For more than twenty years Bethesda Game Studios has held a special place in many gamers’ hearts. They’ve created some of the most imaginative worlds, characters, and story quests ever written for a video game; but with their latest release, it’s become abundantly clear that there is something wrong. Thirteen years since the release of The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, Bethesda appears to be going through a mid-life crisis, confused by what they were and what they currently are. This identity crisis has been steadily growing through the 7th & 8th generation of consoles, and has reached something of an inflection point with Fallout 76. However, this story of slipping standards starts long before that.
Bethesda has for over a decade been creating an unhealthy relationship with their fans. It started innocently enough, after all, Bethesda RPGs are massive games with branching quests, connected by hundreds of characters. In such expansive games, bugs & glitches are to be expected. But PC gamers are a resourceful lot and took it upon themselves to fix what they could, using the tools available to them. They created “Mods” that would not only fix the litany of bugs left in the developer, but could enhance the entire experience of playing the game. These mods varied wildly; some would be as small as adding skins for your weapons, others completely upgraded the graphics of the game. At the time of writing, there is an entire new game in development called Fallout: Miami, using the engine of Fallout 4; it’s very impressive.
Bethesda took notice of the communities creativity and gave tacit consent to it. After the launch of Fallout 3, the developer started working on their next big RPG, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. To tide gamers over till TES:Skyrim, Bethesda handed the Fallout licence over to Obsidian studios, who would make Fallout: New Vegas, a buggier, but arguably better game than Fallout 3. Bethesda didn’t take kindly to being beaten at their own game and, to this day, rarely discuss the spin-off.
Skyrim was a gem of a game. The main quest line was pretty standard fantasy, but it was the world around the main quest that brought the game to life. The world that Bethesda hand created kept me playing for well over 200 hours. The branching quests remain some of my favourite memories of the 7th console generation. Where Skyrim excelled in RPG storytelling, the game was near broken on consoles. Muddy textures, bugs, glitches abound! The PC version of Skyrim fared better, but still had its share of issues. Regardless, the community came to the rescue and modded the PC version of Skyrim, fixing some of Bethesda’s mistakes.
It’s here that we begin to see the issue; Bethesda has become comfortable with its position. They seem to see game development as a cooperative experience between the developer & the gamer. Viewed out of context, this sounds almost noble, but viewed through the prism of Bethesda’s leiź fare attitude to game design, it appears down right lazy. Todd Howard has all but admitted that this is the case. In a recent interview with IGN, Howard discussed the launch of Fallout: 76, accepting the critical response but also admitting to knowing that the game wasn’t in a fit state to be sold; qualifying his view by saying it’s about the journey, not the starting point. That’s a great viewpoint to have if you’re a game developer worth billions of dollars; not so great if you’ve just spend $60, expecting a AAA game experience.
Bethesda’s E3 2019 conference did little to ease my worries about the developer. Both Todd Howard & Pete Hines laughed off the Fallout 76 debacle, instead discussing their continued foré into mobile games. Fallout 76 received a quick trailer for their two upcoming DLC’s called Nuclear Winter and the much discussed Wastelanders DLC that will bring back NPCs, traditional dialogue options and quest givers. This received a tremendous round of applause from those attending, but the remainder of the conference was dire. I found myself wondering why Bethesda had made such a 180 turn with Wastelanders. Is it simply an outcome of the backlash or was this planned all along?
I have my own theory. I believe that Bethesda planned the release of the Wastelanders DLC long before the backlash. I expect that they removed traditional quest givers & NPCs from the base game so they could charge for them down the line. We’ll probably never know whether this is the case of not, but if it is, Bethesda have been left with egg on their face as both major game updates (Nuclear Winter & Wastelanders) will be free for all Fallout 76 owners.
Let me be clear: I love Bethesda games. I’ve spent well over thousand hours in these immersive fantasy/post apocalyptic worlds. Still, I find myself wandering about the developer’s future. An outdated engine, an arrogant position on what constitutes a finished game, and a relative ignorance of what their fans expect and want from their games. All this makes me think about the fate of Bethesda’s next two big games: Starfield & The Elder Scrolls 6. Are these games doomed to failure? I hope not. Suffice to say, Bethesda hasn’t done much to dissuade my worries.