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For Todd Howard, making games at Bethesda is a bit like playing jazz

Bethesda Game Studios director Todd Howard took the stage today at DICE 2016 in Las Vegas to chat a bit about how the studio goes about making games like Skyrim and Fallout 4.

Bethesda Game Studios director Todd Howard took the stage today at DICE 2016 in Las Vegas to chat a bit about how the studio makes games like Skyrim and Fallout 4.

“One of the things that's good about us, there’s just over 120 people on the tem, and they’ve all been doing it for a very long time. Someone in the office once compared it to like, playing jazz,” Howard said, in conversation with comedian and moderator Pete Holmes.

“We’ve been doing this, a lot of us, together for 10-plus years. Everyone being able to make the world, and us being all on the same page, is what makes it possible for us to make that much content. We get a consistent tone and experience.”

This bit of Howard’s conversation is especially notable in the wake of game designer Zak McClendon’s November paean to the studio’s (relatively) small, experienced team of game makers.

He was pushing back against common complaints about bugs in Bethesda Game Studios’ recently-released Fallout 4 by arguing that, for better or worse, the studio’s structure and ambition make it uniquely capable of making sprawling open-world, open-ended games.

At DICE today, Howard echoed McClendon's argument by painting Bethesda Game Studios as an environment where developers are typically experienced and (comparatively) autonomous.

Celebrating old hands, working in harmony

“What I think makes us unique in what we do...we don’t have to manage ourselves a lot. People know what they’re doing,” Howard said. “We have so many people, who have done this together for so long, that we can start expanding more than we traditionally would have done. We opened that studio in Montreal recently, and we’re doing other stuff there, mobile things.”

Those “mobile things” presumably include the studio’s upcoming Elder Scrolls Legends digital card game. Bethesda’s further expansion into mobile development is directly inspired by the standout success of its debut mobile game Fallout Shelter, which shook things up at the studio after its surprise launch last year

“We did the mobile game for Fallout. And that hit 4 billion sessions. That is the most played Fallout game of all Fallout games, combined,” Howard told Holmes, suggesting that the spread of mobile devices has made playing (mobile) games a common, popular part of peoples’ lives. “We wanted to do something smaller that wasn’t this big 3 or 4 year thing...and it exploded.”

Though Howard enthused at length about the broadening availability and acceptance of games (“How lucky are we to do this, everyone who makes games...this is important to peoples’ lives,”) he also acknowledged that Bethesda is aware of how its games can often seem intimimidatingly large and complex to new players. Sometimes, that’s on purpose. Sometimes it isn’t.

The ups and downs of approachability in game design

“We can be better about giving you a tutorial, there’s some intimidation,” said Howard. “But the payoff is when you break through it, you feel like ‘I get it now.’ Your character gets it now.”

Howard suggests players’ early moments with your game, when they’re coming to grips with the systems and the story, are a prime opportunity to foster empathy with the world and its characters. Given that he’s spent the lion’s share of his career working on first-person immersive role-playing games, this is perhaps unsurprising.

“This happens in all games, and we push it more in Fallout, where you’re uncomfortable for a time. And then you get killed. And then you get comfortable, and you get used to that world. And that’s what happens to your character as well,” said Howard. “As long as [players] have the tools to deal with it, and they’re learning….we have enough avenues in our games where they can self-direct. That’s what’s great about games too, is they’re not just a linear ride.”

Pressed on how, exactly, the development team decides where to make cuts when building a game like Fallout 4, Howard suggested that Bethesda has struggled with trying to compare game systems and features to similar features in other games focused on those specific areas -- first-person shooting, for example. 

"I think we've had some really good successes with that balance, and some areas where we could do a lot better," Howard acknowledged. He also acknowledged that, even with an experienced team, Bethesda Game Studios gets quite hectic in the final stretch of a game's development -- for better and for worse.

"The last year of a project, call it crunch time or whatever, you’re spending a lot of time together. And I think this happens to everybody who spends a lot of time in theri games, the game itself becomes this...entity," said Howard. "Not like a child, but you talk about it like its a thing with its own personality, not a product. And if I cast back, I spent more time with Elder Scrolls and Fallout than anybody in my family, anybody in my life."

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