Bethesda Game Studios shipped more than 12 million copies of the post-apocalypse video game Fallout 4 during the holiday season — a stellar achievement. But Fallout Shelter, the mobile game released last June during a fan event at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, managed to hit more than 12 million downloads in a day, according to Todd Howard, creative director at Bethesda, in an interview with GamesBeat.
That’s an astonishing result, and it presents high-end game studios, known as Triple-A game makers, with a quandary. Should they continue to work on titles like Fallout 4, which took a team of 100 people more than four years to develop before it launched last November? That game just earned a Game of the Year award at the DICE Awards, the Oscars of gaming, and it generated an estimated $750 million in sales.
Or should they pour more resources into mobile games, which can generate $500 million to $1.5 billion per year if they break into the top-three grossing list, as Fallout Shelter did for a brief time during the summer. Fallout Shelter was designed to draw attention to Fallout 4, but it wasn’t made to last. Its success surprised everyone, including Bethesda.
Howard and I talked about this — and other topics like diversity and open worlds — at the DICE Summit, the elite game industry event, last week in Las Vegas. Bethesda is well aware of the trade-offs between investing in Triple-A games on the consoles and PC and the emerging opportunities in mobile.
If anyone can figure it out, Howard should be able to. In a few weeks, Howard will receive the lifetime achievement award at the Game Developers Choice Awards in San Francisco. Howard dropped a hint that the studio is now working on three different projects, including something unexpected.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: You brought up the mobile game. That’s always been interesting to me because we cover more of the different parts of the industry than just hardcore games. How did you guys think about that and conceive it? It was something so different for your company.
Todd Howard: We’ve had a number of ideas over many years. We play games on these smartphones all the time. Often we’ll try to find a way to translate the main games to that kind of a device, but with this one, it was doing something more unique. It was a design we had sitting around, and so we said, “Well, let’s just do it.”
Syncing it up with the announce of Fallout 4 started to become — put Fallout on those devices so people are excited about the IP. But the popularity of it never, in our wildest imagination — the number I just heard recently was four billion sessions. That’s mind-blowing. And to have it hit as high on the charts as it did. It all caught us off guard. We’ve been playing catch-up ever since. It wasn’t intended to be a big business for us, but it’s quickly turned into that.
GamesBeat: And that’s what led to the mobile studio?
Howard: We had mobile development then. The studio in Montreal was partly mobile. These were people who’d worked on Shelter before, so it’s partly mobile and partly higher-end, about half and half.
GamesBeat: I look at things like Clash of Clans that made more than a billion dollars last year. These figures for Shelter may not be impressive compared to what you do with the core games, but it seems like there’s an opportunity to do mobile games in ways that could make you more money than Fallout 4 ever could.
Howard: Maybe? I don’t think about that, to be honest. I like it more from being able to do stuff that’s of a smaller scale but still feels quality. And getting more stuff out. When you do a game that takes three or four years, it’s a long cycle. You could get a college degree in that time. Mobile has a shorter cycle.
GamesBeat: So that’s more alluring, getting more at-bats?
Howard: That’s a good way of putting it. Shelter clearly wasn’t a money play. It ended up that way, but it clearly wasn’t to start. That definitely helped it.
GamesBeat: You don’t have the evil kind of free-to-play.
Howard: The monetization — we had a lot of people telling us to do it this way or that way, and none of it felt right. So we came up with a scheme that felt right. That has served us pretty well.
GamesBeat: Now that it’s become a more interesting option going forward….
Howard: It has, yes. We’re going to do more stuff. For now, we’re supporting Shelter. We have some cool ideas and more updates coming. When you have that many people playing it — we’ve found that updating it frequently is the key, over anything else. Having the updates be meaty and come in as often as possible is the number one thing.
GamesBeat: Were people second-guessing you on that, saying you should have done that from the start?
Howard: Sure. That’s easy to say. It’s not even second-guessing. “You should have known it would be that popular.” Really? If your expectation is it’ll be number one….
GamesBeat: No other core game on mobile has been that successful.
Howard: I just don’t think that can be your entry point goal. That should be a surprise.
GamesBeat: If you circle back, is there a way to tie mobile and other platforms together in the future? Ubisoft has done things like companion apps.
Howard: The Pip-Boy app, that’s another thing we did. That’s our second-screen experience. It works remarkably well. The mini-games are on there. I think that works for Fallout in particular because of the Pip-Boy, but honestly I don’t see a lot of allure in them personally.
GamesBeat: You also don’t want to get distracted from the bigger projects.
Howard: That’s the risk. There was a period last year where I definitely felt like I had three or four full-time jobs. We managed our way out of that. But it’s definitely a risk. You want it to be a fun thing. We have a good team on it now. Now that we have some traction, that’s going to be a little bit easier for us.
GamesBeat: Diversity has been this big push ever since Gamergate and all that. When you said that you guys have all worked together for a long time, a decade or two decades, and you know each other so well, you can get things done. That seems like a great positive as far as how teams work, keeping teams together for a long time. But it also sounds like it could be hard to diversify your staff because you need people who’ve had this history and who’ve been doing this a long time, who probably aren’t as diverse as might be ideal? How do you diversify while this kind of team is what you want?
Howard: We have a good bit of diversity on the team, except in programming, which I’d say is the case across the tech industry. Women coding talent — that’s a deeper problem, not just in the game industry. Encouraging that in universities and schools and things like that.
But the other part of what you ask is, how do we grow? We have more things in development at Bethesda Game Studios now than we’ve ever had. Part of that is, we started to realize that because we have this huge layer of experience, we have the ability to start doing more things. So that’s what we do. We’re expanding more than we have. The Montreal studio is part of that. We’re much larger now than we were last year, and we’ll be bigger next year.
Some people will feel more separate as a team. But it’s one big studio. We’re doing it through expansion. Where we can find good talent, whoever they are — fitting in with us just has to do with what’s important to you. It’s that type of personality that we look for.
GamesBeat: You guys have had this great success. I wonder, though, if there’s an endgame that’s foreseeable for open-world gameplay. Will you have to create ants for the next world?
Howard: I don’t know. A lot of people have asked that. What’s good about the style of game we do, nothing is off the table. Any idea you have — “You could do this in the world!” — because of its nature, there’s still so much you can do. For us, I don’t think so. If these games go out of favor they’ll go out of favor, but we’ll still be making them. We were doing it when it wasn’t in favor.
GamesBeat: What about the question of something happening on its own versus making something happen in the world? Do you eventually want to get to a world that’s completely emergent?
Howard: “Completely” is the wrong word. More like “better,” if the player appreciates it. If they don’t appreciate that that’s why something happens, it didn’t matter. But if they can understand it and use it in some way — “Oh, these creatures do this, so I could do this”– if they can work it out in their head, that’s the most important thing.
GamesBeat: What about on the story side? It seemed like this time, there was a lot more emotional impact that was clearly set up at the very beginning of the game — the separation of the man, woman, and child. Can you run with that still, telling a story with a lot of emotional impact in an open world?
Howard: I think we can. We had a lot of successes in Fallout 4. But there are also areas where we think, “Oh, with this story beat, we could have done these five things and it would have been even better.” So I’m bullish on that. We can do it better still.
GamesBeat: How do you feel about winning the lifetime achievement award at the upcoming Game Developers Choice Awards?
Howard: It’s very humbling. And it makes you reflect way more than you were ready to. It has sunk in. It is an incredible honor for me and the whole team. I don’t know if it means you have done great, or, please stop.