Polyblog: Settlements in Tamriel
If game developers were spirit animals, Bethesda Game Studios would be mine. Since I discovered Morrowind in 2002, I've collectively spent more time playing their games than all other games combined. Okay, that is probably an exaggeration, but not by much.
Now, I'd never say that Bethesda's games are perfect. We all know that the fidelity of the character models tends to lag behind those of other games. That the animations can be a bit wonky. That charging for horse armor was nutty. But I will say that the core gameplay that's at the heart of each of their games is perfect for me. There's something about the open-world, choose your own adventure style of game, where the details of the world do the story telling, that I find irresistible. I never feel like I've been ushered into something in a Bethesda game. Discoveries actually feel like discoveries. There are things in these games that many people may never see. No two play-throughs are the same.
When the topic of The Elder Scrolls comes up on the internet, it's almost cliche at this point for someone to say "Morrowind was the best, and they just keep dumbing them down". I don't disagree that Bethesda has made things easier with fast travel, quest markers, and critical NPCs that can't die, or that dialogue options aren't as nuanced as they once were. But I would categorize most of these changes as building on what they learned from previous games. For me, that core gameplay remains, and each new game brings with it something new (in addition to a new coat of paint).
Morrowind was the first true 3D Elder Scrolls game. As far as I know, one of Morrowind's expansions introduced the ability to play as a werewolf. Oblivion introduced fully voiced NPCs, companions, horses, Radiant AI, and physics based combat. Fallout 3 brought the Bethesda RPG to a more modern setting, and introduced guns, and the V.A.T.S. Skyrim introduced dual-wielding, dragons, and shouts. Skyrim's DLC introduced the ability to become a Vampire Lord, and the ability to customize your own house. Fallout 4 brought a fully voiced player character, dialogue cameras, a companion relationship system, Radiant Quests (I know, I know... another settlement), and a complex system of player-built structures and settlements. Skyrim Special Edition and Fallout 4 also introduced fully integrated mod support.
Each of these incremental improvements and additions gets refined, and built on in the games that follow to the point that many of them get taken for granted. However, I'd like to discuss one feature in particular, and how I hope to see it implemented in The Elder Scrolls VI. And that is the player-created housing that was introduced in Skyrim's Hearthfire DLC, and greatly improved on with settlements in Fallout 4.
In Hearthfire, the player was given the option to pick a predetermined location from a few options where they could build their own house. The player then interacted with a crafting table to actually build and furnish their house. Players sifted through menus of things they could build, starting with a foundation, then walls, etc. However, when you crafted one of these things, they were placed in a predetermined location, and you only got a chance to see what it looked like after you had built it. Once you got the structure built, you could furnish the inside. This, unfortunately, was still done using the crafting table menu. You had to select the name of the room you wanted an object in, and then select from a list of somewhat vague terms for objects, and hope you picked the right one. I accidentally placed a fire pit right in the middle of the foyer, because the options didn't make sense to me. I couldn't really figure out how to move it, either. It was an interesting concept, but it felt a bit too complicated for me to really bother with it much. It was easier to just use one of the dozen houses I already owned.
Fallout 4 took this rough concept, and really ran with it. While you were still confined to a predetermined location, you could build wherever you wanted within that area. On top of that, you weren't confined to a predetermined structure. By giving you access to modular pieces, Fallout 4 let you build as little or as much as you wanted (within a limit to prevent the game from crashing). Want to build 4 small houses? That's cool. Want to build one huge hotel? Go for it! And instead of building through a system of menus, you could hand place everything to get it just right. And if you decided you didn't like where it was, you were free to pick it up and move it, or destroy it and start from scratch. Fallout 4 also gave you a wealth of options for structures and furniture, so you could really customize your creations.
Another thing Fallout 4 did was to make your creations settlements for NPCs, instead of just a private home for yourself. This lead to features like providing food and water for settlers by building water pumps, and planting crops. It also let you assign jobs to NPCs such as harvesting crops, manning lookout posts, or setting up trade routes with your other settlements. By making settlements about more than just the player, and tracking settler morale, they really gave them a Sims vibe. And by allowing settlements to be attacked by raiders or other enemies, and giving the player different defenses to choose from, it also scratched a bit of that tower defense itch. My home settlement was surrounded by concrete walls, had a watch tower on top of the tallest building, and the only way in was a hallway flanked by several turrets.
I loved these aspects of the settlement system in Fallout 4. The freedom to use your creativity in building settlements meshes with the core gameplay of Bethesda's RPGs. These games are all about presenting you with a big open world with lots of things to do, and letting you loose to do what you want. Fallout 4's settlements were the same. Here's an area you can work in; do whatever you want. But as cool as the settlements were, there were also a lot of problems that I hope to see addressed as the system is refined in TES VI.
There were too many settlements
When I unlocked the first settlement in Fallout 4, I was under the impression that this was going to be my home for the entire game, and I spent a considerable amount of time building and customizing it. Then I unlocked another, and another, and another, and another, ad nauseam. For the first few, I took the time to build something pretty cool. Some play sessions were spent doing nothing but customizing settlements. But by the time you unlock your tenth settlement, you slap down a bed, a water pump, and some corn, and wish your 2 settlers good luck with the rest of their lives, because you ain't ever coming back to this shit hole.
Settler AI was awful
For my main settlement, I built a hotel-like structure to house everyone, a bar where people could relax (complete with a bar, tables and chairs, couches, a jukebox, and a deck with patio furniture on top), and a few vendor stands. But whenever I visit the settlement, half the people are just standing in random places doing nothing. Even the two people who were at the bar were just sitting there motionless doing nothing. This was my most populated settlement with 18 settlers, but it felt so dead. I want my settlers to be hanging out at the bar, drinking, and chatting. Maybe some people dancing by the jukebox. Maybe some people buying stuff at the vendor stands. It makes me wonder why I spent so much time creating these places if no one is going to use them.
Settlements didn't really matter
While adventuring, you'd occasionally get a notification that one of your settlements was under attack, and you'd get a quest to go help defend it. If you did, you'd normally find about 5 or 6 raiders to kill, and you'd get a little XP for killing them. If you didn't go help, then you just wouldn't get the XP for that quest, and your settlement might suffer a little damage. But there were no real consequences. That settlement I built with the concrete walls and turret death traps? Nothing ever even got close enough to the settlement for those things to matter. After a while, settlements were basically just like any home you might have in Skyrim; a place to store items you don't need at the moment, or do some crafting.
How'd I'd like to see settlements implemented in TES VI
Where you can build:
First, I'd like there to be just one large settlement, instead of dozens. Preferably, a player would be able to build their settlement anywhere in the game world. For example, the player could have an object that when placed, creates an area around it where they can build, like staking your claim. Of course, there would need to be restrictions so that it's not too close to a city or some other major structure, but if the player got to pick where their settlement goes, the act of hunting down the best spot would be fun in and of itself. You could, for example, build on top of an old fort or ruin, and incorporate it into your settlement. You could build on an island, at the top of a cliff, or a snowy mountain top.
What you can build:
TES VI should use the modular system from Fallout 4 so players can construct unique buildings, but instead of choosing between wooden or metal structures, you could choose from pieces based on the architecture of the different cultures. It would also be cool if you could find architecture plans in the game as treasure or rewards that gave you access to special structures or items.
How you build:
In Fallout 4, there were 2 ways to get the resources you needed to build your settlements. You could scrap existing objects in the settlement area, or collect junk while out adventuring to use as scrap later. This system worked fine, but it also felt a little silly to be walking around with 4 desk fans, 3 coffee pots, 12 screw drivers, 8 tin cans, etc. etc. What I'd like to see is a real-time strategy inspired method for collecting resources.
TES games always have dozens of mines scattered across the map. I'd like to be able to claim a mine after clearing it of enemies, and then, similar to Fallout 4's supply line feature, assign one or more of my settlers to that mine to collect resources for me. Also being able to assign settlers to collect wood from nearby forests would allow your resources to pile up over time while you're off doing more heroic things. It would also be cool if you could build a refinery or lumber mill in your settlement to increase the amount of ore and wood your settlers bring in, similar to an RTS game. This could free the player up to scavenge for things that his settlers could use like tools, weapons, and armor, instead of picking up trash.
How you gain settlers:
In Fallout 4, you gained settlers by building a radio tower that broadcast a signal. After a while new settlers would show up, but they were just generic NPCs that were literally called "Settler". For this part, I look back fondly at my time playing Suikoden II. In that game, you recruited characters you encountered in the world to join your army. Typically, it would take some convincing. I'd like to see something similar. Instead of nameless NPCs showing up at your door, the player should have to go out and recruit. Completing quests for characters out in the world could unlock them for recruitment. You help the lady at the lumber mill get revenge on some bears? Maybe she'd be willing to join your settlement, and bring a load of wood with her. Release a guy from a prison in some dungeon? Maybe he'll volunteer to run the smithy at your settlement. I think in this way, each person in your settlement could have a name, face, and back story that is relevant for the player. If you care about these people, then maybe you'll care when you get a notification that your settlement is under attack.
What settlers do:
As a player builds up his settlement, it should feel much like a regular NPC city or town. There should be vendors, innkeepers, smiths, guards, clergy, etc. Perhaps even factions like the mage's guild. The settlers the player recruits should have a history, or a set of skills that lends them to filling one of these roles. Recruit someone who's handy with a bow? Make him a guard, and station him on the wall. Recruit someone who's got really high strength? Assign him to gather ore, and he'll bring back more than other settlers, or give him a sword, and stand him at the gate. Perhaps better yet, let settlers level up just like the player, and let the player select their skills. The way I imagine this, is that your settlement as a whole "levels up" much the way your character does. As you complete higher level quests, you're rewarded with higher level settlers, or the settlers you have level up as you use their services. This then increases the output of the different functions they perform. At the beginning, you start with a shack, and a couple of "peasants", but by level 50, your settlement rivals other cities in the game.
How to make it all matter:
Your settlement should provide some in-game benefits that justify the effort put into it. Maybe you don't want to invest your own skill points into blacksmithing, but you recruit a blacksmith for your settlement and provide him with the materials he needs to craft that armor or weapon you want. The same could be done for things like enchanting or alchemy. Additionally, if the performance of your settlers was dependent on their morale, it would give the player a reason to spend time building things like bars, or churches.
While simply building up your settlement and settlers could be a fun diversion by itself, there should also be a story related reason for its existence. To take inspiration from Mass Effect, perhaps there is a looming threat that no one else takes seriously, so it's up to you to build up a defense before it's too late. Perhaps at some point in the story, an invading army attacks your settlement, and all the NPCs you've recruited over the course of the game enter into this epic final battle. And how much you've invested into your settlement really affects the outcome. Or maybe you're recruiting an army, and using your settlement as a means to house and outfit them until you're ready to attack some dreaded enemy.
Incorporating the companion relationship system from Fallout 4 to apply to your settlers could also add consequences based on your moral choices. Play the bad guy that murders innocents, and people could abandon your settlement, or maybe even turn on you. Hell, maybe the whole vibe of your settlement could be changed based on your moral choices. Being evil could give you access to necromancers and skeleton warriors, for example.
These are the ways that I think the settlement system could be refined for TES VI in a way that makes them more compelling and meaningful. What do you think? Did you like Fallout 4's settlements? Do you want to see something similar in TES VI? What improvements would you make?