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How Bethesda Softworks hopes to become the Pixar of gaming

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With the recent delay of MachineGames' Wolfenstein: The New Order into 2014, publisher Bethesda Softworks won't be releasing any games during the current calendar year. For most companies, that's pretty close to a death sentence; for Bethesda, it's all part of the plan.

The studio has been moving in a new direction in recent years, on the path towards expanding its catalog of intellectual properties as well as its own size and scope. Bethesda Softworks has been publishing external developers' games for years, extricating itself from the self-publishing business in 2001. Its work is likely synonymous with its development sister studio, Bethesda Game Studios, which is responsible for the company's unparalleled biggest hit: The Elder Scrolls series.

That strategy has shifted in recent years, following a period of mixed success for the new IPs the studio tried to forge under its publishing label. Now, all the games Bethesda is publishing — save for Prey 2, the status of which is unclear — are in the works at studios owned by the publisher's parent company, ZeniMax Media. It's a decidedly different approach to building an IP catalog; and considering three of the company's biggest titles are slated to drop in 2014, it's one that will be tested very soon.

Speaking to Polygon at QuakeCon 2013, Bethesda Softworks vice president of PR and Marketing Pete Hines discussed how the company's plans for expansion have led to successes, failures and huge aspirations for next year. Their strategy is still built upon a desire to have a strong and sizable catalog of franchises, but Hines explained that even new IP has to be tailored around familiar elements.

"It goes back to, 'If I don't know the name of the thing that they're making, at least I know what it is,'" Hines said. "Like, Dishonored — these guys know immersive first-person, they're into making games where the combat feels really visceral, and giving you choice, and they want their games to be more systems-based and less on-rails, where everybody's doing the same thing. You can kind of wrap your head around, if you know them, what they're making even if you don't know Dishonored, if you don't know what that means."

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The same concept is at play for Tango Gameworks' The Evil Within, Hines explained — Shinji Mikami, the creator of the Resident Evil series, is developing a new survival horror franchise. Fans familiar with his history should know what they're getting into with the new IP, even though they've never set foot in its haunted world.

Bethesda hopes this philosophy applies to their pre-existing or recently acquired properties, as well. Take Wolfenstein: The New Order; it's a known franchise from the ZeniMax-owned id Software, being developed by the ex-Starbreeze developers at MachineGames. Everything potential customers could need to know about the game is clear, just by looking at its custodians; a team known for story-driven shooters with elements of exploration and adventure instead of straightforward action.

"Our thing is like, finding the right match of the studio and what they're good at, and what they want to do," Hines said. "Take MachineGames; formed out of the core guys that formed Starbreeze, like, 'This is what we do, we don't just do shooters or action, we like to mix and blend elements, and we'd like to take that approach and do it with Wolfenstein.'

"We understand that ... [Wolfenstein is] not on the tip of peoples' tongues."

"We understand that ... [Wolfenstein is] not on the tip of peoples' tongues," Hines added. "People think of Battlefield, they think of Halo and a lot of other things before they get to Wolfenstein. But in some ways that's okay, because we want them to understand what this next Wolfenstein is doing, not be burdened by, 'Well, it's always just been X.'"

Bethesda Softworks is, on the whole, being a lot more cautious about its catalog than it has been over the past few years, spending equal amounts of time building new IP and exploring new uses for old IP with trusted internal teams. It shows much more restraint from the company which, between 2009 and 2011, published several debut games from new franchises that just didn't gain much traction — games like A2M's Wet, Rebellion Development's Rogue Warrior and Splash Damage's Brink.

"Like, we did Brink, that was new IP, and that was a new idea and a studio that we liked, and an idea of, 'We like where you're going with this,'" Hines said. "And it didn't pan out the way we wanted or expected. Certainly, if you put Brink up against Dishonored, Dishonored was a big success relative to Brink, just in terms of delivering the game and winning all these awards, and what people thought of it. But you don't go into every IP assuming it's going to be Skyrim, but the thing is, we've also evolved over time in terms of how we look at those opportunities."

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Building a team

Bethesda's plans for expansion no longer hinge upon acquiring and publishing properties; rather, their method of expansion is mostly handled from the top-down. The studios working on the games Bethesda is publishing are internal — MachineGames, Tango Gameworks, id Software and ZeniMax Online Studios were all established or acquired by Bethesda's parent company, ZeniMax Media, in recent years.

Bethesda and ZeniMax worked together to choose which studios would be the best fit to either create a new franchise under its umbrella or foster one of ZeniMax's catalog IPs. That process, Hines explained, started at a very personal level.

"First and foremost, we look at personality," Hines said. "We look at who they are, what they're like, what their development philosophies and personalities are like. Are they somebody who you want to be in some major problems alongside of, or is it somebody like, 'I want to be as far away from that guy as possible when the shit hits the fan?'"

"Maybe that's doing it out of order," Hines added. "You look for people who've made games, you look for people whose stuff you respect, and then you look at, what kind of folks are they? Are they the kind of people we'd want to work with? Is it a team or an individual — that's a big thing. Teams that have shipped games together are hugely important, because they've been through these different stages, they know how to manage, that there's a process, that they've been down this road before."

"We started as a publisher because we were a developer first."

Being able to work with internal studios gives Bethesda a closer relationship with its development partners than an external partnership could allow. Of course, that means Bethesda and ZeniMax have to be especially cautious when choosing the developers to bring inside. One helpful method of evaluating if personalities between the companies will clash, Hines explained, is to look to Bethesda's past.

"We started as a publisher because we were a developer first," Hines said. "And we published our own games. For a long time we were a publisher ... being Bethesda Game Studios, and then external stuff. That was literally the only studio that we had — we looked at the qualities of Bethesda Game Studios."

Bethesda Game Studios succeeded in part because of the work ethic of Todd Howard, Hines explained. The Elder Scrolls series director and Fallout 3 creator "really isn't interested in doing stuff publicly," preferring to keep his nose to the grindstone rather than in the public eye. He attends very few events, and maintains a low profile online. He doesn't allow himself to get distracted from the work at hand.

"We like those guys," Hines said. "Like, personally, we like them, we get along with them, they're somebody you go have a beer with. But we also like the way they approach game design, how they think about things, how they want to do what nobody has tried ... we have sort of looked for folks that have shared those similar philosophies."

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Forging an Identity

The games that Bethesda Softworks will publish in the coming years stretch across a number of genres and business models — a bombastic shooter, a survival horror title, an MMORPG, a free-to-play game, and so on. Still, for many, the publisher's name is synonymous with its development arm; and in turn, is synonymous with successful, robust western role-playing games.

There are certainly worse identities to have as a publisher, but Hines is confident that the company can one day be characterized not by a single game category, but by a bar of quality that all its games consistently clear.

"We don't want to be defined by a genre," Hines said. "The Elder Scrolls is the crown jewel and probably always will be, but that doesn't mean that we can't continue to evolve and grow in other areas with games that share common sensibilities. Like, we're very proud to be a company that does single-player when a lot of other folks won't. So, Dishonored, Evil Within, Wolfenstein — all single-player games. You don't see a lot of that anymore, even as a one-off, let alone as doing multiple different franchises. But we think there's a lot to be said for that.

"We just want to be known for continuing to innovate, for focusing on a few key titles that are done really well, at a really high level from quality, and then go and do another one."

"The Elder Scrolls is the crown jewel and probably always will be..."

Gamers, be they hardcore, casual or anything in-between, have more diverse palettes than they did in previous decades. Few demographics play just one type of game, Hines argues; most members of Skyrim's sizable audience aren't just playing Skyrim and its ilk, they're playing shooters, adventure games, sports games and games from countless other genres.

"It would be different if ... there's this whole group of folks who play western RPGs and only western RPGs and don't play other stuff. But we think most gamers are like us, in that you don't just play one thing. Now, maybe there are lots of sports gamers that only play sports games, or shooter gamers that only play shooters, but there's this massive section of gamers that, 'I just like to play cool stuff. I'll play The Last of Us and I'll play Dishonored.' Those aren't the same thing."

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Hines wants Bethesda Softworks' games to not be known for excelling at a single thing, but rather, possessing a perhaps undefinable "premium feel." Its a trait he admires from another studio in the digital entertainment realm; albeit one working in an entirely different medium.

"Wanting to be like, the Pixar of video games is not a bad thing," Hines said. "Like, 'Well, you made [Finding Nemo], and you made Wall-E, and those things are nothing alike.' But at the same time, they're still forms of entertainment that share some commonalities in terms of level of execution, story, characters and the kinds of things they do, like, 'Yes, I love both of those things even though they're very different, and it doesn't feel weird that a movie about a robot set on an abandoned Earth came from the same studio that made a movie about fish under the ocean.' It's just how those things were executed and told that made them both Pixar things. You look at both of them and say, 'That's a Pixar movie.'

"I would like for people, long term, to think of Bethesda like that. When you play a Bethesda game, there's just something about it that makes you feel like that's a Bethesda game."

"Wanting to be like, the Pixar of video games is not a bad thing."

Quality and genre mastery aren't the only kinds of identities that game publishers can possess; oftentimes, a publisher's size, and the quantity of their output can define their place in the industry. Bethesda hopes to increase its profile among third-party publishers, but Hines said it will never go toe-to-toe with an EA or Activision when it comes to prolificness.

"We will never do that," Hines said. "We will never do, like, 20 or 30 games a year. We have not been built for that, it's not our philosophy, and we don't think that is how we'll be successful. In terms of revenue? Like, yeah, I would like to make a lot of money selling our games. I don't know how the answer of that question is no. Yes, we'd like our games to be very successful and sell really well. How we go about doing that, we are going to do in a way that we feel is distinctively us, which is bringing more focus to fewer titles."

Bethesda's IP-centric approach isn't especially novel, though. Hines was quick to point out the new franchises that major publishers have recently been willing to invest hugely in — series like Watch Dogs, Titanfall and Destiny. For Bethesda, it's less about how much new IP the company can generate, and more about ensuring it can continue generating IP throughout a console's life cycle.

"We're not suddenly right because other folks are doing it, and we weren't wrong because they weren't," Hines said. "Our approaches aren't entirely divergent, it's just how we choose to go about doing it. We think there are more places for new IP than just at the console launch and nowhere else, so that's what we've done. We think that there's something to be said about focusing on a fewer number of titles.

"We're not really heading in the opposite direction," Hines said, "we just have different ideas of how to get there."

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What's Next

With the launch of at least three games slated for next year, Bethesda already has a lot of work cut out for itself — work that the transition to a new console generation is not going to make any easier. Two of those games, Wolfenstein: The New Order and The Evil Within, will be released across generations, on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Xbox One and PlayStation 4. The added difficulties of the transition, Hines frankly said, are a hassle.

"It is a pain in the ass, because the consoles are still in development, so ... that is the filter through which everything else has to be viewed, which is, you're not making a game for a thing that you know," Hines said. There's still things changing, like 'Oh, this works like this, and here's the new thing, and we're changing how this works, now you have this much memory instead of this much memory. That's the giant pain in the ass, you're aiming at a moving target the entire way."

There are countless benefits to next-gen that make those troubles worth Bethesda's while. Competition, at least in the new generation's early years, will be limited compared to the current-gen market. Early adopters of new hardware will likely be hungry for killer apps; games that satisfied that desire in past console generations have proven to be kingmakers for their respective developers. The potential reward is great, but so are the risks — those consoles will have small install bases compared to current-gen for some time. Also, the next generation won't bring as big a graphical sea change as the last generation did, making it harder for games to thrive based on looks alone.

"We'd definitely like to establish Wolfenstein in this new iteration and The Evil Within as, like, hallmark things."

As with most facets of game development, balancing those positives and negatives is a major part of Bethesda's next-gen plan, but ultimately, their need to lean into launching games early on new platforms is undeniable. In terms of establishing its IP catalog for the future, Bethesda has to take part in the killer app gold rush.

"[Wolfenstein: The New Order] is still able to take advantage of that opportunity, and potentially dig in that foothold — same for Evil Within — with this new generation, and to be one of those year one launch titles that we all remember," Hines said. "We'd definitely like to establish Wolfenstein in this new iteration and The Evil Within as, like, hallmark things."

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Having a game that reaches that status is far from automatic, though. It's not enough for Bethesda to publish games that are critically acclaimed; in order to make an impact, they have to be successful in every sense of the word.

"I don't want to be — I can use this reference because it's old enough — I don't want to be Realms of the Haunting, which is one of my favorite games of all time that nobody's played," Hines said. "Such a great game, but not nearly enough people played it. I don't want to do that. The reason that Dishonored was a success wasn't because it was a great game, it was a success because it was a great game that a lot of people played.

"If you make something awesome and nobody plays it, what were the last three years about?"

"There's a big difference there," Hines added. "If you make something awesome and nobody plays it, what were the last three years about? How do you face those guys at Arkane and say, 'Sorry you just poured four years of your life into it and I couldn't get anyone to buy it.' That's not a conversation I want to have."

Beyond next-gen, Bethesda Softworks is also beginning to dabble in markets it's inexperienced in. It will publish its first MMO, Elder Scrolls Online from ZeniMax Online Studios, next year. In late 2012, it formed Austin-based Battlecry Studios under the direction of industry veteran Rich Vogel, who is leading the team in developing a free-to-play title.

Elder Scrolls Online has been in development for quite a while — "It wasn't like on the same day, we were like, 'Hey! You know what would be fun? Let's build an MMO studio and a free-to-play studio, and let's do it at the same time,'" Hines said. Regardless, Bethesda's covering two kinds of new ground at once; a decision made to prevent any major lulls between the company's big projects.

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"Our chairman often jokes, 'I don't want to do all projects that come to fruition after I'm dead, I would like for some of these things to happen in my lifetime,'" Hines said. "So, to the extent possible, if we can start Battlecry, and it's separate — look, we're a very financially solid company. We did Skyrim, that sold some copies. We're doing okay.

"It's not ideal that we're now not shipping a new game this year now that we're moving Wolfenstein into next year," Hines added, "but we're solid enough that we can have an MMO in development, spin up this free-to-play thing and make the decision from a quality standpoint to move Wolfenstein to next year so it can get the time it needs, and not be like, 'We're screwed. Nobody turn on the lights. Don't flush the toilet because we can't afford the water bill.' We're doing okay."

With each success like Skyrim that Bethesda can put under its belt, Hines explained, the company can spend a bit more time and energy pursuing more development partners, more new franchises and more growth in general. Resting on laurels is just not part of the plan.

"We could literally just do Elder Scrolls games with one development studio, and that's it," Hines said. "We could figure out a version of our company that's just that. But that's not what any of us wanted to do; we aspired to do more. There's more than one talented studio out there — let's find some of them and make other cool games with them."