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PostPosted: Thu Aug 20, 2015 6:49 am    Post subject: Pete Hines interview

Interview with Pete Hines from

Pete Hines - a Bethesda veteran
Pete Hines – a Bethesda veteran

GC: Bethesda is almost unique amongst the big publishers, in that you have a pretty specific style and a relatively narrow range of genres that you deal with. Did that start out as almost coincidence or has that been planned from the start?

PH: I don’t think it’s too much coincidence, just because of where we come from. I mean, our roots… Bethesda was a developer first. I’ve been there 16 years, but before I got there it was a small PC-based developer that ended up publishing its own games. But it was sort of born out of that and grew into something, as a publisher, larger than that. But we still have that same sort of approach and mentality about finding developers that are a good fit for how we view games. We don’t believe in taking a franchise and doing an annual version of it. We’re not looking to publish to some sort of volume, to say, ‘Here’s your 15 titles for 2015!’.

We’re just set-up to do fewer, bigger things. To try and make sure that our games are innovating, whether it’s in open world or survival horror or whatever it is… that we’re doing stuff that other folks wouldn’t do or don’t do. And so far it’s worked pretty well for us. But I don’t really view us any differently now than five or 10 years ago, other than I think we continue to get better at what it is that we ultimately want to do. You learn a lot from the last game and you hope to apply it to the next one you want to do.

GC: This year you had your first pre-E3 showcase, but I wonder how big exactly you think you can get? When I think of Bethesda I think of big, serious, complicated games. But unless you diversify from that presumably there is a glass ceiling to how big a publisher you can be?

PH: I think ultimately, from a genre standpoint, we’re in a lot of different places. We have Id and what they’re doing with Doom; the MachineGames guys did very well with Wolfenstein, which is a first person shooter but a very different kind of game than what Doom is trying to do; the Tango guys doing The Evil Within; Arkane doing their kind of first person action stealth assassin stuff… so I think we try not to pigeon hole ourselves into, ‘Well, we need another shooter or we need more sports titles’. I think that’s the wrong way to go about it.

We tend to go about it on, ‘Who are the folks that we respect? Who are the folks that we’re interested in working with and what might we be able to do with them?’ I mean, that’s how we ended up working with somebody like Arkane, and they ultimately ended up joining us. That’s how we ended up with Id, that’s how we ended up with Shinji [Mikami] and his team at Tango. It’s sort of kind of keeping an eye on the people you respect or you talk to and you like the way that they approach games and the way they think about it, and say, ‘OK, well if we were to do something with those guys what would it be?’

It wasn’t a conversation with [Raph]aël Colantonio and Harvey [Smith] at Arkane to say, ‘OK, we need like a stealthy assassin game, whaddya got?’ It was more like, ‘You guys do really good, kind of grounded first person stuff. You’re really into first person action. If we could work together what kind of stuff would you guys like to do?’

GC: So you don’t ever think, ‘All of our games are 18-rated, complicated video games. We should try something outside of our comfort zone’?

PH: No, I mean what would you think if I’d gotten up on stage at the showcase and I’d said, ‘Here’s our bright colourful 3D platformer.’ You’d be like, ‘What in the hell is going on?!’

GC: Well, I’d be surprised for sure. But I generally think that’s a good thing in game announcements. But that’s fine, I’m not saying you should do anything specifically. But the really big publishers like Activision or EA can publish just about anything and it wouldn’t seem weird, I was curious to see if you wanted to expand in that way.

PH: But we’ve never done those things, so I think the kind of stuff that we make is fairly true to who we’ve been all along. It’s not like we used to be known for cute 2D platform stuff and we moved away from that, because we thought there was other stuff we were interested in. We’ve always done stuff like The Elder Scrolls and Terminator and stuff that applied to a more mature audience.

And now we’re just trying to do better and more interesting and more robust versions of that, as opposed to, ‘Well, we’ve gotta diversify, what are we doing on Facebook? What are we doing for the casual gamer?’ That feels like what other folks do and we feel more like our approach fits who we are, who our developers are, and the kind of stuff we want to make.

Which doesn’t mean that you can’t have something like Fallout Shelter come from Bethesda – where it’s a more casual, fun thing that’s not extremely hardcore or violent or anything – but it also doesn’t feel out of place for what you might expect from us.

GC: Given your size you do have an awful lot of internal studios, do they interact at all?

PH: We do some things that I think are a little bit unique. When we have games in development we send certain builds or milestones along the way to people at all of the other studios, as part of our play-testing. So guys at Id will play The Evil Within, guys at MachineGames will play it, guys at ZeniMax Online will play it. Not the whole studio, and obviously if you were to go to Todd Howard’s team [on Fallout 4] right now [laughs] and said, ‘Hey, can you playtest this they say [laughs] Yes, I’d love to play Doom but I was here working for 18 hours yesterday!’

GC: You saying that, I remember now at E3 Marty Stratton on Doom seemed to know a lot about how MachineGames work.

PH: Yeah, so that helps them get feedback from other designers, other artists. It is also a big part of the process whereby studios are working with each other on, ‘Hey, how are you doing this? And how are you doing that?’ Todd talked about, at E3, going to MachineGames and Id and talking to them about the first person shooting mechanics, like making the guns feel better and how to improve on all that.

So it’s a very sort of collaborative process. All those studios are part of Bethesda, and so they don’t have to worry about, ‘Well, if I tell you this you’re going to go off to some other publisher and take all my secrets with you!’

GC: So just in terms of Fallout 4… which I didn’t realise was out this year because I’ve seen no advertising for it. [Cologne’s streets are filled with giant Fallout 4 posters, sometimes two or three in a row.]

PH: [considerable laughter] We might have gone a little over the top.

GC: The marketing in general for the game is very unusual. You announced it just five months before it came out and apart from the 15 minute video yesterday you haven’t shown anything to the press that you haven’t also shown to the public. As a journalist I don’t feel I know much more about the game than the average fan.

PH: That’s fair.

GC: God knows I don’t like spoilers, so it’s a nice change. But you obviously have a very specific marketing plan for this game.

PH: There’s a couple of reasons for all that. The brevity of the period between announce and launch was really a function of how much can we actually get away with? ‘Cause if you ask Todd he’ll just say, ‘Can we announce it and release it that day?’. Like, he never wants anybody to see his stuff before it’s out.

And everything that you do is a burden on the dev team. Every video that you do, every demo that you do is taking some amount of time from the team to say, ‘We need to capture this, we need to put this together, what are we gonna show? Oh wait, that’s not working in this build ’cause we just entered this stuff in…’ So it’s a burden on them to be able to deliver some demo for some show, when their real goal is, ‘I gotta have a game in everybody’s hands on November 10’. And so by shortening it you’re reducing the number of beats you need to maintain momentum.

Part of the desire to do something really big at E3, that everyone could see, was, ‘Well, I do want everybody to be able to see it and to do it all at once so I don’t have to worry about running him into the ground doing 10 demos to 70 people in a theatre over and over again in our booth, like we have in years past’. So the press have got to see it but there’s lots of people that haven’t. So doing it in this way allowed everybody to hear for themselves and see for themselves.

GC: With a lot of game previews you do start to get movie trailer syndrome, where you realise you’ve seen all the best bits before it’s even out. Sometimes I almost forget a new game isn’t out yet because I’ve seen it so much beforehand.

PH: I certainly think that is a big… we always struggle with that, from a marketing and PR standpoint. And showing enough to get you interested without spoiling all the stuff that is much better experienced playing the game, and seeing it for the first time there. And certainly Todd and his team are big believers in that when you experience a lot of things in Fallout, there’s lots of things you could explain but they’re so much better understood when you play it and see it for the first time.

GC: In terms of the reception to the game so far, I was looking again online and I was surprised at how negative a lot of it is. There seems to be a significant proportion of the fans upset at the quality of the graphics and there also seems to be a Diablo III style reaction to the use of colour – which was personally my favourite part of the reveal. Do those sort of complaints surprise or upset you?

PH: Definitely doesn’t upset us. Very little surprises me after 16 years in this industry. [laughs] Generally speaking… I think we’re an industry, we’re a form of entertainment. As with most forms of entertainment you never get 100 per cent agreement on anything. And so, at the end of the day, whether it’s what the graphics look like or whether the gameplay is what you want or whether you like the setting, or whatever it is, everybody is entitled to their opinion.

GC: I’ll say it surprised me. I knew how excited people were, and are, and I figured most of your fans know that a complex open world game like this is going to have some compromises in terms of the visuals. But they’re also complaining that the gameplay is too similar to Fallout 3, that you haven’t shown much that couldn’t have been done in the previous games. Is that something you would accept?

PH: I mean, certainly it ought to look and feel familiar. If you played Fallout 3 you ought to be able to see things that are recognisable or similar or whatever. Because we didn’t make a completely different game. But at the same time, when you’re playing it it’s a mix of familiar and different. There are things that are the same and there are things that are very different.

But those things are sometimes very difficult to demonstrate in a short video at a E3 showcase, or whatever. But if you jump into the game and you play it for an extended period of time you start to feel the differences and how much some things have changed.

GC: What’s your process for coping with fan expectation and feedback? I’m sure a lot of it is very useful, but also a lot of fans tend to deal only in black-and-white, exaggerated statements. If they’re all saying this is just a high-res Fallout 3 how do you deal with that?

PH: [pauses] It’s a good question, I don’t know what the… Clearly I deal with it but I don’t know how to put it into words. Like, at the end of the day we know…

GC: Do you have a big meeting at the end of the day and say, ‘Well, the fans don’t like the graphics!’

PH: No! [laughs] No. We do not. We tend to try and focus the vast majority of our feedback on people who have played and experienced something. So fan feedback on Skyrim or Fallout 3 or Wolfenstein or Dishonored in particular, is incredibly useful in figuring out what did people like, what didn’t they like, what did they struggle with, what were the things they wish were different or better? Or not in the game or whatever, to figure out what you’re gonna do in the next one.

So when you’re shipping a game… we talked about the brevity between announcement and launch, that’s also an indicator of how far along in the process we are for making decisions and putting content in the game. You don’t really decide to pivot in June and do an entirely different thing and still be out for this November. So I think the team, from a development standpoint, is focused on a thing that they believe in and finishing what they think they have to do. And from our standpoint we’re going to continue to talk about what we’re doing.

And if your default position is ‘X is terrible and I’m not gonna buy the game’… I have sometimes been criticised for this attitude but my basic philosophy is ‘OK’. You can use whatever criteria you want to buy or not buy a game, because ultimately it’s not up to me. I don’t get to go up to each individual consumer and say, ‘You have to buy this game or I’m gonna try and convince you otherwise!’ I put out information in the best way possible to give people a good idea, ‘Here’s what we’re doing and here’s what it’s gonna be like’.

And you might decide I hate post-apocalyptic or ‘I don’t like the colour blue’ or ‘I don’t think your graphics look good’ or ‘I think your combat is dumb’. Whatever your reasons are for not buying it’s like Yogi Berra said, if people aren’t going to come to the game nobody’s gonna stop ’em.

I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with that. I still have a job to do and I have a lot of other people who are interested, who still want to know more and give it a chance. So I’m just gonna talk to those people. Like, I assume 100 per cent of the industry is not going to buy this game, and there are a vast number of reasons why they might not.

GC: The fan community is increasingly a part of the development process for many games now, but I do worry whether that’s necessarily always a good influence. I mean… at least a publisher understands how games are made.

PH: I’m not a big believer in design by committee. And you have to appreciate that in any given studio, any studio, there is rarely 100 per cent agreement on anything. Just like we were talking about there’s not 100 per cent agreement on whether this thing is good or bad or it looks good or it looks terrible. Within the team there’s always arguments about whether we should do feature X. ‘No! We should do feature Y! No! we should do this! No! We should do that!’

Because they’re passionate, creative people and sometimes a thing is, ‘Yes, this is awesome! Let’s do more of this!’ And sometimes there are these big conflicts over, ‘This character has to die here! No, they’re too important, they can’t die here!’. And so the fans are echoing those same things. There’s, ‘Why is the studio doing this?’ even within the studio. With the fans it’s just adding more voices to that debate.

GC: Now, I don’t personally agree with those other complaints but one thing I was disappointed with in the game is the facial animation, which seems to me has always been an issue in Elder Scrolls and Fallout. Did that not come up as a priority at all?

PH: I think we try as much as we can to try and improve every single aspect of the game.

GC: But that seems like such an easy fix nowadays, there’s plenty of third party technology around where you wouldn’t have to develop it yourself.

PH: Eh, I would say that there are games in which that is significantly easier and the more that you try to do, or allow the player to do, in a game the more stuff you have to support. That means the more bandwidth you’re giving for other things. In the most extreme example, if you have a very linear game where everyone who is playing the game is moving from point A to point B, with this exact series of steps, and a predefined set of weapons, and all of these objects are just textures on top of another texture…

GC: You’re thinking of The Order: 1886 aren’t you?

PH: [laughs] There’s a difference between that and dropping a grenade in here and all this stuff starts bouncing around… well, if you’re gonna have every object be real and apply physics to it then that has to come from somewhere. Otherwise every game in the world would have every object be a real thing. So at the end of the day it’s trade-offs.

I like what we’ve done with the dialogue system… and having played Fallout 3 again recently I keep, in Fallout 4 when I’m playing, I keep hitting the button to leave dialogue. I keep forgetting, ‘Oh, I can just walk away’. I don’t have to wait for this guy to stop talking’. And now I’m playing other stuff, where there’s dialogue and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I wish I could just walk away’. Because I don’t have the attention span for long dialogue!

GC: The catchphrase for gaming used to be ‘Just one more go’, nowadays it’s just ‘Get on with it!’

PH: [laughs] Exactly! Unless it’s Uncharted or anything by Naughty Dog, and then I never skip any of the dialogue – ’cause theirs is awesome.

GC: And the other issue I think is a fair complaint is the dark humour, which was a big part of the earlier games but you seem very reticent about introducing in your Fallout titles. Which can be a little dry.

PH: I think we steer a lot more towards the original Fallout and kind of use that as our bar. Because if you look at Fallout 1 and 2 they are pretty different from one another in terms of how many pop culture references and fourth wall stuff the second one does.

I think there is a fair amount of that in the game, it’s something that’s important to them and is part of the Fallout universe, but in the interests of time and so forth you only have so much you can show and show the context. Some of the stuff I’ve seen is much better served when you come across it and you’ve been playing the game for half an hour and you go in a house and you find this thing – as opposed to, ‘I set it up as this kind of canned joke’.

GC: Do you know if there was a specific push to put more humour in Fallout 4? Because the previous games could be a little dry, and that’s in contrast to the first couple which were actually very darkly comic.

PH: I’m probably not qualified to answer that in that level of detail, really.

GC: OK. Well, just a couple of quick things to finish up on. Do you still have the Terminator or Star Trek licences? I keep getting asked that by readers.

PH: No. Not for a long, long time. As I understand it… because it did get brought up in conversation a while back. As I understand it that is a high convoluted situation.

GC: Yeah, I think it’s the same with the movies actually.

PH: Right, we haven’t had anything to do with that for years. We haven’t even been able to sell our older games because of not having the licence.

GC: Were you around when Future Shock was released? That was always such a severely under-appreciated game.

PH: No, I got there right after Redguard in… ’99. So they were done with all the Terminator stuff when I got there.

GC: Are you interested in licence games any more?

PH: We’ve done a few. We’ve done sports games, we did PBA Bowling and NIRA Drag Racing, which probably were never very big in the UK. We did Pirates Of The Caribbean, we did Star Trek. I think we have found in general that we much prefer to work on our own stuff, that we have complete control over what is or isn’t allowed.

As opposed to being beholden to a licensor, or worrying about, ‘Yeah, you have this licence but it’s not exclusive and there’s this other developer who’s making a thing and don’t worry about it, it’s just a Facebook game…’ We make Dishonored, we can do whatever the hell we want. And we can make it exactly the IP we want and not worry about what the rules are of this world that’s somebody else’s.

GC: Well, quite. And you’ve done extremely well with introducing new IP. Which is odd because other publishers are always complaining about how difficult that is. And yet I can’t think of many recent big budget failures.

PH: We’ve done pretty well with it.

GC: It seems like as long as you put the effort in, in terms of the game and the marketing, you have a good chance of success.

PH: It’s certainly a challenge, no question. Working with something that has a built-in audience, or people know what it is, is infinitely easier than going to somebody and saying, ‘OK, you don’t know anything about… Dishonored is a nice example of a success, as is The Evil Within. But I can tell you that in the process of promoting those that it’s a challenge to explain exactly what they are.

But clearly we’re fans of it, because Dishonored is new IP. It was the only new IP of that quarter, when everybody else was doing sequels. When they were all waiting for the next gen. Evil Within…. Wolfenstein wasn’t new IP but let’s be honest, that was not IP that was a household name. It had been a bit dinged up. And so in some ways we almost felt like it was a bit of a new IP, ’cause we were talking about it to people who didn’t really have any clue what Wolfenstein was.

(At this point a PR guy appears to point out we’re badly overunning.)

GC: Unless I’m forgetting something I notice that all your current games are by internal studios. Are you moving away from using third parties?

PH: Everything that we have announced, except for The Elder Scrolls Legends, which we’re work on with Dire Wolf Digital. That’s the strategy card game, that we haven’t really said a whole lot about. That’s external. It’s preferable to work with internal studios but it’s also dependent on what other external developers are available…

GC: Just thinking back to my question of how big do you want to be. Is your first interest when speaking to a developer whether you can buy them? Because that’s what seems to happen in a lot of cases with Bethesda.

PH: Oh no, no. We’re interested in talking to folks without having to acquire people. I mean, there’s efficiencies you get with having an internal studio but our intention was to work with Arkane first and later on in the process the conversation was: ‘Wouldn’t it make more sense…’ But that was more like a mutual thing, as opposed to, ‘We want to acquire you, now let’s work out what you’re gonna work on’.

So if the right developer comes along there’s any number of folks I would love to work with, and in some cases we’ve been interested and they decided to do a deal with somebody else because of dollars or they’ve made a platform exclusive and published with a first party… there’s any number of reasons why it doesn’t end up working.

To our earlier conversation, it can be: ‘Yeah, it’s a really interesting game, it doesn’t feel like a fit for us.’ I think if we did that people would be like, ‘Why is Bethesda doing that game?!’ We still talk to them though, and see and hear pitches all the time. It’s just finding the right fit.

GC: So who else would you like to work with? Or what game have you seen and liked recently, that you’d never dream of publishing yourself?

PH: [thinks] Rocket League. That game is awesome! But if we were like, ‘OK, we’re doing this soccer game with cars everybody would be like, “What in the hell?!”’ It has nothing to do with the quality of the game, it’s just why would you be doing that, right? But I play it, half the people at Quakecon were playing it, I got my kid hooked on it.

GC: But do you not see that as a problem? That game’s done really well, it’s been very well received critically, but apparently you would never dream of publishing it or anything like it? Does that not suggest a case for making some sort of spin-off publishing label?

PH: It’s entirely possible. Five years ago, if you had said, ‘Do you think you guys would get into strategy card games?’ I would’ve probably said, ‘No, probably not. It just doesn’t seem like a good fit for Bethesda’. But then we had this idea for doing an Elder Scrolls card game and it’s something I play a lot of, and that sort of took off and became a big thing for us. So who knows.

GC: OK, that’s great. Thanks a lot for your time. Sorry, I know we’ve overrun.

PH: It was really good to talk to you, thanks.

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