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Todd Howard is racking up the awards, the latest being the Industry Legend honor at the Gamelab event in Barcelona. And it’s with good reason, as Howard has had a great run in his 25 years at Bethesda Game Studios, where he is director of the studio that has produced blockbuster games such as The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, Fallout 4, and Fallout Shelter.

At the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), fans got to hear what Howard’s team is working on at the Bethesda Game Studios division of Bethesda Softworks (owned by ZeniMax Media). But Howard had much more time on stage to answer questions in a talk at Gamelab in a fireside chat with Game Awards founder Geoff Keighley.

In Spain, Howard talked about upcoming games including Fallout 76Starfield, and The Elder Scrolls VI. What comes through from this thoughtful Q&A is his optimism about making Triple-A games, his patience in producing those titles, and his desire to take risks when it comes to creating original content.

Here’s an edited transcript of their conversation.


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Above: Todd Howard received the Industry Legend award at Gamelab 2018.

Image Credit: Gamelab

Geoff Keighley: You’re on a little vacation here in Spain.

Todd Howard: A bit. I get to mix it with a great conference like this and take a few days off after the E3 craziness.

Keighley: We saw the near future and the far future of what you’re working on. Now the dust has settled. You’ve gone back. How did E3 go for you?

Howard: We felt good. There are always things we want to do better. We’re self-critical in that. But we felt good in terms of — it was a lot of information for everyone to absorb. A firehose. Here’s Fallout 76. Here’s a mobile game, Blades. Here’s a sneak peek at what’s coming in the future, with Starfield and Elder Scrolls VI.

Keighley: What did you feel people didn’t get?

Howard: When you’re at E3 and you have a half-hour to dig in all that stuff, there’s a lot of thought around what information everyone can absorb in the moment. There’s still time to dig in on the details of those games, particularly Fallout 76. There’s a lot of nuance to what we’re doing. A lot of people try to figure out what it is in their heads. Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re wrong. They’ll just have to play it.

Keighley: You’ve had an amazing career. You mentioned driving in to the same office for 25 years. People that know your career, know your games, probably wonder what the average day is like for Todd Howard now. You have studios in three locations. You have multiple projects going. What is the average day like in 2018? How do you spend your time?

Howard: Now that we’re doing a lot of projects, I’ll spend — I have a day carved out probably for each project, and then the one that’s getting the most attention at the time, I spend more time on that. Fallout 76 and Blades get a lot of my time right now. I’m in more meetings as it’s gotten bigger.

Above: Fallout 4 art.

Image Credit: Bethesda

Again, I work with an incredible team. I haven’t coded in one of our games in — back in 2002? Maybe? No, 2006. That was probably the last code I wrote. I used to really dig in. Every project that goes on—everybody knows what they’re doing. I spend more time in meetings, discussing the game, looking at the game together. I prefer to work out a design with other people.

Once in a while there will be something where it’s not quite solved and I’ll work on it on my own, but then I’m also pitching it. It’s very collaborative. One of us will pitch: “Hey, this is how this will work.” Sometimes that’s me and sometimes that’s other people.

Keighley: When you started out you were producing games, and then getting involved in design, building worlds and your vision for where games were going to go. Now that you’re two decades in, how has your world changed? Do you still get to be very creative?

Howard: Oh, very creative. Because the team has worked together for so long, the managerial part is minimal for me. Which I’m very fortunate about. I’ve become anti-management. I probably do a bit more. But we have really good producers. We have different studio heads at each studios. Ashley Cheng, who I’ve worked with for 20 years, he’s the studio head in Rockville now. He manages more of the day-to-day stuff. I can focus creatively on what we’re doing now and what we should be doing in the future.

Keighley: Tell me about that creative process for you. You thanked your family for putting up with what I’m sure is — you’re very passionate about your ideas, and I’m sure they come to you at all times of the day, weekends, nights. How has that process changed in 20 years? When you’re getting excited about future games, where do you find your inspiration?

Howard: I have a notebook, but now I do it on my iPhone, in my Notes field. It’s still probably the same for me, at heart. I think about worlds. I think about tone. I bizarrely think about the beginning of the game. “This is the first thing the player sees. This is how it starts.” This is a weird idiosyncrasy when it comes to games, but I think about the interface. Interfaces are a lot of the personality of games. I tend to still think about that. Something like Starfield, we thought about that for at least 10 years. Conversations. We could do this. We could do that. It’s a long process, because games take so long.

Starfield E3 2018

Above: Starfield

Image Credit: GamesBeat

Keighley: One thing with Starfield that I didn’t realize at E3 — with Fallout and Elder Scrolls, in some ways you inherited those worlds. This is really your first Todd Howard vision from day one. You were there from the original creation of the name, the world, all that.

Howard: It’s not just me, but if you look at the team, none of us have really done that together. Despite all of our games, all of our success together — Elder Scrolls, when we started, it was a very generic fantasy. It had its parts. We pushed it to have more of its own unique identify. We’re proud of the work everyone did there.

Fallout, again, we’re not the original creators. All credit goes to Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky and all the people at Interplay that did that game. We loved it, though. That was something where we felt we could do something special with that. But it goes through our filter. We did make it our own. I’d say it this way. Whenever we do a game, whether it’s one we made, or looking at Fallout, we’re going back and looking at that and reinterpreting it. Even if we did it. When it comes to Elder Scrolls VI, you’re looking at Skyrim and Oblivion — I replay all the old games. How do we want it to feel this time?

The difference with Starfield is — that’s the difference. There is no previous anything, whether we created it or not. That’s the part where our ideas were just all over the map. Maybe? Yes? No? Definitely not? Yes! It took us a while to get that cohesive sense of what Starfield is. Now that project is off and running in a good way. That was also why we felt good announcing it.

Keighley: You say you know what it is. How do you define that? How do you crystallize what it is?

Howard: It’s usually the experience of the game. What does it feel like to play it? We have a list of the big features we want. Some of those we get married to and some we don’t. It’s more of a vibe. This is the tone of the game. This is what it feels like to play it. If we haven’t nailed that — features can come and go, as long as we’re paying off on that vibe.

Keighley: It sounds like there are emotional moments for the player, where something happens or they have a certain experience. How do you articulate that? Do you write that down?

Howard: It might be written down just in short phrases, but usually it’s a visual presentation. Here’s the world. Here are things. When you look at some games, you can see a piece of concept art and your mind just says, “I want to go there. I want to do what that person is doing.” It has to register that quickly. This is what it feels like. Initially we’ll do a series of concept stuff: maps, world design, things like that.

Above: The Elder Scrolls: Blades

Image Credit: Bethesda

Keighley: You’ve done a lot in your career, but building a new IP from the ground up, is that something that still gets you really excited? That’s something you haven’t done.

Howard: I’m excited a lot. I’m very excitable. Even with our other games, we always want to do something new. I like to stay from what I call “plus one sequels.” I enjoy playing plus one sequels, as a player. I don’t enjoy making them as much. A game that’s just the last game with a little extra. Fallout 76 is a very different Fallout game. We’re very aware of that. We think a lot of people will like it, because we like it. But a lot of people probably won’t. We need to balance that. This is an idea we have, and there’s a lot of old Fallout stuff in it, but it’s a very new experience.

On the mobile side, Blades is a pared-down version of the Elder Scrolls. If you go back to Arena, it’s very much a glorified dungeon hack. But I love those games, so it was a question of how we could do a really good dungeon adventure game on a phone. That’s an all-new challenge. And then Starfield has new challenges. Long answer, but I’ve always wanted to do something new, even if, on the surface, it feels like “another one of those.”

Keighley: You mentioned replaying the old games, old Elder Scrolls, to find inspiration on what to do next. How much do you seek out other inspirations, other games? How much do you play every other game out there?

Howard: I play less this year because we’re shipping. I end up watching things on YouTube or Twitch or Mixer. I’ll watch people play, just to expedite the process. I still play games all the time. I love Fortnite. I play on my phone, my iPad, anything. I play a lot of Madden football, which might sound weird. That’s American football. It’s only once in a while that I go in to do research, where I want to see how somebody did something. I just love the art form. I play for fun.

I like when time passes very quickly. I’ll realize I’ve been sitting there for three hours, and that’s when I know I’m really into something. That’s when I know with my own games. You’re not just developing it. You’re playing it at work to test it, and you realize you missed dinner. “What happened to the last three hours? I think we’re on to it now.”

Above: The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind wasn’t an easy game to make.

Image Credit: Bethesda

Keighley: Over the decades you’ve had some spectacular successes. What have been some of the more trying times for you as a developer?

Howard: I think this is true for all developers. Shipping anything is really difficult. Our stuff is super ambitious. The one thing I push on the team to do is to keep being ambitious. Even where it seems like we’re not going to make it, it’s not gonna ship, it’s gonna suck, you have to push through that fear. Playing it safe is the worst way to do things, in my book.

Every game has had its—Morrowind was very difficult. The company went through some hard times there. If that game didn’t do well we were probably out of business. Fortunately it did well. That was pretty tricky, because it was also our first time on a console. I remember seeing the copies come back on disc, for the original Xbox, and thinking I couldn’t believe it was real. That was, technically, a really hard one. We actually crashed the game if we were running out of memory, intentionally crashed the game. It just looks like a load screen. It’s a trick you could do on the original Xbox.

Oblivion was difficult too. They’re all difficult, but Oblivion was another one where we really pushed the technology. It was another new console. We thought it would never work, and then — there’s a line in this movie, Shakespeare in Love. I might get it wrong. I haven’t seen it in forever. But Geoffrey Rush has a line in this movie. They say, “How is this going to work out?” And he says, “I don’t know. But it always does.” That’s how I feel, often. Are we gonna get this done, at a high level? We will. I don’t know how, but always does.

Keighley: You’re in a medium where technology continues to advance, which is exciting, but also limiting in a way. With the next Elder Scrolls, you’re waiting for the next technology to be there to realize your vision. How often do you still feel restricted in your ambition, in what you want people to feel, not being able to realize that in the game world?

Howard: I never do, actually. When you’re doing a game, that’s always a series of choices. There’s another exercise I do, something I’ve talked about before, which is to go and read old game reviews. Even though you might pull an old game up now and think, “This looks terrible,” if you read an old review of that game, you’ll see how it made you feel at the time. That was a series of choices, where I felt transported.

It’s a wacky one, but Pole Position in the arcade, the first racing game. “That looks real! There will never be a racing game that looks as real as that!” Then look at Gran Turismo on the original PlayStation. “That looks photoreal! I can’t believe a game looks that good!” I will say, visually there are diminishing returns now. Things are looking so good that to have a jump is getting more difficult. The jumps now are in how reactive the world can be. Look what all the AI does. Look how I can affect the world. Those things are still exciting. But again, it’s a series of trade-offs.

There’s very little today you can’t do in a game. You just can’t do all of it. That’s a function of technology, but also your own time. Any studio is limited. “What do we want to focus on?” Another thing I like to say is that we can do anything. We just can’t do everything. We try to live by that at the studio.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Above: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was another Todd Howard epic.

Image Credit: Bethesda

Keighley: I’m sure you don’t what to say much about where you think you’ll go in the next Elder Scrolls, but overall in the industry, what trends get you excited as a creator? Is it AI? Is it emergent gameplay? Is it online stuff, which you’re experimenting with now in 76? What excited you about the next five to 10 years of games we’re going to play?

Howard: The main thing that excites me about the industry — you see it here — is that games are successful everywhere now. There was a period of time where a game had to be just a big triple-A thing. It had to be on PC or console. Or sometimes PCs were dying and sometimes consoles were dying. Now games are successful everywhere, which is really important for the health of the industry. That excites me. I’m also excited because people can play a game on their phone, but then go home and play on their PC or their console. We’ll be doing that with Blades.

As far as the stuff we do, the big open worlds, we’re very interested in — obviously visual fidelity, but — it’s bad to say, but you can almost get that for free now. There’s a lot of work that goes into that, but everybody realizes that is going to continue to happen. The dynamism of the worlds and that emergent gameplay, how people can touch it and it feels real—the world is reacting the way you expect it to.

People like to play our games that way. When you play any game, the first hour is usually you going, “Can I?” What if I do this? What if I do that? The more times we can say “Yes” to that, and make that feel real and not game-ey, the more immersive it is and the more emergent — the word you used — it is for everybody’s playing, that’s where a lot of our thoughts are.

Keighley: As a designer that’s exciting, but it also changes the scope of what you’re doing. People play hundreds of hours of Elder Scrolls, but now we’re seeing these games that continue to grow and evolve with new content. It used to be expansions and DLC. Now people think these worlds are just going to go on forever. What do you think, moving forward, in your games that you’re building—is that how you start to think about it? You’re creating a platform?

Howard: We’ve thought that way for a while. How we go about it is a bit different. When we did Morrowind, the first thing we did was build the editor, the Elder Scrolls Construction Set. I named it for Stuart Smith’s Adventure Construction Set from the Apple II, which I loved. We needed it to make the game, and we wanted to make a system that users could use to have this game live on. Horse armor and all the DLC stuff we did for Oblivion. We’ve always done this.

One of the ways you do that now is have something that’s connected. You have an infrastructure you can use to update the games. That’s one thing we’re obviously doing with 76 that we’re excited about. The game we ship is going to be a very different game a year later. We can react to what people do, more so than anything else we’ve done.

Keighley: Do you see, down the road, emergent gameplay that gets to point where it’s emergent narrative? Stories where you have a main quest line, but other stories can evolve. Is that in your lifetime?

Skyrim Special Edition E3 2016 - Riverwood

Above: Skyrim tried out AI storytelling.

Image Credit: Bethesda

Howard: We’ve tried some of it. We haven’t had great success there. I will say that the technology for the radiant story system in Skyrim is phenomenal. It has the pebble-in-the-lake rings. You can do a lot of great stuff with it. We tried, and then we pared it back. I think the technology is there for it, without a doubt. It’s having the design to do that. Ken Levine is somebody I know well. He’s in the best position to crack that. I hope he does.

Keighley: Tell us a bit about player content. You said that’s a big part of what you’ve built on. Mods have been a big part of your legacy. How will players be part of your games? What will the role of the modder be in future Bethesda games?

Howard: We’re still pushing on making that easily available to everyone. It definitely becomes this long tail life of our games. But if you look at the raw numbers, it’s still not as great as we would like, the people that are consuming the mods. We’re always looking at avenues to get more creators creating great content, and then making it easy and safe. I’d say the recent stuff we’ve done on the Bethesda.net side of Fallout 4 and Skyrim, connecting to mods on consoles, has worked out great. It’s way more popular than we ever thought. But we still think there’s a way to go there.

On Fallout 76, even though everyone is connected and it matches you to an invisible server where you can play with your friends, we know, based on our history, that the future of that game, the long life of it, is in people having their own worlds they can mod and make their own. “Come play in my world. See what I did.” Or there’s an easy way for them to get mods and pick and choose. “I play this way and this way and this way.” No matter what we do, once you release tools and you have this huge community making things, the best stuff rises to the top.

Keighley: What role will you and the team play in that moving forward? When you look at Fallout 76, are you thinking about year two, year three of a plan, how it will evolve?

Howard: We’re definitely going to create our own stuff. We have a cadence in mind. We’ll see how it goes. If everything works out perfectly with launch, which won’t be the case, we’ll be able to make a lot of content, but we know our priorities. It’s a big new thing for us. We’re scared. How well can we make this work? We look at some other big online games, and even the people who’ve done it a lot, there’s always problems. We’re not naïve enough to think it’s going to be perfect.

We want to focus when the game comes out, the first however many months, that we’re making sure it can be as good as it can be for what it is, and then we’ll have new content rolling out. The good news is that, again, our team has done this for a long time. Our ability to know our tools and make content is one of the things—we have a lot of experience there.

Keighley: You had a lot of fun at E3 poking fun at the many versions of Skyrim. You’ve become a sort of icon.

Howard: And I don’t want it! It’s the internet. I just ride the wave.

Keighley: Even though you’re not on Twitter, you’re watching everything, I’m sure.

Howard: Yeah, I’m not on social media. Sorry.

Keighley: Now that you’re making an online game, you need to come online.

Howard: I’ve heard people tell me that it’s a good thing I’m not on social media. Some things I say in private… [laughs] People send me things. I’m in on the joke. I think it’s funny. They’re fans of our games. They’re having fun with it. They’ll have fun with things I say, or make up things I say. None of it bothers me. It’s all good.

Keighley: Some of it is selling the dream or vision of what these games are going to be. Even with a team, you need to sell a vision of going out and doing what you want to do.

Skyrim Special Edition E3 2016 - Fall Forest

Above: Skyrim Special Edition

Image Credit: Bethesda

Howard: That’s how I think. That’s what I want us to strive toward. I think the way you see now—that’s how I am in the office. Video games, to me—it’s more than just, “Hey, this is a fun diversion.” When I played Ultima, this will sound cliché, but that was a special time. Sitting in my room when I was 13 or 14, I have fond memories. I have fond memories of getting my computer when I was in college and installing Wing Commander or Civilization. That was important time to me. I hear a lot from our fans and other people where they feel the same way. I want us to aspire to those things. That’s how I really think about it.

There’s another thing we do — I don’t know if people know what the Make-a-Wish Foundation is in America. Kids, people under 18, who have cancer or some other life-threatening illness or situation, we’ve had a lot of them wish to come to our studio. You want a reality check at work, you’re doing your day-to-day and then a family comes in with their child. They could wish for everything, and they’ve come to your studio because they want to see how you make their favorite game. They want to play it.

It’s by far the greatest thing that we do. We don’t talk about it a lot, although I’m talking about it right now. It’s a private thing. But the takeaway is that the family — they always come with their family, obviously — they think it’s just fun. It’s what their child wants to do. But then they see this operation where we have hundreds of people, what we’re doing, how passionate they are. They have this new connection. They leave with a new connection to their child. It’s seriously magical. It’s the greatest thing we do.

Keighley: You look at the things you’ve done. Is there anything you personally think that you haven’t accomplished with your games? That Holy Grail?

Howard: I’m always excited about the next game. You look at Starfield, we haven’t created a new IP that stands up to Fallout and Elder Scrolls. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and we’re doing it now.

Keighley: How iterative is that, now that you’ve gotten into it? Is it harder than you thought? Is it liberating to start with a blank slate? How much iteration has gone on in the last 10 years?

Howard: Initially, a lot. That part was harder than I thought. I thought it would be just, “That’s the look. That’s what we’re doing.” There were a lot of different versions of it for a while, until it funneled into, “That’s the one.” That took longer than anticipated, but it was super fun. I’m not complaining. That’s what we do. It’s great.

Keighley: And you get to do these in parallel all the way. Is it challenging to have Elder Scrolls VI in some state of pre-production, Starfield that you’re playing the office, and then Fallout and Blades?

Above: Dean Takahashi’s Vault in Fallout Shelter has some dead bodies in it.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi/Bethesda

Howard: There was a period that was very challenging. Now we’ve settled in. We’ve grown the studios a lot. We have the studio in Maryland, the one I work at. A lot of us have been there a long time. We have the studio in Montreal. A lot of them worked on Fallout 4 and Fallout Shelter. Now we have the studio in Austin, which was Battlecry Studios. We’ve worked with them for three years now. They’ve become part of Bethesda Game Studios.

That amount of people all working together — there’s a lot of new people as well. When we grew last year it was a lot of new people. Getting that sorted out, we went through some growing pains, but it was a good experience for all of us. We’re juggling a little more than we used to. We always overlapped, but there are more people involved, which I knew we needed to do. We looked forward to Starfield and Elder Scrolls VI, what we had in mind for those games, and we realized it was going to take more people than the typical 100-person studio that we had for a long time.

Keighley: For you personally, you’ve outlined a large part of your career moving forward, with all these projects. Are there other things you want to do with your career? Do you just want to keep making games? What are the things Todd Howard still wants to accomplish?

Howard: Games are where I want to be. Every year there’s a new idea we can’t do, and a new technology for something that excites us. I’d say I want it to be sustainable. Eventually there will come a day where I’m not making games at Bethesda. Hopefully that’s a long time away. But I want to make sure that who we are, what the worlds are, what the company is, that’s sustainable far beyond me.

Keighley: What do you hope people take away as your signature on the game industry?

Howard: Hmm. That’s a deep question, Geoff. I would say, that the games meant as much to them as they meant to me. I’ve spent a lot of time in these worlds. I hope that people look back on, say, Skyrim or Fallout, as fondly as I do. Their own impression of me — I’d rather they focus on the games and the studio than anything about me.

Keighley: We’re getting to a time where some of these game worlds will continue to persist.

Howard: Even now, the amount of people who play Skyrim seven years later — millions of people every month are playing that game. That’s why we keep releasing it. If you want us to stop releasing it, stop buying it.

Keighley: For many years, in the earlier days of consoles, you couldn’t even go back and play old games. Steam has made it possible to play some older PC games, and they do hold up.

Howard: That’s becoming more and more of a thing, which I think is great. The platforms — Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo — making it easier to play old games is very important to me. It’s great for the industry.

Keighley: You ever go back and play Terminator?

Howard: I actually did, in the last year. I don’t remember why. I just did.

Above: Bethesda’s Terminator 2029 from 1992.

Image Credit: Bethesda

Keighley: You guys might not know, but Todd worked on two Terminator games.

Howard: We had the Terminator license. It was in legal limbo, so no entity owned the license, but we definitely had it? There was no one to check with. We just did whatever the hell we wanted, and that’s why those games are awesome. What’s fascinating about those Terminator games, if you look at Future Shock, the way we built worlds — 3D terrain with instanced objects on it – is very similar to how we still do it.

Keighley: Do you ever look at that and say, “Hey, one time I just want to make a crazy action shooter again?” Flex some different muscles in a totally different genre of game?

Howard: We tend to think very big. Even if it starts there, it eventually becomes — let’s do a multiplayer mode for Fallout 4, and then it becomes this giant separate project. We just did Alexa Skyrim. That’s different. We like to pick our battles in mobile. Some things that are unique. But when it comes to the main games, we think very big. We feel that we’re build to do that. That’s what we enjoy making.

Keighley: Do you think you’ll get to a point where — Starfield is hugely ambitious. You’ve announced Elder Scrolls VI. Fallout 76 will continue to persist. Do you worry that five years from now, you’ll have three things out there that will all require content? You’re building the organization to scale to that, but in some ways, it’s probably a little daunting.

Howard: It’s not entirely different from the situation we’re in now. The amount of people playing Fallout Shelter on mobile, we can’t get them enough content. Fallout 4 is still our most-played game. It’s in the top 20 on every platform it’s on. We can’t get enough content out and support that the way we want. The same with Skyrim. Skyrim Switch has a big community that we haven’t supported the way we’d like.

We do our best. As we scale up, we’ll be able to put people in the right places and do that. We’ve been very lucky. Our games have been popular enough that wherever we’re putting those people, we’re finding that there’s an audience for what they do. We just have to choose our battles.

Keighley: Part of that comes back to the question around player-created content, if there’s a way to empower players….

Howard: Exactly. That’s one of our drives there. We will never have the ability to satiate everyone. That’s also why we like dynamic systems that create a lot of emergent gameplay, and having mod tools out where the players can help facilitate — “Here’s cool things that change the game and make it interesting!”

Keighley: Do you think all of your games moving forward will have some element of that?

Howard: I can’t say whether Blades will. We’d like to find ways to do that. I don’t know if you mean the user-generated content part, but the emergent part, absolutely, 100 percent. That’s one of our signatures. When it comes to the users creating things and sharing them, I’d say it’s always a goal of ours. Sometimes we can do that more easily than other times.

Keighley: Sounds like you’re very busy.

Howard: Yeah, I’m busy, but I’m a kid in a candy store. It’s awesome.

Fallout 4 E3 2016 - NukaWorld 01

Above: NukaWorld.

Image Credit: Bethesda

Audience: You talked about being able to update your games after release. How has that changed the development process of your games?

Howard: When you were doing a console game before, you sent it off to certification and moved on. Your ability to touch it was nil. Now, you keep a team on it. Some games, online games, the whole development team stays on it. Some games are smaller, and you leave a smaller team on it. The good thing with our group is, everybody works on everything. We don’t have a Fallout team or an Elder Scrolls team. Mobile is a bit more separate, and the back end services for online are more separate, but for the most part, all the gameplay programmers, content creators, artists, designers, they’re moving between projects. If we need to update Fallout 4 with something, they can move over quickly.

Audience: You talked about Starfield going on for 10 years. While you’ve been working on that you’ve taken entire games from conception to release. How much did those other projects impact your ideas for Starfield?

Howard: When we worked on Starfield — it was more just thinking about it, conversations about what it would be. We didn’t actually start development on Starfield until we finished Fallout 4. Every game we do influences the next game we’re doing, how people react to it. We’re always watching what our fans are doing — what they do initially when a game comes out, and what they do in the long run. That’s changed how we go about — okay, what are we going to do in this game? We realize, as time goes on, that they’re going to play it a lot. They’re going to play it for 1,000 hours.

Audience: A few years ago was the first Bethesda E3 showcase. It was a really big deal, an important step from a status point of view. What was that like for the studio?

Howard: A little scary. The first one we did was four years ago, at the Dolby theater, where they have the Oscars. They suckered me into it, partly, because they said, “What if you only had to give one demo at E3?” I used to go and give demos every hour for a week. I said, “I’ll do anything to just give one demo.” Pete Hines gets the credit for that. It was more than half an hour. But it was great. It was an amazing moment to see all the fans there and do that.

Now, what E3 has become — we understand what it is. We use it when we have something big to say. We put a lot of time in to make sure we’re showing it in the right way.

Audience: You talked about the experience you want to give the player, the tone you want to create. How do you keep that vision after months and years of the development? How do you see that through the eyes of the player?

Howard: That’s probably one of the — it’s not just myself, but how you share that, because a lot of people are creating content. I’m trying to think of things we have. One thing that actually helps, believe it or not, is I’ll go back to E3. Everybody is working on the game, but I’ll have to give a demo or show it. It makes us synthesize — how do we tell somebody, in 15 minutes, what this is? We’re really focused. Times like that really do help.

We’ve started to try to do that internally. We have a big monthly meeting with everybody at Bethesda Game Studios. That meeting gets streamed to the other offices. You’re looking at 400-ish people together in a meeting, and every month we have groups from the team come up and say, “Here’s what we did in the game this month. Here’s why it’s great.” We try to keep people focused in.

But usually, our games are so big that six to eight months out from release, we have all these different parts, and they might be cool, but they’re not quite jelling together the way we want. That’s what we spend the last — it’s what we’re doing now on Fallout 76, trying to bring all those pieces together where it doesn’t feel like seven different games.

Above: HTC will bundle Fallout 4 VR with its Vive headset.

Image Credit: HTC

Audience: I’m curious about VR, AR, and other related technologies. Do you get excited about that kind of thing? What do you imagine doing if they become more mainstream?

Howard: First, I think it’s great. I’m a little more VR than AR, personally, though I’ve seen good work with both. We’ve obviously done Skyrim and Fallout 4 in VR. They were great projects to work on. If you’re a game developer, and a lot of you are, when you get new tech like that, that’s like Christmas. Let’s open the presents. A new video card, a new console system, dev kits, VR headsets, it’s awesome.

I don’t know if it will ever become mainstream the way people think of it, because that kind of very closed-in, insular experience — people are still going to want to look at a screen, often. It’s constricting otherwise. But the technology will get better and better. I don’t think it will wholly replace the big screen. It might. I think it’s going to become popular enough that it’s a key way a lot of people game.
We’re just about to enter what I’ll call the second generation of VR, where the resolution is higher and you can do some pretty good experience. But historically it’s not until the third generation of something where it starts getting popular. The quality goes up and the price points come down. A lot of people have it. My personal opinion is that will hit — if you look at VR bases of people playing, it’s mobile by far, because it’s easier. One of the things we’re doing with Elder Scrolls: Blades, the mobile game, is we’ve built that to support VR, so we can do that from a device in your pocket that you can slide into a headset, all the way up to a high-end HTC device.

Disclosure: The organizers of Gamelab paid my way to Barcelona. Our coverage remains objective. 

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