General:Todd Howard PAX East 2019 Interview
This interview with Todd Howard was conducted in-person on March 28, 2019, at the Bethesda Gameplay Days event during PAX East 2019, shortly after this panel. It was a casual interview, held in a very small room behind the stage where the RAGE 2 presentation was taking place. The UESP members present during the interview were Alarra and baratron, and the following is a transcription of the audio recording of the interview.
baratron: This is Rebecca, Alarra.
Todd Howard: Hi, Rebecca. Todd. Nice to meet you.
Alarra: Nice to meet you.
baratron: From UESP, and I'm Helen-Louise, baratron.
Todd Howard: Before I topple over... Helen? [Note: Alarra had already fallen off one of the small tables which they had given us instead of stools.]
baratron: Yes, please don't fall over. Helen-Louise.
Todd Howard: Helen-Louise and Rebecca, okay.
baratron: We have many questions. One of the things I'd like to start with - obviously before meeting you, I researched your career. I noticed that you seemed to advance very quickly. I mean, you were saying in the presentation how it was Arena when you joined Bethesda, in 1994, working on the CDROM. And by 1998 you were a producer - you seem to have advanced very, very quickly. And I was just curious because I assumed at the beginning there weren't so many people at Bethesda - I think somebody said there were 10 at the time?"
Todd Howard: There weren't a lot, there were a little more when I started, then it got really small. I can't give you an answer, because I'm not the one who put me in charge of things. [All laugh.] And it may have seemed irresponsible of them. So, the Terminator Future Shock was the first one that I was in charge of, and that was right... after... so I did the CDROM version of Arena and Future Shock, so I was also on the Terminator stuff... and I think the answer is it was very, very small. And so, I don't know, people saw something where "Let Todd run with this" and I did a good job, so they let me get bigger and bigger things very quickly... but it was very small then, so people had to do a lot of stuff.
baratron: What sort of numbers are we talking about at the beginning?
Todd Howard: A regular dev team then might be eight people. Eight to ten.
baratron: And now?
Todd Howard: And now... You know, at Bethesda Game Studios we have just under 400 people, but we're doing many things: between 76 and Starfield and Blades and really early stuff on TES 6. So we do a number of things. So for the scale of what we do, those numbers are pretty conservative. If you look at some of our competitors who do the big games like we do, they can get upwards of 1000 people. And that really just is the detail level that you need... not need, but that you can do now... requires a lot more people and a lot more time.
baratron: We do have quite a few [Elder Scrolls] fans who would like to get into the video game industry if they can, and we have a number of questions related to that. We've actually asked some of these questions to Leamon Tuttle, who's the new Loremaster for ESO.
Todd Howard: Okay.
baratron: So - how did you get into game development?
Todd Howard: I did it on my own. I got an Apple II when I was young, maybe fifth grade, sixth grade... no that was the Trash 80... TRS80. I just learned to program on my own. I loved video games, and then "How do I make these work?". So I was a self taught programmer, artist, the whole thing, and I made a whole bunch of my own games. So when anybody asks me... somebody just asked me up there... how can I get into games? Just start making some. Make some, get 'em out there, get reactions to them, iterate, that is the best way to get good at it, just go at it. And today, everyone has so many options. There are so many great engines out there and third party things: you can use the Construction Set, the Creation Kit, do mods... we hire a lot of modders for our games. Put something out on Android or iOS. There's so many ways to do it, but just do it. Make anything. Start simple, make something, get people's reaction to it and you'll get better and better.
Alarra: What kind of languages did you use back then?
Todd Howard: Oh, I used Pascal, I used BASIC, I used Machine language on the Apple II! But nowadays it's whatever they're using, some mix of C, C++, C#, some Java.
Alarra: I learned Java and C#.
Todd Howard: Yeah, those are good languages to start with. Most of the stuff we're doing is C++ on the games.
baratron: What does a typical workday look like for you?" [Todd winces.] If that's a difficult question, what do you do once you get to your office or your desk?
Todd Howard: Usually when I get in for the first hour I'm kind of firefighting, what are the hot issues, and walking around seeing people. I try to limit my meetings to, from like 11 to 4 PM. So I have this pocket early in the day and I tend to work late afterwards. Personally on Fridays I don't schedule any meetings so that I can catch up on my week. But I try to spend as much time as I can looking at the game with whoever's doing that part of the game, and that's us having a conversation about it. "So what's working, what's not working, what are we trying to do?" And it's a lot of people... so it's definitely changed from me sitting down and designing something on my own to working with a lot of people, but that makes it much better.
Alarra: Is it pretty much everything that you're looking at?
Todd Howard: I look at every game. So some of them I'm more involved in, depending on the phase of it, so I'm more involved say with Starfield because it's a new thing, than other things. When we were doing the combat system for Blades, it was a very new thing. I, you know, that was me with the people doing it, tweaking how it felt right under your finger. Things like that. So it depends on what we're doing. But again, and Emil said this in the panel and it deserves repeating, there are so many people that have been doing this for a long time, they are very, very good. The average time over in the studio in Rockville is over ten years, that's an average person. They really know what they're doing, and they bring so much to it, it's amazing.
baratron: Is your week marked out that this week is for this project, or even perhaps that this month is for this project, or is it more like "On Monday I'm working on game A, on Tuesday I'm working on Game B"?
Todd Howard: It's a little more the latter. Where "hey, this day I'm more focused on this game", but it depends on the stage of development. So when we were wrapping up Fallout 76, that was where work on Starfield pretty much stopped for a while, where everybody needed to focus to get 76 done. You know, Blades just came out so for the last month I've spent more time on Blades than I would have previously, but I do try to map out a day that is focused on that one... I bounce between them.
Alarra: Is Blades by the Montreal studio, or is that by Maryland?
Todd Howard: Well, it's sort of everybody. So the top level creative stuff rolls up to me, but then there's some artists, and Craig Lafferty who heads up our mobile gaming is in Rockville. We sort of view it as one thing. The main development team for Blades is in Montreal. so that's where the main group is, but then there are a handful of people in Rockville who work on it, and then there's actually folks at our Dallas studio who also work on it. That's kind of how we like to do it, where the main team would be in one of the locations, but then there are people at the other ones who are helping out and assisting as well.
Game Development, Canon, and Fan Theories
Alarra: Going back, you said everyone's been involved for a long time. Do you have any stories from some of the older games, from their development, any funny moments or really memorable moments?
Todd Howard: You know, there's too many to mention that I don't want to single one out.
Alarra: Maybe one per game? Or a couple per game?
Todd Howard: [laughs] Well, it's really how it's grown that how I think about the most, where with Morrowind it was 30 to 40 people, and then Oblivion it goes 60 to 80, and then Skyrim is 100 to 120 and so on. The other thing that's in there, and I think we kind of forget it when we talk Elder Scrolls, well we don't. But Fallout is in there as well, it's the same people also. And then we are going between them, but then you go all the way back to Terminator, then people will say: "Oh that's very new for you to do a Fallout and go into post apocalyptics." [Interviewers laugh] "No no no no, we were doing Terminator!" So it's weird, where we were going between fantasy world and post apocalyptic 3D, and back and forth for longer than people think. Do you know what I mean?
baratron: There are some fans who insist that Fallout and The Elder Scrolls are the same universe.
Todd Howard: That is ridiculous. I know. That is not true. [All laugh]
Alarra: What are some of your opinions on fan theories out there?
Todd Howard: I think that they're all good. Like I said there, people want to know truth, but even my perspective is one version of truth of what happened in the history of Elder Scrolls and so forth. I wouldtheir desire to have all mysteries revealed, because mysteries are good for a fantasy world to have. "What is beyond the ocean? Would you do a game in Akavir?" These are things we have thought about. I could sit here and tell you lots about Akavir. Actually, one of the original Skyrim designs had, I think it was Uriel V returning, with his army of dragons from there to retake his throne. But it was sort of like "Keep the mysterious lands mysterious". There's enough to do in Tamriel proper. As time goes on, I like to have those elements of mystery or really strange things that you can't wrap your head around.
Alarra: There's definitely a lot of debate about it among our community.
Todd Howard: And there should be. That's very much encouraged.
baratron: It's the Lore debates, and they want THE ANSWER. Especially when we announce that we're going to go and meet somebody and interview them, and it's always "Ask about such-and-such a thing", and they want the answer.
Alarra: Some of those questions I think they had at the London one - we didn't even know what they were talking about.
baratron: Oh, it was ridiculous - there were a few things I had to look up.
Todd Howard: It's kind of what I said in the panel. "What's the order of priority?" If you saw it on the screen that's number one, that's the most truth. If you read it in the game, that's second truth. If you read it in an official thing outside the game, in the manual, that's the third. If you read it from a fan on the Internet that's way down there, that's like not on the list, right! But that's the main three. On the screen, something you see happen, regardless of what game it is or when it came out, that for us is the primary. A book in the game is second, and then a book that's official outside the game is third.
Alarra: So does that mean the flavor text in the new cookbook is canon? The author said she wasn't sure.
Todd Howard: Well I don't know how official that book is. It would be on the list, it would be down there. I don't know. I haven't read it. I know of its existence. But it would be on the list, but low, is what I would say. Why, what does it say? [All laugh]
Alarra: Well it's got some things, like at some point they were importing saltrice into Skyrim, so saltrice porridge became a thing.
Todd Howard: Well, I guess there's some truth to that then. But if you were in the game and saw people NOT do - doing that differently, then...
The Skyrim Development Document
baratron: One question I had was with the 25th Anniversary, there were various official tweets going out, and we saw the first page of your Skyrim development document... and it was all hand-written.
Todd Howard: I have terrible writing. I can tell you what it says.
Alarra: Yeah, we were kinda curious about some of that.
baratron: What I was wondering was to what extent do you work on paper, compared to working on the computer for the development [of new games]?" [Todd started answering before I finished the question]
Todd Howard: I have a notebook - there are pages also for Oblivion and Morrowind and some other things, but they are even harder to read, there are a lot of scribbles. I have a notebook I like to work in... I don't know, I like to do that. Sometimes I'll do it on the computer, but usually I like to work it out, I like to draw too. If you saw the Oblivion and Morrowind pages, there's a lot of drawings. Even the Skyrim one, there's a little bit of "Arena is the..." and to translate that...
Alarra: Yes, because someone wanted to know what all of those things meant to you.
Todd Howard: Well, the main thing on the top is, "What does each game kind of do?". Arena gives you the world, sets the world of The Elder Scrolls. And then Daggerfall really pushes the characters, so Daggerfall is about me the player. And Morrowind really pushes the places, the world feels more real, it's built by hand. Oblivion, the people become more alive, now they have schedules and they walk around. Okay, what are we doing with Skyrim? Most people say "Dragons", but that wasn't it. Skyrim is "Okay, how do all of these things connect? How does the person moving through the world create a story element?". You know, so there was a lot of story threads 'drop a pebble on the pond' kind of idea for Skyrim where those things are connected. Most people focused on the dragons.
Alarra: Did things tend to change a lot from those notes?
Todd Howard: The one thing I like about that note is it's remarkably close to what we did.
Alarra: That's amazing, that's from, what, 2007...?
Todd Howard: Seven, yeah, it was right after we finished the DLC probably, for Oblivion. The only thing we didn't get to is the one on the bottom, which was the stronghold idea. And we are always interested in how do we get people creating things they can share? So that's what the modding and stuff, we love. We didn't get into it enough in the panel, but the modding community for us has been incredible. And we wanted with Skyrim - and it eventually became the workshop stuff in Fallout - that people could have a stronghold they built and then they could share that with other players. Without having to download the Creation Kit and upload it to a mod database, to make that easier. And it's still something we're very interested in the future: how do we enable people to do those things?
Alarra: One of our users commented that they were really happy to see that modding was on that first page, basically.
Todd Howard: Yep.
Alarra: What was your favorite concept that didn't transfer over into gameplay?
Todd Howard: Concept meaning, like a concept art? Or...
Alarra: I guess just ideas for what could go into a game, like mechanics.
Todd Howard: That stronghold one, probably, now that I just mentioned it, is... is big. How do we get people sharing their creations easier in the game, making it their own and then sharing it, something they've done. Whether it could be - we've talked about sharing my character, my character could become a companion in your game and those things, that we have those ideas that we have not quite crossed the threshold on yet.
baratron: Something that a lot of fans say is that they'd like a game that's not single-player, but isn't multiplayer in the way ESO is.
Todd Howard: Right, like co-op.
baratron: Co-op, and I know that Fallout 76 has been moving that way to some extent, but obviously we talk about Elder Scrolls stuff [laughs].
Todd Howard: We've dabbled!
baratron: Is that something you've thought about?
Todd Howard: Yeah, yeah, we think about it every time. And we felt with 76, it was the best way to try some of that. And so... I don't... I think, well, we have Elder Scrolls Online, that really fills that void for wanting that in Elder Scrolls. It's a phenomenal game. So as it comes to the stuff that I would do, or our studio would do, single player is still our, when it comes to The Elder Scrolls, our focus. Blades is going to have some PVP and some social stuff coming later in the year, visiting each other's towns, things like that.
Being a Game Developer
Alarra: [scrolling through her phone] We have so many questions.
baratron: Is it another strange one? I can ask about this. Is the reality of being a game developer what you expected when you applied for the job?
Todd Howard: It's changed a lot, right? So it definitely was then. It's very different now in how big it's gotten. And that's been a very slow process for me, but when I see that video [referring to the 25 Years of Elder Scrolls video] and I look back - oh my gosh - how did we do a game with just 12 people? How was that even possible?
baratron: Following on from that, when you were just starting your dev career, was there something you believed was true about the job that was later proven wrong, or the other way around?
Todd Howard: That's a good question... Not that I can remember... How collaborative it is. When people think about when they're going in, you get a lot of questions from people starting out. The two pieces of advice I have is make stuff get it out there, learn. But know that you are going to be in a team, it's a team sport. You really need to know how to learn how to work with other people, 'cos that's what makes the best stuff.
Alarra: A fun question: If you could be any Daedric Prince other than Sheogorath, who would you be and why?
baratron: Hang on, why "other than Sheogorath"?
Alarra: I don't know, that's what Jeancey said.
Todd Howard: Sheogorath is all kind of craziness. Oh, I don't know...
baratron: Did you do an interview where you said you would be Sheogorath?
Todd Howard: Sheogorath is the most fun, so that's not fair. Why can't I pick Sheogorath? There were a couple games where I did the voice of Clavicus Vile, sometimes he's fun. I'll go with Sheogorath, so there. [All laugh]
Alarra: So do you ever still write quests and stuff, or is it more kind of big picture things?
Todd Howard: I don't write individual quests, I'll do story snippets. I tend to stay big picture, but I'll write, you know "Here's the beginning of the quest line, or here's where I'd like it to end up". But there's a lot of people who do that, so I work a lot on the main themes of the game, whether that's visual or narrative.
Alarra: What's your favorite fan theory that you've heard about the series?
Todd Howard: Hm... [thinks for some time] I don't know, usually they get most things right.
Alarra: Except for the Fallout/Elder Scrolls being in the same universe.
Todd Howard: That isn't really a theory. I don't think anyone who reads that thinks it's true, anyway. I don't have a good answer for that, I'm sorry.
[A Bethesda employee pokes his head in to say we need to wrap up the interview.]
Todd Howard: One more... One more from each. We're almost done.
baratron: Is there anything you would change in the games industry if you had the opportunity?
Todd Howard: Um... That the technical hurdles to get what you want on the screen are still massive, and they change very quickly. So if you look at linear entertainment, tvs, movies, they know how to get stuff on the screen. "We'll shoot it with this film, we'll come back tomorrow, add some CG, it'll look good." But they rarely come back and say "well the film is blue again, we don't know why, we'll figure that out tomorrow" - "well now it's red!" - "well shoot it again!". So the pace of technology - it's a good thing, but that is still a very, very large barrier to a lot of people being successful, and understanding how long something is going to take.
Todd's Favorite Elder Scrolls Game
Alarra: So, do you have a favorite game in the series?
baratron: Oh, ask the man what his favorite child is! [laugh]
Alarra: That's what I was thinking when I saw that one!
Todd Howard: Most people would say, you know, "The last one is the most refined." Right? Well. So Skyrim is the most refined, but people will say "Well I prefer Morrowind, I prefer Oblivion, I prefer this" and we say "We made those too, we love those games". They are intentionally different. Whereas people really like Morrowind, it's a very exotic world. But people forget - when Morrowind came out, the Daggerfall fans went "What the fuck are you doing?" Right? And then Oblivion comes out and the Morrowind fans go "What the fuck are you doing?" and then Skyrim comes out... So they all are their own thing. But there are game systems we're refining but each of them are intentionally, thematically, how the world feels, is very very intentional. And for TESVI we know how that world is going to feel, it's very, very intentional. We don't know all the game mechanics yet, right - that's something that we work our way through. But how the world feels, we know. 'Cause that's really where we start. And there are people who would say "Why isn't this like Skyrim?" Well, that was Skyrim, it's still there, go play it, it's on everything!
baratron: Well, thank you very much for your time.
Todd Howard: Thank you, great questions, and thank you for coming out. What you all have done with the wiki - I was telling [Dave] how much we use it. I use the site, that's my go to. I swear. How do the birthsigns work? Go there. How does this part work? Go there. How does Sheogorath look in every game? There he is in the green vest in Daggerfall - I think that was him. Yes, there's the sprite. That's great, so.
We'd like to thank Matt Grandstaff from Bethesda for arranging the interview, and his colleagues at the Bethesda Gameplay Days for facilitating it.