Living Skyrim 4: Dev Diary 1

I feel the need to chronicle the adventure that is building Living Skyrim 4 and this seems like the best way to do it. A series of Dev Diaries, keeping people posted on my progress, struggles, and thought process. I’ll also try to share some things like screenshots and such as I can. Maybe, later on, I’ll also be able to share some gameplay footage.

High Concept

Whenever I build a modlist, I start with the core ideas that I want the list to exemplify. A high concept, if you will. The broadest strokes of what the list is going to be, in just a few sentences. This isn’t necessarily something concrete that I put onto paper, but it is definitely something I think about as I’m going through and selecting mods. If you’ve seen the Living Skyrim 4 Roadmap then you know approximately what I’m going for with Living Skyrim 4. The pillars I outlined are a good starting point, but in reality the ideas in the roadmap go much deeper than what I’ve laid out. There’s always a certain feel, style, or driving force that guides all of my decisions. For Living Skyrim 4, it’s the three pillars. Or at least, it is in a very broad sense. I’ll try to talk more about specific sections of the list and what guides my ideas as we go, but for now, let’s look at the big picture.

When I select a mod for Living Skyrim 4, I’m weighing a number of things at any given point:

  • How difficult is this mod to patch or make play nice with other mods?
  • Does it have known bugs or issues?
  • Does it mesh well with mods I’ve already put into the list?
  • Does it fit within the three pillars or high concept?
  • Is it cool, or exciting?
  • Do I like it?
  • Is it fun?
  • Has it been recommended to me by my staff?

And this list is of course not comprehensive, but this is the way I think when I’m looking at mods. And this process goes for almost every mod. Some mods are obvious inclusions, some I have to think more about. Again, specifics later.

Building a Modlist

I should perhaps back up a bit and explain how the entire process of building a modlist goes for me. It’s fairly straightforward, I hope.

Once I’ve determined the high concept, I design and create a logo for the list. I don’t know why but for whatever reason this really sets the tone for how the list is going to be. With a logo, I can easily show it to people and hopefully give an impression of what people can expect from the list. The Living Skyrim 4 logo is an evolution of the previous logo.

You can see that both logos retain a metallic style. Living Skyrim 3 has much more fluff and is perhaps pompous and opulent in its design, pulling inspiration from gold filigree. Living Skyrim 4 takes on a bit more serious look, keeping the design relatively simple and reminiscent of steel. Between the two, Living Skyrim 4’s logo is much easier to read which is a plus. These are indicators of how I want the lists to feel. Living Skyrim 3’s has a a bit of an unshaped feel, leaving it open and malleable to whatever I want it to be, like gold. Living Skyrim 4 I want to be a much more refined version, pounded into the perfect shape necessary for its task, like steel.

If you can’t tell, I’m pulling this out of my ass. The truth is, I like to update the logo and certain styles strike me differently at different times. I come up with justifications after the fact. Regardless, I do truly always start with a logo.

Once that’s done, the process of actually building the modlist can begin. It starts much as anyone else might start. Mod Organizer 2, essential fixes and patches, setting up separators and organizing tools - a lot of this process is made extremely easy by SMEFT, which is a Wabbajack modlist that includes just the bare essentials needed to begin building a list. I of course make my own tweaks to SMEFT to get it where I want it - removing tools that won’t be used, making sure mod settings are set the way I want them, and so on.

After that comes the most fun part: Installing mods. I mentioned above how I pick mods, and I’ll go more in detail on this in future diaries. This is fairly straightforward, I install mods until I have all the ones I want.

At this point I send a pre-alpha to my staff. This is as much to propogate the list and make sure it doesn’t accidentally get deleted as it is so they can help me with the next steps. I give them a Wabbajack installer of the pre-alpha build and then as many staff who want it, get it.

Now comes the least fun part. Patching everything to work together. This is usually the longest part of the entire modlist building process, and also the most painful and tedious. Living Skyrim 3 has over 150 patches that we’ve made and added to the list over time. The majority are made by me, with some significant efforts made by staff if they have the time and will to help. Unfortunately, this is also the most essential part of building the modlist. Without this process, the list simply wouldn’t work. Oh I’m certain you could play the list in this state, but nothing would be as expected. Mods wouldn’t play nicely together, they’d be overwriting each other in strange ways, and some mods wouldn’t do anything unless the patching process is complete. I usually do three passes on the list. The first pass is to install pre-existing patches that help out with making the list work. The second pass is going through every record in the list and creating patches as necessary. The third is another pass on every record to make sure I didn’t forget anything. Even with these three passes, I usually still miss things and more patching is necessary. The staff help me a lot to catch these misses.

Once the initial patching is done, we have an Alpha. At this point, it’s safe for the staff to actually play the list. This is usually run in tandem with the third patching pass, mainly so we can make sure everything is working correctly. Or at least, most everything. Skyrim, and especially heavily modded Skyrim, is an enormous game. We try to catch as many bugs as we can, but not everything can always be tested. And frequently unexpected things crop up. This is why, even in a publicly released state, my modlists constantly need updates. This is also why bug reporting is so hugely important.

There are usually anywhere from 3 to 6 Alpha builds before I’m happy with the list. During the process of an Alpha, we are constantly tweaking the list: mods get added, removed, patched, and so on. When I’m finally happy with the state of the list, we move to Beta. The Beta is the first build that the public gets to play. In case it’s not clear, I say “play” in the loosest interpretation of the word. In reality, the Beta is when we unleash the list to users to help us hunt down and kill any bugs we’ve missed. Beta builds come and go frequently, but in most cases Beta updates are more to fix bugs than make any changes to the list. Near the end of the Alpha process the actual list of mods is finalized so I’m not keen on making changes during Betas unless absolutely necessary. There are usually anywhere from 2 to 5 Beta builds.

After the Beta I submit the list to Wabbajack testers for final approval before putting it on the Wabbajack UI. And as soon as it’s approved (or rejected, as the case may be) we either fix up whatever else needs fixing (if rejected) or enter the public release phase. The public release is usually a hugely popular day, so the staff and I brace ourselves for the huge wave of users requesting support. I may speak for myself, but public release days are my favorite and ultimately what make this whole process worth it. I also do the usual marketing things: a reddit post, sometimes a release livestream, and so on. It’s a day of celebration, and I like to treat it as such.

After that, we go into the usual process of maintaining the list: updating mods, making more patches to fix bugs, adding/removing mods, pushing out updates, and so on. This is probably the least exciting part of building and maintaining a modlist, but it’s essential. Somewhat frequent updates are necessary to keep people playing, or allow people to play in the first place if something is particularly broken.

The Good Stuff

In the interest of keeping this dev diary relatively short I won’t go on, though there’s plenty more to talk about: where I’m at with the list, what choices I’ve made, etc. Instead, for now, I’ll leave you with some juicy new screenshots I’ve taken in Living Skyrim 4.