It’s no secret that Fallout 76’s launch was troubled and plagued with issues unrelated to the Scorched threat facing West Virginia. From stability to performance woes, the general feeling was that it played more like proof of concept than a fully realised Fallout Online. But beyond the patchable, the underlying design was quite different to any Bethesda Game Studios release that had come before it.
A massive wasteland to explore, but one devoid of human NPCs. Talking robots aplenty, but sentient characters with a history of storing large quantities of blood underneath their humanoid skin had either left, succumbed to the plague, or died. Prior to its release, when it became apparent that Fallout 76 would be an experience without traditional NPCs – the response was mostly one of confusion.
“That was the rule,” Jeff Gardiner, Fallout 76 Project Lead confirms. “We like to set boundaries for the team and for this we decided to try something different. The idea was that anytime you saw a silhouette on the horizon you knew that it was an actual real human being.”
It was bold decision, taking the core Fallout experience and shifting it online without NPCs and without traditional Fallout-style storytelling. Exploration in a vast open-world filled with intricate detail and discovery would remain, but the lack of interaction added a new wrinkle in the form of tone.
“For the writing staff and the level designers it became a huge challenge,” Ferret Baudoin, Lead Designer on Fallout 76 admits. “We always planned to tell stories but knowing everyone's going to die and there are no people, it got grim. There's a kind of empty beauty to that though, so it pushed us to try to figure out clever ways of doing things.”
"The idea was that anytime you saw a silhouette on the horizon you knew that it was an actual real human being.”
An example of this narrative change can be found in the main quest, where listening to recordings from Abbie - a member of the Free States – gives players clues and information on how to deal with the Scorched threat. On one Holo Tape you can hear Abbie continue to talk after thinking she hit pause or stop. This then leads to a first-hand account of her despair, wondering aloud what the point is and if anyone would come along and find the tapes.
“If you put yourself in a creative box,” Ferret continues. “Sometimes you can find something great and different like that.”
“There were a few times when we second guessed that whole decision,” Jeff tells me, of Falluot 76’s initial development. “The obvious challenge came trying to tell stories, which we love to do. It’s just a much more difficult thing to pull off when no one else is talking.”
“Fallout has always been a little grim,” Jeff adds, noting that comedy is a key component in designing a Fallout game. And when things get as dark as no survivors, something to lean into. “Fallout has always had a dark undercurrent, but we manage to have fun with it. This was there at launch, with things like the robot mayor of Grafton and how proud he was of winning his uncontested election. We’re always finding ways to inject levity.”
“But, with everyone being dead it puts the onus on players to create stories and life with the real people you encounter. Well, that was the plan.”
A Year or So Later
Fallout 76’s post-launch roadmap, at least initially, was one of addressing bugs and technical issues. The team also began looking at adding new content in the form of seasonal events, quality of life improvements, new experiences, and a big expansion on the horizon called Wastelanders. An update that would address the whole no-NPC rule by breaking it. In one fell swoop admitting that the no-NPC decision was the wrong direction to take the experience, but also present a Fallout expansion in the most traditional sense. An experience that would play into Fallout 76’s strengths - player freedom and exploration.
With the introduction of Wastelanders, Fallout 76 in 2020 is a different experience. Not only for players but for the team at Bethesda.
“It was fairly early on that we decided the way we're going to do this is we're going to say that narratively a year has passed,” Jeff recalls. “As soon as we made that decision it became a fun game of, well, what's different? It also became a challenge because we had to figure out which of the old quests we had to update because they’d no longer make sense. Fun fact, there wasn't that much that changed because they were mostly handed out by robots and the arrival of people wasn’t that impactful on their programming.”
“We didn't want to go back and just sort of clean up all the old quests to make sense in this new timeline,” Ferret adds. “It was a fascinating game of iteration for the design team. Fallout 76 is such a big game it didn’t make sense to add a new map. We had enough space to play in, more than enough.”
“We always planned to tell stories but knowing everyone's going to die and there are no people, it got grim.”
Set one year after the height of the Scorched plague, Wastelanders sees life return en masse to post-apocalyptic Appalachia. Well, en masse in the sense that new towns and hubs of activity have begun to pop up. Changing several existing locations in the game’s already impressively sized and detailed West Virginia map.
When it came time to create a new story, the team went all the way back to Fallout 3 for inspiration. To not only tackle challenges but to come up with interesting and traditional ways of handling things like conversation. “As soon as we decided to bring dialogue back, the style and way Fallout 3 worked is what we looked at,” Ferret tells me. “The way that style can throw things back to the player, with skill checks and variations is wonderful. So, when it came to write actual Fallout 76 dialogue, it was like, ‘I want all of that'.”
“We made some very smart design decisions within the tools we have to make that happen.” Jeff adds, reminding me that whilst development on Wastelanders commenced the team was also supporting and updating the live game. “It wasn’t like we had a full team of engineers and designers that were able to create Wastelanders from whole cloth. We clearly had a lot of patching to do, and a lot of other initiatives where we were adding content.”
The Star of the Show
“The game is huge,” Jeff tells me, as the discussion shifts to the star of Fallout 76 – it’s vast wasteland. “We originally intended on having more players in the map, and that's one of the reasons why the map is so big. We had our full team of level designers creating the map for years. And that’s not an exaggeration. The team is so creative in the ways they create the world and make it interesting. To this day you'll wander into an area or discovery you never expected. There are a lot of locations in Fallout 76 that we didn't really take advantage of – that we have now with Wastelanders.”
“One of the fun things about developing for Fallout 76 is that you feel like a location scout,” Ferret explains. “NPCs ground you and they give you context in ways that notes and Holo Tapes don’t. With Wastelanders they're a driving element to further the player in their quest for power or loot or to find things for their C.A.M.P. Over the years I’ve talked to many people about Skyrim and Fallout and one of the common themes is that they love the experience, have played over 200 hours, but haven’t finished the main quest. It's not because the main quest isn’t engaging, it's because they get so lost in the world.”
“Let’s say you encounter a note and decide to follow up on it because it may lead to a person,” Jeff explains. “Maybe you could help them. In Fallout 76 once you knew everyone's dead you lose those moments. By adding people back in, all bets are off. Maybe that person on the note is alive, maybe they're dead, maybe they’re some psychopath. You don't know. It could be a trap. If you didn't know everyone was dead, it plays much better than if you do.”
“NPCs ground you and they give you context in ways that notes and Holo Tapes don’t. With Wastelanders they're a driving element to further the player in their quest for power or loot or to find things for their C.A.M.P.”
The return of NPCs sees tension and mystery return to the simple act of exploration. With Wastelanders the spotlight not only hits the Settlers that have created a new village called Foundation. Or, the Raiders that have turned the wreckage of a crashed space station into a shanty town called Crater. It hits the stage too – West Virginia.
“You need those quests, those drivers, to get lost in the world,” Ferret continues. “It's this weird sort of Catch 22, which we didn't realise when we were making Fallout 76. We were so focused on just making multiplayer Fallout. We were enamoured with things like the first time we heard gunshots over a hill, knowing it was another player. There are so many games that already do that, but we were lost in it. Bringing NPCs back, for me as a player, gives the context needed to head out and power up and get materials for my C.A.M.P.”
Silhouettes on the Horizon
“One of the efforts we have going on this year is trying to get people to play the game more together,” Jeff tells me. With Wastelanders out in the wild, the road to Fallout 76 2.0, or rebirth is now underway. The team at Bethesda isn’t stopping by any means – the recently released roadmap points to a new and expansive seasonal approach to progression and the introduction of meaningful repeatable quests and activities. Plus, the arrival of the Brotherhood of Steel.
“We're trying to find ways to bring players together because we have found that the communities that have formed in the game are, like our designers, creative and fun and generous and quirky,” Jeff continues. “So, you want to encourage them to interact and give them an open canvas to come up with their own stories. The first step is to give people better and more varied long-term goals which is one of the reasons we’re adding Legendary Perks.” A nod to one of the bigger inclusions coming as part of the first post-Wastelanders update.
“We're writing more tools for our designers to tweak community events and do more unique weekend events. And then on top of that, later in the year, we're adding what we call internally - daily dungeons. We're going to tweak our existing dungeons and put different things in them.”
“We were enamoured with things like the first time we heard gunshots over a hill, knowing it was another player. There are so many games that already do that, but we were lost in it.”
This feature also plays into Fallout 76’s biggest asset and the change in direction that has come from Wastelanders. That asset of course is the huge map, with the change in direction being context and the focus on improving the player experience.
“We have all these locations and we want to give players the incentive to go there or go back,” Jeff explains. “You'll be able to look for the end-game currencies you're on the hunt for. And then there’s the Brotherhood of Steel, which we're keeping a little bit under wraps. We're going to still create linear story-based content, but we want to make sure that the things you're doing on a more repeatable basis are fun and varied.”
“We see Wastelanders as our springboard to relaunch Fallout 76,” Jeff concludes. “To show people that we can give them what they want and to clean the game up. And that was paramount, to make sure Fallout 76 is more stable and fun to play. I think we've hit those goals and from here it's onward and upward.”