In the past few years, one of the games to have had the biggest impact on the videogames industry was the most recent in the Elder Scrolls series - Oblivion. It was a crucial release in the early life of the Xbox 360, and demonstrated just what Microsoft's machine could do. In fact, it was widely regarded as a great example of what 'next generation' actually meant.
The next major project on the Bethesda Softworks schedule is an addition to an already much-loved franchise - Fallout - and here the company's VP of public relations and marketing talks to GamesIndustry.biz about that latest project, some of the thinking behind the game's design, and what life has been like since the company was bought by ZeniMax.
Q: Fallout 3 has a long introduction sequence, as did Oblivion - how important is scene-setting to your games?
Pete Hines: For us it is important when we do these big sandbox games, where you can go where you want and do what you want - it's important to get things off on the right foot in terms of who you are and what your place is in this world, and what kind of character you are going to try and be.
Before we throw you into the sandbox we do like to spend time helping you define what you're going to be good at, what things do you want to do - in this case it was important to set the context and contrast between life in the Vault, and life in the Wastelands.
In the original Fallout it talks about you living your whole life in the Vault, and then you're sent out to go find a water chip, so for us, to take it to the next level was about wondering what it would be like if you experienced life in the Vault - as opposed to just showing up and them telling you that you lived life in the Vault.
You live that experience, you watch these people grow up and get older, the little kids that become the gang and so on, and just experiencing that before you get thrown out, so you get the vibe of pre-war 1950s Vault life - that mentality and sensibility - and then how everything outside is laid to waste and how people are living a very different life. The contrast of those two things makes the Wastelands feel just a bit more dangerous.
Q: What's your view on the importance of storytelling? And how does user-generated content or emergent play fit into that?
Pete Hines: Honestly, we really want it to be about the player telling their own story - there are all these stories out there waiting for you, but how you move through the world, which ones you choose to partake in, and how you choose to change the story - that's really up to the player.
In Fallout you can tell the story of a really evil character who's pissed at his dad, and doesn't want to go and find him, and who kills people and steals things, who is nefarious…or the story of a guy who is very much attached to his father, who wants to find him and help him.
So it's up to the player to decide how that narrative is going to play out, we find that to be a very powerful experience when a lot of other games don't give you that. They may have good storytelling - I think BioShock is a great example of that, they have great storytelling, but it's not because of the player choice. They came up with a really compelling story, but everybody's story is pretty much the same.
The difference here is that everybody's story can be very different depending on the choices you make, where you decide to go or not to go, and I think folks find that to be a nice change.
There are nice games out there, like BioShock and Call of Duty, that tell great stories, but in a much more linear fashion, and then there's this way of doing it which is much more about how you want to do it, how you want to play the game, and having that be tailored to them is pretty unique and pretty compelling.
Q: The tree-branch dialogue looks to be pretty in-depth - does it become a major task keeping track of all that?
Pete Hines: It does, but we try and make sure that we're not giving you responses just to give you responses. There's an example early on with regard to the level of granularity, with exactly the kind of responses you would come up with based on how you want to play the game. Not everybody you talk to is going to have that many choices, but it is a snapshot of how you want to play the game.
Don't try and figure out how we want you to finish a quest - you play it how you want to play it. Do you want to be good? Do you want to be bad? Do you want to be neutral? Do you want to double-cross this guy? Do you want to save the people? Do you want to blow the people up? It's up to you to figure out how you want to handle the situation, and then hopefully, whatever wacky thing you come up with to try and respond to it, we've thought of that so that you think, "Awesome, I did that, and that's what happened in the end, that's really cool."
And now it feels a lot more powerful for the player, and what you find is that whenever you make a game like this, people really push those edges. If you tell them they can do what they want, they'll say "Oh really? What would happen if I set off a nuke inside the bar?"
And what happens? Well, exactly what you'd think, everybody dies, and so do you...they'll test the edges of whether they can really do anything they want.
Q: Having put Oblivion out on console, did that make it easier to run Fallout 3 out on console?
Pete Hines: Oh absolutely, having a second go around on this generation of consoles, and this generation of PC hardware, is certainly a huge advantage for us, having technology that's established, so that we could focus on iterating on that and doing the next generation of those things without worrying about whether it'll work - because it already works, we're just trying to make it bigger, better, faster, stronger.
Q: How much of the Oblivion engine was transferred over?
Pete Hines: A good bit of the Oblivion engine was used as the base, but then a lot of things have been done to that - added, changed, tweaked. Obviously here it's mostly gun combat, whereas in the other one it was mostly melee combat with some ranged...we're sort of flipping it on its head.
So it definitely takes a lot longer, and the whole VATS [weapon targeting] system - we didn't have any of that stuff in there.
Q: How far are you going with the 'go anywhere' sense in this game?
Pete Hines: Very. If you want to see how many of the hours you can play without seeing an hour of the main quest, give it a shot - it will be lots. You could spend 50 hours, 70 hours, just doing stuff in the world and never once make an effort to figure out what happened to your dad. We want it to be a self-directed world, for players to just see what happens.
And the idea is that the main quest is not the only cool stuff going on - there are tonnes of miscellaneous free-form things out there for you to do that will be a lot of fun, that maybe you've got five or six quests at any time where you can figure out what to do next.
Q: Doesn't that make it more difficult to look at future content expansions? Obviously you had The Shivering Isles for Oblivion, but you didn't put out anything after that - is it too much work?
Pete Hines: Honestly, I think it's the situation where if you want to do that kind of stuff, you can always figure out a way to integrate it, to take it in a new direction. You're never so close-ended that you don't give yourself options, there are always tonnes of things we could do. I don't think we're worried about that.
Q: You're still on track for the Autumn release?
Pete Hines: Yes, we're in alpha now, very pleased with how the development is going, where we're at on all three platforms, and probably this summer we'll put out a date that we have in mind.
Q: Looking at the PlayStation 3 version, I'm guessing that because you ported Oblivion to that platform before, while others have had some difficulty in the translation, it's something that's gone smoothly with Fallout 3?
Pete Hines: The three versions are pretty much synchronised at this point, development-wise. The PS3 version did have a bit of catching up to do, the Xbox 360 is our lead platform - it was on Oblivion, it is on Fallout 3.
But the PS3 had some catching up to do only because the Xbox 360 was out for a year before, that's a whole year to learn how to do stuff on that platform, the tips and tricks to get a better frame rate, and so on.
But yes, now we've shipped a game on it, and we've taken lessons from porting Oblivion and applied them to Fallout 3. So now it's right there with the Xbox 360.
Q: If Bethesda decided to remake Pac-Man, there would be a huge amount of attention, because of your track record, so with something like Fallout, with an existing fan base, was there a lot of additional pressure there to keep them happy?
Pete Hines: Well, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves. We don't take on something like Fallout 3, and everything that it means – I don't have to explain to most folks what Fallout is, it's beloved and revered by a lot of people, and it's a pretty big undertaking.
So we have a lot of pressure on ourselves not only doing the next Fallout game, but also we did pretty well on Oblivion, so the next follow-up to that, [ie Fallout 3], is always going to be under a pretty big microscope and have a lot to live up to.
So I don't think that the size or fanaticism of the fanbase is a problem, I'd rather have that than have a bunch of people not care about what it is we're doing. We'd much rather see the passion, it means a lot to us.
Q: There's a lot of discussion about the relationships between developers and publishers, or studios and their owners - you never seem to have had any problems with ZeniMax?
Pete Hines: No, not at all. Bethesda is still a developer and publisher of its own titles, and it has been for twenty years. I think what ZeniMax has done is come in and allowed us to remain private, and really changed the direction, gave us the resources to do more than we had done - to stop thinking small time and start thinking about where we wanted to go.
So it's been great for us because ZeniMax has just been there to try and support Bethesda, to try and grow the business so that we now have a publishing arm in Europe, whereas previously we'd only really worked with other publishers.
A big step, but we very much like being in control of our own destiny as much as possible. The number one thing that ZeniMax has done has allowed that - allowed us to go after things like Fallout.
They asked us what we wanted to work on next, and we said that nobody was working on Fallout, can you get us that? And lo and behold they went and got it, and told us to make it...so we are. I don't think the Bethesda of 1994 would have contemplated being able to do something similar to that - it was a different business.
And ZeniMax came along and said: "Dare to dream, we'll make it happen," and I think that's why we've gotten to make really grand games like Oblivion, to spend three of four years on a game like Fallout 3 to make sure we do it right.
No just to do it - we could have turned around anything in 18 months - but we want to do it right. Right by the series, what it means, and right by us and our fans, what they've come to expect.
It's been terrific.
Pete Hines is the VP of public relations and marketing at Bethesda. Interview by Phil Elliott.