"There's about 300 hours of play in Skyrim... actually, we've kind of stopped counting," says game director Todd Howard, during our live demo.
"There's so much stuff in the game." Howard is holding court, the proud father of a five year labour of love, and we're gripped. We've been gripped since Skyrim was announced late last year, since the first drum beat of that teaser trailer announced that our favourite obsession was about to start all over again.
While that '300 hour' number makes for impressive headlines, to the Elder Scrolls player it's arbitrary. Anyone who experienced the last entry in the series, Oblivion, knows that the true beauty of the game isn't in counting how long it takes to get from A to B or boasting about
how quickly you finished the main plot.It's about setting off from A, wandering off to X, D and P, discovering WTF, and realising - ten hours later - that you've completely forgotten about B.
In fact, you've forgotten about anything outside of the fantasy world you're currently living in. There were moments during our Oblivion playthrough when we genuinely worried that we cared less about our connection to the outside world than what was happening inside Cyrodiil.
SKYRIM OR iRIM?
For the time-poor, such an addictive and potentially confusing game can seem intimidating, which explains Bethesda's decision to make Skyrim much more accessible and user-friendly. Not dumbeddown, just focused, elegant. Anyone who sits outside the 'hardcore' crowd would be forgiven for stumbling out of Oblivion's opening sewer section, taking one look at the vast world map and the rather brown menu system, and just giving up.
That's why those fusty old menus have been replaced with easy to navigate, cool-coloured, Apple-inspired interfaces - it's like managing your character via an iPhone as opposed to a weighty old hardback of Oblivion. Your core stats appear as a star chart, you can flick through kit, rotate and examine every item you've picked up - it just feels good.
And perhaps we're speaking too soon, but we think it'll still feel good after you've sunk 100 hours into Skyrim. "We know the first ten hours are fun," explains executive producer Craig Lafferty, speaking to us after the demo. "But we need to make sure that if you do play for 300 hours that you're still having fun, still meeting the dragons - things like that."
That's the key for the team at Bethesda. They know the prospect of another huge RPG is enough to suck in the fans, but the real goal is making sure that anyone who stumbles into Skyrim continues to enjoy the journey until it's reached a natural stop. Again - you can play for seven and a half working weeks - but how long will you be entertained for? Perhaps if you're not a series stalwart, 100 hours will be enough.
You can finish the main story in 30 hours - but that's without touching side-quests and exploration. Howard and the rest of his team are hoping their new Radiant Story system will help players find their own balance between exploration and narrative progression; that wonderful freedom of unhurried meandering with some kind of meaningful pay-off. Stories and side-quests that matter.
"Most of our quests are still written the way we used to write them," says Howard. "They tell good stories, they have specific characters and so on, but even when a designer is putting that quest together, our quests have roles. And that role can be where it takes place, the items in it, the people in it, and the designer can say specifically - 'I want this place, I want this person,' but they can also say, ' I would like this type of person.'"