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Fallout 4 could be a bigger hit than Skyrim

Bethesda's latest massive RPG faces some big challenges if it wants to top the studio's last game

Bethesda has become a publisher known and praised for its massive, open-world role-playing games thanks to the two major franchises it now alternates between: the fantasy-based Elder Scrolls and the post-apocalyptic Fallout. Fallout 4 arrives today as Bethesda Game Studios' first release for the latest generation of consoles, but preparing for this next massive RPG got us wondering: How did Bethesda's games do last generation, especially compared to each other?

We reached out to game industry market research group EEDAR, as well as Bethesda itself, to get some answers. The following sales data comes from EEDAR. Sartori Bernbeck, the company's manager of insights and analytics, explained the methodology they used to arrive at these numbers:

"The sales numbers I provided are an internal estimate built off known numbers we have access to through certain data partners and extrapolating the numbers into the fuller picture utilizing known trends. We have access to a lot of hard numbers, but we aren't allowed to directly share them (as per our partner agreements) so we use them as foundation for total market extrapolations."

Bethesda released a total of two Elder Scrolls games for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Despite being an early title in the Xbox 360's life and not hitting PS3 until a year later, The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion (2006) managed to sell a whopping 9.5 million units over the course of its life. Its follow-up, The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim (2011), is far and away Bethesda's biggest success ever; it has sold 22.7 million copies worldwide to this point.

Between those two titles, Bethesda published two Fallout games. Fallout 3 (2008) surpassed Oblivion, selling 12.4 million copies. Fallout: New Vegas (2010) — the only game on this list not actually developed by Bethesda Game Studios — performed just slightly lower, selling 11.6 million copies from its 2010 release date to now.

"There's some correlation between console install base and sales"

EEDAR manager of insights and analytics Sartori Bernbeck believes there are a lot of reasons for  Skyrim's stunning success, but a lot of it comes to pure, great game design.

"There's some correlation between console install base and sales," Bernbeck says, noting that Skyrim released "near the height of activity on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3." However, he adds, "Skyrim's success is much more largely attributed to just the game itself."

Bethesda vice president of PR and marketing Pete Hines says he "honestly [doesn't] know" why Skyrim blew up in such an unprecedented way, beyond it coming out at the right time.

Bernbeck also notes that Bethesda's marketing on Skyrim was bigger and more successful than any of the studio's previous games, and that the game managed to spawn viral memes like the "arrow to the knee" joke. These elements took Skyrim beyond being a successful game and into the realm of a stand-out, mainstream hit.

So if Skyrim was such a homerun, why is Bethesda returning to Fallout rather than jumping right to the next Elder Scrolls game? The answer is simple:

"It came down to what the team wanted to work on next," Hines says. "After Skyrim, they had wanted to go back to working on another Fallout game, so that's what they worked on. It's a franchise they love and love working on, and given the success of Fallout 3 and the fact that Zenimax Online was doing The Elder Scrolls Online, it made sense."

Bernbeck says the studio may actually have some very strong financial reasons for pursuing Fallout 4 as well.

EEDAR put together a list of genre trends, looking at the average 12-month sales performance of fantasy games versus science fiction games. In 2005, the two genres were nearly tied, with fantasy games averaging around 410,000 sales in a year and sci-fi games averaging around 640,000. Since then, though, the fantasy genre has remained relatively flat while the science fiction genre has skyrocketed.

Last year, fantasy games averaged 590,000 sales in a 12-month span, whereas science fiction games averaged just under two million. You can check out EEDAR's chart listing this data for yourself below.

"I almost feel like science fiction taking off in video games the way it has is partly due to the power of the machines we have nowadays," Bernbeck says. "With all the power we have, you can create really cool, interesting things."

Bernbeck believes that the fantasy genre naturally cannot take as much advantage of the new technology, because most fantasy games feature weapons, scenery and situations that "are more simplistic compared to sci-fi."

"As we get better tech, we can make beautiful-looking fantasy games, but they're not necessarily groundbreaking in the types of experiences they can provide," he says.

The biggest potential roadblock Fallout 4 faces in trying to surpass Skyrim's incredible sales numbers is simply that the newer consoles its releasing on don't have the wide install base that the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 had in 2011. However, Bernbeck says there's another source that may make this a moot issue: Steam.

"Steam may provide a boost to Fallout 4's sales"

Bethesda's games have always been big on PC, but Steam in particular has exploded in the four years since Skyrim's release. In fact, the number of active users has more than tripled. In January of 2012, a couple months after Skyrim came out, Steam had 40 million active users according to EEDAR's estimates. In February of this year, Valve reported 125 million active users. That's a huge base of people who may not own a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, but very well might be interested in playing Fallout 4.

"Steam may provide a boost to Fallout 4's sales that you wouldn't otherwise normally see this early in the console cycle," Bernbeck says. Indeed, the game is already breaking records on Steam, less than a day into being on sale. He also notes that strong mod support makes the PC an especially ideal platform for the game and may help pull in even more players.

So how will Fallout 4 do compared to Skyrim? While Bernbeck is certain that the former game is "primed for success in today's market," he's not sure how it will compare to the latter.

"Considering Skyrim's 'perfect storm' elements that made it as successful as it has become, Fallout 4 isn't an immediate shoo-in for success as large or larger than Skyrim," he says. "It's something we at EEDAR are remaining cautiously optimistic in. It will be quite a feat to reach the level of success Skyrim has achieved."

As for Bethesda, cautious optimism is the perfect way to describe its feelings as well.

"I can tell you that Fallout 4 will be the biggest launch in our company's history, and that includes Skyrim's launch," Hines says. "We certainly feel like it has a real chance to be very successful. I guess just how successful still remains to be seen. But so far, so good."

Fallout 4 releases today for Windows PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. You can read our review here. As for The Elder Scrolls, Bethesda has yet to announce a new main entry in the series for current-gen consoles, but it did reveal a free-to-play card game titled The Elder Scrolls Legends at E3 this year. The Elder Scrolls Online, an MMO based on the franchise, came to PS4 and Xbox One earlier this year; you can read our review of it here.

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