Legendary director shares his views on making games, whether 4K visuals matter and how his next games are "bigger than anything we've ever done"
Late last year, the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences announced that Todd Howard, Bethesda Game Studios' executive producer and game director, would be this year's game maker inducted into its Hall of Fame – an honor presented at this week's D.I.C.E. summit in Las Vegas. Howard is the 22nd individual to receive the honor, following recipients that include: Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima, Grand Theft Auto masterminds Leslie Benzies, Dan Houser and Sam Houser, Epic Games' Tim Sweeney, and BioWare founders Dr. Greg Zeschuk and Dr. Ray Muzyka.
We caught up with Howard ahead of receiving his award to discuss what he's working on, his philosophy on running a studio and his continued enthusiasm for the upcoming Nintendo Switch.
You're in some good company as a recipient of this award
Yeah, it's not about me though – it's obviously recognition for our whole team. I've worked with these guys for a long time. Some of them 20 years. It's a recognition of everyone.
When we spoke to Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto last year, he said that having a core group of people that have worked together for a long time was really key to their success.
Absolutely – 110 percent. If you look at the scale of what we do, that familiarity is really important. We've had these experiences together, so if we're solving a problem we can break it down very quickly. If you look across the whole games industry, groups that have worked together a long time are always the ones that are doing the best stuff. Look at Naughty Dog, or look at something that looks like an overnight success like Rocket League – those guys, they've worked together for a long time and done multiple different versions of that game and have been through so much together. Or the Witcher guys...they've been doing this stuff for a long time. Quality comes from the team that's worked together and reacted together.
It must help to really just understand each other when you work so closely
Things take a long time to build. The time it takes just to make a friggin' chair! The detail level is so high these days. Art is moving towards capturing the real world more with photogrammetry and stuff and this stuff just takes a long, long time. You have to be in tune together so you can dig into the big questions like what is the game? How does it flow? How is it balanced? That's being done by core groups that are getting bigger, but core groups that have worked together for a long time.
So what are you working on right now? Are you allowed to talk about it?
We've got a good number of projects on the go. We're bigger now and we do want to be putting out more stuff. We have two larger projects that are more classically the scale of what we do, but even bigger. We overlap the projects so we're working on them at the same time, but they're staggered. I can't talk a lot about them, but I can say that they're bigger than anything we've ever done. They're a bit different, but definitely in the wheelhouse that people are used to from us.
You're working on something mobile, right?
We did Fallout Shelter and we have another mobile project in the works. It was a huge surprise to us. Particularly how successful it was. We've got – what – 75 million players now?
We learned a lot about monetization and updating, but that's more logistics. The one takeaway was that the game is somewhat unique, so for the thing we're doing next we wanted to continue to do that. We need to not look too hard at what's working well for other people. The game we're doing is a very different style game, unique in the space. There isn't something else we're looking at for style. We think about how something's going to be in your pocket or on an iPad and so the beats are going to be different than they are for the majority of our kinds of games. People will sit down and play stuff like our console and PC games for hours at a time, and that's a very different flow than how you play a mobile game. We have a hard time describing it to people.
So, speaking of Fallout – how's the VR version coming along?
Fallout is going great. There's a lot of work to be done, but it's super exciting. We are doing the whole game. You can play it start to finish right now, and the whole thing really works in terms of interface and everything. I will say that Fallout works because of the interface. The Pip-Boy is on your wrist and we've been able to present so that it works the way you expect. You look and there it is. The fact that the gunplay is a bit slower than in a lot of games has certainly helped us but we have V.A.T.S., so you can pause or slow down the world. I assure you, V.A.T.S. in VR is awesome. We love it.
When it comes to the Switch, Nintendo's the only company that can do that, right?
Do you have the whole locomotion thing solved? A lot of developers are struggling with that in VR.
We're lucky that the action isn't super twitchy. Locomotion is definitely the hard part, I will admit. Given the size of the world and the amount that you're moving in Fallout 4 that part is tricky because you're doing it a lot. Right now we're doing the teleport warp thing and that's fine, but we're experimenting with a few others. Our plan is to ship with as many as we can, because it's different for everybody. There are a lot of indie developers and students that are working on prototypes and thinking about how to move in VR and so we're looking at a lot of those.
You're getting this award a week before the Nintendo Switch is released, and you're one of the few Western developers that's visible on the new console from the beginning. How did that come about?
When it comes to the Switch, Nintendo's the only company that can do that, right? When you hear that Nintendo's going to do a new platform, there's a lot of ways that can go. If you look at handheld gaming, they're still the best at it. If they say "we're going to make the best handheld ever and you can plug it into your TV", well that's just really, really smart. I hope they do well and it's a unique opportunity for us.
Were you talking to them for a while?
They came to us early about Skyrim, and we always wanted to work with them. Even though it's a game that people have played before and have known for a long time, it's special for us to work them. I think it was Nintendo of America who reached out to us. I wasn't the original point of contact. We met with some people from Japan, but it originally came from the American team. There was much more of a push this time to get the support. They have the kind of device that makes it much easier for third parties to give them the support.
You've said in the past that the demo you first saw of the Switch was one of the most impressive things you've seen. Do you still feel that way? Gaming tastes seem to have changed a lot in the past few years – have they found the sweet spot between console and mobile?
I wouldn't say they're in the sweet spot, necessarily. And honestly, I don't think tastes have changed overall. The DS and 3DS were incredibly popular. The good news is that every type of game is popular now.
Do you think people care that it's not a super-powerful 4K device like the PS4 Pro or a high-end PC?
I think there's a law of diminishing returns on TV resolution. Honestly, 4K is not a priority for me. I'd rather use the extra power for effects and lighting, especially on a console game. On a computer it's different, because your face is right up on the screen. From the sofa though, pixel count isn't as important as image quality to me.