So, Bethesda announced last night that at the end of October 2016 they'll be releasing a new, fully remastered version of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - one of the most modded games in history and the modding community are very, very worried about all of the hard work they've put in over the six years since the game's original release. Are they right to be?
Well, let's look at what we know about the new version and what it means:
During interviews for the release of Fallout 4, Todd Howard stated that the work for FO4 began with Bethesda porting Skyrim into a brand new engine, and they then built FO4 over the top. This is evidenced by references to High Hrothgar and the Greybeards (a place and group of people from Skyrim) still existing in the Fallout 4 game data on release.
This would indicate that the remastered version of Skyrim is an overhauled version running in the same engine as Fallout 4. If this is the case, then we can assume that the new version works under DirectX 11, and the engine is 64-bit.
This is awesome news for anyone running Skyrim on Windows 8.0+. The current version of Skyrim is 32-bit and runs in DirectX 9, which introduces two issues. Firstly, it can only address a maximum of 4GB of RAM, and secondly (due to a bug introduced by Microsoft into Windows 8.0+ and DirectX9) it can only make use of the first 3.4GB of VRAM.
With this new port of Skyrim, these technical limitations simply go away, meaning much greater performance for anyone with a mid-range or higher PC, which means better stability, better performance, and a greater ability to add scripted and graphics mods to the game!
We also know that the record structure for the game data in FO4 is very different to Skyrim, and this is causing many to assume that every mod will have to be re-written from scratch. However, we need to remember that Skyrim was ported into this engine before Fallout 4 development began.
This means that, either the port happened before the record changes for Fallout 4, or the ability exists to convert one record structure to another in an automated way.
This means that it's highly likely that the record structure in the remastered Skyrim is exactly the same as in the original version. But even if it isn't, a tool that could come from either Bethesda themselves or the modding community that can automatically migrate one structure to another is entirely possible. Either way this does not appear to be a cause for concern.
A 64-bit engine may allow for much better performance from the scripting, but it may cause some work to port existing mods to the new version first. It's extremely likely that the Skyrim Script Extender (SKSE), will need to be recompiled for a 64-bit environment. For mods that use SKSE (such as those with MCM menus), this means they may have to wait a little while for the new version to be available before they can transfer their mods into the new version, but a recompile should be as easy opening the source code in the 64-bit environment and typing the compile command. The bulk of the waiting time will be in testing.
It may also mean that mods that contain scripts will need to have those scripts recompiled (converted from the PSC sourcecode to the PEX machine code version), but this isn't a huge issue. It is possible to force a recompile of all scripts from the command line, so the mod doesn't even need to be opened in the Creation Kit for this operation. This would be a one-time command to replace the 32-bit files in the mod's file structure with the newly output 64-bit version. Certainly a minor annoyance, but certainly NOT a cause for panic. It seems a very minor price to pay for hugely better performance to me!
Following the announcement of Skyrim Remastered, Todd Howard has said that the texture set for the new release is "higher quality than even the original HD DLC". Since Skyrim only supports texture sizes that are multiples (512b, 1024k, 2048k, 4096k, etc.), and the HD DLC was largely 2k textures, this would indicate that most textures in the new version are 4k. This has been a goal of many high-fidelity modders for a long time, and the close-up evidence shown in the 1-minute showcase of the game would seem to support that assumption.
This would mean that much of the effort that goes into overhauling a Skyrim install to improve the graphics quality will become unnecessary, which can only be a good thing for everyone modding their games. I'm sure there will be plenty of graphics issues to be sorted out (this is Bethesda after all!) but it means we have a much better base to be working from.
Level Of Detail (LODs)
One of the better things we've seen in the showcase is that the remastered version of Skyrim is showing much better detail at distance than the original. It would seem that, while worldspace edits to add buildings would benefit from tools to generate new LOD data, out of the box it's going to be entirely unnecessary to get a scenic, detailed and realistic view of the world!
Shaders and Volumetric God Rays
The showcase of Skyrim Remastered showed off a set of shaders and imagespace modifiers to match Fallout4, but what does this mean for modders? Well, while it might mean that the base game is much prettier than it has been before, it doesn't quite match the graphics fidelity available from an ENB. So while many will still prefer to improve or customise the looks of their game with an ENB, it will be building on an a much improved platform.
Grasses & Plants
We've seen a huge improvement in the sheer amount of grass and placed plants in the Remaster. They look better, they're higher detailed, and they give a much deeper immersion over vanilla Skyrim. Yes this may mean that some INI tweaks and grass mods are no longer require, but for many others it will mean much more power to work with, and much more to add to.
Overall, we're not talking massive disaster here. Yes, there may be a small amount of work to convert scripted mods into the new environment. There may also be a wait while some of the basic tools we all use (SKSE, the Creation Kit) are released for the new 64-bit version of Skyrim. It will also mean that some mods are now simply not required in order to run a Skyrim install that looks great and plays well.
Aside from nostalgia for certain mods, and individual modder's egos, this is not bad news.
Less mods necessary to bring Skyrim up to scratch visually or improve stability means less time spent propping up the aging game, and much more time and space to add mods that improve gameplay or add content. This can only be a good thing!
There is a much more important conclusion to be drawn here too - Skyrim was reaching a point where it was close to being technically impossible to play unless you wanted to maintain an old operating system running on old hardware, and it was very clearly limited by that.
Skyrim now has had new life breathed into it - at least another five or six years for our shared experiences, community, modding joy, and sheer love of the world.
I can't see this as anything but a good thing.