Bethesda Softworks was founded in 1986 by Christopher Weaver as a division of Media Technology Limited. The origin of that name is not difficult to guess: the company was based in the American city of Bethesda, a suburb of Washington DC. Weaver initially wanted to call the studio ‘Softworks’, but that name was already taken. This is how Bethesda Softworks was born.
Bethesda’s very first game was Gridiron !, which appeared on the Commodore Amiga, Commodore 64 and Atari ST in 1986. The American Football game was well received in terms of gameplay, although journalists and players were not very positive about the graphics, which were a bit on the scant side even for that time.
The game’s modest success led Electronic Arts to hire Bethesda to work on the first John Madden Football game. EA also obtained the rights to release new versions of Gridiron! but EA ultimately decided not to and focused its arrows entirely on John Madden Football. Bethesda stopped working on the Madden series as a result and even sued EA. According to Bethesda, EA would have deliberately focused on Madden and also various gameplay elements from Gridiron! for their own football game. The dispute was eventually resolved outside of court.
That situation proved to be a good motivation for Bethesda to step up a gear. The company released several games in the late 80’s and early 90’s, including the ice hockey game Wayne Gretzky Hockey and several sequels. Some 350,000 copies of the first volume were sold, making it the company’s first major hit. It also released several games based on popular movies, such as Home Alone and The Terminator.
The Elder Scrolls: Arena (1994)
The Elder Scrolls
In 1994 saw even greater success for the company, which had since relocated to Rockville, Maryland. Programmer Julian Lefay was working on an action game for PC called The Elder Scrolls: Arena. The game would initially revolve around various arenas in which a player in a team competes against all kinds of other teams. During development, however, the emphasis increasingly shifted to side missions outside the arenas. Cities were built around it, as well as various dungeons to explore. In the end it was decided to discard the team concept and The Elder Scrolls slowly but surely grew into a single-player first-person RPG. Julian Lefay would later work on the sequel The Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall – the deity Julianos is named after him. Incidentally, Daggerfall was also one of the first games Todd Howard worked on for Bethesda – he would become a staple within and the face of the company.
Arena’s cover was not a representative representation of the type of game players could expect, making the first The Elder Scrolls game anything but a sales success around its 1994 release. Some 3,000 copies of the game were initially sold, and Bethesda feared this could spell the end of the business. However, the press was short of superlatives to praise the game, and word of mouth continued to increase Arena’s sales so that it continued to sell well even years after release. A success story was born.
The Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall (1996)
More games and acquisitions
Two years after the release of Arena, the sequel The Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall was released. The game takes place in a different part of the fictional world of Tamriel and is more extensive than the first part, with for example multiple endings to achieve. Thanks to the positive reactions to Arena, Daggerfall was a great success from the moment of release.
Bethesda meanwhile started buying up developers such as Flashpoint Productions, known from Noctropolis. That studio changed its name to Mediatech West and developed the racing games XCar: Experimental Racing and Burnout Championship Drag Racing. Bethesda also released several Terminator games and two spin-offs from The Elder Scrolls franchise were launched in the late 1990s: Battlespire and Redguard. Unfortunately, these titles did not enjoy the same success as the previous The Elder Scrolls games. While Bethesda was one of the largest private companies in the industry a few years ago, the publisher was suddenly on the brink of collapse in the late 1990s.
That is why the rudder was changed considerably. In 1999, Weaver, in collaboration with Robert A. Altman, founded a parent company for Bethesda in the form of ZeniMax Media. This parent company was purely for administrative purposes, and Weaver made it clear that ZeniMax and Bethesda were by no means the same company. Bethesda Softworks became the publishing arm of the company and Bethesda Game Studios was founded to develop games. Pete Hines was also brought to the company as a marketing manager – he still heads Bethesda’s marketing.
Founder Weaver left ZeniMax in 2002. He later sued the company, claiming that he had been pushed out of the company by his new business partners. The mud was thrown for quite some time, but eventually this case was also settled out of court.
In 2002 the official third volume of The Elder was also released. Scrolls, Morrowind, which was one of the most comprehensive RPGs ever in scale and capabilities. The success was there for sure – a decade later, more than four million copies of the game had been sold. Even more successful was The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, released in 2006, which came not only to PC but also to hugely popular consoles from Microsoft and Sony. While the fourth game in the series lost some of its freedom, the gameplay was streamlined enough to allow an even larger audience to experience the fanciful franchise for the first time. It is estimated that approximately 9.5 million copies have been sold.
Fallout 3 (2008)
Fallout and id Software
Bethesda was able to continue to grow through this sales success. For example, it continued to release licensed games based on Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Trek, among others. One of the most significant moves the company made was the acquisition of the Fallout franchise from Interplay Software. Bethesda Game Studios then developed Fallout 3, which was released on PC and consoles in 2008. The open-world gameplay of The Elder Scrolls has been combined with a post-apocalyptic game world in this game, to the delight of many critics and players. The game received several expansions and in 2010 the sequel Fallout: New Vegas developed by Obsidian Entertainment received even better reception.
Not only the success of its games put Bethesda and parent company ZeniMax in a luxury position – also a hefty $ 450 million capital injection of Providence Equity Partners contributed to this. Bethesda opened publishing branches in many parts of the world, including Tokyo and ‘our’ Eindhoven. In 2009, the company made another important move: it acquired id Software, the studio behind the Wolfenstein, Quake and Doom franchises. One of the first games to emerge from the acquisition was John Carmack’s new shooter Rage. Bethesda would later impressively revive the Doom and Wolfenstein franchises with id Software.
The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim (2011)
An eventful decade
Over the past ten years, Bethesda has made significant progress as a publisher and developer. As mentioned, the reboots of Doom and Wolfenstein contributed significantly to this, but Bethesda’s own franchises also continued to do well. Fallout 4 was again a success and especially the 2011 release The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim turned out to be a hit that was unparalleled. The game has sold over thirty million times and appeared on numerous systems. With Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, Bethesda founded Japanese developer Tango Gameworks, which resulted in the eerie The Evil Within games. ZeniMax also acquired Arkane Studios, which developed stealth game hits like Dishonored and Prey for the company.
At the same time, missteps were also made. Bethesda, for example, was put in a bad light in 2011 when it sued Minecraft creator Mojang for a game called ‘Scrolls’, which is said to be too much like The Elder Scrolls in name. The release of Fallout 76 in 2018 was also not exactly well received by many fans and critics. The online RPG was burned to release due to its substandard quality and lack of interesting content. A data breach of players’ personal data added even more salt to the wound. In recent years, Bethesda has worked hard to get the quality of Fallout 76 to the desired level, which has resulted in a steady fan base.
Doom Eternal (2020)
The Microsoft Acquisition
On September 21, Microsoft announced like a bolt from the blue that it had reached an agreement with ZeniMax to acquire the company. Microsoft allocated the considerable amount of $ 7.5 billion for this. During a stream that was broadcast by both companies shortly afterwards, several executives from Bethesda and Microsoft said that the acquisition was in the interest of both companies and that it was a good match. It later turned out that ZeniMax had been looking for companies that might be interested in an acquisition for some time.
This meant that the takeover was not yet complete – countries or continents where the companies are located must first approve it, in order to counter monopoly positions. Last week, news came that both the US Securities and Exchange Commission and the European Union have agreed to the acquisition and Microsoft has now officially released confirmation of the acquisition.
But what exactly does this acquisition mean for both companies and gamers? There is still some uncertainty about this, but it goes without saying that Bethesda has a certain degree of financial security within Microsoft compared to the situation before the takeover. This also means that all Bethesda games can appear on Xbox Game Pass – something that has already been slowly started. This is probably one of the main reasons for Microsoft to acquire Bethesda – with franchises such as Doom, The Elder Scrolls and Fallout it could turn Game Pass into an even greater success.
The key question is to what extent Bethesda games will be exclusive from now on on Xbox consoles and PC. Franchises such as Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, Dishonored and Wolfenstein, for example, also previously appeared on PlayStation consoles – what exactly is that about in the future? The previously announced games Deathloop – from Arkane Studios – and Ghostwire: Tokyo – from Tango Gameworks – will be temporarily console-exclusive on PlayStation 5. That’s because these deals were closed before the takeover. But what happens next is not yet known.
Microsoft has announced that the company will release some Bethesda games exclusively on Xbox consoles and PC in the future. That doesn’t necessarily mean that all games will be released exclusively on those platforms. Regardless, with upcoming releases like The Elder Scrolls 6 and the science-fiction game Starfield, Bethesda could well become one of Microsoft’s most important feats in the battle for consumer money and attention.