For well over 35 years, Bethesda has slowly grown from a small RPG developer to one of the largest gaming companies on the planet. From the early days of Amiga and Commodore 64 titles to hyping up Starfield for 2023, Bethesda has become a juggernaut in the games industry. What once started as a solo developer building The Elder Scrolls has flourished into a network of talented studios and legendary Intelectual Properties. While it might be confusing, it’s important to differentiate Bethesda Game Studios and Bethesda Softworks. The former is the studio behind titles like Skyrim and Fallout 4 with the latter being the publishing arm of the overall company in ZeniMax Media. Under Bethesda Softworks are previous acquisition studios id Software, MachineGames, Tango Gameworks, Arkane Studios, and ZeniMax Online Studios.
While Bethesda has always ridden the line between scrutiny and acclaim, its titles have always risen above their shortcomings. Titles like Morrowind, Oblivion, Skyrim, Fallout 3, and Fallout 4 had their fair share of issues but are remembered fondly for their scope, scale, and overall quality. Recently though, Bethesda’s outlook has seemed to have shifted with the rising popularity of Live Service and Always Online titles.
Primarily comprised of Single Player, story-driven developers, Bethesda and its various subsidiaries have made a slow but deliberate shift in focus away from their bread-and-butter and towards more potentially lucrative ventures. But the very nature of the genre Bethesda and company are tackling is diametrically opposed to how it’s flourished for so many years, sacrificing quality and content for monetization schemes and a constant connection to its player base’s wallets. This has been apparent in several releases in the past few years including the recent Arkane Studios project Redfall.
Redfall was touted by Bethesda as the next title from illustrious developer Arkane Studios. Announced at E3 2021, Redfall would forgo Arkane’s traditional style of Single Player Immersive-Sim Shooters to instead be an online, 4-player co-op action title similar to the likes of Left 4 Dead or Borderlands. Showcased was a focus on Hero Shooter-like abilities as players combatted vampires in a small fictional New England town, giving the game a unique identity to stand out amongst its competition. While initial impressions didn’t set the world ablaze, fans were still confident Redfall would live up to the expectations of Arkane’s name. Alas, over 2 years later and Redfall was released to nearly universal criticism.
Much like Live Service-type games, Redfall fell into many of that genre’s trappings. Poorly designed menus and UI, unbalanced mechanics, bugs and glitches aplenty, broken A.I., performance and visuals issues across the board, and a general air of being unfinished and halfbaked. Redfall had already been delayed once before but reviewers and fans alike agreed it needed much more development time. Some even argued the game in its current state should’ve been scrapped altogether and rebooted into something more akin to Arkane’s previous work. Regardless of the stance, the consensus was the same. Redfall was a very far cry from Arkane’s past titles which were almost all held in high regard for being well-crafted, quality games.
(Video by Skill Up)
Part and parcel for the Live Service genre, Redfall will most likely receive post-launch support, updates, and roadmaps aplenty to eventually arrive at a functional complete product. This has been the case with many large releases over the years including Battlefield 2042, Cyberpunk 2077, and Final Fantasy XIV. This scenario isn’t new for Bethesda or its developers. If Redfall can survive its abysmal launch and retain a player base long enough for Arkane to continue development, it still wouldn’t solve the issue with these types of releases. Redfall is only the latest in a troubling trend of Bethesda titles more focused on generating revenue as opposed to good review scores.
Much of the discussion around Redfall’s disappointment is about how a developer like Arkane could’ve been responsible for its release. This has been a talking point for Bethesda titles specifically for the past 5 years or so. Developers or even series that have always been traditionally Single Player ventures suddenly focus on Multiplayer outings that fall well short of not only expectations but also overall quality in general. While Bethesda had dabbled in this shift of focus with titles like The Elder Scrolls Online, it became clear what their intentions were with the release of Fallout 76.
Fallout 76 is infamous. To dissect its legendarily poor release state would be an exercise in futility as it’s been heavily chronicled since its release in 2018. While the potential of an online Fallout title is obvious, Bethesda seemed more concerned with being able to monetize Fallout as much as it could rather than focusing on producing a functional product. This is no more evident than most of the game being broken at launch save for the Atomic Shop. What should’ve been a title that carefully crafted the Fallout experience for the online space ended up little more than a hastily thrown-together multiplayer mod for Fallout 4. An unfinished product filled with broken mechanics and broken promises. Bethesda took what was traditionally a single-player affair and forced an online multiplayer approach for the sole purpose of monetization. And it wouldn’t be the last time.
Since 2014, MachineGames had spent years crafting a sophisticated reboot of id Software’s Wolfenstein. The New Order, Old Blood, and New Collusous were well-written, narrative-driven experiences. With satisfying combat playing out in expertly designed levels, these titles told a mature story in a unique, tongue-in-cheek way with memorable characters and settings. It set a standard for not only the series but for the genre in general. All of that goodwill and progress was thrown by the wayside with the release of 2019’s Wolfenstein Youngblood.
Youngblood is devoid of every good quality of the series’ previous titles. While the gunplay remained the same, it was molded into a co-op, grind-heavy, looter-shooter with a heavy emphasis on monetization. Gone are the carefully crafted combat scenarios, likable characters, and interesting story beats. Instead, players slog their way through a Ubisoft-like gameplay loop that fits into a Wolfensiten game about as smoothly as a square peg into a round hole. This drastic change in direction halted Wolfenstein’s positive trajectory, essentially killing the rebooted franchise. Bethesda had jumped on a bandwagon they were determined to stay on.
And then there’s Arkane. After creating some of the best games in the Immersive-Sim genre like Dishonored, Prey, and Deathloop, the next logical step didn’t seem like it was chasing trends. But that’s exactly what Redfall does. Redfall follows the blueprint of any Live Service game that’s been released since 2014, sharing more in common with games like Marvel’s Avengers than any of Arkane’s previous endeavors. While an in-game store and microtransactions aren’t currently in the game at launch, they were clearly planned to be. This is only reinforced by the game needing to be constantly connected to the internet despite being marketed that players could tackle the vampire shooter solo. While it’s not Fallout 76 2.0, it wouldn’t be any surprise if Redfall eventually goes free-to-play and re-introduces its shop and microtransactions in the future as a last-ditch attempt to salvage the project.
These decisions were not few and far between for Bethesda. Excited about a new mainline Quake game in over 10 years? Here’s Quake Champions, a free-to-play online-only Hero Shooter with microtransactions. It’s been 3 years since Doom Eternal, what’s next for the Doom franchise? A heavily monetized mobile game in Mighty Doom. The evidence is clear. The motive is undeniable. Bethesda now values money over quality. And the numbers only prove that.
Running The Numbers
Whether it’s to boost sales of a series in order to make it more profitable or to capitalize on its success and popularity, Bethesda has slowly but surely aligned most of its portfolio of IPs and developers towards some sort of monetization status. Objectively, it’s not a crime to want to make money. It’s a necessity in order to continue to stay in business. Profits generated by successful titles are generally rolled into new projects as companies grow and expand. This is nothing new, especially for the games industry.
Overall, Fallout 4 has shipped over 13 million units, selling 1.2 million copies on Steam alone in its first 24 hours. It was wildly popular and one of Bethesda’s most successful launches ever. It only made sense to ride that wave of success which Bethesda did but at a cost. Higherups tasked an inexperienced team to throw together what was essentially an asset flip of Fallout 4, bolted on poorly integrated online functionality that clashed with many of the game’s designs and systems, and implemented a heavily monetized shop for good measure. The state of Fallout 76 at launch and subsequent months after led to underperforming sales numbers, selling just 1.4 million copies in the first year of its life. To Bethesda’s credit, Fallout 76 is still receiving support to this day but the next mainline Fallout game is ages away.
Wolfenstein: The New Order pushed over 1 million copies out the door with its sequel, The New Colossus, sharing similar sales numbers. While by no means anemic, the series could definitely sell better, especially compared to its quality. In an effort to possibly boost the revenue generated from the series, a Live Service take on Wolfenstein was greenlit and stuffed to the gills with microtransactions and monetization. This resulted in Youngblood seeing a significant dip in sales as well as review scores. Wolfenstein has not had a peep of a new title since 2019 with MachineGames now heading up development on a new Indiana Jones game.
Arkane had similar success to MachineGames. The Dishonored series has sold close to 6 million units and Prey close to 2 million units. Deathloop sales figures are still up in the air as it had an awkward staggered release. It launched on PS5 and PC, with an eventual Xbox Series X|S debut later on. If the multiple Game of The Year nominations are anything to go by, it’s safe to say Deathloop was most likely a financial success. With such consistent quality and sales numbers from Arkane, it was only a matter of time before they were tasked with giving the Live Service gimmick a shot. The result was Redfall. If the same logic applies to Deathloop’s success as to Redfall’s failure, the public might never know the full extent of its sales numbers. Or lack thereof.
When a game hits it big in the case of Destiny or Fortnite, it’s only natural for the rest of the industry to follow suit. Every publisher is chasing its own form of a cash cow, a constant stream of revenue to combat the ballooning cost of game development. Many times, this is to the detriment of development teams. Shifting focus away from traditional game development and towards a Live Service model is often disruptive and can lead to games with little to no consistent identity. This is a gamble that Bethesda has taken for years and has lost every time.
Let’s take a step back for a moment. It’s easy for gamers on the outside looking in to assume how games get to the state in which they end up on release day. The publisher and developer relationship is almost always painted in a bourgeoisie and proletariat light. Big bad publishers come down from on high and dictate to the overworked and burnt-out developers how their game should be made and what it should be about. While this at least appears to be the case in most circumstances, it’s not always true.
A perfect example would be Platinum Games’ Babylon’s Fall. It would be easy to make the assumption that Platinum Games was contracted out by Square Enix to make a hack-and-slash game with the only caveat being it fits into a Live Service model. In reality, Platinum Games was interested in developing a Live Service title as far back as their failed project Scalebound. Based solely on the negative connotation the genre has, it’s easy to assume that any Live Service-type game has malicious intentions behind it.
To be fair, it’s not hard to come to that conclusion as the number of innovative and successful Live Service titles can be counted on one hand at this point. Although one can’t blame both parties for chasing potential success. The allure of the revenue stream of a Destiny 2 or Fortnite-level Live Service game is as appealing to developers as it is to publishers. It could ensure a game’s financial success which can lead to studio growth and sometimes independence in the case of Bungie and Activision.
It’s also not fair to assume every developer or franchise should stay in a nice contained box of sorts. There are hundreds of examples of studios or series going in different directions that work out for the better. Staying in one’s lane, while consistent, can lead to stagnation and it’s only natural for companies to want to shift focus to something different. The best Bethesda-related example of this would be Tango Gameworks. The team managed to jump from the Survival Horror series The Evil Within to the Rhythm-based action game Hi-Fi Rush without skipping a beat. The major issue arises when the need for change may or may not be forced upon a studio. And for that change to be one of the most volatile genres in the industry today.
Every publisher has dealt with this same issue in the past. It certainly isn’t exclusive to Bethesda. But there’s a major difference between Fallout shifting towards more of a shooter rather than an RPG and the shift towards monetization as opposed to quality. When the focus of a game seems so transparent as to prioritize making money over an enjoyable experience, publishers leave the gaming public with no other reasonable assumption. This is especially apparent when the identity of studios or franchises is sacrificed.
In all fairness, most of this is just conjecture. Pure speculation on what could or could not have happened behind closed doors. Only those involved truly know but there’s no denying the pattern on display. Instead of approaching the Live Service genre in an appropriate way, Bethesda seems willing to sacrifice goodwill and its standing as a whole on poorly implemented monetization schemes and forced online infrastructures. And their new bosses don’t seem to be helping that problem.
The Microsoft Acquisition
In May of 2021, Microsoft acquired ZeniMax Media for $7.5 billion. This complicates things at least when it comes to Redfall specifically. At first, it appeared Microsoft planned to take a hands-off approach, allowing Bethesda to operate on its own accord with Microsoft reaping the benefits in the background. Titles like Ghostwire Tokyo and Deathloop were still contractually obligated to be PS5 exclusives and existing Live Service games like Fallout 76 were allowed to continue on other platforms besides Xbox. Things started to slowly change as the years went on.
The aforementioned Hi-Fi Rush was Xbox and PC exclusive, and the highly anticipated Starfield will be as well. Redfall’s planned PS5 version was internally canned in favor of that same exclusivity. All of these moves are par for the course of a corporation that just acquired a billion-dollar company. But these moves aren’t without their faults. It seems Microsoft wants to straddle the fence, stepping in and dictating exclusivity without performing other duties a publisher should be responsible for.
A decision was made to cancel the PS5 version of Redfall but not to delay what was clearly an unfinished product. This wasn’t the first time for either Bethesda or Microsoft that an unfinished game was pushed out to the masses. Halo Infinite is still trying to claw its way back to relevancy. With Bethesda’s recent method of operation showing a willingness to sacrifice quality for a quick buck, it appears Microsoft is acting as more of an enabler of said behavior than anything. Despite Phill Spencer’s apology.
An Unknown Future
Bethesda had always lived and died on its name and standing in the industry to combat issues with its games. Maybe Fallout 3‘s shooting was less than acceptable, but the world, quests, RPG mechanics, and exploration were top-notch. And sure, Skyrim might be buggy but the overall experience was so enjoyable, the gaming public choose to overlook it. Their titles were able to transcend common criticism by their sheer quality, replayability, and the level of care put into them. But when those qualities are slowly phased out in favor of in-game shops and microtransactions, that harsh light of criticism gets brighter and all-encompassing. The slippery slope Bethesda started on years ago may have come to a head with Redfall. And with Microsoft’s ineptitude in leveraging its talent acquisitions, a murky future is coming into focus.
Does this spell disaster for Starfield or The Elder Scrolls VI? Not necessarily. Bethesda and by extension, Microsoft might be too big to fail. But the same road they’re going down has been trodden by the likes of Square Enix, EA, and Ubisoft with very little to show for it. And a damaged relationship with the most important base, its players. Bethesda was once synonymous with quality and consumer confidence. This comparison is slowly eroding with each title they release. Unless something changes, Bethesda will eventually become synonymous with the very publishers they stood head and shoulders above just a few short years ago.