Making the Elder Scrolls Part 1: Arena
From 1988 through to 1991, the Wayne Gretzky Hockey series became a worldwide bestseller, catapulting its developers to international super stardom. Knowing they had to think big for their next project, the team took on a behemoth and made the absolutely sublime, Home Alone game in 1991. This quintessential NES game, some say a masterpiece of the genre, cemented the developers reputation even further as titans of the industry. Sadly, after such success creating obscure sports titles and movie games (including six Terminator titles), the developers fizzled out, presumably never to be heard from again. You may know them better these days as Bethesda Softworks, creators of the Elder Scrolls series.
That’s right; before you could commit mass genocide on dragons, be accosted by homosexual elves and get your character stuck in a bit of scenery, Bethesda were creating some rather different games. Thankfully, these days Bethesda has no intention of making Wayne Gretzky Hockey 4 (cue the disappointed groans of thousands of Canadians). This is, rather, the tale of how the Elder Scrolls, (perhaps one of the biggest RPG franchises of all time), began.
If you ask people what they remember of the very first Elder Scrolls entry, titled Arena (released way back in 1994), they will probably cite the difficulty and unforgiving nature of the game. Monolithic stallion Ken Rolston (Lead Designer on Morrowind, its expansions and Oblivion), has said regarding Arena, “Over the years I've probably started Arena 20 times. Each time I had to relearn the arcane secrets of DOS memory management. Each time I loved the creaking doors, squeaking rats, and long swims in flooded tunnels. Only ONE time did I make it out of the first dungeon and wander around chattering with folks. And each time I abandoned the game, satisfied, and moved on to the next Flavour-of-the-Month.”
When Bethesda was looking to create an RPG game, complete with fantasy cleavage on the cover, people must have thought they were mad. A history of developing sports games and ports doesn’t exactly sound like the perfect fit for a sprawling adventure epic. In 1994, Todd Howard was a young, budding game developer at 23. He joined Bethesda and one of his first roles was testing Arena on CD-ROM. Nowadays he is the executive who masterminded Skyrim and Fallout 3. Not many people had faith in Bethesda, fellow developers Sir-Tech, who created Jagged Alliance, were remembered by Bethesda’s Ted Peterson as having laughed at them for thinking they could do it. But despite doubts, development of the game went ahead.
Arena also started life, as the name implies, as a gladiatorial style tournament game. In the original concept, the player and a team of fighters would travel the lands, fighting rival teams from other cities, eventually leading to a conclusion in the world’s capital, some little known place called the Imperial City. Over time however, a subtle shift in focus occurred. Side quests were added and became so important that they overshadowed the gladiator tournament, this eventually culminated in RPG mechanics and whole towns being added to the game.
This initial concept of tournaments and a linear chain of progression never made it to the coding stage, so little remains of what could have been. By this stage, Arena was not about gladiators, tournaments and fighting teams at all. It was now a first person role playing game with dungeons, towns and wilderness to explore. The name Arena was now coming back to haunt them, as it didn’t really make much sense. They couldn’t get rid of it though; it was too late in development to change the title. Cue a flimsy explanation from the developers, “Someone came up with the idea that the Empire of Tamriel, because it was so violent, had been nicknamed the Arena. That explained, kind of awkwardly I guess, why there was no arena combat in a game named Arena.” Vijay Lakshman, who was a designer on Arena alongside Peterson, came up with the prefix of ‘The Elder Scrolls’. Peterson said of this, “I don't think he knew what the hell it meant any more than we did.”
After two years in development, Bethesda attempted to make the Christmas 1993 deadline they had set for themselves. They, of course, missed this and instead released the game in March of 1994 – a notably quiet period in game releases. To add to their troubles, distributor confusion over the games theme and the cleavage-laced cover resulted in only 3000 copies being shipped. A figure even smaller than the obscure Terminator: 2029 add on they had released a few years prior. Knowing that they had taken a massive risk with Arena, Bethesda was staring down into the abyss of financial ruin and studio closure. However, like many a great films or TV shows, Arena became a cult hit. Sales were slow to begin with, but steadily increased as news of the game passed largely by word of mouth.
Not all was well upon release however, Arena launched to fierce reviews – which cited various bugs as a major issue. That’s right, the good old Bethesda we know and love today, was just as crappy with their bugs back in 1994 as they are now. I guess some things never change. If their there was one thing reviewers could agree upon however, it was that Arena set a precedent for innovation in the RPG genre – with its massive world and freeform gameplay. Self titled Game Historian Matt Barton notes that “the game set a new standard for this type of RPG, and demonstrated just how much room was left for innovation.”
The Elder Scrolls: Arena wasn’t just remarkable in that it pushed the boundaries of the genre and introduced something fresh, but rather the fact that is it achieved immense popularity despite seemingly everything working against it. From the confusion during development over whether the game was an ambitious RPG or Arena-fighter, the fact that Bethesda had only created ports and sports games prior and the embarrassing release – Arena wasn’t expected to succeed. Good thing it did though, as we chart the development of Daggerfall in the next instalment.