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With 9 years of work in danger, Skyrim modders still build castles in the sand

You can often find Dee Keyes streaming on Twitch, but his stream isn’t like the myriad of chat-focused or gaming-centric channels users typically find on the platform. Instead of playing a game, he’s making one. Keyes is part of a large group of volunteers — set apart by being one of a handful of team leads — working on a mod called Skyblivion, which uses The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to gift the joy of venturing through Cyrodiil in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion to a new generation.

The project, which began in 2012 and has been in development ever since, is a work of passion. None of the people making it have received a dime for their efforts. Skyblivion is wholly a volunteer project, made up of talented Oblivion and Skyrim fans who also have a knack for coding or 3D modeling. In fact, its volunteer-focused nature is part of why the project has been in development for so long. It’s hard to steer a ship effectively when the crew isn’t getting paid.

But an unpaid and inconsistent staff wasn’t the only issue encountered by Skyblivion’s developers. Instead, Skyrim itself, which the entire project is based on, has been the mod’s main antagonist. The game, which members of the team share fond memories of and appreciate for its significance, is still an ever-evolving beast 10 years after its release — and its Anniversary Edition release is threatening to uproot the project once again.

Part remake, part remaster

Skyblivion’s current team lead — which in proper game development terms would equate to a game’s project lead or creative director — is K. Rebel, who joined the project while he was in college. During those early days, Skyblivion was vastly different, with the two original creators of the mod seeking to make a crude port of Oblivion to Skyrim. “The original goal was to convert Oblivion data to Skyrim. Create a tool that can convert the data to a readable format for Skyrim,” said Rebel.

That version of the game is broken, though, and for Rebel, far too small in scope. Whereas the original duo who started the project simply wanted to convert the game, Rebel was far too big a fan of Oblivion to let that be the end of the story. It wasn’t good enough for him. Instead, he pitched a project that would recreate Oblivion in its entirety rather than merely port it. His pitch was accepted, and soon Rebel began recruiting people into what he called the “perfect pyramid scheme.”

Skyblivion - Return To Cyrodiil Teaser Trailer

Modders were brought onto the project. They would get others to join, so on and so forth. The mod’s development team truly exploded in late 2016, when its first real trailer was released. Titled “Return To Cyrodiil,” it offered the first look at Oblivion remade using Skyrim‘s Creation Engine. By that time, the engine was outdated, but it was still a vast improvement on Oblivion, which was released in 2006.

The trailer brought in a myriad of 3D artists and programmers, each of whom had to be put to work. But the scope of Skyblivion was large, and in some cases varied. “The project is constantly swaying between a remaster and a remake” landscape lead Keyes tells Digital Trends. Whereas some areas of Skyblivion are remade just as they were in Oblivion, others are brought into modernity with improvements. It’s the benefit that comes from a team of volunteers, on a project that, as Keyes describes it, is a “rare opportunity to almost go back in time and work on a game that’s one of your favorites.”

Skyblivion’s team today consists of over 40 members, all of whom, as mentioned, are volunteers. Some are experienced with 3D modeling or coding, with a small number of the team’s members being developers at major game studios. Others are simply hobbyists, people that like The Elder Scrolls and want to try their hand at developing something all their own. The mix creates a strange social dynamic for Skyblivion’s team leads. There have been instances where a team lead asks someone with AAA game development experience to make something as simple as an outhouse.

Trying to emulate the game development experience, though, also means facing the problems real developers face. Take, for instance, landscaping. Oblivion is a big game, bigger in fact than Skyrim, but you might not notice that during play. Unlike Skyrim, Oblivion isn’t exactly filled with a lot of personality. Yes, its Ayleid ruins and the Empire’s architecture give the game some character, but players won’t find a ton to do while they’re adventuring in the world. There aren’t any small unmarked camps to stumble upon, no necromancers practicing their craft like in Skyrim.

A waterfall in Skyblivion.

For a modern game, that just won’t do.

Jack Long, another one of the game’s level designers (who now also acts as Skyblivion’s implementation lead), saw this problem come to a head when he was tasked with recreating Oblivion‘s Heartlands. As the name implies, the Heartlands is filled with rolling hills of grass. In real life, this setting may be picturesque, but in a game, “you look at one and think it’s an unfinished area” according to Keyes.

Issues like these let the mod’s landscapers flex their creative muscles. While the team isn’t adding any new significant locations thatwould show up on players’ maps, they’ve been bringing areas to life with small, unmarked locations and Easter eggs. Players will find Skyrim-esque bits of visual storytelling, like a shield leaned up against a tree in the forest. For Keyes, these changes preserve the “original experience” of Oblivion while making a player “come up with a story themselves.”

But where Skyblivion turns from remake to remaster is in some of its more notable locations, including the Fall Forest. Worked on by Long, the area is a small footnote in Oblivion, a forest dotted with orange and yellow trees that players likely pass through without a second thought. Long decided that this area deserved better treatment, and grew it so that the Fall Forest now encompassed an area five times its original size. While there aren’t any new notable dungeons or forts inside the Fall Forest, players will find more unmarked locations, placed with care by Long.

A marshy swamp in skyblivion

Working as a landscaper on the project is a daunting task. Members of this team are responsible for recreating Cyrodiil itself — the actual ground players will walk across, the castles they’ll visit, and the dungeons they’ll traipse through. But it gives these modders, who are also fans of Oblivion, the opportunity to emphasize the game’s unique aspects. The Fall Forest isn’t a footnote, it’s a landmark. Similarly, cities and castles have been touched up, with new buildings being added to some to create a more diverse, lifelike feel.

Special Edition

The progress landscapers, along with other members of Skyblivion’s various teams, have been able to make, has been hard-won. Although unintentionally, Bethesda’s actions have imposed hardship on Skyblivion’s development. The developer behind the Elder Scrolls franchise is a clear backer of its modding community, having released modding tools for its games all the way back to The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind. Rebel even met with developers at Bethesda, including Pete Hines, the company’s senior vice president of global marketing and communications, who expressed his interest in the project.

But publicly, the relationship between Bethesda and the Skyblivion modding team occupies a gray area. “When it comes to Skyblivion, it’s a bit difficult because at the end of the day, Oblivion is their IP,” Rebel tells Digital Trends. “You can make your own mods, but an Oblivion remake is a bit more tricky.” To keep the legal hounds away, the Skyblivion team and Bethesda have reached a kind of understanding, where the project has to meet certain requirements to qualify for release.

While Bethesda’s legal team hasn’t locked the project down, the developer has still caused issues for Skyblivion’s development. The project’s largest halt in production came in October 2016, when Bethesda decided to rerelease Skyrim as Skyrim Special Edition.

Jokes about Bethesda rereleasing Skyrim have been around for years, and with the game’s anniversary rerelease, they likely won’t go anywhere for a while. But to the Skyblivion team, Skyrim has only been rereleased once instead of, in the public’s view, upwards of five times. For the modders, the only two versions of Skyrim are Skyrim Legendary Edition and Skyrim Special Edition.

Skyrim Special Edition - Trailer

Legendary Edition is the most basic version of Skyrim out there. It’s the version of the game as it was at launch, along with all of its DLC. Most notably though, Skyrim Legendary Edition is 32-bit, which simply means that the program itself can’t handle too much data at once. It has a hard cap. For a team looking to recreate another, larger game in Skyrim, that was a clear issue. According to David Purcell, Skyblivion’s 3D art and 3D implementation lead, Skyblivion wasn’t the only one affected. “The resource limit in Skyrim Legendary Edition impacted the three big projects: Skywind, Beyond Skyrim, and Skyblivion,” Purcell tells Digital Trends, who worked on each project at least for a bit over the course of the past decade.

That issue was fixed by Skyrim Special Edition. Anyone playing the game today is playing this version. Like Legendary Edition, it comes with all the game’s content, along with some small graphical improvements. What really sets Special Edition apart is that it’s 64-bit instead of 32-bit. The giant game could now handle even more data.

Skyblivion’s team would have celebrated this if it weren’t for the fact that Skyrim Special Edition had also effectively broken Skyrim modding. Code compiled using Skyrim Legendary Edition didn’t work when ported over to Skyrim Special Edition. According to Rebel, the team even considered sticking to Skyrim Legendary Edition due to this problem, “but it had some obvious stability issues.” Skyrim Legendary Edition was prone to crashing, and with the stress that the Skyblivion team was already subjecting it to, a full, stable version of the Skyblivion Rebel that envisioned wasn’t possible.

Instead, the team spent nine months figuring out how to get Skyblivion to work on Skyrim Special Edition. For the teams focused on coding the mod, this was effectively an impassable roadblock. Skyblivion’s 3D and landscaping teams could keep making assets, weapons, armor, and areas, but anything that required finer tuning in the Creation Engine was put on pause.

Nine months later, progress on the project resumed at full blast. Skyrim Special Edition, which had forced work to halt on essential parts of the project, was and has been a blessing for the team ever since it was made usable. Being 64-bit meant the game could handle more references to data — although it couldn’t immediately. Another mod called Creation Kit Fixes changed that, and, according to Long, “was a saving grace” for the project: “Without Special Edition, we wouldn’t be going for a remaster.”

An oblivion gate and demons in Skyblivion.

With Skyrim Special Edition, Skyblivion’s developers could properly remake some of Oblivion‘s features that desperately needed modernization. Oblivion gates, or portals, no longer simply appear, according to Keyes. Now, they ravage surrounding areas, burning forests down and decimating new, specially made villages. Keyes has, likewise, been able to work obsessively on the game’s forts, each of which now has a unique design, as opposed to Oblivion‘s conformist architecture for the locations.

Skyblivion is finally coming together, and for its developers, the end of this nearly decade-long project is in sight. For Long, the project has been a “labor of love, a way to contribute to the series’ legacy in a way.” Whereas for Purcell, the end of Skyblivion has been unimaginable up to this point. “I haven’t considered what’ll happen when it’s done and over, because it seemed endless until now. [Skyblivion] was an opportunity taken,” he said.

Anniversary Edition

While progress on Skyblivion has been swift over the last year, that all may change with Skyrim’s new Anniversary Edition, another rerelease of the game that includes a suite of Creation Club content baked right into it. For players, Skyrim Anniversary Edition is the best way to experience the possibilities that come with modding Skyrim. For Skyblivion’s developers, the rerelease represents the possibility of another massive roadblock, one that the team won’t even have any control over.

While Skyrim Anniversary Edition comes with over 500 pieces of Creation Club content — mods that players usually have to pay for — it does something extra on PC. The game’s rerelease breaks an essential tool in Skyrim modding called Skyrim Script Extender, or SKSE. Without SKSE, a number of the plug-ins included in Skyblivion simply won’t work. “It should be fine for us to work around this, but it’s going to take a bit of time and elbow grease, I’m afraid,” says Rebel.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Anniversary Edition and Upgrade Overview Video

The worst part of this issue for the Skyblivion team is that it’s completely out of their hands. SKSE has been around for years and has its own modding team that keeps it constantly updated, releasing patches for the tool whenever necessary. According to a post on NexusMods, where a majority of Skyrim‘s PC mods can be found, SKSE’s developers are already in contact with Bethesda to find a solution. It’s a reassuring first step, but it’s not clear if SKSE will be out of commission for days, weeks, or longer. For a project like Skyblivion, which has a lot of work left that focuses on coding, the delay could potentially ruin its momentum.

And unlike Skyrim Special Edition‘s release, the changes coming in Skyrim Anniversary Edition aren’t easy to avoid by not buying a new game. While a majority of Skyrim‘s new content will be available to players in the Anniversary Edition, Bethesda was kind enough to give Special Edition owners four free pieces of new content. Unfortunately for Skyblivion’s team, as well as anyone who is currently in the middle of a modded Skyrim playthrough, that new content is being added in an update that will, like Anniversary Edition, break SKSE.

The easy solution here is for players to just not update Skyrim Special Edition, but that’s not foolproof. Players who purchase the game after November 11 will receive a version of Skyrim that doesn’t work with SKSE, and locking Anniversary Edition players out entirely isn’t an option.

Even with the looming threat of another delay caused by one last Skyrim rerelease, not all of Skyblivion’s team is worried. “The transfer to Anniversary Edition from Special Edition won’t be a problem,” says Purcell, “because it’s going to be a patch of Special Edition, it’ll keep the same format our 3D teams use.”

However, that’s just the situation for his department. When it comes to “anything that uses SKSE or any of these third-party plug-ins, that’s going to be interesting, we’ll say,” Purcell continues. “We don’t know yet. You can guess, you can say this, you can say that, you just don’t know yet.”

An ayelid ruin in Skyblivion.

Even with his cautious optimism, Purcell still has one wish: That the project isn’t set back anymore. “Hopefully, it won’t add a year to the time we’re looking at for release. It would be nice not to face another year in development, because you can see the final stretch at this stage.”

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Otto Kratky
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Otto Kratky is a freelance writer with many homes. You can find his work at Digital Trends, GameSpot, and Gamepur. If he's…
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