Gaming, Writing

Leaving The Wasteland

I’m feeling better, more talkative, so maybe today’s the day to get into my feelings about Fallout 76. I keep circling back to it in my head, and I think it’s about the game model. There’s something important to me there, so I think it’s time to share it.

First of all, I feel that I gave 76 a very fair shot. I’ve put in nearly 400 hours into it, all told. I know other people are still into it, and are still enjoying it, and these thoughts are not meant to counter any of that. These are just my opinions about it, especially as we have gotten the first real expansion, “Wastelanders,” almost a year after it was announced.

Secondly, I enjoyed my time in Fallout 76. I definitely got my money’s worth from it. It was my only game for about three months, a pretty solid chunk of time. I was completely happy grinding away at it for a long time, but things changed. What has struck me about 76’s development, particularly post-launch, is how chaotic it has been. A year and a half later, you can really see how there isn’t clear vision for what this game should be.

Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 are essentially Skyrim in a new setting. You get a large open world to explore, a lot of different quest lines that you can follow as you see fit, and several different ways to build your character to suit the way that you want to play. Fallout 76 was an attempt to take that formula and apply it to an online only multiplayer world. And now, with “Wastelanders”, that’s exactly where we’ve ended up. It’s not necessarily a bad thing: Skyrim is a classic, and I love an open world game that lets me do whatever I want to do.

If that’s where we started, that would be one thing, but the original idea of 76 went a step further—the players of 76 would be the only humans in the game, and everything else would be a “mob” (“mobile object”, or monster). This was a radical, revolutionary idea. Todd Howard gave an interview where he talked about the gameplay being more player-emergent. What you did in a session was based on your goals, not what the game directed you to do. The example he gave was wanting to improve the scope of his gun, so he needed to go out and find some specific parts. That was the goal of his session, as opposed to a quest handed out by an NPC.

Unfortunately, this idea was only half-baked into the final game. The story of the game was told through holotapes scattered throughout the world, and uncovering that story became the version of NPC quests that players are used to. But, like all Skyrim descendants, you don’t need to follow the questline, and unlike the games that came before, there was a lot to do and explore on your own. Uncovering the different accounts of the catastrophe that depopulated the world on your own terms was very satisfying.

I had a lot of fun building my own equipment, and going out farming for supplies. Parts of the map were “leveled off”, meaning that you needed to be high enough level to handle the mobs you’d face, so there was a continual challenge in exploring and then improving your character to explore some more. It took me three months to explore most of the map, and it was great to have the different stories unfold in front of me.

But eventually, I leveled up to the point that most of the map, and therefore the mobs, wasn’t much of a challenge. I was routinely one-shotting almost everything I came across, and able to work my way through the few longer battles with larger critters fairly routinely. I mopped up the rest of the map, and was really just left with following the story. My equipment was good, so I didn’t need to grind more for it. I was happy with how I built my character and my camp, so there wasn’t any need to improve there. I had collected most of the plans and collectibles. I was mostly just completing challenges for something to do, not to acquire the “atoms” rewarded which could be spent in the game’s store for different cosmetics.

And I had pieced together enough of the story to have a good idea what was going on, so I wasn’t really that interested in following it. Which leads me to something that I had overlooked and forgiven while I was having fun with the game: it’s an ugly, buggy mess.

I know launching software is hard, and ironing out bugs in a complex project is really difficult. But 76 at launch was nigh on unplayable. It was pretty clear that the single-player engine running the previous games was not taking well to being multiplayer over the internet. Mobs would rubber band around as the game struggled to figure out where they were. And the game crashed, a lot, which is a problem the engine has had for several generations. What was new was that you no longer could save the game locally, so when you reloaded, you’d be at the mercy of whenever the game last check pointed you. When I lost the entire progress of making my way through one of the dungeons after the game locked up at the very final sequence that I gave up on it initially.

It was much stabler when I returned a couple months later, though it would still crash or lose connection to the server fairly frequently. The rubber banding was largely fixed, as well, though now we encounter one of the first gameplay tweaks that shows how the game’s design wasn’t really thought through, or how the developers were willing to compromise and change something integral to the game once launched: PvP.

If you put multiple players in a game space and give them weapons, they’re going to use them on each other. Some would say that PvP is the whole point of a multiplayer game; if you’re more interested in a PvE style, then a single-player game will give you a better experience. Combat versus another player will always be more interesting than combat versus a computer-driven AI. So, when designing a multiplayer online game, you need to factor in how much you want the game experience to be PvP and how much you want it to be PvE. Some games are all PvP and are very successful; some are much more PvE.

With the concept of player-emergent goals instead of NPC driven quests being a key design element in the game, you would think that more thought would have been given to PvP when 76 was launched. But it was a mess. You could start a fight with anyone, which when you have a level-based player system leads to higher-level players being able to quickly curb-stomp lower-level players. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but if you’re making a game, you need to think about how fun this is for the lower-level players. You are designing a game world, after all, so you can design in some sort of penalty/reward system that would allow lower level players some sort of protection from overpowered higher level players. At the very least, if you are designing a multiplayer online game, you need to be cognizant of PvP and its consequences, and judging from the response at 76’s launch, the developers weren’t.

They eventually split the servers into two, one the “normal” server that was intended for a PvE style game, and the other a “survival” server that was more PvP friendly. They eventually created a battle-royale server as well, because everyone wanted to cash in on battle-royales after the success of Fortnite, but that PvP specific server was disconnected from your character in the other two modes. All of this shows a much more “feeling it out” approach than a deliberate approach to the design.

Which leads to the question of whether or not the game needed to be a multiplayer only, online only to begin with. Overwhelmingly, I’d say the answer is no. I played all of my 375 plus hours solo, and made it through most of the content. I would run into other players, but our interactions were mostly emoting at one another, occasionally trading things, but mostly just going on about our own business. The only thing I could say is that the world would have felt very, very empty if you were the only player and there were no other NPCs, but unfortunately that’s also how the game was written. The different tapes that told the story of what was happening, the different events and quest lines that you would uncover were clearly directed towards one player, and that you as that player were uncovering these things for the first time. Everyone’s getting the same story. You’re essentially playing a single-player game alongside other players, who are also playing the same game at the same time as you. You could have made it a single player, offline game, and saved yourself the networking trouble and probably all the graphics issues as well.

This is even compounded in “Wastelanders” with the introduction of NPCs and NPC quests, where the party leader is the only one who gets credit for completing quest step. If you’re playing with a buddy and you both need to complete a quest step, you’ll need to work through it twice, taking turns as party leader, to get the credit for it. It’s just baffling that this was considered a good design decision, and makes me think that they were running into a limitation of the game engine.

“Wastelanders” was the final nail in the coffin of player-emergent gameplay. Announced less than a year after launch, and taking almost a year to deliver, “Wastelanders” returned NPCs and NPC quests to the game. Now the game is essentially multiplayer Skyrim, only as I said, it’s this weird parallel multiplayer. You could still play the game on your own terms, if you wanted, but now the game clearly wants you to work with the NPCs, and go complete their different fetch quests for them. The main “Wastelanders” quest line is literally walking back and forth across the map, talking to different characters. The main story is divided into two different branches, but weirdly one is very short while the other is just too long. It feels very unbalanced, especially given how long it was in development.

I originally ended my run in the game because they made an adjustment to make the game easier for new players. Whereas before the areas where pretty clearly level-gated, they made most of the mobs easier to kill. When I went from mostly one-shotting critters to consistently one-shotting them, I lost interest. The newly announced design decision is that mobs will automatically scale to your level, which sounds good on paper, but I think breaks a key part of the game. Now the whole map will be open to you, basically from the start. I found it very satisfying to gradually level myself up and work my way into new areas that had previously been too hard for me. I think that now, people will burn through what story there is really quickly. And unfortunately, there’s not much to do after that.

What originally attracted me to Fallout 76 was the boldness of its experiment. I want to play an open-ended game where I end up making my own story, and I would love to be a part of other player’s stories as well. Someday, someone will make this game, and I hope it will be someday soon. I feel like games like Grand Theft Auto Online, Red Dead Online, and Fallout 76 are steps in that direction. 76’s experiment was a failure, but I think it was a failure because it wasn’t fully conceived before it was implemented, and definitely was not tested before being released. And while I do think I got my money’s worth from 76, I find it offensive that the developer would create a monthly subscription for something that is so raw and unpolished, and clearly not well-developed. If you’re going to have micro—transactions and a monthly subscription, you better have a damn good product, and Fallout 76 definitely doesn’t hit that mark.

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