The History Of Skyblivion As Told By Its Developers
Oblivion streamlined The Elder Scrolls series, opening it up to a whole new audience across PC and console, paving the way for Bethesda’s now-flagship series best known for Skyrim. Yet going back, it’s interesting to see that it has also fallen victim to age, becoming difficult to get into much like the games it built on—that’s something that the Skyblivion team is seeking to remedy with its reimagining of Oblivion in Skyrim’s updated engine. Think of it like what Black Mesa is to Half-Life, only on a much larger scale.
“[The original project lead] Zilav started working on a port for Oblivion at the end of 2012 or the start of 2013,” Skyblivion lead K Rebel tells me. “You could download it through the forums, but it was completely broken. That’s how I first heard about the scope while I was working on Skywind, a similar remake of Morrowind.
“It was a hot mess. Everything was missing, everything was broken, everything crashed. It didn’t look anything like Oblivion. But the seed had been planted. What drew me to the project was a message on the forum from a fan who was asking about Skyblivion. He asked, ‘Where can I download it? What can I do? When can I expect X or Y to work?’ And Zilav said that he was the only one working on the project and that there was nobody to reply to, no team, no leader, no modellers, nobody. Everyone was working on Skywind.”
So Rebel got to work with Zilav, aiming to take that empty husk of a build and get the wheels moving. That first build was taken down by Bethesda for breaching copyright, but work had already begun on a more ambitious project, one that would build up a team of modders aiming to rebuild a classic to match the standards of Skyrim. Rebel took charge of the new Skyblivion, leaving Skywind behind. He brought in leads, set up departments, and placed an emphasis on marketing with live streams, trailers, dev updates, and a Discord that still keeps everyone in the loop. It only took three years for the project to hit the mainstream Skyrim community.
“Around 2016, I made a trailer on my YouTube channel called Return to Cyrodiil – it’s still up now and has around 1.3 million views,” Rebel says.
It was this trailer that saw landscaping lead Dee Keyes join in 2017. “Return to Cyrodiil caught my eye and my nostalgia for it got me back into the Skyrim Creation Kit – the Bethesda modding tools we use – and I made a little project of my own that I ended up submitting as an application for Skyblivion. I was brought onto the team fairly quickly, maybe even that night, but from then on, I spent around four years alone, just making one part of the map – Blackwood.”
Around this time, “everything was just Oblivion assets,” implementation lead and level designer Jack Long tells me. “Oblivion was the first RPG I played and so I wanted to help with a game I really loved and a game I knew would never get a proper remaster.”
That trailer ignited something in Skyblivion that wasn’t really seen prior to version 1.2 – open communication with fans. You had the team posting regular updates, concept art, and models on Discord, while livestreams gave us a closer peek behind the curtains.
“I would like to think people have learned from the streams, watching one of us use the Creation Kit and then trying to themselves,” Keyes says. “That’s a constant morale boost to the fan base to see it moving along constantly with good progress. We’ve built up a loyal fanbase who are waiting for this game and I’m surprised and still amazed when I look over and see 90 people watching me place objects. I’m like, ‘How are you watching this?’ I’d like to think it’s a two-way street because they’re constantly complimenting me, helping me, and making me feel good about the project.
“For example, Skyrim cut a lot of the fat out of their dungeons and made things more interesting so the player wasn’t running around in corridors with no enemies to fight or nothing interesting to see,” Keyes continues. “So I suggested cutting parts of the fort I was designing to make it more compact and interesting and one of the fans actually drew up plans for that which I ended up using. I don’t mind a bit of backseat development.”
Before Rebel, Skyblivion was a simple exoskeleton – a map shoddily ported and illegally shared – but that marketing buzz helped things to quickly pick up speed. The new trailer might have roped in talent, but this monumental moment in Skyblivion’s history wasn’t without problems.
“The video went viral so all of a sudden, we had a huge influx of people interested in joining the project,” Rebel explains. “The problem was that I was still managing it on my own – there were no department leads. There was just me trying to figure out where to put people and define what the goal was. Skyblivion was always going to be a remake of Oblivion which means that you have the quests from the original game, so we set out to automatically convert them.
“That was an idea from one of the engineers. He wanted to convert all the quest data from Oblivion to Skyrim – that was his big vision. So that’s something I didn’t have to concern myself with. What I did concern myself with was that, until quests are completed, Skyblivion is not going to release – what can we do in the meantime? Rebuild the world, make it look more detailed, more polished, at a similar level of detail as Skyrim. We set out to remake assets. That was our mission. But the automatic quest conversion didn’t work.
“It worked for around 70 percent of quests, leaving 30 percent where we have to go in and do a lot of manual work to fix the spaghetti code. We started trying to recreate assets and the worlds, but the big challenge was that we were educating ourselves. We didn’t have professional game developers on the team. We didn’t have expert modders. A lot of us were new to the Creation Kit and learning as we went along, making a lot of mistakes.”
But that learning process wasn’t all bad, seeing everyone grow and being able to pass on that learned knowledge is something that the team has relished as Keyes tells me. “I get a real enjoyment out of teaching other people how to do it. Seeing the pride people feel when they’ve learned how to do something themselves. One of the important byproducts of projects like this is that you’ve got people coming on this team that are professionals that might be leads in proper game studios or experienced artists, but then you have people that want to get that experience and learn. I like to pay particular attention to those people and show them the very important basics.”
As departments started to form, Keyes and Long got promoted and given lead positions, building to the project’s second viral moment in 2019.
“Around [early 2019] is when we started to realise how things needed to be handled and how we needed to create an efficient workflow,” Rebel says. “Ever since then, it’s been going well. 2019 is when we uploaded the new Skyblivion trailer and it went viral – we had around three million views and a lot of new people coming in.”
Fin Douglas, the 3D, implementation, and QA lead, joined the project in the aftermath of this second trailer. “I’ve been using Blender for the last five years or so and learning tutorials and doing random little projects – I thought I’d like to use Blender for good, so I could join projects I care about and am passionate about. I hadn’t done any Skyrim modding before I joined the project so, for my test, I dove into the original Oblivion files and the Skyrim models and tried to recreate their workflow as best I could in Blender.
“I’m now known for haranguing everyone about polycount. My view is to take stuff down, while the general project view is to have 1.5 times the polygon of an original Skyrim asset. So if a helmet is 500, we’re going for 750. If you’re in a world and everything’s a very high poly count, suddenly you’ll find that frame rate suffers, so the more I harangue and annoy and get on everyone’s nerves, the better optimised the game should be – that’s the bullet I’m taking by frustrating everybody.”
Rebel says these past three years have been by far the most productive for the project. “We’re getting new volunteers and know where to put them,” he says. “Most of our clutter has been finished, and most of the weapons and armour are finished. The big thing remaining for us at the moment is architecture. There are a few pieces of clothing left and plants, but that’s it. Creatures are done, we’re quite far along with quests.
“The main quest is massive and very complicated. Other branching quest lines like the Mage’s Guild or the Fighter’s Guild require a lot more work than something small like a fetch quest, so we’re not done. But the work today is manageable. We see exactly on our spreadsheets and boards what needs to be done and that’s a really big difference from the start in 2013 or the viral video in 2016. Back then, we were all buying into an idea. We knew what we wanted to achieve, but we didn’t really know how to achieve it.”
Bringing that idea to life is a complicated beast – on the one hand, there’s staying accurate to Oblivion, but on the other hand, there’s bringing it up to speed with Skyrim. We see that all over from Leyawiin's widened docks to the more realistic proportions of armour, but the whimsical high fantasy of Oblivion is something the team is striving to keep intact, while also putting their own spin on things. That's a lot to juggle.
“We implemented these weathers that took all the cold weather you’re used to in Skyrim and brought this vibrance and warmth that we all remember from Oblivion,” Keyes tells me. "It’s helped ground us and keep us based in what we think of when we compare screenshots of Skyblivion with Oblivion – we’re not looking at pictures of Oblivion, necessarily. We stick to some things for reference, but we’re not making Oblivion from reference pictures. It’s about maintaining what we remember it as looking like.”
For interior designer Jonathan Z, capturing the spirit of the world means staying true to its “low fantasy” roots. “You have demons and all that, but the buildings are built by humans with scaffolding and the world should reflect that – the miners aren’t using magic to mine ores. They’re using pickaxes. And the fort interiors are still built by humans, so it should reflect that and not be overly grandiose. The Empire is partly based on the Roman Empire, so we’re taking all these influences where we can and incorporating Oblivion concept art that didn’t get used due to time constraints, all to make it perfect. We want to keep that joyful and cheerful essence of Oblivion, but ground it more.”
It’s not only Oblivion’s atmosphere that the team is conscious of but its approach to storytelling. Skyrim and Morrowind are very different, using environmental cues to make the most mundane and tucked away areas rich with story – you can find the skeletal remains of a mammoth encased in the ice beside a lover’s camp on the river with journals and scattered notes, painting a small and ultimately inconsequential picture. Oblivion doesn’t do this or at least, not often, but the Skyblivion team wanted to look at the other games’ approach for influence, expanding on Oblivion’s world while staying within that box to keep it as lore-friendly as possible.
“Not every location has a lot of lore,” Long says. “But there’s a lot of nothing where it’s hard to find something. So we either stick to the original and keep it basic, or add something new to it. For instance, we turned a fort into a Roman manor that’s been overrun by goblins. There was no lore to begin with for that location, nothing to go off. Skyrim has a lot more attention to detail for individual locations and we’re trying to bring that to Oblivion.”
Keyes feels the same, adding more to the world with subtle storytelling that leaves the story open to player interpretation, keeping the layer of discoverability and mystique. “I was redesigning Blackwood around the time that The Elder Scrolls Online expansion was coming out. I think it turned out pretty similar – it has a part of the forest that’s burned and I was amazed to see that because I did the same a few years ago. But I didn’t want to give a big grand history like a bunch of mages led an attack or something like that because that would have been part of the history, and you don’t want to insert too much of your own lore that’s not official. It’s best left ambiguous to the player. I’m not going to tell you why, but I might just leave some environmental clues to what happened.”
It’s not just places, but the finest details of the game the team has to consider the story behind too. “I get really nerdy about it if we’re remaking an asset,” Douglas says. “I’ll be checking out the lore behind whatever the asset is so I don’t contradict but I try to be a bit more realistic than fantastical. At the moment, I’m remaking the statue of Namira. I’m making the whole thing look like it’s been carved out of one big piece of marble. I’ve also remade all the middle and lower-class carpets. I’ve tried to give them a Roman twist and make them more Cyrodilic as in the original, they’re very Persian, which isn’t fitting.”
The latest Skyblivion video shows the team nearing its final stretch as development goes smoother and more efficiently than ever. But while it might seem as though it’s right around the corner, with it being a volunteer project, things aren’t so cut and dry.
“It’s hard to give an estimate,” Z says. “We are seeing the end of the tunnel, but it’s hard to say when that is. We’re closer to the end than the beginning but it’s a matter of onboarding – people go on vacation, have more work to do, and real-life priorities. So it’s nice to see the end of the tunnel, but we can’t give a release date because it’s a mod project at the end of the day. People have priorities. So we don’t want to promise anything with 100 percent certainty as people work on it when they have the time to.”
Regardless, the team are already gearing up for the next chapter, the exciting bits they’ve left ‘till last.
“Oblivion realms are bananas unique, worlds within the world of Oblivion, this alien, lava infested wasteland,” Rebel says. “Oblivion is literally in the title – it’s a big part of the games’ cycle and loop and you’re going to be going in and out, so the models need to be really good because you’re going to be seeing them a lot. What we’ve decided now is to save the Oblivion realms for the last parts of development because we want to use everything we’ve learned and apply all these lessons and focus on the gates and realms to make them the best they can be. We want them to be fun, dynamic, and interesting, and not a chore like they were in Oblivion.”
Keyes says that right now, it’s about clearing the board and making the most of what they have. “We’re at the point where we can’t redesign everything from the ground up. We have to get a move on and not let any features get in our way. The team has been amazing at not letting that stuff slow us down, making our to-do list longer. Everyone is hyper-focused on ticking things off and getting things done, and that’s one of the reasons we’ve moved so quickly. I can’t wait to see people play it and then, afterwards, I can’t wait to see us all get back to work on the DLCs. They’re smaller projects, a lot more hyper-focused, and the team at Bethesda was clearly having fun with them. So I’m hoping to see a second coming of that when we get to remaster them.”
Skyblivion is finally rearing its head, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. If you want to help out with the project, you can join its Discord and get in touch. Or if you just want to stay in the loop, you’ll find regular updates, announcements, and Twitch streams shared to the Discord on an almost-daily basis.
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