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What actually happens when a huge game demo fails at E3

Todd Howard looks back on Fallout 3’s E3 presentation

Turn the clock back to 2008. It’s E3, and Bethesda has been tapped to open up Microsoft’s press conference with a live demonstration of its next big game, Fallout 3. This is huge. Beyond performing on a stage for thousands of people, Fallout as a franchise had, at that point, laid dormant for a long time. And here was Bethesda, trying to bring back one of the most celebrated RPGs of all time, except now, the post-apocalyptic game was going to be a first-person shooter. People were skeptical.

The stakes couldn’t be higher for Bethesda. Rehearsing the event was a no-brainer. But according to a recent podcast snippet between Bethesda executive producer Todd Howard and the folks at Xboxwho now own the Fallout studio — things still inevitably went wrong. That’s just the nature of a live event.

“What they do during a demo — it’s live, you go up to the controller, you’re gonna play through the demo, blah blah blah — and in case something goes wrong, there’s someone else playing also,” Howard said. The idea is that, should the demo come under technical difficulties, the presenters can simply switch the feeds. The second someone says “broken arrow” into someone else’s earpiece, the feeds are swapped.

In this case, Bethesda senior VP of global marketing Pete Hines was waiting in the wings. Sure enough, when it was showtime, the press conference began with Howard’s wireless controller unable to connect to the game. You can peep it happening in the video below — Howard can be heard telling the audience, “I’m good.”

Internally, however, Howard was panicking.

“And man, I was just like, ‘oh, please no,’” Howard recalls. Cue Hines picking up the slack. The trick, however, wasn’t just to keep the demo going. It was to keep up the illusion of Howard guiding the viewer through the presentation, which means the behind-the-scenes man has to keep up with what’s being said.

“The entire time I’m rehearsing, I’m thinking, this is the dumbest thing ever, they are never going to need this,” Hines recalls. “Todd knows what he’s doing. It’s not going to crash.”

And then of course, it faltered. Hines couldn’t help but curse.

“It was like two people went to a dance class, but they hadn’t really danced together yet,” Howard said. Fortunately, folks couldn’t really tell things were going haywire even as Hines tried his best to anticipate what Howard was going to do.

The Bethesda devs noted that, as a second precautionary measure, they also have prepared video to play during the demonstration, just in case the second player option doesn’t work out. Contingencies!

“It was the worst demo I’d ever given,” Howard said.

The podcast also talks more generally about Microsoft’s relationship with Bethesda over the years, why the merger made sense, and some hints of what’s to come for both companies. Fun fact: Those long load times on the console version of Morrowind? That was Bethesda rebooting your Xbox, the sly dogs.