Interview: Bethesda Softworks' Pete Hines

During a recent preview event, I was able to sit down and take some time to chat with Bethesda Softworks' Pete Hines about a variety of topics related to the company and the industry. In addition to touching on the company's near future releases, the PlayStation 3 version of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and the PC and Xbox 360 releases of the expansion The Elder Scrolls IV: The Shivering Isles, we were able to have some discussion on Bethesda's attitude towards the Fallout license, some of the company's overall history and design goals, and how Hines views the current state of the industry.

Shack: What was the thinking behind taking Oblivion to PS3 after all this time?

Pete Hines: Our biggest thing is that we wanted to take this big huge open ended roleplaying game that has done so well on other platforms and bring that experience to a whole new audience. We've done some PlayStation products before on various platforms, but nothing of this sort. Nothing on this level.

Shack: Was any of that in-house development or was it publishing-related?

Pete Hines: Yeah, we've done some of our IHRA [drag racing] games through our office up in Hunt Valley. Some of those guys in Hunt Valley--actually, all of those guys--brought that PlayStation experience to working with PlayStation 3, so they were a big help. Anyway, most of the enhancements or tweaks [to the PS3 version] are things that we've done to the PC or 360 version in updates or patches, but there have been a number of things that we've done on PS3 to improve performance.

Shack: Can you speak on those at all?

Pete Hines: The main thing that we've done in terms of something that you'd actually notice is that we did a special shader. On the Xbox 360 version of the game--and the PC, but it's more noticeable on 360 because PC is more scalable--there's a thing where the lower-res textures designed to be seen at a great distance appear closer to the player and they're a little blurry and muddy and you notice that. You go from this point where it's really high-res and then it goes to really low-res. It has to do with the LOD and how high-res the textures are. So what we did is write a shader package that blends the high-res one with the low-res one, so there's no point while playing on the PS3 that you'll notice that effect anymore. It will look natural. It's not really something that's noticeable unless you've played the other versions; it's designed not to be noticeable, but to look realistic.

Shack: Can you offer any insight into how much of that was made possible by the PS3 hardware versus simply the additional development time?

Pete Hines: It was entirely due to extra development time. It's not like the PS3 can do this and the others can't, it's actually something we were considering doing for the other platforms as well. We specifically did it here because we had some time and one of our graphics programmers said he could do it. Things like that are in the PS3 version, but everything else is just things that make the game load faster and run faster, so it runs as well if not better than the PC or 360 version. That was our goal all along. We felt like we were going to take however long it took until the PS3 version looked and played as well as it could.

Shack: Originally Elder Scrolls was PC exclusive, then last generation it came to Xbox, and now it's on PS3. Is there any kind of larger direction behind that?

Pete Hines: Definitely. Our philosophy has always been that we don't believe in trying to design the game for a platform. Our philosophy is to [decide] what game we want to make, then determine which platforms can run that game. Last time around, we were just making [The Elder Scrolls III:] Morrowind for PC because that's all there was that could run the game we wanted to make. Then, halfway through development, we found out about the Xbox, and looked at the specs and said, "Hey, that could actually run Morrowind. We should do it for that platform."

This time around we did Oblivion and again we designed a game that's really going to push some limits and would do the things we thought next-gen consoles might be able to do. When 360 dev kits were available, we did it on them because it was available. It's not really going to run on a Wii for example, but if it could we would put it there. Our philosophy is to make a game and make it available to as many people as possible. We're not looking to limit who can play a game. We want to make something that's fun and we want as many people as possible to play it.

Shack: How do you respond to certain voices from the PC community who make claims such as that you're dumbing down games for the console platforms?

Pete Hines: Yeah, I can't really... It becomes an issue of "Yes you did, no you didn't." They say that we dumbed down our game, that it isn't as complex as Morrowind or that it isn't as good as [The Elder Scrolls II:] Daggerfall. I say, the same people that made Morrowind made Oblivion. There were maybe three or four people total that worked on Morrowind that didn't work on Oblivion. We had designers that had key roles in Daggerfall that designed those same systems for Oblivion. The same ones that people said we dumbed down from Daggerfall were the ones that those same guys made.

So, you know, folks are going to say what they're going to say and there's not much we can do about it. At the end of the day, this group of guys and women said, "This is the game that we want to make. This is what we want out of a roleplaying game and what it should look like and how it should play." That's what they went out and did. You can't please everybody. And we're not going to stop. I'm sure--sure--that we're going to do another Elder Scrolls game. It's doing far too well to stop now. I can also guarantee you that that game will not just be Oblivion retreaded. We believe in starting over and taking the best out of what we did, going back and looking at our old games. We had guys who went back to play Daggerfall and [The Elder Scrolls:] Arena to see what we did right there. We want to stay true to what we do but not just make the same game and add a feature. That doesn't move things forward.

Shack: I was reading that [executive producer] Todd Howard actually went back and read reviews of Arena from when it was released.

Pete Hines: Absolutely, and we do that with everything. We did it with Fallout. We try not to focus necessarily on the feature set but on the experience. If you ask somebody what they love about this game or that game, they're not going to say, "Oh I loved the interface, the buttons." They're going to talk about the experience, what it's like to play it, and that's what we want to focus on, focusing on giving people what they want to be doing in the moment and designing the rest of the game around that so it's fun to play. It's not that it has to include this, this, and this or it's not an Elder Scrolls game. It's never that easy, and you can't make a game that way. You ask twenty people what they love about a game, and it's different every time, so when you try to include everybody's favorite feature you just end up with a mess.

Turn the page to read about Bethesda's thoughts on the Fallout franchise.

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Shack: Speaking of Fallout, is it being handled by essentially the same team as the Elder Scrolls team?

Pete Hines: The answer to that really has to be yes, because we just have one team.

Shack: Right.

Pete Hines: Yeah, we don't say, "You're the Fallout team and you're the Elder Scrolls team." Even in terms of where people sit, we put programmers together and designers together and artists together. They may move from project to project. Some moved from Oblivion to Fallout, some moved from Oblivion to downloadable content to The Shivering Isles. It just depends what they're good at and what we need. But yeah, it's the same core group of people.

Shack: So you're pretty far into development, I'd think?

Pete Hines: We're a fairly good ways away. Projects reach different stages of development based on how many people are working on them. You can have eight people working on a project for a year and a half and still consider yourself in preproduction just because they spend so much time speccing out what they want to do and how it's going to be implemented. But yeah, we've got a full team working on it now. Of course, as we said with all of our stuff, we don't believe in showing it or even talking about it until we can say, "This is what we're going to do." That time is not that far off.

Shack: This year?

Pete Hines: Oh yeah, yeah. It actually shocked us how long ago it was that we announced that we got the rights to Fallout 3. It surprised all of us! We all said, "Really? That long ago?" [laughs] All we had really done back then was announced we acquired it. Nobody was working on that. We just had to put something out because Interplay is publicly traded.

Shack: Right, it'll show up on the financial records anyway.

Pete Hines: Yeah. But if it was up to us, in the corporate world, I still believe we would have kept that silent. As much fun as it is to hear people buzzing about it, I just think it would have been so much greater if we could have just come out and said, "We're doing it, here it is, here's what it looks like, here's what it plays like." I mean, talk about coming out of left field! [laughs] It's definitely had some advantages in that people know that we're doing it, but my preference would have been to just keep it quiet.

Shack: Well, you guys tend to work pretty quietly in general.

Pete Hines: Exactly, like with Oblivion nobody even really knew we were working on that until we said, "Here it is, here are the screens and the story and the setting and the characters."

Shack: You guys have your own trademark series so you're used to dealing with fan expectation, but is it different or intimidating working on a franchise like Fallout that already has such a built in reputation?

Pete Hines: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. For a couple of reasons. Number one is that we're treating it as if we made the first two, with the same care and attention we give to The Elder Scrolls, but the truth of the matter is that we haven't. As a result there's probably a lot more divergent opinion about what it should be, what we should do, are we the right guys to do it, and so on.

Shack: Is there any of that internally?

Pete Hines: Internally, not really. Internally, we're a bunch of Fallout geeks. There is nobody [here] who hasn't played that game and enjoyed it. I have that game on my laptop, I take it with me and play it. But it's definitely different, because it's not really considered ours, the franchise. We didn't start it. There is a little bit of that sentiment out there that we have to prove that we're worthy to be the guys to make Fallout 3. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, because we have very high expectations for ourselves. The standard that we hold ourselves to, the kind of games we expect to make in terms of quality, we have a very high level of expectation. There's really nothing like the people from the outside expecting more than we expect ourselves.

It's a lot like when we were doing Morrowind. Everybody said, "Well, the last game you did was Daggerfall, and it was really buggy, and everything you're telling me about Morrowind sounds good but you need to prove it." It kind of has that same feel, that people are saying, "Yeah, I liked Oblivion, and you guys are good at roleplaying, but you have to prove that you aren't going to screw up this beloved franchise." We think we can do it. We are the right guys to be doing this franchise, we do take it seriously, and we do want to make it a powerful force in roleplaying in terms of what these games can do and be. We hope that when we show people what we're up to, they'll agree. Some folks will, and some folks will say it's not what they wanted. At the end of the day, we respect that, but we have to do what we think is right. Again, you can't make the game that everybody wants because you'll get ten different answers about what that game is.

Shack: Have you spoken at all to the original creators of the franchise--who from what I know already had less complete involvement with Fallout 2 than with the first game--in any capacity?

Pete Hines: We have, on an individual basis. Some of those folks have contacted us on varying levels, whether it's a "Hey, good luck" or a job inquiry or what have you. Not really formally though, no. Again, it's one of those things where I have a lot of respect for those guys. I was a huge Black Isle fan, and all those RPGs coming out of Interplay at the time. I loved Baldur's Gate, Fallout. It was fantastic. Way back when, when I wrote for the Adrenaline Vault, Interplay was one of my companies. I used to cover all their stuff and play everything they put out. I still have my shrinkwrapped copies of Baldur's Gate and Planescape. They did great stuff for which I will always have tremendous respect. But at the same time, if we're going to move forward, we're really going to have to move forward. We can't just say, "Well, let's ask these guys what they think." As Fallout fans and guys who make roleplaying games and have for over a decade, we have pretty good ideas about what we want to do and how to do it.

Shack: Is there somebody at Bethesda who is really driving the vision of Fallout 3, like Todd Howard, or is it more a situation where it's the company vision?

Pete Hines: It's the vision of a group of folks. Much like The Elder Scrolls, it starts with Todd Howard who drives everything, but then there's definitely the lead designer, lead artist, lead programmer. More than anything, those team leads are the guys who champion for things, saying, "This is what it has to play like, this is what it has to look like, this is how the systems have to work." It's definitely a group of folks but at the end of the day it falls on Todd to set the pace and and how he thinks it should look and play.

Turn the page for thoughts on the PC video game market.

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Shack: These days, because it's so different than it was ten or even five years ago, what are Bethesda's thoughts on the PC market?

Pete Hines: I would say that for the most part it's a market that we intend to stay in, but it's no doubt that it is by far the most painful platform for us to develop for. [laughs] I mean we were talking about this before, it's a platform but it's not. It's an operating system, and what that operating system is going to contain is almost always different. What I'm playing it on is different from what you're playing it on and what he's playing it on, and making a game that runs perfectly on each of those configuration is impossible. That's not just us, that's everybody. I'm a Company of Heroes junkie; Kurt Kuhlmann--one of our designers--and I play every single day at lunch. We have problems getting it to run sometimes, just weird stuff--and if you go on their forums there are other problems, some of which I've never seen and some of which I have. It's so difficult to tie down what it's going to be with all the hardware.

There was a game reviewer who emailed us and said Oblivion was crashing every five minutes, and we got him in touch with QA and it turned out his printer had software attached to it that was running in the background and making Oblivion crash all the time. I mean, how can you--I promise, that has never happened to an Xbox 360 user in the history of 360s, that some printer driver would be doing this. [laughs] We certainly, for something like the Elder Scrolls or other franchises where it's appropriate, want to make games available on all the platforms where it's appropriate, but at the same time it's a pain in the ass. People just don't understand what a pain in the ass it is. All of these problems you don't have with a video game console.

Shack: Do you guys have any optimism or other thoughts on Microsoft's Games for Windows initiatives, or things like Vista and DX10? It's the first time in years anybody has really led the charge for PC development.

Pete Hines: I certainly think it's a good idea to be doing what they're doing, because it was abandoned, for lack of a better word. Nobody had taken ownership of it, and nobody can really drive gaming on a PC or Windows, or whatever we're going to call it, like Microsoft can. Video card manufacturers can't. That's why it's great for them to be doing it. Games for Windows is good, because the closer we can get to standardizing, maybe that will reduce some of the headaches on our end and more importantly on the user's end. If we can get to to a point where we're using a consistent format that gives everybody a better level of performance with fewer problems, I'm all for anything that does that. Whether or not DX10 and Vista is the answer, I don't know, but I do know that them putting effort there doesn't hurt. It's a step in the right direction.

Shack: So for the forseeable future, you guys are going to stick to PC?

Pete Hines: Absolutely. We'll continue to develop on PC for anything that's appropriate for PC.

Shack: As far as all the versions of Oblivion--PC, Xbox 360, PS3--is there going to be content parity across all three platforms once the PS3 version ships and the new expansion ships?

Pete Hines: No.

Shack: What specifically will be the differences?

Pete Hines: By the time Shivering Isles ships in March, PC and 360 will have Shivering Isles, but PS3 will not. We do plan to put out Shivering Isles for PS3, and we believe we can do it this year. We don't know when, and we don't know how, but other than that it's great. [laughs] That will be a difference, and honestly it wasn't even an option to try and make it available by the time the regular game was out. Otherwise, they should be pretty similar. The base games are the same. By the end of the year, you should pretty much have complete parity. The caveat is that on PS3, the downloadable content plans are still undefined. We're not sure yet how many we're going to offer, which ones we're going to offer.

Shack: So there will be no downloadable PS3 content at launch?

Pete Hines: I don't think so, no. Any one of those we could probably release [for PS3] and be okay, but we have to make sure everything's going to work together with memory requirements and other factors and so forth. It's just going to take us a little while to figure out.

Shack: Have you found Sony to be any more or less accomodating in comparison to Microsoft when it comes to downloadable content? It seems to be a really huge priority for Microsoft.

Pete Hines: Sony is no less accomodating, the only issue is that from Microsoft it seemed like a much bigger deal. You didn't hear about the 360 early on without hearing about Live and downloadable stuff. Part of that is that they already had it, with Live. Not that PS2 didn't have online functionality, but certainly not the same as Xbox. It was a much bigger selling point for the 360, a much bigger driving point in everything they did, even talking with us about Oblivion. We said, "Well here's what we're planning to do," then they'd come back and say, "This is how this is going to work, this is how that is going to work, and you should think about doing this." With Sony it's not exactly like that, it's different. Not... not better or worse, just different.

Turn the page for discussion of the upcoming expansion for Oblivion.

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Shack: What was the thinking behind making Shivering Isles downloadable only for 360?

Pete Hines: Honestly, that's our only choice at this point.

Shack: Your only choice logistically?

Pete Hines: Just in terms of how to make it available. The console does not allow for standalone expansions right now. You can't ship an expansion on a disc at retail. The console does not support it, there are other factors. We've had people email us saying that you can give away games for free in Official Xbox Magazine, and yes if we wanted to give away Shivering Isles for free it would be very easy. But we're not giving it away for free, and therein lies the problem. If you want to charge folks and have it be secure, the console doesn't support it yet. We've been talking to Microsoft about this for a long time, saying we'd like to make the expansion available at retail, but for the time being it is available only for download. We are hopeful that in the future it may be available as a separate thing or as part of something else.

Shack: Game of the Year Edition kind of thing?

Pete Hines: Right, right. But, I mean, [downloadable content pack] Knights of the Nine was a big success. It sold just as well as a download as we could have hoped it would have done if we had somehow been able to make it out at retail. So it's clear that selling stuff on Live, even if it's something that's going to be big like an expansion, is still viable. It's ingrained into people's minds. All the time, when I get on Live I jump onto Marketplace just to see what's new. It's such a part of what that machine is about that we don't see any issue with making it available this way.

There are so many folks playing Oblivion on Live. I think it's still in one of the top five games online, and it's not even multiplayer. It's just obscene. We released Knights, and that number shot through the roof, and we did that free giveaway for Mehrune's Razor and it went up even more. We did some little free downloads through Xbox Magazine and it went up again. People are just really into coming back and experiencing new stuff in this game. You can come now and do new things that you've never done before.

Shack: So this model has worked very well for you. Are you going to continue releasing content packs then?

Pete Hines: We may do one or two, but honestly the bulk of our focus has been on getting Oblivion PS3 ready, plus Shivering Isles is no small thing. We've spent a lot of time getting that ready to ship. That's been the majority of our focus. We may do one or two more things.

Shack: So no more standalone expansions.

Pete Hines: No, no. Well, right now we don't have any plans.

Shack: And the PC expansion is through retail?

Pete Hines: Yeah, just a standard retail expansion. No download.

Shack: If this is something you can comment on, how does Bethesda's relationship with ZeniMax Media work? You act very much like an independent developer in many ways, but are also a fully owned studio with a publishing arm.

Pete Hines: Sure. ZeniMax is really just a different parent company for Bethesda than the one we started with. Bethesda was always owned by somebody else. In 1999, right before I came on, just one parent company sold it to a different parent company. [Note: former Bethesda parent Media Technology Limited was acquired by ZeniMax Media.] ZeniMax is largely responsible for responding to our request to get Fallout. We had talked about wanting to do another project outside of The Elder Scrolls, and they asked what we would like to do. We said, "Well... We'd like to do Fallout." It was just sitting there, nobody was doing anything with it, and we said we could do a great Fallout games. They said okay and next thing we knew we had Fallout.

But by and large Bethesda is still Bethesda. For twenty years we've been a developer and publisher of video games, and that hasn't changed other than the size and the scope of what we're doing, having more than just The Elder Scrolls going on. Doing Fallout, and doing Rogue Warrior, and so on. It's expanded our scope and capabilities, but we're still basically a small independent developer and publisher.

Turn the page for Hines' final reflections on the industry and working at Bethesda.

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Shack: Do you see the in-house Bethesda Game Studios operations expanding at all?

Pete Hines: I don't know. I have to say, when I started we had maybe ten people. We had ten guys working on Morrowind total. [laughs]

Shack: That's almost unbelievable.

Pete Hines: Yeah, I could tell you all their names and where they sat. Now we have eighty-some people working on Elder Scrolls and Fallout. I don't know if we'd ever want to grow bigger to include a new team. I think if we did it we would probably build up a separate team as an autonomous thing, because--God--if we tried to get enough people to take on three projects and stay organized the way we are, it would probably start to get messy. But we're always looking to expand, for new outside developers to work with, for other IP we might want to work with. We haven't stopped growing and trying to expand the number of games we do, but we do it in a very controlled way. We don't want to do twenty games a year, we want to do big games that people stand up and notice. We're trying to do more of those in a smart way.

Shack: Yeah, that's a big step up though, from ten on Morrowind.

Pete Hines: When I got there we had our own warehouse downstairs. When we'd ship a game, we'd finish it and send the disc off for replication and order the boxes, then all that stuff would come downstairs to the basement. Then the devs used to actually go downstairs and work the assembly line, putting boxes into pallets and shrinkwrapping, and preparing for shipping. It was total mom and pop business, doing all the books and boxes. We went from that, to this. That's the sort of thing we think about, when we win stuff like the Spike TV awards, just a bunch of guys you've never heard of from Rockville, Maryland.

Shack: And hey, when you win our awards you know you're big time. [laughs]

Pete Hines: And Shacknews, man! We had a party that day! [laughs] But to come that far, with everything we've been through, staying small and doing everything we want to, it's pretty amazing. When you look at who we've outlived in the twenty years we've been in this business, it's staggering the number of companies that have come and gone, come and gone.

Shack: Sometimes it can seem like a bleak situation for independent developers. What do you think about today's market with respect to independent studios?

Pete Hines: Of course, we're slightly different because we're a publisher too. For a developer where you're just isolated to that part and just working on the one game, it's a hand-to-mouth thing.

Shack: Do you think that's a flawed model in this industry?

Pete Hines: Hmm... I don't know. You could pull five developers, and they'd all have different stories. You know, Valve seems to be doing just fine. [laughs]

Shack: Yeah, they're doing okay. [laughs]

Pete Hines: I don't worry for Valve. In my perfect world, talented people who make good games would have the ability and wherewithal to keep going and keep making good games. I know I have seen independent developers go away that I really liked and respected. Stuff that wasn't really mainstream, but that I played and really took to as different unique. In a perfect world, those guys would also find a way. But at the same time, there are a lot of people making a lot of games. For as much as guys like me complain about there being nothing new to play, there's a lot of stuff being put out on a weekly and monthly basis.

My hope is that those groups won't go away, and do interesting things that publishers pick up and people buy, but honestly at the end of the day there's no one part of the model that you can put your finger on and say, "That's where the problem is." I saw that story about the retailer that's not selling video games anymore, and while I'm not completely aware of everything there, I'm pretty well in tune with what's going on. Some of the stuff they said, maybe certain things were true for just one store, but you and I could name without breaking a sweat a dozen really good games that didn't sell well to anybody in the last year. Games that were good and didn't sell worth a damn. Whose fault is that? You can't blame developers or publishers for doing stuff that's repetitive or more of the same if people don't buy the games that break the mold. Honestly, I don't spend too much time worrying about the industry, it's enough to focus on what we're doing.

Shack: Is the industry--or video games in general--better off now than ten years ago?

Pete Hines: That's a good question, good question. I don't know. I mean, like you said on the PC side, there was so much more stuff out there, really weird stuff that you'd never seen before and never tried before. God, people were doing stuff. But I also know there are a lot of companies that were here ten years ago and aren't here now because those games didn't sell. Not enough people wanted to buy and play them.

I don't know. Some parts are probably better and some parts aren't, but honestly it's pretty much up in the air. Compare the handhelds now to ten years ago. Well, there was Nintendo, and now there's Nintendo. We're still waiting for somebody else. I mean I'm a PSP owner, and I like PSP games, but clearly there aren't as many of those out there. Is that platform going to stick around? Is it going to put up more of a fight against DS? PS3s are sitting on shelves. Are there going to be 100 million PS3s like there were PS2s? For this point in time versus ten years ago, it's a very different situation. There are a lot of question marks right now. I know I'm enjoying working in it though. It's fun for me.

Shack: Well that counts for something. Thanks for your time.

Pete Hines: Absolutely.