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Growing Your Long Tail: Hines On Bethesda's Keen Focus

April 10, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Everybody knows that publisher and developer Bethesda has built its reputation as a game studio by consistently delivering incredibly deep, lengthy, and immersive RPGs -- and built a huge audience for its titles by maintaining that commitment.

But what may not be as clear is that the company has managed to keep interest for its titles alive for years after their introduction, in stark contrast to many publishers, whose titles disappear from retail after mere weeks, in many cases.

Here, Pete Hines, VP of PR and Marketing for Bethesda and product manager for Fallout 3, discusses the fate of titles like Morrowind and Oblivion, and the strategies that the company has developed for maintaining retailer and gamer interest in its titles. 

As a developer of open-world games, I imagine there is some degree of creative restriction on what Bethesda can do with DLC, in that discrete content has to be integrated in some logical way. You can't just add another racetrack to the menu, or whatever. How do you approach that?

Pete Hines: It is a constraint from one standpoint, which is that if you're going to plug it into the existing world then it has to be adaptable for anybody at any level that we discern, at least for the first two [in Fallout 3]. We don't discern whether you're level 1, level 10, level 15, or level 20, so we have to allow for all of that.

But in general, no. We like building our games that way. Having the DLC exist within that world allows us to, once we're done making all the content for the game and we've finished the game from that standpoint and then spent lot of time playing it, look for areas that we'd like to do more of -- to do something different than when you're looking at the whole spectrum of content you've provided.

Bethesda's Fallout 3

In the third [Fallout 3 DLC pack, Broken Steel, out this month, which continues the game beyond its original ending], it really allows us to react to what the response was once the game came out. We were genuinely surprised how many people were disappointed or upset that the game had an ending. Because most games have an ending, but most Bethesda games don't.

I guess it was just the case where people have come to expect that our games don't end and that they can keep playing.

So we said, what would we need to do to address that? It has taken us a while because there are all these different ways that the game can end, and we needed to account for them and tell the story of what happens after that. How does that story continue on in the D.C. wasteland?

There are a lot of bases to cover there. There's a lot of things that we want to account for. We don't want to just say, "Oh, you can keep playing but the world feels exactly the same as if you had finished it." We had to go through and spend time doing that.

With Oblivion, you obviously tried a number of different things. There was some backlash with the horse armor and all of that, which at this point I guess has been discussed to death, but you also went to the other extreme in terms of volume of content. Did you learn some big lessons from that experience?

PH: Definitely, because we did the entire spectrum for the most part. We did small things and then we did the really huge thing [with The Shivering Isles]. We did what I think was the first ever full expansion on a console for download. We looked at what we liked and what we didn't, and what the people liked.

What we discovered was that we want to be able to do stuff that doesn't take a year to come out.

All these people are out there playing our game by the hundreds of thousands on a daily basis and we want to be able to bring those folks something they could do in a much shorter time frame, rather than just saying, "See you next year." That instantly ruled out doing a big expansion because those things just take so damn long to do.

So we started looking at the biggest stuff we'd done that people really liked, but that we could do in smaller, digestible chunks.

That's where we came to the Knights of the Nine model -- it's substantive and it adds multiple hours of game play and new items, but we can do it in a time frame that allows us to get it out without waiting forever. That's what we've gone for with Fallout 3.

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Jon Boon
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How about supporting your followers on the PS3 then? It's not like I'm going to buy a 360, another copy of the game and pay for LIVE just to get their DLC. They should support all versions equally. Exclusive DLC is a crock, and it makes their game poorer for it.

Rob Bergstrom
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Maybe the alluded to future Oblivion project will be DLC and not exclusive. One can hope.

Dave Endresak
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Nice interview. I really appreciate Pete mentioning the facts about misperception regarding "older won't sell" especially when "older" is all of one or two years, let alone ten or twenty. Obviously we have all the collection releases of classic games as well as downloadable stuff on Wi's virtual console or from web sites because the titles won't sell, right? (yes, that's sarcasm ^_^) At least some people in the industry realize that age has nothing to do with quality or market demand for something that is enjoyable.

There's another interesting point about the perception of product age, too. Excellent games from just ten years ago such as Deus Ex, The Longest Journey, or No One Lives Forever - game of the year caliber products or simply products that are excellent but did not get enough mainstream popularity - were not necessarily played by gamers who are now in their early to mid 20s due to their Mature ESRB rating. There are young adults today who have heard about various "awesome" games from the recent past but cannot necessarily find them in order to play them. I think the industry would be well served if companies started a practice of rereleasing various excellent titles every ten years or so. Heck, if we can do this in other media formats, why not games? Of course, it does happen somewhat already, but it would be very helpful for newer generations of adult gamers to always be able to count on rereleases of titles they were unable to experience when they were younger. Besides, it's another way to make money from a product by selling it to a new, now eligible market.

Kevin Potter
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"We were genuinely surprised how many people were disappointed or upset that the game had an ending."

I think he meant to say "disappointed or upset that the game had a hackneyed ending that forced you to be either an unnecessary martyr or a pathetic coward."

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@ Kevin Potter

He's not talking about the content of the ending he is talking about the ability to continue from that point on. That coupled with the level cap meant that once that point was reached many gamers would say "now what?" and quit playing as opposed to just continuing on with whatever they were doing previously throughout the game. I know I am guilty of this. I purposely didn't beat the game for a long time, but once I had reached that level cap of 20 the motivation to explore new areas kind of diminished.

It wasn't fully the fault of the cap or the ending though for me. It was also that there wasn't much worth finding in the wasteland for me. I was a melee character so all the ammo and guns I was finding really had no use to me yet I picked them up and converted them to bottle caps, even though there was nothing to buy. Even if I had used guns the only thing worth finding would have been bullets and duplicates to repair my weapon. The skill books were the only thing I had to look forward to while searching every nook and cranny of the wasteland, and the occasional bobbleheads. The skill books weren't enough to keep that motivation though because they were such a small impact on my character ability anyway. And the bobbleheads while nice to find were so few and far between. I also forgot to mention that I was motivated by finding quests even at level 20, but once I had gotten every quest trophy I knew there were no more main quest paths to find.

I think either allowing for no level cap somehow or allowing you to gain some kind of alternate exploration XP to get unique perks would have been a good motivating factor for me to continue searching the wasteland past the previously mentioned ending and level cap.

Alan Rimkeit
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"Jon Boon - How about supporting your followers on the PS3 then? It's not like I'm going to buy a 360, another copy of the game and pay for LIVE just to get their DLC. They should support all versions equally. Exclusive DLC is a crock, and it makes their game poorer for it. "

I second that and third it by my self. Support the PS3 users just like the rest of your loyal customers. I still play Oblivion on the PS3. I will play Fallout 3 as long most likely. Are we PS3 owners any less valuable than the 360 owners as a customers? It just seems unfair and unkind.

Mark Harris
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It's not unfair and unkind if the DLC was funded my Microsoft. I honestly would prefer for games of this caliber and the respective DLC be multi-platform, but I also can't blame a developer for taking available funding and creating some unique content.

Ty Paslay
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Mark, although I understand your point. I think it's the job as a developer to attempt to stay above the petty feuds between consoles manufacturers. Bethesda had built enough of a reputation through Oblivion that they could have struck a deal for timed exclusivity at the very least. Developers have a responsibility to the fans that support them, Microsoft can cut a check and walk away. Ultimately Bethesda is the one to take the place in front of the firing squad. Bethesda showed bad support for the PS3 all around, just check out the PS3 forum archives around the launch day.

They really represented themselves poorly to the Playstation community and I can only assume the financial repurcussion of that will be felt longer than if they would've turned down a deal with MS. Myself and several people I know purchased it on the PS3 even though we have high end computers and Xbox 360s, all of us felt cheated. I, for one, will never buy a product from Bethesda again. I can only hope that Obsidian learns from Bethesda's mistakes.