Todd Howard Discusses Open World Multiplayer, Juggling Seven Projects, And His Hall Of Fame Induction
Todd Howard is one of the most visible and well-respected game developers in the industry. The head of Bethesda Game Studios has led the creation of some of the most beloved franchises in modern gaming. Bethesda’s open-world games in the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series continue to push the boundaries of one of the most popular genres in video games, and fans can’t get enough of them. More recently, the studio expanded into mobile gaming with the hit Fallout Shelter.
Last year, Howard was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at GDC, and this year he has another trophy to add to his mantle. On the eve of his induction into the AIAS Hall of Fame, we sat down with Howard to discuss his legacy, his plans for the future, and his noble crusade to get EA Sports to resurrect the NCAA Football franchise.
I feel like this is a yearly conversation now. Obviously, you got the Lifetime Achievement Award at GDC last year, and now the AIAS hall of fame this year. I'm curious, is this speech going to be a full-fledged sequel or just expansion DLC with a base-game patch?
[Laughs] I can't say it as well as you said it – that was good. I don't know yet. It's a slightly different venue. It's smaller, more industry focused. But whenever these things happen it's weird to think of yourself in that way. I have a hard time wrapping my head around it to be honest. They put my name on it and I'll accept it, but it's really for the whole team who have worked together so long.
You said that last year – it's really an award earned by everybody at Bethesda Studios you've worked alongside for so many years. Talk a little bit about your team.
We've been together a long time. We were looking the other day, and there's a core group of guys who have been around 20 years almost. And then you have this other group...that kind of goes with projects, you know? And you have this group, they're 15 years, and then 10 years, and then a new guy has been here five years. It's an incredible way to get to make games, and we all make this stuff. We work really well together. On one hand, we're special in that way, and on the other hand I think if you look across the industry you can see the best games are often made by teams of people who have worked together for a while. It's not their first rodeo, they have done it and honed it. I think that's where the best stuff gets done.
With an award like this, it's a good time to reflect on your career. What are you most proud of?
That's a good question. I guess I'm most proud that the team has stayed together. Someone asked me once, how do you define success, and it took me awhile and I thought, a group of people doing something and when it's over they say, "That was great, let's do it again." And we've been able to do that time and time again where we say, "Hey that was good. Oh, we have a new idea. Let's do it again. We think we can do better." I'm proud that we’ve continued to do that with the same enthusiasm – all of us.
With Morrowind, Oblivion, Skyrim, Fallout 3, etc., there's a lot of big games in your recent past that millions of people have played. Looking back at your early catalog, was there a game you feel was underrated and you wished it got more acclaim?
Terminator: Future Shock. It's kind of like the first real 3D shooter. It was the first PC game with mouse look. We had done that, it was an interface that I did because we use it in the editor. It's common now but at the time people were like, "What kind of control scheme is this?!" because it was full 3D. It's weird now that I think about it – it was a big, open city, post-apocalyptic game. So, all we've made are fantasy and post-apocalyptic games. But, it's also the first one I did here, so it's always held a special place. There was one time in that development we were tight for levels and I had thrown a challenge to someone on the team. I said, " I can make a level in a day." And there's a shipping level that I did in one day – a long day. Start to finish, and created from scratch. We were really pushed for time [laughs]. It's a small project, it's fun.
The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard is another one I like quite a bit. Kind of a good genre mash-up. I think that game does a lot of good stuff.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but Bethesda Studios has always traditionally had two projects going at the same time, with varying team sizes that scale depending on development stage. In recent years, it's expanded – you have forays into mobile gaming, remasters, the strong post-launch support you offer your titles now, a new studio in Montreal. How have your day-to-day responsibilities changed? Do you feel like you are spinning more plates than you are used to, or you still feel you get that one-on-one time?
We have like seven projects. We've always had a number in the works. Two of them you know about – Fallout 4 VR and the Switch Skyrim. We've found over time that we've been able to do more. Again, a lot of people have been here a while so we've expanded in some areas and we do get some outside help on some things. All of us, not just me, we're able to dig in on when the time is required and this is the one we're focused on right now. We've always overlapped, not everybody sees that, so I'm probably busier now than I would traditionally be at this stage. But I do find I'm able to dig in on the project or the thing that needs the attention at that time.
We've seen Bethesda continue to dabble with user-created content over the past few years with Skyrim's homesteads, the settlement building in Fallout, incorporating the best mods from the community into special editions. Is this approach here to stay for Bethesda Studios and something you want to keep expanding on?
We do. We have more ideas. I think getting modding out to everyone on the consoles – I think the last number I saw was 150 million mod downloads between Skyrim and Fallout 4, and I'm not sure I believe that number, but that was the number and I was like, that is incredible. It's something our audience really enjoys. It gives our games a certain vibe, and so we very much want to keep doing it. We want to keep supporting Skyrim and Fallout 4. We still have millions of people playing those games every day. Now that Skyrim is back out, there are both top 20 on all the platforms for daily users. There are ideas we have. We just put up featured mods, and there is some other stuff that we're working on and we'll see where it goes.
Last E3 you showcased Fallout 4 VR. How is that project coming along? Do you have any breakthroughs you've been able to make?
It's going very, very well. There is still work to be done, but it's the entire game and we're able to play through all of it. The moments that are kind of more final and locked down and we're able to say these interfaces, they work well, I will say ...I'm a little biased but it's an incredible experience. One of the best video gaming experiences I've had. There's still issues because the game is so open, how you traverse that world and different movement schemes. We hope to support many. But I think that is a potential issue but if you think about VR and the promise of "I'm in this virtual world and I can do what I want" Fallout in VR is that.
Which traversal mechanic do you use? Is it still the teleport from the demo?
Yeah, we're using teleport right now, but there are two other ones. We've done basic [analog] stick movement. That makes a lot of people sick. And there are some other prototypes out there that we've looked at. We're just going to try them and at the end of the day have as many modes as possible that we can polish up and let the user pick which they think is best for them.
Earlier in this conversation you mentioned a topic I wanted to touch on. Bethesda has always traded in fantasy and post-apocalyptic settings. Have you thought about getting out of that comfort zone and doing something a little different?
Sure. We always do. We've dabbled in those things before, and they've never really went anywhere. But like anybody else, we have a lot of ideas and we're going to see where some of those go, definitely.
Without talking about specific game projects, because I know those reveals come in due time, but in a broader sense, what are your ambitions in the next several years as you look at your career? What do you want to accomplish?
Well, we want to be more engaged. We go through some periods where we put a game out and then nobody hears from us for several years and then people go, "Oh yeah, them, here they are." We'd like to be a bit more consistent in releases and updates, and you've seen that with Fallout right now and Skyrim – we're still updating them. I think people are getting more used to that. They're expecting a new game they are playing gets more content and updates. We do have a new mobile project as well. We'd like to be a little more prolific in what we are putting out, both in titles and updates, and engage with our fans. That's been one of our goals.
So how does Bethesda Montreal come into play with that goal? Are they working on one specific thing, or do you have them working on the same projects as you guys are?
We kind of work together. We view it as one big studio, just some people sit in Montreal and some people sit in Maryland. More of the mobile development is up there, but they did a lot of work on Skyrim, they did a lot of work on Fallout 4. We like to mix it up. People we have worked with a while are up there, so it's not a separate project thing.
You have obviously spent a lot of time creating open-world games, a genre you could safely say is bigger than it's ever been with games like yours and The Witcher 3 blowing so many minds. Grand Theft Auto V is still often the number-one selling game, which is absurd when you think it originally came out in 2013. For you looking at the genre, what are the next major hurdles developers are going to be looking at in designing open worlds?
Well I think if you look at open worlds now, it's become the style of game that people are doing. I still think and we struggle with it and people are still trying to solve it in different ways each time, how players intersect with that world. How do you reward them? How do you tell a story? Because sometimes you get things that feel really good but are either too gamey in an open world or they break your immersion. I don't want to get into specifics on some things we're trying right now, but I don't think we've solved those main issues.
Rockstar has hit on something big with GTA Online. It continues to make a lot of money, and there is record engagement. I know you are a traditionalist when it comes to appreciating single-player experiences, but have you thought about what a Skyrim or Fallout would look like if more people could be in those open worlds at the same time?
We think about it every time. Actually, for every game we design a multiplayer mode and then we decide not to do it, but it's a good exercise for us. We have some ideas of what that would look like, but our focus...we seem to always end up back in the, "We should focus on the single-player" camp. I mentioned Future Shock – Skynet was multiplayer. That was cool. We're also interested not in multiplayer, but in how we connect our audiences even though they are playing single player. Mods are kind of like that. It's kind of the community aspect of the game. I think there are lots of angles to look at that, and we're also interested in those. We've coined this phrase "socially single." There can be single-player with a social element. Socially Single is probably an app that's bad.
That's one you probably want to look up before you coin that phrase.
Yeah. I have not looked that up, so if someone else does it's not a trap. But that was an internal type of thing that we could look at that I think we can do some cool new things with.
How is your campaign going for the return of NCAA Football? Have you made any traction there?
Oh, man, you're hurting me! You know what? Matt, you of all people. You need to push this. You have a press megaphone. I've even designed how they can do it, and I pitched this to [EA chief competition officer] Peter Moore. Just do NCAA Football Ultimate Team, with the pro players in their college uniforms. You can skip the whole player thing. Right? Write that s--- down!
The further you get away from a project, the more solidified your opinion of it becomes. At least I as a game player feel like this, I'm not sure how you relate as a designer. Now that some time has passed since you shipped it, how do you feel like that project game together? Does it stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Fallout 3 for you?
It definitely ranks up there for us, though we're very critical. We can tell you what we would do differently on every single game we've done. But that doesn't mean we're not super proud of it. It's done so incredibly well for us – all the game of the year awards and all those things. But there are things that we look at and think, "We could have done that better." DLC lets us address some of that. If you look at Far Harbor, we wanted to give players a lot more choice and more nuance in the decisions they had at the end of the game that we feel we didn't get done in Fallout 4. So, like you say it solidifies, but at the same time we're able to update it. We added survival mode, making sure people could use mods and change things the way they want. We don't want to wait until, "Well, next time we'll do it this way." It's more like what can we do right now? What can we do in DLC and what can we do in updates? And I know there aren't as many coming with Fallout 4 right now.
But again, each of the games are all special in their own way. We kind of get fans who say this one is my favorite or that one is my favorite, and we think it's fine. They expect that to upset us somehow. They go, "Well I like Fallout 3 better," and we remind them we made that game too! Or, "Morrowind was the best one." Yep, it's got a lot of great parts! No disagreement there. I really like them each to stand on their own, and that's intentional. We'll change things, and we'll have successes, we'll have failures, and we'll learn from them. But we still want each one to have its own history and vibe, and be its own thing. We have those conversations too, and they're good.
I'm going to leave you with a more philosophical question. You've been a game developer a long time, and as you mentioned last year you don't feel like anywhere near the end of your career. But a lot of people who have had great success in this industry walk away at an age well before retirement seems fitting. It's a very rigorous job that demands a lot of time away from your family. What does a person need to stay in it for the long haul? What keeps you invested?
I think you have to enjoy the day to day. Coming to work and working with everybody here, they are some of my best friends and we've been doing it for so long. I just really enjoy coming to work and working really hard on a game. I think if it just becomes the end result – "We made this, we got it out, people liked it, we made money..." It takes three or four years on a project. I think you have to really enjoy that, and if you don't then you need to figure out why. I've been lucky, and the people that I work with, that we all enjoy it a great deal and enjoy doing it with each other.