The Downfall of Bethesda Game Studios

The Downfall of Bethesda Game Studios

Bethesda Game Studios has made my favorite games. I can’t tell you how much I love Fallout 3. It changed my gaming world in 2008. And though it’s cool to hate on Fallout 3 and laud Fallout New Vegas as superior, I will always have a place in my heart for the destruction and debris, the subway tunnels and greenish-brown hills of the Capital Wasteland. But in the full decade since, Bethesda Game Studios has lost its way. The principles that created excellent choice-driven RPGs with an unparalleled sense of freedom have been abandoned piecemeal in each game released in lieu of scale and mechanics that are not fully fleshed out and instead detract from the core experience.

skyrim dragonSkyrim

The problems start in 2011’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a massive critical and cultural success. A game so popular it’s still getting ported to every device under the sun. Don’t get it twisted: I love Skyrim. A lot. I’m still playing the remastered Special Edition, my third copy of the game. It’s a comfort game that I turn to when I want to play something, but I can’t decide what. It’s familiar, I know it well. But Skyrim’s success and the design decisions made in its development have changed the philosophy of Bethesda Game Studios and have eventually led to the outright disaster that is Fallout 76.

Skyrim was a departure from the structure of Bethesda games. That might sound odd, don’t all Bethesda games look and play the same? No, not really. In Skyrim, Bethesda decided that no content should ever be locked away from the player. This is a choice that makes sense on the surface. The team works hard to painstakingly create a world from nothing, they spend time writing quests and characters, they obsess over small visual and auditory details. Why should they work so hard to create pieces of content the player might never access?

Yet in effect this means that the player can do everything, so individual choices don’t matter that much. Skyrim got rid of the skill tagging system from the previous Elder Scrolls and even Fallout 3 and New Vegas. In Skyrim a player can still specialize, but there isn’t much incentive to do so. Those skills still raise at the same pace as skills a player has never touched. Nothing de-incentivizes a player from maxing all the skills Skyrim has to offer. In fact in the late game, that’s the most efficient way to level up overall, without making skills Legendary and resetting them. After a while, all player characters in Skyrim feel the same. They can do everything well. This makes the player feel less unique, like building their own character isn’t important.

Loot Fatigue

There’s this level of same-iness that pervades Skyrim and modern Bethesda games. This can be seen in the dungeon philosophy that began with Skyrim. Every single cave, dungeon, outpost, each discoverable location is guaranteed to have a chest at the end. Again, makes sense on paper. You want to give players a reason and reward the player for adventuring through a location. In the past, Bethesda’s incentives were quests, and the intense allure of the unknown. In games prior to Skyrim you never knew what would be behind a door once you opened it. While with Skyrim you could take a pretty good guess. You’d work you way through, probably get to a draugr boss, then grab the chest of randomized loot.

While Bethesda did take criticism of TES IV: Oblivion’s cut-and-paste feeling dungeons seriously (and Skyrim’s locations layouts and details are generally more varied and interesting) dungeons are largely predictable and devoid of mystery. Discovering a location in Oblivion or Fallout 3 was genuinely exciting. You didn’t know what would be in a building out in the Capital Wasteland. A shack could have a new quest, an easter egg, a secret entrance to a vault, terminals or notes with lore or even an unmarked quest with hidden loot. Or even absolutely nothing, aside from slightly interactable set-dressing. There was a chance it was just a destroyed building to explore, perhaps with some skeletons laid out a certain way to tell a mini-story. It gave a sense of scale and reality to the world, like it was a place that existed and you were picking over the remains.

Whereas in Fallout 4 each building is guaranteed to have five stimpaks and at least a chest. It’s dull and repetitive and makes the experience more like a “game” and lessens that feeling of being an explorer. That feeling was always the best part of Bethesda RPGs. Feeling like you found something special, that maybe no one else had seen. Even if you knew it wasn’t true. Putting guaranteed chests in every building makes exploring this utilitarian system. You’re here for the loot, nothing else. Over and over.

What is “Dynamic?”

This repetitive issue makes the worlds, Bethesda’s strongest selling point, feel less real and less dynamic. “Dynamic” is one of Bethesda’s favorite marketing buzzwords, but with each release having “the most dynamic world” they’ve ever created is less and less true. Bethesda has been steadily paring back complexity in their games and their game worlds. This isn’t a cry that Bethesda Game Studios is dumbing down their games or making them more accessible and less “hardcore,” because that isn’t the problem. Each game world BGS makes is increasingly beautiful with more and more varied locations. But everything that fills up those worlds and locations is less and less engaging.

Think about Oblivion, and its “Radiant AI” system that attempted to give every single NPC a unique personality based on stats. Often it led NPCs to say silly, diametrically opposed things back to back, or other funny little interactions. But you can’t say it wasn’t a special system. NPCs had their own motivations and schedules. They wouldn’t just stand in one place and wait for the player to interact with them. If an NPC wasn’t in their house like you expected you could find them outside, carrying on with their day. They walked to the store. They conversed with each other in more than repeated scripted exchanges. The world felt alive, whether the player was there or not. It was so often a joy to see unfold.

Compare that to Fallout 4, where NPCs stand in the same 4×4 area they’re always in. Never saying or doing anything interesting. If it’s night they might be sleeping, but that’s it. The NPCs in Fo4, aside from the recruit-able companions, aren’t even up for conversations with the player in most cases. They don’t even have dialogue if the player wants to know more about them, or about their city, or some part of the world. Think about the Mayor of Diamond City. Once his part in the main quest is over, he just stands there in his office, forever. You can’t talk to him, he has nothing. He’s probably marked as essential so you can’t even kill him.

That’s basically the characterization of most NPCs in the game. In Fallout 4 the Charisma stat and any speech perks are next to useless, mainly allowing you to extort more caps from quest givers. But it’s not hard to make money at all in the game, so these speech checks have no point. This isn’t Fallout New Vegas where you can play the whole game without killing anyone using speech.

Bethesda’s most recent two games have been half-baked at best, with gameplay loops and systems totally gutted. And what’s the trade-off? The game worlds are bigger. So what? If the gameplay in those worlds isn’t fleshed out all the way, it doesn’t matter how big the world gets. Bethesda already learned this from their first Elder Scrolls. TES: Arena was absolutely massive. Where Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim focused on one part of the world of Tamriel, Arena included all of Tamriel. But it didn’t matter. The locations and game world were procedurally generated, so everything looked exactly the same. A bigger world does not equal a more engaging one.

An Unfinished $60 Prototypefallout 4 platinum trophy icon

Back to Fallout 4, a game I also spent a ton of time with (I have the Platinum Trophy on PS4). The game itself gives evidence, though it feels so much more apparent now, to the idea that Fallout 4 was just a prototype for Fallout 76. The simple, combat-focused quests and mechanics. The “it just works” building systems. Game director Todd Howard all but confirms this in the NoClip Making of Fallout 76 documentary, which you should watch if you haven’t. Basically, they considered including multiplayer in Fallout 4 early on in development, put it aside, yet couldn’t shake the idea out of their heads. The design of Fallout 4 reinforces this development.

This is why “radiant quests,” a feature from Skyrim where quests are randomly generated, are so prominent in Fo4. A settlement needs your help. While these quests were infrequent in Skyrim unless the player sought them out, usually provided by a faction, in Fallout 4 these boring, simple fetch or “kill x” quests are required to progress in the game. Not only that, the game actively harasses the player to complete them even when they are not required. The game does this so much, and starts so early on in the game that Bethesda devoted an entire character to the task of never leaving you alone, spamming you with the same quests, never, ever stopping. Preston Garvey became a meme the moment the game released.

Fallout 4 leaves such a terrible first impression, bombarding the player with the worst content the game has to offer almost immediately. The game’s other quests, the ones actually written by real people (supposedly), aren’t much better. All quests in Fallout 4 require the player to go to a location and clear it of enemies. Sometimes you need to find an item conveniently located in or near the end of a dungeon, near the loot chest. Gone are quests with branching paths and choices. Gone are meaningful skill and speech checks that made characters, quests, and choices matter. In Fallout 4, every player does almost every quest the exact same way. It just depends which weapon they used.

Do you know how hard it is to find the interesting quests in Fallout 4? There are only a handful, and they are hidden so deeply in strange locations that average players probably won’t end up finding them unless they discover every location on the very large map. Quests with funny stories, or objectives that involve more than finding an item or clearing a dungeon are so few and far between. The Far Harbor expansion did add some quests with a few different paths and outcomes, but the base game sorely misses any kind of quest variety.

Futile Factions

This unfinished, or rushed even, feeling extends from the quests to the game’s factions. I, and many others, thought the game’s four differing routes would be a return of the choice and morality of Fallout New Vegas’s main quest paths and faction system. There your allegiances impacted quest options, perhaps sealing off entire questlines, and affected who might attack you out in the Mojave Wasteland. But no. In Fo4, the factions are all mostly identical, giving you virtually the same radiant quests. And because Bethesda no longer wants any content to be locked out, you can work with all of the factions until the end, where the game hits you over the head with the fact that the choice is final this time. No subtlety at all.

It’s so dumb, there’s one quest before that choice where all of the factions have a “massive” battle in one location. They all think you’re on their side, it doesn’t matter who you kill. They all forgive you immediately under the pretense that the battle was too chaotic to know what was going on. Otherwise the player character can just stand there as all the NPCs fight it out. They’ll never touch you. It doesn’t even matter, all those four paths play out the same way (spoiler warning I guess): you have to nuke all the other factions. It’s an illusion of choice, and it’s lazy.

“How do we want the game to end?”

“The player just has to kill everyone that isn’t their faction!”

“For each questline?”


“Ship it, we’re done here.”

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Fallout 4 continues this annoying trend where every faction makes you their leader when you finish their questline. Even when it makes no sense. Why is a grimy post-apocalyptic wandered allowed to be the head of the super high-tech, sterile Institute? Maybe that’s a role that should at least require a maxed-out Science skill. But no, they’ll take any chump to lead them into the future apparently. Even none of the Institute scientist NPCs buy it it’s so stupid. In the Elder Scrolls it’s silly that one person can be the Arch Mage at the college of mages, the leader of the Thieves Guild, a werewolf Companion, and the leader of the Dark Brotherhood assassins. And also the Dragonborn. And maybe a vampire too. It’s all too convenient. It’s supposed to be roleplaying, not jack-of-all-trades-playing.

This all might seem like I hate Fallout 4. But I truly don’t. I really enjoyed the time I spent with the game. But in the years since release, the more I think about the game, the more I don’t like about it. I even got pretty involved into the settlement building mechanics. I mean it was mostly to get the settlement happiness trophy, but still. It was a good, relaxing time building a compound to store power armor on Spectacle Island.

Fallout 4 had to date Bethesda’s best world to explore. The map was varied: downtown Boston felt like an actual city, there were beaches, swamp lands, small towns. The mystery of the severely underutilized Glow. (Seriously I bet there’s a ton of cut content from the Glow). And don’t get me started on Nuka-World. I love Nuka-Cola, and its real-world counterpart almost as much as Sierra Petrovita. It was exactly the kind of area I wanted to explore in an expansion, even if the main scenarios also fell flat and didn’t feel fleshed-out.

Fallout 4 building interiors were distinct and interesting to comb through, though like I said chest placement was always a little obvious. Fallout’s retro-future art style blossomed in this next-gen iteration. There were plenty of surprises too if you looked hard enough. Truly, exploration was what kept me going though Fallout 4.

A Bugs Life

But things get worse. Fallout 76 is bad. Really bad. Worse than I was afraid of during the E3 announcement. Keep in mind I have not (and in all likelihood will not) play(ed) the game. I’m basing my impressions from watching game footage as well as news stories about the game. There’s many grains of salt, so don’t take my word for it. I’ve yet to see one positive review. Aside from people tweeting they’re enjoying the game. Which is fine, if they like it that’s their business.

Fallout 76 is a broken mess. Not even on a technical level, which it clearly is and in theory could be improved. But Fallout 76 is also a broken mess from a basic design standpoint. The very foundation of the gameplay just doesn’t work. It’s a failed experiment where the mechanics don’t mesh well together at all, and in order for them to work, they would either need to be scrapped or heavily changed. Right now, I just don’t see that happening.

Let’s start with those technical issues, and the perception of bugs and glitches in Bethesda Game Studio projects. Bethesda games have always been buggy. I know it, you know it, Bethesda knows it. The bugs have ranged from small things like clipping, NPCs and enemies launching straight into the air for no reason, dragons flying backwards. It’s impossible to list them all. Then there’s incompletable quests, horrific crashes. My sister got stuck in the water purifier in Fallout 3 and couldn’t get out. It was her first Bethesda game, she didn’t have a recent save. She hasn’t gone back to Fo3 since.

I’ve been fortunate. The most I’ve dealt with are quest items getting stuck in my inventory, and small things like that. And I will maintain and defend that Fallout 4 is Bethesda’s least-buggy game. Other than some frame dips in downtown Boston, that game is as stable as a table for me.

At some point the perception of Bethesda bugs got flipped. Before the bugs and instability was just something everyone put up with because the games were that good. Skyrim, one of the most popular games of all-time, doesn’t take much to break completely. But we all dealt with it because we understood the unique complexity, and the world and stories, the exploration and adventure that the game offered. At the same time, as discussed above, Bethesda games are getting less complex, without adding enough fresh ideas, all the while are generally not more polished than their predecessors. There’s the joke that Fallout 4 is more like Fallout 3.5. That’s the perception of that game, even if I think that does a disservice to Fallout 3. Clearly I think Fallout 4 is a step back on the whole than anything else.

Modern Bethesda has flipped the perception. Now they seem to have this “Hey, people love our bugs and technical problems!” attitude. No, guys. You’re misunderstanding your audience. We loved your games and put up with your bugs and technical problems. There’s a huge difference. If a game isn’t compelling to play in the first place and has systems that clash with each other, why would anyone put up with crashing constantly, enemies ice skating around in T-poses, and character models stuck in power armor?

What Even is Fallout 76?

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Bethesda insisted that you can play the game solo. And that’s technically true. Except you’ll see other people. Whether they’re doing the same quest as you, looting the same containers, or just walking around, you’ll see other players. You can see all 23 players on your map. And the map is big enough, four times as large as Fallout 4, that it’s entirely possible you won’t run in to anyone else. Fallout 76 doesn’t offer any real reason for you to interact with each other. All loot is individualized, so you’re not fighting with other people over resources.

You might essentially team up and complete public events that spawn, but that’s about it. You can emote and wave at each other, and there’s proximity chat, and you can trade. So if you’re playing solo, your experience is boiled down to just seeing other players. Why does this game need to be online? If the servers aren’t working and you have no intention of using any multiplayer features, it sucks to be you, you can’t play either.

Bethesda insists that the game is multiplayer. But again, there’s no real reason to play with others. Sure, teaming up with friends will make taking down bullet sponge enemies easier, and you can share some resources. But there’s odd decisions like every member of your party has to damage an enemy in order to get XP. So you might be competing with your buds to get kills. You can build with your team, but anything you build will only be saved to whoever’s C.A.M.P. you were working with. That friend isn’t online? You’re on your own, you don’t have your base anymore.

The game’s player-versus-player system is laughable. It’s especially funny when it was the main thing I was worried about before launch. What if you’re walking along, exploring, and some high level jerk snipes you from far away? Well, don’t worry about that. Fallout 76’s PvP is gentlemanly. If you attack someone, it does no damage. If they return fire, only then can you hurt each other. Killing someone isn’t even worth it. You don’t get their gear, only their scrap building materials.

That person can also spawn stupidly close to their corpse and get their junk back as well. So death isn’t punished. You only lose building materials. When you kill someone, you get a bounty on your head. There’s a cash reward for killing you. But you get nothing. Don’t want to fight someone that shot you? Too bad, they can follow you around taking potshots for no damage while you’re trying to play the game.

Bethesda says it’s a survival game, where you have to manage your resources in order to stay alive. But it isn’t that either. There’s a hunger and a thirst meter. That’s it. You have to regularly drink, otherwise starvation and dehydration lower your Action Points (in this game that’s basically just stamina). They don’t even kill you. The survival mode in New Vegas, and it’s subpar counterpart in Fo4, was more fleshed out. Half-baked singleplayer, half-baked multiplayer, half-baked survival. By trying to do everything, Fallout 76 doesn’t do anything decently.

Crawl Out Through the Fallout

Bethesda Game Studios has been attempting to do damage control for Fallout 76 from the moment they announced the game last summer. They swore up and down that it’s a real Fallout game, only online with other players. But by trying to conform the mechanics of Bethesda Fallouts into an always-online context, nothing works. It may look like a Fallout at first glance, but it sure as hell isn’t a good Fallout.

V.A.T.S., the system meant to evoke the turn-based nature of classic Fallout’s combat that allows you to target enemies and their specific body parts, previously either stopped or slowed down time so a player could target. Bethesda didn’t want to exclude this iconic Fallout mechanic, so they forced it into a multiplayer game that cannot pause or slow down. So V.A.T.S. happens in real time. And when it works, it’s similar to an aimbot ala Soldier (oops) 76 from Overwatch. But it’s almost always jarring instead, especially because the percentages to hit specific body parts can rapidly roll as you and your enemy moves. It’s just easier to shoot manually. It’s a bastardization of V.A.T.S. that doesn’t work. It shouldn’t have been included in this form.

There’s the same problem with the Pip-Boy, the game’s inventory, stats, quest, notes, and everything else UI. In modern Fallouts, pulling up your wrist-attached computer pauses time as the interface fills your entire screen. It’s back in 76, but surprise, it can’t pause the world. So you might be trying to use items to heal or buff while you’re getting mauled by mirelurks. Or even more likely, trying to drop items so you’re not over-encumbered to let you actually run away from whatever is ripping you to pieces.fallout standby

Oh yeah, almost forgot. There are no NPCs. None, not even one. Quests and dialogue are all delivered through recordings or robots or terminal text. If you’re playing with other people, they’re going to be talking over that audio and interrupting your reading, intentionally or not. That’s just an unavoidable fact. The average player skipped most holotapes and terminal entries in the older games anyway. To base the whole “story” around them would be futile in a singleplayer game. Un-pausable online multiplayer? It doesn’t have a prayer of being effective.

Often the game tries to trick you into thinking you might run into an actual alive non-playable character, but it never happens. All the stories you get to experience in the game have already happened. You’re too late, you don’t get to see things unfold. (Spoiler, all the stories end with the characters in the tapes or diaries dying. Big shocker.) You don’t get to have fun and be part of any narrative. The idea is that you will make stories with other people. But that ain’t happening either. Your stories will be “the game crashed,” “my gun stopped shooting,” “I fell through the environment,” “I killed stuff with my friends.”

Instead of working on solutions that would work in an online game, they tried to shoehorn the old UIs, systems, and mechanics into a game where they can’t fit. Defines square peg in a round hole. And Fallout 76 is some kind of hole.

A Really Unfinished $60 Prototype

Fallout 76 is not a completed game. Bethesda Game Studios is marketing and selling it like a completed game. They are charging full price for an unfinished game and have the gall to also sell dumb astronomically expensive cosmetics before their game is finished. Absolutely nothing changed from Fallout 76’s glorified paid demo B.E.T.A. where Bethesda told players to break the game. But players didn’t have to do anything at all. Game’s already busted, dudes.

What’s more shocking is that somehow players were supposed to know that the game wasn’t ready for primetime. Fallout 76 launched, again for full price, but is actually in early access. Could have fooled me, what with the surely expensive live-action trailers Bethesda paid to have air during Sunday Night Football. Advertising an unfinished product to a national audience is downright scummy.

Danny O’Dwyer of NoClip (who made that Fo76 documentary) thought it was clear the game was going to be “a basic foundation” and not “a curated BGS game.” Really? Where the hell has Bethesda Game Studios said that? Everyone thought it was a finished product, and everything from the price to the marketing, and unfortunately even his documentary, supported that. It was clear they were going to try to add to the game. But it’s even more clear that the game should have been in early access. And in no way is it worth 60 whole American dollars.

The Nuclear Option

Bethesda Game Studios has sublimated all of the goodwill they accrued by making excellent RPGs with compelling worlds, characters, and quests. They moved away from that philosophy, and moved away from what their audience wants. It’s more than the people who would never accept multiplayer in their famously singleplayer hardcore games. Because those people would always exist. But Fallout 76 is barely a game, let alone a good game. It’s the culmination of design choices that BGS has been making since Skyrim, and a twisting of what made their games so engaging in the first place.

Fallout 76 has to be bottom. I sincerely hope it is. Because I don’t want this Bethesda. The Bethesda that falsely advertises an unfinished game. Falsely advertises the content of a collector’s edition. If Bethesda can turn around 76 and make it playable, with actual and varied content  (like HelloGames’s and No Man’s Sky’s two year post-launch development), it would be a tremendous undertaking even for a studio of their ever-growing size.

Both will be a long ways off, but I’m deathly worried about whatever Starfield is, and about The Elder Scrolls VI. Bethesda has gone from a studio whose releases I would buy no matter what, because I knew I would love them, to an embarrassing mess with no regard for their audience. And it feels like it all happened in a flash of light.

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