Out of the hype, but still in the money is a way of life
Not everything needs huge amounts of hype to be successful. It sure helps, but it’s not absolutely crucial in order to make a living in this industry.
That’s what Bethesda Softworks has been proving time and time again over most of its fifteen-year history.
After producing a string of award-winning titles, Bethesda didn’t release any games for a few years, and is now coming out with a whole new line of games that look quite promising. Obviously, if the titles they had put out before were still bringing in the required cash to stay alive while no new games were being put out, then they were certainly good, solid games.
But how much more difficult does losing the spotlight make things when you are finally ready to release new titles? When you lose the attention of the hard-core gamers, how much slack needs to be picked up in the other areas of the market?
GiN talked with Pete Hines, the Director of Marketing and Public Relations at Bethesda SoftWorks. He had some things to say about his company, and finding success in some largely unpublicized corners.
Bethesda Softworks – www.bethsoft.com
GiN: Can you tell us a little bit about the history of Bethesda Softworks?
Hines: Bethesda was founded back in 1986 as part of Media Technology Ltd. That year we released Gridiron, the first physics-based sports game ever created. We created the highly successful Wayne Gretzky Hockey series and a number of award-winning games based on The Terminator license. In 1994 we released The Elder Scrolls: Arena, which won a number of RPG of the Year awards. In 1996 we released the sequel to Arena, Daggerfall, which won Best RPG of the Year from every major print and online gaming publication. We developed and published PBA Bowling, the best-selling bowling game of all time for the PC. Our first drag racing game, Hot Rod Magazine: Championship Drag Racing, is the best-selling drag racing game of all time.
We are now a part of ZeniMax Media Inc., a company that provides a variety of services for the Internet, including unique entertainment and interactive media. We are now officially licensed to develop/publish for the Sega Dreamcast, Sony PlayStation game console, Sony PlayStation 2 computer entertainment system, and X-box. We are continuing to publish games in a number of different genres for a variety of gamers. We have multiplayer sports games like IHRA Drag Racing and PBA Tour Bowling 2001 that are available on PC and consoles, and we have more traditional "hard core" titles like Sea Dogs, Echelon, Art of Magic, Freedom Ridge, and Morrowind.
GiN: After a long absence from putting out top-selling games like the DaggerFall series, Bethesda seems to be coming back strong. Can you describe a few of the titles you have coming out that will put you back on the map?
Hines: I think it’s somewhat of a misconception that Daggerfall was our last top-selling game. While they don’t get as much attention among much of the hard-core gaming community, titles like Hot Rod Drag Racing and PBA Bowling have sold very well for us, and both of them are actually the best-selling games of their kind.
While they don’t set the gaming world on its ear, they do pay the bills, provide a lot of enjoyment for people who like that type of game, and allow us the ability to do other things…like Morrowind. We’ve gotten a very favorable response and a lot of interest from gamers and the press for Sea Dogs and Echelon and Art of Magic. Then you have games like Morrowind and Freedom Ridge (by Mythos Games, the creators of the original X-Com), for which there is tremendous interest.
GiN: A lot of your recent press materials have had the "we are not dead!" feel to them, including one that I believe said that reports of your death were exaggerated, to quote Mark Twain. How did Bethesda lose its reputation in the industry?
Hines: I don’t think we lost our reputation. I think it was simply the fact that Bethesda hit a long period where it didn’t really put out any titles. Since we didn’t have any games hitting the market, we weren’t in the forefront of people’s minds. We just wanted people to know that we’re still here and we’ve got some great stuff in the works. Now that we have a number of highly anticipated games, like Sea Dogs, Echelon, Art of Magic, The Dreamland Chronicles: Freedom Ridge, and Morrowind, suddenly we’re right back in the thick of things. With as many games as there are in development, you have to be doing enough to warrant people’s attention for any period of time.
GiN: How difficult is it for a small company like Bethesda to compete with the giants like EA in this market?
Hines: We don’t look at it like "we’re so little and they’re so big, please have mercy." They make games, we make games. There are companies that are a lot bigger than we are, so obviously there are certain things they can do that we can’t. However, I think we’ve gotten to work with some really great developers who didn’t want to work with a huge company because they’d been burned in the past. So being smaller has provided us with some opportunities we might not have had otherwise. If the only way you could survive were to be a huge company, then we wouldn’t still be here after almost 15 years.
GiN: Bethesda is a unique company in that you are one of the few remaining smaller game firms. Others like Maxis and Bungie have been bought by giants like EA and Microsoft. Does this make it harder for you to compete?
Hines: Not really. Again, there are pros and cons to every situation. Some companies need that simply for the capital or for other benefits. We’ve been profitable every year we’ve been in existence, so that hasn’t forced us to go that route. Beyond that it goes back to your previous question about competing with "giants."
GiN: Are you going to continue to focus mostly on PC games or has there been any thought about moving more heavily into the console market?
Hines: I think there are probably very, very few companies who are looking at staying exclusively with the PC market. While we will continue to develop games for the PC, we also recognize that there are games we would like to do that are better suited for a console versus a PC, or that would do well on both. We don’t approach it from the standpoint of, "we’re going to develop games for XYZ console, what should we do?" We look at what projects we have that we want to do, and we look at what 3rd party developers are bringing to us, and we try to decide where the best place for them is and go from there.
GiN: Bethesda is now publishing games from other companies, even development houses in Russia. Why did you decide to get into this part of the market?
Hines: Getting into 3rd party development allows you to realize some economies of scale at several levels, including spreading out development costs, marketing and PR efforts, working with retailers, etc. In this day and age, you have to be working at a certain level if you expect to continue publishing games, and working with 3rd party developers allows us to do that. Publishing one to three games a year just didn’t appeal to us anymore. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, we are no longer developing/publishing only for the PC, and so working with outside developers makes it a little easier to bring multiple titles to multiple platforms.
GiN: What has been your impression of publishing 3rd party games?
Hines: Working as a publisher for 3rd party titles has its challenges, but we work with some excellent developers and haven’t had any real trouble incorporating it into what we’ve been doing all along.
GiN: I assume that if you are able to make Bethesda a top-selling major company in this industry again, that you will want to stay on top this time. What lessons have you learned along the way that will be helpful in this process or what mistakes will you be sure not to make twice?
Hines: No, we hope to get to the top and then plummet right into bankruptcy and utter failure. We have that engraved on a plaque next to our front door.
As with all things in life, that which does not kill us makes us stronger. I’d like to think we’ve learned from our mistakes and are trying to improve the way we do things here. I think everyone tries to do the same thing. The only way to really say for sure whether we’re learning is to see if people buy and enjoy our games. If they do then we’re in good shape. If they don’t, then we’ll have to learn quicker or be out of business.