The Curious Case of Bethesda Softworks

The Fallout mascot, the Vault Boy, sharing my Fallout 76 sentiments.

When Bethesda announced Fallout 76, an always-online, microtransaction-fueled, shared-world shooter, I was dejected. I don’t think I could have dreamt up a worse addition to the venerated Fallout franchise. The feeling stuck with me for days, festering in the pit of my gut like a meal gone wrong. It took until a few weeks ago to find out why.

The Fallout series is one near and dear to my heart—2010’s Fallout: New Vegas ranks among my favorite games of all time, and not just for the painstaking recreation of my hometown. It had all the depth and complexity I expect from an RPG, coupled with a unique style and charm. Developer Obsidian Entertainment really took advantage of the futuristic-but-still-stuck-in-50’s-American-culture-post-apocalyptic setting that makes Fallout stand apart from the massive field of western RPG’s it finds itself situated in, and made the setting feel alive. As ridiculous as the proposition sounds, this game felt exactly what I’d imagine 1950’s era Las Vegas felt like, while still feeling like a Fallout game at heart.

This is how all Bethesda games of the Xbox 360/PS3 era felt. Gigantic. Immersive. Engaging. Bethesda has a pedigree in the RPG-world. They’ve made some of the most important games of all time. From every entry of the Elder Scrolls series, to the aforementioned Fallout games, fans knew what to expect from this company. Maybe their games were buggy and glitchy at launch, and sure the gameplay wasn’t breaking new ground, but it was a Bethesda RPG, what were you supposed to do, not play it?

I always find it interesting to think about video games historically. For someone like me, who’s been playing games for decades, this is how I’ve always thought about Bethesda. For someone just getting started playing video games, or who missed Bethesda’s golden age, the name starts a wildly different conversation. Bethesda, in the last few years, has suffered a fall from grace. Well, fallen might not be the right word. Really they’ve plummeted.

Skyrim for all platforms, a meme-trailer from Bethesda themselves.

Bethesda went from a company seemingly immune to issues that plagued their own critically acclaimed titles to a developer and publisher that is in competition with outfits like Electronic Arts or Activision for the most maligned company in all of gaming. The avalanche of well deserved negativity might have came on the heels of Fallout 76‘s announcement, but had been coming for a long time. Between a mediocre Fallout 4, which fell short of the expectations of long-time fans of the series, myself included, to the porting of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to seemingly any electronic device with a screen, fan disappointment and resentment with Bethesda has been palpable.

I thought 76 was going to be bad, sure. But I didn’t think it would ruin Bethesdas reputation. And I wasn’t wrong—about the game. It was terrible. During launch day players were unable to connect and join the game for hours on end. As players started making their way into the shared-world experience, some players had issues completing quests because other players in the game continuously killed NPC’s that were necessary to advance important quest lines.

But this wasn’t the last straw. No, the last straw came just a few weeks before the writing of this article. The game has been out for a year now, and reception has not improved despite several updates from the developers adding new  content. During the run-up to the games launch, Bethesda was adamant about the game being a one time purchase, with all future content being made free. This made people hopeful that with enough time, maybe enough could be added and fixed that it might be a worthwhile experience. However, On October 23rd, Bethesda announced “Fallout 1st,” a $100 annual subscription that promises access to several much requested features.

Uh. Whoops?

Bethesda can use all of the marketing or buzz-words they’d like, but this is a blatant reversal of their ideology regarding Fallout 76. The internet immediately erupted with memes about Bethesda being a company of corporate greed and nothing more. Thread after thread, post after post on both Reddit and the official Bethesda forums lambasted the decision, with players vowing never to purchase or play Bethesda games again.

And it was at this moment I remembered my gaming history. I remembered why Fallout 76 made me so sick to my stomach. It wasn’t because of how far the franchise had seemingly strayed from it’s roots. It’s that, as Bethesda fans, we’ve been here before. Our favorite developer had regressed, becoming memes once more. It all started with Horse Armor.

This meme neatly sums up the history of video game microtransactions

Someone reading this who is new to video games or doesn’t know their gaming history might not understand how absurd this $3 microtransaction was at the time. This was one of the first microtransactions ever sold for a video game. This was a time where most downloadable content was in the form of full fledged expansion packs that nearly doubled the amount of content in the base game and sold for around $40. And so at some point during the life cycle of one of Bethesda’smost successful RPG’s, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the developer thought selling digital horse armor was a good idea, for some reason. Despite the modest $3 price tag, most people found this useless addition egregious—why would anyone pay real money for digital armor for a digital horse, especially when horses were useful an extremely small percentage of the time. In some strange way, Bethesda was ahead of the curve, particularly with the popularity of free to play games like League of Legends, Fortnite, and Path to Exile that are financially supported by these small, purchasable cosmetic items. But those games have something in common—they’re all free to play. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was $60. Unsurprisingly, the 2006-internet immediately erupted with memes about Bethesda being a company of corporate greed and nothing more.

And there it is. History repeats itself.

Fallout 76 launched at $60. Fallout 76 made me feel so bad because it reminded me of one of my favorite developers history with bad downloadable content and memedom. It’s been so sad to watch this titan of the industry sink so low, especially when they’ve been through the ringer with this kind of greedy decision. There’s hope on the horizon, with both The Elder Scrolls VI and a new IP in development, but I can’t help not feeling hopeful. After the sting of Fallout 76’s needless season pass opening up the old Horse Armor wounds, I’m not sure if I can get excited for anything new from Bethesda. When the next Bethesda game does come out, what am I supposed to do? Not play it? This time I’m not sure I have an answer.

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