Weaver is still a 33 percent stockholder in ZeniMax, but the last Bethesda game he was credited on was Morrowind.
Meanwhile, Howard was conceptualizing Oblivion and said he wasn't affected by the legal proceedings going on in the parent company. "That's the whole corporate side that I fortunately don't have to deal with," he said. "I just focus on the games." And as Oblivion's Executive Producer and the one responsible for setting the franchise's course on next-gen console technology, he'd take Bethesda to even greater success.
An Excellent Day for an Exorcism
Shooting for next-gen made perfect sense for the company. First, it gave them extra development time: After Morrowind's numerous delays, four years of shop time all but guaranteed a punctual launch sometime around the Xbox 360's debut. (Ultimately, it didn't - Oblivion launched March 20, 2006; the 360 launched November 22, 2005.) Second, it let Howard focus on creating a true sequel as opposed to just releasing a $60 engine upgrade.
"You can't repeat yourself," he said. "I think it's a common trap when working on a sequel to just add some new features and content, and keep doing that. I think that's a good way to drive your games into the ground. You start drifting from what made the game special in the first place. So with The Elder Scrolls, I'm careful to not repeat what we've done before, and to really focus on trying to recapture again what made the games exciting in the first place.
"A good exercise is to read old game reviews, because you get a much better sense of what made an old game tick, without being distracted by its aging. I could read you an old Arena review and you'd be hard-pressed to tell which of our games it was describing."
His approach worked. Oblivion was the killer app that made the 360 a must-buy in its infancy, both because the game showed off how powerful the console was and because Howard and crew were able to re-imagine a franchise that now resides in that special corner of the gamer heart reserved for names like Zelda and Final Fantasy. Financially, Oblivion repeated Morrowind's success, and as of January 2007 has already sold 3 million copies worldwide, and a full-scale expansion is due out in the second quarter of '07.
They're also cleaning up in the micropayment arena. Bethesda was one of the first large companies to embrace the notion of providing additional content for small, one-time fees. But that road started out incredibly bumpy. The first content package they made available to the public was a set of horse armor at a $2.50 price point. The armor didn't provide any change to gameplay; it was merely an aesthetic addition intended to spice up a small part of the game. But many players vocally objected to both the content and the price, creating a firestorm on blogs and message boards. Since then, however, Bethesda has been releasing more gameplay-heavy content, which has sold incredibly well.
I asked Howard what he thought about the criticism, and why Bethesda stuck to the micropayment philosophy after getting tarred and feathered by the gaming community the first time. "That's what happens when you're the first to try something," he said. "We certainly took it on the chin for that in the press, but people are still buying that horse armor! I'm talking hundreds of thousands of people. But it was obvious to us that it was too expensive, so I'm happy we adjusted fast and got some better content out at better prices. I think we've found a good balance now. With things like Mehrune's Razor and Knights of the Nine [both downloadable quests], we've found that people really don't mind paying the money, because it's really not a lot of money, they just want something cool, no matter the cost, and well, armoring your horse just ain't that cool."