Back in 2002 a game was released called The Elderscrolls 3: Morrowind. At the time it was just about the second highly ambitious open world game ever made, coming hot on the heels of Grand Theft Auto 3. It placed you, the player's, very own custom made character into what was, at the time, near the technological heights of a living, breathing, "real" feeling fantasy world with the freedom to go anywhere and do whatever you wished. And while, since that day, multitudes of titles and developers have borrowed elements from both Morrowind and GTA3, unlike GTA there's never just been a straight up direct clone of Bethesda's open world style of RPG. And this has allowed a once ambitious developer with a constant stream of bestselling games to lose all ambition, engineering, and even pride in their own work.
Now it didn't start off this way, after Morrowind's success. Because, unlike GTA3, the status of bestselling game series didn't come in an overnight flash for Bethesda. Morrowind sold very well, it's sequel sold better, time was taken. That sequel was Oblivion, an, at the time, overly ambitious title that was supposed to be a new height for Bethesda. Revolutionary AI that could adapt to its own objectives was promised, stunning visuals were shown off, they were going to shoot for the moon. Unfortunately for them Bethesda realized in mid development just how far away the moon was, and after multiple features were cut and a large delay in release date Oblivion was published. In some ways the ambition was evident, each of its multitude of cities had its own architecture, the combat had become realtime, characters moved around their cities to lead their own primitive versions of lives. That all the dungeons looked the same, the art direction was mostly featureless and generic, and the game rubber banded itself to your character made the whole thing feel a bit stuck in space.
But despite this the game was an even bigger success than Morrowind. People had heard about this crazy RPG where you could do anything and were eager to get in on the sequel. Bethesda had failed in many of their ambitions, and yet had made more money and earned more accolades anyway.
Taking some of the lessons of Oblivion to heart Bethesda moved onto Fallout 3. The scale of the world was paired back, no revolutionary AI was promised, instead they would just bring their formula for an open world RPG to a new, somewhat tongue in cheek post apocalyptic setting. And yet again, they met with success! Fallout 3 launched on time, just two and a half years after Oblivion, and sold an estimated 3 million more copies than Oblivion. Bethesda didn't have to promise the moon to make more money and recieve more accolade, they just had to keep doing what they were doing.
Enter their most famous title, and biggest success, Skyrim. It firmly placed itself in the "continue to do what you're already doing" category. The world was no bigger than Oblivion's. The art direction was less generic than Oblivion's, but in some ways they'd just spent less money than Oblivion. Why make all the cities have different architecture when you could make every village house in the game the exact same model? The game would have graphics dated several years old in comparison to its contemporary multi million copy selling series. There'd be just as much loading as in Oblivion, a 5 and a half year old game. The mechanics of combat wouldn't be updated at all. In fact the entire concept of "a living, breathing, real feeling fantasy world" would be paried back in favor of a more directed, theme park like feeling.
And the result of all this? Bethesda's bestselling title to date! Yet more people had heard from those people that played Oblivion and Fallout 3 and wanted to get in on this "go anywhere, do anything" roleplaying game. Even though you couldn't go as many places, or do as many things, as in previous entries into the series, well it was still the ONLY series, in the world, where you actually could do any of this. Bethesda could do no wrong.
And where was its contemporary open world game? Where was GTA at this point, that had so helped popularize this "open world" concept in gaming. Well it had had much more direct competition, with studios leaping at the chance to make nigh directly competing games. And Rockstar had stepped up to this competition with ever more expensive and ambitious titles, willing to veer wildly, from San Andreas's multiple cities set up to GTA 4's more grounded, dirty and realistic take, anything to find whatever it took to beat the competition and remain on top. And just a year after Skyrim was released came Grand Theft Auto 5. It had a map almost 4 times the size of Skyrim, and was one of the prettiest games ever released on its console generation. Compared to GTA3 it had motorcycles, planes, trains, skydiving, boats, submarines, and a huge online multiplayer component. It was the most expensive game ever made, and sits today in the top 5 selling best games of all time, selling almost as many copies as every Bethesda title ever made, combined.
Meanwhile Bethesda was having its own success. Success without any competition, without any possible hint that where they were going was in the right or wrong direction. And so Bethesda pushed on to Fallout 4.
Where to begin with Fallout 4? It's most ambitious feature was one taken from a popular modification to the previous Fallout title. Allowing people to build their own post apocalyptic forts. It was something new, ish. It at least had never been done officially before, and over time a lot of toys and tools were added to it, a primitive kind of Minecraft, itself sitting even higher than GTAV on the best selling game of all time list and showing little sign of slowing down.
And the rest of it? A map no bigger than the original Fallout 3, less than a fourth the size of GTAV's. Graphics that, technically, look near 4+ years out of date. A voice actor list that sounded markedly worse than the much smaller scale adventure games made by the likes of Telltale and the like. A playlist of 50's songs that changed hardly at all from Fallout 3 seven years ago, and was no larger. A game world filled with tiny vignettes of things to do, like a series of badly designed theme park rides, all of which you can only beat via shooting things. While GTAV was the most expensive game ever made Bethesda was comparitively little bigger than it had been for Oblivion.
Why spend money you could keep? After all, Bethesda could do no wrong. And twelve million copies in pre-orders proved it. People had come to believe.
Of course, a dramatic drop in user reviews from the initial glow or release speaks differently. A dramatic drop in average play time from Skyrim is another indication. Even without any competition whatsoever, a series of games that's just less and less what people came for can't keep going forever.
Maybe The Elderscrolls will save Bethesda? Recently Bethesda released The Elderscrolls V, Special Edition. It looks somewhat prettier than the original release, it allows console players to use the hyper popular mods. It's seriously dated, has worse audio than the original release, and has added a variety of new bugs to what was already decried as an incredibly buggy game. It's also, currently, near the top of the steam sale charts.
After all, Bethesda can do no wrong.
But what is Bethesda to do, if they can do no wrong? That, utterly bizarrely, after more than a decade they still have absolutely zero direct competition is confusing. Other studios have devloper count, money, and development times that dwarf Bethesda's, and yet spend it on series that sell less. Because, well because those series, too, earn money. And not doing what keeps working would be crazy, after all. But now, after almost a decade of nigh untinteruped sequels, fellow open world series Assassin's Creed is taking a "break" to find a new direction. Now, after more than a decade of truly uninterrupted sequels, Call of Duty is finding a remake of its 2007 hit more popular than its own "new" title. Its fellow multi million copy selling developers are taking a step back to look at themselves. Perhaps it's time, past time, for Bethesda to take a good look at itself.
The first thing to look at, as you may have noticed, is that developer count. At an estimate of just over one hundred employees Bethesda Game Studios is tiny in comparison to many other open world developers. And yet strangely, they insist on keeping their own technology entirely in house. That more developers are working to make Unreal Engine 4 itself, just the game engine, should make apparent that a hundred man team is not enough to put out both its own engine AND open world video games at the same time. Both Cryengine and Unreal Engine 4 now support open world titles, and have tools far easier to use and more flexible that Bethesda itself does. They both even have free, open source editor and source code, making Bethesda's popular support of easy user created content possible. Further Bethesda seems to have ambitions towards porting their games to virtual reality. But VR is hard, really, really, really hard. And a studio that consistently puts out highly dated visuals with long load times is simply not equipped to handle VR titles that don't make people barf. And with engineering time freed up from having to build their own tools and engine themselves, perhaps their title notoriously buggy releases can even be smoothed over.
The second thing to look at is where to spend all that other money that's brought in. That every title continues to have worse voice acting than what even small scale adventure games can afford should be an embarrasment, and hiring more and better voice actors wouldn't even touch upon expanding the studio. A similar story can be told of the variety and quality of the art appearing in its titles. Other studios have no compuction over hiring copious amounts of contract artists for when production is well and truly under way on their titles, and with cash to spare there's no reason Bethesda shouldn't either.
The third, and final thing to look at is that question that was brought up in the beginning; the question of ambition. No amount of money helps here. Instead one must ask, what happened between the release of Fallout 4 and the middle of production for Oblivion? A single failure to ship all your ambitions, a failure that meets with more success anyway, is hardly an excuse to ditch ambition for all time. Perhaps, on this last one, it's simply time to pass the torch onto a new generation in Bethesda. Onto developers that want to make a game great for its own sake, and not for the sake of sales and platitudes that seem to happen regardless. And if not for its own sake, it may be time for this for the very reasons of sales and platitudes as well. Just because Bethesda has spent more than a decade without any direct competition, doesn't mean this will continue indefinitely. Soon, maybe even very soon, a developer with the ambition, and willingness to spend time and money that Bethesda has lost will show up. And given that option it's not hard to imagine Bethesda's legion of fans being more than willing to jump ship to a series that actually works well most of the time, that actually strives for the new and improved, that looks good for the year its released; a title that actually takes some pride in itself.