The Transformation of Bethesda

Back when I was first invited out to visit Bethesda’s offices, the publisher was focused on a particular niche. They made RPGs, and that’s about it. I was there to see the next game in their best-known franchise, the then-unannounced game The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. It was a pretty exciting time for them. Oblivion was the first “next-gen” console game anyone would ever see; it was the first game revealed for Microsoft’s second console, which back then everyone was calling “Xenon.” And to make things even more exciting for Bethesda, the company had just recently purchased the rights to a popular (but defunct) franchise called Fallout. They planned to make Fallout 3 their next game after Oblivion, although I couldn’t say anything about that at the time.

Oblivion, of course, was a smash hit. Fallout 3 was an even bigger hit. Bethesda seemed destined to carve out a completely unique space for itself in the gaming industry: a very successful, specialized “boutique” publisher.

Then everything changed.

It suddenly became clear that Bethesda wasn’t content to just publish RPGs. The company announced that it would be publishing the action game WET, the free-running shooter Brink, and (unfortunately) the military dud Rogue Warrior.

And then the publisher announced its purchase of legendary developer id Software, and suddenly Bethesda was the home of games like Rage and the (still unseen) Doom 4. Further announcements followed, such as Hunted: The Demon’s Forge from inXile Entertainment and the purchase of Arkane Studios, the former developers of Dark Messiah of Might and Magic and Arx Fatalis.

How did this happen? How did Bethesda go from a small RPG-focused publisher to a major force, seemingly overnight?

Well, it didn’t.

Like I said, Bethesda might have been best-known for games like The Elder Scrolls titles, but in reality the publisher has been releasing a wide variety of games since the very beginning. Its first titles were sports games like Gridiron! and Wayne Gretzky Hockey. It published games based on the Terminator, Home Alone, Where’s Waldo and Star Trek franchises. Bethesda has published racing game, bowling games, puzzle games and more.

So why does the upcoming diversity of Bethesda’s lineup seem like such a stark change? Well, obviously the publisher never pushed games like its IHRA Drag Racing as hard as it promoted games like Fallout 3¸ which were developed by the company’s wholly owned subsidiary Bethesda Game Studios. Many of the smaller games are published under different arms of ZeniMax Media, Bethesda’s parent company.

Of course, the success of Oblivion and Fallout 3 played a major role in the company’s aggressive expansion. ZeniMax went through several rounds of funding in order to expand and make purchases (including id), which wouldn’t have been possible if games like the aforementioned hits strengthened its portfolio.

There’s certainly more to Bethesda’s growth plans that no one outside of the company itself is privy to, but now you know a little bit about the truth of Bethesda’s transformation. There was no sudden change of direction for the RPG-focused company. The success of its core titles simply allowed the publisher to become a higher-profile version of the company it was all along.

Jeremy M. Zoss is a veteran of the gaming industry. He’s written for Game Informer, OXM, G4 and many more. He’s also worked in games PR, but don’t hold that against him.