Earlier this month, Bethesda Softworks announced its new push into the mobile market, starting with two of its biggest brands. The iOS post-apocalyptic ant farm Fallout Shelter launched the night it was announced during Bethesda's E3 media briefing, while the forthcoming Elder Scrolls: Legends strategy card game will bring the fantasy-role-playing franchise to mobile devices. The early response to Fallout Shelter was impressive, with the game rocketing to third place on the App Store's top grossing game charts, behind only Clash of Clans and Game of War (as of this writing, it has slipped to 10th on the chart). Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz on the last day of E3, Bethesda VP of PR and marketing Pete Hines had trouble saying how that performance ranked relative to the company's expectations.
"[Fallout Shelter] is not meant to be a Game of War, Clash of Clans, or Boom Beach competitor."
"To be honest, I'm not sure what we expected," Hines said. "It's not like we're a pretty well-known iOS and iPhone developer where we've been down this road before and it's going to go like this. But it seemed like it ought to be pretty popular, the whole idea of, 'This thing exists and you can go play it today.' On the back of all the Fallout 4 stuff, we thought it would do well, but we weren't sure how well. Suffice to say, we're pretty pleased right now with how well it's doing... Our expectation has been that it's not going to stay in the top three or top five just because. It's going to see some decay. It's going to drop off. We're going to at some point do some marketing around it. At this point we've essentially done none. And we do have plans for supporting it going forward in the way of content, ideas we have and things we want to try."
While Fallout Shelter has rubbed elbows with the top dogs in mobile, don't expect it to be advertised like those games. Hines said the company has considered running TV spots as well as other ways of marketing the game, but doesn't think that will be the path Bethesda takes.
"This is not meant to be a Game of War, Clash of Clans, or Boom Beach competitor," Hines said. "It's trying to do something different and I don't know whether or not I see us doing Fallout Shelter TV commercials for it. But that's something we've talked about, and we tend to never rule anything out even if we say, well that's not something we're going to do right now."
"I have no idea how many people who are playing Fallout Shelter are fans of Fallout 4 who want to play Fallout 4, and how many are people who just like games on the iPhone..."
And just because Bethesda is doing something right now, that doesn't mean the company will keep doing that in the future. For example, Hines wasn't willing to commit to Bethesda's mobile efforts as being exclusively built around its existing franchises. There are arguments to be made on either side, but the name attached to a project means less than the quality of the project itself, Hines said.
"First and foremost, we're continuing to look more and more at doing things in the space that make sense on their own. Because we don't really control who in the mobile space is going to decide to play your game. I have no idea how many people who are playing Fallout Shelter are fans of Fallout 4 who want to play Fallout 4, and how many are people who just like games on the iPhone, check the top of the charts, download stuff that seems popular and give it a try."
Looking ahead, Hines doesn't expect Elder Scrolls: Legends to follow very closely in Fallout Shelter's footsteps.
"Legends doesn't have to have a massive day one," Hines said. "We're actually going to control it so it doesn't. We're going to do closed beta, then ramp up the number of people, then go into open beta. It's just going to look and feel very different based on the kind of game it is and what our endgame is. .... Legends is not about how we look after the first day or week or month. It's about whether we're on a path to success. Do we have a plan to maintain it and come out with good content and new features to make sure we're differentiating ourselves from the others? I don't really ever want to do a game that is just a clone of that. Because I don't think that's who Bethesda is. We didn't make a name for ourselves by ripping off or mimicking somebody else. We kind of need to cut our own path and do our own thing."
As for why Bethesda chose now to enter the mobile market, Hines said it was a combination of getting the right ideas from the development team and then waiting for the right time to pursue them.
"I'm not going to go to Id and say, 'You have to develop the thing.' But what would feel like a good experience for you on mobile? Have you guys thought about it? What do you play that you like?"
"This was an idea the studio had and they'd been thinking about it for a while," Hines explained. "As were looking at it, it just felt like if you did this when we were already talking about the franchise and the brand, there's a natural connection between the two. If we tried to do this last year without announcing what Bethesda Game Studios was doing [Fallout 4 for consoles and PC] and said, 'Oh we're doing a game and it's on mobile and it's called Fallout Shelter,' we'd probably get lynched, right? There would be pitchforks at the gate. 'That's not the Fallout we asked for, you bastards!' But doing it this way, they're like, 'I'm getting what I want and oh, by the way, while I wait here's this other free thing that's fun to play.' So part of it is just how do we not get ourselves killed and make it a success? This felt like the better version of that."
Bethesda tries to be developer-led when it comes to ideas for projects, Hines said, which means the push into mobile was not so much a corporate edict as a conversation.
"I'm not going to go to Id and say, 'You have to develop the thing,'" Hines said. "But what would feel like a good experience for you on mobile? Have you guys thought about it? What do you play that you like? Look at this other stuff, and start to think about those things... It still has to come from a developer, somebody who's going to think, 'This is a thing I can make great and it will be really fun,' because when you hit those problems, if they don't believe in it, then the solutions they're going to come up with are going to suck. Because they don't believe in the original concept anyway. They were just told by somebody, 'Go make this." And they're like, 'Forced march, OK, here we go. I'm implementing something I don't really care about.'"