Bethesda Softworks continues its march as one of the most bankable video game companies on the planet. The Washington-based publisher has cultivated a passionate following with RPGs both post-apocalyptic and medieval fantasy in Fallout and The Elder Scrolls. With fast-paced, furiously named shooters like Doom, Rage and Wolfenstein.
The company has had a significant period of growth to put them at the top table. At an E3 press conference earlier this year, they announced a slew of games, including the eagerly anticipated The Elder Scrolls VI and new sci-fi adventure Starfield. This in addition to an already impressive slate, including the online multiplayer Fallout 76.
The host of that conference was Pete Hines, Vice President of PR and Marketing. We spoke to Hines about all things Bethesda, including why they decided to announce The Elder Scrolls VI so far in advance, his thoughts on the next generation of consoles and why Bethesda probably won't be opening a studio in the UK any time soon...
Bethesda are now one of the biggest third-party publishers out there and you are continuing to grow. Tell me a bit about that growth.
Our big growth period was a little longer ago where we had a stretch where we acquired id, we acquired Machine Games, we acquired Tango Gameworks. So there was a stretch where we acquired four new internal studios. Bethesda Game Studios opened its Montreal office. We started the Battlecry office a few years ago, which is now Bethesda Game Studios Austin and we acquired Escalation Studios.
It’s been here and there as it’s made sense, but really what we’re seeing now is a culmination of a lot of years of getting studios on board and shipping a title with them and then starting the process. Nothing helps you prepare for and understand how to make a game with somebody than making a game with somebody. Once you’ve done it once, there’s a lot to learn. Next time around we’ll avoid these situations, let’s try and do this a little better or try this new thing or that new thing.
At E3 you decided to announce Starfield and The Elder Scrolls VI, both for the ‘next generation’. Why did you decide now was the time to pull the trigger on that conversation?
It was a couple of things. Number one we were honestly a little tired of being asked about Elder Scrolls VI. And the Starfield trademark filing and dancing around those things. Elder Scrolls VI we didn’t really dance around, we said ‘yes we’re going to do it but there are two games to come first’. But that didn’t really catch on and we still had people asking when are you going to do it. And part of it was because Fallout 76 was a departure for them and saying ‘look, we want to try something very different than what we’ve done before’.
We want to make it very clear to folks that this isn’t what all Bethesda Game Studios look like now. The next game we are making is Starfield. It is a new IP, it’s a single-player role playing game that folks understand. And then we’re going to make Elder Scrolls VI.
They understand the context that this is something different but we want to try it. You guys are constantly asking us about multiplayer and playing with other folks, so we want to try that. But then we are going to go back to something you know us better for and we’ll get around to The Elder Scrolls VI. It just helps paint a better picture and a road-map for what’s next and what that’s going to look like. Even if that doesn’t come with a date of when that game is going to come out or when we’ll show it to you.
So does announcing an anticipated title like The Elder Scrolls VI let your other games breathe?
I don’t know about ‘letting them breathe’, but it does help reduce the number of times we talk about anything as a publisher and somebody replies with: ‘when is The Elder Scrolls VI. Arkane announces their next thing and people ask “when is The Elder Scrolls VI?” and it doesn’t have anything to do with it. But at least now we have formally talked about The Elder Scrolls VI and given context, it does minimise some of that.
With Starfield and The Elder Scrolls VI in mind, what are you expecting from the next generation? Do you have any insight you can share?
I am curious to see what it looks like and how it’s different. I’m privy to some stuff which obviously I can’t really talk about, but there is also a lot that I’m not sure on what it’s going to look like. And more importantly how big a shift we can expect.
I feel like there was a shift from Xbox and PS2 to Xbox 360 and PS3 that was pretty demonstrable. Because we went from the old way to HD and the HD thing was so dramatic. It was night and day. Then you went to Xbox One and PS4 and it wasn’t like ‘woah’. The graphics folks that are super into it can certainly tell, but to the average consumer they were like ok it still looks good. How much of that will change, I don’t know. The rest of it doesn’t matter to me because I’m not drawing art or coding or designing. What really matters is what the developers think. What do they need and what are the kind of power and features they are looking for.
Do you expect development costs to continue to rise with new hardware or is the technology plateauing in that sense?
Games now are so diverse that to say the cost of all games are going up is a little too broad. To make big triple A games like Starfield is not cheap. It never was. The team sizes are certainly bigger. Hell, back on Morrowind that team was 35 people. That’s not even close to the size on Fallout 76. But then you have a game like Legends which has a significantly smaller team than a lot of these other things. So it depends on what the game is and the size and the scope of it.
With Fallout 76, as an online multiplayer game, have you had to change your approach in how you talk to people about it or market the game?
For sure. If it was just Fallout 5 it would be like ‘it’s a singleplayer Fallout and here’s what’s new or different’. We’d have to do a lot but there will also be a lot that people already know or understand.
When we’re saying it’s a big departure there are a lot of questions. How is this going to work as an online game because it’s so different? Even things like ‘what does PvP mean’ Is somebody just going to be able to kill me over and over again? No, we have a system for it.
So at QuakeCon we said “here’s how it works, here is the downside to if you become the kind of person that runs around murdering people.” Here are the negative connotations and everybody’s like ‘ok, that’s kinda cool’. It is making sure folks understand because there is a lot of new gameplay. Something as simple as ‘can I play by myself’. And it’s like ‘yeah, you can’. Is it just a shooter? No it’s a role-playing game. There’s still the SPECIALS system, you’re still choosing perks and levelling up. Even that basic thing people don’t assume. Is VATS still in the game? Yeah, it just works differently.
As you’ve said, apart from Fallout 76 you have plenty of single-player games in the works, Rage 2, Doom Eternal, Starfield, The Elder Scrolls VI, you must have so much confidence in that single-player approach where other publishers might not. Is that something you think about?
It’s not that we don’t pay attention to what’s going on in the world. In some ways it’s always been the same challenge. You have to prove to the player the value of what you’re making. The value meaning the dollars you are asking them to spend and the value in that I assume that everybody I’m trying to sell to is engaged in something else. That might be other games, it might be sports or other hobbies or whatever. I have to make sure that you see the value from your money that you have to spend and your time that you’re going to put into this instead of something else.
If you are playing some other game; if you’re playing Destiny or Overwatch or Fortnite, I have to convince you, even if it’s a very different game that you should take time away from what you spend doing because I’m going to offer you something worthwhile. That goes back to why games like Morrowind or Oblivion or Fallout 3 or Skyrim were successful. They were all single-player games, but they spoke to folks in the kind of experience they could get that they wouldn’t get anywhere else. If you want to invest 100s of hours into this game, you can. If you want to play it for ten years or more: you can through user mods, extending the experience, all of that was part of that same conversation that we’re still having. This is why it’s worth your while, if it’s singleplayer like Rage 2.
It’s fair to say that Bethesda have a certain style, but as you continue to grow would you ever consider branching out. You’re a sports fan for instance, any interest in that area?
Something that different, no. Though that’s not to say if a development team said we have the idea and the capacity to make the greatest football game the world has ever seen, I would have that conversation with those guys.
But I view games like Elder Scrolls Legends as us branching out: we’re not known for strategy card games. A lot of people said what the hell are you guys doing making a strategy card game. But the developers know about that stuff. It’s not about we only make shooters or RPGs or immersive games. We just want to make stuff that is different and has a cool take on whatever it is we’re doing.
If it’s a survival horror, what the hell is Bethesda doing making survival horror? Well, it’s the guy who invented survival horror [Shinji Mikami] making it and he’s doing something different to everybody else. He’s taking it back old school and we think it’s cool and interesting and exciting. That is where we want to be.
We might make stuff that’s more cartoonish or platformery or whatever but it’s going to be with folks we think are doing something interesting and different and something that resonates with us and people that like games. What kind of games? Doesn’t matter, if you like games you might like this. If you’re inclined to like something like Quake Champions then awesome, but you might say you prefer Fallout Shelter, so we’ll make something more like that.
Are you looking to open or acquire more studios in the future?
It remains to be seen. We don’t have any particular stated goals like ‘we need two more studios’ or ‘we need studios in this country’. In almost all situations it is folks that we work with and end up using so much that you start to have a conversation around if it makes sense for them to join us.
It’s not just the work but it’s understanding the people and their culture and if it’s a good fit for us. In some cases it’s not. In some cases it’s better for them to remain independent for any number of reasons. But we don’t have any stated goals, every situation is unique and we evaluate it for the places that make sense. And for those that don’t, then we’re happy too.
So that would apply to the UK, it would be something you would consider but only if it fit that?
The head of all our European offices is based out of London but we don’t have a studio. But it’s not like we need one. It’d be like: why? Who and why? We don’t just make it up. Is there somebody we’re working with what are they doing. Does it make sense for them to remain separate. Right now we’re not working with any dev studios so I would say there is very little chance in the near future that we would open a studio in the UK because we’re not working with anybody to the extent it would make sense.
Would the impending impact of Brexit have any influence on that decision if the opportunity arose?
I don’t think I’m smart enough or political enough to understand what Brexit really means to know whether or not we open a studio in the UK. I have some passing understanding, but in general I hate politics. I live in Washington DC where it’s non-stop politics and for me it’s mostly people arguing how they’re right and the other side are wrong. I prefer to focus on things that are more productive. I still have a job to do and kids to get through school. I’d rather not spend any time arguing with you about it, I just want to do my job.