Oblivion's Success Hasn't Spoiled Bethesda

The reviews are out, the first sales charts are in, and Oblivion is a hit, both critically and commercially. Here, Hines explains his reactions to reviews (including GameSpot's live 12-hour Oblivion marathon), the necessity of a big AAA budget for a game like Oblivion and the challenge of living up to pre-release hype.

Many reviews have been posted for Oblivion, virtually all stellar. Are there any comments or specific reviews that you found the most flattering or interesting?

The most nerve wracking was Greg Kasavin's live gameplay session where he let folks watch him play the game -- for the purposes of GameSpot's review -- for 12 hours, live on the Internet. That's a very public way of having your game reviewed in front of the world, so we were relieved that it went well and he really liked the game, because if we had bombed it would have been in a very big way. Maybe the most flattering for us was Desslock's review (PC Gamer US) because he's one of the most knowledgeable RPG guys anywhere in our industry, so to have him say he thought the game was fantastic was very flattering. We've gotten some e-mails and comments from other game developers that were very flattering as you always want your peers to like what it is you do. The most interesting was Will Porter's comment in his PC Zone (UK) review where he said if he was on drugs he'd carve our name in his arm with a rusty knife. I thought that was hilarious.

Your publisher recently announced that it has moved almost 2 million copies of Oblivion. Did you breathe a sigh of relief when you found out the game was a commercial hit, or did you know it would be all along?

You always breathe a little sigh of relief because even when you've got pre-order numbers and all this info, you still never really know how it will do until it starts selling. And it actually sold better than anyone thought it would, so it's good to surprise retailers like that and have them be clamoring for more copies.


How did the hype generated by previews affect mindset of the Oblivion team? Did the high expectations surrounding the game faze you at all?

I think they're uplifting from the standpoint that it's gratifying to know people are interested in what you're doing. I think we were all aware of the high expectations, but I'm not sure if they fazed us. For the most part, when that stuff is going on there are a lot of people working a lot of hours with a lot to do, so there isn't much time to focus on that stuff. Plus, we have really high expectations for ourselves and what we expect. I personally was pretty fazed by it because it's my job to get people interested in the game and create a lot of that hype, and so if it fell short I feel responsible. But as crazy as it was there at the end, I really feel like we delivered on people's expectations.

How important is a monster budget when making a triple-A title like Oblivion? Ballpark, how much did the game cost to create?

It's definitely not possible to do this without a big team and a lot of resources. Obviously we don't give out specific figures, but "a lot" or "a great deal" are decent estimates. What's most important for us is that the creative guys get all the support they need. They say, "we're gonna do this big, crazy game and it's going to look like this and it's going to take this long to make and people are really going to love it," and the senior management folks at our parent company, ZeniMax Media...I don't want to say they didn't blink, because they definitely did...but they asked questions and got the details and said, "Ok, go do it. What do you need? How can we help?" So it's definitely something that requires buy-in up and down the line and I think one of the things that makes Bethesda Softworks special. That after 20 years of being in this business, we've still got a focus on doing what it takes to make a great game, first and foremost.

Why does Bethesda insist on making these mind-blowingly enormous games? Is it simply because you know that it's what a lot of gamers want?

That's just what Elder Scrolls games are all about. We try to do something a different than what everyone else is doing. We like to push the boundaries a bit, both for games in general and role-playing as a genre. It's not just about what we think gamers want, but about the kind of game we want to play. I think that's evidenced by just how many folks around here are still playing the game at home every night. I still love playing it and doing things I haven't done already, because there's so much to do I haven't seen or done during development.

Some developers say that with an open-ended game, you have to sacrifice a good deal of the story, as a lot of the action taking place is out of the creators' hands. Did the Oblivion team take this concern into consideration as you were crafting the story?

No, not really. Our big, open-ended games are all about the story, or stories. We give you dozens and dozens of stories you can participate and you can pick and choose which ones to follow through on, or ignore them all and go out and just explore and kill stuff or pick flowers or whatever. The story of Oblivion, or your game in Oblivion, is what you make of it. If you just want to focus on saving the world, or being an assassin, or becoming the head of the mages guild, then that's what Oblivion is for you. We let each designer focus on their area, on the story or stories they're working on, and once they all get put into the world they just sort of work. As I said above, part of that comes from doing a number of these games and knowing what works, and what doesn't, and focusing on the kind of experiences that capture people's imaginations and let them get sucked into the game until it's 3 am and they're still in their work clothes and haven't eaten dinner and have to get up for work in 4 hours. A hungry, tired workforce -- that is our ultimate goal.

What other types of downloadable Oblivion content is on the way? Is there much more coming?

We have a number of other things in various stages of development and when they get far enough along that we're confident in how they're coming along and when they'll be out, we'll release details on them. Downloadable content is just one of a number of projects people have moved onto since we finished the game two months ago, so we'll have a few more along the way but I don't have a specific number of how many we'll do and how long we'll do them.  

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Thanks to everyone who has bought and played the game. We really appreciate it and hope you're enjoying it.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.