Improving on Perfection

  02:44:00 pm, by   , 1690 words  
Viewed 482475 times since 31/10/11
Categories: Elder Scrolls

Ten days to go now, and the anticipation makes me remember what it was like to be ten years old on the evening before Christmas, although the knowledge that the first eight hours or so after I get the game will be spent doing stuff for the wiki tempers things a bit. Anyway, it's nine years since Morrowind came out and five since Oblivion's release, and I thought I'd take a few minutes to look back at those games to see what worked, what didn't, and how the things we know about Skyrim might fit with that.

The World

I remarked in an earlier post that one of the big disappointments in Oblivion was that, after you got over how beautiful things were outside your prison cell, you began to realise how similar one place looked to another. You had the marshy bits, the snowy bits, the forest bits and the plain bits, but there was so little variation that should you be plonked down at random you'd have a great deal of difficulty saying exactly where you were without looking at the map. Inside the dungeons it's even worse: there are perhaps a dozen locations where you can say "Oh yes, I'm in X" instead of "Well... it's an Ayleid ruin of some kind". In Morrowind, Fallout 3 and Fallout:New Vegas, this isn't the case. It usually takes only a quick glance around before you can work out your location pretty accurately. One of the big bits of news is that Skyrim's terrain is all produced by designers rather than random number generators, so it looks like this won't be a problem. That's going to make a huge difference when it comes to replaying the game for the fifth time.

The Characters

I covered NPCs here and there's not much to add. It looks as if voice acting is much better, although the "A dragon! I saw a dragon!"/"What? What is it now mother?" from the first of the three walkthrough videos shows that weird NPC conversations still exist. Certainly the number of voice actors has increased, and I hope this will lead to far fewer situations when you overhear NPCs with identical voices talking to each other, which really put a metal bar through the spokes of immersion. Allowing NPCs to continue with whatever they're doing while you talk to them is a huge step forward and makes things a lot more natural. The level of detail in the NPCs has gone up massively, and with Howard saying there are "thousands" of items, it's possible that there will be a far greater variety of clothing on offer too. One thing I haven't been able to judge from the videos so far is whether basic common sense has been added. We've all seen NPCs walking into walls, saying "Goodbye" to someone only to start another conversation with them immediately, and generally being idiots. I'm really hoping Skyrim does these basic things right so the clever things stand out even more.

Lockpicking

Morrowind was awful at this. If you stood no chance at all of opening a door with your current security skill and quality of lockpick you got a message about the lock being too complex, and otherwise you just had to keep clicking on the door until it either opened or your pick broke. Oblivion was a bit better, but the experience of trying to pick Very Hard locks at low levels used to have my blood pressure heading towards extremely dangerous levels. Skyrim seems to use essentially the same system as Fallout 3 and F:NV, which means the minigame isn't difficult but you need to have a certain level of skill before you can attempt different levels of lock. That works well in most cases and I dare say it'll make Fortify Skill a more useful spell. UPDATE In a Tweet, Pete Hines said "Yes, you can attempt adept locks when you're a novice." Good and bad, I guess. Certainly one less use for Fortify Skill!

Persuading

Oh dear. So far, no TES game has done this well, and Fallout 3 and NV don't really improve things either. In Morrowind, you had three conversation options to increase an NPC's disposition: Admire, Intimidate and Bribe. The first only becomes an option when your Speechcraft skill gets to about 50, the second when you reach at least level 25, and the third when you have loads of cash. This means that to all intents and purposes, a low level character can't increase an NPC's disposition. Even with high levels of Speechcraft you have to keep clicking the Admire option because there's a hefty element of randomness in there that means getting the disposition to 100 can sometimes be a really frustrating task.
In Oblivion, the randomness was mainly gone, but you had the ludicrous minigame where you had to threaten someone, tell them a joke, boast and try coercion one after another, several times. Imagine that in real life: I'm going to reach down your throat and pull out your heart. Did you hear the one about the Argonian fishmonger? Well I'm the best swordsman in Cyrodiil! Now give me all your money or there'll be trouble. Right.
In Fallout 3, you had a Speech skill, and there was a percentage chance of getting NPCs to tell you things that was affected by it. So, say, if your Speech skill was 25, there might be a 30% chance that an NPC would tell you what you needed to know, but if your Speech increased to 50, that chance might reach 60%. The problem here is that these topics were all one-shot chances. Fail and your chance was gone for good. This could be really annoying, because (obviously) even a 90% chance of success means you fail one time in ten. I must confess that the quick save/load feature was used quite a lot in my case...
Fallout: New Vegas did something similar, except here you had to get a Speech skill of X to unlock certain topics. No randomness, no messing, you had to have the required skill.
I *hate* the one-shot bits of F3 and NV. I often found myself delaying a quest until I'd increased my Speech skill so I'd be able to pass a check I knew was coming up, and that's just silly. I also hate the silly mechanisms from earlier games, so how would I work it? Well think about real life for a minute. You're only likely to tell someone a secret if you've known them for a while and get on well with them, so how about doing something like that? I wouldn't want to try to create The Sims in Tamriel, but some simple mechanism for keeping track of how long you've known an NPC shouldn't be hard to implement.

Music Switching

You know the scene. You're running along the Gold Road on your way to Anvil when suddenly the music changes to a "battle" theme. You therefore know someone or something is about to attack you even if you hadn't seen your attacker. While it would be great to have a small orchestra following you around in real life, playing music to suit your activities and location, in an RPG it's a real immersion-breaker. More than once I've found myself thinking "I know I'm being attacked, but I can't *see* anything!" Morrowind and Oblivion are equally bad at this, but in Fallout there's usually a bit of a delay before the music switches, which means by the time you realise you're being attacked, three deathclaws are already feasting on your intestines. Much more realistic, even if it can be really annoying when you find your last save was an hour ago. The videos we've seen *seem* to indicate that Skyrim does something similar - the music changes when the player realises they're under attack, which is the most sensible way to do it. I really hope this is done right, even if it means I have to remember to look behind me every so often.

Alchemy

It looks like this is essentially the same as Morrowind and Oblivion, which is a bit of a disappointment. I suggested before that it wasn't very sensible having new knowledge about plants suddenly appear in a player's head as soon as you hit another level of alchemical skill. It would be much better if you had to learn from a fellow alchemist, read the information in a book or research it yourself somehow. On p41 of The Infernal City, there's a bit where Annaïg does some tests to reveal "virtues" about a substance - learning that "the primary virtue was restorative and the secondary was... one of alteration. The tertiary and quaternary virtues didn't reveal themselves even so vaguely." Too bad Annaïg wasn't an Oblivion Player Character, or she'd have known what the ingredient was and what it did.

Random Encounters

Oblivion didn't too much wrong here. Skyrim appears to be very similar and I'm only mentioning it to bitch about the idiotic number of Cliff Racers you find in Morrowind.

The Rest

One really encouraging thing is that not one of the preview articles has had anything negative to say. Unfortunately, most game previews and reviews seem to be this way these days so it's not an absolute guarantee, but at least it sets a kind of baseline. Even the fansites seem pretty favourable. Sure, there are a few comments about the game being dumbed down but you always get those and any game that requires an official strategy guide of 656 pages can't be that dumb anyway. The one real criticism I've seen was that the bone structure of all the NPC photos was identical, and from the leaked footage that I absolutely haven't watched, it's clear that this can change too - the photos must have been the presets.

Some people are sure to say that I'm a fanboy and will like the game no matter what. In fact, I think the opposite is true, and I think my comments on Fallout 3: New Vegas and Dead Money prove that. Still. Ten days and I'll find out.

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The War on Speculation

  11:28:33 pm, by Kalis Agea   , 565 words  
Viewed 34895 times since 10/25/11
Categories: UESP

This is going to be a quick blurb about something that been bothering me about UESP as of late: the popularity of taking speculation and guesswork as fact.

We're all guilty of it, in one way or another. We love to believe what we desire to believe. But, unfortunately, UESPWiki (or any wiki for that matter) is not a part of Wishful Thinking Land. That's the dominion of the forums and other sites for TES discussion. A wiki, however, is intended to serve as a catalogue/encyclopedia of factual information. I often find myself feeling in the mood for speculation and wishful thinking (lately is a good example) and I typically channel that into fanfiction and writing in general as well as music. And I would like to be able to say (don't quote me on this, because I'm most likely wrong) that I haven't added speculation or guesswork to UESP in a while now (at least a few months).

Now, as a patroller I'm slightly biased towards this and perhaps treat it a little harshly (I do apologize if I come across as rude to anyone; I mean well!); thus my ideas on how to deal with this may be slightly extreme or just plain laughable (which is why I'll refrain from posting them here on the blog for now). However, my personal opinion is beside the point -- the fact remains that speculation and guesswork is not welcome on the wiki, although it is welcome on the forum (I myself typically refrain from even entering the forum, let along making use of it; I'm just going off what I gather from other people's posts).

One of the most famous (and, for me at least aggravating) pieces of speculation currently circulating in the Elder Scrolls community is the concept that we will be playing as a relative or descendant of the Emperors. This is based off of the fact that the Emperors are once or twice referred to as the "Dragonborn". My typical refutation of this stance goes like this: the Emperors were called "Dragonborn" as a reference to the Amulet of Kings that was an heirloom to them. In TESV: Skyrim, however, "Dragonborn" refers to being literally born of the blood of dragons; the Septims were not born of Dragons. Hell, Uriel and many of his predecessors weren't even related to Tiber Septim! The contexts are completely different. Therefore, the word "dragonborn" does not necessarily tie the Emperors to the protagonist of Skyrim.

The problem with adding this type of thing to the wiki is once it's there for any amount of time, it may begin to be regarded as a likely possibility, despite the fact that it is unfounded guesswork. That is the reason that posts like these make me so petulant. It is, without a doubt, an overreaction on my part; but hey, it's just natural. So please, unless you want me to go berserk on you, please refrain from adding this to the wiki and instead discuss it on the forums.

As a side note, I do promise to work on my impatience with these types of editors. One of the reason I've been slightly inactive on the wiki as of late is that I've been taking time to cool off and relax. With Skyrim coming up, I need to be refreshed and have at least some semblance of patience.

State of the Video Game Industry

  09:36:22 pm, by Kalis Agea   , 412 words  
Viewed 41643 times since 10/20/11
Categories: Games

Yep, another rant about "Well, back in my day..." except without that actual phrase; I can't say back in my day -- I'm 13! But what I can say is that from what I understand from my older siblings and their friends, there have been some very drastic changes in the heart of the video game community, and two of them I will cover in brief.

* The Fans: Probably the most noticeable change is that of the attracted and targeted fanbase of video games. When video games began to be very popular back in 90's, it was considered somewhat "nerdy" to actually own a video game, let alone many. Of course, this was not the case with arcade games -- they were treated often as the activity the "cool kids" took part in after school. Now, not only are arcade gamers still treated this way, but now players of popular games like Call of Duty, God of War, and Assassin's Creed are considered totally normal and even somewhat cool.

* The Games: A somewhat obscure title for a not-so-obscure topic. In my lifetime I have been able to note the change in which games are produced. Now, the attention is often given to the blood and gore aspects, as well as graphics in general. I find that the more I play Black Ops and Modern Warfare 2, I get a strong feeling of monotony and deja vu. There really doesn't seem to be any fresh ideas in the First Person Shooter genre. The same goes for RPGs like Assassin's Creed. As much as I loved the first and second games, Brotherhood made me feel like I was playing AC2 with slightly better game mechanics and a lazy extended plot structure. Though I plan to give Revelations a try when it comes out, I get the feeling that prowling the streets of Constantinople will have little to no difference from running around in the city of Rome (aside from the scenery, of course).

Now, despite my disfavour of these changes, I am in no way trolling modern video games. I tend to enjoy Oblivion, AC, and Fable just as much as I do Dungeons and Dragons, Daggerfall, and Ultima. However, I don't wish for these games to go as far with this modern trend as CoD has (I'm just using CoD as an example; I love those games). At that point, games become more of an occassional simple pleasure rather than a game I genuinely enjoy.

Hacking the ESM/ESP Files

  09:55:49 am, by   , 472 words  
Viewed 46803 times since 03/10/11
Categories: Programming, UESP

If you obsessively read everything on UESP you may have noticed one or two cryptic posts like this and this lately. What are these ESM and ESP files, and why are Daveh, Nephele and I trying to pull them apart?

Take a look in your Oblivion program directory and you'll find a few different files. There's Oblivion.exe itself, which is the main game engine itself. In the data directory you'll find several ".bsa" files. This seems to stand for "Bethesda Softworks Archive" and each one is a compressed file containing the graphics textures, sounds, speech and meshes (the files that define what makes an image solid). You'll also find Oblivion.esm and, depending on how many plugins you use, several ".esp" files. These are Elder Scrolls Main and Plugin files, and contain information about NPCs, weapons, armor, quests, places and so on, as well as information about the landscape. In other words, these are the files that contain all the information we need for UESP.

The file format was created for Morrowind and evolved a little for Oblivion. It's also used in Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, and has changed a little more for those games too. At the moment, the assumption is that a similar format will be used for Skyrim. This is partly down to wishful thinking, but then again as the files are purely about data storage there's no reason to change a winning format to radically.

Each file consists of records arranged in a huge list for Morrowind, and into something a little more like a tree for the other games. A record is made up of a label ("ARMO", "NPC_", "CELL", etc) and several fields that provide the data. You can get more information about the format for Oblivion here, although it's quite technical and slightly out of date.

So why do we need to hack these files?

Simply, there are too many items to create them all by hand with any degree of accuracy. That means we have to get our bots to do it, but NepheleBot and RoBoT need data to work with, and the only realistic way of doing that is by pulling it directly out of the game files. Using the Construction Set would reintroduce a manual component that would lead to mistakes, and looking at the files and getting information by eye doesn't always work because some of it's compressed and it would be a really, really awful job anyway.

To give you some idea of scale, for Oblivion and its official plugins, there are 1,277,347 records with a whopping 4,682,059 fields. Try sorting through that lot by hand.

Come 11 November, while you're enjoying playing the game for the first time, spare a thought for those of us who will be digging into its guts to bring you the best information we can!

Predictions for Skyrim and UESP

  05:41:57 pm, by Nephele   , 1058 words  
Viewed 64180 times since 09/25/11
Categories: Games, Elder Scrolls, UESP

I wanted to share some of my thoughts about what I foresee happening on UESP when Skyrim is released -- beyond the obvious points, such as that UESP is going to get alot more traffic. These thoughts are in part based on what I witnessed when Shivering Isles was released -- which was the last major game release for UESP. However, SI hardly compares to Skyrim, because SI was only an expansion and therefore didn't introduce any new game mechanics.

As an aside, for those who may have wondered, the release of Oblivion doesn't provide us with much as far as an example for what to expect with Skyrim. Not that I was active on UESP when Oblivion came out; I first discovered UESP a couple months after Oblivion's release. But I do know that UESP had only recently converted to a wiki when Oblivion came out. Even by the time I started editing, the site was pretty minimal, at least compared to where it is now. Templates, screenshots, redirects, help pages, style guidelines, site policies -- none of these were in place yet. Anonymous editing was first enabled months after I started editing -- and, for the record, no, that didn't mean that there was a dramatic increase in vandalism, badly-written content, or unwanted content.

So, back to the future.

1. UESP is facing alot of competition. When it comes to Skyrim, UESP is starting from square one, just like every other wiki being set up to cover Skyrim. People are going to choose which website to read based primarily on google -- and at this moment UESP is doing pretty poorly on google searches related to Skyrim. Fewer readers means fewer editors. Which means less new content, and therefore even fewer readers, etc. I'd like to see UESP do well -- and not just for the sake of UESP, but for the sake of the Elder Scrolls community as a whole. Having as many editors as possible work on the same wiki means that the community has one good, comprehensive website -- instead of a half-dozen incomplete websites with overlapping (but inconsistent) content. If UESP wants to be the primary Skyrim wiki, we're going to have work aggressively towards that goal.

2. New content will be added very quickly. I'm guessing that by November 12th people are likely to have posted (minimal) walkthroughs for the majority of the game's quests, and basic desccriptions of nearly every place -- if not on UESP, then on some other Skyrim wiki. My guess is based upon how quickly content was added for SI: one day after the game's release, the quests page already contained a walkthrough of the entire main quest.

3. Most of UESP's regular editors will disappear. We all want to play Skyrim, plus we'd all like to avoid learning any spoilers about the game. And for most of us, playing the game doesn't mean rushing through the main quest in 30 hours; it means spending hundreds of hours exploring all the random corners of the world. So those editors who buy Skyrim are going to be too busy to visit UESP for several weeks. Those who don't have the game are going to actively avoid the Skyrim namespace. I'm not trying to blame anyone or make anyone feel guilty -- it's just human nature, and it needs to be taken into account when anticipating how Skyrim's release will affect UESP. I'd also love to be proven wrong!

4. New editors / anonymous editors will be responsible for most of the new content. It's just a natural consequence of points #2 and #3. Although UESP's regular editors are unlikely to be rushing to add to the wiki, there are other people who enjoy being the first ones to post information online about a new game. Those editors will be the ones who are most active on UESP starting November 11th. Even though the new editors are likely to have little wiki experience, it doesn't mean that the new content will all be a horrid mess. For example, look at the history of an SI quest such as The Cold Flame of Agnon. In three days, it was transformed from an unformatted dump to a proper quest page -- incomplete, but properly laid out and properly written. Nearly all the work was done by anonymous IPs and brand new editors, such as Jrtaylor91 (whose first UESP edit was on that quest page).

5. Fact checking of Skyrim content won't be possible -- at least not at anywhere near the level we're used to for other games -- for many months. The most obvious problem is that initially none of us will know the quests or any other game details. But beyond that there are a couple of other issues that might not be so obvious.

  • We don't know when the Creation Kit (aka Construction Set) will be available. Without it, we can't do any of the quick fact checks we're used to -- for weapon damage, gold values, dialogue,etc. We won't even know how to take in-game values, such as weapon damage, and convert them to base values -- will weapon damage be affected by skill level in Skyrim and, if so, what's the equation?
  • We won't understand of the new game mechanics. For example, if editors disagree over the reward for a quest, we won't be able to resolve the question. Is it a levelled quest reward -- but how does levelling work in Skyrim? Is it a random reward -- again, how do random lists work? Is the reward dependent upon other factors that are a new feature of Skyrim, such as Radiant quests? As far as we know right now, two players could have different experiences for nearly any detail of a quest. So how do we figure out whether edit X is adding incorrect information to an article? Eventually -- 2012? -- we'll hopefully start to get a handle on the range of possibilities (although it took a couple of years to understand various nuances of Oblivion's levelled lists). But we'll have to write most of the site's web pages before then.

There's no way to know until a couple months from now what really is going to happen. But these are some of the issues going though my mind when I think about how UESP can start to prepare for Skyrim's release.