Amidst the buzz of the annual MI6 marketing conference in San Francisco, Bethesda Softworks' Pete Hines, vice president of public relations and marketing, sat down with GamesIndustry.biz for this exclusive interview to discuss targeting broader demographics, The Pitt downloadable content debacle, and whether Jerry Bruckheimer will make an Oblivion movie.
Q: Bethesda has focused on single player experiences, yet a lot of content found in Oblivion has ties to traditional fantasy MMO games. How closely is Bethesda watching the MMO space?
Pete Hines: We have a sister company owned by our parent company ZeniMax, ZeniMax Online Studios, whose purpose and function is to develop MMOs. They are working on stuff in the MMO space. They have not announced what they're working on, but it would be a title that Bethesda Softworks would publish with them. We don't have any details on that yet.
Bethesda Games Studio is not going to suddenly turn around and do MMOs. That is not what that group of folks is known for doing. They're going to stick to the kinds of things that they want to work on, and we now have somebody else that is focused on the MMO space.
Q: Is there any truth to the rumors that Bethesda is working on two new Elder Scrolls games, one of which is an MMO?
Pete Hines: I have not heard that rumor, so I can not comment on it. But we have not said what we're up to next. We're working on this Fallout [downloadable content] and we'll let everybody know when we're ready to talk about what's up next.
Q: The recent Fallout DLC was released as a corrupted file on Xbox Live – how much did that cost Bethesda to correct, and how does something like that damage good will with the fans?
Pete Hines: It's one thing if you put out something that's really buggy and there are a lot of problems that we should have caught. It is another thing entirely when the thing that was put up for them to play is missing big chunks. That's not a bug, that's just somewhere along the way something got corrupted and pieces of data were missing.
As soon as we figured out what was going on, we went through and started the process all over again of creating the files, uploading them, checking them on our end, sending them to Microsoft, having them run some checks, and putting them up [for consumers]. It literally went about as fast as humanly possible to repopulate something like that. It's not a costly thing. Obviously we prefer that it be up and stay up...but I think it was within 24 hours or so that we were able to get that back up and live.
The difficulty there is that when you are making something that is for retail, it is slightly different in terms of how you are able to look at it and test it. You make a game that's for retail, you can have someone manufacture you retail disks. When you're talking about downloadable content that has to go through Live, it's a little bit harder to replicate that experience. We have put some additional steps in place – extra checks – going forward.
Q: Is there a larger issue here? Are there elements of the downloadable content process that still need to be streamlined?
Pete Hines: No. It's one of those things where we prefer with The Pitt never happened. But in the context of all the DLC we ever put out – keep in mind all the times we put out DLC for Oblivion and never once had a corrupted file issue – it was just kind of a flukey, one-time version of this thing. But lesson learned. We're not going to say, "Oh, it's a fluke and we don't have to do anything different." We have looked to see if there are additional improvements that can be made. We put out enough [DLC] that we've gotten pretty good at the process.
Q: Bethesda releases cater to a hardcore gaming audience, but Todd Howard recently said that the industry needs to do more to attract new players. How does Bethesda hope to do that, to stop users becoming frustrated early in a game and giving up, and is it an industry wide problem?
Pete Hines: Guys who are making the games tend to be the ones who play a lot of games, and they forgive elements of the game quickly because "that is just how games work" instead of removing barriers and making it so that both a veteran of a game can get in quickly, but someone who has never picked up a controller gets eased into it. These are just things that we as an industry can get better at: The process of the stages that players go through as they master and move on to new challenges.
You can look at the way we start Oblivion and Fallout. Both games are designed so that during the first 30 to 45 minutes of the game you are playing the game the right away. We're not forcing you to watch a lot of cutscenes. We're not putting big tech screens up explaining how to do something. We give you your character and have you start doing stuff. While you're doing, you're learning how to play the game. You're learning a bit about yourself and the world. Whether it is Oblivion and going through a dungeon and figuring out what kind of weapons you want to use and what's going on in the story and how different game systems work, or in Fallout where you're growing up as a kid and flashing through different periods of your life – the objective is to have fun with the first period of the game where people are learning how to play and not have them reading a manual..
Q: How are you reaching out to a broader demographic?
Pete Hines: There is no magic thing that you can do. There is no magic number of ads, there's no one place, there's no one aspect of your campaign. Part of it is what is the game you're doing and what is the experience, and can a more casual person get that?
For example, with the experience site we put together for Fallout, the whole idea for it was to present Fallout in a way that people will think is cool regardless of whether they obsess over it daily or they had never heard of it. We present the game to them in a way that is cool, interesting, and engaging. It doesn't matter what their level of knowledge was coming in; they were simply able to get it.
The key thing is that once they get it, it is something that they actually want to get. If Fallout was a game about riding pink ponies through an enchanted forest, you're going to fail because that's not something cool or fun. A more casual person still wants to play games. You're marketing an Xbox 360 game. Even if you're trying to go more casual, you're still selling it to somebody who owns a 360. They have some knowledge of what gaming is.
Q: How autonomous is the Bethesda business within ZeniMax Media?
Pete Hines: ZeniMax is our parent company. They allow us to do a lot of the things that Bethesda has been able to do. We have a very close symbiotic relationship to them. In our day-to-day operations, there is really not one or the other, it is just a group of us. I have a boss who is the president of Bethesda, but then I also work closely with the chief operating officer who technically works for ZeniMax. It's pretty seamless.
Q: Do the directors (Robert Altman, Jerry Bruickheimer, Harry Sloan) ever have any direct say in the Bethesda business?
Pete Hines: Not day-to-day, no. Their philosophy is: You guys know this industry and how to make games. We respect your ability to run it. They're involved on the level you would expect a board to be involved in. They keep up to date on what we're doing and provide feedback, but they don't get into the weeds of the day-to-day stuff.
Q: With such a powerful list of senior movie execs (also including Jon Feltheimer of Lionsgate as an advisor) involved in the firm, are Bethesda properties going to wind up as movies or TV shows?
Pete Hines: Who knows. It's something we've gotten a lot of inquiries on over the years. But our thing is if we were ever to get into movies, we would want to do it in the way that we do videogames. Our stated goal internally is that we want to do something that is really great that people notice and stand up and pay attention to. If we do a film, we would want to do a film in that same vein. But there are no immediate plans for anything like that.
Pete Hines is vice president of public relations and marketing at Bethesda Softworks. Interview by Mary Jane Irwin.