Bethesda. Depending on your obsessions, the word may mean a few different things, but for those involved or interested in the games industry, speaking about Bethesda instantly conjures up thoughts of huge role-playing games. Unfortunately, the mere mention of the Maryland-based studio may also bring to mind a less-than-stellar history of releasing bug-filled software. Whether it's dragons flying backwards in Skyrim, or floating objects in Fallout 3, Bethesda has struggled in the quality assurance department.
Why does Bethesda keep running into this problem? Does development of such massive titles invariably lead to difficulty in controlling all the factors, or does the studio allow some quality issues through in the interest of releasing its games on schedule? Matt Clark and Douglas Stewart took some time to weigh in on the subject, and to discuss the current state of quality in video games.
I know Bethesda Game Studios has a quality problem. I know this, because I'm in love with their games. With hundreds of hours – sometimes per title – logged in the company's software, presenting myself as anything short of a fan would be more than dishonest. Still, underlying my consistent excitement every time Bethesda announces a new project, is the sense of dread knowing the game will most likely contain a myriad of sometimes game-breaking glitches.
Back in 2006, Bethesda released The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The game was, and is, amazing. Unfortunately, it was also miserably buggy. Broken quests, an annoying glitch where every object in a room would fall from the air when entering a room – it goes on and on. Today, I'm deeply entrenched in Skyrim, and at this very moment, I am eternally stuck as a werewolf since the associated quest is completely busted. How does this happen? How do glaring problems like this get through?
I think the problem with Bethesda, and indeed many large game developers, is balancing the quality of its product with getting the title to retail. The budget on games like Skyrim is massive, and the longer the team spends on correcting bugs, the more that budget inflates. Ultimately – and again, this applies to more than just Bethesda – it's a matter of estimating just how much crap the consumer is willing to put up with. If the studio's franchises are held high upon a pedestal by the games community, said community will sometimes overlook these issues to enjoy what is otherwise a stellar product.
Of course, it could just be a matter of the games' giant scope, and the ridiculous amount of code to produce a big role-playing game, but Bethesda's head-in-the-sand attitude on the subject instills a sense of "let them eat cake." Indeed, all game developers rely heavily on the ability to patch titles post-release via the internet, but I personally feel it makes more sense to get it right the first time. Quality over quantity – or expediency. Anything else mars your brand.
I have always wondered what two million lines of codes in the form of a tower of match sticks would look like. Better still, what would multiple towers of a couple hundred thousand matchsticks, all interconnected, be like to manage?
That’s the state of the modern videogame code: An interdependent, deeply complex structure where a line of matchstick code added or subtracted has diverse and often bizarre effects on the videogame as a whole. The table this spectacular creation rests upon is not the most stable either, born upon the shaky legs of distribution schedules, publisher pressure, competitors releases and franchise following.
I don’t deny Bethesda’s history of technically flawed games, as Matt has clearly outlined, but it doesn’t anger me to the same level, as I suspect the existence of these flaws is the same reason consumers love their products: They make the greatest sandbox RPG games currently in the market and then allow consumers to muck around with its code.
While someone like Blizzard is renowned for the polish in their titles, their games are closed systems, with no engine for unscripted events. More importantly, the creation kit for third party modification is a system that encourages users to change the games features on multiple levels. Bethesda essentially builds a system of ‘matchstick’ code towers that not only are scripted to interact on multiple levels with each other, but are designed to encourage users meddling as well.
These two factors combine to form the Radiant AI code structure that is predisposed towards technical errors, given the overarching complexity, the need for it to be moddable, and making sure the overall code integrity remains. These demands, placed upon a table supported by the previously outlined stresses, create the conditions for the flawed Bethesda releases we see today.
I agree with Matt that quality should value higher than expediency, and that Bethesda needs to focus on making sure the core game breaking bugs are resolved before release. However, I’m not overly bothered by dragons flying in reverse or floating NPC’s in their games when anyone can write code to add killer rabbits, ride saber tigers and even duel Randy Savage’s face on a dragon’s tail.
Douglas makes some excellent points, here. Unfortunately, those humongous pages of code can only grow in size and complexity as games like Elder Scrolls continue to evolve. In the end, one hopes that developers can find a way to keep their quality assurance standards as rigid as their dedication to exciting content.