Of the four games in the series, Daggerfall (1996) was by far the most ambitious. They took the notion of "open-ended" to an extreme; the landmass was twice the size of Great Britain and contained over 15,000 towns with a total population of 750,000. Fans of Arena gobbled Daggerfall up. Well, the ones who could get it to run. Daggerfall's fatal flaws were in the details. Notoriously buggy, some people weren't able to get the game to even load on their computers, and despite commercial success, the game still bears the mark of bad code.
In '97 and '98, Bethesda released two TES expansions based on Daggerfall's code, neither of which enjoyed the success of Daggerfall and Arena. Both games were smaller than Daggerfall, and once-bitten players more than likely didn't help the expansions' case. The downturn in sales wasn't limited just to The Elder Scrolls franchise, and the company flirted with bankruptcy as a result. I asked Howard if he was ever worried. "Oh, sure. Over my 13 years here, that's a long time, you're going to have bumps. The years immediately following Daggerfall were probably the worst. We made some bad decisions and some bad games."
In 1999, ZeniMax, a media/videogame holding company founded by Chris Weaver and Robert Altman, acquired Media Technology (founded by Weaver), which owned Bethesda. The new company, helmed by Weaver and Altman, was a who's who list of entertainment moguls. Robert Trump (of Trump Management) and Harry Sloan (MGM) are on the board, and the company is advised by Jon Feltheimer (Lion's Gate Entertainment), among others. If Bethesda was drowning, ZeniMax was a million-dollar lifesaver.
The buyout got Microsoft's attention, and the third chapter in The Elder Scrolls story, Morrowind, was slated as dual release on the PC and Microsoft's new console, the Xbox. It sold 4 million copies and along with Halo made the Xbox a viable alternative to the PS2.
Morrowind, like Daggerfall, engendered two expansions, Bloodmoon and Tribunal, but this time they sold wildly, catapulting Bethesda to premier status and allowing them to focus more intently on their own properties. Fans, and Microsoft, were interested in another sequel immediately after Morrowind's release, but Howard was able to leverage the company's newfound status to decide when and how the next game would be released. Howard and Bethesda set to work on the fourth installment, Oblivion, immediately.
Let Him that Hath Understanding...
As Howard began work on Oblivion in 2002, Weaver found himself embattled against his business partners at ZeniMax. According to a legal opinion based on the case, Weaver filed a lawsuit against the company, alleging he was "constructively terminated" (meaning he like other industry luminaries, was being ousted by his new business partners after giving them access to his brand) and was owed $1.2 million in severance pay when ZeniMax didn't renew his employment contract.
In 2001, the company closed the research and development branch, which Weaver, as the CTO, would have been heading up. After that, the company tried to restrict him from teaching at MIT, something he believed his employment agreement provided for. When he looked up his agreement, he also found the agreements of Robert Altman (functioning as the company's CEO) and Ernest Del (ZeniMax's President). In Altman's agreement, Weaver found discrepancies from his own; Weaver, in court, said Altman's agreement had "lots of perks," all of which were approved by Del.
After discovering this, Weaver used his access to the company's computers to go through emails of the other employees, looking for more information, which presumably led him to file suit against ZeniMax. When his actions came to light in a discovery hearing, the case was thrown out of court. As of right now, Weaver is engaged in another suit against the company and declined to comment on the specifics of either suit. Robert Altman remarked after the first case, "Bethesda Softworks was a financially bankrupt business which ZeniMax Media acquired, recapitalized and turned around. I regret that [Weaver] is unhappy."