2006 was a good year for Bethesda Softworks. Released in March, PC and Xbox 360 title Oblivion was a huge hit, topping software charts around the world and becoming the fastest-selling 360 game then released for the console.
But it wasn't all plain sailing - the company was criticised for charging what some saw as an inflated price for downloadable content, and Oblivion was re-rated by the ESRB following the release of a third-party mod.
However, the game was also the recipient of much critical acclaim and a string of awards, and continued to sell in its millions. With the PS3 version arriving soon and a new expansion pack - The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles - due out next week, GamesIndustry.biz sat down with marketing VP Peter Hines to discuss Oblivion's highs and lows, plus what's next for Bethesda.
Q:GamesIndustry.biz: How important is the Shivering Isles expansion pack for your strategy going forward?
Peter Hines: Very important, for two reasons - one to make money [laughs] and another because Oblivion has been so succesful for us. It's been a big critical success and a big commercial success, so it's really important to us that any time we do anything related to it - even if it's just an expansion - that it does well and helps move the franchise forward.
Q: Were you expecting Oblivion to do as well as it has?
Maybe not quite as well as it has done. We're pretty good at looking critically at stuff we've done and we really thought Oblivion was going to do well. So yeah, we thought we had a pretty big success on our hands but we hadn't really thought in terms of numbers. Morrowind is still selling on the PC and the Xbox and we felt that Oblivion was a much better game, so it had the potential to be even bigger.
Q: Were there any problems with the original game you've tried to address with the expansion?
We don't really touch gameplay systems or change the experience because its designed to work with the existing game. Every time you change a little thing like it has a great ability to break the entire game.
So most of what we try and focus on is new content, new experiences, new stuff that's different from anything players have done in Oblivion. We try to give them a reason to keep coming back and play Shivering Isles because it's new and different.
Q: You took some criticism for the first downloadable content for Oblivion - particularly the horse armour pack, which some felt was overpriced. Do you think it was unfair? Was it a result of working with a system that was still being established?
Yes and no. We didn't have any choice. We were the first ones to do downloadable content like that - some people had done similar things, but no one had really done additions where you add new stuff to your existing game. So we knew we were going to take some flak whatever. We could have put that out for 25 cents and people would have still been up in arms.
But we had some other things we were working on and were able to come out with new things that were better conceived and at a better price point, things like the wizard's tower. We found that the price isn't really the issue. People just want to feel like they're getting a good deal. I'll pay $3 for downloadable content, but it better be cool - and horse armour just isn't cool. So if we had to do it over again, I'd say either we should wait until later for the horse armour or do it for less.
The flipside is, that thing sold hundreds of thousands of copies and still sells every day. It's not like people don't want it, because it still sells. I think on the whole people think what we've done is of interest and good value.
Q: Was there pressure on you from Microsoft with regard to producing downloadable content?
No, it was our choice. What we didn't have a choice about was being the first. Nobody else had done it and we were ready, so we had no choice but to be the guinea pigs to try the whole DLC thing, and see what the reaction would be.
Q: Some critics described Oblivion as the first next-gen game. How did that affect your outlook?
We're very harsh critics of ourselves. We have very high standards, so we already felt like we were trying to deliver a huge next-gen experience whether or not any one else said it. If it did anything it really heightened the attention the game was getting.
A month or so before the game came out I was concerned anticipation had reached too high a level. People were expecting the game to cure blindness and heal the sick. It turns out that I feel like we delivered on what people expected. There was no bump, people didn't say, 'It's good but not as good as it should have been.' I think the scores and awards reflect that we delivered on people's expectations.
Q: The PS3 version of Oblivion is being published by Ubisoft rather than Take-Two - why have you made the switch?
I really can't say. Too much backroom stuff.
Q: Is the PS3 version very different to the 360 version?
No, it's pretty much the same. It comes with the Knights of the Nine expansion because it sits very well with the game, but performance wise et cetera it's very much on a par.
Q: Is producing a Wii game something Bethesda would like to do?
It's something we'd like to do, but unfortunately it's not a very good fit with Oblivion. Oblivion is a very demanding game hardware-wise and in terms of graphics processing and raw horsepower. It's not something the Wii was designed to do. They decided not to make the focus on raw horsepower but on interface and so forth.
It's a great console and many of us at Bethesda have one but I know that bringing Oblivion over is not possible - we'd have to do a whole new game.
Q: Is that something you're considering?
It's something we've talked about, but I don't think you could say we're considering it. It's not in our immediate future - maybe something we'll look at somewhere down the road.
Q: What about the PSP version of Oblivion? Is that still due in spring?
It's still in the works; the release date at the minute is TBC. It's a completely different development track. It basically uses nothing from Oblivion, it's a completely new game.
Q: You're currently best known for Oblivion but you recently did Star Trek Legacy and you're doing Rogue Warrior as well. Are you concerned about being pigeonholed as a fantasy RPG development team?
We recognise that what we're really good at is roleplaying, but at the same time we look to go and work with other partners in sectors where we're not present - like first-person shooters, strategy stuff or action titles. So we're trying not to be one-hit wonders, we want to expand into other areas.
Q: What kind of challenges have you faced developing for different platforms?
The 360 is our base platform, it's the easiest to develop for. The biggest challenge for the PC is that it's totally undefined. Even with DirectX 10 it's still a random amalgamation of graphics cards and RAM and processors. It's not a defined box, so it's really difficult to develop for.
With PS3 it's different, because it's a very different piece of hardware. It's very powerful but it works in a totally different way to the 360 so whenever you're doing something for both, even if the outcome is the same, the way you have to go about doing it is very different.
The way we do it is we use the 360, the PC architecture is very similar, then we have a lot of people who have a lot of experience in developing for Sony platforms like the PS2 - and they use their expertise to optimise the code for PS3.
Q: In the future do you hope to balance support for those platforms more equally?
Absolutely. Our goal is that for any game we do, we want to bring it out for whatever console will support it. We don't want to limit our audience at all. If we're making a game that technically makes sense for another console, then we'll absolutely do it.
Peter Hines is vice president of PR and marketing at Bethesda Softworks. Interview by Ellie Gibson.