Chasing Perfection: A Response to Johnathon Swift’s Bethesda Piece

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” -Bruce Lee

I was in the midst of writing a reflective piece on the routine of college vs. home life when Google Now alerted me to an article written by Johnathon Swift for Gamasutra. The piece consists of Swift bashing Bethesda for not changing their formula and how bad Fallout 4 was. A gamer myself, I sympathize entirely with how disappointing Fallout 4 might have been (I always preferred New Vegas), but Bethesda is in no way a bad developer.

So this post is more or less a direct response to his article, since Gamasutra wouldn’t allow me to comment. Opinions incoming.

Now, this article keeps repeating one line throughout the whole thing, and I found myself getting more and more irritated every time I read it.

Bethesda can do no wrong.

This sentence (and some minor variations) appears four times throughout the piece, striking me as if Mr. Swift read this phrase on a message board before taking to Gamasutra to write. It’s not a bad statement to center your piece around, but it’s like the words “purpose” and “choice” reappearing in The Matrix: Revolutions: it’s off-putting. It’s an odd fixation on these words with an air of snark behind them that I simply could not get past.

Moving on to the meat of the piece, most of it is Swift complaining about the popularity of GTA and Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls and Fallout series, focusing on the lack of competition Bethesda has in the RPG market. Now, I have never extensively played the old school Elder Scrolls games. I played bits of Oblivion and Morrowind (and have been closely following the TESRenewal project) but have never played them completely, unlike Skyrim, but even I know that Bethesda once had competition. Once. Swift has never heard of a game called Two Worlds, a game releasing at the height of Oblivion‘s popularity and was promised as “Oblivion on steroids.” Long story short, it wasn’t, and it faded away into obscurity. Regardless of how popular it was or wasn’t, one of Swift’s opening statements that there’s never been a “direct clone” of a Bethesda game is already wrong.

But something else that Swift doesn’t realize is that obvious rip-offs don’t sell well. Think about Saints Row. It’s now a franchise known for goofy humor and insane sandboxing, but when it started, it was an obscure GTA clone. It was decent and had a much better online component than GTA, which didn’t have one at all. It took Saints Row 2 for the series to get its own identity, which was also when it didn’t try to directly copy GTA. For a more modern example, look at your phone’s app store at all the “X of Y” games that tried to capture lightning in a bottle like Clash of Clans initially did. Even Infinite Warfare, the newest game in the blockbuster Call of Duty series, is ripping off Halo, and is currently having less player count than Farming Simulator 2017. See my point? Rip-offs don’t work. Swift argues that someone ripping off Bethesda would encourage Bethesda to step their game up, but Bethesda’s game would already be better by default. They wouldn’t have to lift a finger.

Swift also pointed out that Bethesda games haven’t changed that much in their iterations. They don’t sit around thinking of new things to add and how to “revolutionize” their games. Again, he makes a comparison to GTA, saying that GTA 5 had motorcycles, planes, trains, skydiving, boats, submarines, and a huge online multiplayer component, all of which are things that GTA 3 didn’t have. I worry that Swift may not know how to count, because 4 comes between 3 and 5, and GTA 4 had over half of those things, including some things that GTA 5 doesn’t have (train station). Removing everything that GTA 4 had, the only improvement GTA 5 makes is…submarines and bigger multiplayer. Doesn’t seem that impressive, does it? Swift seems ignorant of how the big developers keep releasing similar games yet keep raking in money. Bethesda and Rockstar don’t have to change, because Elder Scrolls/Fallout is the “Bethesda game” and GTA is the “Rockstar game,” similar to how Mass Effect is the “Bioware game,” Sonic the Hedgehog is the “Sega game,” and Super Mario is the “Nintendo game.” Notice that all of these franchises aren’t annualized. Games like Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty come out once a year. COD hasn’t changed much, yet Infinite Warfare has been panned by players. What happened? It’s lacking time.

The reason Rockstar and Bethesda can keep releasing similar games that build on their predecessor while remaining similar is that enough time is taken between each game to make them truly different while respecting what made the last games great. Skyrim’s world is, admittedly, small, but it’s dense. It has so much to find and do because it’s a personal game. It’s about what the player, acting as their own character, finds. It’s about the adventure and exploring the wild, maybe finding a house to loot. That world can’t get too big because the primary means of travel is by foot. The player has to get familiar with the world so, as a result, it doesn’t feel overwhelming. I could write books on why New Vegas is my favorite of the Fallout games, but I can narrow it down to the world. While not as interesting as Bethesda’s other worlds, it’s small enough that I can get intimate enough and walk a familiar path. There’s not “too much” to discover. GTA, on the other hand, counts on you moving by car, and needs a big world for that, but with nothing in it. A world the size of Skyrim where the primary method of transportation was Lamborghinis and Ferraris would, of course, make a very dull game. A game world the size of, say, GTA V or Just Cause 2 would be epic for the next Elder Scrolls games, but it wouldn’t be practical.

Swift does make some good points, such as how buggy Bethesda games are and how much of a relative disappointment Fallout 4 was. I wasn’t happy by the time I finished Fallout 4, but the irony of Swift talking about Fallout 4 is that, in the same piece complaining that Bethesda isn’t changing enough, Fallout 4 failed because Bethesda changed the most. A voiced protagonist, town management, house building, four dialogue options only, extensive armor crafting and modding, streamlined character creation, improved engine lighting, power armor that felt like a tank, the game continuing past the ending, I could go on. Fallout 4 was a massive change over previous Fallout titles, but it was because of most of these things (and a mostly disappointing DLC offering) that the game couldn’t maintain high playercount or review ratings. Bethesda outright admitted that some of those things didn’t work. While innovation can keep a game series alive (Mario’s numerous takes on different game genres, Pokemon adding more mechanics while still keeping the game simple, Zelda worlds getting bigger and more artistic), changing too much and actively removing what a predecessor had that worked doesn’t work. Fallout 4 could be great if Bethesda returned to the non-voiced protagonist and toned back the settlement management, and maybe returned to the old skill system. Yes, Fallout 4 scored lower than every Elder Scrolls and Fallout game since Morrowind (and tied with New Vegas), but this isn’t an indicator of the “beginning of the end” for Bethesda as Swift would have you believe. Even the greats have blunders. Remember The Good Dinosaur? I have plenty to rip on Bethesda for (like not giving Obsidian a bonus because New Vegas didn’t score an 85 on Metacritic or relying on modders to fix bugs) but none of them are for being a “bad developer.”

So, Johnathon Swift, I implore you to consider that Bethesda games don’t have to have this massive reworking to be even better. Even if Fallout 4 stumbled, it was still a fun game while it lasted. Skyrim is still Bethesda’s crowning achievement and the fact that people have sunk hundreds–nay, thousands of hours in this game proves that Bethesda knows what they’re doing. You don’t need a massive team like EA or Rockstar to topple Bethesda, you need people who know what they’re doing. Bethesda is extremely specialized to make the games they make and they do a fine job. No other developer has  cracked the Bethesda formula and, until Bethesda makes an absolutely horrible Fallout or Elder Scrolls game, they never will. The next time someone tries to step up to Bethesda, remember: Two Worlds.

See you next time.


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