Tomorrow night, Bethesda's Todd Howard will be inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame. It's a fitting honor for a developer who has steered two of the most esteemed game series, The Elder Scrolls and Fallout.
His most recent work — Skyrim (2011) and Fallout 4 (2015) — are highly regarded role-playing explorations of a fantasy world of dragons, and a post-apocalyptic zone of decay and dastardly conspiracies. Both were critical and commercial successes.
Skyrim particularly seemed to catch its moment. While RPGs were once a niche entertainment for relatively small numbers of adherents, Bethesda's dragon-slaying magical exploration game punched through to the mainstream media, and meme status.
He says the game's high profile success caught him by surprise. "I don't know how it happened," he says. “We could feel it when it crossed over to being referenced on television or other places. It's nothing we could ever plan for. It just kind of happened.
"Certain things came together. People's mood, timing, vibe, marketing, all of it. But it happened very quickly, almost as soon as the game was out."
Howard believes the elevated status of RPGs is due to the fact that so many games now borrow some of that genre's fundamentals such as NPC interactions, exploration, character upgrades and strong story. But the big breakthrough comes from freedom of movement.
"Video games put you in a different place," he says. "They do geography so well. We can put the player anywhere, and the player can do anything.
"Open world games have gotten more popular, so we have to think about creating the kinds of interactivity that make you feel like you're really in that world. We want to avoid activities that feel too 'gamey' and that take you out of the story."
While open worlds have been the engine of role-playing's growth, the genre’s continued success will rely on solving a much trickier problem: character interactions. RPGs can still throw up jarring encounters with NPCs who skirt the uncanny valley.
Howard says that Fallout 4's dog and robot were his favorite characters.
“I think we have a very long way to go in how the other characters act and react to you. That's the big issue we're trying to solve. We're pretty good at pushing technology and world building. We have a good handle on game flow, the rate you get new things, how you're rewarded over time. But we need to be innovating on [characters].”
Although Bethesda's RPGs do feature their fair share of fighting critters and clearing rooms, he's proud of the moral choices posed in Fallout 4, particularly in terms of the big twist, and the various factions at play. “We're pretty good at asking those [moral] questions. We need to get better at letting the player deliver answers to them.”
As far as future projects, Howard is tight-lipped. He says the company's next games will please fans, but offers few specifics, other than generally praising Fallout 4 on VR, mobile game The Elder Scrolls: Legends and Skyrim coming to Nintendo Switch. On the latter, he “can’t say” whether the original Skyrim or the 2015 remaster will be released.
We do know that Bethesda is working on two "bigger" new projects, but Howard offers no specifics. The Elder Scrolls 6 is also working its way through development, but is unlikely to be seen any time soon.
So far as the future goes, Howard says he just wants to carry on doing what he does. "There's a long way to go. We have so many ideas that we didn't think we were ready for. But given our size now and how the tech is coming together, we can do some of the things that we've talked about for a very long time. Now they are within our grasp."