Bethesda's Elder Scrolls VI Announcement Was Pure Damage Control

Todd Howard doesn't like long hype cycles. So why announce TES6 at E3?

Bethesda announced plenty of stuff at their big E3 2018 presentation Sunday night, but for a certain segment of their audience, no announcement was bigger than the confirmation that yes, Bethesda is working on Elder Scrolls VI.

It was also the biggest case of pure damage control of the entire sordid weekend. It was, flat out, an admission of defeat and a sign that they knew that Fallout 76 would go over like a fart in church with their fanbase.

The Internet exploded when Todd Howard said that “every other character will be a live human being”, referring to 76's DayZ/Ark/Rust-like online survival gameplay.

After all, if you want to find something more toxic than nuclear fallout and Forced Evolutionary Virus combined, the player community in online survival fits the bill.

Searching the #SavePlayer1 hashtag on Twitter pretty well sums up the reaction.

Enter an announcement for a singleplayer experience. Bethesda knew.

More than once in the past, Howard has been a big proponent of the short hype cycle.

Fallout 4 was announced at E3 2015; it released just four months later.

Fallout 76 will be out this fall, another super-short hype cycle, plus Bethesda's already taking sign-ups for the public beta.

It's clear that Bethesda's operating strategy is to keep the jackals in the gaming press at bay; they don't want to waste precious development time constantly stoking the hype machine. Because as Extra Credits pointed out in one of their videos, as soon as you commit to that road, you're committing to wasting a lot of development resources. You're spending more time making playable demos and creating video mashups for E3 or PAX or GDC or wherever else than you are creating a tight, focused experience that will actually be in retail stores and on Steam come launch day.

So why did Bethesda announce Elder Scrolls VI? Why throw away one of their biggest competitive advantages in terms of being able to manage the hype cycle and keep their development dollars spent on stuff that's actually going into the finished game rather than press demos that rarely end up producing any usable assets for the game itself?

Damage control. They angered their fans, and in order to keep those fans from descending into open revolt, beating up their brand so badly that by the time TESVI is ready for actual launch—and, with the game in pre-production, that could be 2021 or later—their former fans won't even care about them anymore and will therefore have no desire to pre-order? A lot can happen in three years, and “just another EA” as brand perception risks permanent “never again” customer loss.

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Bethesda knew what they were doing. They were, in essence, condensing 1985 for the Coca-Cola Company into one hour.

Fallout 76 is New Coke in this instance. If Twitter loved it, if the reaction was universally positive, if everything was just ducky, Todd Howard and Pete Hines would've been more than willing to stand and fight on the hill, hyping up 76 and making it the centerpiece of the entire gaming news cycle.

And, of course, 76 wasn't a complete failure; plenty of the kinds of gamers who like the Fallout mythos and prefer their games to be online with others rather than the solitary pursuit that previous entries in the series are have been more than willing to rally to the Vault Boy banner.

But there was a supercritical mass of people who hated the news. And the people at Bethesda, who had TESVI as their “Coca-Cola Classic Card”, decided to play it.

Todd Howard would've preferred to sit on “Skyrim 2” for years until the game was ready. Sure, he'd coyly refused to comment on the game, even occasionally looking annoyed that he'd been typecast as the “Elder Scrolls and Fallout guy.”

No creative person likes being typecast, not if they're an RPG developer or if they're a sportswriter who took a video game gig in part to write about something other than scurrilous rumors about LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.

But when push comes to shove, that's what Bethesda's brand is.

And for that reason, they announced The Elder Scrolls VI, coming forever and an age from now to a PC, console, phone, tablet, smart home personal assistant, handheld, and refrigerator near you.

It was damage control. Bethesda knew the reaction to Fallout 76 was going to be severe, and the only way to keep the community in line was to announce a new Elder Scrolls at the same time. It's just too perfect.

Published Jun. 16th 2018

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