety of external sources. Most of that work was done long before we had any idea of where this was going. In my defense, I would point out that Vijay came up with most of the names. In the same breath, I should also point out that he contributed an enormous amount of original material, especially for Arena, where he was the lead designer. In fairness, I noticed the thing about the names even back then but, for some reason, didn’t think to do anything about it.

How much were you invovled in the conceptualization of Morrowind?

We talked a lot about the next TES game during the latter half of Daggerfall development. Unfortunately, none of the people involved in those discussions ended up working on TES III. Ted and I, especially, talked a lot about what we would want to do for the next installment. The TES III that came to be is entirely discontinuous with Daggerfall in terms of world development and the wishes and desired of the Daggerfall team. Not saying it’s bad, just discontinuous. The name, “Tribunal” is from our early discussions but at that time it was still fuzzy exactly what it was supposed to be.

On Arena back when it was an arena game.

It’s certainly correct that the whole endeavor started out with Arena as a gladitorial-style fighting game with a whole party instead of single player. I even had the whole party system working in the game where you could direct the various team members and so on. At the time, we weren’t really allowed to make a real RPG, so we decided to make this fighting game instead, to a large extent inspired by “Blood of Heroes.” But, as time passed, it eventually became more and more like an RPG, which is what we’d wanted to do all along. It was a hard sell to management.

I heard that Arena originally featured live-action cinematics – any truth to that?

Yes, we did make a whole (quite short) movie with live action and chroma-keyed backgrounds. And that is me in one of the roles, all 135 lbs. of me (I’m 6′ 4″). Nowadays I weigh 100 lbs. more. 🙂 We really just made that for E3 (or was it still CES back then?) It was really meant to show some cool stuff at the convention and wasn’t suitable for the game itself as it didn’t really portray a useful introduction nor useful intermediary scenes. It would also have been inconsistent throughout the story as we didn’t have very much footage. I seem to recall that we shot that one of the last nights before the convention, quite possibly the last night before. I do remember that it went very late when we did all this. Don Nalezyty was also in it and my main guy for wrangling all the graphics. He doesn’t get mentioned much and he wasn’t a huge part of the project, time-expanse-wise, but he was a very important one when he was working on the project. He did a lot of work on this movie idea, as well.

The main thing I remember is that we didn’t get our chroma-key backdrop (green) lit evenly and it ended up being a complete mess getting everything merged together.

What type of character do you play in TES games?

I don’t actually play them. Full disclosure, I did actually play one of them, can’t remember which one. The one with Sheogorath. Strangely enough, most people here know a great deal more about the games than I do. I know a lot about the struggle to make them and my original vision for the games, but don’t have much information about the games from the player’s side of things.

Is the god Julianos based off of you?

Obviously. 😀 I named the god, after all.

Are the other gods also named after developers?

Most of the gods are actually named after our testers. We had a small but solid group of people who spent a lot of time play testing, as well as submitted a number of books for the game. The gods were named after the testers nicknames or we twisted their names a bit to get them to sound right, so R. K. became Arkay and so on.

From a Quora thread:

What was it like working on Elder Scrolls as a programmer, and what technical challenges did you face?

I can only answer for the first games in the series. I am generally viewed as the creator of The Elder Scrolls series but there were other, very talented people, who participated and contributed greatly, as well. While I speak of my experience with the project here and it therefore seems focused on me, I want to point out that this was not a one-man effort and others also deserve great credit. I get the creator credit, I think, because I worked on the original games in the series (Arena, Daggerfall, and the, mostly forgotten, Battlespire) as a designer (never the main designer, though), but, more importantly, as the project leader and the main, and frequently only, programmer. I was also the Chief Engineer of all of Bethesda Softworks development back then. Not a big deal in the early days of few employees but but more and more of a big deal as we grew.

Back in those days, Bethesda Softworks was a small company with very little money and very few employees. We were only four people when I started there, in 1988, working out of the owner house. It would be a couple of years before we started working on Arena, which was not supposed to be an RPG, but we used stealth to turn it into one. We had to. Bethesda Softworks did not want to make an RPG so we had to be creative in how we could make one without the boss catching on. But that’s another story for another day.

I had a couple of junior programmers working with me on Arena (all of it written in Assembler with the help of my two female junior programmers, who were quite good, in retrospect), and on Daggerfall I had a junior programmer in the beginning who left after some months, and then a junior programmer at the end, who left at the end of the project. The rest of the time, I was the only programmer. I did have one guy working on most of the 3D engine on Daggerfall. On Arena, I did all of the graphics coding.

We did all of Daggerfall in 18 months and Arena in less than 12. That is basically unheard of. And, to be honest, it damn near killed me. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s impossible to describe the pressure from the company, that was running out of money, the pressure of having to push the envelope as hard and as far as I did in terms of the technology, the pressure I applied to myself to try to achieve the near-impossible. I do not recommend anyone ever try this. When I say it damn near killed me, I’m being quite literal.

However, having come through the ordeal, I came out of it being so much better at programming at high speed under stress than I had been at the beginning. That has served me well ever since. Nowadays, when I work at a company and everyone around me is breaking under the pressure of a deadline, working around the clock, sleeping at their desk, and are moaning and groaning, I feel quite comfortable, no pressure, just cruising along at my normal speed, which, after the Daggerfall gauntlet, was easily fast enough to get everything done and start doing other people’s work. In fact, I haven’t really felt stress or pressure from schedules since those days, nothing has ever compared. It’s a hell of a way get toughened up but the game industry excels at doing this to programmers, spitting out broken corpses or super-programmers at the end of a grueling project.

I have many anecdotes from those days, including how Tod Howard (the current master of The Elder Scrolls series) came to be where he is today. Tod eventually took over the series after I left Bethesda Softworks and, although he’s not making the games the way I would have, he’s done a fantastic job and I’m glad that he ended up being the one to carry the torch onward.

I am glad I had the experience. I grew more than I ever have before or since in terms of my skills but, more importantly, I came out of it deeply humbled. There is nothing like getting broken and beaten up by life, yourself, and circumstance, to teach humility. It was the beginning of me learning to respect other people properly, to think about things with a philosophical spin and consider my greater goals in life and the greater goal of life, in general. I came out of the process with the first inkling of what wisdom might be and where and how I might look for it. I won’t say that I have found it, of course, that would be presumptuous and not very wise, but I started to recognize the importance of things other than dominating other game companies and other programmers or the drive to be the best programmer in the world and regarding other programmers like I was in some kind of duel-to-the-death arena (inside joke there, as well) with them. These things became mostly meaningless and instead became the need to be the best programmer I could ever be and, more importantly, the best person I could be. I’m hating this paragraph but leaving it in there. It, in no way, sums up or even accurately describes everything that changed about me during those years and, frankly, it comes across to me as a bit pretentious, even though it’s not at all meant as such, but I’m not a writer, so I’ll leave it as is, warts and all.

After this it becomes introspective and about inner balance and the care of my craft and not very interesting, I suspect. Needless to say, working on The Elder Scrolls was the single most influential thing I’ve ever done and changed me forever.

Edited to add: I did notice that you asked about technical challenges but, honestly, there were so many back in the days when there was no proliferation of 3D graphics cards, or fancy CPUs, and all the other things we have now. It would be a book unto itself to go through those challenges. Every day you were faced with some serious technical challenge. That’s the whole job, basically.

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