"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.
“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.”