How Bethesda used PSVR to reinvigorate Skyrim

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The running joke seems to be that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Bethesda’s seminal RPG, has been ported to anything with a screen. Sony’s PS VR is the latest recipient of 2011’s critically acclaimed adventure.

What sets apart Skyrim’s latest platform-hopping adventure from previous iterations is the unique canvas that Sony’s virtual reality technology affords its creators; namely, the capacity to intimately involve players in the enduring spectacle of its frigid expanses and epic narratives.

With the release of Skyrim VR almost upon us, we sat down with Andrew Scharf, Lead Producer at Bethesda Game Studios, to discuss not only the appeal of bringing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to PS VR, but also the challenges and benefits that the shift to Sony’s VR technology have wrought. We also decided to ask about the likelihood of Fallout 4 coming to PS VR, because we’re cheeky like that.

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PSU: Until Skyrim VR lands in our laps (or technically, around our heads), arguably the most ‘full-fat’ gaming experience that we’ve seen on PS VR to date has been Capcom’s Resident Evil 7. With that in mind, what was the trigger point that set you off thinking about bringing Skyrim, in its entirety, to PS VR?

Andrew Scharf (Lead Producer, Bethesda Game Studios): Honestly, we fell in love with the idea of putting ourselves inside the world of Skyrim, with the epic scale of the mountains and the environment and facing off against towering Dragons that appear as big as houses in VR.

When we were breaking out design specifics, so much of how Skyrim already works lends itself to VR. Being able to equip any weapon or spell in either hand, dynamic objects in the world that can be picked up and moved around, riding on horseback or on the back of a dragon — the whiteboard was filled with great ideas that we couldn’t wait to see working in VR.

PSU: In bringing Skyrim into VR, what were the main challenges in adapting something that boasts such monstrous scope?

Scharf: PlayStation VR games need to be running at 60 fps at all times, otherwise it can be an uncomfortable experience for the player. We’re working with a great team at Escalation Studios, who are among the best VR developers in the industry and with their help, we were able to not only get the game running smoothly, but redesign and shape Skyrim’s mechanics to feel good in VR.

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It’s definitely a challenge figuring out the best way to display important information in VR. For the HUD, we needed to make sure important information was in an area where the player could quickly refer to it, while also preventing the player from feeling claustrophobic by being completely surrounded by user interface elements.

PSU: By its very nature, VR encourages a natural curiosity on the part of the player to micro scrutinise the game world that they find themselves in. With Skyrim VR, and given how well aged the base game is at this point, has there been an effort to provide some additional nips and tucks so that the game can withstand such intimate inspection?

Scharf: We found that there were some good opportunities to redesign parts of the game to not only help the player feel more immersed, but also look great in VR. With the World Map we wanted to not only give the player a bird’s eye view, but the feeling of flying around Skyrim to choose where to explore. The Skill Menu, we took a similar approach, we wanted the player to feel like they were looking up to the heavens, viewing the constellations in 360 degrees, deciding which perk to enable.

PSU: Invariably, Skyrim has never shied away from combat; how was this adapted to work in Skyrim VR, and what steps were taken to lend such conflicts the sort of gravitas that PS VR players would expect?

Scharf: We spent a lot of time letting the player do with their hands via the PS Move controllers what would traditionally be button presses on a gamepad playing preset animations. We worked on making very natural-feeling yet obvious combat actions such as nocking, aiming, and firing the longbow, firing off spells with both hands, and holding up the shield to put you in a block stance.

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PSU: How is combat against multiple foes handled in Skyrim VR? Is it easy for the player to deal with numerous foes, or, does the game make these sorts of encounters a little easier to deal with in some other way?

Scharf: You feel more powerful in combat, for sure. Part of the fun of making combat feel natural in VR is now you have some tricks up your sleeve that you didn’t have before. You can fire the bow and arrow as fast and you’re able to nock and release, you can hold up a shield with your left hand while swinging a weapon with your right, and my favorite is being able to attack two targets at the same time with weapons or spells equipped in each hand.

PSU: Anyone who has played Skyrim in any of its various incarnations will know that the now iconic Dragon Shouts are an essential part of the game. Was any thought given to allowing players the option to use PS VR’s in-built microphone to perform these shouts themselves? I’d imagine the satisfaction of nailing the pronunciation to be quite considerable indeed.

Scharf: We thought about a lot of different options during development, and using the microphone for Shouts was one of them. In the end we chose to prioritize making the game feel great in VR. At this time, a microphone-enabled Shouts function is not included in the game.

PSU: For many, the allure of revisiting Skyrim in a VR space will be difficult to resist; what steps have you taken to ease the potential for motion sickness among those new to PS VR who might find themselves unfortunately afflicted?

Scharf: There were a bunch of options we were considering from the very beginning of development. We wanted to ensure that people who were susceptible to VR motion sickness could still experience the world of Skyrim comfortably, so we focused on new systems we would have to add to help alleviate any tolerance issues. The teleportation movement scheme is the friendliest for those who tend to feel motion sickness, and for those who prefer smooth locomotion we offer a direct movement scheme with an optional "FOV filter" which appears as a vignette on the corners of the screen depending on how fast you’re moving, which greatly decreases feeling of motion sickness – it’s my preferred way of playing, perfect balance of immersion and comfort.

PSU: While we’ve heard that Skyrim VR won’t enjoy the mod support that the Special Edition version of the game enjoyed at launch, is there still the possibility that we could see mod support on Skyrim VR soon?

Scharf: Our focus so far has been launching and supporting the core experience of Skyrim VR, as far as what features we will or won’t add in the future, that remains to be seen.

PSU: Clearly, with its massive world and epic scope, Skyrim VR pushes the PS VR hardware substantially. To this end what sorts of improvements, if any, would PS4 Pro owners expect to see?

Scharf: On the PS4 Pro version of Skyrim VR, we use supersampling at a higher resolution for a sharper picture.

PSU: Does the impressive form of Skyrim VR give hope to PS VR owners that a port of Fallout 4 VR isn’t far off?

Scharf: Our goal with all our VR titles is to bring it to as many platforms as possible. When and if we have more information to share regarding Fallout 4 VR, we will let everyone know.

Set to release on November 17, 2017 for PS VR, Skyrim VR is a full length open-world RPG that reimagines the 2011 classic in its entirety for virtual reality. Boasting the entirety of the critically acclaimed base game and the official add-ons Dawnguard, Hearthfire and Dragonborn, Skyrim VR looks to set a new standard for PS VR titles going forward.

Look forward to our Skyrim VR review impressions in the coming days!