Analysis: Is Bethesda going the way of Telltale?
With the abysmal reception to Bethesda’s recent release, Fallout 76, many gamers including myself found themselves in a state of utter disappointment. Though the company has taken repeated criticisms for buggy games, an outdated engine, and a tendency to recycle assets, there has been no question as to the important and prestigious role Bethesda has played in the gaming community. But when Fallout 76 belly flopped from beta to release, even long-time Bethesda fans like myself felt alienated by the creative bankruptcy that masqueraded as a true Fallout experience. Here, I’d like to briefly explore why I think the game failed, including player expectations and developer vision, as well as how the game itself performs.
Initially, when Todd Howard paced on the E3 stage, unveiling the proper trailer for Fallout 76, he described this new game as a multiplayer experience that would perfectly suit the traditional single player fans. Howard also aggrandized the scale of this project, claiming that this game was the largest they had ever attempted, including the size of the teams across varying Bethesda studios. By all implications, Fallout 76 was the next generation of open world multiplayer.
Too many promises were made in the marketing of what many fans and game reviews sites believe is a disaster of a game. Howard and the team made it sound as though this was a game for everybody; Fallout 76 was exactly vague enough for you, the player, to project whatever you wanted to into the game. If you loved Fallout for the world-building and lore, you’ve got the right game. If you loved Fallout for the V.A.T.S. combat system in tough missions, scaling a wasteland, you’ve got the right game. If you prefer single player, we’ve got you covered too. Are you a newcomer to the Fallout series? Perfect. Are you a lifelong dedicated fan? Welcome back. And so on.
The reason that these promises were a problem is that Bethesda went out of their way to please everybody and, in doing so, pleased nobody. The creative vision for Fallout 76 isn’t a bad idea of its own merit. It’s the fact that, when promised, you have certain expectations of what a multiplayer incarnation of the Fallout universe looks like. It was never clear exactly what this game was until the first beta testers posted their reviews weeks ago. As many have said before me: In trying to be everything, it ended up being nothing – nothing substantial at least.
Let’s first take a look at reviews for this game. As of this writing, Metacritic weighs the PC version of this game at a 54, the Playstation 4 version at a 51, and the XBOX One version ranking in last at a 49. Keep in mind that these scores aggregate across multiple reviews, so there are many instances where reviewers outright refuse to keep playing the game because of how bad it currently is. Surely Bethesda is keeping a watchful eye on the critical reception to a game they have been developing for years. Surely the fact that Bethesda has not released a public statement in response to outcries from upset players does not bode well. It means they’re paying attention, but does it mean that they are going to learn the lessons that they need to survive as a AAA company?
Similarly, if Fallout 76 was selling well, we’d hear about it. If you consider the pitiful reviews to be a slap in the face, then the precipitous price drop that has followed the game’s release is a slit to the throat. The game released on November 14th, 2018 – a mere two weeks ago from when I’m writing this – and has already halved in price. That has never been a sign of a game selling well.
Maybe the severe drop in price is Bethesda’s attempt at quiet damage control, a way to encourage those on the fence (or reading poor reviews) to give the game a chance anyway. It certainly tempted me far more than the initial asking price of $60 (or $200 if you were bold enough to pre-order the “Power Armor” deluxe edition). But I started to doubt whether selfishly considering a price point was ignoring those dedicated players who sank their hard-earned money into a pre-order, believing in this game. Sure, that’s the risk of a pre-order, that the game won’t be good. But Bethesda has surely discouraged thousands of players from pre-ordering their games in the future.
Ultimately, there is a meta-problem at the heart of Fallout 76 that speaks to lack of internal accountability within the gaming industry at large right now. For whatever reason, companies now see it as passable to release an unpolished game. The initial horror story of No Man’s Sky comes to mind, where a developing team overpromised a game, oversold it, and paid a heavy price in terms of player reception. We’re now moving towards a gaming market where its expected, rather than the exception, for AAA developers to release massive game patches within days of official launch.
Fallout 76 released in a fundamentally incomplete state, riddled with bugs, glitches, and server drops. Granted, Bethesda released a patch almost immediately – a patch that didn’t do much to fix many of the game’s core problems. The simple fact is, this game was not ready for release – and yet they shipped it.
And then there’s the issue of gamers who are indignant that Bethesda has so far, refused the ability for them to return the game. Ostensibly, there is now class action law suit being filed by Migliaccio & Rathod, after a thread on /r/pcgamers received high praise from the community. I tend to be wary of litigious responses, and who knows how legitimate their legal claims are. I’m tempted to dismiss this story as a PR stunt, as serious as it may seem.
Bethesda has also failed its most dedicated gamers who invested $200 on the deluxe edition. The pre-order advertisement promised, amongst other things, a Fallout-branded canvas bag. When the pre-orders arrived, people opened the box to find…a cheap nylon bag. This alone is an unforgivable mistake. Bethesda’s response to outcries about false advertising was like watching wind blow on a fire. The only way I can respond to this is with dark humor, borrowed from this tweet: even the collector’s edition items have bugs.
One wonders whether or not Bethesda is tone deaf to its core fanbase, those select few who have been around from the times of Morrowind, the times of the first Fallout. The company doubles down on bewildering design projects – the Elder Scrolls: Blades comes to mind – and fails to truly change anything from game to game. Bethesda takes the mantra, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” too literally. But Fallout 76 is broken, and so is their game engine.
Bugs have crawled around inside Bethesda’s games for as long as I’ve been playing them. The frequently recycled Gamebryo (or “Creation,” as it is now called) engine bears no obvious signs of technical improvement in the two decades that it has been used. No one would question the difference between Oblivion and Fallout 4, in terms of graphics quality. But when lined up side-by-side, the game’s engine betrays the same muddy textures, broken lighting, stiffly awkward character interactions as those early games – a design echo that needs to fade out.
Bethesda games are loved in spite of these obvious flaws. But with the release of Fallout 76, things hit the breaking point. Gamers expressed indignation and ridicule at the fact that Fallout 76 plays worse than previous games – all server issues aside. From every side of the argument, I have seen gamers protest that Bethesda refuses to properly craft a new game engine, one equipped with the capacity to perform on next generation consoles. This is a serious worry for the future of Bethesda, as Todd Howard has already confirmed the future releases of the company will be built on the same engine. For players like myself whose jaws dropped at the breathtaking teaser trailers for both Starfield and the long awaited Elder Scrolls VI, those hopes have been dashed by the confirmation that Bethesda intends to stubbornly plant both feet in a camp of obsolescence.
This all brings us to a question that hasn’t left my mind since the initial Black Friday price drop on Fallout 76: is Bethesda going the same way as Telltale games? Bethesda has earned enough money to stay afloat right now and recover from this Fallout 76 disaster, but how will they quell the community’s newly founded distrust? Keeping in mind that Telltale squandered its massive success by overreaching their bounds. The sheer number of IPs that were gathered, licensed, and produced under the guise of profitability ran that company into the ground.
An important difference between the management structures of Bethesda and Telltale is the rate at which they publish games. Towards its downfall, it seemed as though new Telltale franchises were being acquired and released each week. Bethesda clearly has an antithetical model in that regard, as it feels like Bethesda hasn’t released anything in decades. That difference, vast as it may seem, betrays a similarly fatal flaw in the company: not knowing when to reevaluate. In the end, Telltale saw dollar signs before they saw game design, and it looks like Bethesda is no different.
The crucial similarity between Telltale and Bethesda is the innate “sameness” to each of their games. There isn’t a single Telltale game that doesn’t obviously feel like a Telltale game. Likewise, there isn’t a single Bethesda game that doesn’t obviously feel like a Bethesda game. Game studios often teeter somewhere between movie studio and entrepreneurial startup company, meaning games have to innovate to survive – yet there’s always a high pressure to keep their bottom line in tact. This often means reiterating off of successful IPs with sequels, spinoffs, and in this case, a multiplayer game. Game studios need to claim their identities or be relegated into obscurity.
It’s hard to imagine a future in which Bethesda doesn’t recover from the innumerable failures in Fallout 76. The game will be slowly patched up into something vaguely playable, leading players to find some diamonds in the dunghill. But will sheer time – especially in terms of the scarcity of Bethesda releases – be enough for fans to overlook what otherwise is just a broken, repackaged wasteland? And will gamers lose faith in the company after the dust settles? That remains to be seen. I don’t want to see Bethesda fail again. I hope they learn from their mistakes.