Skyrim director Todd Howard: Why triple-A games are better when you don’t play it safe | Tech Industry
Todd Howard is racking up the awards, the latest being the Industry Legend honor at the Gamelab event in Barcelona. And it’s with good reason, as Howard has had a great run in his 25 years at Bethesda Game Studios, where he is director of the studio that has produced blockbuster games such as The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, Fallout 4, and Fallout Shelter.
At the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), fans got to hear what Howard’s team is working on at the Bethesda Game Studios division of Bethesda Softworks (owned by ZeniMax Media). But Howard had much more time on stage to answer questions in a talk at Gamelab in a fireside chat with Game Awards founder Geoff Keighley.
In Spain, Howard talked about upcoming games including Fallout 76, Starfield, and The Elder Scrolls VI. What comes through from this thoughtful Q&A is his optimism about making Triple-A games, his patience in producing those titles, and his desire to take risks when it comes to creating original content.
Here’s an edited transcript of their conversation.
Geoff Keighley: You’re on a little vacation here in Spain.
Todd Howard: A bit. I get to mix it with a great conference like this and take a few days off after the E3 craziness.
Keighley: We saw the near future and the far future of what you’re working on. Now the dust has settled. You’ve gone back. How did E3 go for you?
Howard: We felt good. There are always things we want to do better. We’re self-critical in that. But we felt good in terms of — it was a lot of information for everyone to absorb. A firehose. Here’s Fallout 76. Here’s a mobile game, Blades. Here’s a sneak peek at what’s coming in the future, with Starfield and Elder Scrolls VI.
Keighley: What did you feel people didn’t get?
Howard: When you’re at E3 and you have a half-hour to dig in all that stuff, there’s a lot of thought around what information everyone can absorb in the moment. There’s still time to dig in on the details of those games, particularly Fallout 76. There’s a lot of nuance to what we’re doing. A lot of people try to figure out what it is in their heads. Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re wrong. They’ll just have to play it.
Keighley: You’ve had an amazing career. You mentioned driving in to the same office for 25 years. People that know your career, know your games, probably wonder what the average day is like for Todd Howard now. You have studios in three locations. You have multiple projects going. What is the average day like in 2018? How do you spend your time?
Howard: Now that we’re doing a lot of projects, I’ll spend — I have a day carved out probably for each project, and then the one that’s getting the most attention at the time, I spend more time on that. Fallout 76 and Blades get a lot of my time right now. I’m in more meetings as it’s gotten bigger.
Again, I work with an incredible team. I haven’t coded in one of our games in — back in 2002? Maybe? No, 2006. That was probably the last code I wrote. I used to really dig in. Every project that goes on—everybody knows what they’re doing. I spend more time in meetings, discussing the game, looking at the game together. I prefer to work out a design with other people.
Once in a while there will be something where it’s not quite solved and I’ll work on it on my own, but then I’m also pitching it. It’s very collaborative. One of us will pitch: “Hey, this is how this will work.” Sometimes that’s me and sometimes that’s other people.
Keighley: When you started out you were producing games, and then getting involved in design, building worlds and your vision for where games were going to go. Now that you’re two decades in, how has your world changed? Do you still get to be very creative?
Howard: Oh, very creative. Because the team has worked together for so long, the managerial part is minimal for me. Which I’m very fortunate about. I’ve become anti-management. I probably do a bit more. But we have really good producers. We have different studio heads at each studios. Ashley Cheng, who I’ve worked with for 20 years, he’s the studio head in Rockville now. He manages more of the day-to-day stuff. I can focus creatively on what we’re doing now and what we should be doing in the future.
Keighley: Tell me about that creative process for you. You thanked your family for putting up with what I’m sure is — you’re very passionate about your ideas, and I’m sure they come to you at all times of the day, weekends, nights. How has that process changed in 20 years? When you’re getting excited about future games, where do you find your inspiration?
Howard: I have a notebook, but now I do it on my iPhone, in my Notes field. It’s still probably the same for me, at heart. I think about worlds. I think about tone. I bizarrely think about the beginning of the game. “This is the first thing the player sees. This is how it starts.” This is a weird idiosyncrasy when it comes to games, but I think about the interface. Interfaces are a lot of the personality of games. I tend to still think about that. Something like Starfield, we thought about that for at least 10 years. Conversations. We could do this. We could do that. It’s a long process, because games take so long.
Keighley: One thing with Starfield that I didn’t realize at E3 — with Fallout and Elder Scrolls, in some ways you inherited those worlds. This is really your first Todd Howard vision from day one. You were there from the original creation of the name, the world, all that.
Howard: It’s not just me, but if you look at the team, none of us have really done that together. Despite all of our games, all of our success together — Elder Scrolls, when we started, it was a very generic fantasy. It had its parts. We pushed it to have more of its own unique identify. We’re proud of the work everyone did there.
Fallout, again, we’re not the original creators. All credit goes to Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky and all the people at Interplay that did that game. We loved it, though. That was something where we felt we could do something special with that. But it goes through our filter. We did make it our own. I’d say it this way. Whenever we do a game, whether it’s one we made, or looking at Fallout, we’re going back and looking at that and reinterpreting it. Even if we did it. When it comes to Elder Scrolls VI, you’re looking at Skyrim and Oblivion — I replay all the old games. How do we want it to feel this time?
The difference with Starfield is — that’s the difference. There is no previous anything, whether we created it or not. That’s the part where our ideas were just all over the map. Maybe? Yes? No? Definitely not? Yes! It took us a while to get that cohesive sense of what Starfield is. Now that project is off and running in a good way. That was also why we felt good announcing it.
Keighley: You say you know what it is. How do you define that? How do you crystallize what it is?
Howard: It’s usually the experience of the game. What does it feel like to play it? We have a list of the big features we want. Some of those we get married to and some we don’t. It’s more of a vibe. This is the tone of the game. This is what it feels like to play it. If we haven’t nailed that — features can come and go, as long as we’re paying off on that vibe.
Keighley: It sounds like there are emotional moments for the player, where something happens or they have a certain experience. How do you articulate that? Do you write that down?
Howard: It might be written down just in short phrases, but usually it’s a visual presentation. Here’s the world. Here are things. When you look at some games, you can see a piece of concept art and your mind just says, “I want to go there. I want to do what that person is doing.” It has to register that quickly. This is what it feels like. Initially we’ll do a series of concept stuff: maps, world design, things like that.
Keighley: You’ve done a lot in your career, but building a new IP from the ground up, is that something that still gets you really excited? That’s something you haven’t done.
Howard: I’m excited a lot. I’m very excitable. Even with our other games, we always want to do something new. I like to stay from what I call “plus one sequels.” I enjoy playing plus one sequels, as a player. I don’t enjoy making them as much. A game that’s just the last game with a little extra. Fallout 76 is a very different Fallout game. We’re very aware of that. We think a lot of people will like it, because we like it. But a lot of people probably won’t. We need to balance that. This is an idea we have, and there’s a lot of old Fallout stuff in it, but it’s a very new experience.
On the mobile side, Blades is a pared-down version of the Elder Scrolls. If you go back to Arena, it’s very much a glorified dungeon hack. But I love those games, so it was a question of how we could do a really good dungeon adventure game on a phone. That’s an all-new challenge. And then Starfield has new challenges. Long answer, but I’ve always wanted to do something new, even if, on the surface, it feels like “another one of those.”
Keighley: You mentioned replaying the old games, old Elder Scrolls, to find inspiration on what to do next. How much do you seek out other inspirations, other games? How much do you play every other game out there?
Howard: I play less this year because we’re shipping. I end up watching things on YouTube or Twitch or Mixer. I’ll watch people play, just to expedite the process. I still play games all the time. I love Fortnite. I play on my phone, my iPad, anything. I play a lot of Madden football, which might sound weird. That’s American football. It’s only once in a while that I go in to do research, where I want to see how somebody did something. I just love the art form. I play for fun.
I like when time passes very quickly. I’ll realize I’ve been sitting there for three hours, and that’s when I know I’m really into something. That’s when I know with my own games. You’re not just developing it. You’re playing it at work to test it, and you realize you missed dinner. “What happened to the last three hours? I think we’re on to it now.”