Creating the Son of Perdition
Without Chris Weaver, Trip Hawkins wouldn’t be the antichrist. Think of Weaver as an antichrist enabler, the man behind the harbinger of sorrow.
It’s all rooted in football. Bethesda Softworks, the company Weaver founded in 1986, released their first game, Gridiron, in the same year. Gridiron was the first “modern” sports game: Where previous games relied on statistics to determine the outcome of plays on the field, Bethesda based their game in real-world physics, meaning the ball and the players interacted with each other and affected their environment, rather than just acting out a deterministic drama on a pixelated field. And Hawkins took notice.
“Electronic Arts was so impressed with Gridiron,” Weaver told me, “that they hired us to develop the first John Madden Football. I like to think a piece of Gridiron still lives in JMF even today.” The Madden series has enjoyed stratospheric success and is one of the strongest legs on which EA stands. Without Bethesda’s physics-based approach, Madden may have instead gone the way of John Elway’s Quarterback. It’s hard to fathom where Electronic Arts would be, but Hawkins probably wouldn’t be known as The Deceiver.
But, even in 1986, Weaver was used to having good ideas. Before founding Bethesda, Weaver spent his time at MIT working on “speech parsers, graphic interface and synthesized worlds – what people now call virtual reality. In 2007 this may sound familiar to what some cutting edge people are doing, but this was the 1970s, so it was bleeding edge stuff.” From there, he went onto news broadcast directing at both NBC and ABC, and he eventually found his way to Washington as the chief engineer to the House Subcommittee on Communications. Then, after another stint in VR, he founded Media Technologies, Bethesda’s parent company until 2002. He finally created Bethesda to see if the PC market was a viable place to develop games.
After an initial few years of rule by committee, Weaver decided “Bethesda had to follow a single person’s vision. So, for 18 years, from 1981 through 1999, all the money that was invested in the company was my own. It allowed us the freedom to do what we wanted and to become a boutique house that kept rewriting rules and inventing new things.” New things, like making a physics engine that would go on to make EA, well, EA.
Since Gridiron, Bethesda’s gone on to create over 50 games, the majority of which were published in-house. But what’s made them a household name is The Elder Scrolls series, which got its start way back in 1994.
The Blood with the Most Power
When Weaver set out to design Arena, the first The Elder Scrolls installment, in 1992, Bethesda had been primarily working the sports game angle: In the six years since Gridiron debuted, six of the 10 games they developed were sports sims, and the other four were adaptations from other media. And throughout the company’s life, TES has been their only ongoing in-house, non-sports or original franchise. If Weaver had a baby, Arena was it, and it showed.
The game was a wild success, despite harsh reviews, and it wasn’t long before Bethesda was on the grow. Enter: Todd Howard, Executive Producer on Oblivion and Fallout 3.
“My first assignments were testing the CD-ROM version of Arena, and producing NCAA Basketball: Road to the Final Four 2, a game that was being developed externally and had been left for dead.” Howard quickly made his way up the corporate ladder, and was a producer/designer on the third game he worked on, called Terminator: Future Shock. He also did some work on the second full installment to The Elder Scrolls series, Daggerfall.
Of the four games in the series, Daggerfall (1996) was by far the most ambitious. They took the notion of “open-ended” to an extreme; the landmass was twice the size of Great Britain and contained over 15,000 towns with a total population of 750,000. Fans of Arena gobbled Daggerfall up. Well, the ones who could get it to run. Daggerfall‘s fatal flaws were in the details. Notoriously buggy, some people weren’t able to get the game to even load on their computers, and despite commercial success, the game still bears the mark of bad code.
In ’97 and ’98, Bethesda released two TES expansions based on Daggerfall‘s code, neither of which enjoyed the success of Daggerfall and Arena. Both games were smaller than Daggerfall, and once-bitten players more than likely didn’t help the expansions’ case. The downturn in sales wasn’t limited just to The Elder Scrolls franchise, and the company flirted with bankruptcy as a result. I asked Howard if he was ever worried. “Oh, sure. Over my 13 years here, that’s a long time, you’re going to have bumps. The years immediately following Daggerfall were probably the worst. We made some bad decisions and some bad games.”
In 1999, ZeniMax, a media/videogame holding company founded by Chris Weaver and Robert Altman, acquired Media Technology (founded by Weaver), which owned Bethesda. The new company, helmed by Weaver and Altman, was a who’s who list of entertainment moguls. Robert Trump (of Trump Management) and Harry Sloan (MGM) are on the board, and the company is advised by Jon Feltheimer (Lion’s Gate Entertainment), among others. If Bethesda was drowning, ZeniMax was a million-dollar lifesaver.
The buyout got Microsoft’s attention, and the third chapter in The Elder Scrolls story, Morrowind, was slated as dual release on the PC and Microsoft’s new console, the Xbox. It sold 4 million copies and along with Halo made the Xbox a viable alternative to the PS2.
Morrowind, like Daggerfall, engendered two expansions, Bloodmoon and Tribunal, but this time they sold wildly, catapulting Bethesda to premier status and allowing them to focus more intently on their own properties. Fans, and Microsoft, were interested in another sequel immediately after Morrowind‘s release, but Howard was able to leverage the company’s newfound status to decide when and how the next game would be released. Howard and Bethesda set to work on the fourth installment, Oblivion, immediately.
Let Him that Hath Understanding…
As Howard began work on Oblivion in 2002, Weaver found himself embattled against his business partners at ZeniMax. According to a legal opinion based on the case, Weaver filed a lawsuit against the company, alleging he was “constructively terminated” (meaning he like other industry luminaries, was being ousted by his new business partners after giving them access to his brand) and was owed $1.2 million in severance pay when ZeniMax didn’t renew his employment contract.
In 2001, the company closed the research and development branch, which Weaver, as the CTO, would have been heading up. After that, the company tried to restrict him from teaching at MIT, something he believed his employment agreement provided for. When he looked up his agreement, he also found the agreements of Robert Altman (functioning as the company’s CEO) and Ernest Del (ZeniMax’s President). In Altman’s agreement, Weaver found discrepancies from his own; Weaver, in court, said Altman’s agreement had “lots of perks,” all of which were approved by Del.
After discovering this, Weaver used his access to the company’s computers to go through emails of the other employees, looking for more information, which presumably led him to file suit against ZeniMax. When his actions came to light in a discovery hearing, the case was thrown out of court. As of right now, Weaver is engaged in another suit against the company and declined to comment on the specifics of either suit. Robert Altman remarked after the first case, “Bethesda Softworks was a financially bankrupt business which ZeniMax Media acquired, recapitalized and turned around. I regret that [Weaver] is unhappy.”
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.”
In addition to extending the franchise he inherited from Weaver, Howard and Bethesda are taking on another franchise, one with more baggage than a five-time divorcee: Fallout.
Originally created by Tim Cain, Leonard Boyarsky and Jason Anderson of Interplay, Fallout is an open-ended, comedic game set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. You’re sent out of your bomb shelter by your community to find clean water. Once the shelter’s giant lead doors slam shut behind you, the grim world of barter towns, bandits, PIPBoy 2000 and radioactive scorpions invite you into any number of adventures.
Praised by fans for its dry-as-a-bone, dark-as-night humor and the huge scope of the world, Fallout has been on a nigh-Biblical journey. The original game was the only one to have its creators’ names on it, and each progressive version, from Fallout 2 to Brotherhood of Steel, has gotten progressively worse. Cain, Boyarsky and Anderson couldn’t get the rights to the franchise from Interplay, and their work on a spiritual successor was cut short when their new company, Troika, went bankrupt. But Bethesda, with their deep pockets and street cred to match, was able to capitalize on Interplay’s financial trouble in 2004 and acquired the Fallout license.
But even though Bethesda has the chops to make an open-ended RPG dripping with carve-your-own-path potential, history has proven that it’s not easy capturing Fallout‘s humor and charm. Howard, a guy who’s done a good job picking up on The Elder Scrolls‘ nuances, isn’t too worried.
“Like I was talking about before, with sequels, you have to define the experience the first one had and stay true to it,” he said. “I think the first Fallout‘s tone is brilliant, but then they start to drift in the sequel and subsequent games. When it comes to humor, I’m very anti ‘jokes’ in games. Most designers try too hard to tell a joke, and it just doesn’t work. I think good humor for Fallout is dry, almost satirical. Like getting your leg blown off, blood starts spraying all over the place and you get the little [PIPBoy] interface image giving you the thumbs up – I find that funny. Horrible situations juxtaposed against cartoon mascots. But that’s just me.
“We’re headed in the right direction. I want us to be seen as the developers that keep that old school game experience at heart, but keeps pushing it forward, that tries new things. If you see ‘Bethesda Game Studios’ on the box, you know there are some crazy ideas in there. We won’t always get it right, but we’ll always keep trying.”
Sounds like he’s got it. And Bethesda, from their auspicious beginnings as the purveyors of the Son of the Morning Star to their franchise built on the backs of sports games, gets it, too.
Joe Blancato is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. He quotes Wayne’s World and Dr. Strangelove more often than what can be considered normal.