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Like I said, Bethesda is strange. They’re one of a handful of publishers who are privately owned—Valve is in the same boat—which means they’re not required to say anything in public about their financials. The video game industry is already terribly secretive, but Bethesda is an even bigger black box. The only way to know how well the company is doing is to based on what they choose to share, and the decisions they make.
I’ve been thinking about Bethesda this week, following the news of Rage 2. It's the company that announced and showed Prey 2 before cancelling it, and a few years later, they came back with a new game—now, without the 2—set in a different universe.
Nobody was asking for Rage 2, and Bethesda could have easily partnered with Avalanche to build a new property in the wasteland, but it choose to bring back Rage—and attach a two. Maybe audacity is part of the equation? Zigging instead of zagging, and the mystified reaction produces a larger response than a brand-new world?
My understanding is Dishonored 2 didn’t sell particularly well, but that didn’t stop Bethesda from allowing Arkane Studios to produce the ambitious Death of the Outside, a spectacular add-on that more or less concluded the story from the first two games. (You didn't need to own Dishonored 2 to play it, technically, but it still felt like DLC.) It feels similar to how beloved, commercially unsuccessful TV shows will sometimes get a shorter, truncated season to wrap up their lingering plot lines. It’s looking like Prey, a game that also undersold to expectations, will get the similar treatment; Bethesda has been teasing some kind of DLC for a few months now. If we’re not getting Prey 2, DLC that brings the story full circle is a close second.
I have no idea if Bethesda is actually green-lighting vanity projects costing millions of dollars and taking away creative energy that could be spent elsewhere, but it’s hard not to assume Bethesda is given more leeway than the average publisher. At the end of the day, there’s always another Todd Howard game on the way. We may not know what’s coming next—please be Starfield, however far fetched it might be—but Howard’s studio will produce another game...eventually. And it'll sell a lot.
Everything they’ve touched since Oblivion has been the kind of blockbuster companies dream of: incredibly profitable and beloved games that players spend hours over the course of not just days, weeks, or months—but years. And they keep paying! (It helps that Bethesda’s expansions are often more interesting than the core storytelling.)
I used to listen to all sorts of quarterly results calls for game publishers, and my favorite was Take-Two Interactive. Even when BioShock, Borderlands, and other games were taking off, they were a drop in the bucket compared to anything Rockstar Games produced. Take-Two took great pains to say little to nothing about what Rockstar was up to, except promising they were “hard at work” or some such. Take-Two would be hyping their upcoming sports and action games, releases meant to help build Take-Two into a more well-rounded company, as they waited for Rockstar’s next. But inevitably, every investor question was some coded way of asking about Rockstar because that’s all shareholders cared about. BioShock was a hit? OK, sure, but it wasn’t anything compared to the next Grand Theft Auto. Borderlands is now a franchise? OK, but seriously, it’s not anything compared to what Grand Theft Auto makes.
It’s entirely possible Bethesda is in the same situation, where the vast majority of the games they put out don’t make any money, or not the kind of money most publishers would be pumping their fists over. But since Bethesda doesn’t have to answer to anyone but themselves and the people backing the company, we’re left to wonder and speculate, and Bethesda can keep trying new things, hoping one of them eventually sticks. It worked for Take-Two.
I have no idea how profitable (or not profitable) The Evil Within was, but it was messy and it didn’t live up to its promise, the kind of game most publishers would move on from. Instead, the developers were given a chance to take another swing—and it worked. The Evil Within 2 was tremendous, one of my favorites from 2017. Are Fallout and Elder Scrolls underwriting creative experiments like The Evil Within 2? Maybe. A la Death of the Outsider, I’m quietly hoping The Evil Within 2 gets its own closure DLC.
Would that make fiscal sense? Probably not. Would Bethesda do it anyway? Probably.
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