At the start of each new year, many people often take the time to reflect on the past years of their lives. Gaming has been a hobby of mine since I was barely a toddler, but as the years go on, I start to feel myself growing more and more distant from gaming. While time is obviously a constraint, I find that what stops me from being excited and caught up with new releases is my interest in what's being offered. I guess it's kind of like a restaurant that you used to frequent a lot, but it suddenly gets a new manager and changes for the worse in every way, and you just can't bring yourself to eat there anymore.
I liken that to what's been going on in gaming for the past several years, which can be largely attributed to gaming companies tailoring games less towards fun for the consumer and more in favor of exploiting business models for profit. I can't say it doesn't make sense; the gaming industry is, after all, businesses trying to make money from video games.
The focus now is different, though, and this is exemplified almost perfectly in Bethesda Softworks, hereby referred to as the herald of the gaming apocalypse. At this point, arguments slamming Bethesda for the disaster that is Fallout 76 is just beating a dead mole rat, so I'm going to go back and highlight how their past, present, and most likely future signify an inevitable but massive shift in the gaming industry and why that shift has no room whatsoever for today's Bethesda.
Later renamed Caller's Bane after threats of a lawsuit emerged from Bethesda, Scrolls was looking to be a solid entry into strategy and card-based games. Unsurprisingly, the decision to take up issue with the use of the word "scrolls" in the title took away from development and marketing resources.
Bethesda's come-up can be quickly summarized by comparing them to the average schoolyard bully. They had a reason to turn out the way they did: they were just trying to do right and make some money until the world wronged them. 'The world' in this case being Electronic Arts (EA), who they had started under when they began their foray into gaming and while they've accrued many accolades since then, one of their lesser-known achievements is from making the first physics-based sports simulation Gridiron! in 1986 for the Atari and Commodore consoles.
Due to this, EA had hired Bethesda to help develop John Madden Football while also obtaining distribution rights for future Gridiron! releases. Around a year later, when EA didn't distribute the game to any new consoles and their concerns of EA stealing ideas for their own game came to a boil, a lawsuit came up that was later resolved out of court. This sets the precedent for Bethesda and marks the start of a vicious pattern that would stain their reputation years later.
Many don't follow legal battles in the gaming industry and for good reason. They're rarely interesting and don't make either party look good. But since Bethesda's inception, they've seemingly tended to use the courts for their own gain. Perhaps their lawsuit against EA over 30 years ago was justified, but their threats to sue over vague copyright infringement claims against companies like Mojang and even an individual fan who was making original Fallout-inspired work are excessive. Many indie studios and ventures have had to alter their games and marketing immensely simply for including the words "fallout", "scrolls", and even "prey".
A company that frequently prides itself on creating immersive and open game worlds ironically closes the gaming world off to many would-be developers with threats of legal action. Not to mention that it raises some questions as to how Bethesda can afford to take so many parties to court at all, such as media giant Warner Bros. Entertainment over their Westworld mobile title (that was also settled out of court recently).
The canvas bag false advertising turned out to be one of the most despicable and controversial moments resulting from Fallout 76's release. The bait-and-switch spurred outrage from tens of thousands of buyers and led to the support ticket incident that revealed personal and financial information of thousands of customers.
One of the things people often forget about Bethesda is that they make mistakes and they make them often. One might argue that no other game developer has released so many games with as many problems as Bethesda's flagship games have, or that no one else would have gotten away with it. What we do know, however, we can compile from all their previous releases.
One of Bethesda's most notable and consistent slip-ups comes from marketing and advertising. Across nearly every collector's edition for a game released by Bethesda, they oversell the contents or, as seen again with the Fallout 76 canvas bag debacle, pull an outright bait-and-switch on customers. For the latest two games in The Elder Scrolls franchise, both were advertised by Bethesda as including a "premium quality" map made of burlap, giving the map a distinctively leathery feel and certainly not one of paper. While Skyrim included it at no extra cost with the base game with a pre-order, the Oblivion collector's edition was notably marked up in price and the map was paper then as well. Both times, however, they were marketed in Bethesda promotional materials as being anything but paper.
Once again, this established a pattern. This time, it meant Bethesda would knowingly falsely advertise a product in order to improve sales. They have demonstrated consistently across their releases that they take up no issue with compromising product quality to improve their profits. The thing is, no one would mind if they were honest about it. The part that upsets people who spend money on these marked-up bundles is that they've historically not gotten what they paid for.
This coupled with the nigh unplayable states their games have tended to launch in have never really boded well for them. We saw Todd Howard confidently make jokes about their buggy games when they announced Fallout 76 (coincidentally their buggiest game) but it's only funny when we can look back and laugh, not look at what we just spent considerable money on only to receive it in a broken state. Imagine talking to an old friend who is laughing about how mean and rude they used to be, at the same time that they're talking over you and simultaneously slapping you in the face.
One point of major contention in Fallout 76 lies in the Atom Shop which features, for the most part, alternate textures and reused assets from Fallout 4. A particularly ironic moment came from Bethesda's reaction to the canvas bag outrage, where 500 Atoms were gifted to players to quell their anger. The kicker is that 500 Atoms is not enough to buy the very same bag in-game from the Atom shop.
The final piece of the puzzle is what Bethesda helped to popularize in gaming: disrespecting consumers. They weren't the first to do it, obviously. EA has been doing it for decades, but they were punished for it while Bethesda was paid for it solely from how they went about it. The horse armor meme stemming from Oblivion was such because it was inconceivable for a developer to actually charge money for something as useless as horse armor. The workshop DLC released for Fallout 4 (which many also considered false advertising when the season pass was announced) was another exploitative move on Bethesda's part.
The worst microtransaction offense, however, goes to Fallout 76's Atom shop by a wide margin, though. Though many will try to rationalize it by saying the game is multiplayer and can reasonably have a microtransaction store, the fact is that many of the assets being charged for in the store are reused and would traditionally have been free in any previous Fallout game. Let's not forget that Fallout Shelter is entirely a single-player experience and relies on in-game purchases to progress and collect.
It unfortunately only gets worse. While Bethesda games are known for having a massive modding community, Bethesda as an entity is known for mistreating said community at every turn. Shortly after Skyrim was released in 2011, Bethesda worked something out with Steam so that modders could charge for modded content they had made for the game in the Steam Workshop. The problem was that they committed no oversight resources to it when Bethesda was expected to fix bugs (not happening) and ensure compatibility between the base game and mods if there was a price tag associated. Within a few days, Steam removed the system entirely because of how disastrous it already appeared to be in that short time. This is what is commonly known as paid mods 1.0.
Paid mods 2.0, or the Creation Club as Bethesda calls it, was a similar ethical dilemma, as it once again relied on exploiting the modding community's charitable nature. One of the main issues that arose from the Creation Club and continues to be an issue today is that any additions to the Creation Club involve a game version update. Anyone who has modded a Bethesda game knows how problematic this is, as each game version update, even if it doesn't change any in-game files, renders many mods and plug-ins completely inert. Each download batch forces players to download all the new Creation Club content as well, even if they have no intentions of buying anything.
Accompanying the Creation Club was the modding platform on Bethesda's official website, which easily could have opened Bethesda up to some of the largest legal complications they would have ever faced if mod developers had thought to copyright their content. The website offered no authenticity check when it launched so many plagiarized content off of popular modding host Nexus Mods, causing many notable mod authors to leave the scene entirely after seeing Bethesda issue no response to the plagiarism taking place on their platform.
This finally brings us to the culmination of these patterns Bethesda has demonstrated over the years: they are morally bankrupt and have been pushing boundaries for years to see what they could get away with legally and financially.
They are still using a decade-old version of the GameBryo engine to make their games in 2019 and beyond. Code and assets from previous games have been shown to be copy and pasted for Fallout 76, including bugs originating in said older games. Bethesda seems relatively unfazed by mounting class action lawsuits and possible trade and privacy law violations with their infamous canvas bag crisis and support ticket slip-up, respectively. A popular idea is that their money is actually just going to their legal team and it's starting to sound more appropriate every day. Simply put, a well-funded and properly managed company would not be making this many mistakes, especially at this magnitude.
The point is that while every market changes and adapts as people do, the gaming industry as it stands now is poised to fall flat on its face in the coming years. There are many examples demonstrating why this could be, but Bethesda is the perfect one because of where they came from and where they're going. The once beloved and widely cherished creators behind The Elder Scrolls are now seeing backlash enough that many fans who years ago would have been ecstatic for The Elder Scrolls VI news now only want to hear that it's been delayed or is being developed by someone else. Recent news pushes this further, as Bethesda proudly admits the same version of the Creation Engine is being used to develop The Elder Scrolls VI, a supposedly next-generation title.
Sales figures from the top 10 highest grossing games of 2018 show indirectly that simply making a good game is enough. With Nintendo dominating annual sales figures and top-quality Sony exclusives taking a solid second place, the market is showing a shift away from games that are designed to exploit towards the games of old that were made solely so people could have fun playing them.
From where we're kneeling, this must seem like an 18-carat run of bad luck, but the truth is the game was rigged from the start. At least we can look forward to The Outer Worlds later this year.