Recently we made the trek to West Virginia to play an early build of Fallout 76, the first game in the series - and for developer Bethesda Game Studios - to tackle multiplayer. An approach that immediately drew attention when it eschewed the traditional MMO-form of something like The Elder Scrolls Online to build on the look and feel of Fallout 4. The same overall interface and mechanics, with a focus on exploration and rebuilding and shaping the world. Multiplayer Fallout where you can group up with friends, meet strangers, and head out in any direction.
In a digital open-world that’s simply massive. The biggest the series has ever seen with its gorgeous post-apocalyptic West Virginia sitting at over four times the size of Fallout 4’s Commonwealth. But, a very different Fallout place to live in - with all human characters you meet being real people. And survival mechanics that run the gamut from eating, drinking, and sleeping to setting up campsites. Stuff that informs both the main story and character progression.
Not long after sitting down to play Fallout 76, amongst its many additions and alterations and tweaks to create a multiplayer Fallout experience – there was a palpable sense of relief. One that came from realising that Fallout 76 is still very much the Fallout we’ve come to know and love. That’s not to say that we didn’t have questions or concerns. A couple of hours was nowhere near enough time to get a good feel for the story and how a narrative might unfold over time without speaking face-to-face with human characters at regular intervals.
A digital open-world that’s simply massive. The biggest the series has ever seen with its gorgeous post-apocalyptic West Virginia sitting at over four times the size of Fallout 4’s Commonwealth.
In fact, once the controller was placed back onto the table it didn’t take long to draft up dozens of thoughts, questions, and topics of discussion. Which outside of sparking a genuine interest to see more of Fallout 76 – was also because we were about to sit down with Bethesda’s Pete Hines to chat about the game. As Bethesda's Senior Vice President of global marketing and communications, Pete Hines began our discussion by talking about what it is about the series that draws him into the post-apocalyptic worlds depicted.
“What I enjoyed the most about Fallout 4 and Fallout 3 was that I could head out in a direction and come across smaller stories that were taking place,” Pete tells me. “Being rewarded for just heading out in a direction and finding interesting shit. Reading notes and listening to recordings about stuff and then suddenly getting sent off somewhere else.”
This approach to playing Fallout, and there’s no right way to experience a huge Bethesda RPG, immediately brought up a moment late in our own Fallout 76 play session. Where strolling through the lush green hills of West Virginia, on our way to a nuke viewing party, we came across a table surrounded by chairs. In one a skeleton, in the other three - teddy bears. On top of the table, a tea set. “Who set this up and what was going on?” Pete chimes in, “That's kind of that emergent sort of role playing - and I love stuff like that.”
It’s one of those classic Fallout moments that feels personal, in the sort of vast open-world Bethesda has spent years perfecting – as seen in both Skyrim and most recently, Fallout 4. But in the guise of a multiplayer experience that ditches factions, towns full or people, and small pockets of humanity – an inherently different one too.
“I mean let's be honest, characters in Fallout games are important,” Pete explains. “There have been many iconic, memorable, quirky, and interesting characters. To remove that element is risky, it’s very different, and it is certainly one of the things that folks react to. But the ability to then experience these worlds with other people in ways you simply could never do before, and the fun of that, I think, is a worthwhile trade off.”
“It takes a while, and you’re right, three hours is not long enough to appreciate it or get a proper feel,” Pete adds. “The more you spend and get immersed in the world the more you appreciate it. When you see another person, particularly one you don't know, there's now a ‘stranger danger’ moment that you're just not used to in Fallout games. Previously it was well defined, that's a Raider, they’re red, and they’re going to attack you. Those people over there are guards for a town so they won't do anything unless you fire at them first. Even though [in Fallout 76] you can see people on the map, you're still wondering if this person is looking for trouble, are they interested in helping me with this quest. Are we going to work together?”
“There have been many iconic, memorable, quirky, and interesting characters. To remove that element is risky, it’s very different, and it is certainly one of the things that folks react to."
At this point it’s worth clarifying that even though there aren’t any human characters roaming around as part of the story, there are many robots, super mutants, ghouls and other walking-talking threats or non-threats in Fallout 76. By keeping humanity within the realm of, well, humanity adds a level of importance and unpredictability to coming across another survivor from Vault 76. “I've had incidences where I've gotten into PvP [player-versus-player] with somebody and I kill them and then they decide to get revenge and kill me. But, once I respawn they’ve asked me to group up with them. This sort of dynamic is weird, and you may not want to group up with a stranger, but the fact that can happen presents a different kind of experience that you're not used to in Fallout.”
By introducing this multiplayer element, certain aspects of the traditional Fallout experience that we’ve come to expect thanks to Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 have changed to not only foster and support co-op or PvP – but also ensure that it remains fun. Even though you need to eat and drink and keep and eye on your radiation levels, and even battle addiction and mutation, fast travelling to other members in your group no matter the distance in Fallout 76 is instantaneous and free. Respawning doesn’t overtly punish, and you also get to see where other people, even those not in your group, are located by simply glancing at the map of West Virginia. Design choices that although technically might break immersion, or sound at odds with the idea of survival - were born from many hours of testing and refining. And playing.
“For all of that stuff we debate and argue, and pro and con,” Pete tells me. “The biggest thing for us is that we just play it, and at the end of the day see how it feels. The more punishing you make branching off and going out on your own, it feels like we’ve taken that choice out of your hands. If I go off on my own I'm essentially no longer able to group up because now I need to chase them across the map. So then, why not make that one of the things that you can do for free. So, I can spend time dicking around in my camp, or go back to dump a bunch of stuff off, repair some weapons and just fast travel back to the group.”
“At the end of the day the results come from playing it and getting feedback, and not from any sort of locked down design doc,” Pete continues. “If somebody is trying to kill you and you don't want to fight them you can run away but you can't fast travel away. That’s a Fallout rule. But, in a multiplayer setting you're just kind of rewarding the person who's being annoying by not giving the other player a means of escape. So why not get rid of the rule that says you can't fast travel when enemies are near if the enemy is a person who's trying to murder you. Things like that come from play-testing and figuring out what feels right, as opposed to does it make logical sense in terms of the world and setting.”
“At the end of the day the results come from playing it and getting feedback, and not from any sort of locked down design document.”
It’s a practise that Bethesda has carried over from its massive single-player RPGs, where experimentation and simply playing the game helps shape the final product. In the case of multiplayer Fallout, it’s an idea that came about in a similar fashion during the development of Fallout 4. During play the team posed the question of whether it could work as a co-op or multiplayer game. The answer was yes, but to do the idea justice it would require a huge shift in design. New ideas and approaches that the team was unsure of. As Pete would describe it, proper Fallout 4 multiplayer would require “a completely different game”. So, whilst the team at Bethesda Game Studios in Maryland continued to develop and fine tune Fallout 4, the team in Austin, Texas was tasked with exploring this idea.
“The Austin team begin working on a different version of Fallout 4, but one with a focus that was entirely online and multiplayer,” Pete recalls. “Not an MMO, and not two or three player co-op. Let's make something different and unique, with a huge world but only a handful of people in it. Where a small group gets to exit a vault and head out to rebuild the world. What would that feel like? And better yet, what would that look like? Even simple things like the server. In Fallout 76 there is no sense of permanence for any of our servers, they exist when they are needed, and they cease to exist if nobody is on them. They ‘go away’.”
During those early months the development team began by asking the questions, who would you want to play with and how would you want to play? From there the grand experiment began, with more questions raised than they were answered. One of the big parts or elements of Fallout 76, that went through many revisions was how the game would treat PvP – an element that was a necessity thanks to the Fallout series featuring worlds filled with danger and decision-making based on the simple act of survival.
“First it was ‘there are no rules’, it was PvP right out of the gate,” Pete recalls those first moments of competitive Fallout. “And, well, it was fucking chaos. Even at this stage we had a mantra, this idea of we need to have people dedicated to making life miserable for others during play tests. Over the years I’ve seen this idea come up a lot in comments, where if you're playing with other developers and everybody is being nice – it really isn’t how people play the game. So, we told certain people that their sole job in playtesting was to be a ‘griefer’. To not only see what that feels like, but what could they do to other players. How much could they realistically harass them? How much could they mess with their game?”
‘Well, it turns out a lot,” Pete laughs. “So, then it became what do we do about that? What if it was optional? What if the amount of damage they do to you is minimal until you decide to return fire? What if you could fast travel away? It's trying all these different things, throwing this away, and that didn't work, and getting to a point to where it felt like its own thing. Very different from Fallout 4 but still very much a game in a Fallout world. One where I'm doing Fallout things but I'm also doing different kinds of things or in a different way than I am used to. I can still quest, I can still explore, I just get to do it with other people - or not. The ‘or not’ was a big part of it, because we quickly realised you should be able to play this by yourself and have fun doing cool things.”
“First it was ‘there are no rules’, it was PvP right out of the gate. And, well, it was fucking chaos.”
Thanks to the shift to a multiplayer approach, the differences between Fallout 76 and Fallout 4 could fill several pages. But the core feel remains the same. Something that fascinates Pete Hines to the point where, outside of technology or an art style, one could pick out a Bethesda Game Studios title out of a hypothetical line-up. “When you boil Bethesda Games Studios down, if you strip away the names of games, if you strip away the IPs, there is some basic fundamental things that remain,” Pete says. “And one of those is interactivity. The fact that if you see a bottle, it's a real bottle, you can pick it up. Another is the idea of player choice, where we are not going to give you a defined character. We're going to let you go off and decide who you want to be. Where you decide where to go and how to play.”
And it's these fundamental or core elements that lead to various design shifts between releases, where stuff like character progression and equipping skills and items and abilities changes to suit each new Elder Scrolls or Fallout. Fallout 76 is not different, with most of what defines your character in terms of abilities and traits comes down to a Perk Card system that incorporates the classic Fallout breakdown of S.P.E.C.I.A.L – where each letter refers to a classic RPG stat like Strength, Agility, Endurance, and Luck. In Fallout 76 Perk Cards not only determine what weapons you might be proficient in or how much you can carry but also if you can pick locks, hack terminals, or use food to heal and revive a fallen teammate.
The Perk Card system was also born from giving players the tools to play how they want, without punishment or any sort of arbitrary system locking them out of a certain ability. Perk Cards can be changed at any point of the game. For Pete and the team at Bethesda, it’s a freeing experience to not tie a player to the arbitrary idea of having to create a new character to simply change one’s looks or allow them to focus on a different style of combat. “To be able to shift a play-style at any point,” Pete confirms. “To say, ‘I'm gonna unequip this set of cards and equip these Perk Cards and now suddenly my character has come back to being ‘Conan the Barbarian’ when it comes to melee weapons. Why does it matter if it’s a complete shift? Let people play and do what they want.”
This idea of being able to change or rebuild your character on the fly down to smallest detail is uncommon in the world of always online games. In fact, with Fallout 76 it might be a first. An intriguing and open approach that one wonders if Bethesda has facilitated new mechanics or streamlined things in-game. Like for example, giving players the option to save card sets as certain builds to recall at a moments notice.
“There is no way right now, that I am aware of, where you can take a group of Perk Cards and go, ‘Okay, this is a build, I'm saving this,’” Pete responds when posed the question. Which naturally led our discussion to the very different post-launch and post-beta world where Bethesda will for the first time respond to player actions, requests, feedback, and concerns, with the sole purpose of expanding, growing, and adding to the online world of Fallout 76. “Whether or not that is something that we add down the road, well, this is sort of part of the process. Both post launch content as well as post launch features are going to be based on - how many people are asking for that?”
“We’ve always been driven by what people want,” Pete continues. “We've done this before with DLCs, if you go back and look to post-launch Fallout 3 there was a visceral reaction from people when they realised that the game came to an end when they finished the main story. So, if you wanted to keep exploring the world you had to go back to the save game right before.”
Bethesda will for the first time respond to player actions, requests, feedback, and concerns, with the sole purpose of expanding, growing, and adding to the online world of Fallout 76.
“Now, I'm not talking about whether you liked the ending, but the fact that all of the Fallout games before Fallout 3 had an ending. Even though our games like Elder Scrolls games don't have an ending in the traditional sense we felt at the time that it should have come to an end because it was a Fallout game. So, the third DLC we did was entirely a reaction to people not wanting the game to end after they completed the main story. I bring this up because we want to be able to this kind of thing with Fallout 76 on an ongoing basis in response to what people like doing, want to see, want to be able to try.”
And in talking about the post-launch plans for Fallout 76, the nature of it being an online world that can change over time is one that appeals to the team at Bethesda Game Studios. Where traditional expansions and content are on the table, but also the idea of trying something new. “We need to embrace what this game is,” Pete says in relation to post-launch plans. “There needs to be a reason for someone to log in. That could be something as simple as ‘on this day we're doing this special thing’, or ‘this week’, and we have a tonne of plans and many ideas like this, some of which we're already going working on. Some of which we’ll create in response to feedback. We're going to get a lot of feedback and to be able to change and adapt what our thinking is around the kinds of things that people want is key. Of course, even more new stuff will come post launch, we also need to be thinking about the Level 60 players.”
“We joke about it,” Pete concludes. “Fallout 76 is the worst version of the game because every day, the next day, it always gets a little bit better. And that will be true for many years. We will constantly be looking to make the game better, add new things, and we do want to be able to say to somebody who hasn't played the game, a year later, to say, ‘it's still Fallout 76, but here are all the other things that we’ve added’. Maybe one of those things was the reason they were holding out.”
Fallout 76 releases November 14 for Xbox One, PC, and PS4.