LOS ANGELES — Bethesda Softworks got the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) off to a rousing start on Sunday evening with a huge fan and press event at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood. At the famous venue for the Oscars, the publisher unveiled the new Doom, Fallout 4, Battlecry, Dishonored 2, and a big surprise with the Fallout Shelter mobile game,
Each new demo brought roars of applause from the fans, who were included as a big part of Bethesda’s first-ever E3 event. Pete Hines, the vice president of PR and marketing, was the emcee and helped orchestrate a lot of the strategy behind the revelations of the games. He said the team debated hotly how and when to make big revelations about its upcoming titles.
That strategy included a decision to launch Fallout Shelter on iOS at the close of the event. That launch got so much attention and generated a lot of spending by hardcore Fallout fans. And that pushed the game into the No. 3 top-grossing mobile game, edging out mobile juggernaut Candy Crush Saga.
I caught up with Hines for an interview on the Bethesda booth at E3, and he answered my all-important question about whether the dog is playable in Fallout 4. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: Deciding that you had enough to do an event like that and making it so fan-focused is interesting. Keeping the secrets until your hour of choosing is interesting as well.
Pete Hines: Shelter, having that be a surprise, we were pretty amazed we could keep that under wraps. Although if you’re going to keep a secret, Apple is a pretty good partner. Those guys are the kings of secrets.
GamesBeat: Fallout 4 would have been a super-big thing to drop on everyone. You guys choose to do it at the beginning.
Hines: We had a couple of thoughts on that. We debated back and forth for a very long time. Part of it was, if we do a showcase like this and Fallout 4 is there, all we’ve managed to do is meet what people expect. They expected Fallout 4 to be there and it was. My thinking was, let’s announce we’re doing a showcase and everyone will assume we’ll have Fallout 4 there. Then, by announcing it beforehand, we’ve managed to surprise them. We gave them an announcement they weren’t ready for.
You get some anticipation going into the show. We teased Doom. Now we’ve teased or announced our two bookend things. You have the id fans and Doom fans looking forward to the showcase, all the Fallout folks, and hopefully we can over-deliver on what they expect to see. We wanted to stay a step ahead of expectations.
Having Fallout Shelter—they were expecting a lot of stuff, but they’re not expecting us to have an app and have it available right now. We debated that. There’s a reason people do soft launches, to get to a larger audience and make sure everything holds up. There’s a risk in not doing that. But the fun of saying it’s available right now—that was too good to pass up.
We decided to stay a step or two ahead of folks and do stuff where we pushed ourselves. If the DOOM single-player part we started with is eight minutes, how good is it if it’s seven? How about if it’s six? How do we keep it shorter and tighter, keep things moving?
GamesBeat: You whet the appetite of fans, but you get them immediate gratification, too.
Hines: We were talking about that this morning. Nobody else has announced an app at E3. We were the only ones.
GamesBeat: It was smart of Yu Suzuki to launch a Kickstarter here.
Hines: Talk about something nobody suspected. I certainly wouldn’t have expected that.
GamesBeat: There’s just a lot of interesting game marketing lessons here.
Hines: I do think that over the years, we’ve continued to refine and define the Bethesda way of doing things. A big part of that is the tone of our show, talking in plain language like I’m talking to you with a larger audience. You don’t have to change the way you talk about what you’re doing just because there’s more people. We can still be who we are and not get all buzzword-ey and jargon-ey. We can get right to the games as much as we can. You want to give a little setup, a little context, but let’s get to the games.
GamesBeat: Some people thought the leak was planned as well.
Hines: After it happened we thought about what to do. Either we could pretend it didn’t happen—it actually had nothing to do with us, believe it or not. That was somebody else checking to make sure that their live stream was going to work, turning it on at their end unbeknownst to us, right in the middle of our rehearsal. We were as surprised as anyone to find out we were streaming live. There are three people in the company who know how to log in to Twitch and all three of them were sitting in chairs in the theater when it happened.
GamesBeat: Who would have been watching?
Hines: On Twitch, if you subscribe to somebody’s stream, you get an email. “Bethesda is streaming on Twitch.” A bunch of people ran to see.
GamesBeat: Fallout 4 was interesting because it’s shipping so soon compared to when you announced it. That time seems to be stretching out for a lot of games.
Hines: I jokingly have what I refer to as the rule of one E3, which isn’t really a joke. It has proven time and again to be a good rule. Any game should be at one and only one E3. More than that and you’re trying to talk about the game for too long. You’re trying to keep people’s attention for too long. It’s more time than you can maintain momentum, more time than you can fill with content. You’ll be sorry.
In the case of Fallout 4, we felt the demand was so high that we’d be better served going shorter and having less time to fill, playing on the idea of immediacy. Again, that was part of the Shelter thing. We tend to lean toward shorter rather than longer campaigns, although DOOM is at the opposite end of that spectrum. id was talking about that title at QuakeCon seven years ago, before we even acquired them. It’s still being talked about. That’s a mistake I don’t want to repeat. I’d rather compress the time from “This thing exists!” to “Now you can play it!”
GamesBeat: It was interesting that your event wasn’t a press event, but a fan event.
Hines: It’s an everybody thing. It was for press. It was for retail. But we didn’t want to exclude the fans.
GamesBeat: It coincides with E3 letting in more fans.
Hines: I was surprised by that, but it was always our intention, even when we conceived it originally. We should allow some of our fans to come and be part of it. It was a pretty big room, so I don’t even know if we’d get enough people to fill it anyway.
I also like the idea of—this isn’t as true for you, but a lot of organizations or retailers—You have an event at a theater, and you only have a couple of people from that place available to see it. I’d like everyone to be able to see what we’re doing, whether they’re fans or press or retailers. Nobody gets excluded. Everyone gets to see what we have to see and what we have to show. That’s an important part of what we did.
GamesBeat: The Pip-Boy, where did that come from?
Hines: The Pip-Boy has been part of all of the Fallout games. We actually did a Pip-Boy for Fallout 3. It was like a clock. But years ago, Todd was like, “No, we’ll do a real Pip-Boy this time. You’re going to be able to put your phone in it. It’s a real thing you can wear on your wrist.” He was adamant about that right after Fallout 3. It was always something he really wanted to do. It’s going to be awesome.
GamesBeat: It seems like your version of an Amiibo or Skylander.
Hines: Right? I feel a little bad. Half of my Twitter feed is people in a panic. Amazon is sold out. We have a licensed store we do through Treehouse or ThinkGeek or whatever the hell that family tree looks like now. I guess GameStop owns them now. They were going to sell some of these. They brought in extra servers to handle the capacity. As soon as they put it up the store crashed anyway. Clearly we came up with something pretty popular. It’s fun to see that.
GamesBeat: Was John Carmack any part of this engine, or any more than previous engines?
Hines: Truthfully, yes. John was at id so long that his work is in there. But a lot of this was born when he left. The tech team reevaluated—what are we building on? What are we using? Does this help us making the best games faster? Does it give our developers tools? Are we in the business of making technology or making games? A lot of what’s in id Tech 6 is a shift toward an engine that allows for more flexibility, with an eye toward the games.
GamesBeat: Was it just the levels or my imagination? It seems a lot lighter.
Hines: A lot more lighting, a lot more stuff that we didn’t—megatextures doesn’t allow for dynamic lighting. That’s the opposite of how megatextures work. It’s all baked-in stuff. Part of id Tech 6 is allowing for dynamic lighting, smoke and particle effects, a lot of stuff that just wasn’t part of the picture in previous versions.
GamesBeat: The style of Doom was just a dark world, though.
Hines: DOOM 3 certainly was. It was a lot closer to survival horror. It was a very dark game. They wanted to move away from that with DOOM and go back to its roots. The foundry has a lot of bright areas to it. There are darker parts to the game, but yeah, they didn’t want it to be seen as a horror game. That’s not how they view DOOM. They want it to be a visceral action game.
GamesBeat: What did you think of people wanting to play the dog?
Hines: It’s pretty funny. I enjoyed that today. But we’re not going to do it. We’re stopping at the humans. Men and women only. But people were expressing relief and joy at the fact that Todd said Dogmeat cannot die in the game. As dog owners, we all just could not handle that. He is unkillable in the game. It would be heartbreaking.
He was actually in the office, the original Dogmeat, the model we used. He belongs to one of the members of the dev team. You can’t help but be super excited when you see actual Dogmeat walking in the office. He got petted more that day than in the entire rest of his life.
GamesBeat: Battlecry, any thoughts on how that’s progressing?
Hines: It’s coming along. The testing in Australia has gone really well. They’re scaling up the size of the texting and trying different areas. Part the challenge is testing character progression from level one to three, and then from three to five, five to seven, making sure the game is balanced the whole way through.
One thing they’ve focused on is decreasing the size of the maps. They felt like the space was too big, too wide. They’re also putting more emphasis on a 6v6 mode, similar to what people are playing outside, where you have smaller-scale skirmishes as opposed to much larger ones. I’m glad that Australia and New Zealand testing is going well. We’re on track to get to a wider global beta later this year to let everyone else jump in and try it out.
GamesBeat: There’s an interesting competition to make this sort of cartoon-style shooter eSport game, something that catches on. People view it as the next League of Legends. Whoever really nails it will have a big success.
Hines: You have Overwatch, which has a very Blizzard style to it. It looks exactly like what you’d expect from their game. Battleborn has a very Borderlands, Gearbox feel. This was something that Viktor Antonov—it’s just a style he was particularly keen on, before those games ever existed. He’s the one who did the art direction for Dishonored, and he also did Half-Life.
He had a keen eye for doing this very stylized—he’ll talk to you for four hours about the allegory of war and the final moments of life before death, the brightness of the colors and the contrast in the sky and the way the sun is represented and all that stuff. There’s a lot more to it than, “It looks kind of cartoonish.” He had a very specific idea in mind for how he wanted it to look and feel. He didn’t want it to be realistic. He wanted to play with dramatic colors, to be able to do that visceral combat where you’re beheading folks or cutting them in half, but not have it be disgusting. It’s stylized enough that you’re not grossed out. It’s more cool than disgusting.
GamesBeat: Dishonored continues this trend toward woman heroes. It’s one of those about-time sorts of things.
Hines: For sure. Harvey has been talking about this for a while. From the beginning of Dishonored 2, he was excited about the idea of having Emily as a playable character, the idea of fast-forwarding in time. The little girl whose mother was assassinated, that Corvo spends Dishonored trying to get back and protect, is the emperor. Corvo, as her father, has embraced his talents and abilities to become a stealthy assassin of hers. Offering the player to play the game as either of those characters and giving them distinct sets of powers and abilities, being able to play up and portray a woman as the protagonist, that was super important to him. I’m glad to see it’s being done in other places as well.
GamesBeat: It seems like a good E3 for you, to sum it all up.
Hines: We’re very pleased. Fallout Shelter is doing amazingly well, with no real buildup. To take such a light approach to monetization compared to other free-to-play games—we felt like we wanted to err on the side of caution and make it very unobtrusive, make sure it was fun first and foremost. So far so good.