So it turns out I was very wrong when I thought my freelance work and life in general was going to calm down some in December but I’ve finally found some time to spit out another blog entry. This one isn’t part of my series on gaming’s future but it is game related. It’s going to be a big one but it’s because there’s a lot to explain.
The last time I talked about a publisher, it was THQ and I started off by discussing how they are kind of unique in many ways. Perhaps the only triple-A publisher more unique than them is Bethesda Softworks. Started in 1986, they are three years older than THQ and have never attained–or seemingly aspired to be–a similar size, remaining small by comparison and never going public. For much of their early history, they developed and self-published all their own games, something rarely done even back then. In the mid 2000s, they started releasing titles from other companies, largely shovelware grade and they all reviewed and sold poorly as a result. Nonetheless, they’ve continued to grow and thrive with their parent company ZeniMax Media recently going on an acquisition bender and picking up some notable names including the venerable id Software. This growth has largely been fuelled by the strength of their in-house titles, particularly Fallout (acquired from the ashes of Interplay Entertainment) and The Elder Scrolls series of open-world RPGs. The fifth iteration of this series, Skyrim was released a little under a month ago and was met with universal acclaim and has sold in excess of seven million copies already. That’s a stunning achievement for any game and virtually unprecedented for an RPG.
Unfortunately, Skyrim has also held true to Bethesda form in a more infamous way: It was full of bugs and glitches at launch, some of which are crippling to players. It is true that when you are crafting worlds that are so massive and complex, it’s exceedingly difficult to test for everything and I can forgive a few hiccups here and there. However, Bethesda titles have had horrible launches throughout the company’s history and combined with the lack of support they often receive, I believe this demonstrates a fundamental lack of respect for their customers that’s rooted in their corporate culture. I think it’s time critics and gamers alike start really taking this company to task for the poor state in which their products launch. It’s something other publishers are often slammed for but Bethesda always seems to get a pass on.
I remember getting a copy of The Terminator for DOS back in 1990. This was Bethesda’s second title ever and was also an open-world, a very impressive thing to pull off with the technology available then. I also remember never being able to successfully play the game for more than a few minutes. When you first ran it and had to refer to a code sheet to get past the copy protection (this is how DRM worked before the Internet), you only had about a 50% chance that it wouldn’t crash after you entered your answer, correct or not. Once I did manage to get into the game, I often found stores that wouldn’t load in properly, vehicles that wouldn’t let me drive them, objectives I couldn’t complete and this was on top of sudden random crashes that happened every 30 minutes or so on average. And since this was pre-Internet, it wasn’t as simple to fix as going online and downloading a patch. This was a full price, triple-A title for the time and it was released so broken that I never got to enjoy it. Since then, every single release in the Elder Scrolls series has had major bugs at launch, some of which can completely break a save game if you run into them. Fallout 3 had major issues that were eventually corrected with patching and its spin-off sequel, the Obsidian Entertainment developed Fallout New Vegas was an utter disaster when it came out, taking months of slow-to-appear updates before it got to a state where most could finish it. Many players even found out that one bug was so bad that if you happened to run into it and save after, the only way to fix it–even after a patch–was to start your whole game over again. When you’re taking titles that can have 250+ hours of content, that’s not a small thing to ask. I waited almost a year before I started New Vegas and even then, I still frequently ran into problems.
Fast forward to present day and we have Skyrim. While it is largely acknowledged that this is one of Bethesda’s smoother launches in recent memory, it’s still been a rough one for many. There are many reports of glitches and bugs, the Xbox 360 version looks substantially worse if installed to the hard drive, the PC version has a appalling user interface (worse than even their previous PC releases) and crashes are still frequent. To try and address the most urgent concerns, Bethesda rushed out an interim update while they worked on a bigger one. True to form, that patch broke some fundamental things and now players are waiting on another patch to fix those problems and hopefully not break anything else. What’s worse and more scandalous is the state in which the PS3 version shipped. I haven’t played that version myself but shortly after launch, it was reported that PS3 users were experiencing a major drop in frame rate as their save files increased in size, something that happens through normal progression as you have more of an impact on the world and information about that is stored. This has affected all of Bethesda’s other RPG releases on PS3 and apparently only gets worse as DLC is added to the mix. It has become noticeable in Skyrim more quickly because it is larger than any of their other releases to date. The first patch was supposed to address this to a point but many said that they noticed no improvement and that many had now progressed to the point where their frame rate was so low, they had to stop playing. We’ll get into this more later.
So, how does this demonstrate a lack of respect from Bethesda as a whole to its customers? There’s a number of factors at play here. Many come down to the now very outdated technology that Bethesda RPGs are based on and how they’ve continued to use it, despite it never really having been up to the job. Since Morrowind–the third Elder Scrolls game released in 2002–Bethesda has used an engine called Gamebryo. This was a very popular engine at one time that was used in everything from shooters to strategy games. It the late 2000s, it struggled to keep up with the market and quickly started to get eclipsed by other engines like Unreal. Its popularity among developers waned and eventually, it’s creators (Emergent Game Technologies) went out of business and GameBryo was sold to a Chinese company who still produces it today. Due to the engine’s ability to handle open-world games and presumably Bethesda’s familiarity with it, they continued to use it for most of their releases in this hardware generation. This is not a bad thing on its own but as their games have gotten bigger, it’s become obvious that Gamebryo is not always up to the task. Many users complained of things like stiff animations, weird random scripting that would make NPCs say baffling things, often in the wrong voice and a dialogue system that involved the characters were were talking with being locked in eye contact with yours, making conversations more creepy than organic. Nevertheless, they’ve steadfastly continued to use the ageing technology and haven’t adopted newer releases. The version used in Fallout New Vegas has a copyright date of 2006, even though the game itself came out at the end of 2010.
When Skyrim was announced, gamers were delighted when Bethesda proclaimed that it would use an all-new internally developed engine. Once PC gamers like myself got our hands on it, we quickly learned that this was simply a damned lie. Without going into too much technical detail, Skyrim uses the same setup utility, configuration files and asset file structure as Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas. Within hours, the PC community was releasing mods for Skyrim because they already knew how it all worked. This “all-new engine” was literally the same dated release of Gamebryo we all saw before. My guess is that Bethesda felt they could get away with calling it a new engine because of the license terms they probably had with Gamebryo. They likely either purchased a lifetime license for it or had a clause in the agreement that essentially allowed them to take ownership of the version they were using should Emergent go out of business, which they did. As a result, Bethesda was able to take the modified Gamebryo tech they had and rebrand it as their own (they call Skyrim’s engine the Creation Engine). Skyrim does include many improvements, most notably an improved conversation system that does away with the NPC staring contests. But this was done by modifying the old engine, not by using a new one. This is the first sign of their dishonestly. Rather than tell concerned and devoted fans that they were using a previous engine but would make the changes people wanted, they blatantly lied to us by calling it a new engine when it was not. In doing so, they claimed to have put a lot more effort into the title than that actually did. The ancient version of Gamebryo they are using is clearly not up to the task of handling the games they strive to make and given how well these titles sell, Bethesda has the financial means to either license a better engine or have a dedicated technology group to write the new one from scratch.
Nothing provides a better demonstration of this technical nightmare than the PS3 versions of their RPGs. The difficulties they continue to have with Sony’s platform have some unique connections to the dated Gamebryo version they use. If they are still using one from 2006 (as indicated on the Fallout New Vegas copyright screen), that means it is from right around or possibly even before the release of the PS3 itself. The PS3 launch was rife with stories from game and engine developers alike, bemoaning how hard it initially was to get their tech working reliably on the platform. When you combine that with how they had to delay Oblivion’s launch on PS3 at the last minute and that the rumoured cause was that they couldn’t get it running reliably with the game’s DLC present, it’s easy to assume the engine simply wasn’t ready yet. I would bet that Bethesda essentially had to hack PS3 functionality into their engine and while newer editions of Gamebryo work fine with PS3, they’ve never updated to them so those hacks are still being used.
I’ll try not to be too technical here but most consoles and PCs have two different sets of memory, one dedicated solely to video (i.e. where the textures and other things you see on screen are stored) and one for everything else (i.e. other behind the scenes calculations like AI and the math behind combat encounters). The PS3 has one set of memory that has to get split between these two functions in different ways. I’m explaining it very poorly (largely because I’m not a programmer) but the gist of it is using memory well (which is critical to game engine programming) is much harder on PS3 than other platforms. In a surprising public Q&A, one of the developers of Fallout New Vegas discusses why this has been a big problem for Bethesda RPGs released on the system and why it’s related to the version of Gamebryo they are saddled with. He went so far as to say (much to the justified anger of the community and the press) that this is such a deep-rooted problem with the engine, that they may never be able to properly fix the issue and that PS3 players may just have to live with it.
This begs the question: If their engine has such major deficiencies when used on PS3, why have they released four full-priced titles with it and substantial DLC add-ons for three of those with Skyrim add-ons coming? It’s bad enough that they are continuing to use old technology while blatantly lying to their fans that it’s “all-new” but to put out titles at the same $60 price point as 360 and PC knowing that the tech powering them doesn’t properly work with the platform? Some would call that fraudulent. The engine they utilise is their choice and I’ll be the first to say I don’t understand enough about programming to be able to say “Just use a better one”. However, I think it’s more than fair to say that if the engine you use can’t provide the same experience on PS3 that it can on other platforms, then you should forgo the PS3 and its audience. If you’re charging them the same price, they have every right to expect the same experience. If what the Obsidian developer says it true, Bethesda has been like a salesman selling you full-size car that he swears has a V8 engine that can carry its weight but when you get home, you find it only has a 4-cylinder and won’t go above 30kph. And by the way, you can’t return it once you find that out.
Beyond this and the now famous trend of Bethesda not testing their games sufficiently or knowingly shipping them with severe bugs still in place (a practice which seems to be a historical standard operating procedure for them), they are always hush on details when problems come to light and are painfully slow to respond to them. They are sparsely active in their own forums, the few responses they do offer are generic platitudes like “We’re looking into it, be patient.” and patches often take far longer than they should come out, usually fixing a set of problems and replacing them with new ones. The first patch for Skyrim introduced issues so basic that I have to wonder if anyone actually played the updated version before deploying it. Communication with players, good quality assurance and timely patches is an area where many big publishers often fail but Bethesda seems to have this embedded in their DNA as a company. They seem to have a culture where ship dates for titles are determined early and that delays are simply not permitted, regardless of how broken a game is when it goes out the door. Their multi-decade history with this practice says to me that they simply don’t care because they know players will still buy their games in large enough numbers that it won’t matter. Sadly, since each of their RPGs has sold better than the last and Skyrim is on track to sell more that 10 million units, they appear to be right.
Personally, I find this lack of respect for their customers repugnant and indicative of the kind of arrogant executive thinking that permeates the triple-A games industry. Lying to your most devoted fans, releasing broken products, using deficient tech on a platform time and again, pushing out non-fixes and then sitting silent when people demand answers is a phenomena rarely seen outside of video games. It’s disrespectful and says to your customers that once you have their money, you don’t care anymore. Bethesda is certainly not alone in this way of thinking but they almost revel in it and certainly don’t raise the bar. Few companies in the world are such masters at creating massive, expansive worlds where right from the outset, you can go anywhere, do anything and almost feel like you are living in that space. Given the scope and complexity of these creations, it’s kind of a miracle that they even work at all. At the end of the day though, we’re the ones paying $60 and that doesn’t matter, it’s supposed to work properly and we have every right to demand it does. These games are runaway hits and you have buckets of money as a result. Start spending some of it on tech and customer service and give us the polished, finished products that work the way they should on every platform you choose to put them on. I can tell you right now, Skyrim will be the last product bearing the Bethesda name that I buy at launch and I’m willing to bet I’m not alone on that. At least with the next generation of consoles probably coming soon, they’ll surely be forced to use a new engine for The Elder Scrolls 6…right?