This article was originally published in PC Gamer issue 276. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US.
"It s a total conversion for a four-year-old game, read PC Gamer US s rundown of Nehrim: At Fate s Edge, when the Oblivion mod clinched the coveted Mod of the Year award in 2010. But Nehrim is so impressive that it was a contender not just for best mod, but for best RPG. Such are the lofty standards that German hobbyist group SureAI works to, its total conversion mods feel less like add-ons or additional content indolently tacked onto games post-release, and more like entirely new releases.
Nehrim received plaudits across the board, including four separate Mod of the Year accolades from ModDB. It was praised for its detailed plot, its mature political and sociopolitical themes, and its extensive landscapes.
Enderal: The Shards of Order, SureAI s upcoming Skyrim total conversion, aims to be bigger still. Enderal is almost as big as Skyrim, Nico Lietzau, one of SureAI s team leaders, tells me. There are a lot of areas to explore. In terms of exteriors, there are different climate zones: a desert, a forest, heathlands, mountains, all with different vegetation and climates, there s a lot going on. And of course there are many, many dungeons. A mod of Skyrim quality that is almost as big as Skyrim itself. And it s out this year.
We re in good hands. SureAI has been casting its modding magic since the team s inception in 2003, when a small group of Bethesda enthusiasts came together out of a common love for the freedom and atmosphere conveyed by that publisher s sprawling sandbox worlds. Having met through the German modding community amid the fanfare surrounding Morrowind, SureAI originally consisted of two teams: one working on its debut project Myar Aranath; another on a second Arktwend. Upon completion of the first mod, the Aranath team dissolved, its members fusing with their Arktwend counterparts to move forward as a united front.
SureAI may be a hobbyist group working for free, but regimental organisation and rigorous professionalism rank just as highly with the team as the standard of the games they produce. Although inspired by and running on the engines of previous Elder Scrolls games, Myar Aranath, Arktwend, Nehrim and Enderal exist in their own extensive universe, separate from those dreamt up by Bethesda. They have their own lore, their own characters, their own political and economic infrastructures, their own intricate game systems.
The group operates along similar lines to a professional development studio. Although many of the peripheral personnel work remotely around the world, SureAI is now based in an office in Munich, which houses the ten-strong core team. Lietzau notes that in conjunction with studying game design at university, he sometimes finds himself sinking 40-60 hours of work per week into Enderal s development. And most of the team treat SureAI as their main job, even though the majority of them hold down real jobs elsewhere—most of which are in and around the games industry, but some as far afield as architecture and full-time parenting.
Myar Aranath, Arktwend, Nehrim and Enderal exist in their own extensive universe
With Enderal we started planning before 2011, before the [Skyrim] creation kit was released, explains Johannes Scheer, another of SureAI s leads, and one of its founding fathers. After Skyrim we did some pre-production, where we set the scope of the project, first drafts of the story, and features we wanted to change. We do change a lot of the gameplay, as a matter of fact, and then we just work to a rough production plan.
Features are realised one by one, to see if they re still fun to play once implemented. If they aren t, we discuss and see what we can do to make it more fun. As opposed to a normal game production, we already have assets to start building levels right away, so we can start all the departments at once. We start building the world, the quest designers start working away, and once the quest script is written they start implementing it. That goes on for a long time and we try to play it as much as we can along the way.
Enderal takes place two and a half years after the events of Nehrim, and although newcomers can expect to jump aboard with little difficulty, recurring characters and nods to its predecessors await those more familiar with the lore of the series. The aftermath of Nehrim has sunk the land into civil war, forcing the game s protagonist to flee to the isolated continent of Enderal. Very quickly, however, it becomes clear that all is not well and that a red madness has taken over the minds of Enderal s inhabitants.
The protagonist begins to have surreal and disturbing dreams in which he happens upon the theocratic Order of Enderal. He learns of Cycles —passages of civilisation which see its citizens live, prosper, and then miraculously disappear without trace. It s all very dark, but Lietzau makes clear that s it s not as black and white as it may first appear on paper. It s not as simple as putting rest to a demon army which The Order appears to represent—rather Enderal s plot is to be multi-faceted, ominous, and complex with no immediately obvious friends or foes.
What makes Enderal different from Skyrim besides this surrogate storyline? Perhaps the most obvious transformation is the mod s overhauled class system, which itself adopts a modified version of SkyUI, the community-made improvement of Bethesda s user interface. Basically the intention was to make a class system which is more traditional, but still has all the advantages of a sandbox skill system, says Lietzau. While in Skyrim you could basically skill every perk that was there, in Enderal you have nine classes and every class improves two skills. You can specialise in two, perhaps two and a half classes. That means you kind of have to commit yourself to a path, and we did this to create a sense of identity for the player.
Another significant change is the omission of Skyrim s signature Dragonshouts. Given that Enderal s protagonist is not the Dragonborn, this change is hardly surprising, but it will change the feel of the game. Special skills known as Talents stand in the place of shouts. Every class has two Talents that can be unlocked via the assigned perk tree, which allow the player greater variety in combat. In developing these, the player s combat style will ultimately reflect their class.
Levelling up in Enderal is different to Skyrim in that SureAI has completely disabled the native learning by doing protocol, instead allowing players to gain traditional experience points by killing monsters, completing quests, exploring locations, and possibly even by being witty in dialogue scenarios. Once the player has a certain number of experience points, they can level up. A single Skill Point is also provided at this stage which can be transferred to the class tree, and thus work towards buying the player new Talents.
There are also Learning Points and Craftsman Points, adds Lietzau. Learning Points can be used to advance your skills with trainers—it s a little different from the trainers in Nehrim because in Enderal you can buy books from trainers, meaning you don t have to go back every time you level up. Instead you can buy, say, five books that train your one-handed skill, but you must have the Learning Points to consume them.
A precise shot from the hero s bow ignites the oil, toasting everything in the vicinity
Players also have Craftsman Points, which operate in a similar fashion. While we thought things like speechcraft in Skyrim were hardly ever used—players tended to consider points too precious to use on things like this—in Enderal you can use your CPs to increase your crafting skills, or your speechcraft skill. I think it s also safe to say that this system makes crafting and skills like speechcraft a lot more useful.
These are major, cultured changes and it s easy to get bogged down in the finer intricacies without seeing them firsthand. To put things into context, SureAI demonstrates Talents in action. By pulling from the Trickery and Vagabond disciplines respectively, you re able to combine a flask of oil with a flame-tipped arrow, so I watch as deep within a dingy catacomb SureAI s player character smashes a jug of oil against the floor, catching an unsuspecting enemy s attention in the process. The enemy charges, only to slip on the oil spill and tumble to the ground. A precise shot from the hero s bow ignites the oil, toasting everything in the vicinity—enemy included.
This mix-and-match mentality echoes the Plasmid system of BioShock, and Lietzau assures me a vast array of combinations await keen conceptual connoisseurs. He admits that it is also possible to sneak your way through dungeons, avoiding foes whilst hugging the shadows—but when there appears to be so much scope and so much potential in this nuanced combat system, why would you not want to get your hands dirty?
My conversation with Lietzau and Scheer eventually leads me to two burning questions I have to ask. Firstly: if this is a game rooted in Skyrim, aesthetically, if nothing else, do SureAI think they ve made a better game?
Scheer laughs, almost as if he s surprised that I ve asked, but at the same time surprised that it s taken almost an hour of chatting for the question to come up. Well I d say we definitely succeeded in delivering the same standard of quality, he offers diplomatically. Enderal plays like a triple-A roleplaying game and this is something we re very proud of. In terms of if it s better—that really depends on the player. As I say, we have a different focus, the focus on the whole world just feels different. I think it s up to the players to determine if they enjoy it more or less than Skyrim but I think we definitely succeeded in making something comparable to Skyrim.
I m not surprised by the conservative response. First and foremost these guys are Skyrim fanatics, and it would be uncharacteristic for them to criticise their core inspiration. Nevertheless they re clearly very passionate about their own game. They ve worked incredibly hard on Enderal—and on all of their projects—and know that the best way to definitively answer the question one way or another is to release the game into the world and let the public decide.
This leads me on to my second question: as a hobbyist outfit working for no pay, how do they manage to work so hard, and yet stay so motivated?
It actually works pretty well for us, Lietzau says, but in general, non-commercial projects are always very hard to realise because people lose their motivation so quickly if they re not getting paid for it. If people don t depend on it, some can be really unreliable. We ve had a lot of bad experiences with people coming into the team and promising to do a lot of stuff and have then just left. We now have very complicated application procedures, so that doesn t happen too often, but it is very hard to keep people motivated.
He pauses for thought. For us it works because first of all, through the years of development, most of the people who are not committed leave anyway, so the rest remain. We re also very tight and work as a team, and we try to keep everyone—even if it s someone who has just applied—involved in the process, because it s important to feel as though you re contributing something of your own—especially when working non-commercially. This keeps people motivated for a long time.
For those familiar with Nehrim, it may come as a surprise to learn that SureAI had in fact envisioned an even more ambitious project than what came to be. Ultimately they were governed by limited time and resources. Nonetheless, Nehrim set the bar extremely high as far as total conversion mods go, not least for themselves and successor Enderal. ModDB has preemptively awarded their Skyrim conversion Best Upcoming Mod for the last three years running, all before even a sniff of a release date.
Even now that tentative 2015 date isn t nearly as specific as it could be, but given SureAI s track record, not to mention the quality of what they ve shown off so far, Enderal is almost certain to make good on it. Should this be the case, SureAI s plan is to make the jump to fullyfledged professional independent development studio.
Until then, developing a game based on Bethesda s game engine and legacy, SureAI are standing on the shoulders of giants. But they re doing so wearing a damn flashy pair of Daedric boots.
By Joe Donnelly
For more Skyrim mods, check out our round-up of 50 of the best.