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‘The popularity just didn’t wane’: Bethesda’s Todd Howard on 10 years of Skyrim | Games

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Is there anyone who’s played video games over the last 10 years who hasn’t played Skyrim? When it came out in 2011, this must surely have seemed to the outside world like one of the nerdiest games around: potions and spells, axes and swords, dark elves and giants and, of course, dragons. But Skyrim nevertheless became one of the most widely played games ever, a touchstone in the video game world, for players and developers alike. It has been re-released on every console and platform imaginable, to the point where it’s become a gaming in-joke. It’s still huge on YouTube and TikTok, even with people who were little kids when it came out. At a wedding a few weeks ago, I met someone whose wife had played Skyrim as her first ever game; a decade later, she’s still playing it.

Skyrim was made at Bethesda Game Studios by a team of around 100 people – far fewer than the 400-strong team working on its forthcoming game, Starfield. Coming straight from wrapping up development on Fallout 3, a post-nuclear-apocalypse role playing game, the team quickly found a tone and direction that they were excited by. Unlike The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006), a glossy, classical high-fantasy set in the most gilded area of the world of Tamriel, Skyrim is grimy and cold. Its aesthetic is more Nordic: furs and leather, snow and stone. If Oblivion felt like a Roman legend, and its intriguingly weird predecessor Morrowind resembled a tattered novel from an unknown author plucked from the back of the fantasy shelf at your local library, Skyrim is like one of those brutal Scandinavian folk stories where someone always gets an axe to the head.

Todd Howard, now Bethesda Game Studios’ director and executive producer, led development on Skyrim, as he had for all the Elder Scrolls games since 2000. Working from a base of a map, concept art and music – “we always do music really early”, Todd says, “I find that’s a really good thing to get you into the mood and tone of a game” – the team began constructing the different regions of Skyrim: mountains, tundra, pine forests, settlements. “We have so much stuff – landmass, locations, quests, themes – and it mustn’t feel like 50 different games, it has to come together. We call that the glue, that’s the phrase we use … Once we’re going, once we have the world and the tone, our designers and everybody else are really in sync about what’s going to be appropriate.” Howard had a statue of Conan the Barbarian on his desk during early development that was a strong design inspiration. “To me that was the feeling of the game,” he says. “We kept using the term ‘epic reality’… it wasn’t super high fantasy, it felt very grounded, that was the tone we were going for. We wanted to ground everything in a reality that you believe, so that when the dragons and magic come in you feel it more.”

The Conan statue Todd Howard had on his desk during the development of The Elder Scrolls IV: Skyrim.
The Conan statue Todd Howard had on his desk during the development of The Elder Scrolls IV: Skyrim. Photograph: McFarlane Toys

Partly thanks to the fact that everyone involved had a good sense of what felt right for the world, there wasn’t actually that much that had to be cut as development went on, says Todd – though one element of Skyrim’s world was originally intended to be a much bigger part of it. “There’s a civil war that’s going on in the game, and it was a great idea from our designers to have some backstory and conflict that didn’t necessarily get fully resolved,” explains Howard.

“A lot of our games have this main quest, this big threat that gets resolved – and then you keep playing and you’re like, now what? We wanted to have a tension in the game world that didn’t necessarily go away. Originally the civil war was a much bigger thing that you got involved in, with these big battles, and some of it remains, but the battle parts ended up being pretty small. It was constantly on the chopping block for the project. Thematically it works, but what you’re seeing is the simplest version that we could do.”

Despite being an epic fantasy, Skyrim isn’t a game that is usually remembered for its characters or its story. Instead, players remember what they did: that time they ended up running all the way up a mountain trying to get away from a frost troll, or when they accidentally dragon-shouted a companion off the edge of a cliff and lost five minutes to guilty, uncontrollable laughter, or discovered the remains of an underground city. Some characters do stand out in the collective memory of Skyrim fandom, though – including, unexpectedly, Lydia, a housecarl who is likely to be your first companion on your journey. Despite having absolutely no memorable features, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard stories from players who cried because “their” Lydia accidentally died in a cave full of wolves.

Todd laughs when I mention Lydia. “Everyone got attached to her, but she is a generic NPC!” he says. “None of her lines are written for her … we did not put the time into [Skyrim’s] characters that we do in, say a Fallout, and you can see that. I’m not saying there aren’t really good characters in Skyrim, but I don’t think it’s the reason people play it. At the end of the day, we build these games so that people do tell their own stories. We build the world, but what the player brings to it is the magic of video games … The games I played when I was young, like Ultima, I would go to bed thinking about them – I wonder if I can do this? I’ll try that tomorrow! I want to create that sense of wonder for our players as well.

“This is somewhat technical in terms of game design, but one of the things we do that’s unique, even though there are lots of open world games, is that we don’t shut down the world. You can be running 20 quests at once and we let them collide. Development wise, the hardest problems create the most magic on screen. You can be in town doing a quest and then two dragons can turn up and it’s pandemonium. Those are the moments I love the most.”

Bethesda’s Todd Howard.
Bethesda’s Todd Howard. Photograph: Bethesda

When the team was finishing up Skyrim’s development, they were playing the game all the time, trying out as many different ways of doing things as possible, testing the limits of the world they’d built. For Todd, reading people’s play notes was one of the most fun parts of the whole cycle – “I’d often be wondering, is there a bug here that we need to solve or is this just a fun story someone felt compelled to write down?” But of course when it actually came out and got into the hands of players, they immediately started finding things that the developers did not foresee. “There was a person who figured out that you could put buckets on people’s heads and block their line of sight,” Todd recalls. “There was a great debate as to whether we should fix that. We ended up deciding no, because it’s hilarious.”

Once the game came out, it just kept going and going. There was optimisation work to be done – anyone unfortunate enough to have bought the PlayStation 3 version will recall that there was a memory problem that caused people’s save files to corrupt, an issue that took a long time to resolve. But more than that, it became clear that there was enormous demand for the fantasy world that Bethesda had built. “The popularity just didn’t wane, and so the amount of time that we spent on updates and expansions was at the time by far the longest ever,” says Todd. “Usually after a while we’d have moved the bulk of the team over to the next project, which was Fallout 4, but we were still doing Skyrim stuff. We ended up moving Fallout 4 to what was the next gen at the time, and that was partly due to Skyrim’s popularity.”

Skyrim came out at a fortunate time, when fantasy as a whole was having a moment, thanks to the emergence of Game of Thrones and a general change in the cultural winds; I bet that there are a few million people out there who gave Skyrim a punt when, a few years previously, they might not have done so because its genre was not in vogue. Todd tells me that at last count, Skyrim has had 60 million total players – millions of whom are still active, every month.

Original Skyrim concept art by Adam Adamowicz
Original Skyrim concept art by Adam Adamowicz. Photograph: Bethesda/Adam Adamowicz

On PC, the game has an active modding community who mess with the game in fascinating ways, making their own adjustments from graphical and lighting upgrades to adding in lute-playing bears. This is part of what’s kept it alive, but not all of it, if you ask me. Most of Skyrim’s players never engage with modding; they’re drawn in by the power fantasy that it offers. This is a game that centres you absolutely. Characters reflect back your deeds and accomplishments; the world and everything in it bends to your will in an absolute buffet of fun and challenge. I’ve played a lot of interesting games in the past 10 years that challenge the player’s power, that question our role in the stories we tell through play, casting us as bit-players or nobodies struggling against powerful forces; nowadays Skyrim is almost refreshing in its straightforward hero narrative. You are the Dragonborn, and you can do anything.

Todd agrees that Skyrim is absolutely a power fantasy. “In Oblivion you’re playing Lancelot to Arthur. You’re not the anointed one; Martin is. So here, we want you to be anointed in some way, be special in the world,” he says. It’s certainly a game that means a lot to people. Of the 450 people that now work at Bethesda Game Studios, many of them came there because of Skyrim. Some were even plucked from the ranks of modders who adapted the game in creative ways. And as the game ages, it’s still finding new players – including those who were too young to play it the first time around.

“My son picked it up on the Switch and couldn’t put it down,” laughs Todd. “He became obsessed with it. My father’s day card basically said: Dad, you’re a great father, but where’s The Elder Scrolls 6?”

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UK government’s risk planning is weak and secretive, says Lords report | Politics

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Assessment and planning by the government relating to risks facing the UK are deficient and “veiled in secrecy”, a report has found.

The 129-page report, entitled Preparing for Extreme Risks: Building a Resilient Society, was produced by the House of Lords select committee on risk assessment and risk planning – a group appointed in October 2020.

James Arbuthnot, chair of the committee, said that while the UK’s risk assessment processes had been praised across the world before the pandemic, the impact of Covid suggested there may be problems.

“It had been advised that if there were to be a coronavirus pandemic, as a country we would suffer up to 100 deaths,” he said. “Over 140,000 deaths later, we realised that we could perhaps have been doing rather better in our assessment and our planning.”

The report – which draws on sources including oral evidence from 85 witnesses, including from the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, during 29 sessions – looked at the country’s approach to assessing and preparing for a wide range of risks, from chemical warfare to the climate crisis and severe space weather.

“If you ask, what keeps me awake at nights, it is the growing possibility of major disruption due to more and more frequent cyber-attacks,” said Lord Rees, a committee member. “And even more, I worry on a timescale of tens of years about bioterrorism, bioengineered viruses and all that, which are going to be feasible.”

The report’s conclusions point to a number of shortcomings. Among them the committee highlighted a tendency for the government to focus on immediate problems rather than preparing for the long term.

“The likelihood of major risks actually occurring during the term of the government is low,” said committee member Lord Mair, noting as a result there is no incentive to prepare for them.

The committee also flagged concerns over the National Risk Register and the National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA), and called for better processes to categorise risks, including looking at how vulnerable the country would be to certain threats, and better modelling of how risks can cascade – with Arbuthnot noting as an example the impact of Covid on school exams.

Among other issues the report criticised a lack of transparency by the government. “The current risk management system is veiled in an unacceptable and unnecessary level of secrecy,” the report noted, adding that in turn has hampered the country’s preparedness, with frontline responders including local government and volunteer groups struggling to access the information they need.

It is not the first time the government has been accused of secrecy over risk assessment and planning: a report on Exercise Cygnus, the 2016 government simulation of how the country would handle a fictitious “swan flu”pandemic was only made public after a copy was leaked to the Guardian.

Among other actions, the latest report recommends:

  • The establishment of an Office for Preparedness and Resilience by the government, headed by a newly created post of government chief risk officer.

  • A presumption of publication by the government, and the publication of the content of the Official-Sensitive National Security Risk Assessment except where there is a direct national security risk.

  • The publication, every two years, by the government of a brochure on risk preparedness to inform the public on topics including what to do in an emergency.

“[It’s] much better to face some of these issues, having prepared for, and practised for, and exercised for them in advance rather than doing them first in the heat of battle,” said Arbuthnot

Arbuthnot added the Covid pandemic had offered the chance to “address a public that is ready to be addressed. And people have proved that they’re up to it.”

Prof David Spiegelhalter, chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at Cambridge University, and who contributed evidence to the report, welcomed its publication.

“It’s extraordinary that the National Risk Register does not get any public promotion or media coverage, and I welcome the committee’s recommendation to radically improve the communication with the public about the risks they face,” he said. “These vital issues deserve to be widely known and discussed.”

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Ubiquiti dev charged with data-breaching own employer • The Register

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A Ubiquiti developer has been charged with stealing data from the company and extortion attempts totalling $2m in what prosecutors claim was a vicious campaign to harm the firm’s share price – including allegedly planting fake press stories about the breaches.

US federal prosecutors claimed that 36-year-old Nickolas Sharp had used his “access as a trusted insider” to steal data from his employer’s AWS and GitHub instances before “posing as an anonymous hacker” to send a ransom demand of 50 Bitcoins.

The DoJ statement does not mention Sharp’s employer by name, but a Linkedin account in Sharp’s name says he worked for Ubiquiti as a cloud lead between August 2018 and March 2021, having previously worked for Amazon as a software development engineer.

In an eyebrow-raising indictment [PDF, 19 pages, non-searchable] prosecutors claim Sharp not only pwned his employer’s business from the inside but joined internal damage control efforts, and allegedly posed as a concerned whistleblower to make false claims about the company wrongly downplaying the attack’s severity, wiping $4bn off its market capitalisation.

Criminal charges were filed overnight in an American federal court against Sharp, of Portland, Oregon. The indictment valued the 50 Bitcoins at $1.9m “based on the prevailing exchange rate at the time.”

US attorney Damian Williams said in a US Justice Department statement: “As further alleged, after the FBI searched his home in connection with the theft, Sharp, now posing as an anonymous company whistle-blower, planted damaging news stories falsely claiming the theft had been by a hacker enabled by a vulnerability in the company’s computer systems.”

Sharp is alleged to have downloaded an admin key which gave him “access to other credentials within Company-1’s infrastructure” from Ubiquiti’s AWS servers at 03:16 local time on 10 December 2020, using his home internet connection. Two minutes later, that same key was used to make the AWS API call GetCallerIdentity from an IP address linked to VPN provider Surfshark – to which Sharp was a subscriber, prosecutors claimed.

Later that month, according to the prosecution, he is alleged to have set AWS logs to a one-day retention policy, effectively masking his presence.

Eleven days after the AWS naughtiness, the indictment claims, he used his own connection to log into Ubiquiti’s GitHub infrastructure. “Approximately one minute later,” alleged the indictment, Sharp used Surfshark to ssh into GitHub and clone around 155 Ubiquiti repos to his home computer.

“In one fleeting instance during the exfiltration of data,” said the indictment, “the Sharp IP address was logged making an SSH connection to use GitHub Account-1 to clone a repository.”

For the rest of that night, prosecutors said, logs showed Sharp’s personal IP alternating with a Surfshark exit node while making clone calls. Although it was not spelled out in the court filing, prosecutors appeared to be suggesting that Surfshark VPN was dropping out and revealing “the attacker’s” true IP.

Ubiquiti discovered what was happening on 28 December. Prosecutors claimed Sharp then joined the company’s internal response to the breaches.

In January 2021 Ubiquiti received a ransom note sent from a Surfshark VPN IP address demanding 25 Bitcoins. If it paid an extra 25 Bitcoins on top of that, said the note, its anonymous author would reveal a backdoor in the company’s infrastructure. This appears to be what prompted Ubiquiti to write to its customers that month alerting them to a data breach. Ubiquiti did not pay the ransom, said the indictment.

Shortly after Federal Bureau of Investigation workers raided Sharp’s home, prosecutors claim he “caused false or misleading news stories to be published about the Incident and Company-1’s disclosures and response to the Incident. Sharp identified himself as an anonymous source within Company-1 who had worked on remediating the Incident. In particular, Sharp pretended that Company-1 had been hacked by an unidentified perpetrator who maliciously acquired root administrator access [to] Company-1’s AWS accounts.”

This appears to be referencing an article by infosec blogger Brian Krebs that was published that day, on 30 March 2021. He spoke “on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by Ubiquiti”, and El Reg (among many other outlets) followed up Krebs’ reporting in good faith. In that article, the “whistleblower” said he had reported Ubiquiti in to the EU Data Protection Supervisor, the political bloc’s in-house data protection body.

We have asked Krebs for comment.

Sharp is innocent unless proven guilty. He is formally charged with breaches of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, transmitting interstate threats, wire fraud and making false statements to the FBI. If found guilty on all counts and handed maximum, consecutive sentences on each, he faces 37 years in prison. ®

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Limerick’s Serosep crowned Irish Medtech Company of the Year 2021

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Other winners at the Irish Medtech Association awards included Alcon Ireland, West, Vertigenius, Luminate Medical, BioMEC, Jabil Healthcare, Cook Medical and Aerogen.

Limerick-headquartered business Serosep has been named Irish Medtech Company of the Year at a virtual conference hosted today (2 December) by The Irish Medtech Association with Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland.

The Irish Medtech Association which represents the medtech sector in Ireland made the announcement at its annual Medtech Rising conference. This year’s awards ceremony was the first to feature new categories. Alcon Ireland won the Sustainable Medtech company of the Year, while West scooped the Best Medtech Talent Strategy Award.

According to the association’s director Sinéad Keogh, the annual awards ceremony offers the medtech community a chance to “recognise and celebrate the strength and importance of the industry in improving life.”

“The sector has remained resilient despite the challenges of the Covid pandemic, with over 42,000 people now working in the industry, across 450 companies,” she added.

The overall winner, Serosep, is a self-funded, family run business, which manufactures clinical diagnostic products at its base in Annacotty, Co Limerick. It serves more than 35 different countries spread over 5 continents. The company is 25 years in business and employs 114 people. Earlier this year, it announced a five-year contract to supply its gastroenteritis diagnostic system to Liverpool University Hospital. The company already supplies the NHS.

Serosep CEO and founder Dermot Scanlon, said he was “humbled” to receive the award, adding that the company’s innovative diagnostic test tools have “changed the way gastroenteritis is tested in clinical laboratories.”

“We are currently manufacturing in excess of one million tests in our state-of-the-art facility,” he said, explaining that the award would motivate the whole company to “continue forging ahead, achieving bigger and better things.”

Other award winners included:

Trinity College Dublin spin-out Vertigenius, winner of the eHealth Innovation of the Year Award. Vertigenius is a platform which aims to enhance clinical and patient engagement in the treatment of balance problems.

Luminate Medical, winners of the Emerging Medtech Company of the Year Award. The NUI Galway spin-out has developed a technology to prevent chemotherapy induced hair loss.

NUI Galway’s Biomechanics Research Centre (BioMEC) won the Academic Contribution to Medtech Award. The company’s technology integrates the latest in silico computational models to simulate the mechanical performance of implanted coronary stents.

Bray-based Jabil Healthcare scooped the Medtech Partner/Supplier of the Year Award for its new Covid-19 PCR testing device.

Cook Medical received the Women in Leadership Company initiative Award for its commitment to gender balance in the workplace.

The Covid-19 Response Recognition Award was awarded to Aerogen which has developed an inhaled vaccine station. The company’s products have been used on more than 3m critically ill people since March 2020, according to Enterprise Ireland’s head of life sciences, Deirdre Glenn. Aerogen won last year’s Medtech Company of the Year award.

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