The following article appeared in the January 2008 issue of the Oblivion’s Real Estate newsletter (a game modding site). Princess Stomper interviews Megan Sawyer and Erik J. Caponi from Bethesda.
Something’s very wrong here. Computer game designers, by all rights, ought to be socially inept nerds – the hellish spawn of Comic Book Guy and Napoleon Dynamite. They surely shouldn’t be like environment artist Megan “Ghostgirl” Sawyer – pretty in a cute, funky sort of way, with a penchant for cool toys and loud music. They certainly shouldn’t be like writer Erik “DoctorSpooky” Caponi – strikingly handsome, with “Vin Diesel’s haircut” and a rock band goatee. He has the highest quality-to-quantity ratio of almost any poster on the Official Forums. Oh yeah, and he makes quests. We’ll start with him.
Erik: I came on pretty late in Oblivion’s development. I got the chance to work on a few of the Settlement Quests as well as various late-stage writing and design tasks. I was one third of the design team for Knights of the Nine and was responsible for a few of the quests as well as the final battle against Umaril’s minions and the battle with his spirit in the sky over Cyrodiil. On Shivering Isles, I was responsible for Retaking The Fringe and Symbols of Office as well as a lot of freeform design. I was also the designer on a couple of the downloadable content packs. Primarily what I do around here is known as “Freeform Gameplay”. I started with it on Shivering Isles and it’s now my full time role on Fallout. What it means is that I’m responsible for gameplay content that isn’t related to quests. This can take the form of incidental dialog, NPC behavior, scripted scenes, town dialog, world encounters, lore, conversation systems, as well as any one of a million different things that might not be tied directly to a particular quest.
Is there ever a sense of wish-fulfillment in the quests and books you write?
Erik: I don’t think I’d call it wish fulfillment. To me, fantasy isn’t an escape from reality but rather, a supplement to it. Life in this world is too great to be concerned with living in another one. But it’s fun to visit once in a while.
Life in this world, for Erik “With-a-K” Caponi has not always been at Bethesda. Prior to Oblivion, he worked for the Matrix Online. As a multiplayer game, Erik had to take a different approach to writing.
Erik: The upside of working on the MMO was that I could write pretty much as much text as I wanted and so long as the objectives were clear (and listed outside of the lore text), no one cared how much I wrote. The people who were interested in the lore and the story loved to read it, and the people who just wanted to figure out how to get the next boost of XP were free to rush through it. With spoken dialog, there’s more of a balance. You have to be a lot more succinct in how you present the information, so you don’t have the luxury of long self-indulgent blocks of text (as much as I love both writing and reading them). Those things are generally left to the books in Oblivion.
Perhaps the most limiting thing about working in a persistent world is that you can’t change the world around the player’s actions. You can’t have an epic quest that ends up burning down a town or killing a major NPC. So the stories have to be very self contained and can’t change the world itself. This leads to things feeling very static. And personally, I like to write things that make the player look at the game world and see the effect that his actions have had on it. Having a world that needs to house several thousand players limits that. Beyond that though, The Elder Scrolls has a lot in common with the design paradigm of most MMOs, so the transition wasn’t too terribly strange.
Fallout 3 is aimed at the more mature gamer. Do you find this liberating in terms of having fewer restrictions on tone and content?
Erik: It is somewhat liberating. I’m a foul mouthed guy, and the ability to let loose is somewhat satisfying. Or course, as much fun as it is to write vicious combat dialog, there’s a lot more to Fallout than colorful language. The ability to incorporate situations and themes that wouldn’t really fit into The Elder Scrolls setting is enjoyable. It’s not too often that you get to work with the darker side of things.
Did you feel particularly constrained by the initial Teen rating for Oblivion? Do you think that Shivering Isles could have been made the same way if the rating hadn’t been upped?
Erik: We didn’t design Oblivion with a specific rating in mind. We put in the content that we wanted to put with the idea that the ratings would come out however they did. Ratings never entered into our daily conversations or our workflow. In fact, Oblivion was still rated Teen when Shivering Isles was in production so no, I don’t think that it affected much there.
Do you argue over lore?
Erik: We disagree all the time. It comes with the territory of being a designer: we’re opinionated people. In matters of Fallout or Elder Scrolls lore from the past, it’s usually simply enough to go into the game or the story bibles and look for ourselves what the answer is. As far as lore for current or future games, the lead designer has the final call whenever there’s a disagreement. But, it’s pretty rare that we can’t come to some sort of agreement.
If arguing about the history of orcs is enough to convince you that, appearances aside, our Erik might be a tad nerdy, there’s always his film-making degree to up his cool factor. Plus, all that film-making experience would have been an interesting discipline for storytelling in the increasingly cinematic world of games, right?
Erik: There are a lot of principles that are shared between filmmaking and game design when it comes to presentation of the story elements of a game. I learned a lot about writing for actors, pacing and flow, and setting a scene. A film script has to communicate the visual look of a scene to the directors, artists, and actors who will build it without overriding their ability to work with their own talents and vision. The same is true with our design documents. Screenwriting and directing are tools that I use daily when making games.
What are the basic steps you take when writing a quest? What kind of work flow tips could you give the novice modder?
Erik: First, I start with an idea and I write it down. No matter what it is, no matter how bad or how much I hate it, I write it down. And then I start from there. I change it, rewrite it, blow it up, rebuild it, play it out in my head, and construct the basic flow of the quest. It’s important not to commit to too much on paper, because you want to leave space for things to evolve in the editor. After I feel that I have a good core structure and idea, I put it into the editor. The main path goes in first. I focus on that before letting myself get distracted with side branches and details. Once that’s in, I go through and add the big side branches. I get it to a working state and play it. Again, And again. And again and again. This is really the most important part. Every time I play through, I look for ways to make it better, implement them, and play it again. And really, you keep doing that. Get other people to play it and ask them how to make it better. Around here, we have the luxury of big meetings where we play the quest and sit around and talk about it (politely and never with a single raised voice, honest). We play each other’s quests and give notes on it. My biggest tip: don’t ever fall in love with any of your own ideas and don’t be afraid to change your work. What you end up with will probably be very different than what you started with. It’s important to submit to that process and make things better with each iteration.
It’s time at this point to bring in Megan Sawyer, to get her perspective on the same issue. Environment art is how it sounds, building the models and textures to make the gameworld look the way it does. Megan – instantly likeable with an infectiously cheerful sense of humor – uses many different artistic disciplines to make the eye candy in Bethesda’s games.
Does the process differ between when you’re making models and when you’re making textures?
Megan: I’m fortunate enough to have concept art to work from so I’m not starting from scratch. I’m given a piece of concept art, and work with the lead artist back and forth until I arrive on something we agree is good enough for the game. My advice would be to work with a group – having other people’s feedback is really important for fleshing out ideas and really making the most of your artwork.
Megan started out as a traditional artist, whose work has recurrent themes of jolie laide (think Marilyn Manson videos) and Burtonesque humor. With Shivering Isles, she was given free rein to manifest her innate gothic fluffiness.
Megan: In Shivering Isles, I was in charge of the settlement buildings, and used Silent Hill’s atmospheric settings as my main inspiration, while still maintaining the style of the rest of the world. I had a great time building those.
Given how much you love horror games like Silent Hill 5, have you checked out any of the horror-themed mods for Morrowind and Oblivion?
Megan: Much to my great dismay, I haven’t had much time to check out mods, though a while back I did see the YouTube video where someone modded in Pyramid Head into Oblivion, which filled me with glee.
Have you ever seen something in a mod that’s made you want to take it apart to see how it was done?
Megan: I feel that way about most of the clothing mods, because clothing and character art are a separate department, so I don’t know how to make that sort of stuff. It looks like fun.
Megan smiles. Before joining Bethesda, she made cute timber-framed cottages as 3D art, reiterated in those much loved Cheydinhal houses. Coincidence?
Megan: In my 3D animation classes in college, the best foundation to use for a short animation was a fairy tale or some manner of other fable that could be summed up well in a 30 second clip. It helped me focus on the artwork rather than worrying whether I had a solid story to back up my pieces. I think leaning towards those just stuck with me throughout my other artwork. It’s also partially to blame on my love of some Disney movies.
Are there any other parts of Cyrodiil that you can claim as “yours”?
Megan: My first job was to make tapestries, so about 95 percent of the tapestries you see were made by me. I also made the painting supplies, and the textures and cattails in the Blackwood region.
Have you ever tried to make your ideal home?
Megan: I do love Tudor-styled homes with towers, so any of the homes in Cheydinhal would be my dream house.
She’s smiling again. Megan once described games as her “first love”, so it’s surprising that it took her so long to start making them.
Megan: I’ve always loved video games as well as art, but never considered a career in video gaming until graduating college. It was just never brought up to me as a career choice. I’d spent much of my college career focusing on traditional art, aiming to be a graphic artist in NYC, so it took a while to re-create my portfolio towards game development.
Has your overall approach changed between making Oblivion and making Fallout 3?
Megan: It’s quite a mental switch, going from fun fantasy stuff to dark, gritty post-apocalyptic stuff. The research is definitely more depressing! [She grins.] When it comes down to it, though, the processes were very similar.
Yikes! All that talk of disaster research is scaring us. Time to bring back Erik for some lighter banter.
What in Oblivion has most made you laugh?
Erik: To this day, I have no idea who put this in the game, but there’s a poorly scrawled note on a dead troll under a bridge that reads “Mee wurst troll evurr. Nobuddy pay brijj tole. Me nott sceary enuf. Mee gett drunc an kil sellf. Troll droun.” For some reason that I can’t explain, this was hilarious to me.
Megan: My co-workers. I am fortunate enough to work with some of the funniest people I’ve ever met. There is rarely a day where someone hasn’t made me laugh out loud.
Do you two sit near each other?
Megan: Not so much, no.
Erik: Fun fact: you can see Megan’s monitors through the glass wall of one of our conference rooms. When I get bored in meetings, I like to try to figure out what she’s working on.
Which of you is noisier?
Megan: Judging by the amount of times I’m laughing like a moron (a lot) versus times I’ve heard him laughing like a moron (zero), I suspect I win that award.
Erik: I’m going to go with Megan on this one.
Out of the following big pile of desk toys, which would you fight over?
– Remote-controlled motorbike
Megan: All Erik’s.
Erik: I can think of all sorts of nefarious uses for this.
– Wobbly-headed doll of En Esch from KMFDM
Erik: While I think we’re both KMFDM fans, I fear that my Vault Boy bobble head might get jealous. I’ll take a pass.
Megan: I would appreciate one of these, yes.
– Scale miniature of the graveyard from Beetlejuice
Megan: Adding to Christmas list … now …
Erik: I foresee a fist fight over this item. But I’m bigger than Megan, so I think I win.
– X-Men Lego
Erik: Tempting, but I have a “Transformers only” rule regarding my toy decorations. Megan seems to have a “spooky things only” rule, so despite my love for the X-Men, this one might go unclaimed.
Megan: Our coworkers have a lot of these.
– Plushie of 1950s Godzilla
Erik: I might make an exception to the above rule for this.
Megan: Erik is also welcome to the plushie Godzilla. [She grins.] He wouldn’t get along so well with my stuffed pandas.
Which side do you feel most affinity with: Mania or Dementia?
Erik: It depends on if it’s time for coffee or if I’m properly caffeinated.
Megan: Dementia. Obviously.
Erik, tell me a secret about Megan. Megan, same question.
Megan: He’s creepy and he’s kooky, mysterious and spooky. Wait, no, that’s not Erik. Who am I thinking of?
Erik: Well, if I tell you, then it’s not really a secret, is it? Don’t you understand how secrets work?
What are you most looking forward to this Christmas?
Megan: Spending time with my family.
Erik: I’m looking forward to seeing my family and to my New Year’s Eve party. I’m maybe not looking forward to New Year’s Day, but that’s because I plan on having a lot of fun on New Year’s Eve.
What is your costume for the Christmas party?
Megan: I think I’ll be aiming for a dress. That’s fairly costume-like for me.
Erik: Wait… you mean we have to wear clothes to this thing? Uh oh… I’d better go put pants on.
Our time is almost up, and still giggling like a lunatic, I’m quite convinced that these guys are way cooler than game-makers really ought to be. Then I remember that bit in the Oblivion making-of video when Todd admits to the shame of being in the chess club at school.
You have previously tested rules for wargaming products and been a domain storyteller for [Vampire roleplayers] Camarilla. Are you secretly a bit of a nerd?
Erik: Secretly a nerd? Are you kidding? I’m proudly and publicly a nerd!