Skyrim Creator Todd Howard Shares Secrets of Video Game Design

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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim co-creator Todd Howard shared the secrets of video game design during the keynote at the annual DICE Summit in Las Vegas tonight.

In a speech to hundreds of elite game developers, Howard said the secret to creating games like Skyrim – which shipped 10 million units and was rated one of the best games of 2011 by criticism – is to approach it with discipline. Howard runs Bethesda Game Studios, part of ZeniMax, a privately-funded company that owns other studios such as id Software and publishes games under the Bethesda Softworks brand.

Howard, who has been making games at Bethesda for 18 years, said, “I see games…as the ultimate combination of art and technology.”

He explained that games are not works of art hanging in a museum, but fun entertainment that needs to run at around 30 frames per second on an affordable consumer device. When the game is running smoothly, you, as a player, feel like you’ve created an experience that makes you proud of what you’ve accomplished.

“The way people feel that sense of pride in a game is unlike anything else in entertainment,” Howard said.

As for the craft itself, Howard said you have to build a great team that works well together.

“Your plan is not as important as your culture,” he said. This means that you will encounter issues that will disrupt your plan and timeline, and how you handle this depends on the culture you have created within your team. He also said, “Your design is not as important as your execution.”

The game should work. To create great games, Bethesda has developed three rules. First, you have to “define the experience,” Howard said. “Don’t define the game by the feature list. Define it by the experience you want to have.

For The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the Bethesda team’s goal was to reward the player for exploring, and the game gave the player a whole world to explore. It was the same experience Bethesda wanted to create 18 years ago with the very first version of The Elder Scrolls. It took over 100 people about five years to create the last game. But the principles weren’t that different from 18 years ago.

The second rule is to keep it simple, Howard said. “We can do everything” in a game, he said. “We just can’t do it all.

And the third rule is “Great games are played, not made”. You have to play your own game a ton and revise it. Once you’ve done enough, the full game will take shape. He added, “Work on more awesome stuff. Do less bullshit.

If you do that, you’ll be improving the little things that make a big difference to a player.

“Find things a player does a lot,” like looking at a to-do list. “Make it fun and entertaining. Do a repetitive action and make it simple and fun,” he said.

Howard said there are a number of ways you can spark your staff’s creativity. Every year, the company brings together its staff from different studios and holds a “game jam,” where developers take a week off and create something from scratch. This time, after completing Skyrim, the goal was to create cool new things in Skyrim. The team has created all sorts of new features, such as adopting children, building your house, goblins, improved underwater visuals, and fast travel. The game jam released a lot of creativity from the staff.

When players abandon a game because they’re bored or stuck, it’s not the player’s fault but the game developer’s, Howard said. Movies don’t make this mistake, as the Dead Island cinematic trailer shows. The Dead Island movie was spectacularly moving, but the game was underwhelming by comparison. You want the player to feel like the “doer of their experience,” Howard said.

Quoting The New York Times, Howard said the Supreme Court’s ruling on violent video games shows that the law of the land now recognizes games as art. And now game designers need to show what they can do with that freedom.

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