Before Eurogamer sits down with Todd Howard at QuakeCon to bully him into talking about his new game, we catch his panel with Tim Willits from id Software and Jason West and Vince Zampella from Respawn Entertainment.
It's a lot of fun and Howard's dry sense of humour is a great hangover cure. At one point, the panelists are talking about killing their babies - the idea of having to rip an idea out of their game because it's just not practically achievable - and an audience member asks them to cite examples. "Ladders," says Howard. It turns out Bethesda Game Studios isn't very good at ladders, despite multiple attempts to get them into games like Oblivion and Fallout 3.
With the panel out of the way we grill Howard about his new game (it turns out he's making two), Fallout: New Vegas, Bethesda's recent acquisitions, working with John Carmack and the company's thinking on downloadable content following lessons learned from Oblivion, and particularly Fallout 3.
Eurogamer: I know you probably don't like talking about money, but if you had to try to quantify it, how much would you estimate you've spent on this ladder problem over the years?
Todd Howard: [Laughs] I don't know that I could quantify it. Not that much! We spend time on it and then realise it isn't going to work again. Then we feel terrible. We feel like we're terrible game developers.
Eurogamer: You said during the panel that Fallout: New Vegas came about because Obsidian gave you an awesome pitch. What was the pitch?
Todd Howard: We had wanted to do a game with them. I'm only somewhat involved with them because it's done with our external group. I'm just focused on the game I'm doing. It was: hey, you guys have worked with Fallout, would you want to do something?
They asked what we thought, and we said if they wanted they could use our stuff. We did tell them that if they did, we would prefer for the franchise if they did something out west to separate the two and put your own spin on it.
Then from there they sent us the pitch - it's in Vegas, this is what it would be like. We thought it sounded great.
Eurogamer: You said in the panel that you see the world in Fallout 3 as the game's main character. Do you see differences in the character of New Vegas and Fallout 3?
Todd Howard: I think so, yeah. There are obvious similarities because it's using a lot of stuff from Fallout 3, but one of the things they really focused on is making the setting different. A place like Vegas lends itself to that.
Eurogamer: You've been working on something secret now for two years. Do you have any sense yet of when you will be able to talk about it or even say what it is? Are going to be sat here next year answering the same question?
Todd Howard: I don't know [laughs]. I have a sense but we're not ready even to talk about that, because it might change. I don't want to disappoint people.
One thing I can say is that from when you first hear about it to when it's out will be the shortest it's been for us. It's pretty far along. When we show it, we want to show a lot, because there's a lot of game there to play right now.
You know, if Pete Hines came in and said, "I want you to show it," I'd be like, "Okay, I'm ready to show it." But we've just decided for now not to yet.
Eurogamer: Is it fair to say then that it's based on existing technology?
Todd Howard: The technology is ours and it is inspired by the technology we have. We have a lot of it. But that's our starting point - the Fallout 3 tech. It started with Morrowind, we went to Oblivion, we did a lot between Oblivion and Fallout 3 because now we had final hardware - with Oblivion we had six months on final hardware, so Fallout 3 technically does a lot more than Oblivion. The new stuff is an even bigger jump from that.
I can say it is on the existing platforms, which we're really happy with. You almost feel like you have a new console when you see the game.
Eurogamer: So ZeniMax has acquired Arkane. Why not do a publishing deal with those guys?
Todd Howard: Well, they had been doing a game for us, and put it this way - we like it a lot. That's unannounced as well - they've been working on a game for us as a publishing deal, and we decided we should make it a permanent thing. I know the guys there - Raph [Colantonio, founder] and Harvey [Smith] - they're just very similar guys, they like similar things.
Eurogamer: It's a great match.
Todd Howard: It's awesome. Same thing with id. When we did that, the first thing we looked for was, are these guys we can sit down and talk about development and talk about games? There's no ego, they want to do cool stuff.
Eurogamer: So Arkane is here and they've been on a panel. The Respawn guys [Jason West and Vince Zampella] are here and they've been on a panel. Should we read anything into that?
Todd Howard: [Laughs] No, you shouldn't. The Respawn guys are doing their game, and I think EA is publishing it, but we've just been friends with them for a long time. Tim [Willits] and I know Jason and Vince pretty well and we thought it would be a cool panel.
Eurogamer: Is it a bit weird to be publishing Hunted based on Unreal Engine 3 given that you now own id, who obviously do their own engine, id Tech 5?
Todd Howard: Not really. Again, it's what the developer is comfortable with. We wouldn't want to force technology on somebody. Even internally, there's no mandate for anyone internally to use id Tech 5. I'm using our stuff.
Eurogamer: Are other studios using id Tech 5 within Bethesda at the moment?
Todd Howard: I don't know that I can answer that correctly or appropriately. If someone wanted to use id Tech 5, it's pretty much part of that deal that it would be a game we're going to publish.
Eurogamer: Recently you gave an interview and said that you don't really get Facebook and social games, and then a few days later Disney spent three quarters of a billion dollars on Playdom. Does that sort of thing make you think you should have your eyes more on that?
Todd Howard: Well, that's Disney - it's different. I just meant that personally the games I play are the kind of games I make. I want big, awesome-looking epics. That's what gets me excited.
I'm sure there will be some Facebook games that I look at and think are cool, but the stuff I've seen so far doesn't do anything for me. That's not that it's more of a casual thing, it's just that it doesn't excite me. On the iPhone though, I love that stuff.
Eurogamer: The iPad is a bit closer to the sort of graphics you'd be happy with - does that excite you?
Todd Howard: Absolutely. John [Carmack] and I talk about iPhone stuff a lot. I started an iPhone game and then once we got together with id it got put to the side, because their stuff was there. So I stopped to see where their stuff went.
When I was over at the id offices the other day it [Rage on the iPad] was the first thing John showed me. "You've gotta see this!" I was like, oh my goodness, it's awesome.
Eurogamer: Has he helped to solve any technical problems in your games?
Todd Howard: Not specifically. He's helped validate some of our thinking. So if we say, "Hey, this is how we're doing shadows, you're John Carmack, what do you think?" And he says, "You're going about it the right way," and he gives us some things to consider at a high level - things he's messed with in shadow filtering and so forth. It's up to us to go try that and see how it registers in our tech.
Eurogamer: Oblivion and Fallout 3 were huge successes, but what can you do to improve still as a company?
Todd Howard: There's always stuff to improve. If I had to take a step back, I think our worlds are very good, I think we're on the cutting edge as far as that goes. When it comes to the characters and the animation, I think there are other people who do it much, much better. That's something we've put a lot of time into - not just technology but people and talent, and how long we spend doing individual elements.
How other characters behave and look on the screen is the next thing people need to do better. There are people doing it really well, but by and large the environments look good and it's just getting people to behave in those environments better.
Eurogamer: Do you face unique challenges because your games respond to player actions, and characters have to do likewise?
Todd Howard: We tend to have to systemise things as opposed to script it. In a six-hour game you can script a lot of really cool stuff, and really realistic behaviour, but it's a one-off. Whenever we think about something, we have to systemise it because we're probably going to have lots of characters and you need to return to these characters.
Eurogamer: A lot of people suspect you're making a new Elder Scrolls game, but can you conceive of a Fallout game set outside the States, like Europe or Asia or somewhere like that?
Todd Howard: That's come up before and my view on Fallout is that the Americana is part of the Fallout schtick. It would be interesting to see what's going on over there, but if you were doing a full game over there, in my opinion it wouldn't have the right Fallout tone.
Eurogamer: It wouldn't be Fallout, it would be something else...
Todd Howard: I mean it would be in the same world, but the very specific tone of Fallout is the, you know, Americana fifties thumbs-up and now it's all terribly wrong.
Eurogamer: So even id has now gone to two teams, but you guys still seem to be doing one thing at a time. Is there any appetite to change that?
Todd Howard: We kind of overlap, so Fallout 3 was overlapped into Oblivion, so we'll be doing design. We have about 90 people on the team, but not everyone is on the main game. Most people are. We spent time on Fallout 3 during Oblivion so when Oblivion was done we had a design, a concept, and some stuff running for Fallout 3 so we could move the bulk of people onto it.
Likewise with the new game, we were working on it during Fallout 3. We had design, we had concepts, we had stuff we knew we wanted to do.
But it is one big team, and the nice thing about that is it's everybody's game. We have one culture. I spend a lot of my time on the game that's in pre-production, but the new game that's percolating takes the most of my time.
Eurogamer: But you're already thinking about the next thing.
Todd Howard: Right, so we're in production on the new game, and we have a design going for the one after that.
Eurogamer: The technology may be static, but other things are still evolving, like digital distribution. What kind of lessons did you learn from the downloadable content you did on Oblivion and Fallout 3, and how do you think that will affect what you do on the new game?
Todd Howard: We jumped into that like the new frontier. We made some mistakes. Our goal with Oblivion was to do lots of different things. Let's see what people like, what price points they like, and also what works for us, because it takes time.
We felt coming out of Oblivion that Knights of the Nine - that $10 one - was a good sweet spot, not just in terms of what people want to pay, but for us creating it. Whereas Shivering Isles, it's a $30 thing - people bought it, it did great - but it wasn't great in terms of how long it took us to do it and get it out.
So we went into Fallout 3 with this $10 price at this pace. I can tell you that pace was fast. We had two overlapping DLC groups, tiny groups, and we did that, and the audience, they liked that rate of them coming out but it was hard. I don't know if we're going to be able to do that again.
I think at the end of the day we just want to have something that is really high quality and maybe not put so many out.
Eurogamer: You did a level-cap bump in one of the Fallout packs. Is that an appropriate thing to do in premium DLC? It feels like a feature that people would associate with the core game, whereas a lot of the content you did was more discrete.
Todd Howard: I don't know - I mean, a lot of games do it, like World of Warcraft, so we tried it. I think it worked out okay for that game, but going forward if we had to completely redo Fallout 3 we'd probably not have a level cap, because it just makes the game more fun to level up.
It just does. The sense of accomplishment every time you do something to get some XP. So I think we'll make efforts in the future to not have one.
Eurogamer: What do you think of what other people are doing with DLC? Particularly EA's Project Ten Dollar, which aims to hurt second-hand sales. Is that a motivating factor for DLC?
Todd Howard: I always have a joke when we talk about second-hand sales in the office. What can we do to combat second-hand sales? Make a better game.
If someone doesn't want it, they're going to trade it in, and there's little you can do about that. So I ignore all that and my view is make a better game and it takes care of itself.
Eurogamer: And I guess all your games are about 150 hours long anyway.
Todd Howard: Yeah. People trade in our games too, so I'm not suggesting we're outside of the norm. But at the same time I haven't done online stuff, so I don't know what it costs EA to do all that bandwidth stuff, and I'm sure there's a big cost involved and they need to find a way to monetise that if someone is going to trade in the game.
Eurogamer: Are you going to buy any more developers? You seem to be doing that quite a lot.
Todd Howard: [Laughs] It wouldn't surprise me if we did! If they're the right fit. We're not looking to expand just to expand. It's like, hey, this feels right, it makes sense, let's do it.
Eurogamer: You announced the other day Matthew Perry being involved with Fallout: New Vegas. You've worked with talent like that in the past, like Patrick Stewart with Oblivion. How is that experience and how does it work?
Todd Howard: I'm telling you, they are phenomenal. We've been lucky in that we've picked actors who really add some gravity to the game and give it a good tone and flavour.
Patrick Stewart, Terrance Stamp, Liam Neeson. They're famous actors because they're really good actors. It blew me away. My biggest worry was they'd be like, "I'm doing a video game to make some money," but they took it really seriously.
Before Liam accepted the role he was like, "I want to talk to the director and talk about the role, so I'll think about it."
He approached it like anything else - a lot of conversations about his character, and when he would read lines he would get a page and take notes, ask questions.
Eurogamer: So it's more of a collaborative process than simply giving him some lines to read?
Todd Howard: With Liam it definitely was. With Patrick Stewart, because of the role he was playing, he felt pretty comfortable with the role. But when he goes to read, that guy is a machine.
He reads perfectly, every time. Some guys mess up and need to redo. Never, ever, ever. He was done [snaps fingers] like that. He does a lot of voice-overs too, so he's a good reader. And if you want to tune it, a little bit more like this, he can nail it.
Eurogamer: You mentioned earlier that for a game to come to Bethesda it needs to be a certain fit. What would you say the philosophy of a Bethesda game is?
Todd Howard: Phew! That's a good question. We know it when we see it. I know for the internal studio, but in general if it's going to be on the label it is going to hit the action-adventure, fantasy, sci-fi, it's got something cool about it.
Doing a game for the core gamer, it's going to be in those kind of genres.
Eurogamer: And I guess the ability to have your decisions have resonance in the game world is something that's quite prevalent in your games.
Todd Howard: In mine, yes. We like each game to be novel in some way, to do something special or cool so that if you're into playing games you're like, "I've got to play this game."
Todd Howard is executive producer at Bethesda Game Studios.