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“There are bugs you’ll just leave” - programmer Brett Douville on debugging Skyrim

Skyrim Dragon

When you’re making a huge game like Skyrim, some bugs are going to slip through the cracks. Talking to Jason Schreier on Kotaku’s Splitscreen podcast, Skyrim’s lead programmer Brett Douville talks about how making a massive game like Skyrim means leaving a few bugs in the shipped game.

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According to Douville, Bethesda used a system similar to LucasArts when debugging their games, where they would specifically ask their QA department “to tell us what’s important” to fix, as “there’s this much time between now and ship.” This ‘triage’ process then involved the QA team marking out the bugs which had to be fixed ASAP, giving programmers key targets that had to be resolved before launch. In some cases during triage, Douville stated that “there are bugs you’ll just leave”, as there either isn’t enough time to fix something minor, or that the game is actually more fun with the bug left in.

Douville specifically uses something like the Warthog jump in Halo as an example of a bug that would make the game less fun if it was taken out. For a bug like that, “it’s ridiculous, it looks silly, and yet it’s hilarious and fun” so it actually pays to leave it in. Obviously, Douville says that this didn’t mean the team would be callous, as programmers would “fix things that were obvious and egregious, and in particular could impinge on a player’s ability to continue enjoying the game.” However, if something was “a little wonky” and ended up causing no real harm, it may have been left in.

When you are creating such a large game like Skyrim, it is impossible to be truly ruthless when debugging as your game would never come out. “It would take forever to make a Bethesda-style game” where every single glitch or bug was ironed out, so programmers and QA have to be realistic when managing their time. By allowing that breathing room for things to be “a little wonky” at times, Douville says that this gave designers the room to “go hog wild and put whatever in the game.” Sometimes, having your horses occasionally glitch into a mountainside may actually make your game that bit better.

The Kotaku interview is not just limited to discussing the debug process, as Douville talks about certain elements which didn’t make it into Skyrim, his history working with LucasArts, mixing up the Fallout formula with Fallout 3 and more. For those looking for a peek behind the game dev curtain, give the full podcast a listen.