Interview with Nico

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Greetings everyone!

A few days ago Sinitar Gaming released the first of his ModInView Videos, with Nico, about Enderal and the upcming DLC Forgotten Stories.

Also, urst and I decided that a transcript could be useful for those who prefer reading! So, without further ado, the transcript is hidden in the spoiler cut. The German version of the transcript is available here, for those interested!
[+] Transcript

Today, the word “Enderal” is well known to almost each Elder Scrolls player who played with mods at least once - and if you haven't played Enderal yourself, you’ve definitely heard about it. It is a synonym of a huge project, stunning level design, deep story and amazing quality overall.

If I'm not mistaken, only the English version of Enderal has something like two hundreds of thousands of downloads, right? But how this all began, and when and how you and the initial team members came to the idea you want to create something big - can you tell us a bit of that long time ago, in a galaxy far far away story?

Well, I guess it was different for each team member. Personally, I joined SureAI back in 2011 when I just started out in University, studying game design. I had played Nehrim a couple of months before joining University and there I met one of the creators of Nehrim. And I was - I guess you could say starstruck.
Then, after I presented my portfolio, which contained some writing, he basically asked me to join Enderal or he asked me whether I was interested, and from there it just kind of grew organically. Just evolved into the project lead position after a while… Everybody had his or her own motivations to join Enderal, some of them were University students, most of them back then were, well, not game developers… just players who wanted to create something unique - or their own spin on the game, you could say.

So, if I understood you correctly, the initial plan for Enderal was made before Skyrim release itself, and so before future authors of the project actually knew about possibilities of creation engine, right?

Yeah, that's correct - five to six months before Skyrim released.

That's just sounds really sick for me as player, who knows nothing about creating the mods. I'm just trying to say that that was actually… a step full of courage, to create and starting creating a project before the platform of this project actually was released, right?

Well, we knew the engine they were using. We knew they were using the same Gamebryo engine, just with some more functions. So, we kind of knew what we were in for. Otherwise, I guess it would have completely failed. Also, it's probably worth mentioning that initially Enderal wasn't planned to be a full-fledged total conversion - just a small story mod with… five to ten hours of playtime. Because, after Nehrim we were all pretty drained. That is, I wasn't, but the project lead, the other guys on the team - they were pretty drained and exhausted, but they wanted to do something else. So, they had this idea about this “small” expansion. You see how it turned out.

And look into which this small expansion grew... Personally, it is even hard for me to call Enderal a mod or total conversion. For me - a simple guy-– it’s just an independent game, just in Skyrim Engine,

(thank you)
As far as I know now, SureAI team - according to the website - consists of something like 15 constant developers… not counting countless voice actors and other people who’re involved in the project. But, even 15 people is already a mix of different designs, scripting style, storyline approaches, and more. What actually binds you together? Do you have some problems and how do you solve them?

That’s an interesting question actually. Of course, in non-commercial game development/modding it's always a challenge to align each team member's vision with the rest of the team, because people are not in it for the money, there's no producer, no manager to tell you what’s what or what not to do. The way we try to avoid that, or to alleviate that, is by actually creating high concepts and professional game design [documents], which everybody agreed on. So, we all knew the goal we were working towards... We also had regular team calls, to try to communicate as much as possible to always align our visions and discuss new features, and basically to make sure everybody's on the same page. Obviously, there were still arguments every now and then, and it wasn't always easy, but in the end… we always found a proper solution.

It is actually pretty reasonable in a project, because it ended [up]… really well done

(Thank you)
The design, the storyline - everything is looking like in one piece…

Yeah, it looks coherent... I guess it turned out pretty well, considering the circumstances, that's what I'm saying. Because, there were times when we were actually close to giving up, because it was just so pointless – no, it wasn't "pointless", that sounded very dark. It just was… very hard at times… We weren't sure we'd find all the voice actors and people jumped ship – lots of team members just disappeared.
I guess every mod author who's worked in a collaborative project can tell you that people sometimes... something comes up in their lives, I don't know, work, family, whatever, they have their reasons. But then, they just drop out and disappear and that really makes it hard sometimes to stick to the schedules or to finish a project. I digress.

Speaking about Enderal itself - it's surely your biggest project. Can you tell us how long it took the team to make it, how the overall idea of its setting appeared, what maybe inspired its story and where were the most memorable moments during its creation – both beloved moments and notorious moments? Glitches and bugs are heartily welcome!

Let's see... It took us about, I'd say 30,000 hours - that's this ballpark figure we have on the website. I guess, it's probably a bit more. I personally spent 11,000 hours in the Creation Kit. Which is a lot.

Sorry to interrupt you, but that's just monstrous numbers! It is a part of your whole life!

It's true! It took us five years to complete. In regards to inspirations and ideas, it's hard to pinpoint. I can just speak for myself, obviously… Speaking for the team, I think we were all heavily inspired by obviously the Elder Scrolls games, though I'm personally not that big of an Elder Scrolls fan myself, excluding Morrowind. l love Morrowind! We also loved the Gothic series - it's a German series, it's an old-school RPG - all kinds of old-school games basically… I think I can speak for the team when I say that we took inspiration from these games.
Personally, story wise… I'm a big fan of the Mass Effect series. It's probably bad to say this, because people have pointed out some similarities between the storylines. I wasn't particularly inspired by the Mass Effect storyline – rather the approach at writing the characters and everything. I also loved the Telltale games, some indie games you probably haven't heard about like Shadowrun Returns and all these - they're terrific writing. And just a whole plethora of books and movies which are too many to name.

Now regarding glitches and bugs, I guess there were just so many – it's really hard to find one. Well, I guess a very funny one - we also put a video of that up on Facebook, maybe I can send you a link and you can add it to the video later… We had this bug when for some reason, don't ask me why, the pigs in our game, the pig models, they just lost all their gravity… And whenever you ran into a pig, whenever you shot a pig or killed a pig, then it just started flying all over the game world, for some reason! Really random, made absolutely no sense, and I have no idea how we fixed this, but it was pretty funny!
We also had a lot of bugs that really wrecked our nerves, which were crash related, CTD's… In a normal game development, you have the coders who usually have a pretty good idea or overview about the engine we're using. And of course as a modder you don't have access to the creation engine. I mean, not counting the Skyrim Script Extender team. But we had lots of bugs which we had to trace or we had to track down. I think one of them took us almost a week, where for some reason - don't ask me why - there was a single shrub in one area of the game. And that shrub somehow sunk below the earth and caused a crash in the entire game. We basically had to delete the whole forest area or every part of Enderal piece by piece, to find the part that caused the crash and then to pinpoint this tiny little shrub that somehow corrupted the entire game. You get the idea… If we had a programmer, it would have been rather easy or probably easier to track down the cause of the crash, but we just had to burn the midnight oil. It just took us lots of time.

The terrible nightmare's behind you! Mod-development….
After so many thousands of hours - 30,000 hours, that’s insane - spent on Enderal, you should know all about the underwater rocks of developing a mod for Skyrim. What do you personally and what do the SureAI team like in Skyrim creation engine and don't like in Skyrim engine, from the technical perspective?

I'd say the landscaping tools are terrific. It's very accessible, it's very smooth and it just functions really well, I mean that's what the Elder Scrolls games are known for: the levels, the dungeons, the landscapes. So level designing was very straightforward and fun I'd say. Not always, of course, but in general.
On the other hand, the dialogue trees and - I don't even want to call them "cinematic systems" - the cutscene tools and everything, which are mostly non-existent. Everything that we needed to stage the story and to make it as cinematic as possible, it was a nightmare. It was better than in the Oblivion engine – that was a lot harder, even harder back then. But, the story tools for Skyrim, they aren't that accessible - and very prone to crashes, and bugs, and errors, and everything.
I think these are the biggest two points. The landscape are tools terrific. Story tools, not so much, need improvement.

Speaking about Enderal once again - there is news and I read some info that I'm sure will be extremely exciting to our listeners. On your website, there is a mention of so-called “Forgotten Stories”, and recently Enderal appeared in Steam as well. But, for now only being able to be added to wish list. So what's inside these mysterious Forgotten Stories? Is it a DLC or a remaster of Enderal itself? And when should it be available? Can you maybe lift the veil of mystery just a bit?

Well, Forgotten Stories - as you as you said already - is a DLC. But I guess you could also call it the Enhanced Version or Enderal Definite Edition - whatever floats your boat... I mean, it's very special edition: It's basically a DLC that aims to add all the content… that didn't make it into the main game due to time reasons. We are getting… probably… 20 to 30 hours of story content, which includes almost exclusively side quests and two major guild quest lines, where you can join two different factions and follow their story. They're also very nonlinear, which is something the main game lacked. So we have lots of different outcomes for these storylines.
We also added lots of new features, new classes. We… improved the performance and stability, fixed loads of books. I guess you could say it's like a Definite Edition: lots of new content, revised gameplay mechanics and some aspects… I could go around forever, it's a huge feature list. As for Steam, we talked to Bethesda and as it turns out there was actually a possibility to release Enderal on Steam, as an independent game. So, it won't mess with your Skyrim installation anymore - it's super easy to install and download. It's very exciting for us and I hope for the players, too.

Well, you know, I somehow missed a window of opportunity to make the streams and walkthrough of Enderal when it actually was released back in that day [2016] because my PC was totally bad. But, now I think I will not miss this opportunity the second time....

Well, I'm looking forward to watching the stream.

Thanks! The initial release of Enderal - knowing that most of developers [are German] - was of course in German... And, a bit later, as we remember, the English version was also released. So, should the worldwide English-speaking community be happy and know that Forgotten Stories as well will have an English version? And if yes, what is at least the... estimated time of arrival?

We definitely have an English version of Forgotten Stories. We'll also release in English with full voice acting and - it's good news - it will release at the same time! We're currently working on the English version and we are kind of wrapping up the last bits of recordings. It's mostly polishing and bug fixing at this point… And cutting and editing sound files... So the English and German versions will be released in 2018, that's all I'm saying.

It is well-known that modern and even gaming industry often gather people that, on first sight, are not related with game development at all. Is this the same with your team? And some people should definitely be connected with game development, of course, but do you have some members with absolutely non-related professions?

Yeah, we do. I'd say the core - especially for the main game for Enderal and not the DLC - we were all semi-professionals and on are now professionals… The main core of the team, including the second project leads Johannes and myself, but we also have members from all walks of life.
One of our 3d artists is a woman from Italy who does nothing with game development. We have a lawyer, an architect; right now we also got a bioengineer. Lots of people, from all walks of life… Still, I guess there's always... a solid percentage of developers who do have a professional background or who are aspiring to become pros.

Yeah, of course, because they should actually serve as a backbone for the project, a "skeleton" for it.

Yeah… Also, you have to consider that it’s also a motivation for many people - or it used to be a motivation for many people - to join up because Enderal was very well known even before its release. So it’s… a pretty substantial portfolio piece and that’s… also the reason why some people join up. There’s no shame in that, some people just wanted to do some excellent work and… land a job in the industry.

From what I know, you’re personally a professional writer at THQ Nordic, well known game’s publisher. You’re also the lead writer of the Enderal project, for example. And, I’m pretty much sure you’re writing your own stories, maybe, sort of novels or something like that? I’ve even heard rumours that an Enderal novel is being written by you now. To have something like this would be really immersive and interesting for all Enderal fans. Can you confirm this and give a little sneak peek?

Yeah, it’s true. I’m actually working on an Enderal novel right now and it’ll be released alongside Forgotten Stories later this year. It’s also going to be an episodic novel, which means that it’s going to be for free, and I’m going to release one chapter each week on my Patreon page. But, everybody can read it, so … there is no paywall or anything. Though I do appreciate support, of course.
The story revolves around a central character from Enderal, Jespar, a mercenary, and it explores his past, 12 years before the main game. I don’t want to say much, yet, because we’ll make an announcement in a couple of weeks. But, it’s going to be a story that revolves a lot around responsibility, inner demons, mistakes we make. It takes place in a very unusual setting… in the tropical island archipelago of Kilé, so people might know it from the main game. And, well, I’m pretty excited! Once again, stay tuned – there’s going to be an announcement pretty soon!

Well, I’m going to wait for it! And, I can only guess, maybe you’re trying to continue your hobby and work as a professional writer, right? Connect your job with this, with writing novels, right?

Well, yeah. I do work fulltime for THQ Nordic, as a writer. I also… wrote a German novel as well and it’s currently going around the publishers. Pretty promising as well! So, yeah – I’m definitely looking into other media as well, other than games. I’m also working on a movie. Oh, I’m doing everything, I guess you could say. Everything that has to do with stories, I love it!

Well, I think it’s just a logical extension of creativity. And it’s good that you’re expanding your skills somewhere else.

A: This, definitely. Also… there’s a lot of freedom in books… that you don’t have in other media. This isn’t news to most people, probably, but of course you have to deal with a lot of limitations in game development. Even in non-commercial development… For example, the story of Enderal – I personally think one of the reasons it was well received, is because… it stood out. It was unusual, in some aspects. Some people liked it, some people didn’t. But, we could just do what we wanted… There was nobody telling us: “You can’t say this, this is too risky…” We had lot’s of freedom, but we were still restrained by the engine limitations. You know, this is a reality that every game writer faces – there are just so many limitations, of course, and so many dependencies. This is why I do enjoy writing books, even though I do love games and I’m a game writer by profession. But, books are just a great way to explore basically every scenario, every story you can think of. Because there’s just no limit to what you can do, as opposed to games and movies, where there’s always a budget, and deadlines, and everything.

You know, I think that our viewers would come to Ukraine and kick me if I didn’t ask this. I’m sure you and the whole team have seen the Elder Scrolls VI announcement teaser. Were you excited by it? Or no?

Definitely. Especially, I personally was excited by it, because I’m looking forward to whatever setting, whatever continent it will play on, because I personally wasn’t too much of a fan of the Nordic setting in Skyrim. Just a personal thing… I don’t like snowy landscapes.

It is pretty dull, and it can be the same all the time, same old spaces, all the zones.

Exactly, yeah. If you compare it to Morrowind, which was a whole other world… I’m hoping that it’s going to be a chance for Bethesda to create another really exciting, unusual world. I’m personally hoping for Hammerfall because I just love deserts and all tropical settings, it’s just terrific! I’m super excited, of course! I’ll definitely play it. But, I think it’s going to be a while, they’ve just started pre-production, that’s what they said last... So, this means we’re looking at another… oh, I don’t know, I’m not working for Bethesda, obviously, so I don’t know… I think it’s going to be another five or four years, at least.

To say the least. So maybe our children or grandchildren can play it, who knows…

With luck. :D

While Skyrim… obviously… offers the biggest amount of both modding and mod making abilities, if we’re talking about the games themselves, from the… perspective of the player… What is your favourite Elder Scrolls game and why?

Morrowind, definitely. And I don’t have to think about it. Because Morrowind was just… unique. It was not a run of the mill fantasy. I don’t say this to discredit Bethesda, but - for me - Oblivion and Skyrim… were just very generic settings... It was just dragons, swords, wolves, whereas in [Morrowind] you had Silt Stiders, … Cliff Riders, and… there was just this mysterious and rich continent, with - in my opinion - a very unique storyline that was … very bold, I’d say. And, that’s just my favourite game, probably because I grew up with it. When did Morrowind come out, remind me? [2002] So, that was special. I still remember, I didn’t have internet at the time, and my father had to download all the mods for me. :D He always brought disks, when coming home from work at night. And these disks had… mods on them… I think it was a horse mod on them. I was so excited! There’s probably a big amount of nostalgia as well, of course, but… Morrowind is definitely my favourite title.

That’s for sure. I also remember that time. You said earlier, that I most likely don’t know Gothic – but Gothic is actually one of my favourite games, if not the most favourite one. Because it was popular here in Slavic countries. It’s not well known in the USA or Canada, etc., but in Europe and Russia and Ukraine – I remember the days… all my classmates… were shouting… what is better, Morrowind or Gothic?

No, it was a reasonable question. Honestly, it is an interesting question – I did not know that… I knew it was big in some countries; obviously… it’s huge in Germany. But I did not know it’s big in Russia… It’s a terrific game, but they’re very different… Morrowind is very… mysterious and rich. I don’t want to say Gothic games aren’t rich, but Gothic… it’s very gruff kind of humour… It’s a great game, though, I totally agree. I loved the first and the second Gothic [games], they were… my childhood, essentially.

While Elder Scrolls VI release is somewhere really far on the horizon, and of course you can’t give any promises… long term – is your team interested at all in creating new total conversions or mods… for future TES VI or maybe for Starfield?.. If Starfield will support modding.

That’s hard to say. Honestly, I don’t think it’s that likely. Not because we don’t want to, rather because … every team member is so involved in other projects, right now… I’m a fulltime game dev, I’m a fulltime writer as well, I’ve plenty of projects I work on. I know that Johannes, the second project lead, or Julian, one of the level designers, they’re also… fulltime game developers… Because it just takes so much time to create a whole conversion, I don’t think that there’s going to be a new project anytime soon. Not because we don’t want to, but just because it takes too much time… It’s cool to sit in your cellar and just eat noodle soup everyday if youre a student... in your early 20s. But we have obligations, we have rent to pay – and modding just sadly doesn’t pay. That’s actually why I’m very sad about paid modding… even if it was poorly executed by Bethesda, I’m sad that it was received so badly, because it would have been a very exciting prospect, to every modder I know. I know some [of them], I can’t name them, but they shared the sentiment… We’re not gonna name him, but he realeased a very popular mod on Skyrim, I think one of the most downloaded ones, and… he offered an updated version for 1$. People were sending him freaking death threats because he was trying… to sell his mod, which he had spent like hundreds of hours on, for 1$... which is not even a price of a beer.

Well, in conclusion, after all [we’ve] discussed now. Can you say something to people who are listening to us now? For sure, some of them are planning to connect their future with mod making… or game development… What can you advise them, from the perspective of your experience?

That’s a good question. I think, above all, just being dedicated and disciplined. Because, especially if you want to make it as a pro, you need to work hard. It sounds… strange… if you think about mods. Because people think about mods as … a fun thing that’s all about creativity and expression and so on and so forth, but really – it’s a lot about you setting your goals and working hard towards them. This is especially true for the industry, because you are going to be up against… a lot of very talented and very tenacious people. You just need to have a great portfolio… You need to be exceptional in what you do.
Industry wise, I’d definitely say… be realistic, look at what you want to do. If you want to become a 3d artist, look at the skill level is, what companies are looking for… And just work hard towards your goals and create a portfolio for heck’s sake. You’d be surprised how many people apply to our studio THQ without a portfolio. They haven’t done anything… I’m not joking, they were applying for the position of creative director, which is as you know the most prestigious position I’d say in a team, and they had no experience whatsoever. They just thought, “Oh, it’s just a game, I’ve played a lot of games, I qualify.” Don’t be that guy, that’s what I’m trying to say.
Mod wise, be realistic as well… Don’t go overboard with your ambitions – you have to be ambitious, you should be ambitious – but there were so many total conversion projects that never made it past a certain stage because they were just so insanely ambitious. I don’t want to… say any names, but you know them… Everybody got excited about them, especially players who… weren’t able to judge whether the project was feasible or not. Then the project just stopped, because people realised it was way too much work. So, be realistic. Be fair. It’s non-commercial development, so everyone wants to be creative to a certain extent, they want to do cool stuff. If you’re working with a team, that’s what I’m saying. So, don’t expect people to do all the hard work for you while you get to dictate them your ideas. It’s just not how it works… Finally, I’d say, treat it… I wouldn’t say job, but be serious about it, especially if you are doing a bigger project. Even if it is “just” a quest mod that isn’t a total conversion. You have to be serious about it, you have to make it a project, you have to make a proper schedule, you have to set yourself milestones. You have to work regularly... not just whenever you want, because otherwise it’s… never going to see the light of day. That’s it, I think.

Well, that’s… wise advice, I think. Because it sounds simple, but that’s how life works, right? And you cant create something… iconic, something great, just from a passion. You need passion, right, but you also need skills and dedication and time for this.

Absolutely. Passion is paramount, of course… If you don’t get a buzz from what you’re doing, then you’re never going to be exceptional, obviously. But, you need to be dedicated… I mean, there’s a reason why not everybody is a creative director… The reason is because some people just worked harder than others, in my opinion... That’s just what I think. So, don’t be that guy who - and I’m not joking, it actually happened! I’m sure this man was a wonderful human being and whatever, but he just walked into our studio and basically said, “Hey, look, I saw you’re looking for a creative director. I have no experience, but I think I’m very creative” or something… You’d be surprised how many people are like that.

Well, that’s nothing surprising, I think!

Well, to me, it was a surprise, because I always thought… if you’re going to apply for a position – and I think this goes for every job in the world – then at least [find out] what the requirements are, just read the freaking job offer before you apply and look like an idiot.

I must insert a reference here, because how big is the percentage of people… who read the mod pages before installing them? It is very low… And then [complain] “my game is broken… my Skyrim is crashing…”

Absolutely. Nobody reads readmes! That’s why we’re so happy to go on Steam, though. Because Steam is fool proof, I’d say. You just have to press the bloody button and everybody can…

And you don’t need to read at all…

Nothing, that’s for sure.

Thank you for this interview and I want to wish all the best of luck to SureAI projects, whatever this project will be… Maybe we will see you guys one day as an independent game studio… And thank you for this interview.
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That was awesome! Thanks for the transcript.

I have two words of advice for Nicolas (and others like me who do not like vanilla Skyrim's snowy landscapes) = Tropical Skyrim. It turns Skyrim into landscapes similar to what Enderal did.
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