Bethesda Softworks has developed and published games since the middle of the 1980s, but it has really ramped up its business in recent years, self-publishing global blockbusters like Fallout 3, building up an MMO studio and acquiring the likes of id Software and Arkane Studios.
Pete Hines, vice president of PR and marketing, has been at the heart of this internal revolution. We caught up with him at QuakeCon in Dallas recently to discuss this year's product slate - including RAGE and Skyrim - and Bethesda's thoughts on Online Pass, social gaming, and its ongoing expansion.
Q: The promotional campaign for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Rage kicked in really early this year, with promos in front of summer films like X-Men: First Class. What are the benefits of doing such a long campaign, and how do you avoid losing momentum?
Pete Hines: I think it's all in how it's done. If we were trying to build a constant level of noise that you might expect around launch and doing that six months early, that's really difficult to maintain. But if you can find different ways to engage the audience, to reach out to folks who may not have seen your trailer, to stick it before a movie and see it where you might not normally see it, I think that you do it at a level that's both easy to maintain as well as easy to build off of.
Q: Rage was announced before you acquired developer id Software, four years ago at QuakeCon. Was that too early?
Pete Hines: In retrospect, yes. If you had to do it all over again, I don't think anyone would argue against the fact you wouldn't do it that way. You would wait and hold it and announce it a bit closer to launch. But at the time it was independent, and they were in the business of going out to third-party publishers and finding a home for their titles. So it's done in a slightly different way to when you're internal like they are now, in the way in which you talk about stuff, do stuff, time it. I think it's very different.
The way in which Rage got positioned initially was wrong. People got confused and didn't even know what it was
Q: It must have created a unique challenge for you.
Pete Hines: It was unique in two ways. Not only was the timing not necessarily what you want, but I think the way in which it got positioned initially was wrong for the title. I think id agreed as well. Too much was focused on all the new stuff that wasn't the shooter, and people got confused and didn't even know what it was, so we came in and sort of shifted that to say, look, you guys are the creators of the first-person shooter genre, that's the game you're making.
Q: Skyrim is coming out at the same time as several other massive games. Do you think it's healthy for the games industry to have that level of congestion and is it really sustainable?
Pete Hines: It's probably healthy for the industry, because the industry gets a lot of attention when there's all these things happening, just like the movie industry gets a lot of buzz when there's a bunch of really big things at the movies and everyone's talking about them all.
It's probably not healthy for everybody who has one of those titles though, because usually somebody gets the short end of the stick and somebody ends up falling short and not doing quite what they expected to do. Usually - I'm making generalities. Also, this is fairly unique - it's not like it happens every year. It's a bit cyclical. I think 2008 was the last time we had this massive concentration.
Q: You recently released more DLC for Fallout: New Vegas. Do you feel you've got the DLC process figured out now? And what would you do differently as you look to Skyrim and other titles?
Pete Hines: I think we continue to look at the possible combinations of how many things we do and how big each of them are and how much they cost, and I don't think we've hit yet a formula where we do something for every game and we're not changing.
Q: Is there even a formula or does it just need to fit the product?
Pete Hines: It's not necessarily a formula so much as a philosophy, and I don't think we've hit one thing where every DLC we make will be of this size at this level of cost, etc. We did one thing for Oblivion, we did something different for Fallout 3, we've done something fairly similar for Fallout: New Vegas, and then with Skyrim... TBD.
Q: What do you think of the way Rockstar did it with Red Dead Redemption, where they took a world they'd created and made Undead Nightmare within it, which was a completely different game?
Pete Hines: I thought it was great, but there's no one approach that works for all games. Every game has got to be different in terms of what works well for you, what fits within your existing game. One of the things I like about the stuff that we do is that it does fit within your existing game, which is not something that a lot of games offer. It's like, here, you can play this thing but it's completely separate to what you're doing, whereas our stuff is, you can keep playing the game as you bought it, and by the way there's all this stuff out here now in this direction which adds to it.
Q: Online Pass is a big subject at the moment, but has anyone really hit on the best way to do this? Is incentivising consumers to buy something new perhaps better than trying to disincentivise them to buy second-hand?
Pete Hines: I would say there's a lot of truth in that. I don't think anybody has nailed the exact answer yet. I think we continue to try to put a lot of value in our games to make people want to buy it and hold onto it, to limit that second-hand market, because if fewer people want to sell it because they want to hold onto it then there's fewer copies for other people to buy. We saw that with Fallout 3 where people didn't sell their copies, because they wanted to play the DLC.
I have an iPhone and I have games on there and they're great, but that doesn't mean we should be the ones trying to make those, or competing in that space
Q: As a very creatively driven company, is that a philosophical approach? That it's nicer to behave that way, and better for the gamer overall?
Pete Hines: I don't know if it's something we think on quite that hard. I also think because it's not quite clear what works and what doesn't that it's fuzzy anyway. If everybody was doing X and we weren't, it would be much more like, "Why have you clearly chosen not to do something that's working well for everybody else?" This is a case where there's just no real clear successes - maybe a few clear failures, but it's almost sort of degrees of it here and there, and I just don't think - as an industry much less as a company - it's been pinpointed that one thing is exactly what you should do.
Q: You guys have acquired studios with a lot of pedigree in boxed titles, whereas some of your competitors like EA and Disney have invested heavily in social companies. Is that something you've also got an eye on?
Pete Hines: No.
Q: Why is that?
Pete Hines: That's not where our interests lie. That's not what we're known for and it's not the kind of stuff we've traditionally done. I think we're pretty self-aware in terms of who we are and what kind of games we make, and we want to keep trying to make those games bigger and better, and not go off and do something that is completely different that we don't have a lot of expertise and knowledge of.
I guess I would put it this way: I want to make the kind of games that somebody who likes Rage would want to play, and who likes Skyrim would want to play, and there's a much clearer path from the guy who likes Rage is also probably going to like Skyrim also probably likes Prey 2 also probably likes Dishonored, or at least there's a much bigger chance of moving an audience from one to the next.
Q: EA wants to be a platform and a service. Why do you think they are so urgently diversifying when they're already great content creators?
Pete Hines: Well, you also have to look at the fact we're not EA, right? We haven't been a company that's put out 40, 50, 60, 70 games a year and is now doing that many games of different shapes and sizes.
Q: Would you aspire to that?
Pete Hines: No, never, I have zero interest. It's not what our company was created to do, it's not what we aspire to do. We want to focus on three or four big releases a year. Games that when they come out and you're like, "I can't wait to play that." Skyrim's coming out - that's going to be awesome. When Rage is coming out, people are like, "I need a new first-person shooter, something that makes my Xbox look awesome on my big-screen TV - I'm getting that game."
Q: So: self-satisfaction rather than world domination.
Pete Hines: Yeah. You know, I have an iPhone in my pocket and I have a hundred games on there and they're great, by really talented companies, but that doesn't mean we should be the ones trying to be making those, or competing in that space, or going on Facebook.
We had the same thing a couple of years ago with the DS and everybody running after the DS and creating social games and games for girls, and now it's shifted from, "Oh, we're going to put out lots of stuff for the DS or the PSP," now it's Facebook and social gaming and iPhone. And maybe that's the one that catches on and maybe not, but we know who we are, we know what we do well, we know what our audience likes, and we want to make the kind of games we want to play for the kind of experiences we like.
Q: You're currently sustaining multiple game engines, considering id Software has id Tech 5 and Skyrim has its own engine. I would imagine the ZeniMax MMO probably isn't running on either of those -
Pete Hines: Correct.
Q: Do you have any ambition to unite the strands under one banner, or are you happy this way?
Pete Hines: Well, you've seen from some of the announcements we've made that there other folks using id Tech. Skyrim is such a completely different kind of game that when you're talking about big, open, go-anywhere-you-want do-anything-you-want games, the id Tech engine isn't... The id guys would be the first to tell you that that's not the kind of game that engine was made for. The inverse of that is that the kind of engine we [Bethesda Game Studios] make for what we do is not the kind of engine you use for a fast-paced first-person shooter with multiplayer, nor for an MMO that's server-based.
So I think in the case that we had something that works that a similar product would want to use, then we'd do that. If not, then we're not going to force a round peg into a square hole.
Q: If you're not looking at diversifying into other consoles and social, would you consider pushing into other genres besides the core things you typically go into, if it felt right or the partnership felt right?
Pete Hines: It's not as much about a genre for us as it is, like, "What are you trying to do?" I say that with some hesitance, because I don't think you would see a rugby game from us any time soon. But that doesn't mean we say we don't do adventure or horror.
We tend not to do a lot of post-mortem stuff, at least in a public way. In some ways it feels a bit like airing dirty laundry
Q: Are you still talking to lots of potential partners?
Pete Hines: Oh yeah, always.
Q: The Respawn guys have been here at QuakeCon a couple of years now.
Pete Hines: We like those guys.
Q: Would you consider working with them?
Pete Hines: Sure, absolutely. We've known Vince [Zampella] and Jason [West] for a while. Infinity Ward and before Infinity Ward. The Insomniac guys are here - known those guys for a while, have a lot of respect for them. It's just that we have lots of people we know and have known for a long time, and whenever we can we just like pulling them in [at QuakeCon] to get another perspective. I think people find it interesting. I think we'll continue to do that specifically as it relates to QuakeCon because we think it makes a better show and more interesting.
Q: Should we be expecting more announcements of acquisitions and partnerships in the near future?
Pete Hines: I don't know about that. I don't know what the right number of internal studios is or isn't, but again our intent is to continue to have conversations with people we think are talented and make the kind of games we respect and like, and to see if there's any possibility of working with them. Sometimes that results in an acquisition, sometimes it's a game, sometimes it's a series of games - who knows? But it's healthy to just continue to have dialogue and conversations, because you never know what might happen and what might fall into your lap.
Q: Looking at some recent examples of external partnerships like Hunted and Brink, how did you feel those ended up in the end? Were there things you would have done differently?
Pete Hines: Probably. Probably. Although my personal philosophy, and in a lot of ways Bethesda's philosophy, is we tend not to do a lot of post-mortem stuff, at least in a public way. In some ways it feels a bit like airing dirty laundry. Certainly I think there's things on both projects we would have done differently, but I wouldn't want to get into specifics.
Q: Fallout and Elder Scrolls have a reputation for sometimes being buggy at launch. Is that something you guys are conscious of and want to stamp out?
Pete Hines: Certainly. It's something we continue to try to address and design for. I think if you go back and look, Fallout 3 was an incredibly stable game. Certainly not bug-free, but there's a difference for us between a rock that's floating a little above the ground, which is technically a bug, and one you might have that causes your game to crash or your save-games to get corrupted.
So there's degrees. We start at the top and work our way down. Does the game load when you click on it? Does it save properly? That stuff. So it's something we're cognisant of. I think for Skyrim we built a number of things into the game to cover that and to try to improve that. But the truth of the matter is that it's far easier to bug-test and playtest a game that's very linear than one that's very open.
It is a bigger undertaking to wrangle all of that and make sure you've squeezed out every possible thing, like, "Oh, you've picked up this sword then talked to this person then gave them that, then this thing happens." It is literally approaching infinite when you talk about all those possibilities.
I think we have and continue to get better at it. When you look at Fallout: New Vegas, it was not a Bethesda Game Studios title, it was different experience for those guys even though we worked with them on it, but I think Todd [Howard] and his team have continued, over the 12 years I've been here working with them, to make improvements, and I think they're in a good place with this.
Q: Obviously you had a great experience working with Obsidian as a third-party developer on New Vegas, but is that something you would ever consider doing with Elder Scrolls?
Pete Hines: I don't know. That's a tougher one. In the case of Obsidian it was a really unique opportunity. We had a studio that had availability and a group of guys within that who had worked on previous versions of it. You don't have that same situation with Elder Scrolls at all. So I doubt it. I guess technically never say never, but I don't see that being something we actively look at or explore.
Q: What's going on with the Fallout/Interplay/MMO legal thing?
Pete Hines: I haven't the foggiest idea. It's with the lawyers. They're sorting it. Beyond that, honest to god I haven't the foggiest idea what's going on with it. I would hope and assume that it all gets resolved soon.
Pete Hines is vice president of PR and marketing at Bethesda Softworks. Interview by Tom Bramwell.