Random Thoughts – Randocity!

One Year Later: Has Fallout 76 improved?

Posted in botch, business, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on October 1, 2019

12-7-2018_5-55-03_AM-iujn21rsSeeing that Fallout 76 is an online multiplayer game and that Bethesda heavily enjoys its revisionist tendencies, this question arises about not only this game, but about revisionism in video games in general. It’s ironic then that this simple brown paper bag has come to represent everything wrong with Fallout 76. Has Fallout 76 gotten any better in nearly one year since its release? Let’s explore.

Revisionism in Entertainment

There’s something to be said for revisionism. As many entertainment products today are delivered digitally and are now also being created digitally these days, this opens the door to revisionism. The difficulty with changing stuff is that what we initially purchased is not what that thing is today. Whether it be a movie, a book, TV series or even a video game. I’m actually surprised it hasn’t happened in the music industry so far.

Throughout the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, visual and literary entertainment was always set in stone. Heck, this idea goes back into the renaissance with such works as the Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Though, even then there were controversies with some clergy deciding that fig leaves needed to be added to certain artworks, thus forcing a revision. These instances were rare and usually happened while the work was in progress. However, sometimes a second artist might be commissioned later to paint fig leaves. What that usually meant was, what you saw when it first arrived is the same thing you’ll still see today. Unfortunately, too many entertainment makers see revisionism as something to make their product better, but does it? Can changing the content of a book, movie or video game a year or two later actually make it better?

This is up for debate. What it does is make the entertainment become a cloudy and murky experience. What you fondly remember about the product and experience could be completely invalidated because a creator later decides to completely rework large portions and change what you remembered most.

In fact, many people remember works for certain specific things that happened within. If revisionist changes remove or alter those specific sections so that they are no longer in the work, you may have modified what people remembered about your product. And this is the fundamental problem. Such revisionism can actually make a product worse. Fallout 76 is a poster child for this problem.

Editing for Correction

Now, I’m not against basic editing. In a written work, if you misspell a word, need to correct grammatical errors or word omissions, these are perfectly acceptable changes. If the dialog in a film is misspoken or acted in a less than professional and convincing way, I’m fine with a reshoot and reedit so long as the dialog and scene remains functionally equivalent. These are all edits that make sense in the context of a body of work. They don’t substantially alter the work, they simply polish it. Polishing a work to make at work the most professional it can be is perfectly acceptable.

However, changing a work by adding substantial content, altering the story, changing the outcome, changing the setups, changing the rules and so on, these are not simple corrections. These change the fundamental story outcome. These substantial changes are considered revisionism and are way outside the bounds of simple corrections. That would be like someone deciding to change the Mona Lisa’s smile on the original painting simply because they think it is too vague. You just don’t do this to the original work. Sure, you can create a derivation of that work and publish it separately, but you should never alter the original work by substantially changing its content.

For this reason in the art community, there’s a lot of controversy about “cleaning up” historical works of art that have layers of dirt, dust and debris on the surface. The “clean up” process could amount to changing the fundamental work rather than being a simple cleanup. The chemicals used might even long term damage the work. It means someone has to take liquids to the work, clean off the “dirty” layers and expose the “clean fresh” layers. The difficulty is, by doing this it may remove original content intended to be there by the original artist. With older works where the artist is no longer living, we cannot consult them for how to best “clean” their works. It’s all best guess. Modifying and cleaning these works may make them look better, but does it fundamentally alter the content? This is the contentious and controversial part… and it is exactly this controversial part that applies to ALL works when they are revised.

Reuse of Assets in Video Games

Video games are both entertainment and works of art. In fact, it takes a lot of graphical art content created by teams of artists to release a video game. Such art includes texture maps which get layered onto 3D objects. These maps make the objects appear naturalistic and real. Granted, some of the art is scanned from actual nature… such as tree leaves scanned in from real trees to create realistic trees in a 3D landscape. Even skin surfaces are likely scanned from actual human skin. However, some texture maps are hand crafted, stylistic art. These are the truest art in every sense of the word.

Revisionism in texture map art isn’t really a big problem in the video game world. In fact, once these “assets” have been created, it’s more likely a video game publisher will overuse these assets rather than modify them. By ‘overuse’ I mean reuse them not only in the original game, but future games also. I’m sure the devs think, “Why recreate the wheel with every new game?” Instead, reusing assets that already exist makes sense in some limited cases. Reuse also costs less development money.

On the other hand, reusing too many assets from a previous work makes your current work seem less than original. That would be tantamount to an author taking whole passages from a novel and copying and pasting them into a new novel. After all, if they worked in the old novel, why wouldn’t they work in the new novel? At least, that’s the thinking. The problem that creators overlook is that consumers can easily spot these reuses. Consumers can overlook small reuses of words and phrases in a novel, particularly if a specific character has a peculiar speech idiosyncrasy when using those words and phrases. In this specific case, it adds to character development. However, there’s a fine line between reusing words and phrases to make a character development point and plagiarizing your own past works. Consumers do recognize large plagiaristic reuses and judge the work’s merit accordingly.

Fallout 76

Here is where we come to the crux of this article and Fallout 76. Fallout 76 is a completely hosted, online video game world. It is also a world almost entirely derived from Fallout 4 with only the terrain, cities and landscape being different, but at the same time entirely reusing nearly every Fallout 4 asset and even the game engine itself.

Fallout 76 is also a world where nothing except assets and visual and audio data exists on your computer device. It is a game where only the rendering occurs on your device. The actual game world itself resides remotely on servers that Bethesda owns and operates. Even your character and saved game exists not on your computer, but on Bethesda’s server. If Bethesda shuts down the Fallout 76 service, so too does your character disappear along with all of the time you spent creating that character. Unlike Fallout 4 where your saved games live on your device and you can reload and play the game years later, Fallout 76 is beholden to Bethesda to remain in business for this game service to continue to exist. If Bethesda were to fold or shut the game down, Fallout 76 would cease to exist along with all of the work and time you spent with your character. All you’ll have left is a bulky game client on your device with no where to connect. Only videos or screen shots you may have of your game progress saved on your local device will be there to remember what that game was. I should point out that in Fallout 4, if you use mods, you should also make sure you have a saved game without mods. If Bethesda shuts down entirely, so too does Bethesda.net. This means that you will not be able to unload or remove mods as long as Bethesda.net remains down. So, make sure you have a vanilla save of your character without any mods loaded in case this eventuality occurs (side note). While Fallout 4 is playable without Internet, Fallout 76 is entirely dependent on it.

What that also means is that because the Fallout 76 engine runs remotely, it means Bethesda can roll out wholesale changes to the product at will and at any time. And, unfortunately, they perform this revisionism regularly. However, they’re not performing this revisionism in a way that makes ‘editing’ sense.

Earlier I discussed simple editing that allows for polishing a product. Unfortunately, that’s not what Bethesda is doing with its Fallout 76 revisionism. Instead of polishing Fallout 76 to fix basic bugs, glitches and improve the basic performance and fundamental user experience, Bethesda is adding large new sections of content and changing the rules of the game. The added content is over and above (and outside) of the context of the original game story as it was released. In fact, most of the additional content that Bethesda has so far added has not impacted the base original game. Even though this is still a form of revisionism, it revises the work by adding new stuff, but at the expense of not correcting basic problems within the original game… and not expanding the game in actually meaningful Fallout-themed ways.

“Where is the game today?”, you ask. Great question. Fallout 76’s original “Adventure Mode’s” fundamental game experience is still the same as it was when it launched (as lackluster as it is), bugs and all. Unfortunately, to add many of the new additions to the game, Bethesda has had to tinker with some of the fundamental game mechanics and rules that operate the base game. What that has meant to the game is broken, changed and altered base game playability. This means that for Bethesda to add these inconsequential new features, it has broken even more pieces of a game which where formerly fully working… in addition to the broken features that have not yet been fixed. They’ve even introduced newly broken features.

And here is where Fallout 76 is today. Instead of Bethesda focusing on simple basic editing to correct fundamental and original game flaws to make the original gaming experience better, it has decided to focus almost solely on adding new content to the game in an attempt to attract new consumers. In that process it has broken even more of the game rather than fixing original broken functionality. It is an entirely flawed rationale.

While Bethesda’s changes may seem to bring in new players for the short term, the difficulty is that these newly added game additions have severely limited play value. In fact, these additions have such limited play value, I’d expect gamers to get tired of playing them within 1-2 weeks at most. Most give up on them in only a few days. The original game might take you a month or two to get through. Yet, these newest additions might hold someone’s interest for a week (usually less) if you’re lucky! Yeah, that’s a lot of work for such a tiny payoff. Worse, these additions do not extend or modify the original story. These are effectively “mods” that add something new, but add no value to the original game’s story or content or, indeed, expand Fallout in consequential ways. These additions are effectively end-game content. They’re tiny and almost entirely inconsequential.

Backpack

I won’t go into discussing every addition, but I will discuss this one because it offers us insight into Bethesda’s thinking. This add-on item gives the player a backpack that offers a little more carry weight based on the character’s level. A level 10 character, for example, would get fractionally more carry weight (10 points). For each 10 levels, your character will get maybe 10 more carry weight, but you’re required to toss the old backpack and recreate a new one to get the updated carry weight, thus applying all new mods again to get your new backpack back to look like your old backpack’s setup.

It’s a lot of work doing this at each 10 levels. This is one of the fundamental design problems with this game. Instead of directly allowing leveling up of existing armor and weapons, you must scrap it and recreate it anew… or find it again. If it’s Legendary, then it is stuck at whatever level it is. Most weapons and armor top out at level 50 and the perk benefits stop there. This effectively means that even if your character is level 150 or 300, you’re still wearing level 50 armor…. which effectively caps the player’s level at 50. The level cap is not based on what your character’s level is, but the maximum of your armor and your weapons. When these max out at level 50, being a level 300 player doesn’t really in any way help you. The only thing it does is means you’ve been playing the game for a long time. But, effectively your level is capped by the highest level armor and weapons you have on you.

The small backpack, I believe, tops out also at level 50 with a maximum of 60 carry weight. You can’t infinitely keep leveling up the backpack. Though, there is a large backpack that doubles this carry weight, but requires even more grinding to achieve. This means that once you reach level 50 and can craft a level 50 backpack, that’s as far as the small backpack perk goes. Sure, you can add on additions like the cooler and other perks, but all of that is still capped at the maximum level of that backpack.

Unfortunately, for the backpack, the situation gets worse. When it was first introduced, the way to get the small backpack was through a series of convoluted quest lines involving a “Boy Scout” badge-like approach. You had to get “badges”. To get these badges, you had to perform any number of varying activities. You only had to have three of a larger number of badges. Once you had three badges, you then presented yourself with your badges and a successfully completed test and you were issued the small backpack plans. So then you graduated to the Possum rank only to start this whole process all over again for a second series of grinds to get the large backpack plans.

However, later, Bethesda in its infinite revisionist tendencies decided that you could simply go find the small backpack plans in a container. No longer did you need to jump through all of the convoluted lengthy tadpole badge hoop quests. Quests, I might add that could be difficult to accomplish without a teammate. For example, to complete one of the quests, you had to “revive an ally”. What that meant is staging it with a teammate. It’s not super easy to die in Fallout 76. Even then, there are two death types. One type is an incapacitated death where a player can stimpak and revive you. The other death type offers no hope of revival. The player simply has to respawn somewhere and start over.

Staging an incapacitated death can be difficult at the best of times. Getting this specific badge meant either grinding until you ‘accidentally’ found someone in that state or staging it to get it done sooner. Staging this is harder than you might think. I’m not even sure why this was required for the badge, yet there we are. Like using liquid flux to create fusion cores, reviving an ally is a questionable requirement for this quest line. I’m not even sure what Bethesda was thinking. Some of these requirements make no sense.

The point is, Bethesda invalidated the need to go to through the long “Boy Scout” quest line allowing you to bypass all of that by simply grabbing the plans, as long as you know where the container is (which is incidentally located in Morgantown Airport in the Overseer’s Cache). Though, if you wanted the backpack extras, you still had to go through the badge quests to earn scout credits to buy these additions (yet another currency type in the game)… as if caps, scrip and atom were not yet enough.

Bugs, Bugs and more Bugs

I’m not talking about the flying kind here. Worse, because Bethesda has chosen to prioritize the addition of new content over pretty much everything else, it likewise means Bethesda’s team has completely ignored fixing even the most basic of flaws in the original base game.

For example, in a video game that relies on shooting mechanics and melee attacks to function, you’d think a AAA developer could at least make these mechanics sound and “just work”. Unfortunately, even in the base game which was released a year ago, these fundamental basics have never functioned correctly. You can literally shoot directly at enemies and the bullets simply won’t connect. Not just once, but many times in a row. Even button presses on the controller aren’t reliable. Press, press, press… and nothing. It might take 5 successive presses for even one press to be registered by the game. This is a actually first in the video game industry. No other game have I ever played where a game’s control is this unresponsive and unreliable. If, as a video game developer, you can’t even register a button press from a controller, perhaps you shouldn’t be in the video game business?

Anyway, while the game consumes the ammo and shows the animation of the gun doing its thing, the game doesn’t recognize the collision on the enemy, even when you’re standing less than arm’s-length next to the enemy.

Oh, but it gets worse. When you spawn into a game world, there’s a huge time delay between the time when your character appears in the game world and when the visual part of the game releases control to you to begin playing. This time discrepancy is not insignificant. It could be upwards of 1-2 minutes before your game is handed control and the world is fully rendered. What that means is that if you spawn into a “hot zone” of enemies, your character could be dead before the loading screen has even disappeared.

Fallout 76 has even more basic problems. For example, when you spawn into a new game world, your character can spawn into a “blast zone”. A blast zone is a zone where another player has set off a nuke and irradiated the area. Irradiated areas in Fallout 76 last for at least 30 minutes to an hour real time, maybe longer. Because you’re spawned into the “last place” where your character formerly was and because you’re not given a choice where to spawn on load in, you could load into an irradiated zone unprepared. This, of course once again, means your player is dead upon spawning in. Worse, because the game force drops all of your junk upon character death, you’ve lost all of the junk you were carrying with little hope of getting it back. If your character does not have the preparation to handle a nuke zone (Hazmat suit or similar), you can’t venture in and get your stuff back. If you choose to hop servers to get out of that blast zone, you definitely can’t get your junk back. Junk drops exist in only one server. If your character dies in one game world and you are forced to hop game servers, your junk is forever gone. One of Todd Howard’s promises of Fallout 76 was that we shouldn’t need worry about ‘servers’. Yet, in this case, we very much do.

These are bugs that shouldn’t exist. These are bugs that should have been solved before the game was ever released. Yet, here we are a year later and they still exist. These are, by no means, the only problems / bugs in this game. In fact, there are so many bugs, I could write a book and still miss some. Anyway, let’s make a small-ish list:

  • Looping “stuck” audio out of one or both audio channels
  • Random server disconnects
  • Random inventory lost
  • Random character deaths
  • Getting stuck in power armor
  • The “wendigo” character problem (character has stretched elongated limbs)
  • Getting stuck on scenery (forced to fast travel)
  • Spawning inside of objects (stuck)
  • VATs doesn’t calculate accuracy correctly
  • VATs not working correctly
  • Perk cards not working (Storm Chaser almost never works when it’s raining)
  • Lack of perk cards for certain basic features (no weight reduction for rifle class?)
  • Too many perk cards for some functions (how many rifleman cards do we need?)
  • The Scorchbeast Queen event only appears IF another player decides to nuke that area. If not, the event never appears… and it’s the biggest multiplayer event in the game! … and yes, I do consider this a bug.
  • Losing junk after character death because of “server disconnect”
  • Stupid crafting recipes:
    • Fusion Cores — Crafting a fusion core requires only every single version of stable flux? Wait..what? You’re making a nuclear battery. It should require aluminum, copper, nuclear waste, plastic and silver. You can’t make a battery from liquid flux alone! Where does the case come from? The properties of flux, while irradiated, cannot produce an electric current in its liquid form when simply combined, let alone produce a hard shell case that approximates the shape of a fusion core.
    • Tick Blood Tequila — This one requires pure crimson flux. What? It’s not named Irradiated Tick Blood Tequila, it’s named Tick Blood Tequila. It shouldn’t require ANY flux.
    • Stable Flux — Making stable flux requires components that are only available in nuke zones and, more specifically, only available in very specific nuked zones. And even more specifically, are only dropped from very specific killed enemies in these very specific nuked zones. To craft stable flux requires 10 “raw” flux and 1 each of glowing mass, high radiation fluids and hardened mass. You cannot find raw flux, glowing mass, high radiation fluids or hardened mass on ANY other enemy in the game, in any other containers or in any other non-irradiated locations. The additional components can only be found in irradiated zones on very specific enemies after a kill. Even then, these drops are not guaranteed.. which means you need to kill A LOT of them to find all three of these “extra” components. Stable flux is easily the rarest required item in the game… not including cosmetic outfits (Red Asylum Outfit, Witch’s Costume, White Powder Jumpsuit, etc).  Not only are they rare, but they weigh a ton. Each Stable Flux weighs 1 unless you have the perk Pack Rat card which reduces the weight of all junk items.
    • Raw Flux — Separate but related to the above, raw flux is only found in nuke zones. It cannot be found anywhere else in the game. This means that every player in the game is beholden to other players to “create” a nuke zone to enable obtaining of not only raw flux, but high radiation fluid, glowing mass and hardened mass. You can obtain flux from the Queen event when it closes, but only if it just happens to drop it at the end and only if the event closes successfully. Raw flux (when refined to stable) is a required component for certain quests and crafting as well (Tick Blood Tequila and Fusion Cores).  Note that raw flux is considered ‘Aid’ not ‘Junk’. You’ll have to apply Thru-Hiker to reduce the weight for these.
    • Why Raw Flux is Aid and Stable Flux is Junk, I’ve no idea. But, inconsistency abounds in this otherwise mediocre game… thus one big reason why it IS mediocre.
    • Any other recipes that require “stable” flux
    • There’s not a single recipe that requires “raw” flux. Yet, it’s a huge component in the game. Raw flux is not even worth much anymore (revisionism at its finest).
    • Food Recipes — Most food recipes only provide food and nothing else. Sure, you can go find other more fancy recipes, yet they also only provide food. I’m not sure what Bethesda was thinking here, but if you spend the time to go track down a specific advanced recipe, that recipe should provide more than simple food. It should provide a perk increase, such as added luck or agility or improved health or AP regeneration. Yet, most advanced recipes offer none of this. What’s the incentive to find and craft advanced recipes when it provides nothing more than what a basic recipe provides? Sometimes even the most basic recipes offer better perks than the “advanced” recipes.
    • DLC — The add-ons that Bethesda has offered beyond the base game have excluded the use of perk cards entirely. For example, the distillery added to the game during a spring DLC addition gave us the ability to craft alcohol using a newly added crafting table. The problem is, none of the existing base game perk cards apply to this new crafting table. And no new perk cards were introduced, either. For example, Super Duper is one of the most widely used base game cards. This card offers the chance to double whatever you craft on crafting tables… except, this card does not apply to the distillery crafting table. While you can sometimes double your output while crafting stimpaks or radaway or when crafting ammo, you cannot double the output when crafting beer, wine or whiskey. It makes no sense, if Super Duper applies to all other crafting tables, it should apply to the distiller crafting table. That Bethesda selectively declines to apply known perk cards to its add-ons is just a jerk move… and, in my opinion, makes the game worse.

And here we come to even more issues:

  • Gun ammo is unloaded at every game load-in — Instead of the game remembering which gun was currently being held and how much ammo it has, the game unloads the gun of ammo on login. This means that if the game crashes or you quit and come back later, you must reload your weapon immediately upon login. If you fail to remember to do this MANUALLY, you will ‘click’ and nothing happens.
  • Quests fail to progress for nonsensical reasons — Quests can get stuck simply because the game won’t recognize the most basic of things. Some quests requires that you be drunk to complete them. In some cases, the game simply won’t progress even though the UI shows the effect is active. The quest simply chooses to ignore it and not progress.
  • Quests disappear — You can be questing along, then have the game crash only to load in and find that quest is no longer part of your quest inventory.
  • Quests cannot be abandoned — In previous Bethesda games, you could quit a quest and restart it by going back to the source. That is not possible in Fallout 76. If you pick up a quest, it stays in your quest inventory forever (or until it randomly disappears on its own). This is particularly problematic for quests that reload with incredibly loud voice overs (Grafton and Rose).
  • Quest markers do not always appear in the HUD — Quests put up markers in the compass HUD. Yet, at times, these markers are simply not there. Not all quest progressions are easy to locate. Perhaps it’s a specific computer terminal in a building with perhaps 20 terminals. Without a marker, you would have to run to every single terminal in the building and try them all. It’s one thing if a game is based on having no markers. It’s entirely another if the game has quest markers that fail to work reliably… and this is where Fallout 76 lives.
  • Music that can’t be muted — There is certain environmental music that cannot be muted. Even though I’ve turned off music in settings, the game insists on still playing music at certain events.
  • Paper Bags Drops — For a long while, dropping items into the environment was fraught with peril. You could drop something that should appear in a paper bag, yet no bag would ever appear and your item was entirely lost. While it seems that this issue may have been mostly solved, it still exists occasionally. I have dropped paper bags which never appeared even after it was claimed to have been fixed.

So now, let’s discuss C.A.M.P. bugs. I’d rather not because there’s a huge laundry list of items here, but let’s do it anyway.

  • Camp Circumference — When you drop your camp down, a circle is created that outlines the border of your camp’s buildable areas. You can’t see this circle in full. You are limited by seeing this circle from a ground perspective. This mean you must guess as to exactly how this circle fits onto the ground. If you get it wrong, you must pay to move your camp again. Each time you move your camp, you lose more caps. You can’t adjust or fine tune your camp’s circle. It is where it lands. Bethesda could have raised the camera off the ground to show us the circle from above, yet nope.
  • Randomly disappearing objects — I’ve had a number of camp objects that I’ve built simply disappear. Sure, someone reading might think, “Oh, it was just damaged and needs to be repaired”. Nope, I’ve checked that. The object is simply gone. I’ve had this bug happen a month after the game launched and I’ve had it happen as recently as a week before writing this article. This is a long standing bug that has basically existed since the game launched… and it still exists today. Worse, when these objects disappear, they still contribute to the camp’s budget. Even deleting everything in your camp will not free up these lost objects. Writing Bethesda support won’t lead to anything fruitful. The Bethesda support team actually does nothing other than write emails about how they can do nothing to help you.
  • Camp Budget — Bethesda has increased the camp budget exactly once… when they introduced the Distiller crafting table. Even then, you can’t build much with the allotted camp budget. It’s large enough to create a small structure, but if you want to defend that structure with turrets, expect to make your camp buildings much, much smaller. Turrets still cost a whopping amount of camp budget simply to create a single turret. If you want 5 turrets, expect at least 1/4 of your camp budget gone (perhaps even more than this).
  • 24 players per server — It’s crystal clear, this number of players is too many for the way they’ve built their servers. Half this number would make the servers much less laggy, much faster and overall perform much better. Yet, we’re forced to deal with 24 players on a server where even just one player can bring the server to its knees when spamming a crafting table at their camp.
  • Portions of objects disappear — If you’ve ever set up a fertilizer resource (a Brahmin Pen) or the new Scavenger Bot (Atom shop item), you can find portions of the object become invisible. I’ve had the hay on the Brahmin resource vanish. I’ve had the scavenger hatch become invisible. And again, no, it wasn’t damaged. When I open the workshop, the only thing that appears is a vibrant green untextured object. It’s most definitely a bug.

These are but many of Fallout 76’s most basic fundamental mechanic flaws and these are not anywhere close to all of them. These problems have existed in the base game… long before Bethesda added their newest add-ons. These are fundamental problems that, for a AAA game title and for an AAA developer like Bethesda, shouldn’t even exist. That these basic fundamental flaws, problems and, yes, bugs, exist means that Bethesda shouldn’t even be in this business.

But, wait there are even more problems afoot.

Graphics

Not only does Fallout 76 add an annoying haze overlay effect onto bright light sources, the graphics of Fallout 76 are actually much, much worse than Fallout 4. The shadows are incredibly low res by comparison. Some images don’t resolve to high res until you’re within arm’s length of the image. You can literally see the 8 bit sized pixels. For example, the GNN poster is a lighted decoration you can put up on your camp. When you approach it from a distance, you can see a very pixelated image. When you move within arm’s length, the pixelated image stays for a moment, then loads to higher res right before your eyes. You can even see the image load in. Sometimes textures will randomly toggle between low res and high res even while standing still.

In Fallout 4, this low res image loading problem never existed. The images were loaded at high res the moment you were within gunshot range. That Fallout 76’s graphics engine is this piss poor tells me Bethesda has no idea how to run a quality MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role playing game). Though, I’d debate that 24 players constitutes an MMORPG. Perhaps MORPG (multiplayer online role playing game) more accurately describes Fallout 76. I digress.

Worse, it’s not limited to image loading.12-7-2018_5-55-00_AM-ztlpzw1g There are many problems with Fallout 76’s graphics including, but not limited to, seeing god rays through rocks, seeing image artifacts on trees when looking downhill, low res textures, poor quality lighting and this list goes on and on. Comparing Fallout 4’s graphics to Fallout 76, there really is no comparison. Fallout 4 looks sharp and crystal clear. Its sun and effects look realistic.

In Fallout 76, the sun disc used to have a horizontal lens flare effect. This was early when the game first released. In later releases, this lens flare effect was inexplicably removed and has never been added back. It’s still not back. The distance effects look bad and I mean really, really bad. The distance effects in Fallout 4 were fair, but looked mostly okay. There are definitely better graphics engines, like Ubisoft’s AnvilNext, but Fallout 4 did a decently respectable job for its engine.

In Fallout 76, the whole graphics system has taken a huge step backwards. The rendering is worse, overall. Some of this I get. The devs needed to reduce how much is required to download over the network. Otherwise, the network chatter would be too overloaded and the game wouldn’t function, particularly with gamers on slower networks. I get that. But, at the same time, it makes the game look amateur. This is one of those times where a AAA developer should have withheld the game and decided not to release it.

You can release junk or you can release nothing. Junk turns your brand sour. Releasing nothing increases expectation of the next product. Bethesda should stick to what they do best. Single player offline video games. Stay way from these online games where not only does Bethesda clearly have no experience, they have learned nothing since launching The Elder Scrolls online. At least use that MMORPG as a learning experience. Nope, they started over from scratch and had to relearn everything they already learned from ESO. Even then, Fallout 76 is still stumbling through mistake after mistake… mistakes that had already been corrected long ago in ESO.

Grinding and more Grinding

Grinding has always been a thing in most MMOs. Grinding is the way for the game developer to keep gamers interested in the game. Developers must ask themselves, “How much grinding is too much?” Bethesda, unfortunately, hasn’t asked itself that question and has firmly led Fallout 76 into the territory of too much grinding.

In fact, in Fallout 76, you’ll spend more time grinding for resources than doing just about any other activity in the game. Even going into final battles is less about the combat and more about grinding for XP, eating food and the loot drops. No one goes into the Queen battle to actually kill the Queen. They go into it because of what they’ll get from her in the end and what they’ll get from when the quest closes successfully. It’s not about the combat, it’s about what drops you get.

That’s not good game design. That’s crap design. You want to design a game for gamers to want to engage in the combat because of the combat, not because of loot drops. Unfortunately, because the combat in Fallout 76 is so exceedingly bad, the only thing we can look forward to at the end of a Queen event is the drops. In fact, I believe all of the loot the Queen drops should stop being dropped period. No more random queen loot drops. Instead, she should drop only caps and scrip (the newest currency you get when you sell Legendary items). This currency can then be redeemed at a vendor in the game world, such as at the legendary vendor Purveyor Murmrgh. This currency can then be obtained in other ways throughout the game. This means that if you choose not to do the Queen event, you can still get the same loot in alternative ways and using alternative means. You’re not beholden to join a combat event simply to obtain flux, legendary items or plans or whatever other things the Queen usually drops. Instead, no matter which role playing choice you choose to follow in the world, you still have equal chance of getting choice weapons, armor and loot drops. An open world RPG should allow for multiple paths to get to the same point.

Open World RPG

An open world RPG is about being able to do things in whatever way the gamer chooses. If the gamer wants to focus on crafting, they should be able to skill-tree up through a crafting system. If the gamer wants to focus on combat, there should be a combat skill-tree. No one skill-tree should become THE skill-tree. In Fallout 76, if you choose not to adopt combat as your skill-tree choice, you really can’t get much from the game. Further, loot drops in the world should not be unique to a specific triggered event. All loot drops should be equally available throughout the world to all skill-trees… perhaps, as I suggested above, by dropping currency rather than weapons and armor. The currency can then be exchanged for weapons and armor.

However, certain “main quest” quests may be required for all players and these required drops should allow all players to access and use certain fundamental items necessary for later main quests. However, all tertiary quest loot drops should be available in differing ways to all player types.

Stable Flux is a good example of this. This resource should be available in ways other than by visiting nuke zones. You should be able to buy this resource in the world from at least one in-game-world vendor. Grahm is a wandering Super Mutant vendor and is a very capable and shrewd vendor. Because he’s constantly traveling the wasteland, he’s the perfect vendor to sell stable flux. Not only does it make sense that he can wander into nuke zones and gather and refine flux, he can then sell it to us. Perhaps not in large quantities, but he should at least always have it on him to buy.

Flux shouldn’t be the one and only one needed resource in the game where the gamer is required to gather it under very limited and specific conditions that rarely occur. This part of the game was entirely a mishandled by Bethesda. Bethesda also needs to recognize that there is more than one play style that can be had in an RPG world. It needs to recognize that not all gamers go into Fallout 76 for the gun combat. Many do, but not everyone does. For those who choose not to go for the combat, the game itself penalizes this style of gamer by not allowing easy access to the rarer items in the game. In other words, you are forced into Fallout 76 for the combat if you want to gain access to the rarest items in the game. To be more balanced with all gamer types, Bethesda needs to rethink this stance.

Power Armor

12-9-2018_9-41-56_PM-3ra4ojsuOne of the biggest introductions into the Fallout franchise was the addition of power armor. This is heavy armor powered by a fusion core. When you enter the armor, the character is encased entirely in a metal shell covered over by pieces of armor. These armors have specific ratings and have specific attributes.

In Fallout 4, Power Armor was considered the strongest armor in the game, particularly if you wore Legendary pieces. If you had a certain set of power armor, you were practically invincible under most conditions. However, the armor did take damage and break. In Fallout 4, power armor breaks relatively quickly… particularly the legs. While it protects you well, it also damages quickly. The legs were the weakest parts of the whole set.

Unfortunately, in Fallout 76, Power Armor has actually become a joke. It’s easily the weakest armor set in the game. It’s weaker than its corresponding sets in Fallout 4. It’s weaker than even Marine armor found in the game. For example, wearing power armor in Fallout 76 sees absolutely zero protection against a level 52 Colonel Gutsy shooting 5.56 ammo… even if your character is level 150 or 300. A single bullet from a Colonel Gutzy with 5.56 eats straight through the armor and damages at least 1/10th of the HP bar. It might even damage more than this per shot. This is entirely bugged. Certainly, in Fallout 4, 5.56 loaded Gutsy did eat through health rapidly, it’s not nearly as rapid as it is in Fallout 76. The two tertiary benefits to power armor is its radiation protection benefit and its ability to fall from any height without sustaining HP damage. Yet, its armor protection levels are exceedingly weak.

This power armor problem has only gotten worse, not better. Power Armor is now even harder to maintain. When Fusion Core generators used to offer 100% charged fusion cores, Bethesda has changed the rules of the game and they now only provide 50% charged fusion cores. This means you now have to carry double the amount of fusion cores that you formerly had to carry when they were 100% charged. Now if you want 100% charged fusion cores, you need to make them with Flux or hope that the energy power plants still provide 100% charged cores in those workshop generators. Admittedly, those power plant generators used to offer 100% charged cores every 7 minutes, but with Bethesda’s revisionist tendencies, I haven’t tested this to find out if they still do. My guess is that they now provide 50% charged fusion cores.

Worse, most fusion cores randomly found sitting around in the game outside of a generator have a 25% or less charge. I don’t even get this change. Bethesda, do you want us to use Power Armor or not? It clearly seems that by making these silly reductions that Bethesda doesn’t want us to actually use Power Armor. So then, why even include Power Armor in the game? If they want to restrict the use of power armor, simply raise the weight of the fusion cores. Leave them at 100%, but raising the weight means carrying less.

One last thing about Fallout 76 and Power Armor is the lack of legendary armor pieces. While Fallout 4 had multiple legendary pieces of Power Armor (chest, legs, arms, etc), there is not a single piece of legendary power armor in Fallout 76. Not a single piece. Yet there is every type of regular armor in a one, two and three star legendary format. Even worse, for PVP purposes, Power Armor is weaker than level 5 regular armor when the combatant has perk card Tank Killer equipped at maximum. What’s the point in having and wearing Power Armor when a card like Tank Killer is available? Talk about overpowered and needing a rebalance. Tank Killer is one card that needs to go.

It’s crystal clear, Bethesda devs don’t want us using Power Armor. It has no legendary effects, it’s weak overall and the game offers up such stupid perk cards as Tank Killer that bypass armor ratings. So then, what’s the point? Even regular armor is stronger than this. It’s okay to provide a card like Tank Killer if an equal and opposite perk card is available to counteract Tank Killer and strengthen the Power Armor. But, there is no equal and opposing card. Yet another design miss that has never been corrected. In fact, none of these power armor issues have ever been addressed in Fallout 76.

Characters, Loot and Caps and Requested Features

This is another issue that has not ever been discussed or addressed and has existed since release. Fallout 76 allows players to create up to 5 different characters to use in Fallout 76. How we choose to use those characters is up to us. If one of our players has progressed well beyond level 15, yet still has a level 15 set of power armor, it’s stuck in that character’s inventory. How about letting us share the wealth between our characters? What if I want to transfer scrip, caps or pioneer scout credit between characters. Atom is a global currency available to all characters. Why not scrip, caps and pioneer scout credit?

Bethesda has yet to address or even offer a system for transfer of caps, loot, weapons or armor between our 5 characters. Instead, we have to rely on a third party to temporarily hold and then hand back our loot, caps, armor and weapons. I mean, seriously. Why do I have to make friends with a random on Fallout 76 just to impose on them and have them hold my stuff simply to transfer between characters?

Instead of giving gamers what we want from this game, like the above suggested feature, Bethesda spends time creating Biv and Distillers (unnecessary), the backpack (pointless), Fasnacht (stupid), Meat Week (lame), Scrip (really?), Nuclear Winter (not needed), Survival mode (minimally even used) and Atom Shop items (expensive). All of these developments so far are definitely inconsequential and meaningless to the overall Fallout 76 base story.

How about overhauling the perk system and give us perk card load outs? Let us, at one click, rearrange our perk cards without having to go into the perk card system and manually, one-by-one switch them in and out. Note, this feature is heavily needed after reaching level 50 when SPECIAL points are capped. You can’t add or rearrange your SPECIAL points, but you can rearrange perk cards at will. So, why not add something we want, like 5 perk card preset load-outs? This allows us to set our character up for a bloodied build or a shotgun build or an explosives build or even eating food build with one click? Why don’t we have this feature? Why carry around a bunch of equipped random useless perk cards when they’re not needed. Only equip them when they need to be used… like equipping camp cards when in camp or crafting cards when crafting. It’s insane to expect us to spend time rearranging our cards for 5-10 minutes before we can begin an activity. You certainly cannot spend time in the middle of combat doing this. But you could easily single click a favorite perk card load out to load while in the middle of combat… particularly if a gun breaks and you need to switch weapons and combat tactics.

In fact, why aren’t there armor load outs? Why do I have to manually go and load each armor piece manually. Why can’t I create an armor load out and then favorite it? Then, when I need it, simply select the load-out favorite and that set of armor is immediately worn. It makes no sense what Bethesda is doing with this game. How about giving us requested features rather than these mostly stupid additions? How about fixing long standing bugs? How about giving us gamers some love rather than a bunch of hate (banning tons of gamers for duping without actually knowing if they did).

Rebalancing and Revisionism

A revisit to Fallout 76 a year later wouldn’t be complete without discussing Bethesda’s constant and incessant meddling with Fallout 76’s rules. With any game, be it a board game or a video game, a set of established rules must exist when a game launches. These rules govern how the game is to be played. You’ll understand why I bring up board games in just a moment.

With video games, particularly with MORPG games like Fallout 76, the game developer seems to think they can randomly change the rules like they can their hat or their clothes or shoes. It doesn’t work that way. Establishing and maintaining a set of consistent and constant rules in which a game operates is fundamental to learning how to play a game.

Yet, Bethesda has invalidated rules, changed rules, reduced rules, increased rules and mucked with the innards of the rules with each and every release under the guise of “balancing”. Let’s circle back around to board games. If Hasbro decided to rewrite Monopoly’s rules based on the way “many” play Monopoly at home, many people would be rightly angry. The official rules have been established to play the game in a specific “official” way. Sure, some people personally change the official rules for expediency. For example, following every Monopoly rule exactly to the letter could mean an extremely long drawn out game. Therefore, people have changed and simplified the rules to reduce the duration of such a long game. Some people aren’t in it for the long haul, they simply want to play the game in 20 or 30 minutes and end it. There are a number of board games that have alternative rule sets that lead to shorter play times. These alternative rule sets are not official, but they exist to allow players to enjoy the game without all of the minutiae required when using the official rules.

With Fallout 76, a video game, it’s still a game… not unlike a board game. Much of the game is automated, interactive and visual, but it’s still nonetheless a game… a game with an established set of rules. We learn these rules quickly.

However, when a game developer decides to alter the rules continually, it’s difficult to keep up with an ever changing set of new rules. This is why establishing a single set of rules and maintaining that set consistently is the answer. Modifying the rules every month means no one can know what the rules are today, tomorrow or in a month. You can’t adequately play a video game if the official rules are constantly changing. This is why revisionism in video games is ultimately detrimental to a video game and to the video game industry as a whole. Consistency in a video game is the key to success. Variability leads to failure… particularly in a role playing game where rules define what makes an RPG an RPG.

Improvements?

Has Fallout 76 improved since its release? No, it hasn’t. Certainly, Bethesda has added new, but mostly inconsequential features such as backpacks, limited duration events offering cosmetic item drops, liquor that’s worse than the original already in the game,  money making cosmetics to its store and a few pay-to-win features (scrap and repair kits). But there is little here that offers solid well crafted, thoughtful additions that make that game world a more compelling play experience. These additions have been weak, shallow experiences lasting short amounts of time and, frankly, leave a bad taste in the mouth. Many of them are not even in keeping in the Fallout universe… I’m looking at you Nuclear Winter.

Slowly and at the same time, Bethesda is gutting the game of its original rules and methodically replacing them with a new rule set. These new rules are intended to slow the player’s progression down, make the game even more grindy, keep the gamer playing longer to potentially visit the Atom store and actually buy something, you know, with real money.

Unfortunately, the actual base game has not improved. It is still the same mess it was when it was released nearly one year ago. The same bugs that existed then still exist today. Sure, a few have been fixed, but far too many are still active. Worse, in Bethesda’s zeal to add new content, they have broken more mechanics than they have fixed. What this means is that while the game has added new content, it’s come with a steep price of even more bugs on top of the existing bugs. It’s a never ending bugfest compounded by even more bugs created by each add-on.

Worse, Bethesda is clearly not using standard code practices. There have been many instances where bugs fixed in one release reappear in the next release. This regression behavior isn’t possible if a company is using industry standard coding, code storage and release practices. Regression bugs are not possible when code is properly documented, when it’s checked in properly and when one person can’t overwrite a previous coder’s changes. It’s crystal clear, Bethesda’s code and release practices for Fallout 76 are an unmitigated disaster. Not only is the game itself a disaster, so are Bethesda’s coding practices. It’s clear, Bethesda hasn’t the first clue how to write and maintain a 24/7 always on service, let alone a video game… let alone software.

As an example of this horrible coding, Bethesda introduced a new bug that caused all red headlamps found in the game world to inexplicably become Atom Shop restricted items. When an in-game item is marked with the Atom Shop symbol, it cannot be dropped or sold to other players. This meant you could no longer sell red headlamps mods or helmets with a red headlamp found or created in the game because the red headlamps became restricted. This meant that you, likewise, couldn’t at all sell power armor sets containing a red headlamp that, you know, you have found in the game world while this bug was active. Bethesda was extremely slow to respond to fix this bug. It took them about 1 month before it was finally addressed… even though they roll patches weekly.

Another bug they introduced in July saw to it that gamers with a large number of power armor sets had to spend a large amount of time reassembling all of these sets of armor. In July, Bethesda separated all of the power armor pieces from their corresponding power armor frames. This meant spending not only the time to reassemble all of the power armor sets one-by-one, it meant being heavily overencumbered. For example, I had at least 10 sets of power armor on my player. Some were also in my stash. When they separated all of the power armor pieces, they all dropped all armor pieces separately into my player’s inventory… even from those that were in the stash box. This meant that my character ended up carrying about 500-600 more in carry weight after that patch. Because my character was not in camp when this occurred, I couldn’t fast travel back there. To reassemble power armor, you have two options. Deploy the power armor and reinsert all of the pieces wherever you are in the world or do it on a power armor station. The former method can be done anywhere, but you’re easily and frequently interrupted by combat. Because the power armor frame only remains out for a maximum of 60 seconds, you don’t have much time to do this… and it’s easy to run out of time. Doing it on a power armor station, there is no 60 second timer as long as you’re crafting.

Because a bunch of my frames were in the stash, I couldn’t get access to those except either at a train station or at my base. Because my base was closer than a train station, I had to spend time hoofing my overencumbered character back to the base so I could reassemble. This probably took 30 minutes because of the AP problem and enemies. Then, when I got there, I had to drop each and every frame down, reassemble and then do it over and over until all were reassembled. All told, this issue took close to 1.5 hours. All so that Bethesda could “rework” the Power Armor which, by the way, is still just as broken as it was before the patch. Whatever they did didn’t do anything to fix the underlying problems. Worse, instead of you know, actually playing the game, I was messing about with fixing up something that I shouldn’t have had to fix. When patches encroach on the user experience, you REALLY need to think long and hard about releasing these patches. Bethesda’s patch could have easily auto-reassembled all of the armors after the patch so that the users didn’t have to spend time doing this. They have access to all of this on their system internally. There’s absolutely no reason why I (and so many other players) had to spend our gaming time screwing about with reassembling power armor sets when we could have been, you know, actually questing… the reason we actually bought this game in the first place.

In short, the game has not improved. In fact, it is pretty much the same exact disaster it was when it released almost one year ago. In many ways, it’s actually worse. The base game has not improved at all.

What has been added to the game is inconsequential and, for the most part, unnecessary. The backpacks are, in fact, entirely pointless and even moreso once they released the plans into the overseer’s cache without the need to go through the convoluted Boy Scout quests. Instead of the backpack, the devs could have simply raised the carry weight on our characters. No, backpack needed. The backpack was simply an Atom shop marketing gimmick to get people to buy into their expensive ‘skins’ to make the backpack more “visually pleasing”. Does it really matter if your backpack looks like a Nuka Cola cooler or a piece of luggage? In fact, most of the Atom Shop skins that have been crafted are actually quite ugly. The basic backpack is functional looking and at least looks like a backpack. The other backpacks are horrendously ugly contraptions strapped to your back. The Nuka Cola cooler could have looked cool if it weren’t completely covered up by a bunch of horrendously ugly straps obscuring most of the Nuka Cola logo. If it had simply been a Nuka Cola branded cooler backpack with no straps at all, that would have been fine. This skin needs a major rework.

Game Modes

As of this article, there three game modes available:

  • Adventure Mode — This is the original game mode that was introduced upon release. It still contains nearly all of the same bugs it did when it was released.
  • Survival Mode — This game mode has been retired as of October 1st, 2019. This mode was introduced early in 2019 and offers what Bethesda claimed to be a more challenging experience. Well, it wasn’t. It’s was simply an annoying experience. It was intended as a PVP environment, but was nothing more than a way for PVP players to run around shooting one another other in a Death Match style playground. In fact, if you tried to actually quest in a Survival Mode server, you wouldn’t get very far before being killed by another player. It was actually worse than that, too. In this PVP environment, there’s was no level based combat. A level 300 player can hang out in newbie territory picking off level 2 players solely for fun. At least Nuclear Winter has leveled the playing field so that level 300 users and level 5 users have similar odds of winning because it’s not about the level, it’s about the strategy.
  • Nuclear Winter Mode — This game mode is a Battle Royale game (aka, Last Man Standing). Ever user starts out with a new level based on this game mode. Levels, abilities and weapons from Adventure do not work in Nuclear Winter. You must find all of this stuff when playing Nuclear Winter and it only lasts as long as the tournament lasts. Nuclear Winter was introduced entirely to placate Fortnite and Apex Legends players and attempt to attract those same gamers into Fallout. It hasn’t worked. It’s a game mode that does not in any way belong in the Fallout universe. This game mode is not exactly fun, but it is tedious. It’s all about who can find the biggest weapons, best armor, kill the most and hide the best. There’s nothing really challenging here. Fallout needs to drop following industry gaming trends and innovate. Come up with new gaming ideas instead of rehashing old ideas in tired and uninspired ways. Worse, this game mode does not at all fit into the idea of Fallout. If Bethesda wants to create these derivative games, at least create them separately using a newly created franchise with new characters and abilities. Don’t tack it onto Fallout simply because you can.

Overall

Fallout 76’s play value and bugs are very much the same as they were on release day. The exception is, of course, that in Bethesda’s zeal to add a bunch of new stuff, they have broken even more in the process. In fact, I’d say Bethesda has broken at least half as much more stuff than was already broken. Worse, they have broken previously functional and working features. An example is when they added the distillery. For the distillery to work, they added a new mechanic to “spoil” the fermentable liquors to turn them into drinkable liquors. What that meant was a spoil bar on the item that timed down until the liquor was fully fermented and drinkable. Unfortunately, when the devs touched this part of the game code, they screwed up the speed of spoilage for the rest of the food items (and even fusion cores) within the game. This meant that while ‘fermentable beer’ fermented faster, it also meant that meat, veggies and even fusion cores, spoiled at a much faster rate. Whoops. Big bug.

Did Bethesda correct this problem quickly (or at all)? No. Once that bug was introduced it was here to stay. Food and drink still spoils much faster than it did before that game addition. Even fusion cores run out far, far faster than they did before that addition. Does Bethesda care? No. Do they intend fixing the problem? No.

This is why revisionism in the video game industry has no place. This is why a simple brown paper bag, a simplistic container, still barely works properly. When developers don’t care to fix even the most basic bugs let alone new bugs, then why should I (or any other consumer) care to spend money on these lackluster games? Once Bethesda begins to care about its gamer audience again, I might consider returning. Until then, Bethesda, you’re on your own without my money.

Update — Survival Mode

As of October 1st, Survival Mode Beta ironically didn’t survive. Bethesda has removed this mode from the game entirely. Clearly, its adoption rate was minimal and limited. This is an unfortunate turn of events for Adventure Mode players. What that means is that Bethesda is likely to revisit enabling even more PVP activities in Adventure Mode since the disappearance of Survival Mode. That means ganging up what was Survival mode into Adventure Mode again. This is something I’m not anxious to see return to Adventure Mode.

In fact, I wanted Bethesda to remove all PVP elements from Adventure Mode and make Survival Mode 100% PVP. However, since the introduction of Nuclear Winter, it seems they no longer want to focus on Survival Mode considering its lackluster adoption rate. Still, I’m not say to see it go as it did nothing for me. I’m not an active PVP player, so the point to Survival Mode had weak play value. Nuclear Winter is the ‘hot new thing’. If anything, what this shows is the fickleness of the demographic who currently plays Fallout 76. Once players have had their fill of the Nuclear Winter experience, I’d fully expect Bethesda to wind down that game mode also as users stop playing it.

10:50PM Oct. 1st — Updated to reflect that Bethesda has retired Survival Mode.

While this article endeavors to answer what happened to Fallout 76, it hasn’t in any way addressed why it happened. I may consider delving into this topic in the future if there’s enough reader interest. Please comment below if you’d like to see this additional topic explored.

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Online Gaming and Your Accounts

Posted in best practices, video game, xbox by commorancy on March 24, 2019

As gaming companies grow larger and offer more game selections, game libraries, digital stores other merchandise, online gaming can become a problem for you if you choose to play games in certain unacceptable ways. Let’s explore the dangers.

Online Gaming and Stores

Since the advent of stores like Steam, the Xbox store and even the independent stores, like Bethesda’s and Electronic Arts store and since the addition of multiple games that these stores sell, dangers to your account are present when you play any game.

What are those dangers? As more and more games become multiplayer online capable, along with those online features comes “Terms of Service” agreements. These are agreements to which you must agree before you can play the game. These agreements have legal clauses that let game companies do pretty much anything to your account if you “break the rules”.

Breaking The Rules

What exactly is breaking the rules? Sometimes the rules are not clearly defined. Sometime they are not defined at all. The difficulty with rules is that they don’t have to be defined for a company to call foul against you, to block you, to ban you, to delete your content, etc.

How do you know when you’re breaking the rules? This is a matter of common sense. Unfortunately, because many gamers are of age 9-14, common sense hasn’t yet kicked in. You don’t really begin to get an understanding of “common sense” until you reach your mid to late 20s. With kids aged 9-14, you get all sorts of behaviors, many of these behaviors are entirely unwanted and unacceptable.

Game developers need to be cognizant of this fact when they build their game platforms. Ignoring the 9-14 demographic when building your game is ripe for problems… which is exactly what Fallout 76 experiences regularly. Clearly, Bethesda developed a game and just “threw it out there” without thought to the demographics of those actually playing the game.

Demographics and Gaming

Know your audience. If you’re writing a novel, know the audience you are intending to gear your content towards. If it’s geared towards adults, write the novel with that audience demographic in mind. Don’t cater to children in your words when you’re writing to adults. That not only will insult your target demographic, it will turn them off of your writing. The same goes for video games. If you’re creating a video game, keep in mind your audience members who will be playing the game.

If you’re hoping to get audience from 9-50, then you might want to rethink your content, particularly online gaming content. The 50-something gamers are not likely to want to run around with a bunch of 10 year olds where common sense doesn’t prevail. Think through the demographic strategy carefully when designing an online world.

Duping, Glitches and Out of Bounds

Kids try out anything. In video games, this means they’ll actually try and break your game. They simply don’t care. They’re not in it for the rules, they’re in it for whatever fun they can have doing whatever they feel. If that means glitching their way through walls to get into off-limits areas, expect it. That’s what kids do. It’s in their nature. This even follows through to teens. If your game caters to teens, expect them to do similar things.

In fact, for online multiplayer games, I might even go so far as to only allow children on servers intended for children only. Place adults onto servers with adults only. This way, there’s no mixing of adults and children. Many reasons exist for this segregation, but the interactions between adults and children do not always go over well.

By ‘children’, I mean under 18 years of age, but preferably under 21. By allowing mixing of ages in online worlds, a game dev’s property can become liable for predatory tactics between unsuspecting children and not-so-well-meaning adults. Keeping children separate from adults keeps that unsavory door firmly closed. You don’t want your platform to facilitate this kind of interaction… AT ALL.

Accounts, Companies, Rules and Danger

As a result of digital goods stores now selling multiple games in their own store and because of stringent (and undefined) rules, if you run afoul of the “rules” even just once, you can lose your entire account at that store… including all purchases made through that store. That means that you could have had 10 (or more) different games you’ve purchased over the years. One infraction that bans your account from a single game means the loss of access to all of those other purchased games. This is the danger of running afoul of the rules.

For example in Fallout 76, the duping glitch wasn’t something that was built into the game intentionally. People (mostly kids) took advantage of this duping glitch to dupe and begin selling “rare” items. Expecting Bethesda not to do something about this is entirely naive. That the players thought that Bethesda couldn’t find “them” was even more naive. I spoke with many dupers who were so nonchalant about the whole duping thing, they never thought that Bethesda would ban their accounts. Yet, that’s exactly what happened. Not only did Bethesda ban the accounts, they also heavily reduced the damage output of the duped weapons. They also heavily reduced other parts of the game to get it “inline” with those other reduced parts. In reality, they ultimately damaged their game simply to “teach a lesson” to the dupers. This “punishment” actually hurt the Fallout 76 game property and lost a bunch of players in the process. If you’re trying to chase away paying customers, this is an awesome way to do it.

While I’m not trying condemn Bethesda for their choices, they did make questionable choices in handling the dupers and in dealing with Fallout 76.

What does this mean for you?

If you subscribe to Steam or PlayStation Network or Xbox Live or any type of similar digital game seller, you’re at the mercy of that seller’s rules. In the case of Steam, they are a third party seller not specifically selling their own created games (usually). This means that it is much less likely to run afoul of a game’s rule and see your Steam account banned. Unfortunately, if you’re buying from EA, Bethesda or similar direct digital stores, you won’t be so lucky. If you do something considered ban-worthy in an online game sold by the developer, it’s likely your account will disappear as a result.

In the case of Bethesda’s Fallout 76, it’s clear that duping wasn’t going to lead to anything wonderful. Bethesda was very disenchanted over the whole situation… enough to basically destroy the entire Fallout 76 game (as if it wasn’t already destroyed from the start). Anyway, Bethesda not only removed the ability to find Two Shot Explosive weapons, those that still exist saw their damage output heavily reduced (by at least 75%). That’s a major reduction in damage. Not only this, they increased the hit points needed to kill certain “hard” enemies in the game (Scorchbeasts and the Scorchbeast Queen). So not only were the weapons heavily reduced, the creatures are now even harder to kill.

These are the kinds of changes that Bethesda introduced in Fallout 76 in retaliation for the dupers. Not only did the nonchalant attitude break the game, it basically destroyed it. On top of that, the dupers who were the source of the problem were also summarily banned from the game. Bethesda has said these “bans” are temporary. However, a 2 month suspension is well longer than “temporary”. Temporary is a 1-4 day period. Permanent is anything longer than a week. A 2 month ban might as well be permanent.

In the online game world, a lot happens in two months. You also lose touch with the game and will eventually stop playing it. Yet, these players who were banned also paid $60 (or more) just like everyone else. If Bethesda bans accounts without explanation, Bethesda should be required to refund the banned player at least part of the cost of their game. If Bethesda wants to ban players, they need to do it with a reason and explanation that fits within the terms of service.

What this all means is that when you’re playing an online game, you need to be on your best behavior just like anywhere else. Stick to the confines of the world’s limits. Don’t egregiously go over the limits simply because the game lets you… even if you don’t like the way the game is designed. Trying to intentionally break the game is the quickest way to get your account banned. This is especially true in online games where what you do can affect everyone else on the server.

If you’re playing a single player campaign game on your own console or computer, go ahead and break it. That’s fine. If you’re in a shared online world where there are other players who paid to be there and you intentionally cause the server to crash, then you deserve what’s coming to you. If that’s a ban, so be it. You should never go out of your way to crash or otherwise disrupt online worlds with other players. That’s the quickest way to a ban.

Complaints from Banned Gamers

I’ve heard all sorts of complaints from gamers who have been banned. The primary complaint is that now all of the rest of their games are inaccessible because of the ban. Consider that a lesson learned. Now you know the ramifications of causing unnecessary havoc in online game worlds. This should teach you that all actions have consequences. Games are designed with game mechanisms in mind. So long as you work within the constraints of those designed mechanisms, you’ll be fine. When you decide to go out of those bounds and find holes to exploit, that’s when your account becomes flagged.

For example, players who entered the Bethesda dev room in Fallout 76. Anyone with common sense would know not to go into that room in an online game. It’s an online game and Bethesda has eyes in the online world. They will see that you entered and they will find you. Your activities that you do in an online world are not anonymous, they’re not private and the game developer will most certainly see what you are doing. Thinking you can “get away” with entering a dev room is most certainly naive and definitely stupid. It might be fun to see the room, but that fun will make way to no fun when the developer bans you from their game.

Basically, if you do something in an online world that is out of bounds, expect it to be found and expect your account to be penalized. You can’t just run willy nilly through an online game world and expect no consequences. As I said, in single player offline campaign games, break it as you see fit. Even the game devs don’t care. It’s only when it’s an online world where multiple paying players can be disrupted by what you are doing. Most terms of service have disruption clauses. For example, if you read your terms of service for your ISP, there’s likely a clause that says something similar to “If your account is found to disrupt the internet services of others, your account may be suspended or terminated”. They’re not kidding. If you start DDoSing other folks on the Internet, your Internet account could be closed. Then where are you?

Why mess around with these sort of shenanigans when you can much more easily play by the rules established? A game is meant to be enjoyed by what it was designed to do, not what it wasn’t designed to do.

Overall

Stick to the rules of the game world and you’ll be fine. Venture into unknown territory and expect consequences. In the case of Bethesda, they run the game service, they have every right to eject anyone from that service. However, because you also paid for the game, I believe Bethesda should be required to refund any players they choose to eject. That’s the least that any game dev should be required to do when considering bans on players.

Unfortunately, Bethesda may not be willing to refund you after they banned you, but you may have recourse by disputing the game’s cost with your credit card company. However, there are also two sides to a chargeback. If you dispute the charge of an Xbox Store digital purchase, Xbox Live’s terms of service may kick in and this may result in a ban from Xbox Live. You should be careful. The same problem exists for the PlayStation Store. Even the Steam store likely handles chargebacks seriously.

If you purchased a physical copy of the game, you can also dispute the credit card charge against the seller. If that’s Amazon, Target, Walmart or Gamestop and your dispute is successful, you may find you can no longer use that credit card at those retailers. Chargebacks, while appropriate in some cases, are treated very seriously by merchants. Many merchants see chargebacks as a bad faith transaction from that credit card. As a result, many merchants will blacklist cards from their establishment after even one chargeback. If you’re thinking of using a credit card dispute with your bank, you also need to consider the ramifications if the dispute is successful.

Before considering a chargeback, you should contact the seller and ask if they will refund the purchase price. Only if a seller refuses to refund should you consider raising a dispute with your credit card company. Even then, consider this action carefully as it can also get your online accounts banned.

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Rant Time: Fallout 76

Posted in botch, business, fail by commorancy on January 30, 2019

12-9-2018_10-41-26_PM-qybv0b53I’ve been playing Fallout 76 on and off since its release. However, Bethesda has not only miscalculated the quality of the game itself, Bethesda’s devs have repeatedly introduced more bugs than they have fixed. So far, the patches have been a strategy of one step forward and three steps back. This game has all of the signs of code outsourcing and illustrates all of the dangers of this practice. Let’s explore.

Game Development

Having worked at many different high tech companies that write code for their business to succeed, I have seen many different code writing practices… some good, many more that are bad.

Typically, when code is written “in-house” (meaning, by developers on site at the headquarters), the quality control remains at a “standard bar” set by the development manager. This doesn’t mean that every piece of code written is great, but it does mean that the bad code likely won’t make it into production after “code review”. The “code review” process is a process by which all code is peer reviewed by other developers to make sure the code is up to formatting standards, that it doesn’t make any egregious mistakes and that such things as math calculations make sense. Comments in the code are usually optional and up to the development team to set how code gets documented.

I’ve worked at many companies where code is not documented at all. Instead, the documentation is written in a Wiki or similar internal web site describing the design goals of the code. I don’t particularly like this practice when working on the production side of the house, but it’s generally not a practice we can win a fight against. Reading documentation in the code is sometimes the only defense when code acts up in production. If they choose not to write inline documentation, that’s on the development team. Though, I will say that this practice leads to technical debt and is not recommended.

Without diving too deeply into code development practices, let’s apply all of what I’ve said to Bethesda’s Fallout 76.

Bad Coding Practices

I don’t even know where to begin with how Bethesda is managing this product. Let’s just say that having worked in several large Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) organizations, how Bethesda is handling Fallout 76 is so behind the times, it’s not even funny.

Today, the current practice is to use the following code development cycle otherwise known as Systems Development Life Cycle (SDLC). This cycle has the following phases:

  1. Planning
  2. Analysis and Requirements
  3. Design
  4. Development
  5. Integration and Testing
  6. Implementation / Release
  7. Operational Maintenance

These 7 phases are a never ending cycle in a continuing software product. In fact, there could be several releases all running in concert each at different phases. Meaning, the current release is at phase 7, the next release is at phase 4 and two or three future releases are at at any of the phases prior to release.

The SDLC process has grown out of bad coding practices used during the 90s and has been adopted to counter those bad coding and release practices. This life cycle is a way to ensure quality of code when it is finally released. It’s also a way to ensure that the end user has the highest quality experience possible with the end product. Quality assurance is the name of the game. As a development company, the key to success is to minimize disruptions via bad code and maximize user experience with high quality features. No code is ever perfect, but you can reduce problems by following best coding practices and implementing solid SDLC processes.

Bethesda’s Coding Practices

Unfortunately, Bethesda has chosen a poor coding cycle for Fallout 76. Instead of treating Fallout 76 like a professionally produced product using SLDC practices, they are simply slinging code as fast as possible without actually performing any sanity checks or, indeed, performing any quality assurance on the end product.

In fact, with each new Fallout 76 release, the product has become increasingly worse, less reliable, less performant and increasingly more unstable. By “worse”, I mean that they’re introducing not only regression bugs that break previously and correctly working features, they’re introducing new bugs and not even fixing the bugs they claimed to have fixed. Indeed, the product is actually getting worse.

While I realize that coding a game like Fallout 76 is probably reasonably complex, the difficulty I have with this game is why a developer is touching code in portions of the game where bugs did not exist. What were they doing touching that part of the code? And yet, here we are, this newly broken code is being rolled out to their production servers?

Clearly, Bethesda performs absolutely zero testing. These bugs are so basic, anyone spending 5 minutes using the game would spot them instantly. It’s crystal clear that Bethesda is NOT following an SDLC process. They’re just releasing code by the seat of their pants and hoping it does “something positive”.

Outsourcing

Because Fallout 76 gets worse with each successive release, this has all of the telltale signs of Bethesda outsourcing their software development efforts to an off-shore team (possibly in India). Having worked with outsourced developers in India in the past, you MUST micromanage these outsourced companies at every tiny step. You also need to be extremely explicit with how you want the implementation and you need to 100% test every piece of delivered code.

Failing to micromanage an outsourced software development company leads to the exact problems seen in Fallout 76. While I can’t be 100% certain that Bethesda is outsourcing, their release practices certainly have all of the earmarks of using this practice for Fallout 76. There’s absolutely no reason why previously working features in the game should inexplicably become broken in the next release.

And believe me, I’ve become exceedingly tired and irritated of fighting these compounding stupid bugs in this game. Not only does it show Bethesda as a low quality developer, it says they have no quality standards of any kind. You don’t intentionally roll out broken features in a formerly working product… you just don’t do this.

Chasing Abusers

Bethesda has clearly bitten off more than they can chew. They certainly have no one on their team who understands SaaS product scaling. If one gamer on the server crafting boiled water can bring the server to its knees, there’s a major problem with this product. In a properly designed multi-user product, no single user should be able to overload the server with any “standard” user interface activity. By “standard”, I mean features that the product is supposed to properly support.

There are many instances where a single user can craft foods at a crafting table which causes “Server Not Responding” or incurs major lag for other users on the server. These are sanctioned activities intended to be used by the users, yet they can break the server?

Abusers, on the other hand, find loopholes to allow them to perform activities that the software was not designed to do. For example, duplicating items by logging on and off in very unusual ways… ways in which the developer didn’t test or consider during the design phase.

Right now, Bethesda is chasing down these unintentional holes at all costs… and by that I mean, by introducing game breaking bugs that affect standard users who are not abusing. And, they’re attempting to fix these holes at the cost of ignoring the design failings of the game that also need to be addressed. Many of these design failings were introduced at release and are still waiting in the queue to be addressed by Bethesda. Yet, instead of taking care of these long standing bugs, the devs are flying by the seat of their pants fixing the holes… which honestly don’t need to be fixed as a fire drill.

Penalizing Players

Bethesda doesn’t understand the dangers of reduction. Removing or degrading product features is always a negative for the end user, never a positive. For example, the Two Shot Explosive weapons are what players long to find. These rarely dropped highly powerful weapons are, in fact, one of the sole reasons players come back to the Fallout franchise.

Sure, the questing is fun, but it’s the Legendary dropped loot from these difficult bosses that is the actual Win. It’s the trophy that says, “Hey look what I got after spending all that time defeating the Scorchbeast Queen”. By degrading, limiting and/or removing these highly sought after items from the game, this removes a substantial reason to even play Fallout 76.

If you spend an hour defeating a boss only to see it drop a 12 damage Pipe Pistol (the same as a Level 1 enemy kill), what have you really accomplished? How does that make the gamer feel? Does it make the gamer feel good about what they’ve just done? No. Does it make the gamer want to come back and do it again? No.

On the Wrong Track

Bethesda is entirely on the wrong track. If you have abusers in the game, chase them down and ban them… no holds barred. If you find a player who is carrying 300,000 weight in duplicated items, ban them. Remove them from the game. Find them all and remove them. Logic dictates that anyone carrying 25,000 Stimpaks along with 25,000 guns stacked didn’t create them through legitimate means.

You ban the abusers. You don’t code around them. You don’t hobble your universe to make the duplicated guns worthless. Instead of spending precious time alienating your intended gaming audience, you focus on making the game better for legitimate users willing to stay within the game’s design framework. For those who stray and choose to test the coding boundaries of the game, you ban them… permanently. You also make a warning statement that any persons intending to cause harm to or disrupt the services will be banned without warning. In-game abuse can only be dealt with one way, the ban hammer.

Yes, you can fix the bugs along the way that enabled that abuse, but you don’t make that your sole and entire means of existing. You focus on fixing the bugs that are getting in the way of your legitimate paying gamers who are willing to stay on the game’s “golden path”. By “golden path”, this is a software development phrase that means the track designed by the developers for end users of the software product to follow. Anyone who strays from the “golden path” may encounter bugs, unexpected consequences or crash the software system. Though, your developers should have coded proper error handling so that crashing is nearly impossible.

Yes, some users can unintentionally stray from the “golden path” occasionally. These users are not the target. It’s the users who intentionally stray from the “golden path” to exploit holes in the software to gain access, privilege or items which are unintended. Speaking of gaining access….

Dev Room

There’s been much controversy over this room. Personally, I don’t care if it exists or not. However, that this room made it into Bethesda’s Fallout 76 production servers is entirely a design miss. Such dev environments should never make it onto production servers. That this room rolled out onto the production network is a problem Bethesda needs to address internally. Users who stray from the golden path into this room isn’t the fault of the gamer. Bethesda, you left the room in the game. It was your responsibility to ensure such rooms don’t exist on the production servers. That users ended up in there, that’s your mistake, Bethesda.

Sure, you can drop the ban hammer on these users, but that’s not good public relations. In fact, dropping the ban hammer on users for entry into this room is severe. If they didn’t cause damage to the game or take anything from the room, there’s no damage done. Those users who took items from the dev room and duplicated them should be banned… not necessarily for entering the room, but for exploiting the duplication bug which disrupts a server for other players.

Again, it comes back to disruption. Any gamer intentionally causing disruption to the game outside of the “golden path” should be perma-banned. This act of disruption should be spelled out as abuse in the terms and conditions for the game.

Fallout 76 is SaaS

Even though Fallout 76 is a game, it’s also a Software-as-a-Service product and it should be treated in the same way as any SaaS product. Yet, Bethesda hasn’t the first clue of how to build or operate a SaaS product. That’s crystal clear.

Bethesda’s SDLC seems non-existent. Without any kind of software quality assurance team, there’s no way to ensure the product lives up to any kind of quality standard. Right now, this game is a piss poor attempt by a game studio at a SaaS product. A product that is on the verge of being a spectacular failure. I might even argue, it’s already reached the failure point.

Bethesda, you have a hard choice to make. If you continue to chase the abusers at the cost of fixing the REAL problems with this game, your game WILL DIE. The choice you need to make is whether to stay on this insane path of chasing abuse bugs or stop this insanity and begin fixing the real reliability and stability problems with this game. Such real problems include severe frame rate drops, enemies can spawn in unkillable states, invisibility problems (enemies and players alike), the problem with quests that can’t be completed, the problem where Legendary enemies drop without any loot at all.

Game Economy and Systems Design

Bethesda continually argues that the abusers caused disruption to the economy in the game. What economy? There is none. If you call vendors with 200 caps an economy, that’s not an economy. An economy is players buying, selling and trading with one another. You know, the whole reason you designed the game with 24 players in each “World”. Yet, when players actually tried to create an economy, you shut them down with patches and then released many of the rare items to the vendors to make them “less rare”.

Part of the reason items were rare was entirely due to incidence of spawn rates. Spawn rates, I might add, that you designed into the game intentionally. Spawn rates intended to force players to hunt for stuff. Yet now you’re all butthurt over the fact that players actually created an economy around this.

What exactly are you wanting the players to do in this game then? Aren’t the players supposed to “rebuild” the wasteland? Setting up trading shops and whatnot is exactly what players would do in a world like this. In fact, in the ruthless wild-west of the wasteland, players would likewise be ruthless in obtaining anything and everything they could. That players used duplication exploits comes with the ruthlessness of wasteland territory. The problem with the duplication exploit isn’t the duplication. It’s the disruption it causes to other player’s games. That’s the abuse vector. That’s the reason to ban-hammer the player. The server disruption is the abuse, not the duplication.

Still, you should have been warning players all along the way when their weight got too high. That you didn’t have anything in place to monitor this part of the game is a design miss. A miss that wouldn’t have been missed if you had had a proper Systems Engineer reviewing the design all along the way. Yet, you chose to rush the game to market unfinished and now you have to redesign it along the way… a redesign that is causing player unrest and player abandonment.

Patch Upsides vs Downsides

The last several patches have been attempts at thwarting the abusers by fixing the exploit vectors at the cost of not fixing long standing disrupting bugs… bugs that have existed since the game’s release (i.e., getting stuck in power armor, unkillable enemies, invisible enemies, loading screen problems, etc). This strategy has been to the entire detriment of the Fallout 76 gaming community. Not only have you alienated so many users from the game, you continue to alienate more and more with each new patch.

If you’re planning on releasing a patch, you need to focus on the upsides of patching. You know, like fixing bugs that players NEED to have fixed… like frame rate issues, like audio glitching, like server lags, like a bigger stash, like improved features. Sure, you can throw in fixes like nerfing the Two Shot and Explosive weapons, but you also need to offset these heavily negative gaming experiences by adding positive new things to the game to entice gamers back… like adding new weapons to the game to take the place of those heavily nerfed Two Shot Explosive weapons.

There’s no reason for gamers to play Fallout 76 if the Legendary dropped loot is now no better than standard dropped loot. Focusing entirely on downside patches isn’t going to win you new players. It’s simply a quick way to the death of Fallout 76… as if the game needed any more help in this department.

Overall

Bethesda, you need to rethink your strategy for Fallout 76 and future MMO endeavors. The current strategy you are taking to address the issues in this game will not bring more players to this game. In fact, you’re likely to turn this game into a wasteland with only a handful of players ever playing.

If you stay on this path, I predict that you will end up shutting down your servers for this game by the end of 2019. Gamers won’t continue to play in an environment where the loot is not worth their time.

And what the hell? Serum recipes cost 19,000+ caps? Considering you can only hold 24,000 caps in the game, this is insane. Even 6,000 caps would be excessive.

Bethesda, figure it out quick or the game ends.

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