We've been promised substantial downloadable content for last year's blockbuster Skyrim, but it sounds like Bethesda is thinking really big.
"For Fallout 3 we did five DLCs," Howard told me during an interview last week at the DICE Summit. "That was a very aggressive path for us. Our plan now is to take more time, to have more meat on them [for Skyrim]. They'll feel closer to an expansion pack."
Some of Fallout 3's expansions, such as Operation Anchorage were slender, linear mission sequences that lasted a few hours, but others, such as Point Lookout were entire new regions filled with quests.
It does sound like there will be fewer than five of these expansion-pack additions to Skyrim.
"With Fallout 3, it was, 'Ten dollars is the sweet spot for us and we know we want to put out five of them. And we had overlapping teams. We were coming off Fallout 3 and right back in." He describes that development cycle as "a real hardcore loop," but adds, "we just think we can do better content if we approach it a different way."
In between those expansions, Howard is committed to releasing smaller pieces of content for the game.
"Because that gap is going to be bigger, we want to put litle things out for free in between. We've already done that for PC with the high-res pack. We're trying to figure out what those things are."
How big should a Bethesda role-playing game be? All this talk of Skyrim expansions shouldn't distract from the fact that Skyrim is already gargantuan. How do they know how long to make these games, in terms of play time? Howard explained: "It was similar with Fallout 3 and Oblivion. We want it to be around 20 hours. That's where we start. I want to feel like I finished the main thing in 20ish hours. That's us day one saying that. After that, we rarely look at the target. It's just more of a gut for: 'it should be about this long.' After that, it's purely: 'Does it feel too fast right here?', 'Does it feel too slow?' It's purely a gut thing for us. After the initial point, it's purely: 'How does the momentum feel? '" He says Skyrim got longer. He thinks it takes the average player about 30 hours to get through, if they're trying to reach the end and not necessarily exploring all the side stuff.
Even if you don't factor in the DLC, Bethesda has bigger plans for tweaking and enhancing Skyrim post-release than they have had for other big games they've released. The game was destined to be more organic. "We knew before release that we were going to support it in a larger way, with lots of updates every month," Howard said. "We knew we wanted to do more stuff to bring mods to people." (They have, through the recently-released Skyrim Creation Kit.)
"So I think we had more of a plan and thought process of 'We want to make the game better after it's out.' We don't know what that means yet. People will tell us. But maybe we want to rebalance it. Maybe we want to add some features and patch them in, whereas in previous games, like Oblivion or Fallout 3, our thinking was just to patch it, fix the big problems. Our bandwidth at that time was that we needed to work on Skyrim. But now, with the game's popularity, we really want to do all that stuff."
Shortly before Howard and I talked last week, he showed a video featuring all sorts of wonderful additions to Skyrim that his developers had cooked up in one week after the game shipped. They had characters riding dragons, guards re-lighting torches, water arrows, fat giants, players as vampire lords and so much more.
Some of that—Howard would stress the "some"—could be coming as part of all of this expanded content.
"There are definitely things in there that we are planning on exploring," he said.
"It looks like a ton of stuff that could ship right now," he admitted, "but it's in a sizzle video. It's, you know, it's not bug-tested, polished, balanced." He thinks it shows off the creativity of his team and says that some of it is being worked on, but don't take that as the blueprint for the expansions.
Of course, he couldn't resist teasing more: "That wasn't all of it. It's probably 60% of it. The other 40% doesn't show as well in a video or we didn't have good footage."
We have no actual release dates for the Skyrim expansions. No specific plans. But we do have what sounds like a long-term commitment to beefing up this game. Howard says his team is "very early" into the development of the DLC, but it's happening. Skyrim will be getting bigger—much bigger, it sounds like.