The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim GDC Speech Transcript

Bethesda Softworks senior designer Joel Burgess took to his personal blog to share a transcript of his GDC speech, which is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the company's development philosophy, how they transition from game to game with a single development team, how they approached various design hurdles in regard to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the importance of maintaining a proper workflow, and much more. Regardless of what you think of The Elder Scrolls, it's pretty amazing what BGS is able to accomplish with a team of less than 100:
While the game existed in some conceptual form for a number of years, full-scale production didn't begin until Fallout 3 was finished. We are a one-project team at Bethesda Game Studios, so most of the content team was still on Fallout 3 DLC throughout 2009. This means that Skyrim was only in full production for around three years. We are a large team at just under 100 developers, but we aren't massive, either. Some other games with similar scope involve literally hundreds of developers spread out across multiple studios worldwide. Everyone at BGS is based in Maryland and we have tried to espouse an environment where everyone knows and can approach everyone else on the team. We do use some outsourcing, but it is quite limited. Mostly we outsourced armor and weapons, which we still did our own concepts and game-specific implementation for. Speaking to level design specifically, we had a team of eight LDs on Skyrim. Between us, we were responsible for over 300 locations and events in the game. These include very large, multi-hour dungeon crawls, smaller experiences, all the way down to one-room affairs and exterior locations. Level designers also were responsible for areas of the game you may not expect, such as the traps system and combat design for certain creature encounters.

The last data point I'll share is one I'm especially proud of. In an industry plagued by delays, where you expect a big game like Skyrim to slip once or twice, we hit our ship date. We didn't just hit our date, but we called it to the day over a year in advance, and of course we knew that date internally for months ahead of the announcement. Furthermore, we didn't just ship in North America, but finished the game in enough time to cert, localize, print and ship to nearly every territory where the game is available on the same date worldwide.

The point of all of this is to highlight that while we are a well-backed studio, we aren't extravagant in our resources. While we have steadily grown over the past ten years, we've avoided explosive growth. How we are able to do that while continuing to make games known for their massive scale is in large part thanks to our studio culture.

My boss, Todd Howard, has several mottos for the studio. One of these is:

(We can do anything, but we can't do everything.)

Taken skin-deep, this is simply a statement about having to choose your battles. But looking a little deeper, there are some further implications. First, it implies a high level of ambition. Every developer at Bethesda has pet features they'd like to see appear in game, or we wouldn't have to be selective about where we pool our resources. To that end, we're very good about seeking compromise. I think we're good about recognizing when something isn't quite working and re-thinking if we need to scale back or cut the feature. The most important thing about this is that it doesn't live in some mission statement or is only held by an inner circle of highly-placed leads. Every developer in the studio ends up embracing this approach to development.