After announcing three huge games at E3 expo – Fallout 76, The Elder Scrolls VI and Starfield – Bethesda stalwarts Todd Howard and Pete Hines explain the ...and more »
In the early 2000s, game publisher Bethesda was best known for its Elder Scrolls series of technologically ambitious fantasy games. In the last 15 years, however, it has expanded greatly, snapping up several legendary video game franchises as well as starting an original series of its own. The company now produces the Fallout post-apocalyptic role-playing games; the iconic, hellish shooter Doom; tongue-in-cheek Nazi-killing romp Wolfenstein; supernatural steampunk assassin sim Dishonoured; and Rage, a Mad Max-style romp around a devastated world.
At its E3 press conference last month, after showing new Doom, Rage, Fallout and Wolfenstein titles, Bethesda teased the next entry in its Elder Scrolls series as well as a new sci-fi role-playing game called Starfield. For both, 100 hours is a conservative playtime estimate.
It’s been nearly seven years since the last massive, single-player Elder Scrolls, Skyrim – though it’s been rereleased so many times on different consoles that you could be forgiven for thinking it was only a few years ago. Pete Hines, Bethesda’s senior vice-president of PR and marketing, cautions that “the Elder Scrolls VI is still two games away from Bethesda Game Studios”, which means another one or two years at least. But a lot has changed about both video games and the fantasy genre since Skyrim, not least the world-conquering popularity of Game of Thrones. How will The Elder Scrolls remain relevant?
“With The Elder Scrolls, you’re looking at a 25-year-running franchise. It has stood the test of the Lord of the Rings movies becoming popular,” says Todd Howard, the hugely influential game designer who joined the company in 1994 and now leads Bethesda’s game development. He asserts that the Elder Scrolls series has always tackled relevant themes.
“People look at Skyrim and say, ‘That’s a dragon-killing power fantasy,’ but the actual underlying theme was: do you take a nationalistic view of your own country, or look at the whole world? I think that’s still pretty topical today,” he says. “The thing that helps with [genre fiction], whether that’s science fiction or fantasy or post-apocalyptic, is that it lets you handle themes like racial stereotypes in ways that you don’t notice at first, and then become very obvious.”
In 2010, Bethesda plugged the long gap between its own Fallout games by letting another developer, Obsidian, give the series a spin. The result was Fallout: New Vegas, a game that used Bethesda’s technology but had a different style of writing and characterisation, filling in more shades of grey in the game’s moral choices. According to Howard, this isn’t something that Bethesda plans to do again.
“I wouldn’t say never,” he says. “[But] now that our company is so big, it’s always better to keep stuff internal ... it becomes less likely, but I could never say never. I thought the Obsidian guys did a fabulous job.”
Howard also demurred on something that fans are constantly asking for, especially since Skyrim was rereleased on PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch: modern remasters of Bethesda’s older games. “I’m happy that you can play Morrowind now on an Xbox One, as it’s backwards compatible. I’m really happy that Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo and others are making it easier for people to play [older games] as they were played at the time. I actually prefer that over remasters,” he says. “I’d rather you play Morrowind the way it was ... I think the age is part of its identity.
“For Skyrim Remastered, we had done some work on it but it was already pretty visually close. But for something like Morrowind, my personal preference is not to remaster it. We [also] get asked a lot to remaster [1997’s] Fallout 1, and I usually say, if you have a PC you can play Fallout the way it was. I think that’s how it should be. I think streaming technology is definitely coming, and it’s gonna make people’s access to games infinitely easier. You’ve seen it happen to music and movies and I think it’s a great thing.”
As for Starfield, Bethesda’s new sci-fi role-playing game, Howard says we shouldn’t expect to play it soon: “We’ve been talking about it for a decade, we started putting things on paper five, six years ago, and active development was from when we finished Fallout 4, so two and a half, three years.” When it comes to both The Elder Scrolls VI and Starfield, he says, “everyone should be very patient. It’s gonna take a while for what we have in mind to come out.”
Bethesda is revered for these gigantic worlds that set out a banquet of options for the player. But from Fortnite to League of Legends, many of the most popular and profitable games around in 2018 are competitive multiplayer games, which has led to speculation about the future of the expensive single-player experience that Bethesda is known for. This year’s Fallout 76 is an online game that throws people together to cooperate or clash – not the lone player experience fans expect.
Nonetheless, Hines is bullish about the future of epic single-player adventures. “Well, we keep doing it,” he says. “There was a lot of hand-wringing around [2017’s] Prey, but we just announced a huge update. Rage 2 is a giant single-player game, [the next Doom game] Doom Eternal is single-player, and Wolfenstein: Young Blood is single-player. Single-player is still a thing; it might continue to grow or evolve, but it’s part of who we are, and we still think there’s room to be successful. That doesn’t mean that we should keep doing things the way we did five or 10 years ago – we’ve got to continue to change how we approach it.”
Howard acknowledges players’ fears about the diminishing prominence of single-player games. “It’s understandable. That would be my fear too,” he says.
“Games have gotten so big and interesting that they’ve moved beyond the toy/entertainment space,” says Howard. “It’s not just a diversion from their regular lives; for a lot of people it becomes an important part of their lives. I think we see that across a lot of games now, where people are getting joy and personal pride out of the time they spend in them ... I always felt that way. I can still remember sitting in my bedroom playing Ultima, really being transported, even though they were just little 16-pixel-high guys on the screen. That’s what I want our games to do: to transport people for the time they’re in it.”
Bethesda has been expanding into areas beyond its single-player epics for a while. The Elder Scrolls Online is a massive multiplayer online interpretation of the fantasy series, made at a different studio; TES: Legends is a card game, currently playable on iPhones and PC; and TES: Blades is a free-to-play dungeon-crawler for phones. But none of those things, says Hines, come at the expense of the huge, absorbing games that Bethesda has always made. “The Elder Scrolls: Legends is never going to reach the same size audience as Skyrim, but it doesn’t have to,” he says.
“If there’s another platform that it is a good fit for ideas that our developers have, great. It’s not like we’re asking the developers of Rage 2, what is your mobile experience? What are you doing for VR?”
Howard has been at Bethesda for 24 years, Hines for nearly 19 – but neither is bored. “I think this is the best form of entertainment in the world. I don’t think that’s really arguable,” laughs Hines. “It doesn’t mean we don’t read or watch TV shows or movies – they affect and inform everything that we make creatively. But this is the single best form of entertainment in the world.”
“I think it’s the mix of the technology and the storytelling,” says Howard. “Games are unique in that. They can put you in a place; they transport you. That’s why we’ve always done big, open-world stuff: it’s what a game does really well. We like technology, we like storytelling, we like art. But saying, ‘Hey, look what we made the game do’ – that is, on a day-to-day basis, on a week-to-week basis, the most rewarding.”
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