It's been a dramatic half-decade for Bethesda Softworks, having broken out from PC origins to huge console success with 2006's The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and then 2009's Fallout 3. Now, the Washington-based publisher is making a concerted play for even bigger business, readying a portfolio of games from iD, Splash Damage and Human Head (plus the hugely-anticipated new Elder Scrolls game, Skyrim) with more to come from Arkane, Machine Games and Tango. It's also been busy with big-name acquisitions.
Here, GamesIndustry.biz chats to the publisher's VP of Marketing and PR, Pete Hines, about the sustainability of this growth, whether more is to come, the thin dividing line between Bethesda and its owner ZeniMax Media, why having multiplayer modes may not necessarily be in games' best interest and whether the MMO genre remains appealing.
Q: Bethesda have been working on this portfolio of big-name games for a while now, and this seems to be the year that it could finally come to fruition. How's the company feeling about things right now?
Pete Hines: The funny thing is that I've been doing this long enough now that it never feels easy... I'm always sort of worried about what else did we miss, what else is left to do, and I never get the 'haha, we did it!' once the game comes out. There's never a moment where you feel like it's out the door and it's done, but it's just constant. If there's not another title right around the door, there's DLC right around the door, there's Prey 2 and all the other stuff that we have coming out.
From my standpoint, I'm certainly very excited about the year that we're slated to have. I think we have a great line-up, but while I'm confident that's about all I can afford to be - because it's my job to worry that everything is lined-up and tucked in and ready to go.
Q: Does it feel like there's an opportunity to leapfrog some of the bigger publishers now, given a fair few of them have had hard times of late?
Pete Hines: I would say that has always been our intent, whether there are problems at other companies or not. I think we feel like we proved long ago that we have the ability to do a big launch, as big as anyone else; with what we did with Oblivion and Fallout 3 and the kinds of games that we made, and the extent to which they broke through.
We've sort of proven that we can do anything that anybody else does, and we can do it just as well if not better. And at every phase, whether that's sales or PR of pulling off events, or how we market or communicate with our fans or whatever. So we've always felt like we're on par with anybody and we didn't take a backseat, but in terms of dollars or units or whatever you might use to gauge relative size, I certainly think that there's opportunity for that this year.
Q: Are you concerned by the conditions that led to the other publishers struggling?
I think we feel like we proved long ago that we have the ability to do a big launch, as big as anyone else.
Pete Hines: No, because our philosophy and our structure, the way that we're built, we're built to be the company that we are now. I have heard a lot of other companies talking about 'well, we're going to focus on fewer triple-A titles', changing their philosophy - but they're changing it to something that we've always been structured towards, and believed in since I started at Bethesda in 1999.
Which is the answer - not churning out 30,40, 50 games a year; the answer is not trying to be in every genre. Not 'oh no, now it's the casual, now it's social gaming!' We don't go running after the latest, hottest trend. We tend to pay attention to what we're doing, we the make that kind of games that we want to play, because we think there's an audience for those and we try as best we can to execute them to the highest level possible - whether that's development, PR, marketing or sales.
That's how we're structured. We're not structured to put out 50 games a year and now suddenly we're only going ten, now we're laying people off left and right. We've been hiring and hiring non-stop for years, while other folks are laying off and downsizing.
I certainly hate to see those kinds of things, but I think when you see it, it relates to them and their business, and doesn't really have anything to do with us because we're built to do what it is we're doing now - which is a couple of big games a year. We have that this year, we have that next year - obviously we've only announced one of those [Prey 2] but we're now hitting the spot that we have been growing towards for years and years.
Q: Surely, if all of these games come off as you hope, the temptation must be there to go 'ok, let's double the number of releases, buy some more studios, get even bigger?'
Pete Hines: No. I don't think it's that big of a temptation. Again, we've always believed that we could do three or four major releases a year, that's what we said back when we acquired iD, and our philosophy hasn't changed. We may have acquired more internal capacity to reach that goal, but there's a certain point at which that no longer becomes necessary.
So I don't think there's a temptation to change what we're doing, because obviously we're planning not just towards what we're doing in 2011 and 2012, but 2013, 2014 and kind of road mapping that out. What are the guys at Machine Games doing? What are the guys at Tango doing? Arkane and iD and Bethesda game studios too... So we're having long looks down the road, not just at what they're releasing this year but what will they be doing a couple of years from now, and we feel pretty confident with where we're at.
Q: In the event that one of the more immediately forthcoming games doesn't meet sales expectations, can you absorb that?
Pete Hines: Absolutely. It would be wholly irresponsible for us to build towards a company that released three or four big games a year and then have our well being fall apart if any one of those doesn't do well. That would be poor management on our part. So obviously we expect big things and we're planning big things, but we haven't mortgaged our future such that the next game that comes out has to hit certain numbers or else we're in big trouble. We've been built smarter and better than that.
Q: So many of the games you've got coming out are based pretty heavily around player choice and freedom, which is in pretty stark contrast towards the recent trend for very heavily scripted blockbusters. Is that a reaction against the current market?
Pete Hines: I don't think it's planned, but I also don't think it's a coincidence that we have found developers with similar design and development philosophies. It's not a case where a developer comes in and we say 'well, unless you have a lot of player choice it's not a project we can get behind', but we've found guys like Human Head, like iD, and what they were doing had similar ideas. That's the reason we're working together - we like the things that they thought, we liked the things that they were working on, and the way they were approaching it.
For example, Prey 2 - it could have very easily been another game about Tommy, with more portal stuff, and another Sphere doing the same old crap, which is probably what other people told them to do. We said, having gone through the experience for example of Fallout, 'you guys have to figure out what Prey means to you. Is it about that character, is about that technology, or is it a bigger thing, a bigger story?'
From a similar philosophy, we don't go and say 'why aren't you doing multiplayer?' We're always saying 'why are you doing multiplayer?' If you come to us and say you're doing a game with multiplayer, we challenge you and say 'why do you need it?' Whereas most folks come to us and say 'well, we have to have it because it needs to be on the box.'
We believe the opposite, which is if you're coming up with a feature, unless you can convince us that that thing makes the game better, don't do it. We don't need you to check boxes for us. Make the best game - if the best game includes multiplayer and it has to be in there, great. If not, in the example of Prey 2, they said 'well, we're planning on doing a singleplayer thing but we could do multiplayer' we said 'does it add to the experience, is it a key part of what you're trying to deliver?
If no, then don't do it. It's a big distraction, it's a giant waste of resources. Focus on making this better - what could you do with this team if you weren't working on multiplayer?
So, whether it's player choice or whether games are singleplayer or multiplayer, or whatever combination, we try and find the projects that resonate with us that we think will resonate with everybody else. I think so far that has served us well.
We believe...if you're coming up with a feature, unless you can convince us that that thing makes the game better, don't do it.
Q: Does it make it more challenging to convey that from a marketing perspective?
Pete Hines: Well, look at Oblivion. Everybody said 'there's no chance you're going to sell Oblivion into a console audience; it's too big, it's too complicated, it's too much of a PC thing. They won't get it. Console gamers don't like that kind of stuff.' And then they bought it by truckloads, and it was like 'well, there goes that theory. What other theories do you have?' And then they're 'you can't take an old-school PC isometric turn-based role-playing game and turn it into something that's relevant on next-generation consoles.'
So we did Fallout 3, and that won game of the year and sold a gazillion copies. It turns out that people just like good stuff, and if you market it well and you get people into what the game is about people like it. People want to play good stuff, they want to get value for they're paying for these games. So I think we do a pretty good job of delivering on that, making sure that when you buy a game from us that it's gonna be fun and different and unique from what you played last week, last month, last year.
Q: It must pretty heavily affect the budgets though...
Pete Hines: It does. But what affects the budget more than anything is just the nature of making a game on a 360 or a PS3 - you can't afford to have the same number of artists that you had eight years ago when you were making it for the Xbox, because it takes a lot more work, a lot more effort, a lot more time to put that level of detail in. It's more a function of that than how great do you want the game to be, if that makes any sense.
Q: How has company culture changed since you were just dedicated to smaller projects like Morrowind and now you've got all these big projects going on?
Pete Hines: Honestly, I still feel like we're the same company. We may be doing more games, more often but it still feels like the same company because we haven't changed our philosophy about how we talk to consumers, how we market, doing things for the right reasons, holding a product if it's not ready, not throwing in features just for features' sake. I think continue to be smart about the way that we do it, and as a result we continue to be successful, and hopefully that will continue.
Q: There's this long-running rumour that you're also looking into MMOs; how has your interest in that genre changed in the light of the post-Warcraft age perhaps not working out as the industry hoped? Is that market still appealing?
Pete Hines: Absolutely. I definitely think the right game done the right way can still find a very large audience in that market. That's our belief, it continues to be our belief, and I think that the project those guys are working on fits that description well.
Q: Are you confident about a subscription-based business model remaining viable in this day and age?
Pete Hines: I don't know if there's been a definite answer on that yet. I don't know if the successes and failures of anybody else necessarily translates to the next game, the next product. What works for one game might not work for one game and vice versa - what didn't work for one game might work very well for another. It just depends on how good your game is, what is your game, how big an audience do you have for it, your feature set or any of that stuff.
Q: Where's the line between Bethesda and ZeniMax these days? Who calls the shots, generally speaking?
Pete Hines: There really isn't one, if I'm being perfectly blunt. And there really hasn't ever been one, at least since I started in 1999. ZeniMax and Bethesda for the most part are kinda, sorta the same thing. It's not like there's a ZeniMax headquarters somewhere with a bunch of people who are doing one thing and a bunch of people who are doing another.
I talk directly to the chairman and CEO of ZeniMax all the time, because they're right across the hall from me. We have meetings together all the time - biz-dev meetings and development meetings to get an update on all the products. It's not the Bethesda people and the ZeniMax people, it's just all of us, one team working together to run the business and do a good job. In terms of the line, there really isn't one. This is a group of folks who are primarily focused on one thing, which is making great games and doing that the best way possible.
[On MMO] I definitely think the right game done the right way can still find a very large audience in that market. That's our belief, it continues to be our belief, and I think that the project those guys are working on fits that description well.
Q: So greenlighting a product is always a mutual decision?
Pete Hines: Exactly. I technically work for Bethesda Softworks, but all the people I work with in finance and legal technically work for ZeniMax. But we all work for ZeniMax and we all work for Bethesda. The name on my cheque is probably ZeniMax, but it's just semantics - and that is, I think, a very good and healthy thing because there's no competing interest. It's all just whatever we gotta do to do the best.
Q: It seems to cause a fair bit of confusion when you acquire companies. 'Bethesda have bought Arkane!' 'Well, no they haven't, ZeniMax have...'
Pete Hines: Yeah, technically you're right. Technically ZeniMax is the company that owns Bethesda and iD and Arkane and all those folks, but at the end of the day, for practical purposes all that matters is Bethesda are the guys who are publishing all of these. Who owns them is a corporate matter; Arkane is working with Bethesda, Machine Games are working with Bethesda, Bethesda Games is working with Bethesda.
Q: Will the company trend remain towards acquisitions or more partnerships, as with Human Head and Splash Damage?
Pete Hines: I think we continue to look for opportunities. We don't think 'we're looking to acquire X.' Like the iD thing, it was just 'we want to work with you guys -we like your games, we like what you do, how can we work together?'
And it sort of evolved over time to the point where both sides were saying 'maybe it makes better sense for us to just forces?' So whether it plays out one way or another down the road, and we work together like we're doing with Human Head or we acquire them like we did Arkane, who in the world knows? We continue to look for smart developers that make cool games that we respect, or are smart people that we want to work with. If we acquire them because that makes the best business sense, okay.
Q: Again, it's having seen other publishers acquire so many studios then start closing them down just a few years later - it can often seem like there's a terrible cycle out there.
Pete Hines: I think, again, the way we have gone about it and approached it is very different than those other folks, all of whom tend to be publicly-traded companies, which is just a whole different kettle of fish.
Pete Hines is VP of PR and Marketing at Bethesda Softworks. Interview by Alec Meer.