Bethesda Game Studios has a lot to live up to with its ambitious upcoming open-world RPG Fallout 3, set for release this fall on PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3.
It is taking over a franchise that has taken on near-mythic status in the decade since its last non-spinoff entry was release. Many gamers who have never played Black Isle's original two titles hold high expectations for the third game based solely on its reputation - and that is to say nothing of those who did play them.
During a recent Bethesda press tour, marketing VP Pete Hines sat down with Gamasutra to discuss how development has changed since the studio's blockbuster The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, who Bethesda expects to buy Fallout 3, and how to keep fans' demands in perspective.
The Development Process
Where are you guys now, and how much do you have left?
PH: Where are we... We are still in alpha, so right now we are in the part of the process where we are ripping things out, putting things in, fixing stuff that's in and making it better, or fixing stuff that's in and making it work better, with the goal that within the next couple of months, we're going to get the content complete where we stop adding or changing content, and just focus on fixing the game problems, the balance in the game, the relationships.
How is that whole process relative to, for example, Oblivion at this point in the development cycle?
PH: In terms of where we are?
Yeah, in terms of where you are, and in terms of your.
PH: Oh man, we're way ahead of where we were on Oblivion.
PH: Yeah. Well, I mean, you have to appreciate that both for Oblivion PC and 360, and then for PS3, we were working on console platforms that were still in development. They weren't final. So it makes a huge difference for us, because we make such big games, that are really resource-intensive, that when you're still changing the box that it's going to run on, it really just screws with what you're trying to do on the software side.
So, having stable consoles, that aren't changing, and all of the learnings that we've got from Oblivion, and having that to start on, rather than starting from scratch, we're way ahead of where we were on...
And you're confident on your fall simultaneous ship?
PH: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
So, obviously, you're using the tech that's evolved from Oblivion - Gamebryo is kind of at the root of that. How much has your tech changed?
PH: Our tech is really all ours. We really... We haven't taken any updates from Gamebryo in years. It's all our own changes we made to the engine originally.
So it's really, yeah, it's still in there at its core, but it's really our engine now; all of the coding that our programmers have done, to do all of the special effects and shaders, is all the work of our guys, creating what we needed. And it has, obviously, come along in terms of speed, and making better use of all the hardware, as we had a chance to work on it for several more years. So, we're pretty pleased with it.
Are there any major - other than improving things in an organic way - are there any major new things in your tech since Oblivion? Or is it just refining what you guys established?
PH: Yeah, a lot of it's just refining things. The Radiant AI is something we came up with on our own, and the closer we got to being done on Oblivion, we had to dial that back more than we had anticipated, just because it was causing problems.
It's sort of like... We'd tell stories about wacky things we saw the AI doing, and it's funny until it interrupts your game. Where, like, you're out in the middle of a forest, and some key character went off and got himself killed, because he saw somebody stealing food and tried to stop them, and then got himself killed. That's cool, but that's not fun, when you have to restart your game because now this guy is dead.
So we had to scale that back, at the time, and I think we've been able to take that now and move it forward to doing more of the kinds of things that we want. So it's not a big leap, necessarily, but we certainly made big improvements to what that does, and how that translates to the player.
Like having somebody go off and get themselves killed while you're in the middle of a forest isn't fun, but it is fun if you walk into a town and everybody is acting in a believable fashion. And when you overhear conversations, they're referring to each other by their first name. Like, it just adds another level to the realism.
So I think we've tried to focus on putting more of that stuff in front of the player, and less stuff like, "Oh, this happened two towns away from you!" Just, hey, by the way. That doesn't mean anything.
One of the things that was often said about Oblivion is that, despite having an enormous number of characters, you often did have that problem where they were somewhat less personal, they felt like there was more carbon copying. One of the things you have said about Fallout is that you're looking for a smaller overall number of NPCs, with more depth. How is that playing out practically?
PH: Well, it's inherent in the approach, that when you have so many fewer NPCs, when you remove a zero from the end of that number, you instantly get a ton of time to spend on those characters, that you're not having to spend on other characters.
So that if you have 300, versus 3,000, you don't have to do anything else but reduce the number by that many, to have it make a huge impact. Because you're spending all the time on that 300, that would've been spread out over that 3,000. You just can't do the same level of detail, the same level of dialogue, any of that stuff, when you have that many of characters to do. So, I think just by its nature, it's given us an opportunity to be more creative, and to bring those characters to life.
So there's more per-character asset creation, in regards to dialogue, and voice acting, and that kind of thing. Does it end up balancing out, with the fewer number of NPCs, but greater effort per NPC?
PH: I think it ends up being a polish thing. Like, it's the same amount of effort, but the amount of polish you're giving to that one asset is substantially more. It's not like we're only going to do twenty hours per character, and we're either doing it on 3,000 characters or 300.
So it's going to be that many more or less hours - it's about, "This is the amount of time on this project, and so we're either going to get to polish each thing five times in Fallout 3, or only three times in Oblivion. I'm just making numbers up.
But it's a scale thing; how many more times can you iterate, and tweak, and fine-tune that one character, to make it - you know, every time you could make it a little bit better, and a little bit better. And so that's what it ends up being. It's not "more or less time," it's really "more or less polish."
Marketing Without Pigeonholes
What actual audience are you targeting with this? Obviously you guys have built up a strong name recognition, particularly now with Morrowind and then Oblivion, but here you're working with a franchise that people haven't seen in a long time, you're not the original developer, you are - especially at this point - one of the few Western devs doing really large-scale, in-depth, single-player RPGs on consoles. What is the market you're going for? How are you going to reach them? How are you going to sell this?
PH: I think that it appeals to a wide group of audiences for a wide variety of reasons. At the end of the day, we always say that we want to make games that we would want to play, that we would enjoy playing. And so, I think that where we start, and where we end up, is the number of people that would come into that fold for whatever their own reasons.
If they're really into RPGs and role-playing, and really want to get into the numbers, and customize their experience, and have that meaningful, then they might come for that reason. It may be that they see pretty graphics, and a guy running around shooting stuff with guns, and that's why they come. It doesn't really matter to us what the reason is that they come, so long as they come, and the experience they have is a good one.
I think this game can be a lot of things for a lot of different people, but we don't try and define it for them to say, "Oh, you'll only like this game if you're into this." We're not making Madden football, where it's like, "If you don't like football, you're not going to like this game." We're making something where, "What do you want to do? Do you want to run around and shoot stuff? You can do that. If you think that looks like fun in the game that we're making, then you should come play this, and try it.
If you're really into the RPG thing, then you should come for that. If you're really into the big open-world experience, like we did in Oblivion, or the GTAs, or whatever the game, where you can kind-of go where you want and run around in this big sandbox? That's what we're making, too!" It can be any of those things.
And so how we market it to people is really just to make all of these people aware of what we're doing, so that they are at least informed, and can decide whether or not that's something that they're into. As opposed to saying, "Oh, this is a..." insert name of genre here, therefore this, that. We don't think that really fits for this kind of game. So, yeah, I think that's why it has a broad appeal - at least currently - because there are a lot of gamers that are interested in the game for a lot of different reasons.
Do you guys have a publishing partner, or are you going to do that?
PH: No, this is just us.
So you won't be taking one on before you ship?
PH: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, at this date. You know, we've heard a lot of offers, and heard from a lot of different suitors, but we've been in the publishing side of this industry for more than twenty years, and at times have done it on our own. Morrowind, in America, we did on our own here; Oblivion, we decided to approach the co-publishing model worldwide; and we've opened up our office in Europe now, to do sales stuff over there.
So I think that this is the road that we're going to be going down, of self-publishing our own stuff, and doing it that way going forward.
Giving A Nomadic License A Home
In regards to the Fallout license: What has that been like for you guys? It's not as common for a license to be acquired that way in this industry - a license that was created in the games industry, but you didn't actually acquire that developer or get it as part of a publishing deal. It was just, wholesale, now the license belongs entirely to you. What was that like? What was involved with that, and what are your plans going forward with the license?
PH: It's not the most common thing, although I think we've seen some examples of some other folks that have done stuff like this recently - that they've seen something that they've loved, or that they've liked, and it was sitting there unused, and so they wanted to pick it up and make something out of it.
You know, truth be told, there was no developer to acquire, so that wasn't even an option. And as we joke, sometimes, internally, we're very much in keeping with the history of the franchise, because every game in the series has been made by a different developer, in terms of the people. Even when it was Black Isle on 1 and 2, the people were almost entirely different.
So, you know, it ended up being something, Chris, where we said, "We want to do another kind of game, and here's the kind of game that we want - and if you really want to know the truth, if we could make any game, here's the game we'd want to make." And they went out and got it.
And so I think our intention is to continue to work on it, and bring it forward, and have it be another franchise like The Elder Scrolls, that is something that we are really well known for, and that hopefully is a really great game, and a gameplay experience, and something people really look forward to. "When's the next one of that coming out?"
Maybe break the trend of a different developer each time?
PH: Yeah! Yeah, and that's our other big thing: make sure that, God willing, the guys that do 4 are the guys that do 3.
How do you deal with the hardcore fanbase - that is, in development, how do you balance the need to be true to the series to the point where you are satisfying those people, but not to the exclusion of those who don't live and breathe Fallout?
PH: I think, ultimately, it comes from us having been in this space for a while, and kind of - you know, I mean, we hear this a lot with The Elder Scrolls. You know, with the folks that were around in 1994, when Arena came out, versus the folks that showed up in 2005 because they were interested in Oblivion. And it gets back to listening to what people have to say, and understanding not only what it is they want, but also sort of the root of what their concerns are.
I think that we do have a pretty good understanding what all of the different sections of our fan base are interested in, but it comes back to the thing of, you know, gotta make the game that we think is the best. Certainly, try and take those things into consideration, but there are people in the office who spend 14, 16, 18 hours a day making this game, and sometimes, if you're going to break a tie, you go with our instincts.
The people who know everything about it are the folks who know - you know, you can't make a game with a committee of three thousand, or three hundred thousand. Just, nothing would ever get done. Somebody has got to break the tie and say, "This is what's best for the game."
I think we've tried to make that our approach, and we've tried to do the best that we can to listen to all the segments of our fan base, and give them what they want, and I hope that all of them will give the game a shot, and it will be something that they'll enjoy.