Modular toolsets and kitbashing: the secrets behind Bethesda’s open worlds

Bethesda open world

Deep within the groaning metal graveyard of the Galactic Zone, a park within Fallout 4’s Nuka-World DLC, you’ll find Vault-Tec: Among the Stars. It’s a sponsored attraction, reminiscent of the celebrations of space and technology in Disney World’s Epcon – though with a side order of unscrupulous sales and social experimentation we’ve come to expect from the Vault-Tec corporation.

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As you creep through the dilapidated ride, dispatching haywire robots as you go, you see familiar vault architecture mashed together with the imagery of the space race. It’s clear the company have found new off-planet potential for their sinister bunker formula.

“With Vault-Tec’s modular construction techniques,” intones a narrator, “new colonies can be established on almost any world in a matter of weeks.”

That’s a cheeky nod, I think, to Bethesda’s own modular construction techniques. The same methods that have enabled them to turn out two sizeable open-world maps – Nuka-World and the misty island of Far Harbor – inside of a year, even with three unannounced projects on the go.

Bethesda games are big. Big is sort of their thing – but so is detail. Where once the studio relied on procedural generation for scale – making Daggerfall roughly twice the size of the British Isles – now every necromancer’s dungeon is built out by a level designer, and the occult paraphernalia within placed by hand.

This is, obviously, an astonishing amount of work, made more astonishing by the fact that Bethesda are small – not indie small, but comparatively with, say, Ubisoft’s cross-continental Assassin’s Creed teams. GTA V was made by more than 1,000 people.

Bethesda are a fraction of that. Skyrim’s 16 square miles were put together by a staff of 90. Only ten were responsible for its 300 and odd dungeons. The studio has expanded since – but barely. Even on Fallout 4, the team numbered just over 100.

How do they do it? With maximum efficiency. If you’ve ever dabbled in Elder Scrolls modding, you’ll know that Bethesda dungeons are built using kits. Think of the pipes that line the walls in the underground military bases of Fallout. They might only be assembled from four different shapes – a straight tube, a T-junction, a curve and an end piece – but can be snapped together in an infinite number of ways, without ever bothering the artist who first modelled them.

Skyrim Blackreach

This principle scales up, so that pipes become tunnels in a dungeon: a Nord crypt in Skyrim, or a vault in Fallout 4. When a designer is working on a vault, they snap together chunks of corridor, canteen and living space premade by an artist to create a familiar-but-unique level to go spelunking in.

Ubi Toronto ‘world director’ Joel Burgess, who was a senior designer at Bethesda for over a decade, once compared the system to classic city-building board game Carcassonne.

“Unlike Monopoly or Scrabble, the board changes every time you play Carcassonne,” he told a GDC audience in 2013. “The tiles are arranged so that roads meet roads, rivers meet rivers, and so on, creating an effectively randomised yet visually cohesive whole.”

Bethesda’s modular approach isn’t unique, then: it’s just honed. They’ve been working at it since the days of Daggerfall and Terminator: Future Shock, Todd Howard’s first project.

Elder Scrolls Daggerfall

They’ve grown a tiny team of full-time kit artists – a “unicorn” speciality, both deeply artistic and highly technical, that requires a rare blend of left and right brain. And they’ve developed a process. Once an artist is working on a new kit, they’re chatting constantly with a level designer, who has a vested interest: they’re going to be using that kit over, and over, and over.

The fact that modular art is reusable is its most obvious benefit, but it also creates an obvious problem – repetition. Given that the median Steam playtime for Skyrim is way over 100 hours, it becomes inevitable that players will eventually become accustomed to seeing the same elements: the same rocks, same cottages, same banners on the walls. Bethesda have a term for the moment when this recognition starts to eat away at the world’s sense of place: art fatigue.

Chances are you’ve felt art fatigue yourself at some stage. It could get particularly egregious in Oblivion, which was of comparable size to Skyrim yet built by a team around half the size. Back then, dungeon designers pasted in ready-lit and cluttered rooms to save time, and the identical arrangements of sarcophagi and braziers didn’t go unnoticed by players who stuck around long enough to see them a few times. But it’s been better since.

“Beginning with Fallout 3, we staffed up a group of level designers and got tool support to make sure we were able to build spaces more quickly, and with the most granular art available,” explained Burgess, “reducing the amount of repetition as much as we possibly could.”

Oblivion gates

Once you’ve heard a bit about Bethesda’s struggles with their own self-set limits, you start to wonder whether they’d be better off hiring an extra 800 staff after all. But out of restriction comes greatness. Burgess thinks of 1920s Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, whose simply coloured arrangements of squares and rectangles remain recognisable today – even by those of us who don’t know his name.

“Mondrian had access to more than four colours of paint, and was certainly capable of more technically complex work,” Burgess put it. “Yet he chose to self-impose restrictions which led him to pioneer a style he may not have otherwise discovered. The influence of that style is still felt today in art and fashion.”

In the same way, Bethesda’s inability to rely on unique, custom-built art assets for every area has led to them to become pioneers in environmental storytelling. Object placement tells little stories about doomed adventurers and ancient dwarven civilisations – providing dungeons with variety, and in the process outdoing RPG developers who stick their lore only in books and the mouths of NPCs.

They are the only studio who could have put together the collage of terminals, bloodstains and toy trucks that tell the secret tragic backstory of Fallout 4’s Marcy Long. Playing Bethesda games is often an act of violent archaeology, uncovering the details that make each den of enemies unique.

Fallout 4

There’s one other way Bethesda combat art fatigue. It’s sometimes called kitbashing – that is, mushing more than one kit together to create something new and atmospheric. Oblivion didn’t do enough of this; the reason those demon gates became so tiresome was that the hellscapes behind them never varied in palette or architectural pieces. Yet Skyrim had no fewer than ten Dwemer ruins beneath its frozen surface, and they never grew so tedious. That’s because their level designers and artists were brave: mashing ruined towers and vines intended for outdoor use into cave kits to create eerie, underground fortresses; fusing dwarven hallways with ice caverns to immediately atmospheric effect.

There’s another perfect example in Fallout 4, and that’s Vault-Tec: Among the Stars. There, overfamiliar chrome corridors and pneumatic vault doorways are remixed within the artificial environment of a theme park ride. After some 150 hours in the Commonwealth, it somehow felt fresh. That’s the mark of a singular expertise that remains mostly uncopied and certainly unmatched.

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