Kneel before Todd: Bethesda's Howard on a lifetime of achievement
Todd Howard shares his thoughts on VR, mobile and why modding is so crucial to the studio
Next week, at the Game Developers Conference, Bethesda Game Studios executive producer Todd Howard will have the honor of accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award. This puts Howard in the company of industry giants like Will Wright, Shigeru Miyamoto, Sid Meier, and Hideo Kojima to name just a few. Howard may feel humbled by the award but there's good reason for it - after all, Bethesda's franchises like The Elder Scrolls and Fallout have provided millions of fans incalculable hours of entertainment.
It's perhaps fitting that, growing up, Todd's brother used to shout "Kneel before Todd!" (a play on the quote from Superman II where evil Kryptonian Zod tells the President of the US to kneel). To his fans, Howard is a god-like figure, creating and overseeing incredibly vast open worlds to explore. He takes it all in stride, often forgetting how popular his games are.
"When I go to E3 or [other events] I look at all these games and think, 'Oh my God. Look at the show. I can't believe anyone even pays attention to our games.' We're always surprised, like, 'Wow! That's really popular. That's great. We need to make another one'," he tells me.
Howard is approaching 45 years old; he's not even close to retirement age, and yet receiving a prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award does make him stop and think.
"It did make me reflect. I didn't know how to react to it. It's an incredible honor and then it's like, 'OK, am I supposed to be done? Is that it?' I feel like I'm sort of in the middle. There's a long way to go yet. It's just weird to think about yourself with a group of people who have achieved it already and then you realize, 'Oh, I have been doing this quite a while.' And you think back on the games. And when I think about the games, I often end up thinking about the individual teams and how the studio's grown and that it's a lot of the same people and it's like each of those games was like going through college or getting a degree, like that was that period of my life," he says.
"My view of [VR] is that I want everybody to enjoy the moment. There aren't that many moments like this in technology or gaming"
"And I feel like where we're at now, in many ways we've turned - any time you enter a new generation of hardware or do something big and new like Fallout 4, you feel like you've turned a corner and that we have a whole bunch of ideas in front of us and there's so much we can do and we feel we have a pretty good footing to do some even bigger and different things."
Speaking of new projects, Howard is quick to point out that the much-reported statement he made at the DICE Summit about three things in development isn't entirely accurate.
"I should have never said a number because we have so many things. You could add it up in different ways. You could say it's bigger or smaller. They're a long way off. I think the larger point was, no one should expect to hear about those [games] anytime soon. We always overlap projects. We just have more going on now than we had before," he notes. "Part of that's the growth of the studio. We have the Montreal studio now and we're going to be doing different things. We feel we have a pretty good footing and we're in a particular place and time where we can try some new things and be confident that they'll find some success."
Is one of those new things going to be a virtual reality project? Not necessarily, but Howard is actually very excited about the technology.
"We're exploring some things [in VR]. We'll see where that heads. We don't want to talk about it quite yet until we've figured some things out. My view of it is that I want everybody to enjoy the moment. There aren't that many moments like this in technology or gaming. People talk about there's so many unknowns and everyone wants to figure it out today. My view is, enjoy the ride. It doesn't happen that much," Howard says. "Maybe the iPhone and the advent of those kinds of smartphones or 3D acceleration and graphics cards. What was that...16 years ago? 18 years ago? 20 years ago? It doesn't happen that much. So I'm trying to preach to people around here, like, 'hey, enjoy this.' Everyone in the industry will figure it out together."
Howard concedes that VR is pricey, but so is most amazing new tech, and he's convinced of the power of VR to bring brand-new experiences to gamers. "I think that's how all things like that start. So it'll head in a direction where, tech-wise, it'll just get better and better and we'll figure it out. I don't want to predict - I've played some things that are pretty transformative and they're pretty amazing. Does that translate to every game or every type of game or everyday experiences? I don't know. I can't predict that right now. We're down to questions such as how do you move in that environment? How does it feel? It's certainly exciting," he says.
VR may not be among the studio's next projects, but it's a safe bet that another mobile game is. Fallout Shelter was a monumental hit for Bethesda, racking up more than four billion sessions and aiding the developer in its marketing to build even more anticipation for the release of Fallout 4. The one-two punch at last year's E3 paid off in spades.
"We were leading to that moment... we hadn't done anything for so long as a piece of entertainment to bring Fallout back and to have something that people could touch right away [with the mobile game]. And so it was only five months to Fallout 4. We felt this was the time to do it and Apple was a really great partner... They came in on Sunday night and updated the App Store. They don't do that. So really hats off to them in helping us get this kind of success and we love working with them and the folks at Google. They really supported us in a really big way that made it, not just a success, but we enjoyed the experience," Howard remarks.
Coming from the world of PC and console, the vastly expanded audience that mobile brings almost caught Howard off guard. But with core games like Hearthstone performing well, Bethesda clearly knew that the appetite for more in-depth mobile titles was growing.
"The one thing we found is it's shocking [to see] the reach of those games. I don't know the numbers per se, but the number of people who have devices to play on and who want to - it's staggering. You look at how fast people were installing Fallout Shelter around the world and then when it launched on Android it did it all over again to the same level. It's just really, really mind blowing that there's a lot of people who want to at least try it and then a lot of people who stick with it," he says.
"We definitely go through a period of exhaustion but then come out of it and we love these games. We're fans too. We make the games really for ourselves."
Obviously making a game like Fallout Shelter is far easier and takes far less time than a AAA blockbuster like Fallout 4, but don't expect Bethesda to suddenly shift the balance of its studio in the direction of mobile.
"We're going to support Shelter and then we'll probably - I think we'll try to always have one in development because it was a blast to create and it was really successful so clearly it's not like, 'We're never going to do that again.' We want to keep doing it and we'll start. We've always had a number of ideas and we'll start prototyping something new and see where it takes us. I have no idea when it'll come out but we have a number of ideas that we want to start trying," Howard confirms.
Making games like Fallout 4 or Skyrim is grueling work, and Howard doesn't shy away from how tiring the process can be. "Toward the end, the last year is always exhausting and you don't have the same perspective. You're trying to get it done and you're really trying to do everything you can because we know our games reach a pretty big audience; the time they spend in the games is very important to them so you kind of want to leave it all in the field and know that you did everything you could to make it as good as possible but then there's always more you could do," he says.
"We definitely go through a period of exhaustion but then come out of it and we love these games. We're fans too. We make the games really for ourselves. And now looking at Fallout, there's so much we can do just with this game. We feel like we have a really good base and adding stuff to it whether that's DLC or how mods are going to work or survival mode or things like that. Just taking a nice little break over the holidays and coming back is like, 'uh, there's so much we can do to make the game even better. Let's go for it'," Howard continues.
Mods in particular have been the lifeblood of Bethesda. Much like Sid Meier and the Civilization team recognized the value of modding very early on, Howard recognizes how important the modding community has been to beefing up the content for each open world Bethesda puts out there. It's gotten to the point where Bethesda definitely wants to make it as easy as possible for creative individuals to get involved.
"It changes how we develop compared to someone else, but we've been doing it so long, going back to Morrowind, so 14 years - that's just the way we operate. It does make how we go about things a little bit different that we want it to be flexible, not just for ourselves when we're making the game but knowing that people are going to mess with it and we want them to. We're really pushing now to build all of that in the game itself. There's going to be a button on the menu itself and it says mods and it comes up right in the game. Here are all the mods that you can install so you don't have to leave the game to do it. And bringing that to console is a huge deal for us and I think that's going to be a big first," Howard says.
"And that's why, like I said, we have ideas of what the game can be, but once it gets in the users' hands - and it's not that everyone makes mods, but really good mod makers are feeding the millions of people playing the game and they can pick and choose the stuff that they like and get the experience that they want and that's very important to us."
It's important from a studio talent perspective as well. If you're looking to get noticed by Bethesda, the best way to get a foot in the door is to create a high quality mod.
"Actually, if you're applying to be a designer here, you have to submit one. That's part of the process. One of our best programmers was a top Morrowind modder," notes Howard. "And you know what? Even if it's not us, there are plenty of people who have done modding with our stuff who get jobs at other studios. And that's one of the things that helps us build big worlds. I think our tools are fairly easy to use but they're also very, very powerful. If you want to do basic stuff, I think it's pretty straightforward. It's all built-in, AI scripting, everything, there's a lot you can do."
There aren't many studios in the AAA space making open world games that are as successful as Bethesda's. Naturally, Rockstar would be considered king among those studios, and Howard acknowledges that learning from the best is a good thing. "You mention Rockstar. I met those guys a few years back. I think their stuff is amazing. We look at their [games] more than anybody's in terms of how they make the world around you alive in a way that you can appreciate and play with. When it's just for show it doesn't matter but they do a really good job of not just the scope but letting you interact with it in ways that really pique your curiosity and make you feel that you have agency in that world," he observes.
During his recent DICE talk, Howard discussed with moderator Pete Holmes how, similar to Rockstar, Bethesda really enjoys creating interesting silent moments where the player can feel immersed even when standing still; it's all about the intricate details.
"Somebody asked me at DICE, 'Where is this all going? These open worlds? Is it going to finally end up where you're modeling ants?' I forget my answer but then after the interview I remembered, wait, there are actually ants in Skyrim! There are a couple of walls and if you stare at them, there are ants crawling along certain boards. But that's great for the person who notices that. You're just standing there then you look down and you're like, 'Oh my God. What is that?' Those little things we really love" Howard says.
Clearly Bethesda is doing quite well for itself. When it comes to expansion, the studio has always been "very, very careful," Howard comments, and he's not looking to leverage his studio's IP across other media either. Hollywood, having managed to dip successfully into the world of comic books, appears to have its eyes set on video games (World of Warcraft, Borderlands, God of War, etc.) but Howard is too concerned with diluting the worlds his studio creates.
"I've taken a number of meetings [for movie pitches] over the years and nothing quite clicked where I felt, 'Oh, that would be as good as the game'"
"We've had a couple of in-roads, particularly with Fallout, which is a bit stickier than Elder Scrolls, but everybody's kind of asked and I've taken a number of meetings over the years and nothing quite clicked where I felt, 'Oh, that would be as good as the game.' And that may happen. I don't rule it out, but nothing really has clicked where - the games are popular enough and that's their identity. Fallout 4, if there had been a Fallout movie, you'd feel different about Fallout when we'd announced Fallout 4 and one of them wouldn't be quite right and you wouldn't want that to be the game, where the movie takes it in another direction... I would say we have a pretty high bar as far as what we would want it to be if it ever happened and nothing's quite clicked. Even little things like, 'What does the vault suit look like?' - every little thing we obsess over so the game is the thing where it really exists," Howard explains.
Howard's decisions to turn down movie deals thus far shouldn't be all that surprising. Bethesda marches to the beat of its own drum. While countless others shoehorned multiplayer modes into their games, Bethesda proved that massive single-player games can still sell quite well.
"I think we're fairly old school at heart. For our games, it's that idea that you can step into and live in another world. It harkens back to stuff that you used to play but it feels really fresh and despite it having very big ideas and grand systems, the minute-to-minute gameplay is very tight. If you sit down and play it for a bit, it scratches that itch for what you do minute-to-minute when you're going through a dungeon or in a combat experience... but that it has wider aspirations and those aspirations fuel your - it'll sound a bit cliché - they fuel your dreams," he says.
"When you think about our games or what you would do in the world, you think about all of the possibilities as opposed to just, 'here's the feature set.' You think about who you want to be and what you would do or where you would go and it's just that kind of vibe that gets us really excited. So, in general we're trying to put as many features as we can in the game that reward that and we have a lot of successes with some of those and there are a lot of areas where we feel like we could still do a lot better."
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