Fallout 3 Creator On The Future Of RPGs, Open-World Games, And Nintendo Switch – GameSpot
Todd Howard, one of the foremost minds behind the iconic Elder Scrolls and Fallout series, was recently selected for the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame. Before the induction at DICE in Las Vegas this week, we caught up with the developer to discuss his history with open-world games, Nintendo’s upcoming console, and the future of RPGs.
GameSpot: The franchises you’re known for are these vast open-worlds. I wanted to get your take on what even makes a good open-world game anymore. Do you think that there is an over-saturation of open-world games in the industry? Or is “open-world” just this buzzword that developers want to cross off on a checklist?
Howard: I think there’s some truth to that. The thing that defined our current generation of Xbox One, PS4 games, are open-worlds. The technology has allowed more people to do it. The thing with open-world, and the reason we’ve always liked it, is that it shows off what is best about a video game in general. Video games can put you somewhere you’re not. You know, movies and books and other things can give you good linear experiences, but video games make you the director of your experience. An open-world is the best form of that.
I also think there are certain open-world games where you can see the “gamification” of things, and sometimes that’s successful, but somethings that breaks the illusion. Like, “I felt like I was there before the game rewarded me for something that it shouldn’t have.” And we [at Bethesda] deal with that as well. I think as we go along and others go along, you want to push interactivity, you want to push AI in those worlds. There are still so many types of worlds to present. Or even worlds you’ve seen before presented in new ways whether that’s better displays or better hardware, all the way up to VR.
What are the challenges of implementing open-worlds in VR?
Well, we’re doing that now with Fallout 4. And it’s been incredibly exciting. The challenges have more to do with how you move through the world and so what we’re doing right now, we’ve taken the entirety of Fallout 4 into VR, and there’s still work to do, but the promise of, “Okay, I’m standing in this vast world where I can go where I want.” When it works well, I have to say it’s one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had in a game.
You’ve worked on Fallout 4, Fallout 3, Skyrim, and Oblivion. It seems that they have their own distinct flavor, as opposed to Rockstar open-worlds, or Ubisoft open-worlds, or even Metal Gear Solid 5. If someone were to turn on a game and play Skyrim as opposed to these other games, in your words, what would describe a Bethesda open-world as opposed to these other ones?
I think our worlds say “yes” to the player more. There’s more you can do. We obsess over picking up all the items and how they work together.
Other open-worlds, they’re fabulous, particularly the Rockstar stuff. They’re incredible. We look at a lot of their stuff. I don’t know how they do some of the amazing things they do. One of the things that we do that I think sets us apart is that we’re not really putting you on a mission where the world shuts down. You know, you can be on 20 quests at once. And there’s much more, in our games, more dynamic systems that are just all going at the same time. And sometimes the collisions of those systems make for interesting gameplay.
Sometimes they create havoc that we may need to fix, but often, the player is thinking, “I wonder if I can do this?” And they find out they can, or they think of a way that two things smash together.
It seems that the farther we get into the whole medium and the more it matures and people find creative new ways to utilize video games, it seems like more and more developers are putting an emphasis on emergence rather than telling this linear, directed story. Doing what Bethesda does well, and letting players tell their own stories. Studios like Arcane Studios pretty much hang their hat on that kind of game. Can you speak to that?
I still think you see both kinds. I don’t know that I could cap it and say, “That’s where the industry is headed,” But one of the things that really encourages me across the industry is, all types of games now have avenues for success through mobile kickstarters, Steam, console, free, paid–whatever.
Even though we’ve always done emergent storytelling, I think it’s made more people have the ability to put that kind of gameplay into their games, and they’re finding that the players enjoy it more. They’re more attached to the experience because they made it their own. And that’s what we’ve always thought when we’ve played games. Which is why we did it in our games. “This is mine.” Even though it’s not multiplayer, that water cooler moment of sharing my experience. “This is what I did and this is what you did. Did you know this? Did you know this? Did you know this?” It’s much more personal. And you take a greater amount of pride in what you are doing in the game.
Are there any trends that you particularly dislike, or trends worry you within the industry, whether it’s on a business side, or whether it’s on a design side?
The one that worries me is when everyone says, “This is where the industry is going.” If anything is proven true, it’s that you don’t know where it’s going. I think I kind of enjoy the ride rather than the view of everything. I think the real advances are when people are true to themselves and true to the games they want to make. And sometimes that takes a long time and several versions of a game or a studio to get right.
Speaking of different kind of experiences and staying true to your game, during Bethesda’s press conference a couple of years ago when you announced Fallout 4’s release date, you also announced Fallout Shelter. I forget your exact quote, but you were saying, “This isn’t some throwaway mobile game. This is really a fun game that we worked to make meaningful, and to make it a fun game for your mobile devices.” What was it like working on a smaller title like as opposed to these massive open-worlds, and do you have plans to do something like that in the future again?
Yeah, we loved making it, so we were ecstatic when it was so successful, and it kind of blew us away. We do have another mobile project game that we thought about for a while, and based on the Shelter experience, we’re able to kind of roll out something new.
The Nintendo Switch releases in a couple weeks, and Skyrim’s being ported to it. I want to get your thoughts on the Switch in general. I know people have asked you about it, but with its imminent release, what are your thoughts about the platform, and what changes do you think it might bring about? What opportunities do you think it can afford Nintendo developers or third-party developers like Bethesda that can come to this platform?
Well, first I think it’s really smart what they’ve done. It’s the kind of device that only Nintendo could make. It’s really a Nintendo thing. And they’ve been a very good partner with us, whereas maybe before they were less interested in the types of things that we did or some other groups did. So, I don’t know where it’s going to go, but I think it’s a really smart platform. We like it a lot. It’s exciting to bring Skyrim to the Nintendo audience.
Nintendo has been a really good partner for us, whereas maybe they were a little less interested in the types of things we did before.
Looking at Skyrim specifically, not necessarily just for the Switch but for the remastered edition, what was it like returning to it after you had made and released Fallout 4? You had kind of taken that next evolutionary step in the Bethesda open-world portfolio. What was it like returning to Skyrim?
I think I said to somebody that it was like seeing an old friend from high school and realizing how much you missed spending time together. When we were making Skyrim… It’s your whole life, right? And you start losing perspective on, “Is this fun? What’s not fun? What’s good? What’s bad?” And so being able to come back to it, you really see it. It’s kind of one of those rare times where you sit down and you see something you made as a gamer, you kind of forget all the versions of a certain feature or what it took to get there. You’re just playing for what it is, you know what I mean?
That was really the reason we pushed on the remaster. We still really enjoy this game, and it’s a great project to work on. And it is interesting to play it and see the differences from Fallout 4, and the things you’re like, “Oh I actually like the way this works better in Skyrim.” They both have millions of daily players, and we’re supporting both with online bases and mods now.
Kind of putting you on the spot, but can you mention anything specific that you thought Skyrim might have done better than Fallout 4? Or vice-versa?
I think Skyrim is a little bit more, “Find your own way.” It’s more inviting for the type of character you want to play, whereas Fallout 4 probably tells a stronger but specific story. There’s some other things that dealt with skill progression. How content is presented. They both have their strengths and weaknesses, and we’re very critical of our own stuff. So we really break it down and say, “Well, what do we think the best way to proceed is?”
How do you go about taking that Bethesda open-world formula and iterating on it? I know Fallout 4 added shelters, and it became more customizable in a lot of ways. How do you even decide what you wanted to improve on between titles?
A lot of times we start with the vibe. What is the tone of the world? I think that’s your guiding light in terms of what the player’s going to feel when they play the game. And how does the player make it their own? You see a lot of that in Fallout 4. And one of the things that we try to do is how do we tell a better story in an open-world? I think with each of our games we’ve had successes there and failures there. And if you ask us internally, we have new ideas there that we want to explore in the future because we feel like we haven’t really cracked it yet the way we think it could be.
You look at the upcoming Breath of the Wild. It looks like they’re returning to the kind of storytelling you and I were talking about. More emergent, and more systems interacting to have these water cooler moments, rather than this directed funneling point A, to point B, to point C storyline, and it’s interesting to me to see that Nintendo is doing that. I’m not sure how much time you’ve had to play a lot of games. I know a lot developers have to focus on solely their projects. But I’m curious if there are any more open-world games, or games in general, that you’ve recently gotten a chance to check out?
I tried Uncharted 4, and that’s a game that tells an amazing story. A game like Inside, I loved that I’m kind of interpreting their story, but that’s a very strong, emotional game through subtlety. So I think there are a lot of ways to attack that. I’ve being playing a lot of Clash Royale lately. You play Clash Royale? I love that game.
A little bit, yeah.
What else do I play? I play a lot of Overwatch. I think it’s a phenomenal game. And that’s an interesting one. I think Blizzard’s done a masterful job with how they’ve created these characters in their world that you love through their short videos and stuff. And Overwatch is a game that shouldn’t have a great story, but it does. It’s very compelling. I guess my point is that there are a lot of ways to go about it. I think a lot of people are able fix that in different ways.
The best games are made by teams. Teams that work well together. And we always have ideas.
I did want to ask just kind of a personal overarching question. Now that you’re being inducted [into the AIAS Hall of Fame] and you’re known as an auteur in the game space–what is driving you on your new titles? Like the mobile game you’re working on or the next big open-world game you’re planning. What is it that keeps you driven? Is it the same as it was a few years ago? Has it changed? Do you have different passions within the medium?
It’s kind of been the same for me. You know, 20 plus years I’ve worked with a lot of the same people, so I’ll accept the honor of course, but it’s really for everybody here. I think the best games are made by teams. Teams that work well together. We’ve been fortunate to do it over a long period of time. We always have ideas. We feel like we’re doing more than we ever are, but coming to work and working with these people, most of them are my best friends and we’ve done it for a long time, and we always have new ideas. And once it gets in your head you’re just like, “Oh my God. I want to play that game. We have to make it, let’s go.” And you can’t shape that. You want to do it as fast as you can. You have some things that take too long, but video games, making them and playing them, and the whole industry has given me such joy. That’s still the same thing that’s always been driving me.