When you’ve got a discography like Todd Howard’s, full of critically acclaimed games in the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series, it must be hard to pick a favourite. But there is one game he remembers more fondly than anyone else does: the first he ever worked on.
“Terminator: Future Shock,” he says. “When [Bethesda] came to Fallout, people were saying, oh, you’re doing a post-apocalyptic open world! In 3D! But we already did that in Terminator. It’s an underrated game that not a lot of people played. I think Quake came out right afterwards, that might have had something to do with it, and understandably so … Future Shock was made with eight or 10 people and it did a lot of things that no game had done. I remember it got critiqued at the time, which annoyed me to be honest. But now the things it did are commonplace.”
Howard is speaking to the Guardian ahead of the Develop:Brighton Digital conference, where he gave a keynote speech and accepted the Develop:Star award. Having spent the 90s and 00s leading the development of genre-defining open-world role-playing games in The Elder Scrolls, he now oversees all of Bethesda Game Studios’ many projects, and has a more hands-on role as director on forthcoming sci-fi epic Starfield. He has a considered, measured way of speaking; he’s never likely to get chatty and let slip any longed-for details about Bethesda’s forthcoming games, but he’s insightful about what makes them tick.
“Over the last generation, open-world games became very popular as [developers] got used to making them, and saw the impact they could have on players,” he says. “I think this is what games do best. They do geography well, they put you in another world. A lot of mediums can tell good stories, and some linear games do fantastic things. But for us, putting you in another world asking, what would you do here? What are the possibilities? That’s really what sets gaming apart from other forms of entertainment.”
Bethesda’s games have always been famous for the possibilities they offer the player. Set out on a quick jaunt to kill some giant spiders in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion (2006) and you could end up running away from the vampires who lived at the top of a mountain. Their huge worlds offered 100-plus hours of exploration and bizarre self-directed adventures. Throughout the 00s Bethesda’s games pushed the boundaries of what was possible in video game worlds – but now, if anything, open-world is overdone. It’s now become almost the default for expensive action games and role-playing games alike.
Will the next generation of consoles – the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X – bring anything revolutionary to the genre? For Howard, it’s not about bigger is better; games are big enough already. Graphics will get better, AI will get better, but Todd believes the biggest change that’s coming is accessibility.
“Let’s just cast forward to the next five to 10 years of gaming – for me, it’s more about access than clock cycles,” he says. “Just the time it takes to even turn [a console] on and load up some of these games is a barrier – it’s time that you’re not enjoying being in that world … The kind of games we make are ones that people are going to sit down and play for hours at a time. If you can access a game more easily, and no matter what device you’re on or where you are, that’s what I think the next five to 10 years in gaming is about.
“I’d like to see more reactivity [in game worlds], more systems clashing together that players can express themselves with. I think chasing scale for scale’s sake is not always the best goal.”
If that sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because Phil Spencer, the head of Xbox, has been saying similar things for years. Given that Microsoft has just bought Bethesda’s parent company Zenimax for $7bn, this alignment of vision is to be expected; it’s an acknowledgment that the way people play games has changed dramatically in recent years. When the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were released back in 2013, livestreaming was still in its infancy and Fortnite didn’t exist, but games such as Minecraft and 2011’s Skyrim were pointing the way. “Previously, someone might play a game for a few months, [and] a long-term play would be say six months. Now, they’re playing them for years,” says Howard.
Bethesda’s games have made attempts to lean into this change. The Elder Scrolls Online and Fallout 76 are both massively multiplayer, propped up by a drip-feed of new content from Bethesda’s designers and subscription fees from its players, as opposed to the sprawling single-player games that made the developer famous. Fallout 76 especially launched in a rough state – “We let a lot of people down,” says Howard – but thanks to its evolving nature, has had the opportunity to redeem itself over the years. Does Howard see a future for those single-player games, or should Bethesda games from now on be designed to be live for years, playable with other people?
“Obviously, we’re big fans of single player and we’ve had some success with some multiplayer-focused games,” says Howard. “We have found that even if it’s multiplayer, whether it’s Elder Scrolls Online or Fallout 76, a large number of our players want to play it like a single-player game and not have the other players distract from it. Games handle multiplayer in different ways, and I think it all has merit.”
Todd still plays all sorts of games himself, and watches more on Twitch when he doesn’t have time to play. “There are only a few games that I will deep dive into; I do my best to try as many things as possible. The game I’ve played most lately is Among Us – I looked at it for creative reasons and then for social and personal reasons, I just loved it.” What he looks for in a game, he says, is a world he wants to be in – and opportunities to tell his own story.
“In our games whenever we go really linear, when we say, ‘Here’s the thing you must get, here’s where you must go’, it’s not as successful. When we give the player a short-term, medium- and long-term goal and then make sure they have a lot of options, and make sure that the game is reacting to them, that’s where I think the real magic happens. That’s when the player feels like, ‘Look what I did!’ Rather than a creator giving something to you and you consuming it, you gave something to the game. You come away with a sense of pride. You’ve accomplished something for the week.
“That’s one of the things people who don’t play a lot of games never quite understand. When you play a game and you accomplish something, that’s real. It’s a real accomplishment in your life, or it has been to me, and to other people I meet who love gaming. You can finish the week and say, ‘I saved the world’, and you legit feel that way. That’s the magic.”