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Is This the End of Bethesda Game Studios As We Know It?

In September of 2020, a year ripe with other news to say the very least, news broke out in the gaming community of Microsoft acquiring Bethesda. The Burning Eye of Redmond plans to digest Bethesda into its XBox ecosystem. Reactions from the gaming community were split. Younger gamers shrugged, while older gamers showed a reaction almost like mourning, as if for an old friend. To be honest, Bethesda fell from grace a few years ago, but old school gamers held out hope that it would once again rise to its former glory.

Bethesda Game Studios and Softworks has been one of those companies that has written its own rules since forever. Who names their game studio after a pool in Jerusalem, site of a healing miracle performed by Jesus? Who drags Electronic Arts to court and gets them to settle? Who starts out in the Atari / Commodore era and stays relevant for four decades? Who hauls off and buys id Software and has a splash hit Doom release in 2020? The name’s Bethesda, and don’t you forget it!

Well, OK, the name Bethesda comes from their original home town… but still! What swingin’ ‘nads for a software studio, huh? Just maybe not so evident in recent years.

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The Elder Scrolls Era of Bethesda

Bethesda was largely off the radar while it tangled with John Madden Football and EA. But then The Elder Scrolls: Arena dropped in 1994. Even though the computer RPG (role-playing game) market was already well underway, The Elder Scrolls: Arena was in just the right place to jump on the bandwagon and expand on the concept. It was the first truly open-world game, where you could go anywhere and do just about anything.

The ES:A procedurally generated map felt HUGE! Like you could easily get lost in it. And it wasn’t just a collection of one-inn adventure towns, either, it had houses you could go in and loot, guilds to join, dungeons to brave, and on top of that a day/night cycle. ES:A sold poorly at first but became a sleeper cult hit through word of mouth alone.

You can still get The Elder Scrolls: Arena and play it on DOSBox, but honestly, it feels clunky and cumbersome in the modern day.

Fast forward: The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall was the first “true 3D” RPG, expanding on what worked in the first game, and now also freeware available to play on DOSBox. But good luck getting it running! The quirky and buggy dependencies are tricky to overcome. You have to manually set “disk space” in DOSBox, and jump through a few other hoops too.

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The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind in 2002 was the first console-ported release of the series and the biggest hit. While the world map was no longer procedurally generated, it was still massive, with enough deep lore to get you lost in the game’s sprawling universe. It has a loyal fandom to this day. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion likewise was well-received, although the infamous Bethesda release bugs were once again showing up.

By now we’re catching up to Skyrim, and you all probably know the rest of the story. Skyrim busted all previous constraints to the RPG genre, to the point of eliminating character classes altogether. The content of Skyrim drew gasping, awe-stricken praise. The technical issues drew the usual complaints, and “usual complaints” about release bugs are by now Bethesda’s standard forte. Bugs aside, to hear some critics tell it, Skyrim was a gaming landmark never matched before or since.

We gotta wind this blog post up sometime, and Bethesda obviously thought the same thing at one point. What do you do when you’re a game studio with exactly one hit franchise on your hands? It’s simple: You buy out another one.

The Fallout Era of Bethesda

Interplay is a bargain-basement publishing studio which is to the gaming industry what the guy with the weed is to the party: Essential to have, but nobody’s going to hang out with him longer than five minutes. Seriously, look at this catalog, they’ve been everywhere! You may not have heard of the Acorn Archimedes until today, but by Crom and Mitra Interplay released software for it.

And yet for all their wheeling and dealing, from all the platforms they’re released for, the single biggest financial win they’ve ever seen is when they sold their in-house developed Fallout franchise to Bethesda. Which wasn’t even Interplay’s original idea to start with…

Critics and players alike tout the dark humor, atmosphere, and style of the Fallout franchise. What modern audiences miss about Fallout‘s texture is how real Cold War paranoia was to the 1950s-1980s, and how spot-on the parody is with Baby Boomer aesthetics layered over a nuclear post-apocalypse. As we see from our own government’s way of handling a crisis, if anybody during the Cold War would have had a slightly more itchy trigger finger, it would have gone down exactly this way.

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There is a direct line of cultural descent stretching from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and the Fallout franchise. It was a franchise that could only have been made after the Cold War ended, because it’s no joke while it’s still happening. That would be like making a funny zombie plague movie in 2020. Oops…

Bethesda basically took the Fallout franchise’s theme and stuffed it into the gutted skeleton of an Elder Scrolls engine, end of story. But it worked! And it took a licking (and launch bugs) and kept on ticking from Fallout 3 right up until Fallout ’76 when everything went kerblewey.

I mean let’s face it, Bethesda, you had a nice run, it had to close out sometime. Nobody wins them all. The way other game companies play, they can take a loss or two to the belt and still survive. With Bethesda’s go-big-or-go-home style, it takes exactly one loss to leave them as nothing but a grease spot.

Yet your humble Penguin cannot help but fondly remember the Thanksgiving of 2015, when we had a houseful of kids and visiting relatives and friends dropping by. Somebody came in with Fallout Shelter on their Android, which everybody else in the house immediately downloaded. There we all sat contentedly flopped over couches and futons, playing away an entire Thanksgiving weekend instead of arguing politics. It was beautiful.

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That’s the kind of moment Bethesda is still capable of providing. Fallout Shelter is one of the most successful free games on IOS and Android even right now, having made millions of dollars in DLC… Oops, haha forgot paid extra content is a sore spot! Bethesda also pretty much invented predatory pay-to-win lootbox content, or at least made it a famous issue.

Still, imagine being Bethesda. You’re known for releasing gargantuan blockbusters, and then the last thing you did that was unanimously popular was a piddly little mobile game. How humbling.

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Bethesda’s New Adventure: Borg of Redmond

Which leaves us with a nagging question: What the devil is Microsoft up to buying Bethesda? Its XBox platform is really more of a publishing brand at this point. Microsoft has been snapping up game companies willy-nilly, including the juggernauts behind Minecraft. But still, Microsoft tends to think small and release small when it comes to games. Bethesda goes all-out betting on splashy releases ported all over the place. Microsoft plays it safe and whoops up a flight simulator like it’s the second coming of gaming. Together, Microsoft and Bethesda are a mismatched buddy cops movie, on a beat with no plot.

Hell, this acquisition means Microsoft owns the Wolfenstein and Doom and Quake franchises, by way of Bethesda’s acquisition of the open-source-friendly id Software. To say the least, companies acquired by Microsoft tend to stop being friendly to other platforms, even if Microsoft loses money that way. Microsoft has deep pockets, they’ll be able to lose money for a hundred years yet before they go down.

Bethesda was fallen on rocky times, to be honest. It’s an almost inevitable fate of all tech companies that when they are hobbling to their last lap, one of the big fish in Silicon Valley eats them.

Maybe Bethesda was never that great after all.

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