Sunday, May 19, 2024

Bethesda Should Have Just Stayed Home

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You know… I really wanted to go into this E3 from a more traditional review perspective. To watch each conference and simply evaluate it with a letter grade. I do stand by my opinion on the EA showing, because I firmly believe in E3 as primarily a preview show, but also as the best place for a major publisher or studio to show off what they’ve learned in the past year.

E3 is also about the spectacle, of course. It’s about creative, engaging presentations that are written not just for the industry professionals sitting in the room, but the average gamer watching the live streams. The pressure to have an extravagant presentation, above all else, is enormous. In fact, you could argue that it’s the most important thing about the show.

So when Bethesda rolled out onto the stage, sheepishly pressed play on a 35 minute video, then peaced out of the presentation like they had just given us something worth writing about, I was understandably pissed.

Now, I live on the American west coast, in the same state as E3 is held. I was only up until 9:36PM to watch this presentation. But I was pissed. I had work at 7:00AM the next morning. I can’t imagine how pissed the east coast viewers must have been staying up past midnight, or the international ones getting up at the asscrack of dawn to watch… uh. That.

What was that?

Let’s start by saying that yes, The Evil Within 2 trailer was very nice, though I was under the impression that maybe four people were eagerly anticipating this. As was the Wolfenstein II trailer, despite its somewhat baffling editing choices.

I am very excited that Dishonored 2 is getting a piece of DLC that is so big, it’s a standalone, but Bethesda was very bad about making that clear to the audience.

I’m sure someone who isn’t me is excited about Bethesda’s surely doomed attempt to knock Hearthstone off its throne. Though I will be deducting points for shamelessly using Skyrim’s overture in the trailer. You just can’t keep doing that to us, Bethesda. Some of us have heart conditions.

Some people seem to be stoked about Skyrim coming to the Switch, and they aren’t consumed with second-hand embarrassment that Bethesda actually modeled a Link costume for your protagonist to be unlocked with their Amiibo system.


Hey, don’t get me wrong. Ubisoft and Nintendo sold me on the Switch. I am woman enough to admit I screamed like a teenage girl at a Beatles concert for that Mario and the Rabbids game. When I can finally find a Switch without selling a kidney to buy it, I’m totally buying one.

But not for Skyrim. I own it on two consoles. The first of which was the PS3, and honestly every PS3 owner deserves a medal for tolerating that RIM lag problem that made the game unplayable after 20 hours or so.

In short: I’m not buying it again. Not even for an official Link mod that I’m sure some PC modder put into the game in 2013, when these things were still relevant. But this is kind of the problem, isn’t it? Bethesda thinks that just showing up is good enough.

No, it’s definitely the problem. Or at least a part of it.

On the surface, Bethesda actually had a pretty detailed E3 showing. The animation work that went into that 35 minute video was spectacular. The extravagant theme park they built, Bethesdaland, was a sight to behold. It was reminiscent of Disneyland, except for Bethesda fans! What’s not to like?

Well… a lot. And I’m going to take it upon myself to shout my objections and complaints into the void, while trying real hard not to look at the ESO Collector’s Edition Dwemer Centurion statue and Dishonored 2 Corvo mask sitting inches from my keyboard as I type this.

Love fades. But things? Things are forever. – Tom Haverford

Obviously, I am a Bethesda fangirl. I have been a fangirl since Oblivion descended from video game heaven and forever ruined my ability to enjoy anything in its orbit that wasn’t exactly like it, or up to the specific standard I had set in my mind based on it. When I look to the other side of my keyboard, I see a collector’s edition Pipboy, which I spend over a month trying to nab as a pre-order because I made the foolish mistake of waiting 6 hours after the reveal to pre-order it.

Bethesda, and the studios under its gnarled claws, have had me by the wallet since 200-freaking-6. Even through performance issues on Fallout 4 and Dishonored 2, both of which I upgraded my PC hardware to run without issues. The truth is, nobody does it quite like Bethesda and its minions. The problem is; they know it. And they’re really starting to act like it.

When Pete Hines walked out onstage for the Bethesda presentation, he more-or-less thanked the audience for their applause while also almost begging for it, and that should have been a red flag. When the presenter for a solo conference at E3 seems embarrassed to be standing there, clearly things are amiss.

Pete Hines looked a bit like the court jester who gets sent out to tell the angry mob that the king is “very busy.” He knew. He knew he was being sent out to appease a crowd that was going to be royally pissed, and he seemed appropriately nervous. He stuttered his way through the end of the presentation, calling Wolfenstein II “fucking bananas” with all the grace of a freshman who didn’t read the novel he was giving a book report on. He was embarrassed, and we were embarrassed for him.

Of course the crowd cheered, though not as enthusiastically as you’d expect considering how much Bethesda had liquored them up, which Hines even joked about at the beginning of the presentation. Again, red flag, but hindsight is 20/20. What they were cheering for, I don’t know. I don’t even think they really knew.

Well, maybe we do. It’s Bethesda. And that’s the problem.

Bethesda has this magical thing it does, where every game it releases is a Game of the Year winner, if not a top contender, despite being a buggy mess. Especially with the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series, what the studio does right manages to far outweigh what the studio does wrong. But that era is ending, and it’s Bethesda’s own damn fault.

As I’ve said to my ten Funko Pop! Bethesda game figurines above my head multiple times while drafting this rant, I’ve finally had enough. I’ll even tell it again to the three more that are in the mail.

If you’re saying to yourself, “my, this sounds hypocritical,” you are absolutely right! Me and my hundreds of dollars of collectables, DLC, and fancy artbooks totally agree with you. But breaking the habit is a bitch and a half. And admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery.

Hi, I’m Elizabeth, and I pre-order Bethesda games. And I won’t be doing it anymore.

Bethesda puts us into this position where even the God-tier machine owners amongst us have to make excuses for them. Games ship bent and broken on day one, and many are still broken on day 365. We argue that the bugs in the creaky old engines are part of the charm. That poor PC optimization is just part of the package, despite plenty of games proving this laughably false. We tolerate them putting up review embargos and throwing their own studios under the bus. We excuse Bethesda’s faults, because what works is just so magical that it makes the faults worth it, and they’re just so passionate about what they do.

I think we finally hit the tipping point, though. Because the passion seems to be gone, and with it, a lot of the magic.

This year’s E3 presentation banked 100% on the fact that everyone watching was going to be 100% on board with them showing a 35 minute movie, with no presenters or flair. It banked on The Evil Within 2 and Wolfenstein II being big enough reveals to justify all the pomp and circumstance surrounding their presentation. For all this trouble they went through with this slick theme park and matching animated bits, they were expecting that anything less than a brand new series reveal or Elder Scrolls VI was going to be enough.

In short, it absolutely wasn’t.

See, here’s the thing. It’s not enough to just be Bethesda anymore. Or for that matter, it’s not even enough to be Nintendo or Sony or Microsoft. If you’re going to shell out the money to do a solo studio presentation at E3, you’d better have something that will melt the faces off your audience, or you’re going to have to dodge pitchforks and torches for the rest of the conference.

This year at E3, Bethesda walked out on stage and said to the audience, “We’re Bethesda. Isn’t this enough?” Why NO, IT ABSOLUTELY ISN’T. Especially when your conference is bookended by a flipping Metroid reveal, the return of Beyond Good and Evil, and Star Wars Battlefront II: Please Forgive Our Sins Edition.

And we share a little blame for this, because we gave them our money despite knowing better. We taught Bethesda that we will put up with them re-releasing the same titles over and over again, and that we will tolerate their horrible business practices. We taught them that we would put up with anything, really,  because we were entertained.

Very entertained.

Well you know what? I’m not entertained anymore. I’m tired and I’m not making excuses anymore. When you compare Bethesda’s presentation to Ubisoft’s, it’s like night and day. There was so much passion and excitement in Ubisoft’s presentation. From bringing out Miyomoto to talk about that ridiculously fun looking Rabbids and Mario game, to the reveal of Beyond Good and Evil 2 that looked like a goddam Pixar trailer, to Assassin’s Creed Origins bringing the series back to the historical roots it did best in, to that pirate game that is essentially Black Flag But All Ship Combat, to that ridiculously beautiful racing game trailer I can’t remember the name of, but I remember the beautiful editing… THAT is what E3 is supposed to be about.

E3 is supposed to leave you with a sense of wonder and excitement at the magic of video games. It’s supposed to inspire you and grow your imagination to new heights along with the medium. Even if the trailer is for something coming out in Q1 2019, that doesn’t matter; E3 is about spectacle. It’s about whetting your palette for great things to come, even if they don’t live up to expectations. If you watch an E3 presentation and aren’t left with a sense of childlike wonderment at the technological heights we’ve achieved, the studio is doing something wrong.

When Bethesda played that 35 minute video, and the best excuse they had for it was “everything you see here is coming out this year!” That’s not something to be PROUD of, Bethesda. That’s an admittance that you are so far behind on your stretch goals on most of your projects that you can’t even cobble together a 5 second “title screen” screen preview for a conference you paid to present.

I know Bethesda does that thing where they don’t like to reveal what they’re working on until it’s almost done, but that’s not really a good business model. It makes you look perpetually underprepared. Which, honestly? That’s what Bethesda is. If you have so little faith in your products that you can’t even fly out your project leads to say a few words about the project they’ve sweat and bled for, that’s not a good look.

What Bethesda’s presentation was, when you boil it down, was lazy. No, I don’t think the studios that slaved over these titles are lazy, but Bethesda’s presentation was. Their presentation said in no uncertain terms “We are Bethesda. That’s good enough.” Well guess what? It isn’t. It isn’t good enough anymore. You don’t get to walk out onstage at the biggest game conference in the world and press play on a 35 minute video, coming in a full 25 minutes short on your time slot. It’s insulting to the studios that labor under your title, and it’s insulting to the audience you begged to clap.

There is an unspoken agreement that the studio previewing their games should seem just as excited as the audience about them. Ubisoft is no stranger to shady business practices and broken games, but at least they respect their audience enough to walk out on that stage and act like they want to be there. Like they’re passionate about the titles they’re showing, and that the developers truly believe in their visions, even if the final product doesn’t live up to the hype.


The only lesson in expectations management harsher than Bethesda hands out.

It’s not really about whether or not Wolfenstein II will be good. It probably will. It’s about the fact that Bethesda didn’t seem all that proud to show it, or anything else they cobbled together in this disaster of a presentation. While Ubisoft and Nintendo have project leads moved to tears over finally being able to show the fruits of their labor, Bethesda just shoved their titles out onto the stage with a half-hearted “Ta-da” and a party popper from stage left.

And that’s really at the core of why I’m so angry. It’s not just entitlement of the consumer, though that’s definitely a factor. It’s that Bethesda just doesn’t seem to care all that much about their audience or their studios. Sure, they opened with that cheesy video of the employees’ children talking about their parents working at Bethesda. And they had that wanky eSports thing in the middle of the presentation. But it was all so phony. Transparently so. We know Nintendo doesn’t give one wet fart about any of us individually. But man, do they make you feel like they do.

E3 is, quite literally, the largest gathering of video game fans in the world. It’s an event not just about the people who make games, but who they make them for. And not just on a financial level either. The reason you watch these presentations is because you sense that these people really, truly love what they do. That feeling is so infectious, it fills you with hope about what the medium could be. For a moment you forget it’s all a business. It’s just about the love of games. From the people who make them, and the people who play them.

So as painful as it is for me to rip off that band-aid, I get it now. I get why people don’t like Bethesda. On some level, we know that we’re all just sentient wallets to video game companies. It is a business, after all. But at least Ubisoft, Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, and even freaking EA have the fucking decency to pretend like there’s something more to it than turning a profit.

This is only the third year that Bethesda has done a solo conference, by my count. The first year was legitimately “fucking bananas,” and last year had some strong showings. This year, you almost have to ask “why are you here?” There’s nothing they revealed that couldn’t have been rolled into one of the other presentations. But they’re there because they’re Bethesda, and admitting they had nothing big to show would put a damper on the mind-boggling amount of money they spent on that theme park and that main stage slot.

I’m sorry, Bethesda, from one of your biggest fans: if this is the best you had, you should have just stayed home. Come back when you’ve got a reason to keep me up past my bedtime.

Images courtesy of Bethesda

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