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INTERVIEW: Pete Hines

Ben Parfitt
INTERVIEW: Pete Hines

The reviews for Brink were very mixed, ranging from a two to a ten. Did that surprise you?

It was polarising. It was interesting to see the variety of comments from both fans and critics. There were folks who thought it was brilliant, with the team play aspects and originality. Then there were those who were saying ‘It’s too complicated with boring levels’. It was surprising but I guess it is better than being in the middle where nobody cares.

You don’t get many games that get such a different reaction.

Not a lot. We obviously had some lag issues coming out of the box, so it is disappointing to have that variable introduced into the equation. But I am glad to see there were people who managed to understand what the game was trying to do.

Rage isn’t due for a few months, and yet we are already seeing advertising on TV. Why start so early with the marketing?

I think for certain big games – particularly one that’s a shooter which is competing against other major titles – that it is incumbent upon us to get the word out early as opposed to waiting to closer to launch.

More traditional movie marketing, which focuses around going heavy at launch, isn’t something that works for every game. There are times where it is important to start messaging earlier to get some buzz. With it being a new IP in the space that it is in, and it being our first game with [studio] id, our strategy was we will do some things earlier, we will do things later, we will do some things that are a bit out of the norm, and see if we can build momentum early.

You launched an iPhone Rage last year’s iPhone game. Was that part of the marketing?

That was an ancillary offshoot. Part of that comes from [id co-founder] John Carmack, he has always had some interest in developing for that platform. There are some technical challenges that are presented by iPhone that he feels help us on all platforms in terms of doing things with memory and how we manage it.

He felt like he had this idea to do something that is not Rage, but is similar and uses some of the assets and this mega texture technology, and to do it on an iPhone and iPad. It became his own personal project, he put it together and made it work and we were like: ‘Yeah, that’s cool, we will definitely put it out there.’

So it wasn’t part of our strategy to do this iPhone game a year before launch because it is going to do X for us. It was a case of it being a cool thing that fitted in with what we were doing.

Bethesda is known for its core output, so I am interested to hear what you thought of E3. Kinect, Vita and Wii U all emphasised their appeal to hardcore gamers. Is Bethesda interested in getting involved with this hardware?

We support technology like that when we feel the addition of it makes sense. I think we would look to support things, whether it be a special type of control or whatever, when it does something we can’t already do with a normal controller.

As far as other platforms are concerned, our motto has always been: We want to make our games available to the widest audience possible on whatever platforms that will support the game. So to whatever extent new consoles fit with the kind of games we are making and support them technologically, we would certainly do that.

The Wii wasn’t even an option. We’d have to make wholesale changes to the games we were making on 360, PS3 and PC to make it work on Wii. So it’s not an option. I honestly know nothing about the tech specs of the new platforms and whether or not they are a good fit for what we are making with, say Rage, and Skyrim. If these platforms are a good fit for the kind of games we are making, then absolutely we would look to put our games out for those.

The id acquisition is one of many purchases Bethesda has made in recent years. You now own some top talent and big brands. What’s the end goal for Bethesda now?

The goal was to build up our internal development capacity. We look to find and work with studios that share a common development philosophy. Sometimes that ends up in us doing a development deal like the one we are doing with Human Head [for Prey 2], and sometimes that escalates and goes all the way to an acquisition like we have done with id, Arcane, Machine Games and Tango. It depends to the extent to which that partnership makes sense to take futher.

In terms of the studios we’ve acquired, they were all opportunities where both the developer and we felt like that becoming part of Bethesda as an internal studio made more sense in the long-term than operating as two separate things. We’ll continue to look to work with smart developers to make the kind of games we want , whether that is just a publishing deal or an acquisition.

Investing in these big budget core games and talented development studios can be risky strategy, especially with unproven IP. Is this something Bethesda is wary of?

Certainly. How can you not be, right? You have to be aware all the time of the numbers.  But if you look at who we are working with – there’s id, which has just celebrated its 20th anniversary and created the FPS.

Arcane are guys who have been contributing to games like Half-Life 2 and Deus Ex. Tango is headed by Shinji Mikami who created the Resident Evil series.

It’s not like we are jumping in with guys that have just got here yesterday or are one hit wonders. They are all guys that have been in the space for a long time and shipped a lot of titles. Even the Machine Games guys, they are a large group who have made a number of games – granted at another studio – but have still been around a while and proven their chops. These are the sort of people that over the long haul we want to be in business with. They have been there before. They know what it takes. And they know how to take a game that is an 80 and make it a 90.

There’s a bit of competition out there at the moment for Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. What are your expectations for the new game?

It’s our crown jewel, our big brand, I think it is the biggest of the games we have this year. And not just for us but for anybody. In the industry this will be one of the major releases of the year on any platform and across any genre.

Bethesda has gone big on DLC in the past. Is it now a requirement to have a digital strategy for all of your games?

We leave ourselves some wiggle room so that we don’t paint ourselves into a corner with something so rigid that we can't add to it. With Fallout 3 we knew what the first one or two pieces of DLC were going to be, but the third one was a reaction to the release of the game and the feedback we got from people wanting to raise the level cap.

If we went out from the start and said: ‘We’re doing five pieces of DLC for Fallout 3, here are these five,’ then we wouldn’t have been able to be as reactive or responsive to what the fans said. I think that’s  what allowed us to be so successful with that DLC, not just that we had them but that they were more of what people said they liked and not something set in stone six months before launch.

You don’t want to spend too much time discussing DLC before a game has is out. Particularly if it doesn't meet sales targets.

Yes. But also, if you are nine months out and you are still thinking of good content, then that probably goes into the game, right? We have designers and artists and content people focusing on the base product until it is done. And once it is done and they have had the chance to catch their breath, then they can look at the other things that they might do.

But there’s no point in planning the content that comes after because what if this content makes the base game better? We want the base game to be the best thing possible. We don’t believe in carving out a little part to sell as DLC later.

Bethesda clearly spends a lot on development talent and advertising. How do these two worlds sit together at Bethesda?

Ultimately what’s most important is the quality of the game. That’s the be all and end all for us.

However, we consider the PR and marketing for the game to be core to interacting with the game. So your first interaction with Skyrim  isn’t when you put the disc into the PS3, 360 or PC. Your first interaction with Skyrim is when you see the teaser trailer. It is when you read a cover story. It is when you see the screenshots. It is when you see the dragon on our E3 booth or our giant poster on a building. All of those things are Skyrim. It is you experiencing this game and what it is about and how it makes you feel.

When you begin playing the game we don’t want that to be the start of your Skyrim experience. We want that to just be a continuation. When we talk about how much we spend and how do we talk about that game, we want it to be part of the experience. We want it to have the same vibe, so yeah those screenshots make me excited and that interview I read makes me excited to play the game. So I can get more invested into this thing before I’ve spent my money.

We work very closely with the developers to make sure that the way we are talking about or promoting their game is the same way they want people to experience it.

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