All Your History: Bethesda Part 3 – Rebirth
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By the late 1990s, publisher and developer Bethesda Softworks was nearly out of cash. Despite finding success with their Elder Scrolls series of fantasy role-playing games, the studio’s faith in the franchise proved too strong for their own good. While Daggerfall had been a success, its many bugs and general lack of polish turned off many fans. So when Bethesda tried to release a number of smaller, linear action titles, that still had the same unfinished feel, gamers just ignored them. Combined with the cancelled project The 10th Planet, and their unremarkable first attempt to publish an external game, and Bethesda soon found itself in deep financial trouble. To make matters worse, the company’s founder, Christopher Weaver, was ousted from his other company ZeniMax Media once it acquired Bethesda. Starved of cash, Bethesda’s development team had atrophed down to six people. There was no way the studio was going to survive, unless they went all in on the biggest game they could possibly make, one so massive, polished, and perfected that nothing else on the market could even come close to it. They needed to burst back onto the scene with a generation-defining title, or they would just fade away forever. Fortunately for them, and for gamers everywhere, the game they crafted was and is one of the single finest interactive experiences ever produced.
The Elder Scrolls III was originally started just after the second game, Daggerfall, but was put on hold to concentrate on the smaller Elder Scrolls titles. Aside from that, to really push the boundaries from where Daggerfall had gone, they knew they would have to give technology some time to catch up to their vision.
The game was picked up again after The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard released in 1998, initially slated for a holiday 1999 release. But that barely gave the development team any time to make it, and since they were so small now anyway, that was a recipe for disaster. The game’s director was Todd Howard, the man behind Redguard, who had also worked on earlier Elder Scrolls. He knew that making another little game would just kill the company. Taking bold action, he went to his executives and told them they needed to give him a massive budget to grow his tiny team and produce a gigantic game.
Amazingly, he got what he asked for. ZeniMax gambled all in on The Elder Scrolls III and its director to single-handedly turn the studio around. Howard had permission to do whatever he wanted. Now all he had to do was live up to their trust.
At the outset, Howard and his growing team decided that they needed to reimagine the game’s technology from the ground up. Bethesda’s homebrew engine, called XnGine, had been unveiled back in 1995, and by Redguard was looking just plain bad. There was no way they could rely on that engine for their big comeback, but they didn’t have the resources to build a new one anymore. So they licensed an outside engine called NetImmerse, later called GameBryo, which was both graphically astounding and could manage huge draw distances.
But even with the new tech, it was going to be a chore just to build the whole world. Redguard had taught the team that hand-crafting the gamespace was much better than randomly generating environments. But to craft something on the scale of an entire country, as The Elder Scrolls III intended to be, the crew would need a fantastic instrument to make it with. Unlike with the engine, Bethesda chose to make this itself, and it was coded by no less than the director himself.
Still, even with their own Construction Set in hand, their reach exceeded their grasp. They had chosen to set their story in the country of Morrowind in the franchise’s story world, and it proved to be too big. Eventually, they constricted the game to the country’s subcontinent, but even this was ten square miles. Ten square miles, that they were going to hand-design every square inch of themselves. It was still an awe-inspiring challenge, and a logistical nightmare. But Bethesda believed they could do it, and pressed ahead with the Herculean task.
As time passed, unbelievably, the game began to take shape. And it was looking like everything they hoped it could be, a huge, beautiful world that allowed the player to do anything he wanted. But as if they didn’t already have enough to worry about, in 2000 the team suddenly heard about a new opportunity. Microsoft had announced that it was entering the home console market with a powerful system that, critically, had its own hard drive. No console had ever come with one before. This new ‘Xbox’ system, therefore, would have enough memory to save all the different permutations the gamer could put the world through, while also having the graphical horsepower to make it look good.
They whipped up a demo for the game and showed it to Microsoft. It was perfect timing. The Xbox team knew that they needed top-notch games to help sell their system, and so far they didn’t have any RPGs. When Bethesda pitched Morrowind, Microsoft immediately agreed that it should be a launch title for their system. It was done: the already-taxed Bethesda team would now be making a multi-platform game. It helped that the Xbox’ architecture was similar to a Windows PC, making the transition relatively easy. But even for all that, in the end, the team had to push the game from its November 2001 release, and therefore missed the Xbox’ launch.
But in May 2002, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind finally released for the PC, published by Bethesda with some help from Ubisoft. And it was a masterpiece. Morrowind was every bit the sprawling epic Bethesda had set out to make back when they only had six developers. The subcontinent the player landed on was not only the promised ten square miles, but so incredibly varied that just exploring the world was fun by itself. The game’s various factions each had their own architecture, culture, and style of dress. It had everything from coastal fishing villages, to epic castles, to wizard’s towers, to ashen volcanoes. Astoundingly, each one of the thousands of books in the game could be picked up and read — the player might find a novel, a history textbook, or political treatise. The main quest was enormous, but was only a fraction of all the quests available to the player. He could join a guild, rise through the ranks, or then join a competing guild. He could play as a powerful warrior, a mighty mage, or a stealthy assassin. And no matter what happened, the game would never end. There was always something else to do, someone else to meet, and somewhere else to explore. All in a beautifully realized world with gorgeous art and composer Jeremy Soule’s pitch-perfect score.
And that was just May. In June, Morrowind came to the Xbox as well. Even months after the launch of the console, Morrowind was still the system’s first RPG. And gamers and critics alike were shocked to discover that nothing had been sacrificed to get it onto the console: it was the exact same stellar experience, mapped onto thumbsticks. Morrowind quickly became a must-have title for the Xbox and one of the console’s earliest hits. By 2003 it was the second-best-selling game on the system, behind only Halo itself. And by 2004, Morrowind had sold 1 million units — on the Xbox alone. And the good news wasn’t limited to sales: the game won enough accolades to rerelease in a Game of the Year edition in 2003.
As if that wasn’t enough, on the PC side Morrowind had shipped with the finished version of the Elder Scrolls Construction Set that Howard had started at the beginning of the project. It was one of the most complete tools ever given to the modding community, and allowed them to create anything they wanted within the engine. The game’s fan base continue to make mods for Morrowind to this day, giving the game an incredible longevity and endless new experiences to try out.
To be fair, the game did have its issues, most notably the series’ trademark bugs at launch. Still, they weren’t nearly as bad as in earlier Scrolls, and they certainly didn’t outweigh the game’s overall excellence. At the end of the day, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind achieved everything it set off to do and then some. On the verge of bankruptcy after Redguard, after Morrowind Bethesda was one of the biggest RPG developers in the world. Their gamble to bet it all on Howard’s vision had paid off with dividends.
Naturally, Bethesda Softworks’ development team quickly began work on The Elder Scrolls IV. But as they did so, they would no longer be known as Bethesda Softworks’ development team. They would be getting their own name: from then on, they were Bethesda Game Studios. Bethesda Softworks was now the publishing arm of the company. So as the Softworks division began a slow process of becoming a serious publisher in the industry, the Game Studios division began the monumental task of making ten square miles look small.
Tune in next time to see Bethesda go bigger than ever before