Bethesda’s first video game, released in 1986, was Gridiron, the football simulator that went on to inspire EA’s Madden series, but it wasn’t until 1994 that Elder Scrolls: Arena, the first entry in the series that would eventually spawn Skyrim, was released. Since then the company’s increased its influence by taking over iconic franchises like Fallout and Wolfenstein, which broke into the mainstream conversation this year thanks to its jarring portrayal of Nazism in America.
More than 30 years after it was founded, Bethesda is more relevant than ever—but the company’s founder is focused on even bigger things. Christopher Weaver hasn’t had any direct involvement with the powerhouse game publisher in over a decade. These days, he spends his time teaching video game development and, more recently, working on an archive tracking the history of the industry for a Smithsonian project.
We spoke with Weaver about everything from his early days at Bethesda to the future of video games. We also got his take on some of the biggest (and most controversial) topics in gaming today, from virtual reality to loot boxes.
The history of video games it the history of innovation
At Bethesda, every early project came from a desire to see what was possible—rather than simply to sell games. “We invented things,” Christopher Weaver says. “We constantly innovated things. We adapted things to our use. We created new technologies where none previously existed.”
The Elder Scrolls series, for example, came out of a challenge to bring pencil and paper gaming to a digital medium. Gridiron, the football game that inspired EA’s Madden series, was an experiment to bring real-world physics to a sports simulation.
“It’s sort of like being part of the movement when radio started or electricity was being placed or when cable television was being placed,” Weaver says. “It’s kind of a new way to allow technology to seep into society and allow it to be used.”
Of course, not every project was a success—or even made it to release. Early on, Bethesda developed several sci-fi games that never saw the light of day, including one with “massive docking stations and vehicles and ships that were phenomenal.” But the game fell apart when one of its chief programmers lost his visa and had to return to Denmark.
Just like every other video game developer, Bethesda’s had its fair share of flops, but the company’s managed to thrive thanks to a few huge franchises like Elder Scrolls and Fallout that outweighed everything that went wrong.
”Bethesda was generally fortunate there,” Weaver says. “Part of it was we tried to keep our mistakes the least costly as possible.”
Now, 30 years later, he’s using that experience to create an archive of the early gaming industry for the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center. The project includes oral histories and video interviews with pioneers from the earliest days of gaming. Many of these people are still alive, and with Weaver behind the camera, they’re finally willing to tell the true, and often surprising, stories behind the earliest video game releases.
“The only part anybody hears about is success,” Weaver says, “but it’s very rare you look up to the sky and see a lightning bolt.”
One example that sticks out is Spacewar! Developed at MIT in the early 1960s, Spacewar! was the first video game to be played on multiple computers, mixing Newtonian physics with two-dimensional space combat. You might expect to hear that the game was created by a group of professionals and methodical work, but the real story is a little messier.
The game’s primary coder, Steve Russell, barely managed to get the job done. In an interview with Weaver, he admitted to being a procrastinator who had to be shamed into doing the actual work by his friends. Weaver says. The game’s iconic star-filled background image was created on a whim by MIT student Peter Sampson by shrinking down the game map and putting it back in the program.
In their interview, Weaver asked why Sampson would spend all that time creating the background image for a side-project with a few other people at MIT. He smiles into the camera and says, “Because it was wrong, and it had to be done correctly.”
Throughout all these interviews—Weaver’s been at it for a year and a half and he’s about 50 percent finished—the same attitude seems to play a key role in the history of video games.
“It’s not about the money or the position,” Weaver says. “The thing I’ve seen over and over again is: Because it needs to be done, because it’s challenging, because it’s a problem that needs to be solved.”
On the state of the industry today
While Weaver is busy interviewing video game pioneers, the industry continues to move ahead at full steam, and even if he isn’t directly involved, he can’t help but have opinions on some of the latest developments in gaming.
When I asked about how video games should make money in the wake of the loot box-ificiation of AAA titles, Weaver’s first response was to criticize the freemium model.
“I’m not a big fan of people believing that you get something for nothing," he says. “If you want to try something like a single chapter first or subscribe, I’m ok with that.”
As for games like Star Wars: Battlefront 2 and Middle-Earth: Shadow of War that entice players to buy loot boxes even after paying full price for the game, Weaver warned that players will continue to rebel against the already unpopular strategy.
“This nickel and dime approach to payment may well backfire as it interferes with the flow of a game and disallows for players to lose themselves in its play-world,” he says, adding that, the best solution may simply be paying more for new games up front rather than having to deal with hidden costs. “Players may have to absorb the increasing costs of creating AAA games to allow publishers to remain profitable.”
At the end of the day, though Weaver isn’t too concerned. “The nice about teaching students is, I don’t have to worry about the economics anymore,” he says.
Weaver’s much more interested in how video game mechanics and technology can improve other parts of society. He points to researchers at John Hopkins University who use a dolphin simulator game to treat stroke victims by remapping their brains. He added that flight simulators have now become so realistic they actually offer better training than a real plane, and that the rise of video games has given the U.S. Air Force its best crop of pilots yet.
In his own courses at MIT and Wesleyan University, he focuses on how video games can enhance our lives in unexpected ways. “I have no interest in teaching you how to make a video game,” he says. “I have an interest in teaching you to use gaming technology to solve other problems. The next chapter, if you will.”
When asked to name a recent video game that impressed him, Weaver skipped over Bethesda’s latest released and pointed to That Dragon, Cancer, a game created by the parents of a child with cancer to help them deal with their loss.
“That was a mind opener,” he says. “It showed me the ways people can use game technology in an emotional way. Helping other parents deal with their own pain.”
He’s also interested in the prospects of virtual and augmented reality, though he’s quick to note that VR is nothing new. The technology has been in development for decades. MIT worked on it in the 1970s and the military was involved too. The only difference now is that the hardware is cheaper and there are more people with the training to use it. Still, Weaver doesn’t think VR will ever really explode without a killer app.
“You’re supplying these new tools to a wider audience,” he says, “but as with so many things you’re gonna find you need a Mozart who can use it in unique ways.”
Taking video games beyond gaming
Now that video games have made it from their messy beginnings and seeped into the mainstream, Weaver says we’re finally ready to embrace the technology without worrying to much about the actual games. He compares it to the early days of electricity.
“There was a time when people paid attention to electricity as electricity,” he says. “There used to be questions about whether it should even be allowed into houses because it’s dangerous.”
Now, Weaver sees the same thing happening in the industry he helped build. “There’s a transition occurring finally where we’re no longer paying too much attention to the games themselves,” he says. “People are no longer interested in the game alone, but what it can do.”
Through his work with the Smithsonian, Weaver hopes to create a living archive where future generations can learn about the origins of the industry from the people who created it while also playing the games they developed.
“As exciting as it is for me to be in the center of this, what’s really exciting is that my son and his children and their children will have access to this material,” he says.
Once that’s finished, Weaver’s future is unclear, though he’ll likely continue teaching. As for Bethesda, the company he founded may be doing better than ever, but Weaver worries that the spirit of innovation he helped establish has faded over time.
“Bill Gates said that the greatest innovations are not made by the largest companies,” Weaver paraphrased. “I think that what happens to all game companies that achieve a certain status is you start focusing on profitability over risks. When you’re small you don’t have a lot to lose. You’re doing some crazy things because you don’t have very long to fall. All companies, when they get to a certain size, don’t want to make mistakes.”
Regardless of what happens to Bethesda, one thing’s for certain, Weaver definitely won’t be returning to video game industry anytime soon.
“It’s like asking somebody if they want to go back to jail,” he says. “Hell no. I absolutely wouldn’t.”