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Tech Focus: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Digital Foundry on the scale of Skyrim's technical accomplishment and the controversy over its many bugs.

The notion of consumers as beta testers appears to be growing increasingly commonplace, and it's something of a shame that Skyrim should be getting so much attention for its technical problems when the core package is simply remarkable. In this article, I'll be taking a look at some of Skyrim's most impressive technical achievements, but also highlighting related bugs and issues that are causing concern amongst the userbase. Could they by any chance be related? In some cases, perhaps so.

As the stack of YouTube bug videos rises seemingly by the hour, the question is, how can complex systems and features be fully tested when the circumstances in which they come into play will almost certainly change between players, and when the behaviour of the gamers themselves is so difficult to anticipate? Just how thorough can conventional QA be when we have a game as vast, open and as wide-ranging as this?

Make no mistake, despite the game's miniscule size in terms of compressed game data on the shipping DVD, there's no doubting the scale of the game and the sheer scope for adventure it contains. Bethesda's remarkable compression scheme ensures that the entire Xbox 360 version of the game weighs in at just 3.8GB. Never mind that we're now in the era of the 50GB dual layer Blu-ray: the Xbox 360 version of Skyrim in its entirety would fit snugly onto a single layer DVD with space to spare.

Skyrim's bugs are grabbing the headlines but just how thorough can conventional QA be when we have a game as vast, open and as wide-ranging as this?

With careful planning on how the files are laid out on the disc, Bethesda can ensure that the all-important texture and geometry data is always available on an area of the platter that offers the most throughput on the Microsoft console's 12x DVD drive (typically the outer edge of the disc), meaning fast streaming and minimal pop-in. The Xbox game hasn't been pared down that much either when compared to the PC version, which weighed in at around 5.5GB of data when we downloaded it from Steam. We see some occasional reduction in texture quality but everything else looks remarkably like-for-like.

For all the bugs and issues being reported about Skyrim, its fundamental achievements are simply staggering - starting with the environment itself. Bearing in mind the sheer size of the game and its myriad quests, our first thought is that the realm of Skyrim is actually procedurally generated - the result of a mathematical equation in the same way that the vast, expansive world of Codemaster's FUEL is generated. The notion is nothing new: 8-bit classic Elite generated eight entire galaxies in much the same way, and it could have churned out an infinite number of them if Braben and Bell were that way inclined.

In a recent podcast with Major Nelson (aka Microsoft's Larry Hyrb), Bethesda played down the procedural generation idea and simply mentioned that its compression was phenomenally good. Encoding design data into the height maps of terrain has been seen as one possible solution for storing enormous amounts of environmental data in a highly space efficient manner, but the developers are keeping their cards close to their chests on how it's actually done.

Skyrim manages to cram a huge world with visuals of this quality into a mere 5.5GB download on PC. Remarkably, the Xbox 360 version is a mere 3.8GB in total.

The creation of the landscape itself is just one of the technical marvels in the game - another concerns the amount of characters, objects and containers: thousands upon thousands of them spread across the sprawling map. This is something that certainly could not be procedurally generated without nerfing game balance, and may explain why save games incrementally grow as you progress through the game: it would make sense for the save to act as an ever-expanding "patch" that tracks how the objects and characters have moved from the default positions. The remarkable thing is that no matter how far you progress in the game you can return to the scenes right from the game's opening - and nothing has changed, even if days and weeks of in-game time have passed.

This may account for the reports we are seeing emerging of problems relating to the PlayStation 3 version of the game, where ballooning save-game sizes are being blamed for causing issues for some Skyrim players on the Sony platform.

Quite why it's just the PS3 game that is apparently affected is unclear, but it is the platform with the lowest amount of free RAM and it's clear from other issues that despite improvements from the Fallout 3 era, Bethesda are still having trouble making their PS3 work equivalent to the "lead" Xbox 360 version.

Richard Leadbetter avatar
Richard Leadbetter: Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.