There’s a perception, myself included, that Bethesda has let themselves go a bit lately. There have been one too many missteps and any good fortune towards even Bethesda’s mainline franchises has evaporated far quicker than the time it took Bethesda to build it up in the first place.
Fallout 4 was a bestseller but fell out of favour rapidly. Fallout 76 was a calamity for Bethesda Game Studios and the franchise brand. The Elder Scrolls: Blades, well, the less said about Blades, the better. Bethesda’s publishing arm has dished up some greats though, exemplified by Bethesda’s impressive stage presence at E3 each year these days. From being ‘that Elder Scrolls developer’, Bethesda has grown into a publishing powerhouse. And then Rage 2 arrives to mixed reviews and the knives Blades™ are out once more.
But I questioned whether this widespread sentiment had actually welled up from a truth, or just a pervading narrative. So I proceeded to note down every major title published by Bethesda Softworks in recent times, as well as the aggregated review score attributed to each game. The results have ended up quite interesting.
Bethesda Softworks - Review Scores 2011-2019
And sure enough, since Skyrim launched to almost unheard of levels of success back in 2011, the trajectory of Bethesda Softworks games has been a downward trend (indicated by the red line). The key contributors to this are the recent slump as Bethesda tried to broaden its horizons with mobile games and an attempt at the survival genre. These attempts were not met with critical success, and we can see the last three Bethesda-published games are all the lowest scoring titles they've published since Fallout Shelter in 2015, a mobile game.
Chasing cash cows may work monetarily in the short term, but it hasn't worked out for the perception of Bethesda as a publisher of quality games.
Which ultimately led me to broaden the horizons of this analysis in an attempt to see how far Bethesda has come since it truly blew up as a publisher with the arrival of Fallout 3.
Bethesda Softworks - Review Scores 2011-2019
As you can see, this lends a very different perspective to Bethesda's progress as a publisher. After a rough patch in the early days, particularly with the atrocious Rogue Warrior, Bethesda settled into a rhythm of high quality. From Fallout 4 through to Wolfenstein 2, the repetition of review scores in the 80s is impressive. They're a better, more reliable publisher now, even if they don't hit the heights of Fallout 3 and Skyrim. This reliability would go some way to explain why the last three games are proving to be so disappointing for Bethesda fans.
If we were to go even further back then we head into Bethesda’s extremely early days of being a publisher, and we get a massive drop-off in quality. We’re talking landfill Wii and DS games, drag racing, bowling games, Pirates of the Caribbean, and even a dog-breeding game. They’re not really indicative of Bethesda Softworks place as a publisher at all in the modern age. No, it really all began with the widespread success of Oblivion, which eventually picked up pace with Fallout 3 and the eventual acquisition of studios such as if Software and Arkane.
But I didn't want to stop there in my quest for interesting yet ultimately pointless statistics. What about if it's Bethesda Game Studios themselves? Is Bethesda flying high as a publisher, but under-delivering as a studio?
Bethesda Softworks - Review Scores 2011-2019 (Minus Bethesda Game Studios Titles)
Bethesda Softworks - Review Scores 2008-2019 (Minus Fallout & Elder Scrolls)
Confirmation, if it were needed, that Bethesda as a publisher is an outfit on the up. The expected review scores from non-BGS titles have crept from around 70 to about 85%. Progress. Rage 2's mixed reviews will do very little to offset this trend, and Doom Eternal will surely offset the damage.
Interestingly, the line gets even steeper when we take out the Fallout and Elder Scrolls franchises entirely. This means Bethesda's highest and lowest review scores have been plucked out, basically, and an indicator that both of these franchises have fallen on hard times lately. Bethesda has been farming out mobile versions and multiplayer spin-offs that have come back to bite them. It's brought some unneeded pressure on its in-house output. There will be Elder Scrolls VI and Starfield doubters galore, while whatever Arkane and id Software cook up will still be met with glee.
Which brings us to the conclusion and, to be honest, I'm actually a little more confused than when I started. Bethesda Softworks appears to still be a rising star, but there's perhaps some trepidation that its single-player RPGs have hit some sort of speed bump.
As ever, we'd love to hear your thoughts on this one. Do you think Bethesda Softworks is a publisher that's fading from grace? Or do you think this is but a momentary blip that will soon give way to plenty genre-defining RPGs, first-person shooters, and immersive sims? Let us know below!