“Hey, you. You’re finally awake.” Those words are etched into the minds of many a gamer; the first words uttered after you wake up in Skyrim’s infamous opening cart scene. But in one of the latest “game development is really hard and unpredictable, actually,” stories, former Bethesda dev Nate Purkeypile revealed that a bee, of all things, almost ruined the Skyrim opening cart ride.
Purkeypile, who is now an indie developer under the the moniker “Just Purkey Games,” detailed the issue in a Twitter thread. Purkeypile is a storied dev with more than 17 years of experience. In his time at Bethesda, he worked on Fallout 3, Fallout 4, Skyrim, Fallout 76, and the yet-to-be-released Starfield. He left Bethesda to go solo in April this year.
He starts his thread about the Skyrim intro saying that he’s seen that cart ride “easily hundreds” of times in the extensive work they had to do to get it right. Part of the reason for this complicated development process? The cart that the player is riding in is physically simulated, rather than on-rails. This means that world geometry impacted the cart in… interesting ways. “Why you ask? Good question,” he says. He doesn’t elaborate further, but seems to indicate that this is just one of those bizarre decisions that was made at the time.
Purkeypile said that all sorts of things could cause the cart to experience issues in that brief ride. “Maybe the road was too bumpy. Maybe there was just a physics bug. Maybe somebody accidentally put a rock too close to the road. The cart had a path it wanted to follow, but that doesn’t mean it was a path it COULD follow. Big difference.”
But one bizarre issue became difficult to reliably recreate. The cart would sometimes “shake violently and all of a sudden WHOOSH! The cart goes up into the sky like a rocket ship. Like WAY up there.” It wasn’t happening every time, but when it did, “something was telling that cart to just fuck right off and to get off that road.”
Separately, another bug was making it so that you couldn’t pick up the bee, which is a potion ingredient. This bug was resolved by giving the bee collision, which allowed it to be picked up, but… I bet you can see where this is going. The type of collision the bee was given let it collide with other objects on the world. Including that cart your player character first wakes up in. So in the physically simulated opening cart ride, should a bee happen to cross the path of the cart, the bee won that fight every time.
“That bee was an immovable force of nature if it ever happened to cross the path of the cart. The cart wanted to move down the road. The bee did not want to move. So up the cart goes!”
Purkeypile didn’t detail exactly how the developers finally discovered this literal bug, or how they solved the problem, but he reiterates that game development is hard and the same interplay of systems that makes games so unique and wonderful cause also cause cascading and unexpected issues across the rest of the game with one simple fix or change.
You can read Purkeypile’s full thread below:
So, I have a story about the Skyrim Intro and how hard game development is.
That intro is famous now, but back then, it was just that one thing that we had to keep working and working on forever. I lost track of how many times I’ve seen that cart ride. Easily hundreds. (thread) pic.twitter.com/D0E0oZ5uX8
— Nate Purkeypile (@NPurkeypile) August 17, 2021
Another former Skyrim dev added an anecdote about the bees that coincided with this time, when they experimented with having bees follow anyone, including the player, who had honey in their inventory. Seems like a logical AI decision with no drawbacks whatsoever, right? Except thanks to the collision, the bees would bring the player to a complete halt.
I’m reminiscing when @jean_simonet set the Skyrim bees to follow characters (including the player) with honey in their inventory.
I think this overlapped when bees had collision per your story today, @NPurkeypile – ie they stopped you
Got honey? Pull over, you’re in bee jail
— Joel Burgess (@JoelBurgess) August 17, 2021
This is all to show that even something as simple as making a physics change to something as small as a bee in a game can have side effects on seemingly unrelated parts, which highlights the need for QA to be able to stress test even the most bizarre scenarios (otherwise your players end up becoming the testers on release, and they often aren’t as forgiving, as we’ve seen). It’s also why things that seem simple to fix in games are often deceptively more complicated than they appear, tied into other systems in ways that result in unpredictable cascading effects.
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