Bethesda Is Such A Weird Company, But That's Exactly Why They're So Fun


#1

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Like I said, Bethesda is strange. They’re one of a handful of publishers who are privately owned—Valve is in the same boat—which means they’re not required to say anything in public about their financials. The video game industry is already terribly secretive, but Bethesda is an even bigger black box. The only way to know how well the company is doing is to based on what they choose to share, and the decisions they make.

I’ve been thinking about Bethesda this week, following the news of Rage 2. It's the company that announced and showed Prey 2 before cancelling it, and a few years later, they came back with a new game—now, without the 2—set in a different universe.

Nobody was asking for Rage 2, and Bethesda could have easily partnered with Avalanche to build a new property in the wasteland, but it choose to bring back Rage—and attach a two. Maybe audacity is part of the equation? Zigging instead of zagging, and the mystified reaction produces a larger response than a brand-new world?

My understanding is Dishonored 2 didn’t sell particularly well, but that didn’t stop Bethesda from allowing Arkane Studios to produce the ambitious Death of the Outside, a spectacular add-on that more or less concluded the story from the first two games. (You didn't need to own Dishonored 2 to play it, technically, but it still felt like DLC.) It feels similar to how beloved, commercially unsuccessful TV shows will sometimes get a shorter, truncated season to wrap up their lingering plot lines. It’s looking like Prey, a game that also undersold to expectations, will get the similar treatment; Bethesda has been teasing some kind of DLC for a few months now. If we’re not getting Prey 2, DLC that brings the story full circle is a close second.

I have no idea if Bethesda is actually green-lighting vanity projects costing millions of dollars and taking away creative energy that could be spent elsewhere, but it’s hard not to assume Bethesda is given more leeway than the average publisher. At the end of the day, there’s always another Todd Howard game on the way. We may not know what’s coming next—please be Starfield, however far fetched it might be—but Howard’s studio will produce another game...eventually. And it'll sell a lot.

Everything they’ve touched since Oblivion has been the kind of blockbuster companies dream of: incredibly profitable and beloved games that players spend hours over the course of not just days, weeks, or months—but years. And they keep paying! (It helps that Bethesda’s expansions are often more interesting than the core storytelling.)

I used to listen to all sorts of quarterly results calls for game publishers, and my favorite was Take-Two Interactive. Even when BioShock, Borderlands, and other games were taking off, they were a drop in the bucket compared to anything Rockstar Games produced. Take-Two took great pains to say little to nothing about what Rockstar was up to, except promising they were “hard at work” or some such. Take-Two would be hyping their upcoming sports and action games, releases meant to help build Take-Two into a more well-rounded company, as they waited for Rockstar’s next. But inevitably, every investor question was some coded way of asking about Rockstar because that’s all shareholders cared about. BioShock was a hit? OK, sure, but it wasn’t anything compared to the next Grand Theft Auto. Borderlands is now a franchise? OK, but seriously, it’s not anything compared to what Grand Theft Auto makes.

It’s entirely possible Bethesda is in the same situation, where the vast majority of the games they put out don’t make any money, or not the kind of money most publishers would be pumping their fists over. But since Bethesda doesn’t have to answer to anyone but themselves and the people backing the company, we’re left to wonder and speculate, and Bethesda can keep trying new things, hoping one of them eventually sticks. It worked for Take-Two.

I have no idea how profitable (or not profitable) The Evil Within was, but it was messy and it didn’t live up to its promise, the kind of game most publishers would move on from. Instead, the developers were given a chance to take another swing—and it worked. The Evil Within 2 was tremendous, one of my favorites from 2017. Are Fallout and Elder Scrolls underwriting creative experiments like The Evil Within 2? Maybe. A la Death of the Outsider, I’m quietly hoping The Evil Within 2 gets its own closure DLC.

Would that make fiscal sense? Probably not. Would Bethesda do it anyway? Probably.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/mbkewp/bethesda-is-such-a-weird-company-but-thats-exactly-why-theyre-so-fun

#2

I think what I find so weird about Bethesda’s output (besides the in house studio and it’s IP’s) is that it feels like the output of a publisher from about 10 years ago? Many of these games don’t seem aware of Games as a Service.

And that’s why RAGE 2 worry’s me just a touch. I’ve been very happy with Besthesda accidentally filling the story driven single player niche for a while now, and RAGE 2 might be a sign of change in that regard? I’m not saying Bethesda can’t do whatever, but as someone who enjoys what they’ve been doing for the last 6 years or so, I’ll be a little bummed when the shoe finally drops.

I guess we’ll always have FOCUS


#3

Bethesda strong arms and blacklists reviewers and journalists who even give them the most mild of criticism and once tried to sell mods to people that were inferior to the original mods.


#4

I appreciate that they published the Wolfenstein reboots too - that game, with that legacy, and the angle MachineGames was taking, probably wasn’t an easy sell. And it produced two of the most compelling games in Bethesda’s catalogue.


#5

True - gotta take the bad with the good.


#6

“Fun” is not the word I use to describe companies who don’t pay royalties because the metascore is a point lower than 85. Sorry.


#7

For me, it’s not the commercialisation of mods (who in the PC gaming circle hasn’t purchased a mod project at some point? CS, TF2, something that grew from a mod seed and turned into a published game or was self-published online in the current ecosystem where that’s possible) but how they cut that system.

It’s exactly the same problem as Valve’s UGC system. You get some ecosystem that needs more content and rather than paying people money to make stuff to spec, you release the spec then give almost everyone nothing (rejecting plenty of quality work from being included on the commercial marketplace) and the few who do get onto the store get a 25% cut of sales. That’s not the 70% cut that digital middlemen typically strong-arm in the current economy, not even close!

You can have as many glowing blogs by those creators who do make it (and get on average $15k/year for their efforts) as you like but knowing that each person (who has to pay all the taxes and other costs on top of that income so that’s not proper full-time money) made Valve Corp $45k in pure profits for ticking the “put on marketplace” button (and gained the added value for additional premium content in the game they sell) - that’s not right. That’s pretty naked labour exploitation. It’s only incrementally different from companies who run “competitions” which commercialise the “winners”.


So Let's Talk About This Ubisoft/HitRecord Stuff
#8

I can’t help but feel that relying on a single studio to underwrite everything else a publisher does to be incredibly precarious, even if we’re talking about world-rumbling blockbusters. It wasn’t that long ago that a new Halo or Rock Band release brought the gaming world to a halt, and there’s no guarantee that the GTA or Elder Scrolls empires are built on more solid foundations. I mean, Fallout 4 faced intense backlash by folks (including myself) who found no value in the settlement building and felt that the questing was very one-note and combat oriented. It’s got me nervous for whatever Todd Howard’s team does next, and it certainly isn’t a slam-dunk day one purchase the way Skyrim or Fallout 3 was. So I’m left wondering, is this is the new kind of AA studio that will get squeezed out by an increasingly ruthless gaming market?


#9

Oh, those hopeless jokers


#10

Ye, the latest T2 quarterly results calls (I assume from the piece Patrick no longer catches them) was filled with quite a lot of chat about where things matter (it’s not R* but their entire portfolio that’s being concentrated on now, how the releases are relatively few but always sell high numbers over a more restricted set of platforms - PC now getting a nod as increasingly important in the convergent digital ecosystem but still there is a strong focus on T2 as a publisher who sell more copies per SKU than anyone else).

The last 10+ years (after realising they can’t live on that 20-year-old explosion from GTA3 going on forever) has been T2 desperately building to a situation where it’s not reliant on R*'s next release actually being a hit. They’ll be shaken if RDR2 completely fails but the company isn’t bet on it right now.

I get the feeling that Bethesda tries to push these brands (because let’s be clear, Prey is called that in part because Bethesda realise brands are extremely important and so their “risks” are being underwritten with creating a brand identity for these names and their publisher logo, even when they change devs or universes for the actual games) because they know that tES was a fluke and could crumble at any point. The explosion of Oblivion (or even Morrowind as the big bang origin) could end, even if right now it’s grown so big off the fuel of Fallout too.

It’s not “fun” or “weird” - it’s a long-termist view (which is easier when you’re not giving quarterly public statements on profitability) of how to invest money into generating brands that can push sales for 20-30 years. You want as many of those brands as you can possibly build. The hit-driven economy is grounded in this stuff. The only weird thing about AAA gaming is the relative lack of Fox Searchlight or any of the other feeder brands for big publishers.


#11

I know it’s technically Zenimax Studios or whatever, but let’s not forget the Elder Scrolls Online factor. That game got off to a rocky start, but it seems like they’ve turned it into the kind of consistent source of cash that lets a company take chances in other areas. Also, it’s really good! There are parts that don’t feel very Bethesda-y - no, you can’t fill your house with cheese wheels - but it is packed with lore and world building.

I have to admit, I always root for Bethesda (and not just because I sometimes see Todd Howard out with his kids at my grocery store.)


#12

Chris Avellone has a tweet from way back stating that FNV was a straight payment with no royalties for Obsidian. The money paid for an 85 metacritic score was to be a bonus, which he said Bethesda did not have any obligation to offer at all. The bigger issue with this is that Bethesda, like all big publishers, is known to push games out without giving the devs ample time to smooth things out (Dishonored 2 and Wolfenstein II’ PC launches, every Bethesda Game Studios game) which is unfortunate. Can’t imagine the crunch that occurs surrounding some of those bigger releases.


#13

… or not? Like, nobody asked Bethesda to act like that, nor did anyone ask them to stop sending out early review codes for their games.

I just find articles like this on Waypoint to be extremely odd. Like, if I want to read articles stanning for faceless corporations, I could go to literally any other fan site. I come here for actual critical analysis and personal takes, not whatever this is.


#14

“Stanning” seems a bit excessive given that the article isn’t even about the (valid) criticisms of Bethesda; if you think those specific past actions and review code embargo are relevant to a discussion on how they pick which games to publish, by all means, make that argument.


#15

It bugs me in this case because of how openly leftist so much of the staff is. Writing positive pieces about faceless companies when they haven’t even done anything of real significance to deserve it seems out of place for this outlet.


#16

My take on the contents of the article lines up with what Shivoa said. There’s nothing weird or quirky about what Bethesda is doing; they have a bunch of brands and IP that they own, and they’re doing their best to keep those brands relevant through sequels and reboots. It’s basically the same shit that movie studios do with franchises.

So yes, given that this is basically How Franchises Work, I don’t have a read on the article beyond it being stanning for one particular example of that. It doesn’t qualify as serious analysis; it is literally being a fan of one company based on pretty much nothing. At best, it’s fluff; at worst, it plays into the already problematic (and entirely unwarranted) fan culture that gaming is mired in.


#17

I think saying they’re just pumping out sequels and reboots of IP they own like everyone else is super dismissive of the types of games those reboots or sequels are, and it’s that point the article is trying to get at. Their tactics are odd given that they approve of devs creating single player story focused games and have far less interest in the games as a service model, in a time where an EA has the star wars license and chose to make a game like Battlefront II who’s gross micro-transactions destroyed it. Doom, Prey, The Evil Within, Dishonored, and Wolfenstein is a pretty sizable roster of unlikely properties (maybe DOOM aside) they have given a fair chance without the sort of overtly greedy publisher interference we’ve come to expect from an activision or an EA or to a lesser extent a Ubisoft.

Painting any sort of excitement for what a publisher is doing as them forsaking their leftist politics and shamelessly “stanning” is a reach. It’s a video game site, many large video games get made by “faceless corporations”, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism and all that. There is no shortage of talk about labor issues and the trials of game development all over this site, it’s ok to let them be hyped there’s still a company who gives a shit about letting you play immersive sims and not be bothered by predatory in-game purchases.


#18

Even Bigger, they gave Wolf 2 three separate DLCs despite it bombing. I see a lot of ppl acknowledge Prey and Dishonored 2’s sales difficulties but Wolf 2 is still around 1.5 mil TOTAL. I think because the game got so much critical praise people don’t seem to realize how big a bath they took on it and just assume it succeeded.

Their commitment to staying with their properties is really commendable.

(P.S. I will be SHOCKED if Rage 2 is single player only/focused)


#19

Oh, wasn’t aware of that, fair enough


#20

I don’t see what Bethesda is doing as being anything beyond smart brand management. As Shivoa said, they’re more than likely playing the long game, investing in the IPs they own in the hopes that they’ll bear future profit (or at least ensuring that the brands aren’t damaged, so that they can be resurrected later in a different, potentially more profitable form). They’re at least self-aware enough that they know they can’t slap their brands willy-nilly on anything, unlike EA. It’s not weird or fun, it’s Business 101. It’s a little sad that the very notion of the long game is unusual these days, but that wasn’t always the case.

More to the point: everything about their motives is speculation, based on damn near nothing. It’s nice to pretend that just because a company does some things which line up with your interests, that they’re on your side – but that’s not the case. Publishers do things that benefit themselves, and if your interests happen to line up with that it’s just a bonus. Their review policy in particular should make that clear. Articles like this which conflate likely business policy with rosy motivations read to me as puff pieces at best; it’s no different from any other half-argued piece you’d find on a fan site, and from Bethesda’s standpoint, it’s free PR.

Also: development cycles are long as hell, and canceling isn’t always an option. I find arguments around the projects Bethesda released at the end of a 2-3 year (or longer) cycle less compelling than whatever’s in the pipeline for the next cycle-- and nobody really knows that either.