Random Thoughts – Randocity!

The Curious Case of Fallout 76: What went wrong?

Posted in botch, ethics, fail, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on April 16, 2019

NukaColaPA-fI’ve already written plenty about Fallout 76. So, this one is likely to be my last about this disaster of a video game. In this article, I intend to detail all of what went wrong (and is still going wrong) with this game and why it’s such a critical failure. Let’s explore.

Fallout History

Fallout is a series about a post-apocalyptic landscape that has been ravaged by nuclear war. Because the Vault-Tec corporation (a company within this universe) saw the coming of the nuclear war, they built vaults to house the best and the brightest to bring about a new future after the devastation had cleared. We won’t get into just how Vault-Tec’s foreseeing (and building the vaults prior to the) the nuclear war makes Vault-Tec appear complicit in the nuclear war itself.

Anyway, the vaults became a safe haven for limited residents (who paid dearly to Vault-Tec, I might add) for entry into a vault. Because there were so few vaults and so few spots in a vault itself, many people did not get a coveted spot in a vault even though they had enough money to pay their way into one. There were many who were left out. I digress at this backstory and Vault-Tec’s possible collusion in the war.

Suffice it to say, the vault is the place where pretty much every Fallout game begins including Fallout 3, Fallout 4 and Fallout 76.

Once each of these games opens, you are forced to make your way out of the vault into a hostile, treacherous, dangerous, nuclear fallout-laced landscape (without a weapon, food or protection). You are forced to forage and eat irradiated foods. You must live in disease ridden conditions, at least until you can create your own clean space. You must find or build your own weapons. There’s always something or someone after you. Many creatures have even mutated into giant versions of their former tiny selves.

Once outside, you find that survivors have grouped themselves into factions for safety including such old favorite factions as the Brotherhood of Steel, the Raiders, the Enclave, the Railroad and so on. In Fallout 76, there are seven (7) factions including the Enclave, the Brotherhood of Steel, the Responders, the Raiders, the Free States, the Whitespring, and the Independents.

Unfortunately, because the factions in Fallout 76 consist entirely of stationary Protectron or MODUS robot vendors, there’s no “joining” a faction in this game. Though, you can follow in the footsteps of the former now-dead faction members and gain access to faction facilities by finishing up uncompleted quests for left-behind robot computers.

So, exactly how did Bethesda get Fallout 76 so wrong? Here we go…

Game Design

Video games are about having fun in a fantasy landscape. It’s about taking off your IRL hat and putting on a fantasy world hat to relax, play with friends and generally do things in a game you can’t do in real life. Let’s begin to understand what led to this disaster.

=> Lack of NPCs

Going into a Fallout game, you sort of expect certain things to exist. Certain things that have come to exist in every prior game in the Fallout franchise. You know, those pesky things called non-player characters or NPCs for short.

NPCs have been a staple in every Bethesda RPG up until the release of Fallout 76. Let’s add a bullet point (and this one is a major point), that one of the biggest reasons that Fallout 76 fails is due to the lack of NPCs.

NPCs are one of the primary reasons people go into the purchase of a Bethesda role playing game (RPG). Without NPCs, the game is entirely barren and lifeless. Fallout 76 proves this out. One might even say, the entire game is soulless. Part of what makes a Bethesda RPG interesting to play is that you feel something for the folks who have been put into this untimely and hazardous situation. Without people there to feel for, there’s no emotional tie to the game. Fallout 76 is as soulless of a game as has ever been made. The only other game to have this same problem is No Man’s Sky… except we knew going into the purchase of No Man’s Sky that there would be no NPCs.

With Bethesda’s past track record, we simply had no idea that Fallout 76 wouldn’t have NPCs until we cracked open the shrink wrap.

=> Short and Few Main Quests

One other thing Bethesda is known for is making lengthy games. Games that, if you work through them as intended, might take you 3-4 months to complete. Granted, that may include participating in a few side quests, but even the main quests will take you at least month or better to get through.

With Fallout 76, you can blaze through the main quests (all 22 of them) in less than a month and be stuck at endgame content.

In fact, there are more side quests in Fallout 76 than there are main quests. Even then, the main quests are far too short.

=> Multiplayer vs Solitary Quest Completion

Bethesda had hoped that its idea of having 24 players in one of its “World Servers” would be a great way to get players to interact with one another (and create story). Gamers don’t “create” story, they “consume” it. Todd Howard got this idea entirely wrong. In reality, what that ends up is just the opposite. Few players actually want to co-op with other players and instead you end up with a bunch of loners all running around the world doing their own thing (or griefing one another). After all, each player can only complete their own quests, anyway.

Because each person must complete their quests on their own, having a teammate doesn’t really do you much good. It can help in combat situations where you’re ganged up by lots of creatures, but that’s about it.

The solitary nature of quest completion runs entirely counter to the notion of getting 24 players together on a server as a whole. It just doesn’t work.

As a follow on to this problem, the lack of NPCs makes completing quests boring, repetitive and tedious. Reading computer terminals, listening to holotape recordings and reading notes is not what players want to be doing in an RPG. These are non-interactive media. It’s just lore being told to us by a long dead character. A character that we have no reason to even trust is telling us the truth. We’ve never met them and never interacted with them. We have no idea if what they want us to do is in any way necessary. Are they leading us into a trap or is what they’re directing us to do useful?

The secondary problem is that all of these holotapes and notes and so on are optimally placed so as to be found. It’s as though these dead folks were expecting us to come along and read and listen and do. It’s all too convenient and handy. It’s as though it was all planned out by something or someone in that world. Yet no “world designer” has ever come forth. It only ends up making this lore more trite and contrived.

If this is supposed to be a treacherous, dangerous environment, finding these people and their situations would be much harder than it is. Ultimately, the setups are as convenient as they are boring and repetitive.

=> No Effect on the World

At the end of completing the quest for lore, you find that nothing in the world actually changes. All of the running around. All of the collecting. All of the fetch quests. All of it is for naught. You do get lore around the Scorched, but in the end the world remains unaffected. The Scorched do not disappear. The Scorchbeasts still appear from their fissure sites. Even the Scorchbeast Queen still spawns if someone conveniently launches a nuke over Fissure Prime.

If you’re going to spend hours traipsing through the wasteland, fetching and fighting and doing and consuming, you would think that the world would be a better place in the end. In Fallout 76, the world doesn’t change. It doesn’t become a better place. It doesn’t get built.

The 24 vault dwellers released from Vault 76 were destined to rebuild Appalachia. Instead, these 24 “players” simply become loners who build their own camps, don’t bring about change and don’t in any way make Appalachia a better place. The game worlds remain entirely status quo at the end of the quests. So, what’s the point then?

=> 24 Random Players

As mentioned just above, gathering 24 random video gamers together on a server isn’t going to lead to anything useful. Real video game players don’t (and can’t) make a game. Players can only interact with the environment. The fun must be had by what the designers design, not by interacting with 23 other live players.

This was a total miscalculation by Todd Howard. Any video game designer thinking you can rely on other video gamers to help make your game work, think again. Fallout 76 is the prime example of how this thinking entirely fails you.

As a designer, you must take the time to build fun and interactive activities for each and every person who joins your game world. Again, you can’t rely on other players for this “fun”. Player versus player (PVP) activities only go so far and even then many folks don’t want to participate in PVP. You can’t rely solely on PVP to carry an RPG game.

If you’re trying to carry a game using PVP activities, then you need to design a Brawlhalla, Apex Legends or Fortnite kind of game and skip the RPG portions. Just keep it simple and straightforward for PVP and leave out the RPG elements that simply get in the way of that design. If your game is PVP, then make it PVP. If your game is an RPG, make it an RPG. Don’t try to try to marry an RPG into some PVP thing or you’ll end up with something like Fallout 76 which just doesn’t quite work.

=> Bugs and Code Management

Bethesda has unofficially become known as Bugthesda. After Fallout 76, this moniker is given for good reason. Fallout 76 is exactly the poster child of everything wrong with Bethesda’s ability to code games. For Fallout 76, each update has taken one step forward and made at least two steps back, many times reintroducing old bugs.

There’s a serious problem at Bugthesda with their ability to code this game. I’ve personally witnessed bugs that were squashed two releases ago reintroduced to a later release. In the coding profession, this is called a ‘regression’. Regressions are typically frowned upon heavily. No one wants to see old bugs reintroduced into new versions. If you squash a bug once, it should stay squashed and gone.

Good code management practices should see to that. This means that using industry standard code management practices should prevent regressions. If you check in code to a repository which fixes a bug, that code fix should eventually make its way back into the “main” branch. Once in the “main” branch, that bug should never see the light of day again. This clearly means that Bethesda is likely not using standard code management practices.

For teams not using standard team code management and storage practices, like Git, then it’s easy to grab old code and reintroduce bugs because there’s not a single place to store that code. That’s the worst of all disasters. Not having a standard code management system in place is nearly always the death of a project (and product). Your product can’t sustain heavy regressions and expect people to come back for second helpings. Eventually, people walk away because they know they can’t trust your code to work.

When bugs appear, disappear and reappear over and over, trust in your ability to code a functional product disappears. Trust is the most important thing you have as a software engineer. Once you blow that trust, it’s all over.

=> Limited World Events

With a game so heavily entrenched in a 24 multiplayer world, you would have thought Bethesda would have given us many intriguing world events for multiple players to gather around, combat and defeat. You might think that, but you’d be wrong.

Out of the gate, Bethesda offers exactly one big world event in Fallout 76. That event being the Scorchbeast Queen event.

The problem with this event is that it entirely relies on other players to spend a significant portion of time traversing through a silo site fighting tons of robots and dealing with broken computers to launch a nuke into the world. Even worse, it requires the player to have not only fought their way through a silo site, but they must have also caught and fought a Cargobot to get a missile launch keycard. They also must have gone through the Enclave quest line to become a General in the Enclave, which requires killing at least 10 Scorchbeasts. It’s an involved and grindy quest line just to get to point where you can even launch a nuke.

Instead of these largest world events simply spawning on a timer, you have to wait until a player decides to launch a nuke on their own. Lately, this has been few and far between because with each release, Bethesda makes it more and more difficult to launch a nuke. This ultimately means that the biggest world event in Fallout 76 almost never happens.

That’s not to say there aren’t other world events. There are, but they are no where as big as the Scorchbeast Queen event. Events like “Path to Enlightenment”, “The Messenger” and “Feed the People”. However, these events are small potatoes by comparison. The Scorchbeast Queen event requires multiple people all doing as much damage as possible to bring down the queen in 20 minutes. With “Feed the People”, one person can easily do this quest and, subsequently, the loot drop at the end is piddly and low-level garbage. The queen’s loot drops are nearly always worth the time and are typically high level drops.

If you’re promising an engaging multiplayer world, you need to deliver on that promise. Relying on other players to trigger the biggest world events, now that’s a huge mistake. Instead, the biggest world events should trigger randomly without player involvement. Let the small events be triggered by players. Let the biggest world events be triggered by timer. It’s fine if a player can trigger a big world event, but don’t rely on that method for the largest events to be triggered. If no player triggers the event within a specified period of time, then trigger it on a timer. But, don’t leave the game barren of these large world events simply because players aren’t interested in spending the time to launch a nuke at that exact location.

=> Even more Grindy

One of the the things that Bethesda doesn’t seem to get is grinding. No one wants to spend the majority of their time online fighting the same creatures over and over simply to level up. Worse, when you do level up in Fallout 76, it’s all for naught. The creatures cap out at about level 68. Yet, even if you get to level 180, that level 68 creature can still kick your level 180 butt.

This is is not how level systems are supposed to work. The game arbitrarily caps your SPECIAL stats at level 50. Effectively after level 50, you’re still level 50 even if your level indicator says your level is 142. This means that you can’t even level up past the highest leveled creatures in the game.

At level 142, I should be able to one shot nearly any creature in the game that’s level 68 or below. Unfortunately, creatures have two levels in this game. There’s the level number (i.e., 68) and then there’s the HP bar. The HP bar is actually the creature’s real level. Some creatures might have 200 HP, where a Scorchbeast Queen might have between 3000 and 50000 HP (even though its level is labeled 50 or 63 or 68). Worse, when you approach this creature, you won’t know how much HP it has until you begin firing on it. Even then, it’s only a guess based on how fast its health is dropping.

This means to beat some creatures in the game, you can easily spend hours grinding and grinding and more grinding. Fallout 76 is, in fact, one big ugly grinding mess. With all of the fiddling and nerfing (aka “balancing”) that Bethesda has been recently performing, grinding is getting even worse, forcing you to spend even more time at it. Bethesda is going to nerf themselves out of a game.

=> Collision Detection, Guns and Bullets

The weapons in Fallout 76 are probably some of the worst in a Fallout game I’ve experienced. Worst yes, but not in the way you might be thinking. It’s worst in a way that makes you cringe. The guns regularly miss enemies even when aiming directly at them using a scope. This is strictly bad collision detection. The game simply can’t seem to recognize when a shot has connected with an enemy.

Bad collision detection is ultimately the death of a shooter. If your game is intended to be a shooter, the one thing it better be able to do is shoot and connect. If it can’t even do this most basic thing, the game is lost. Games with guns need to “just work”. Failing to accomplish this most basic thing should have left this game in development. You can’t release a shooter and not actually have the gun mechanisms work.

But, here we are. The game barely even functions as a workable shooter. There are even times where guns fail to fire even when the trigger is pulled and released. Indeed, there are times when button presses aren’t even registered in the game… requiring the gamer to press twice and three times consecutively to get the game to recognize the press… and wasting precious time. If you had the perfect shot, but the game ignored your press, you’ve lost that opportunity and you have to wait for it to come around again.

This is one of, if not THE, most frustrating thing(s) about Fallout 76. When guns don’t work,  your shooter is broken. This means you should focus on fixing the fundamentals in the game before branching out to downloadable content (DLC).

=> DLC too early

Instead of fixing the never ending array of existing bugs from when the game was launched, Bethesda has mistakenly pushed their teams to create new DLC and add-on quests.

While I won’t get into these half-baked, half-designed DLC add-ons, suffice it to say that the developer team’s time would have been better spent fixing the existing fundamental flaws than releasing under-designed unfun DLC.

I ask you, if the game can’t even get the basics down as a shooter, how can it possibly be good with new DLC? The answer is, it can’t. And, this is why Fallout 76 continues to fail.

=> Players Find the Fun

Because Fallout 76’s quests ended up more grindy than fun, many gamers had to resort to finding their fun using alternative means. What ended up happening was that players went looking for (and found) loopholes in the software. When code is poorly written and released untested, it’s going to be chock full of bugs… and that’s Fallout 76 in a nutshell.

Gamers found ways to dupe and sell their duped items. This was one of the primary ways gamers found their own fun. Not in the quests. Not in the combat. Not in the nukes. They found their fun working around the bugs and making, selling and trading loot. Another way was breaking into closed off dungeons like Vault 94, Vault 96 and even the now-legendary “Dev Room”. Players found their fun outside of Bethesda’s design. Fun that couldn’t be had through the mediocre quests, the crappy storytelling system, the horrible combat system and the problematic collision detection.

This whole activity seems to have come to the surprise of Bethesda. It was as if they couldn’t have foreseen this problem. It happened early on in The Elder Scrolls Online, too. Why wouldn’t it happen to a half-baked game like Fallout 76? It did.

=> Half-Baked Patching

Because every Fallout 76 release Bethesda has sent out has only marginally improved tiny parts of the overall game, the game is still very much of the hot mess that it was when it was released at the tail end of November 2018. It’s now the middle of April 2019 when this article is being written and very little has actually changed.

Sure, they added a distillery as a DLC that produces some of the most useless liquor in the game. The Pre-War liquor is still the best free liquor in the game (and offers the best benefits) and you don’t even need to use a distillery or waste precious crops to get it. The new liquors not only are not covered by the existing perk card system, each of those liquors have heavy downsides. The distiller also doesn’t support the Super Duper perk card to create extra dupes when crafting liquor, unlike every other crafting table. As an example of how bad the new liquors are, Hard Lemonade gives a huge boost to AP regeneration, but at the cost of 1 minute of negative AP regeneration as the “Hangover”. Rad Ant Lager gives +50 carry weight (yay) at the cost of -50 carry weight during the 1 minute hangover (boo). Extremely sub-optimal when in combat situations.

Nukashine fares even worse. Not only is the effect of this liquor pointless (increases unarmed damage), during the “Hangover” you black out and end up in some random place on the map. Making a Nukashine is simply a waste of a Nuka-Cola nuka quantumQuantum (which these drinks can be difficult to find in the world even at the best of times). On top of the pointlessness of this liquor, selling Nukashine to a vendor yields basically no caps (the currency in Fallout). In fact, making a Nuka-Cola grenade is a much better use of a Nuka-Cola Quantum than Nukashine will ever be. I wasn’t really going to talk about the added DLC much, but I felt the sheer crappiness of this one need to be discussed to show how pointless it all really is. The rest of the DLC doesn’t fare much better than the distiller.

If you’re going to give us a distiller, then at least set it up so that the stuff we make has some value to vendors, gives us much better perks than what’s already in the game and is covered by our existing perk cards. If you’re not going to do this, then why bother creating it? That’s why I consider this DLC half-baked. No perk card coverage. No outstanding new liquors. No value to the new liquors. So tell us, exactly why we should find this fun?

=> Player Bans

While Bethesda calls them a “suspension”, it’s actually a ban. A suspension lasts 1-7 days at most. A ban last months. So far, because gamers ended up using the bugs in the game to find their own fun, Bethesda has penalized many of these gamers by suspending them for sometimes unproveable reasons. What that means is that Bethesda did some digging and found that some gamers had accrued “too many” items in their inventory.

Let’s understand that the original release of the game allowed infinite carrying capacity. You simply became overencumbered when you went over your natural carry limit. This meant that you had to use AP to walk around. When AP ran out, you had to stop and wait for the AP to regenerate or you walked even more slowly. This was the original design BY Bethesda.

After the whole duping scandal erupted, Bethesda blamed the gamers and not themselves for the problems in Fallout 76. The bugs are entirely there by Bethesda. That gamers exploited the bugs, bad on you Bethesda. You should have better tested the quality of your game. Testing is on you, Bethesda… not the gamers. If you failed to test your product, then it’s on you when bad things happen.

If you didn’t want gamers to carry infinite items, then you should have released the game with a carry limit cap. That you didn’t do this initially was a miss on your part. Anyone could see that was a vector for abuse. Waiting for it to be abused, then blaming the abuse on the gamer is entirely disingenuous and insincere. Blame yourself for the bugs, not the gamers.

=> Most Recent Update

As of the latest “Wild Appalachia” update, the game is still very much of a mess. It still crashes regularly, sometimes the entire client crashes back to the dashboard. Sometimes the game won’t load in. Sometimes the character load-in is extremely laggy, stuttery and problematic. If you do manage to get your character loaded in, the shooter basics still don’t work. You can manually aim dead onto enemies and the gun will entirely miss (several times in a row). So, you resort to VATS. VATS sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t. You can be literally inches from an enemy and VATS will show a 0% chance of hitting. Yes, it’s STILL that bad.

Nuking on servers can make them highly unstable, particularly in the nuked region. If you enter a nuked region, you can expect the game’s frame rate to drop to about 10-15 frames per second… and I’m not joking. There are other places in the game where this frame rate issue is a problem. For example, when you’re in camp and trying to construct in the workshop menu.

There are many spots in the game where the frame rate can drop to practically nothing. These problems should have been worked out months ago. Yet, instead of fixing these absolute game engine basics, Bethesda has its devs off creating half-baked DLC to try to rake in new revenue.

Unfortunately, with every patch, Bethesda’s devs add back in regressions removed two or three patches ago. It’s been a never ending cycle of one step forward and two (sometimes three) steps backward. The world never gets better.

=> End Game

Every game has a problem with end game fun. Unfortunately, Fallout 76’s end game starts the moment you first login. The whole game is end game. There’s not a beginning to this game, so how can there be an end? Even once you do complete all of the main and side quests, there’s even less to continue doing in this world.

I do understand the reason for the DLC… to try and bring back old players. But, that’s going to be difficult considering you banned a very large number of them from the game. The few that weren’t banned aren’t going to come back simply because you put a crappy distiller in the game or that you created a 7 day long festival and forgot to actually give out the most desirable masks. They’re certainly not going to come back to grind for Atom to buy the useless (and expensive) Atom Shop items.

Overall

The game is STILL a very hot beta mess offering a poorly written, badly conceived and boring storytelling system utilizing no NPCs. The combat system is the worst system I’ve encountered in a top tier game developer’s title. No joke. It is the absolute worst. Even the patching hasn’t improved it. If anything, it’s actually gotten worse.

There are times where button presses are entirely unresponsive. You might have to press the button two or three times rapidly to get the game to register even one press. You might be trying to pick up something, trying to fire your weapon, trying to search a container or it might manifest in any other number of ways. Unreliable button presses are the death of a game that so heavily relies on real time play value.

No amount of patching or DLC will solve these basic fundamental engine problems. To solve the storytelling problem, you need to add NPCs to the game.. which would require redesigning the game from scratch. To solve the combat problem, you need to redesign the combat system from the ground up using a practical engine actually designed for real-time online use.

You can’t take a 20 year old offline game engine and attempt to patch it for an online use. Doing so will produce exactly the problems found in Fallout 76. Fallout 76 needed a game engine designed entirely for online play. Designed for real-time combat. Designed for real-time activities. Designed for responsive button presses.

Unfortunately, what we got was a crapfest of epic proportions that Bethesda will neither acknowledge nor comment on. If this is Bethesda’s new game development norm, I won’t be investing in any more Bethesda games. It’s just not worth paying $60 (or more) to be an alpha tester for a game written on old technology that isn’t up to the task.

In short, Fallout 76 is STILL an immense hot mess that has not at all improved since its November launch.

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