Archive for December, 2009

Oblivion’s Changes

December 15, 2009

This is based on an email I sent to Bethesda developers in a little while back, in which I wonder why there was a considerable visual difference between the E3 demonstrations of TESIV and its release

Oblivion’s Changes

Waiting with bated breath, the E3 videos from 2005 were the only things that assailed my anticipation for The Elder
Scrolls IV: Oblivion’s release. The sights in those videos were so overwhelming that I committed a large degree
of my time examining every frame of those videos, studying every nuance and aspect of the gameplay. The visual and
intelligence detail was shockingly fantastic, it seemed to good to be true.

An example of the dynamic soft shadowing on a character

The game’s release was a wonderful sensation. To discover all that I had seen in the videos-and more- for myself
and collect stories and anecdotes to swap with my friends was pure ecstasy. Every new piece of armour, every new
landmark on the map, they all cemented Oblivion as one of my favourite games of all time. The outstand detail and
life breathed into it; the freedom to live as I chose to; the rich world to inhabit and succeed in; almost all that
was promised had been delivered.
After a lengthly period of time, when I had memorised dungeon layouts and could identify any NPC by name
from a distance, an odd feeling began to creep in. Loved it as I did, some things seemed to only be a doppelganger
of the delights seen in the E3 videos.

“We used several types of texturing on every surface: diffuse maps, specular maps, normal maps and parallax maps…”
I had witnessed the pleasingly realistic walls, glimmering with moisture and dankness, rocks wet from the damp,
just as real walls would. The video showed me, clear as day (or what one can see of it from inside a dark dungeon),
the new plateau of visual fidelity achieved by the artists in representing dark environments.

The bricks seem to really stand out, catching every shadow between them

“True, dynamic soft shadows…You can even see the shadows cast through this ribcage here.”
My heart would almost stop in shock at the realism and quality of what had been achieved. Seeing the shadows move
realistically against the stony background as the chain is swung from side to side, seeing each rib as they block
the light from reaching the floor. The spluttering torch shined brighter to me than any other light I had ever seen

"True, dynamic soft shadows" You left out gorgeous, Todd

Yet my walls in game do not glimmer as I pass. They do not let me see stone so slick that I could almost wipe droplets
off of them. Instead I see what seems little more than a stone texture, with some bumpmapping layered on top awkwardly.
The normal, diffuse and specular maps seem absent, or at least not present to such a realistic degree.

And my shadows, dare I call them that, do not hide all that is covered by them. They do not stretch out as long as
I have seen in the videos, they do not cast from any clutter like was demonstrated, they do not dance as the flame
wiggles, casting light all around. They instead seem grey, and without much substance. I wonder why things have been
scaled back to such a point as this.

My main assumption is performance issues. The E3 demos were surely running on xbox 360, and the high quality may have
suited for what was shown in those cobbled-together levels, but it would chug on any standard console. PC tech did
not have too far a step ahead at the time, so this version was undoubtedly scaled back also, to avoid widespread
performance issues, even on the latest and greatest PCs of 2006. As beautiful as it was, perhaps the shader packages
were far too much load for any system running the game to bear, and had to be reduced slightly. The game still remains
quite jaw-dropping and has some beauty about it; beauty, rather than gorgeousness. One can look at the far-away vistas
in tingling anticipation as they prepare to set forth. But with the shaders as they are, the views look like paintings:
Flat, duller than life and only offering limited degrees of light.

But in this day and age, computer hardware has advanced far enough to surely allow for more in-depth shaders? A modern
3D card may have in excess of 1GB of video memory compared to perhaps a comtemporarily boasterous 256mb vram. So I finally come to my long-winded point:

What design concessions were made to facilitate a functional release in 2006, in terms of graphics and even things
like sound effects and other small changes? Secondly, what are the chances of the developers releasing an optional,
updated shader package, one which would boost the graphics to a level consistent with that seen in the videos?
As a huge fan of The Elder Scrolls series, I’d love to hear back soon regarding this topic, and I’d like to just say
I wait in anticipation of the next installment. I can’t wait to pick the bones of *those* E3 videos.
Yours Sincerely,
Simon O’ Connor