At E3 2014, Bethesda told MCV that it had never announced a game at the LA show before.
12 months later, not only did the firm announce projects, they actually launched one, and did so via a curtain-raising press conference brimming with confidence.
In an act of stated symbolism, Fallout creator Todd Howard took to the stage at The Dolby Theatre in LA – a venue famed for hosting Oscar-craving movie stars – to declare E3 as ‘the best week for entertainment ever’. It was a statement watched by millions around the globe.
How far this company has come. At the start of the last generation, Bethesda had just a single (admittedly, very good) games studio and one (admittedly, very good) IP – Elder Scrolls. Now it boasts a line-up of triple-A royalty that includes Fallout, Dishonored, Wolfenstein, Quake, Doom and The Evil Within.
And during its E3 conference it showed perhaps its strongest release slate to date, headlined by Fallout 4, but also including Dishonored 2 and the Doom reboot.
“For this year, with everything we had going on, the E3 showcase was the right way to talk about it,”
Pete Hines, VP of PR and marketing at Bethesda, tells MCV. “We could have done that at the booth and been just as successful, but the showcase felt like the better way to go. I liked the idea of being able to show it to everyone at the same time.”
Bethesda’s rapid rise has been down to some shrewd spending. Over the past eight years it has created two studios and bought four others.
But its release schedule remains patchy and it has no annual franchises to rely on. Back in 2011, Bethesda had a big year with games like Brink, Hunted, Rage and Skyrim. What followed was almost three years where Dishonored, a Doom 3 update and some DLC were the only releases of note.
Hines plays down the need for more acquisitions, and actually feels the firm is starting to find some consistency.
“We are getting to the point where these studios that we have acquired have now put a thing out, figured out how they work together and are starting to hit a bit more consistency,” he says.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that we are doing okay with seven studios, but if it was 14 we could do twice as much. We are pretty aware of who we are and we ultimately want to build to a point where we are doing three or four big titles a year. I would prefer not to be in the same place we were in in 2011, where we had four titles and then went super quiet. I want to avoid that. We want to get to the point of regular releases, but we are not thinking: ‘What if we did eight or 10 games a year?’ That’s just not who we are or how we do things.”
"I think Fallout 4 can top Skyrim
and be our biggest release ever.
But we will see."
Pete Hines, Bethesda
For the next 12 months, Fallout 4 is unquestionably the biggest game in Bethesda’s arsenal.
2008’s Fallout 3 was a massive sales success, while 2011’s Elder Scrolls: Skyrim – a game made by the same studio – is the biggest RPG of all time, smashing even Bethesda’s most optimistic expectations.
“I think this can top Skyrim,” Hines says confidently. “It could be our biggest release ever. But we will see. It is part of my job to build the megaphone that we hold up to the game, and the game decides how loud it goes. Just how big it is going to be is hard to say. Skyrim was a massively big deal.”
Early signs are good. Facebook said that in the month after E3, Fallout 4 was the most talked-about game on its social network. The special edition has already sold-out, with fans eager to get their hands on the ‘real Pip Boy’ toy that is included in the package.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise; Fallout merchandise has always sold in significant numbers. During Gamescom, you couldn’t move for Fallout T-shirts and masks.
“I saw someone with a Vault 101 hoody when I got out of the car,” adds Hines, referring to the Fallout 3 apparel.
“We now have a licensing director who is specifically focused on building and growing that, a really smart guy. He used to be at ThinkGeek and we hired him with a specific focus on growing our merchandise side - specifically in Europe where it hasn’t been as good as it has been in North America.”
The hunger for a new Fallout was evident at E3 when Bethesda unveiled and launched Fallout Shelter, an iOS game that immediately shot to the top of the charts and became the highest-grossing title of the week.
Its success was such that mobile experts even suggested Fallout Shelter might prove more lucrative than Fallout 4.
“No way,” retorts Hines. “Not even close.” But he adds that Shelter remains a big part of Bethesda’s plans for the next 12 months.
Shelter wasn’t the only new Bethesda mobile game. The firm is also working on Elder Scrolls Legends, a strategy card game akin to Blizzard’s Hearthstone. Bethesda is a firm renowned for its triple-A efforts, so why the sudden smartphone interest?
“Simple,” answers Hines. “To put games on that platform that caters for an existing fanbase or to grow a fanbase. It doesn’t matter if you know Fallout or not to be able to enjoy Fallout Shelter.
“Hitman Go is a really cold implementation of that franchise on mobile, even if you knew nothing about Hitman and were just interested in mobile games.”
The launch of Fallout 4 and the move into mobile are only two elements of Bethesda’s busy 12 months. There’s the return of critical darling Dishonored, which launches alongside a new Doom (see Ultimate Doom), plus there’s a new IP in online PC title Battlecry.
Then there’s Elder Scrolls Online. The game had a troubled launch on PC in 2014, but it was re-launched in May on consoles, and the results have been pleasing.
“The PC launch was bumpy,” admits Hines. “But we stuck with it, we didn’t just throw our hands in the air and go: ‘Oh, that didn’t go as well as we wanted so f- it’. The team focused on the stuff that they felt should be better.”
Bethesda views itself as a secretive company; a Rockstar and Valve-type whose plans and secrets are hidden behind a wall of silence. By stepping out on stage at E3, it brought down that wall.
Hines plays down the idea of further E3 conferences. But when you’re topping the App Store, creating the most talked-about title on Facebook, and have a release schedule that rivals the world’s biggest games firms, there’s no going back to those secretive days.
Because if Bethesda can sustain its recent run, it will find itself a permanent member of the games publishing big leagues.
Fallout 4 is a huge launch, but in many ways the game launches itself. The biggest challenge for Bethesda’s publishing comes in re-establishing Doom.
The new Doom opened E3, and already you can see advertisements for the game around the world, almost a year before its launch in Spring next year.
“Your average first-person shooter gamer does not list Doom amongst his or her favourite or most beloved first-person shooters, because there hasn’t been one for a decade,” reminds VP of PR and marketing Pete Hines. “Doom is fast-paced, very visceral and sort of incentivises you to be aggressive. If you are low on health, the best way to stay alive is to find a demon and kill. If you stop taking fire for a little bit, your health doesn’t go back up.
“It has some old-school sensibilities but it is doing it in a very modern, fresh next-gen way. The multiplayer is not your traditional first-person shooter multiplayer. It is not one shot and the other guy is dead, it is not about who has the fastest trigger finger or reactions.
“All of those things together creates something you’re not going to get from many other first-person shooters, which is all well and good, but if nobody knows about it, it’s like a tree falling in a forest while nobody is around. So the posters you’re seeing are intending to raise its profile.
“It can go toe-to-toe with those really big shooters.”