Bethesda concept artists Ray Lederer and Adam Adamowicz explains, in the first team diary on Skyrim's community blog, the creation process that lead to dragons becoming the centerpoint of the game. In many ways, Adamowicz finds that struggling to create something new for the series is just par for the course for artists working in the fantasy genre:
I love Lord of the Rings. It’s gorgeous. And so how do you beat that? That’s kind of what it came down to. How do you do something really cool in this genre, and have it be original and not ape all of these things?
You just have to find your own spin on it.
Lead artist Matt Carofano believes that having Skyrim scratch the surface of Viking culture and Conan inspirations puts it one step ahead of Oblivion:
It was a reaction to what Oblivion was as a game. Oblivion was a very classic medieval setting, and we felt some of that was a bit generic. We wanted to do something that showed a lot more of the culture of the people who lived there.
Skyrim was all about creating a world that seemed believable.
Though "probably about 90%" of the early concept work was scrapped, dragons eventually became what they all wanted Skyrim to be, "a fresh but fantastical version of reality", though Carofano points out that this is not the first time dragons have been in the Elder Scrolls lore:
They’ve actually been in Elder Scrolls games before, There was one in Redguard, and if you look all the way back to Daggerfall I think there were dragonlings. We sort of look at that to remember what was in the series, but then the question becomes, how do we make that fit into Skyrim?
On that note, Adamowicz decided to sketch Skyrim's dragons like a "heron, the chest-plates [being] kind of like a ship’s prow, so that it looked like it was aerodynamic, and kind of like a fighter jet – a little more dangerous".
Just to let you guys know how "dangerous" they really are, I was busy climbing a rocky staircase in Skyrim, stopping only to talk to an adventurer praying in the snow. And while we were caught in a pleasant conversation, a freezing ice blast hit me from behind and knocked my health by half.
So thanks, Adamowicz, I appreciate it.