Arena. Daggerfall. Morrowind. Oblivion. Skyrim. The games of the Elder Scrolls series are loved by many. They are games of great scope, of gods and mortals. But they are also personal, and carry great thematic meaning to the player. Today on Origin of the Series, we are going to go through the history of The Elder Scrolls, from before the founding of Bethesda to Skyrim and beyond. As always, I have a few guests joining me to speak about the impact the series has had on them. Welcome to Origin of the Series: The Elder Scrolls.
Born in Bethesda
Chris Weaver wore many hats before founding Bethesda. He was what he considered to be a technology forecaster for the TV and cable industry. In that role Weaver held positions with ABC, the National Cable Television Association and even Congress, working for the House Subcommittee on Communications. It was there that he did minor things like help break up the telephone monopoly.
When he moved back into the private sector he created his own media consulting firm, called Media Technology. One of Weaver’s employees, an engineer by the name of Ed Fletcher, had the idea that Media Technology should expand into video games. Specifically, he wanted to create a football video game, something that Weaver wasn’t terribly familiar with. However, Weaver was an expert on something extremely critical to understanding sports gaming. Physics.
The result was the first Football Video game to use real physics called “Gridiron!” and Bethesda Softworks was born. The name comes directly from the town the company was founded in, Bethesda, Maryland. In the early days, the principals were Weaver, Fletcher, and a Danish programmer named Benni Jensen, but Elder Scrolls fans know him better as Julian Lefay.
Electronic Arts, was interested in the way Gridiron worked and contracted Bethesda to develop the first John Madden Football. Bethesda would not end up completing the programming- but the underlying physics engine belonged to the work that Weaver and Fletcher created for Gridiron.
The young company left EA to the football simulations and shifted focus to Ice Hockey. They worked with the Hockey community and legends like Bobby Orr to create their next series of games which featured Wayne Gretzky on the cover. Eventually, Weaver and Bethesda began work on their first nonsports game, which was a movie to game adaptation of The Terminator. Weaver says that the focus on sports wasn’t intentional, but because of the real-time physics tools they had created they were looking for as many areas to apply them as they could.
The Importance of Pen and Paper
Jack Chick, the infamous author of the heavy handed fundamentalist Christian comic strips known as Chick Tracts, died in 2016. He believed that Dungeons and Dragons, and roleplaying, was the path to hell and damnation. Thankfully the developers working at Bethesda Softworks were unfazed by the father of the satanic panic’s proclamations of fire and brimstone. Because in the early 90s, staff at Bethesda held a weekly Dungeons and Dragons game which they had set in a world very familiar to Elder Scrolls players. Tamriel.
Arena is the first entry in the Elder Scrolls series. As a game, it doesn’t have the grand scope of Daggerfall or the growing 3D polish that entries Morrowind and beyond would receive, but it was one of the earlier first person RPGs to have that kind of scale. However, the game didn’t begin its life as an RPG. Initially, the game was true to its title, functioning as a Medieval-style gladiator combat simulator. As the player you built a team of fighters and took them from city to city, tournament to tournament until you reached the grand stage of them all, fighting in Imperial City.
The designers of the game were Ted Petersen and Vijay Lakshman, with the project being spearheaded by Julian Lefay. According to Ted, the story was that there was an evil wizard that you needed to fight at the end of the game when you reached Imperial City. Gradually they began adding side-quests that you could do in each town. Then came the dungeons. Eventually, the idea of there being a tournament vanished from the story, as the role-playing side-quests and dungeon diving became the primary focus.
The game had evolved from a first person fighting game to a hard-core D&D inspired RPG over the course of development, but the name Arena remained. Why? The story in the “lore” is that the land of Tamriel was so violent that it had been nicknamed “The Arena.” However, the real reason was that they had already printed up a bunch of boxes and materials with the name Arena on it and it was too costly to change the name. Vijay is credited with giving it the series title “The Elder Scrolls” mainly because it was vague enough that they could work with it without having to develop much more story.
The story of the finished game went like this. Uriel Septim’s battlemage Jagar Tharn used the Staff of Chaos to imprison Uriel in an alternate dimension and take the Septim’s place on the throne in disguise. Your player character works for the Emperor (ostensibly, this is not made crystal) alongside a character named Ria. The two of you attempt to expose Jagar but are thwarted. Jagar kills Ria and imprisons your player character in the dungeon. Ria’s ghost helps you get free and teleports you to your home province where you must begin your quest to piece together the now shattered Chaos Staff and rescue Uriel Septim.
The game featured a character creation system which allowed you to select your character’s gender, class, and home province. The map in the game features all the ones we’ve come to know and love, such as Skyrim, Morrowind, Hammerfell, and so forth. While the size of the map is smaller than later iterations, especially Daggerfall, the scope of the game is immense given the game’s historical context.
The release of Arena begins a thread of tenuous existence for the franchise that doesn’t truly develop into a sturdy rope until Morrowind. The game missed its holiday of 1993 release window and ended up coming out in March 1994, which was considered to be one of the worst times of the year to release at the time.
Additionally, distributors were not thrilled that the game did not resemble the original gladiator action game pitch. Thankfully for Elder Scrolls fans everywhere, the game spread by word of mouth and became, in Ted Petersen’s words, a minor cult hit. The next year, Bethesda would re-release the game on CD-Rom as the Elder Scrolls: The Arena Deluxe and testing that would be Todd Howard’s introduction into The Elder Scrolls world.
Let’s hear from one of our panel members about their impressions and thoughts about the first game in the series: Arena.
Todd Howard’s Arrival
Todd Howard has been firmly rooted in geek culture his entire life. As a kid he loved Star Wars and gaming, specifically spending a lot of time in games like Ultima which would eventually have an influence on the Elder Scrolls series. While Howard was in college at William and Mary, he spent much of his time teaching himself programming and playing video games when he wasn’t in classes earning a Finance degree. Todd actually mentions that William and Mary is a terrific school and that he, unfortunately, did not take advantage of that fact.
While playing one of Bethesda’s Wayne Gretzky Hockey games, Todd noticed the address for their offices were way home from college, so during Christmas break, he boldly stopped at the headquarters and asked for a job. Though rejected, Todd continued to pester Bethesda for work each time he encountered representatives for the company, including at expos like CES. Eventually, his perseverance paid off, and Bethesda hired him in 1994. Todd’s first games as a designer were in the Terminator franchise that Bethesda had been producing since before Arena and then he was pulled in to assist on Daggerfall as a new designer.
With Arena out the door and achieving minor cult hit status, attention turned to the inevitable sequel, Daggerfall. Over the course of two years, Ted Petersen and Julian Lefay wrote the story while consuming many influences. Ted’s stated goal was to make the world of Tamriel less generic. New influences included additional bits of Dungeon’s and Dragons, but also the pen and paper version of Vampire: The Masquerade as well as the Alexandre Dumas classic “The Man in the Iron Mask.” Whereas Arena had been influenced heavily by other games, such as Darklands, Legends of Valor, and Ultima Underworld, Daggerfall was influenced more by the pen and paper, and literary sources.
Daggerfall was ambitious. The game had large portions of procedurally generated landscape and came out to be approximately 62,000 square miles. Arena’s map technically didn’t have any boundaries, therefore was undefinable, and travel between provinces was only available on the fast travel map. Daggerfall though was designed to be one continuous map over parts of High Rock and Hammerfell. For years it held the record as the largest game until No Man’s Sky procedurally generated it right into second place.
All that ambition came at a price, however. Daggerfall had numerous bugs at launch, and many of the features that the designers wanted in the game were never fully implemented. Ted Petersen mentions that the intent was to have warring factions that actually having real world consequences, like seeing cities under siege. The sieges, as well as dragons were left on the cutting room floor of the game because of technical and time limitations.
Reading preview articles from old gaming magazines is an enjoyable past time for me. Something about the optimism married boundless speculation is charming, especially when you know the outcome. One found in NEXT Generation Magazine proclaimed that if Daggerfall were able to put all the pieces that they had in motion into place for the release of the game, then Daggerfall would be the “best role-playing game ever made.” While I don’t believe Daggerfall is in the consideration, it is a truly remarkable experience. By the game’s release in 1996 however, there was some pushback from the gaming press. Computer Gaming World put Daggerfall as one of the top “vaporware” titles of all time.
Strange that being delayed a few years in the mid-90s was enough to earn the title of vaporware, whereas presently, game delays are met with groans but not enough to deem a game vaporware. See The Last Guardian, and No Man’s Sky as examples.
Despite the success of the game, the goodwill earned by Arena was dissipated by the bug-ridden Daggerfall. Things would get worse before they got better for Bethesda.
Between Daggerfall and Morrowind
Sales took a bit of a decline for Bethesda after Daggerfall. Daggerfall’s follow-ups were not met with the same enthusiasm, or sales, that Daggerfall initially had garnered. Follow up games that used Daggerfall’s code included Battlespire and Redguard. Battlespire was the first and was considerably pared down compared to Daggerfall. A lot of the free-roaming exploration that made Daggerfall the game that it was tossed for a focus on combat and very specifically designed dungeons.
Battlespire wasn’t met with particular enthusiasm. Like the game it was based on, it launched with bugs and was found to be a tepid entry into the Elder Scrolls gaming catalog. It sold poorly, as did the next game, Redguard. Redguard was played entirely from the third-person point of view, which until that point was not available in The Elder Scrolls games.
Bethesda was nearly bankrupt, so Chris Weaver made a bold move and founded a new company with Robert Altman named ZeniMax Media, and then moved Bethesda into it from its original shell of Media Technology. The move saved Bethesda’s existence from an untimely end, but at the expense of Chris Weaver’s position in the company. He moved from CEO to CTO in favor of Altman, but within a few years, he would find himself out of the company that he founded.