All Your History: Bethesda Part 4 – The Next Level
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Despite a promising beginning, the ambitious publisher and developer Bethesda Softworks soon found itself overextended. They had made a cult hit with the first game of their Elder Scrolls franchise, Arena. Understandably, they wanted to capitalize on their success. So they made a number of Elder Scrolls games right in a row, and as it turned out, splitting their concentration between so many projects made their efforts feel undercooked. Rampant bugs, poor graphics, and a limited scope made these games commercial flops. Knowing that playing it safe would just sink the company, Bethesda instead decided to put everything into one last Elder Scrolls game that would be as big, as fun, and as polished as they could possibly make it. And while the resulting Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind still had its fair share of bugs, it was so good on the whole that it became a smash hit on both the PC and the Xbox. All of the sudden, Bethesda was on solid ground again, and a rising star of the gaming world. But while Morrowind had given them a lot of experience points, it would be their next game that leveled them up to the big leagues.
The Next Level
Immediately after Morrowind released, the Bethesda development team, now called Bethesda Game Studios, got to work on a sequel. Team lead Todd Howard successfully argued that they should take their time with the sequel, instead of just rushing it out the door; after all, the rush strategy had nearly killed the company last time. Plus, this way they could make a true next-gen title with HD graphics, which could release onto the seventh generation of consoles. The only problem was, those consoles hadn’t even been invented yet. Bethesda would have to guess how much memory and horsepower those systems would have, code to that guess, and then change it once the actual system specs were announced. Not ideal working conditions.
In the meantime, the company’s other half, Bethesda Softworks, continued publishing projects from outside studios. They’d started doing this in the late 90s with games like Zero Critical, Magic & Mayhem, and Sea Dogs. The added recognition from Morrowind allowed them to push their third-party titles further, most notably by turning Sea Dogs 2 into the official Pirates of the Caribbean movie tie-in. Morrowind’s good name also convinced Bethesda that the Elder Scrolls franchise had strong commercial value; however, they agreed with Howard that the Game Studios team should stay focused on one big game. Thus, Bethesda Softworks tapped outside parties to create the Elder Scrolls Travels series, which spawned a number of games for mobile phones and Nokia’s ill-fated N-Gage.
Then in 2004, Bethesda heard about a new opportunity. Late the previous year, former industry powerhouse Interplay Entertainment had shut down its development studio after running out of cash. However, a number of their gaming IPs were still valuable, including Earthworm Jim and Baldur’s Gate. And many at Bethesda had been huge fans of their Fallout series of RPGs. Now, all these properties were up for licensing. So Bethesda reached out to them and acquired a license to make the next Fallout game. However, since the Game Studios team was still rolling on the next Elder Scrolls, for the time being Fallout was put on the back burner.
In the meantime, another team in the Game Studios division were making new entrants into Bethesda’s long-running drag racing series, which released in 2004 and 2006. As it happened, this would be the last time Bethesda ever split its staff. From then on, everybody would work together under Howard’s direction.
But there was only one game that fans were waiting for. In March 2006, Bethesda Game Studios finished The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion for the Xbox 360 and PC, published by Bethesda Softworks with some help from 2K Games. Just like Morrowind before it, it was originally meant to launch alongside Microsoft’s newest console, this time the Xbox 360 in November 2005. However, just like Morrowind before it, Oblivion was delayed for six months to make sure everything was as polished as it could be. And, just like Morrowind before it, it was still the first RPG available on the system.
And it was as massive as fans had come to expect. However, with a game world fully 16 square miles at HD quality, Bethesda had to fall back a bit on randomly generated content. It wasn’t ideal, since the team preferred designing everything by hand, but in this case it was necessary. Fortunately for gamers, it all looked gorgeous with an updated engine and some of the best-looking environments ever put in a game. In addition, Oblivion featured a revamped AI for all the inhabitants of the world. The Radiant system gave each NPC her own schedule and daily routine, giving each city a living feel that few other games had attempted. Not all of this worked perfectly, as Oblivion did showcase Bethesda’s signature bugs yet again. Still, a few glitches in such a world could be overlooked.
For Oblivion, Bethesda also went the extra mile and had each NPC speak every line of dialogue, as opposed to the pages of text that earlier games had. This required a massive investment in voice actors, but instead of shying away, they went all the way and hired some well-known Hollywood talent such as Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean. The protagonist, however, remained silent throughout.
Otherwise, it was the same stellar experience that Morrowind had delivered, on a bigger scale with better graphics and streamlined controls. Combined with the reputation of its predecessor, and Oblivion became a gigantic hit on its launch. As it turned out, the game became bigger than Bethesda had hoped for, far more successful than even Morrowind. It became the Xbox 360’s fastest-selling game to date and remained one of the must-have titles for the console for years. The game sold equally well on the PC, where the modding community again created loads of new content for gamers to try out. The company was doing better now than it ever had before.
Unfortunately, those same modders almost immediately ended up costing Bethesda millions of dollars. During development, the team had made a topless female model for when the player took off their clothes; however, they later decided to use a model with underwear instead. But they never actually deleted the code; they just made it inaccessible. All it took was one quick and easy mod to access it again. Unsurprisingly, a mod for topless women quickly became very popular, and it garnered enough attention for the US rating agency, the ESRB, to take notice. In the end, the ESRB chose to re-rate the game from T for Teen to M for Mature. They even did this to the Xbox 360 version, which couldn’t be modded and thus had no nudity. This change forced Bethesda to issue a recall for every copy of their game, and then to re-ship all the new copies with the proper rating. While it was an unhappy affair, it didn’t slow sales in the slightest.
But with the new console generation, came a new way of making money. A buzzword for the HD era was “downloadable content,” or DLC. This would be a small bit of extra content that a gamer could buy for just a few dollars and then download straight onto his hard drive. As one of the early leaders on the 360, Oblivion would me among the first to test out what could be done with DLC. The Halo franchise had already proven that multiplayer map packs were popular, but very few had tried to produce new content for a single-player campaign. So in April 2006, just two weeks after the game’s release, Bethesda proudly unveiled its first piece of DLC for the biggest game in their history…
For $2.50, gamers could choose to deck their horses out in colorful armor. And that was it. No real gameplay enhancements, no new quests or adventures, just some animal clothing. Almost upon release, the horse armor DLC was ridiculed as a pathetic attempt to enhance the gameplay experience. Some fans even accused Bethesda of cynically trying to squeeze a few extra pennies out of their customers for practically no effort on their own part. The uproar became so widespread that the term “horse armor” is now a byword for any DLC for any game that isn’t very good. But for all that, the pretty horses were enough to convince hundreds of thousands of gamers to fork over their money, so from Bethesda’s perspective, the DLC worked just fine.
And they learned their lesson, too. Realizing that what gamers really wanted were new quests to do and areas to explore, the later DLC sets Knights of the Nine and The Shivering Isles gave gamers exactly that. The Shivering Isles in particular featured an entirely distinct art design and tone, while also featuring a huge amount of narrative content to consume, virtually a mini-sequel unto itself. So while this new business model started off rocky, it ended with the signature quality of the series.
And the publishing division of the company was doing great as well. That same year, Bethesda Softworks also released a trio of Star Trek games from other developers. It was a testament to Oblivion’s staggering success that even a big name like Star Trek was overshadowed by The Elder Scrolls. Further flexing its muscles, in 2007 Bethesda Softworks published Oblivion on Sony’s PlayStation 3, and it did so on its own. Morrowind had been mass-distributed with Ubisoft’s help, and Oblivion with 2K’s. At last, Bethesda was ready to start distributing major releases all by itself. That was how big Oblivion had been.
That being said, even Bethesda couldn’t save the troubled PlayStation Portable version of Oblivion, which was meant to be a more streamlined game like the old Elder Scrolls Adventures series. Bethesda rarely mentioned the game after the initial announcement, and then, stopped talking about it altogether. The game never surfaced.
Despite that, Bethesda Game Studios was now clearly a AAA developer, and their owners, ZeniMax Media, decided to invest heavily in them. The developer was currently at work on a brand new Fallout game, using the license they’d gotten from Interplay. But in 2007, ZeniMax decided that they didn’t want to license Fallout anymore. Having full confidence that Howard and his team would craft another masterpiece, they instead bought the Fallout IP outright for $6 million. Bethesda could now do whatever they wanted with Fallout and its universe. As a part of the deal, Interplay would get a license of its own to make a Fallout MMO.
Bethesda didn’t know at the time just how contentious that deal would become.
Tune in next time to see the aftermath of Fallout