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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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Russian-backed rulers of Costa Rican hacktocracy? • The Register

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In brief The notorious Russian-aligned Conti ransomware gang has upped the ante in its attack against Costa Rica, threatening to overthrow the government if it doesn’t pay a $20 million ransom. 

Costa Rican president Rodrigo Chaves said that the country is effectively at war with the gang, who in April infiltrated the government’s computer systems, gaining a foothold in 27 agencies at various government levels. The US State Department has offered a $15 million reward leading to the capture of Conti’s leaders, who it said have made more than $150 million from 1,000+ victims.

Conti claimed this week that it has insiders in the Costa Rican government, the AP reported, warning that “We are determined to overthrow the government by means of a cyber attack, we have already shown you all the strength and power, you have introduced an emergency.” 

Experts who spoke to the AP said they doubt actual regime change is likely, or the goal; Emsisoft analyst Brett Callow told the newswire that the threats are simply noise, and not to be taken seriously.

Callow may be right: News unfolding late this week suggests that Conti has gone offline, and may be breaking into several subsidiary groups. Its political ambitions in Costa Rica may just be a distraction, albeit one that could also turn a tidy profit. 

NSA: Trust us, no post-quantum encryption backdoors

The NSA wants to ease everyone’s concerns now: Even though it’s been involved in the US government’s post-quantum encryption research, the spy agency won’t have a backdoor.

Speaking to Bloomberg while discussing the National Institute for Standards and Technology’s post-quantum encryption competition, NSA Director of Cybersecurity (and Christmas-tree hacker) Rob Joyce said the new standards being developed are so strong that “there are no backdoors.” 

That would be a departure from previous encryption standards, which the NSA is believed to have had ready access to – until foreign spies acquired a copy of the backdoor software for their own use. The Biden administration recently announced additional funding for post-quantum encryption research, which aims to develop a form of protecting sensitive data so secure that even a quantum computer couldn’t crack it. 

The US has been actively working to develop encryption standards able to stand up to quantum computers for some time; Joyce claimed to Bloomberg that the NSA has had its own post-quantum encryption algorithms for several years, but those aren’t part of the NIST competition or available to the public. 

Despite spending tens of millions to address the security problems posed by quantum computers, the NSA also readily admits that it has no idea when, or even if, quantum computers able to crack modern public key cryptography will be realized. 

Frustrated IT admin gets seven years for deleting company databases

A former database administrator from China who wiped out his employer’s financial records has been sentenced to seven years in prison as a result.

Han Bing, who managed databases for Chinese real estate brokerage Lianjia, allegedly used his administrator access and root privileges to log in to two of Lianjia’s database servers, and two application servers, where he wiped financial data and related applications that took the company’s entire finance system offline, said Chinese news sources. 

Bing was reportedly disgruntled with his employer. He repeatedly warned them of security flaws in Lianjia’s finance system but felt ignored and undervalued, Lianjia’s ethics chief testified in court. Bing’s actions directly cost the company around $27,000 to recover data and rebuilt systems, but that doesn’t include the impact of lost business.

Bing was caught when Lianjia questioned everyone with access to the financial systems who had permissions to do what Bing did, of whom there were only five. The company claims that Bing acted suspiciously when asked to present his laptop for inspection, refusing to provide his password and claiming privacy privileges. 

The company said it suspected none of the laptops would show traces of the attack, but wanted to see how those it questioned would react. Investigators were later able to recover logs that pointed to Bing’s laptop’s IP and MAC addresses, and crosschecking logs against security footage put Bing in the right place at the right time to be the guilty party.

Apple patches a whopping 98 separate vulnerabilities

Apple has had a busy week: In a series of security updates released Monday and Wednesday, the iMaker patched 98 separate vulnerabilities out of its various software platforms.

The updates in question cover most every bit of software Apple makes: WatchOS, iOS and iPad OS, macOS Monterey, Big Sur and Catalina, Xcode, tvOS, Safari and iTunes for Windows were all included. Most of the vulnerabilities are from the past few months, but one common vulnerability and exposure (CVE) number covered by the updates dates back to 2015.

A few of the vulnerabilities covered by this week’s glut of Apple patches were rolled out previously for one system, but not others, as was the case with CVE-2022-22674 and -22675, which were patched in macOS Monterey, but not older versions, in April. Those vulnerabilities were reportedly being actively exploited at the time. 

Malicious applications executing arbitrary code with kernel privileges appears to be the most common type of hole being closed in this round of patches, though some do stand out, like Apple Watch bugs that could let apps capture the screen and bypass signature validation.

On iOS, vulnerabilities patched include websites being able to track users in Safari private browsing mode, while macOS users are being protected against apps being able to bypass Privacy preferences and access restricted portions of the filesystem.

Russian-backing Chaos ransomware variant is pure destruction

Cybersecurity firm Fortinet has discovered a variant of the Chaos ransomware that professes support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but appears to have no decryption key to rescue victims in Putin’s regime. 

The variant appears to have been compiled with Chaos’ GUI customization tool as recently as May 16, Fortinet said. The researchers said they’re unsure how the Chaos variant infects its victims, and said the variant doesn’t act any differently than typical Chaos ransomware. 

Like other forms of Chaos, it enumerates files on infected systems, and irrevocably damages any larger than around 2MB by filling it with random bytes. Anything smaller is encrypted, but recoverable with a key. Chaos also typically attacks commonly used directories like Desktop, Contacts, Downloads and Pictures, which are encrypted entirely. 

Here’s where this Chaos variant differs: It’s overtly political, and instead of offering contact info and a ransom demand, the malware simply says “Stop Ukraine War! F**k Zelensky! Dont [sic] go die for f**king clown,” along with a pair of links to sites claiming to belong to the Information Coordination Center, but offering no information otherwise. Files are also encrypted with a “f**kazov” extension, likely referring to the Ukrainian Azov Battalion.

Fortinet said that this Chaos variant appears unique in the sense it appears designed to be file-destroying malware. “This particular variant provides no such avenue as the attacker has no intent on providing a decryption tool … clearly, the motive behind this malware is destruction,” Fortinet said. 

The FortiGuard team behind the research warns that with its GUI, Chaos ransomware has become a commodity product, and it expects additional attacks of this variety to emerge. ®



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UCD-led research finds potential treatment for advanced eye cancer

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The team said their research could help improve treatment options for advanced uveal melanoma, which currently has a poor survival rate.

An international team of researchers led by University College Dublin (UCD) have uncovered a potential treatment for a type of cancer that effects the eye.

The researchers looked at uveal melanoma (UM), the most common form of eye cancer which is diagnosed in 50 to 60 people in Ireland each year. The team explained that UM begins in the middle layer of the eye, but if it spreads to the liver and other parts of the body, patients have a poor survival prognosis.

Future Human

In their study, the team aimed to uncover treatment options for the advanced stage of this eye cancer, as it becomes very difficult to treat once it has spread.

The researchers focused on a drug called ACY-1215, which is currently in clinical trials for other solid tumours and blood cancers. This drug belongs to a relatively new group of anticancer drugs called histone deacetylase inhibitors (HDACi).

“We wanted to understand how ACY-1215 works to prevent tumour cell growth and spread, in the context of UM,” said postdoctoral researcher Dr Husvinee Sundaramurthi.

Histones are proteins that provide structural support for DNA in cells, allowing DNA to be tightly packaged together. The researchers said these proteins act like a spool that a thread of DNA can wrap itself around.

In the study, the team used the drug ACY-1215 to interfere with the histones in advanced UM cells, to stop the processes involved in their survival and growth.

“We uncovered the particular molecules that may be involved in the anticancer effects the drug ACY-1215 has in advanced UM cells,” said study lead Prof Breandan Kennedy.

“This study will pave the way to look more closely at the benefits of using HDACi, specifically ACY-1215, as a suitable treatment option for advanced UM.”

Kennedy said that by understanding the therapeutic potential of the small molecules involved in the anticancer effects, researchers can improve UM patient care and create personalised treatment strategies.

The international research team involved groups from Spain, Sweden and Ireland. Funding was provided through grants from the Irish Research Council, in collaboration with Breakthrough Cancer Research, UCD’s TopMed10, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions CoFund Programme and Horizon 2020.

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Crypto is starting to lose its cool – just look at El Salvador | Rowan Moore

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To its evangelists, bitcoin is a frictionless, empowering form of money that liberates citizens of the world from the shackles of banks and national governments. To sceptics, the cryptocurrency is a tool of kleptocrats and gangsters, environmentally monstrous in its consumption of energy, a digitally glamorised Ponzi scheme whose eventual crash will most hurt those least able to afford a loss.

Confidence may or may not have been enhanced by the unveiling, by President Nayib Bukele, of images of a proposed bitcoin-shaped Bitcoin City in El Salvador, funded with a bitcoin bond, the currency’s logo embedded in the central plaza, a metropolis powered with geothermal energy from a nearby volcano. Bukele, the self-styled “coolest dictator in the world”, a former publicist who wears baseball caps back to front, has already made El Salvador the first country to adopt bitcoin as the official currency. “The plan is simple,” he said. “As the world falls into tyranny, we’ll create a haven for freedom.”

Leaving aside the worrisome Pompeii vibe of the city’s location, some shine has come off the president’s vision with the news that the country’s investments in cryptocurrency have lost 45% of their value, that it scores CCC with the credit rating agency Fitch, and that the perceived risk of its bonds is up there with that of war-torn Ukraine. And Bukele’s talk of freedom doesn’t sit well with Amnesty International’s claim that his recent state of emergency has created “a perfect storm of human rights violations”.

But why worry about any of this when you have shiny computer-generated images of a fantasy city to distract you?

Unsecured credit line

Boris Johnson waves his arms behind a podium with the Elizabeth line sign.
The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan looks on as Boris Johnson gives a speech at Paddington station on 17 May 2022. Photograph: Reuters

The use of constructional bluster by populist leaders – Trump’s wall, for example – is not in itself anything new. See also the island airport, garden bridge, Irish Sea bridge, 40 new hospitals and 300,000 homes a year promised but not delivered by Boris Johnson, and the nuclear power stations he has implausibly pledged to build at a rate of one a year.

Last week his fondness for Potemkin infrastructure took a new twist. Rather than over-promise illusory schemes and under-deliver them, he decided to take credit for something actually built, the £19bn Elizabeth line in London, formerly known as Crossrail, whose central section opens to the public on Tuesday. “We get the big things done,” he boasted to the House of Commons, choosing to ignore the fact that the line was initiated under a Labour prime minister and a Labour mayor of London. He almost makes Nayib Bukele look credible.

Behind the red wall

Characters from The House of Shades gather around a table on stage
Mounting misery: The House of Shades. Photograph: Helen Murray

If you want a light-hearted night out – a date, a birthday treat – then The House of Shades, a new play by Beth Steel, might not, unless you are an unusual person, be for you. It is a cross between Greek tragedy and what was once called kitchen sink drama, a story of ever-mounting misery set in a Nottinghamshire town from 1965 to 2019. It covers the collapse of manufacturing, the rise of Thatcherism, the promises of New Labour and the disillusionment that led to “red wall” seats voting Conservative in 2019.

It features illegal abortion, graphically portrayed, and the effects of inflation, both newly significant. All presented at the Almeida theatre in the famously metropolitan London borough of Islington, not far from the former restaurant where Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did the 1994 deal that shaped some of the events in the play. There’s irony here to make this audience squirm. Which, along with several other not-comfortable emotions, is probably the desired effect.

Rowan Moore is the Observer’s architecture correspondent

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