Elder Scrolls Skyrim
Image: Bethesda

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Few games have become as recognisable as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. You’ve played it, your friends have played it, and apparently your grandma has, too. The massive RPG’s impact on both internet culture and gaming as a whole cannot be understated; released back in 2011 – the same year we got The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Mass Effect 2 – with re-releases as recent as 2021, not a month has gone by without some news of a bizarre mod, a strange glitch, or a long-hidden secret making the rounds.

When we think of the developers responsible for this cultural marvel, none stand out more than director Todd Howard, yet there were over a hundred developers that brought the province of Skyrim to life. Most of them still work at Bethesda, though we managed to get in touch with a trio of ex-devs: lead designer Bruce Nesmith, world artist Nate Purkeypile, and systems programmer Jean Simonet, and asked them to share their experiences and thoughts on the juggernaut they helped create.

Todd would tell me I’m wrong and explain what he actually wanted. Fortunately, that didn’t happen that often, but I’d be lying if I said it never happened

“As Lead Designer, a lot of people came to me for direction, ‘hey should we do this or we should do that?’ and I’d tell them [what to do],” Nesmith said. “Then Todd would tell me I’m wrong and explain what he actually wanted. Fortunately, that didn’t happen that often, but I’d be lying if I said it never happened,” he says with a laugh.

Nesmith’s role had him supervising many designers, but he elaborated that Howard didn’t believe in management roles that were purely managerial; instead, Nesmith spent most of his time designing and creating content while serving as an interface between Howard and the rest of his department. Given such an important role, Nesmith’s fingerprints are all over many of Skyrim’s systems.

“I petitioned for a completely new magic system,” Nesmith says. “If you compare Skyrim to Morrowind or Daggerfall, the magic system is completely new. That was maybe 90% my work. The bulk of the economy, which includes all of the magic items, was also my work. A lot of the character systems – Todd has very strong feelings about character systems; your skill sets, things like that – I did a lot of the groundwork for that. For example, I pushed to eliminate classes altogether and just have skills… We wanted to get out of the way of the player being who they wanted to be.”

Elder Scrolls Skyrim Wagon
Image: Bethesda

With so much on his plate, you’d expect an overwhelming amount of pressure. Skyrim, after all, followed-up the award-winning The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, which Nesmith also played a major role in creating. Nesmith doesn't disagree. He explains Skyrim was a “game of expectations.” In game development, you’re never actually judged for the work you’ve done, but rather the expectations for it, though this idea holds true for many facets of life. For example, Nesmith said if his five-year-old children came to him with a drawing they made in crayon, he’d judge that as if they were five-year-olds rather than a professional painter. And a professional painter, in turn, would be judged for his body of work.

The developers of Skyrim were that professional painter. “Anytime you make a game and then you make a sequel, you’re being judged against that previous game,” he continues. “The expectation is that you will rise above it… and if you do not meet that, you’re considered a failure even if the game itself is a financial and critical success. So when we set out to do Skyrim, there was immense pressure because the expectations were all against us.”

Some people would say ‘I really want to work on The Elder Scrolls VI,’ but for me, that’s a high f**king bar. I’d rather do my own thing.

Nate Purkeypile, a world artist who would later work as lead lighting artist for the upcoming Starfield, echoes this sentiment. “[Skyrim’s success] is an aspect of why I went independent,” Purkeypile tell us. “Some people would say ‘I really want to work on The Elder Scrolls VI,’ but for me, that’s a high f**king bar. I’d rather do my own thing.”

Much like Nesmith, Purkeypile’s role in Skyrim’s development was multifaceted. He spent about two-thirds of his time putting together art packages for the level design department to use. Otherwise known as kits, one major change from Oblivion to Skyrim was the fractioning of these packages, allowing each dungeon or cave to feel more unique. Purkeypile spent the last third of his time working on lighting. At that time, Bethesda did not have a separate lighting department.

When asked about an area he had fond memories of working on, Purkeypile admits his involvement in creating both the massive underground cavern of Blackreach and the infamous wagon-riding introduction sequence. Finding himself with extra time on his hands, Purkeypile and level designer Joel Burgess snuck Blackreach into the game. Whenever you enter a Dwemer ruin in Skyrim and end up in an underground city full of massive glowing mushrooms, Crimson Nirnroots, and a summonable dragon, you have him to thank.

“Have you heard that bee story I’ve told before?” Purkeypile asks when questioned about the opening sequence that has since morphed into a meme. We hadn’t. “You would assume that the wagon ride would be fine on a track and it’d do its thing. But in fact, it had months and months of engineering work to actually simulate it, so the wheels are bouncing and stuff. I don’t even think you can actually see the wheels, so I’m not quite sure what the point of that is. We had to smooth out the road because if it was too bumpy [the wagon] would tip over.”

He goes on to explain that when they finally had the introduction sequence stable, the wagon abruptly stopped and began to vibrate. And then it just shot up into the sky. They had no idea what happened. Running the opening sequence again and again, only one out of twenty times this anomaly would occur. When they used debug commands to show the collisions between objects, they saw a tiny little square come into the middle of the road.

The bee had the wrong kind of collision… The only way the physics could resolve it was to shoot the wagon up into the sky

“And it’s a bee,” Purkeypile explains. “What ended up happening is there was a separate bug where you couldn’t pick up the bee to place in your inventory. So someone fixed it, but there’s two kinds of collision for that sort of thing. One is for solid stuff like a cup that you can bump into, and the other is for stuff like flowers you can just run through but you can also still pick it. The bee had the wrong kind of collision… The only way the physics could resolve it was to shoot the wagon up into the sky.”

Our third interviewee Jean Simonet had a hand in the creation of this immovable pollinator. He explains that while the Skyrim development team was large, they made room for small teams to get together and create something new. One of Simonet’s side-projects came from his lamentation over the lack of simple creatures in the Gamebryo engine; the actors in the game world, whether they had dialogue and complex animations or not, used many resources. After working through multiple weekends, catching fish, picking up butterflies, and wagon-wrecking bees became much more simple to implement.

“It was definitely one of those projects like Blackreach for Nate and Joel,” Simonet explains. “Doing it first then asking for forgiveness later. Like, ‘look it’s done! You just have to say if it’s okay or not. And at that point, Todd was like ‘fine – it’s cool. I like it.’ And then we got the rest of the team to go with it, at which point they went completely nuts. The environment art team really loved the idea.”

However, Simonet held a different role than that of creating systems for smaller creatures. Animation related to movement was his area of work, and he’s well aware of how people view the character animation in Skyrim over a decade later.

“If you’ve ever seen any of those memes of how characters move… of people pretending to be Skyrim characters with the mannerisms of turning and walking. I felt so called out because that’s literally the stuff I worked on,” he says, laughing. “A lot of games up until then, definitely all the Bethesda games, had very simple character animations.”

And I say, do you know that one NPC that didn’t run into a wall like an idiot? Well, that was thanks to me

Simonet is well aware that 11 years later his animation work became memorable for its stiffness, but during the initial release, it had improved upon what came before. It also doesn’t help that Skyrim gets re-released every so often, extending its life-like Arondil raising the dead to bring these animations back to the forefront for more funny videos.

“People ask me, ‘Oh man you worked on Skyrim? What did you do?’ And I say, do you know that one NPC that didn’t run into a wall like an idiot? Well, that was thanks to me,” Simonet quipped. “It’s a job where if you do it well, nobody notices.”

Much like Nesmith and Purkeypile, Simonet also felt the mounting pressure of developing a successor to Oblivion. He said that after working on Fallout 3, fans really wanted another Elder Scrolls. With the graphical improvements and bigger scope, this pressure weighed on him at a time when he had enough experience at Bethesda to make an impact. Like many in the gaming industry, this caused him to work too much, making himself sick in order to make his mark. “Still, somehow, I wouldn’t change a thing,” Simonet concludes.

An image from Nate Purkeypile's The Axis Unseen

All three men have now moved on from Bethesda and found success in individual projects, free from the expectations for Starfield and The Elder Scrolls VI. Simonet, feeling that Bethesda offered little room for growth as the Maryland-based studio has strong employee retention, went on to make a little game called Bomb Squad Academy, before taking his passion for electronics to develop electrically augmented playing die. That is, die for tabletop gaming infused with LEDs and connected to Bluetooth. He ran a massively successful Kickstarter campaign for them.

It was one of the best times of my life. We were on top of the world with Skyrim, and it felt impossible we could do better

Purkeypile is now deep in development on his solo project, The Axis Unseen, a game where you hunt creatures from folklore. Growing up in the woods, Purkeypile would often wonder about what kind of monsters were out there, so he designed a game where the wind direction can turn the stalker into prey very quickly. His hunter-simulator has a specific, tactile approach rather than being action-oriented. And from the trailers alone, it looks like his world art and lightning skills haven’t gone to waste. Throw in a soundtrack licensed from a member of one of his favourite post-metal bands, and you have the very definition of a passion project.

After starting at Bethesda way back in 1996 with The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall – a game that had a development team of under 20 people – Nesmith left the gaming industry and published his first novel. Mischief Maker: Norse Mythology Reimagined tells the story of a Loki that survived Ragnarök and now hides as a stage magician in the Chicago suburbs. The sequel – Odin's Escape: A Norse Mythology Contemporary Fantasy – was released last May, and Nesmith is about 28,000 words into the third book of the trilogy. After this series, Nesmith wants to write something more traditionally in the scope of science fiction.

It might be hard to imagine moving on from one of the most renowned American game development studios, but from the post-Bethesda success of these three, it’s clear they did not make a mistake. “It was one of the best times of my life,” Simonet summarised. “We were on top of the world with Skyrim, and it felt impossible we could do better.”

With the sixth trip to Nirn quite a few years away, we’d need an actual Elder Scroll to reveal whether or not it can live up to the expectations Skyrim set higher than ever before.

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