Fallout 3 and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim were two of the best-selling role-playing games from last generation. However, developer Bethesda almost didn't survive long enough to release those titles.
Todd Howard, designer for Fallout 3 and several Elder Scrolls games, said in a recent interview that Bethesda was "very close" to shutting down following the release of Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall. Daggerfall "did fine" in sales, Howard said, but the company spread itself thin.
"We started doing a lot of games, and they just weren't good enough," Howard told GameStar. "And they weren't the kind of games we should've been making at the time."
You probably haven't heard of most of the games they made during these period. They included PBA Tour Bowling, XCar: Experimental Racing and Skip Barber Racing. Bethesda attempted to make more action-oriented role-playing games as well, with poor results.
"We did Battlespire, I did Redguard—a game I love, but it didn't do well for the company—and we have been working on the Tenth Planet, and there were other projects no one had heard about."
Bethesda became part of ZeniMax Media when that company was founded in 1999. Howard said that the transition gave the struggling studio a much-needed lift.
"There were six of us at the time, right? The studio had gotten that small, and I was in charge of Morrowind, but by that time, once you get to that point, there was this element of no fear. What's the worst that's gonna happen? We could go out of business. Well, let's go all in. This is the game. Let's put all our chips on the table. This is the game people want from us, this is the game we wanna do.
"You know, a lot of times when you make a game you're kind of... maybe you're afraid how people are gonna like this, let's only do this, maybe it'll make money, but we were... 'Alright. We're gonna do it all.'"
Thankfully for Bethesda, Morrowind was a hit. The game sold over 4 million copies in its first three years. Sales for their later games like Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3 were even better. Skyrim, their most recent release, sold over 20 million copies as of June 2013.
It's amazing to think that Skyrim and all those other games almost never happened. Bethesda popularized open-world RPG's so the genre would have looked very different without their contributions. Also, had they not purchased the Fallout franchise and revived it with Fallout 3, that post-apocalyptic franchise would've remained a relic of the past.
The studio finished Skyrim's DLC and transitioned to their new project last April. It's believed that they're working on Fallout 4. Bethesda has yet to announce anything, though, and won't for a very long time.