Skyrim's vast, lush world is a wonderful thing made all the more remarkable by the fact that it continues to grow and expand, constantly changing in unexpected ways. This is not only due to the downloadable content that Bethesda has planned for the game (the first one, Dawnguard, looks pretty terrific). Skyrim keeps growing because of modders, PC tinkerers who tear the game apart and rebuild it in lovely and unexpected ways.
Skyrim game director Todd Howard agrees -- he and his team at Bethesda have embraced the modding community to an unprecedented degree. It's really too bad that such a huge number of console gamers never have an opportunity to mess around with mods at all. "If I ran the video game world," Howard told me at E3, "all consoles would be exactly the same way [as PCs]."
Skyrim is the first non-Valve game to use the "Steam Workshop", which puts mods in one place on Steam, making them easy to install alongside of the game. "We know a lot of the guys at Valve," Howard said, "so we wanted to dig in deep with Steam and Skyrim.
"One of our level designers Joel Burgess, he handles a lot of our Wiki and our Modding -- what people want, and how the editor works, and all those things. And he became friends with one of the designers at Valve, and they just started talking about it. And they came to me, and I said 'Yeah, this sounds amazing!' The Valve guys were in our office the next week."
The Steam Workshop isn't the only place to get mods -- you can also find them at the Skyrim Nexus, a site that has been hosting mods since the days of past Bethesda games like Fallout 3 and Oblivion. I asked Howard how much Bethesda engaged with the community at the independent Skyrim Nexus as they put together the plan for the Steam Workshop.
"They've been doing it for a long time, and there's a lot of great stuff there," he said. "We found that we were of two minds on it. One is that we should stay out of it -- we should give them the tools, and the creators will be fine. We don't want to muck it up for them somehow.
"But we started feeling like, mods are so cool, we need to do more to make sure more people are trying them out. The Steam Workshop thing was, we're going to be on Steam with our game, so we have that working, we should do this."
I asked Howard if he'd ever seen a mod that was so good that he wanted to hire the person who made it. After saying that he hesitated on that question since it felt like he was passing judgement, he shared a cool story: "One of the top Morrowind mods, where you could cut guys' heads off and stuff, he's our main combat AI programmer. He has been for years. We were like, 'This is amazing, want a job?'"
Howard says that modding often plays a role in hiring at Bethesda. "Because our tools have been out for so long, if you're applying with us, we'll say, 'Throw something up!' So we can look at their mod, their level -- and our bar is, 'Would we have shipped this?'"
As for his own personal favourite Skyrim mod, Howard mentioned liking clever functional mods like the one that adds fast-travel markers for the houses that you own. He also mentioned another favorite: "This isn't a mod per se, but have you seen the 'Great Battles of Skyrim"? [Embedded here] I love that. There's something where I've never seen the game do that. So it's more like, I start watching the video and I think, 'Let's see how this goes,' is the game gonna break? But it actually worked! So I'm thinking, 'Hey, look at the combat go! Awesome!'
Modders continue to push the limits of Skyrim beyond what even its developers would have thought possible -- and they're just getting started. Heck, I'm really into modding the game and I can't keep up!
Given the fact that people are still making revolutionary mods for Morrowind and Oblivion, it stands to reason that we'll be getting Skyrim mods for a long, long time to come. As Bethesda continues to crank out new game content, it seems like a safe bet that one of the best games of 2011 will continue to get better and better into 2012 and beyond.
Image: Duncan Harris/Dead End Thrills