Bethesda's Strengths

Thinking more about how TES Online can work or tank over the weekend leaves me with a few ideas.  First is that this is Zenimax’ call for an online game and that Bethesda’s strengths are practically polar opposites to BioWares.

I played some Fallout 3 and New Vegas on the weekend since Skyrim was still fresh in my mind, just to have another kick at what makes these games work.  If you were hyper-critical, you would say they are buggy, poorly written, trope-filled, sky-reaching games.  Yet they are games that gamers love to play.  Compare with the BioWare staple that have cohesive games, with solid gameplay and story.  BioWare sells you an interactive movie and Bethesda gives you a box of crayons and some paper.

It’s the idea that you as a company, can provide tools to gamers to do what they want.  There are very few sandbox games (Grand Theft being a hybrid) that garner any wide-spread attention and when someone takes a solid kick at the can, people stand up to notice.  Sure, melee might be poorly implemented in Skyrim and Fallout but the tools that surround that mechanic are interesting and diverse.  An optimal player has just as much chance of finishing the game as a randomly selected one but the path to the end is full of different detours.

I guess it’s sort of like walking down a short hallway full of doors with various locks.  Each lock requires a different key (be it time, sex, morality or skills) and they are completely optional.  You can see the goal from the start too – or at least you think you can.  These little side adventures may or may not have an impact on the final goal, up to you to find out.  You can even go back to a previously visited door to see what, if anything, has changed.  Maybe this time, since you’re wearing a magical hat, the people inside will be zombies.  Who knows?

All this comes to mean that Bethesda’s strength is in the hero journey motif.  Not in prescribing what the actual journey is but giving you the tools and the goal and pushing you out the door.  New Vegas is a great game because Bethesda built a solid toolkit for Obsidian.  Obsidian simply changed the locked doors and the final goal but the tools it had to make it all were already there.

In MMO terms, the hero journey is the boilerplate for fantasy games.  You are a little guy, gain power and kill the big baddy.  The game never ends though, just like Bethesda’s games.  The kicker here is the tools.  The tools in a single player game are meant to balance single player power versus the world.  You can set the difficulty of a lock to a single person but when 10 show up at the door at the same time, how do you make it different for everyone yet allow them to play together?  How do you use your thieving ability to open a house, steal some items, poison the owner and get back out when there are 50 other people in the house too?

The tools are meant for a single person on a single journey.  How Bethesda can reproduce an open-world sandbox, with a balanced set of tools is the real question.  Time will tell if they can capture the spirit of their games while throwing thousands of people together.

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