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11 Interviews

Interview: Bethesda's Pete Hines on the legacy of Wolfenstein and the ESO subscription model

By Shaun Prescott on Monday 24th Feb 2014 at 11:03 PM UTC

In his role as VP of PR and marketing at Bethesda, Pete Hines has helped ship some of the company's biggest games, including The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Fallout 3.

While the company remains coy on the inevitable announcement of Fallout 4, Bethesda will ship three titles this year: Wolfenstein: The New Order, The Evil Within and The Elder Scrolls Online. All are interesting for the way they seem to shirk conventional publishing wisdom in 2014: one is a single-player FPS, another is a survival horror game and the last is a subscription-based MMO.

In the below interview, conducted during a recent Wolfenstein preview event in Sydney, we touch on Bethesda's willingness to pursue genres and models the rest of the industry is avoiding, the legacy of the Wolfenstein IP, and whether any new titles are set to be announced in 2014.

What do you think is the enduring appeal of the Wolfenstein series?

Pete Hines: Shooting Nazis. Shooting Nazis never gets old. I think what MachineGames has tried to do with The New Order is to take some of the core ideas of Wolfenstein and then reimagine them in the vein of the kinds of games that they like to make. They've taken elements of character and storytelling, different types of gameplay, exploration, player choice, some RPG stuff, and layered all that into the kind of games they've made.

If it weren't for MachineGames, what would have happened with Wolfenstein?

I have no idea. I assume that it's like any IP that we own that isn't either announced or in development, where until we find the right fit we're not going to try to force a square peg into a round hole. If it's a good fit we'll do it, if it's not we'll wait for the right opportunity or the right studio to do it justice.

Pete Hines has worked with Bethesda since 1999.

Have the old id Software guys seen the new Wolfenstein game?

Oh yeah, for sure. They've definitely been involved and seen it, and they like the new direction and how MachineGames has evolved it. We do a lot of playtesting internally, not just among guys like myself or testers, but we also send builds out to all of our different studios to have them provide feedback. Folks at id have been involved in playtesting Wolfenstein and providing comments and thoughts from a gameplay standpoint, in addition to being aware of what they wanted to do and how they wanted to do it from the very beginning.

The New Order doesn't have a multiplayer mode, which is pretty common for Bethesda. Is eschewing a superfluous multiplayer component mandated at Bethesda, and if so, is having no multiplayer as big a risk as the rest of the industry seems to think?

I think the answer is 'yes', in that we don't believe in superfluous features. We believe in defining the game experience you want to deliver, and if multiplayer is a part of that then you should do that. It's no different than any other feature: it has to be part of what it is that you want to make. In the case of MachineGames their background is not in multiplayer stuff. They make cool, interesting and compelling singleplayer experiences, much like the Arkane guys with Dishonored or anything Bethesda Game Studios has made.

We've obviously had a lot of success doing singleplayer games, and as a result we may just have a different view, but we don't think adding a feature just for the feature's sake is the right approach. You spend a lot of time doing that and it's not free: you have to hire the people to do that, you have to spend all that time polishing, and that time could be spent continuously improving a singleplayer experience. That's always been our approach and I don't see that changing.

Why do you think other publishers consider it a risk to ship without multiplayer?

I have no idea. On this side of the fence in the gaming industry, I've never worked anywhere but Bethesda, so I can't really speak of what happens at other publisher developers. I suppose it's because they think it makes a game more appealing to a wider audience, that it's got replayability or additional features which will make you want to buy the game more. That would be my assumption.

Last year Bethesda announced a single-player only shooter in Wolfenstein. Then it announced The Evil Within, which is a pure survival horror game. In the same year we saw Resident Evil and Dead Space dramatically depart from these survival horror roots. What constitutes risk in the industry at the moment? Your company seems to fly in the face of it.

It's a good question. The best answer is, maybe it's just that we come at it from a different perspective. We were a developer first and a publisher second, if you go way back to the early days. We became a publisher to publish the games that we developed. Our approach has always been a dev-led one, and we've never aspired to be the kind of company that publishes twenty or thirty games in a year, and we don't sit around and have conversations about what's our Q3 shooter for 2015. We have a different approach, which is finding development studios that share a common philosophy or ideals regardless of genre.

If people have a passion for making something which is cool and different, we'll do anything we can to support this. And whether that's one game a year in Dishonored or three games in a year, the chips will fall wherever they fall, as long as it's a good game. If new IP is a good fit, then let's do new IP. If it's a better fit to use something that's already existed or to reboot something, such as we are doing with Wolfenstein, then that's what we'll do.

I think we were set up to be a different kind of publisher and as a result we just approach things differently to everyone else. It doesn't mean we're right or wrong - we certainly haven't gotten everything right during the 14 years I've been at Bethesda - but we're trying, and we continue to learn and evolve as we go.

There's been a lot of talk about the Elder Scrolls Online subscription model. I'm curious about the Xbox One requirement to have a Gold subscription as well as an ESO one. Has that affected your outlook regarding the game's performance on that platform?

I don't know how much it has. I mean, ultimately that is really only applicable to the subset of people who don't already have a Gold subscription to play anything online, because that's the point: if you want to play anything online on an Xbox One you have to have a Gold subscription. We simply fall into that category as well. It's really only [a problem] to people who would only want to play ESO but no other multiplayer games.

Having said that, it is what it is. I can't change it or really have any say in it, so hopefully the folks that feel like ESO is a game they want to play are folks that are playing multiplayer stuff online anyway and it won't be a big deal.

Close Close

Elder Scrolls is probably your flagship series at Bethesda. Star Wars: The Old Republic didn't work with a subscription model and that's one of the biggest entertainment brands in the world. Is there any anxiety about this model not working?

Anxiety? I would say yes, because I'm anxious about everything all the time [laughs]. I don't get paid to sit around and assume that everything is fine, so I tend to worry about everything and I want to make sure that we're doing things in the right way for the right reasons. But I guess, to answer your question, I don't know whether or not previous games that have done subscriptions haven't succeeded because they were subscription-based, or because of the game that they were and the value that the customer got, and that's ultimately what we're talking about.

If you feel like you're getting your money's worth for whatever you're paying - whether it be $15 for a month or $2 for a DLC - then you're going to be happy. If you're not, then you won't. You could do a free-to-play game where somebody wasn't happy, because maybe they don't feel like they're getting value for the money that they played upfront, even if it's not a pay-by-month subscription. We felt like the subscription model fit best what we wanted to do, not because we want you to pay per month to play the game, but because we want to provide real and meaningful content support on a regular basis.

That's not just a few items or a thing here and there, that's real significant stuff that adds to the game in a whole host of ways, and doing so needs a good sized group of people who are working on and creating new stuff. That's stuff we can start working on now, as well as stuff we can work on when we start to get player feedback.


Hands-on: Wolfenstein The New Order is a stubbornly old-school shooter

Can a singleplayer, narrative-driven shooter succeed in 2014?

There's a couple of Guild quest lines in the game at the moment, but there are certainly noticeable Guilds that aren't in the game - there's no Dark Brotherhood, for example. You can't set aside a bunch of people to work on a cool Dark Brotherhood quest line unless you've figured out a way that you're going to pay those bodies to spend that time. Otherwise you'd just put them onto something else. We feel like this approach is going to give people who want to play the best value, and reason to look forward to the next new thing that's coming out. The Elder Scrolls is our crown jewel and it's the series that made everything we do possible, so it's a big triple-A title that demands huge, ongoing triple-A support.

Does Bethesda have any more announcements this year?

It remains to be seen. Is that coy enough? I think it's rare that we let a year go by that we're not talking about something, but you know, we've got a number of studios at work on a number of things: Battlecry, which we started up a year-and-a-half ago is working on a free-to-play thing we haven't talked about. Arkane and id [are working on projects], and even among folks that we do have announced titles for, there's lots going on. We'll just have to wait and see.