Bethesda Game Studios used to be my favorite developer. Back when I naively thought “loyalty” meant anything, I loved Bethesda. They made my favorite game, Oblivion, and opened my eyes to what games could truly be.
And then came Skyrim, a game I was unsurprisingly looking forward to. But here is where my blind fanboyism for Bethesda cracked wide open. The game just ran poorly on PC, it didn’t have configuration settings and customization that PC gamers expected, had dumbed down systems compared to Oblivion, and it came with a slew of bugs that, to this day, remain unfixed by the developer.
But I still played it. I loved the game. Then came Fallout 4, and any and all respect I had for Bethesda vanished. The game was a disgrace on PC. Bethesda had severely dumbed down the RPG systems even more than what they did with Skyrim. It still has bugs that remain unfixed to this day. Perhaps most damning, it released the same year as the excellent Witcher 3 and was positively last gen in every respect compared to the Polish masterpiece.
As everyone knows by now, I’ve been playing a ton of Kingdom Come: Deliverance, a game I Kickstarted. And the more I play this game, the more I realize just how much Bethesda Game Studios must learn from this game.
I’m not suggesting for a second that KCD is perfect. It’s not. It has bugs and issues that cannot be excused nor overlooked. However, it also has many elements that Bethesda absolutely must include and learn from in order to join the modern era.
This, then, is my list of suggestions Bethesda Game Studios must execute in order to gain my respect, but more importantly, become the competent game developer they once were. Finally, before I begin, note that this is not an exhaustive list, merely the most important elements I believe must be followed.
Develop For PC-First
The PC must be the lead platform. The thing is, this used to be the case with their older titles like Morrowind. But this slowly eroded with Oblivion and was completely gone by Skyrim. The console-ification of Bethesda games is so easy to see. One need only pick up their game and play.
First, Bethesda must start by scrapping their Creation Engine. It’s shit. Yes, graphics aren’t everything. But for a so-called “AAA” studio with the budget and resources afforded to them, a better technology foundation is the bare minimum and frankly, should be expected.
Build a better engine that’s up to modern standards, or license an existing engine. Arkane Studio, a sister studio to Bethesda Game Studios, licensed CryEngine for Prey. Yes, they aren’t using CryEngine to its fullest, but the point is that they actually licensed a good engine. Again, it’s not like Bethesda doesn’t have the resources to do so.
With this better engine, implement proper modern PC graphics. Again, I’ll point back to the fact that Witcher 3 and Fallout 4 released the same year. However, Fallout 4 looked positively last gen. CD Projekt Red proved that you can pair beautiful visuals with excellent gameplay to make a great game. It’s mind-boggling that Bethesda Game Studios seems to just not care.
Additionally, these graphics and settings must be able to be changed in-game. I shouldn’t have to quit the game to change one setting. KCD allows for in-game graphics and settings tweaking, as do many other modern PC games. There is no reason for Bethesda to not do this too.
Having a better technology stack would also greatly aid in the creation of deep AI systems. Kingdom Come: Deliverance features some truly organic AI systems that genuinely react to you. They did this by leveraging modern PC hardware.
Provide proper PC input considerations for things like UI. Skyrim and Fallout 4 UI are absolutely awful on keyboard and mouse. Again, it’s not like Bethesda can’t do this. They have created proper keyboard and mouse-centric UI in the past with Morrowind. And then they stopped bothering.
While they’re at it, get rid of load screens. For a development studio who seemingly specializes in open world games, it’s insane that the load screen issue hasn’t been solved. KCD, a game made by a smaller team with fewer resources, is one seamless world. Witcher 3, a game released the same year as Fallout 4, had a bigger world than Fallout 4 and featured no load screens (save traveling between literal land masses in Velen and Skellige).
All of these things have a theme: update your damn technology stack, Bethesda. You have the resources to do so. There is literally no excuse nor justification you can provide to absolve your apparent laziness and apathy to do so.
Deep And Complex RPG Systems
The funny thing is, Bethesda had these in Morrowind. In that game, there were three types of diseases, requiring three different cures. Enemies and creatures didn’t scale to your level. Essential NPCs could be killed, completely cutting off that particular quest line. Weapons did varying degrees of damage based on the type of attack you used. All of these systems (and more) were either severely dumbed down or outright eliminated in Bethesda’s future games.
KCD, clearly inspired by PC games of old, features complex and integrated systems. You get tired, necessitating sleep and food. The crafting mini-games, like alchemy and lockpicking, are legitimately complex and require the player’s attention and, gasp, skill.
You have a reputation with various towns in Bohemia. Even more impressive, you have a reputation with individual demographics within those towns. As an example, the villagers of Sasau love me, but the nobles and higher class loathe me.
Your clothes get dirty and must be washed. Not doing so affects your speech influence in conversation. It also affects your ability to sneak, as being dirty makes you smell, warning guards of your presence.
Don’t mistake me. Having systems for systems’ sake isn’t the right approach either. Systems must connect to other systems. Tugging on one string must influence something else. Everything must have a purpose. Warhorse proved this level of depth can be injected in a modern way without compromising the rest of the gameplay.
These extend to the stats and perks systems within KCD. Your clothes affect your visibility and conspicuousness. This, in turn, affects your noise level and charisma.
These stats must have a tangible effect on gameplay. Bethesda needs to go back to this.
Good Writing, Good Story, and A Likable Player Character
Don’t get me wrong here. Bethesda’s games do have a story. But that doesn’t mean they’re good. And yes, I fully understand that this is a subjective opinion, but this is my editorial so there.
Personally, I legitimately don’t care what Bethesda is trying to get me to care about in their writing. One may argue that the best story is one I make myself. Sure, I don’t disagree. But this just makes my point. KCD manages to have a fantastic story that I’m genuinely invested in while allowing me to craft my own adventure. At the end of the day, Bradford and I will have the same ending to KCD, but our Henrys are vastly different and our adventures will reflect that.
And because of this, Henry is an infinitely more likable player character than either Skyrim’s Dragonborn or Fallout 4’s distraught parent ever were.
The Dragonborn is an all-powerful mythical savior. But she was mute. Does s/he have a personality? Sure, it’s a blank avatar I can substitute my own experiences and quirks into, but does that make the character likable from a writing standpoint? I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t.
Fallout 4’s protagonist, on the other hand, was a regular person and was voiced, but again, did I care about her story? No, not really. Her quest to find her baby was completely at odds with my quest to just go explore.
And that’s the problem with Bethesda’s games of late. Their writing is just terrible, and the player’s connection to the player character suffers as a result. There’s a cognitive dissonance between what Bethesda is telling me is important and what I perceive to be important. We have completely different priorities.
Here, again, Warhorse manages to have a regular nobody who is fully voiced and has a distinct story that I am invested in. Bethesda, for all their millions in budget and massive team, still haven’t accomplished what Warhorse has done in their first outing. And that’s just damning.
Don’t Hold The Player’s Hand
The console-ification of Bethesda games has most directly influenced this one. As they found a bigger and bigger console audience and created their games for console first, you could easily see the dumbing down of their games from virtually every respect.
This is one reason I love Kingdom Come: Deliverance so much. It trusts the player’s intelligence to figure things out on his own by, wait for it, playing the game. Suck at sword fighting? Too bad. Go and literally train more. Keep getting caught while pickpocketing? Too bad. Learn to find the optimal length of time to ruffle through your target’s pockets so you remain undetected.
Obviously, I’m not saying to get rid of tutorials. KCD has a lengthy codex. But the codex isn’t a cheat sheet. It introduces broad systems and ideas and leaves it to the players to work out those systems for themselves.
An Actual Speech System
Morrowind had a great speech system. Oblivion had a decent one. Skyrim less so, and Fallout 4’s was just trash. I don’t want four dialogue options to choose from, Bethesda. This goes back to the systems I was speaking to earlier. Much more dialogue options only further convince the player that this world is real.
To this end, having a proper speech system would only help. Previous Elder Scrolls games had this then got rid of it as Bethesda dumbed the series down for consoles.
In Kingdom Come: Deliverance, I can literally talk my way out of trouble if my Charisma is high enough. I can haggle for prices, which in turn influences my Speech skill.
Again, this ties back to the game systems and player stats from earlier. Bethesda claims to go to such great lengths to create a living breathing world, yet something so fundamental as speech is left so thoroughly neglected.
A Bigger More Detailed World With Content To Match
Witcher 3 and Assassin’s Creed Origins are massive worlds, much bigger than Fallout 4, Bethesda’s most recent game. But everything in those games exists for a purpose. They’re not filler.
Kingdom Come Deliverance is about the same size as Cyrodiil in Oblivion but is packed full of meaningful content. As an aside, Oblivion and Skyrim are the same sizes, despite being 6 years apart. And I feel Oblivion had better more meaningful content than Skyrim.
But we want to move forward. Bethesda can and should make a bigger world and have more meaningful content. That’s how you push forward. Have a game the size of Daggerfall but pack it full of actual meaningful content. It can be done. It should be done. Again, this ties back to the technology stack. Focusing on modern technology and PC hardware will enable this push forward.
But In The End…
Despite all this, I just don’t think Bethesda Game Studios will execute on any of these suggestions. They are a business. To them, money is ultimately what matters. And people keep buying their games.
I honestly just don’t think Bethesda is looking at games like Witcher 3, Horizon Zero Dawn, Assassin’s Creed Origins, and now, Kingdom Come Deliverance to learn from. I just don’t think they care.
And while this is admittedly a cynical view, unfortunately in this industry, I tend to be correct more often than not. Personally, even though I don’t think Bethesda’s next game will implement any of these features, I hope that they do. It’s only by looking at competition that facilitates improvement and progress.
I guess we’ll have to wait to see what they have in store at E3.