Bethesda Game Studios makes big games for even bigger audiences. Fallout 4, the studio’s most recent title, earned $750 million in the first 24 hours after it went on sale last fall. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the studio’s previous game, may have been an even bigger hit, selling 30 million copies in the five year since its release. The average Skyrim player, according to Bethesda, has spent 150 hours inside the game’s vast open world. They fight dragons, hurl magic spells, talk to elves and dwarves, buy houses and get married, or become thieves or assassins or even werewolves.
Todd Howard, the director and executive producer at Bethesda, leads the development of the Fallout and Elder Scrolls games, a role he has filled since 2002’s The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Yet despite directing Morrowind, Oblivion, Skyrim, Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 – not to mention the mobile hit Fallout Shelter – Howard is not as widely known as some game designers with lesser pedigrees. Glixel talked to Howard about why Bethesda released a remastered special edition of Skyrim for PCs, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, whether Skyrim‘s success changed him, and why he’s excited for the Nintendo Switch.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has sold 30 million copies, which makes it a hit on the scale of Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, Mario. They joked about the game on an episode of NCIS. You can’t get more mainstream than that. What did that kind of success mean for you as a creator?
Each of our games has found a larger and larger audience, which we never take for granted. A lot of us have worked together for 10, 15, 20 years – in many respects, making the same game. Skyrim was kind of this tipping point. It seemed to hit an audience that we had never had before.
It didn’t change us. But it did make us aware that some of the things we do speak to people who don’t traditionally play games, or don’t traditionally play role-playing games. They make it their own experience, and that was what was most important to us. Putting somebody in a world where they can do what they want. I think that’s what’s special about video games as entertainment.
Of all your games, I feel like Skyrim is the one that gets closest to delivering that experience, which you talk about a lot. It’s a game with a lot of “verbs” for the player, a lot of different ways to approach situations, lots of multi-part side quests that feel just as important as the main quest.
I think that’s true. The game has really good flow. When I sit down and play it again, even I get kind of lost. It’s giving you choices at a nice pace.
In 2012 you said the design document for Skyrim was a Conan action figure. Really?
I’m looking at him on my desk right now. We start with tone. This is it. This is the tone.
That gets at one way the game constrains the player. It’s all based around exploration and combat. You can’t all of a sudden decide to become one of the shopkeepers or something. It’s still a game about killing people.
Or killing creatures. It’s not something we’ve thought about too much, “Are there other occupations in the world?” If that’s your question.
I can’t “do whatever I want” is all I’m saying. I’m trying to figure out what it means when you say that.
We try to do it as much as possible. Role-playing is a genre that could be anything. There’s no feature that you would just say, “Oh, it’s an RPG. I wouldn’t do that.” In our games, we can do anything.
You can’t become a merchant, but there are skill perks that let you invest in the stores, and now you’re becoming someone who can barter and deal with gold, or persuade people.
Do you have a preferred play style?
I play at a slow pace. I like to take in the scenery. So I’ll sit there and watch the sunrise, and pick all the flowers, and talk to all the people.