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

In this Gamasutra interview, Pete Hines, VP of PR and Marketing for Bethesda and product manager for Fallout 3, discusses the strategies that the company has developed for maintaining retailer and gamer interest in its titles.

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.


It's an interesting evolution, because as Bethesda Game Studios specifically, you've traditionally operated with what some see as a more antiquated development model -- spend three or four years developing a game, ship that big thing, get started on something else. How much have you had to adapt your methods to adjust the way you think about development?

PH: It doesn't change how we think about it. We have always been really good at what you're talking about, which is managing the game's life cycle -- what are you doing with the game three months out, six months out, one year out, two years out?

I think it's actually something we do better than most publishers, if not all publishers. I say that because -- well, what does your average big publisher put out a year? Thirty games? Forty games? Whatever the hell the number is.

They're doing that every year. They have these large number of titles and they just don't think about them like we do, whereas we do something like Oblivion or Morrowind. We're still selling Morrowind on a monthly basis. We still have it out there. Oblivion is still doing terrific for us.

We don't give up on our stuff, ever. There is always a market and a niche and people out there who are willing to buy it. DLC is just another component of that. We make games that have legs and that stick around and that people will continue to be vested in and play for a long time.

This is just another way to reach out to those folks to say, "If you really like this, here are some more things that you might like." It's the lifecycle of the product as a thing you sell, as well as the game as a thing you play. It allows people to keep coming back to it.

I have people who ping me about this -- I was just talking to a press guy who said, "I just had a friend start playing Oblivion. He had never played it and now he's really into it." That guy's going to go out and start buying downloadable content. He's probably going to go buy the much-maligned horse armor.

There are people who are coming into our products years and years after folks like you or your readers have moved past them. There are people who are experiencing it for the first time.

That DLC stuff is great because it's still there and available and working with them, and for them that content is still a new experience, both from a product standpoint as well as within the game itself.

Particularly lately, Valve has spoken a great deal about that model -- the idea of a game as a living service. It's probably not a coincidence that you and Valve are among the more successful independent developers, while sharing that mentality.

PH: Well, honestly, those guys are masters of it. I wouldn't ever try and compare us and them. What they've done with Steam is just wholly remarkable. And when Steam first came out, they took what was the equivalent of their horse armor lumps and then some. [laughter]

I remember just how much shit they got over it. But they stuck to it and it's great. It's now the gold standard of delivery online of new games and previously released ones -- it is fantastic. That's just owing to those guys having a vision. This is what the industry wants and this is how it needs to work. They refined it and made it better.

We released Fallout 3 on Steam and it's done terrific for us. It's really easy to work with and it reaches a core audience. Guys who are really into Steam are really into games in general and like them and buy them and play them. They've gotten it 100% right in terms of how to use that kind of delivery mechanism to extend their product.

When you describe the idea of a game selling for even up to six years in the case of Morrowind, that reminds me very much of the '90s-era PC model, with huge, intricate games that would have an active scene for years and years, even before there was much web coverage -- and obviously, that's exactly the time and place The Elder Scrolls was born. Now you're doing that in a multiplatform environment, even though that isn't actually how most multiplatform games are sold these days. Did you just keep operating that way because that's what you do?

PH: Absolutely. More than anything, it's just focus. When you've got 50 titles in a year, you just don't focus on those 50. When you're going to a retailer, just one of the 50 you released last year is not what you're talking to that guy.

We don't have those 50, and it's by choice. We could find a bunch of crap to put out if we just wanted to fill a pipeline or hit a number, but we just have a very different approach strategically.

When you have that approach, one of the benefits is focus. You go back into a retailer in 2009 and you're still able to say, "Hey, by the way, this game is still selling great. Have you looked at our inventory levels lately? You're selling it well enough that you guys need to think about reordering, and we have some ideas to keep selling it, because there are people out there who still want it."

We're getting ready to do something else with Oblivion this year, because it is still selling and retailers still like it. If we weren't talking about that game, they'd only be focused on the [newer] things. But we stay on top it. I think that owes to our sales guys who stay on top of it and don't want to let it just die.

It's not, "Oh, it's two years old, it's not going to sell any more." That's not true. It will. If you pay attention to it and keep taking care of it, it's still got a home, it can still do something.

When you say you're thinking about doing something with Oblivion, what does that mean?

PH: Oh, I'll let you know. [laughter]


Beyond Bethesda Game Studios, Bethesda Softworks as a publisher works with other developers, so you don't actually just have two or three games across six years when dealing with retailers. Do you get a lot of pitches from prospective studio partners, or do you seek them out?

PH: It's both. It's really just finding folks we think are doing the kinds of stuff that we want to work with them on. We don't necessarily focus on genres -- "We need two third-person shooters for 2010." It's just, "What are you doing and does that fit with the kind of games we like to make? How are you pushing the boundaries and what kind of new things are you trying?"

It's getting a sense of how passionate are they about what they're doing. Do you get a sense that when you're hearing them talk about what they're doing, that they're genuinely excited?

Because you'd be surprised -- not everybody is like that. I meet with a lot of developers. I end up getting pulled into a lot of meetings where there are the guys making it, but it's not their passion.

They're doing it because it's a project they picked up to pay the bills. But when you meet the guys where you see the talent and you see the passion, they're the ones I get excited about working with. I know how much they're driven to succeed and make a great game.

I talk to a lot of developers, and they're used to going to other publishers. They'll start coming up with the features for the back of box -- "What about multiplayer? How does that sound?"

I have a very different approach, which is, "I just need to you sell one copy of the game. I just need you to sell me on wanting to play it. If you do that, I'll sell all the other copies. Don't worry about it."

Should we do multiplayer? Well, I don't know. Is it going to be any good? If it's not, don't bother. I'm not looking for features just so they can be bullets on a box. Then they say, "Everybody else tells us if it doesn't have multiplayer, it's not saleable." Well, if it's multiplayer and it sucks, what is it you're trying to do? What is it you want to be good at?

Don't worry about ticking off boxes on a feature list. What are you passionate about? What can you do that'll be great? Get all the other crap out of the way. Don't add features if it's not core to what you're about.

That's the approach we try and take with our own stuff, and that's the approach we take with what other people are doing: figure out what you really want to do and what you can do great, and do that.


2K Games/Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

We make single-player role-playing games. That is not something where you would inherently say, "Oh, yeah, those guys are just made to be successful with that genre." But we execute it to a point where people go, "Shit! Have you played that? Oh, my God."

I believe that philosophy can be applied to any game if it's good enough, and if the people who are putting together are talented enough.

On that note, it was interesting to see you sign up Splash Damage. That company also comes out of that early hardcore PC tradition, but the 100% opposite end of it. It's so far from what Bethesda makes.

PH: Right. I agree with that. But look at those guys and where they came from. It's a bunch of guys who got their start doing PC mods, and just grew and kept doing stuff people would notice. Time after time, people would say, "This is really well done, this is really good."

We took a look at some of the stuff that they're working on and said, "These guys have that passion. They're crazily fanatical about what it is they want to do. They'll make it great and move mountains to make it happen."

You can look at what they're doing, and say, "By God, I think they can pull it off. We should be talking to them and working with them on this." And we are.

So they're sticking to the multiplayer thing, then.

PH: Yeah, I don't think we want to get into yet exactly what it is they're doing, but obviously they've done shooters and they've done multiplayer. So we're not having them do a Barbie horse-riding game.

Well, you should have them do that.

PH: I pitched them on it, but they were lukewarm. Square peg, round hole.

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