Why does a game company matter?
The average gamer is 35 years old, owns a house and has children. It's important to understand that to appreciate the importance of recent developments in the gaming industry, which is now larger than both the film and music industry. Combined. This is a part of our economy that now rivals the American auto industry in terms of its effect on the greater market. When cars sell or don't sell, it affects the price of steel, the employment rate of the country -- and a dozen other factors that decide what our dollar is worth. So it's the gaming industry that affects the price of computer chips, the availability of software engineering jobs, and so on.
Bethesda is a AAA (or "triple A") publisher. To continue with the analogy a AAA publisher is to video games what Ford or GM is to automobiles. AAA publishers are the top tier of game publishers, and Bethesda is one of the most recognizable among them.
The point of stressing this is so that you have some context to understand why what Bethesda has done with "Fallout 76" will have significant consequences for all of us.
The Golden Goose
Bethesda was not always a major player. In the '90's they almost went bankrupt, but under the leadership of Todd Howard they made wise investments, developed a reputation for making a certain kind of product (more on that in a moment) and grew a loyal customer base that were guaranteed to purchase any product they put out.
Their wise investments included purchasing the rights to fallen titles like "Fallout" and "Doom," which were big in the '90's but had failed to properly change with the times. Bethesda was able to purchase these franchises, modernize them by understanding why they were beloved and what could be improved with new technology, and make a huge profit in selling the new games.
Bethesda did not focus on a business model that prioritized short-term profit. They had a long-term strategy of making quality products that concentrated on the single-player experience. This built up substantial brand loyalty, so much so that they could afford to take risks with their games, since they knew they could count on a certain amount of units sold no matter how they turned out.
Taking risks did result in some duds, and even successful Bethesda games were known to be full of glitches and errors that other companies could not get away with, but Bethesda was never held to account for such errors in the way other companies were. Bethesda was always given a pass, because their games were labors of love. And for every dud they put out, Bethesda also made industry-changing hits.
What we rely on
Bethesda shined because it did not appear to chase dollars with questionable business practices like EA or Ubisoft, which forced users to sign up for third-party software in order to play the games the customer had already purchased, which sold loot boxes to children, and which saw themselves appear on many "worst publishers" lists throughout the years. Bethesda concentrated on making a quality product and allowing happy customers to spread the word. This is not a love letter to Bethesda, because what their approach was above all else was a marketing strategy.
That marketing strategy was effective.
By allowing other companies to fall into scandal after scandal, Bethesda was able to get free promotion for their own games as they were held up in comparison. Additionally, they were able to release games that were more problematic, often sold with game-breaking errors in the code that would have to be fixed in later patches, because they had generated enough good will by just refraining from outright trying to fleece their customers.
Unfortunately, something has changed.
The long con?
On April 4, 2014, Bethesda released "The Elder Scroll Online." For a long time its flagship product had been "The Elder Scrolls" franchise which, like all Bethesda games, was a dedicated single-player experience that you only bought once. This new game was what is known as "massively multiplayer," which meant that you would be playing online with thousands of others at a time.
This game would also follow the business model of other massively multiplayer games, where you purchased the base game at full price and then paid a monthly fee to be able to continue to play it.
It received poor fan reaction, yet it sold well. Having experienced it myself, I can tell you that the feeling of the fan base was that it was disappointing to see what appeared to be a face-heel turn in Bethesda, but they had generated enough trust for us to try this new game out. Perhaps, many thought, Bethesda could do for multiplayer gaming what they had done for the single player experience.
Unfortunately, years later, we can look back and say that they did not. "The Elder Scrolls Online" is a fine massively multiplayer game in terms of functionality, but in it's business model it follows the same shameless cash grab tactics of so many others in that genre. It was, until recently, a low point for the company, but Bethesda still had the trust of its loyal fans.
Until now. The release of "Fallout 76" is a story of scandal, bait-and-switch accusations, financial disaster and possibly even legal action. Remember the "worst publishers" lists that EA and and Ubisoft found themselves on? Ten years ago no one would have dreamed that Bethesda might appear on such a list, but this year multiple sites have raked it over the coals.