Open worlds are vacuous, empty spaces without content to populate them. And it’s the task of populating them with content that is often the most time-consuming and arduous process in the development cycle of any open-world game, particularly any open-world RPG.
Bruma has certainly not proven to be an exception to that rule.
The past two years of development have seen a lot of progress made in terms of quest and content implementation, to the point where all but two quests are currently available in our internal beta build and playable from start to finish (bugs, polish issues and missing voiceover notwithstanding). The first of the two incomplete quests, dubbed A Stormcloak in Chains, has recently completed its initial implementation stage and will soon be pushed to the master development build of the mod. This quest has proven potentially the greatest design challenge for us yet. With it, we endeavored to create an experience with a lot of inbuilt non-linearity; that enables players to make numerous decisions at almost every point in the quest depending on their playstyle and their inclination/roleplay. It’s an experience with a lot of moving parts – at time of writing, pending a few additional finalisation and polish steps, it’s sitting at around 60 individual quest stages, most of which have some Papyrus scripting attached to them. It’s a quest with what are essentially two entirely separate branches – working with the Imperials or a newly-introduced faction known as the Stormcloak Breakaways – with numerous smaller choices and optional objectives within that.
Hopefully this shot of the quest in the Creation Kit should give you some idea of what I mean.
Why do I detail this quest here? Put simply – it’s caused me to think; to sit back with a reflective eye and take another look at the rest of the content in Bruma. More importantly, it’s got me thinking about the broad goals we had when we started work on Bruma, and how well I think we’ve been able to meet them, in some cases exceed them, and, in some cases, fall somewhat short of our lofty ideals.
So, let’s talk about the initial goals we had with Cyrodiil’s quest design – the same goals that drove Bruma’s development.
Both I and our project director, Rich, are big fans of Fallout: New Vegas, ranking it among our favourite RPGs of all time. We both value highly its non-linearity, the intelligence and variety built into its quest design, and the ways in which Obsidian were able to weave complex plots that unfold intelligently, allowing players to approach situations in numerous ways; providing dialogue options and environmental interactions contingent on the player character’s skills, stats and perks, as well as their overall playstyle and roleplay choices.
Oblivion, while significantly less heavy on the use of skills as a driver of quest progression and resolution, shared something with New Vegas – quests – factional, main and side – that presented the player with interesting, memorable situations, characters and plots.
And this is something that we felt Skyrim, in some way, lacked. While it’s undoubtedly a great game (otherwise why would we have spent the past three-to-four years of our lives working on new content for it?), it’s also a game where overall world-building, dungeons and high-level design goals were prioritised significantly moreso than the meticulous design of individual quests and pieces of content. Skyrim is a game about the big picture – the image created is undoubtedly beautiful, but the individual brush strokes it’s composed of are somewhat broad and often heavy-handed.
With Cyrodiil, we felt like we wanted to do better.
To start with, we made sure to emphasise player choice. Essentially every ‘main’ side quest in Bruma (‘main’ side quests being those that have a name in your journal and their own discrete log entries) has a meaningful choice within it in some form. There is one exception to this – a quest where the ‘choice’ is more passive, and is contingent on whether or not the player attends a certain event (a wedding) or instead misses the date. All in all, there are nine of these ‘main’ side quests in the territory explorable in Beyond Skyrim: Bruma.
However, we decided to go one step further – we – or, rather, I – wanted to experiment with something that Elder Scrolls games don’t tend to do very often – a character-driven plot. One with significant character development, and one where player choice has significant, potentially unexpected/unintentional, consequences. That’s a four-part series of quests that you’ll be able to stumble upon during your travels throughout County Bruma. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out the best way of ‘selling’ this character and his journey to the player without spending an excessive amount of development ‘budget’, so much so that we rewrote the entire arc part-way into its development once – twice if you count its inception (the entire arc was actually born out of a series of old side quest ideas from way back when, all of which ended up featuring the same character – a character we decided to elevate and develop more). We also spent a lot of time figuring out the best way of making the player engage with and relate to the character on a presentational level, too, considering our voice casting very carefully (eventually deciding upon the wonderful River Kanoff), and even sending him a full set of character description and biography to inform his performance. He also took the liberty of ad-libbing many of his lines, much of which we worked into the final product. The end result is something that I think a lot of people will hopefully feel engaged by – and we hope the character (Adius Vilius, the captain of the Bruma city guard) ultimately proves to feel significantly more three-dimensional than his counterparts in vanilla Skyrim.
But not every quest can be a four-part arc laced with character development and scripted sequences. Minor miscellaneous tasks abound in Skyrim, and they abound in Bruma as well. But we’ve taken a slightly different tact than Bethesda – one which we think delivers some much more engaging results.
Firstly – we still have fetch and kill quests. They’re a staple of RPGs, and there are very valid reasons for their existence in terms of design theory (as much as they may seem banal and lazy on the surface to the end user). However, we try to somewhat minimise their frequency, and we ensure that the ratio between mundane and interesting quest content is one which the player is likely to find agreeable during their minute-to-minute gameplay (I would personally posit that Skyrim got the balance between ‘interesting narrative content’ and ‘excuse-plots to send the player into yet another dungeon filled with Draugr’ somewhat – or perhaps significantly – wrong). But more importantly, we ensured that even the most mundane fetch quest has at least some engaging narrative component.
“Fetch me four motherwort”, booms an alchemist. “I’m busy right now but need it for my experiments. I’ll pay you well.”
That’s your average RPG fetch quest. And it works. It’s serviceable. It attaches narrative context to your actions – not much, not much at all – but sufficient to give the player some reasonable justification for their next jaunt into the wilderness to invest another 30 minutes of playtime into your product.
We have some of those – where appropriate. But very few, especially compared to vanilla Skyrim.
Here’s our take on such a quest:
“[Old Barnius was] my old dog. I love dogs. Most faithful companions a man can have. He died a few years ago. The cold got to him.”
“I’ve been meaning to leave an offering at his grave, just behind the inn. Problem is, I’m not up to going around and gathering the stuff together. The wilderness is dangerous, and I don’t want to die to a timber wolf, or an ogre, or who knows what else.”
By tying the quest itself to a fundamental characteristic of the location, and to a major element of the innkeeper’s characterisation, we’re able to make it seem much more meaningful and less like uninspired, arbitrary busywork. Even better – we tie it to an emotional conflict experienced by the character giving the quest, and we give that conflict payoff at the end.
We give the player the opportunity to walk with Erlus and make the tribute he was talking about in his opening dialogue. In so doing – by adding a very simple scripted sequence where the NPC simply walks to the grave in question, lays the offering, and says a few words of remembrance – we’ve turned the idea of leaving a tribute for his dead dog into an actual, mini narrative arc, with a meaningful setup and payoff. This allows the player to feel that their busywork earned them more than simply a lump sum of gold at the end, it allows us writers to flesh out the world, and it prevents the quest from feeling arbitrary. (It helps that this sequence is given life via fantastic voice work – for which the credit must go to Daniel Hodge, the actor in question).
All of the stuff I’ve discussed so far has been laced with emotional weight – stuff that immerses the player in the world but also is far from ‘light entertainment’. Don’t worry – there’s a lot of levity to be found in Bruma, too, and even some outright comic relief.
There’s much more I want to say, but for fear of spoilers, I’ll refrain from doing so. But there are a few final thoughts I’d like to leave you with, focusing on the importance of planning (and the importance of the lack thereof).
Coming into Bruma, our quest design process has been a little rough-and-tumble as we’ve endeavored to find our feet and figure out our processes. In so doing, we’ve made mistakes. Many of which I’m painfully aware of, but sadly unable to correct (we’re currently ‘content-locked’ and only adding the content that has been planned long-term, rather than simply dumping more content into the mod as and when we feel like it). As such, I’m aware of many locations that are lacking quest content that should be, as well as locations that have way too much quest content starting and taking place in them. These are issues that I’m painfully aware of – but they are hopefully issues that the average end user won’t notice. They’re relatively minor, and, I think, outweighed by the successes and highs we’ve managed to achieve over this long period of development.
It’s a lesson we’ve already learnt, however. We now know much better what works and what doesn’t – and, more importantly, why. This allows us to build exponentially better content as we move forward with Cyrodiil. This is actually one of the main reasons we decided to do Bruma as a pre-release in the first place – it enables us to give it our best shot, gauge audience reception, and course-correct accordingly.
And, speaking of planning – we already have the vague outline for Cyrodiil’s major plots developed. While these won’t be featured in Bruma, they will be hinted at – so be sure to explore every nook and cranny, and analyse every line of NPC dialogue. There is stuff there that hints at what’s to come – much of it hidden off the beaten path.
It’s a very rewarding time over here at the moment, seeing all that we’ve worked so hard to build over the past few years finally coming together into a complete, playable whole – much of that owing to the abundance of recorded voiceover that’s currently in the works. (I intend to make a similar post on the voice acting process behind Bruma and Cyrodiil sometime soon as well, so stay tuned.)
Thank you very much for reading, everyone. It’s been a privilege working on Cyrodiil (and Bruma) for the past four years, and here’s to many more.
We can’t wait to share it with you.
For those interested in the more specialist aspects of quest design theory and who would like to read more on the challenges we faced and solutions we developed to meet them, feel free to read the first in a series of deep-dive articles on the subject, available here.