On Gaming with Ted Peterson

For those who may not know, Ted Peterson began the Elder Scrolls series with Elder Scrolls: Arena and helped the series become what it is today. His writing gave the world and history of Nirn it’s form and he took the role of lead designer for Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall. He also wrote many of the books found in Daggerfall, Marrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim. For all of you out there that spend hours looking through all of the books in a Elder Scrolls games; you have Ted to thank for that depth to the games.

We decided to get in touch with Ted for an interview on gaming because he has a very unique point of view. Before Elder Scrolls: Arena was made, such a game seemed impossible! Read on for his thoughts on gaming and some details about Elder Scrolls behind the scenes.

Video Game Auctions: How did you begin your career in video games? What were your inspirations?

Ted Peterson: I was inspired by my need for a paycheck, which still inspires me to this day! Honestly, I lucked into my job at Bethesda Softworks. I answered a two-line Classified ad in the (physical! Paper!) Washington Post, which said they were looking for a writer of science-fiction/fantasy. (In my introductory letter, I mentioned that I had a third eye and butterfly wings, which probably clinched my interview. At the time, I was a little tired and punchy after doing fifty or so cover letters for “proper” jobs) When I went in, they had me do a test, which was to write a short story set in a sword and sorcery world about a group of gladiators fighting their way through a maze in a competition of some sort. I remember they thought my boss monster in the story was ridiculous – evidently, I’m the only person who finds the idea of a humanoid, albino walrus scary at all – but they liked my writing and the speed I could get stuff down on paper, so they hired me.

VGA: What did you hold as most important during the development of Elder Scrolls: Arena?

TP: I think the best thing we did was let the design evolve as the game was created. The end result was much different from initial design, which was more of a squad-based action game with some sword and sorcery trappings than the hardcore CRPG that it turned into. We were late and we were buggy, but there was something in it that players responded to.

VGA: Have you spent much time playing the games you have made or is it too familiar to you to be able to play?

TP: No, I honestly haven’t played any of my games much after they’ve been published. I have absolutely zero objectivity, and all I can see are the parts that didn’t get done the way we wanted them. That’s not to say I’m not proud of a lot of what we did. I’m just proud … at a distance. You know, like a deadbeat dad.

VGA: The books in the Elder Scrolls series (many of which you wrote) make the games incredibly immersive. How much time do you think you put into the books you wrote?

TP: There aren’t any books to speak of in the first game, Arena. It was while we were testing it that some people started making up stories, mainly because there was a lot of the world fiction that was very sketchy. I’d write stories in response, and we’d go back and forth, mainly for our own amusement. When we started creating Daggerfall, and the artists were creating bookshelves to decorate the world, it struck us that we should include some of the text that we had been writing in the testing forums.

I’m a fast writer, but I’m sure I’ve put in hundreds of hours of my life into writing books for the Elder Scrolls series. They’re fun to write, and I don’t have to rely on a programmer or an artist, so I can knock off one or two in between other work.

VGA: Massively multiplayer online RPGs became very popular in the late 90’s shortly after the release of Elder Scrolls I and II. Do you believe an online Elder Scrolls game would be a wise direction or would it spoil the experience?

TP: I’m afraid the most honest answer is the unsatisfactory – it depends. It’s difficult and time-consuming to create a massive single-player game like any one of the Elder Scrolls games, and there are even more pitfalls in creating a multiplayer version. And I would hate to walk into Windhelm, and have the conversation be about which noobs are going to be pwnd. That said, I could also imagine it totally kicking ass, joining the Dark Brotherhood and going on assassination assignments with a group of friends. Everything we did in the Elder Scrolls games were based on playing pen and paper role-playing games which are inherently social experiences.

VGA: While working on a game, I can imagine the hours can get quite long. How did making Elder Scrolls Arena compare to making Elder Scrolls Daggerfall?

TP: I wouldn’t wish those hours and frustrations on anyone. Thinking back, I think that Daggerfall was harder and more grueling, but that’s really picking the lesser of the two evils. But I was young at the time and didn’t have a family and a kid, and it felt like we were really creating something new that no one had seen before.

The whole experience was very different in the sense that while the design of Arena completely changed, it never changed in Daggerfall – it just expanded. We wanted to be the game that would let people do everything, so whenever we thought of something we didn’t have in there (“What if people want to be vampires or werewolves?” “What if people want to create their own character class?” “What if someone wants a different ending?”), we just put it in there together with the kitchen sink. Even though we never lost our way, because of the hugeness of our ambition, the end result was – like its predecessor – lateness and bugginess.

VGA: Are there any characters or features that were planned for the Elder Scrolls games that never made it into any of the titles?

TP: Oh yeah, plenty. Like I said, the first Elder Scrolls game drifted so far away from its initial premise that it’s really one long, uncreated feature. The first feature that was dropped out of Daggerfall in the early stages of development, one which we actually promised in early previews of the game, was the ability to port your character from the earlier game to the sequel. We ripped that idea off of the last two Wizardry games which allowed you to do that, and I really liked the concept of you playing the same character throughout the games. The moment we stupidly promised that feature, there were some design challenges with creating a game that was balanced towards brand new characters and 20th level characters, starting off from the start. And once we changed the system to be a more skill-oriented advancement system and less class-oriented system, then we realized that your ported character would have to be translated and bear little resemblance to your old character. It wasn’t worth it, but there was an uproar when we announced it wasn’t going to happen.
One of the features that we dreamt of from the very beginning was dragons. We had dragonlings in Daggerfall, but it really wasn’t technically feasible to create them the way we wanted them to be until Skyrim.

VGA: Despite how impossible it may seem today what would you like to see in games of the future?

TP: Hmm… I have to say, I’m less concerned with technology and more concerned with corporate mentality. In order for us to improve, we have to take risks. It’s very costly to make a game now, and we, as an industry, are more nervous than ever about money. We are positioned like the movie industry was in the beginning of the 20th century, when they first learned what they could do with the technology, and that it wasn’t inherently inferior to theater. I’m not even talking about color and sound, but the first guy who realized that with movies, you could do close-ups and huge scenes outdoors, which you could never do on stage.

I’d love it if in the future, we trusted the gamer to explore and find the challenge and the adventure within the world, even if we lost some folks along the way. Right now, some games are costing half a billion dollars to create, and if we keep that up, we’re not going to be able to afford to cater to anyone but the lowest common denominator. I do think it would be wonderful if games could fulfill our promise from 1996, and let you do whatever you want to do. Right now, I’m afraid that if the Elder Scrolls were just starting off at a little fledgling developer like Bethesda Softworks was when I was there, we’d never get past Chapter 1. I hope a space opens up soon for independent developers, outside of the overcrowded Facebook and mobile aps fields.

Thanks very much to Ted for this very interesting interview! It’s amazing to hear from the man who made games like Oblivion and Skyrim possible. I hope this helps everyone to appreciate the time and effort that goes into games like the Elder Scrolls series.

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Comments 1

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  1. Really cool interview. Very interesting how Ted was hired and the process involved. Also his view on where gaming is going is concerning, especially with their current budgets.

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