20 years of Fallout: Lessons learned shipping games in the wasteland
Perhaps war never changes, but game development sure does.
As Bethesda Softworks braces for the launch of a new Fallout game, it’s worth taking a moment to look back at how the high-profile franchise got its start -- with one game developer, in a room at a California game company, coding an engine in his spare time.
“It was just me working on an engine,” recalled Fallout lead Timothy Cain during his GDC 2012 postmortem of the project, which is absolutely worth going back to watch. “I just kind of wanted to make my own engine, and nobody said no. That was just kind of the way Interplay worked in the ‘90s.”
Dig into the history of Fallout, from a developer’s perspective, and you get a sense of how both the series itself and the industry it grew up in have changed since Cain first began working on the game at Interplay in 1994, just over two decades ago.
It didn’t start out as Fallout, of course. During his postmortem, Cain told the story of how the game, known internally as Vault13, came to be branded Fallout at the suggestion of Interplay's then-CEO Brian Fargo after he took a build home to play.
“Fallout had a double entendre of the radiation from the bombs and then the alternative definition, which is a lingering effect or set of consequences,” Fargo, now chief of Wasteland 2 developer InXile, tells Gamasutra. “Perfect for a game that stakes its rep on choice and consequence.“
Looking back, Fargo suggests modern game developers appreciate the boon that crowdfunding and open development can be, from a playtesting and bug-stomping standpoint, compared to the QA departments and services of yore.
“When we worked on Fallout we had a QA department, but that doesn't give you a true indication of how players will react,” says Fargo, who contrasts the Kickstarted/Early Access development of last year's Wasteland 2 as more of a "spectator sport" than game development ever was in his days at Interplay.
He also advises that developers lay out a clear mission statement and vision for a project early in the production process, as in hindsight it proved a key turning point in Fallout's development.
“I remember us dissecting [spiritual predecessor] Wasteland 1 before V13/Fallout began and breaking the key sensibilities into a vision document -- things like moral dilemmas and providing a diverse pathway for players,” notes Fargo, echoing Cain's comments that the game only came together once the team wrote themselves a mission statement.
You can read an archived copy of that statement here, though it's worth noting it was written while Fallout was still being designed to use the GURPS tabletop game license -- something that changed late in development.
"I look back on Fallout as probably being one of the most exciting and juvenile times of my career."
The game would go on to outstrip Interplay’s sales expectations when it launched in the fall of ‘97, though a lot of that has to do with the fact that Interplay doesn’t seem to have had very high expectations to begin with.
Cain noted that the project was “not a typical Interplay game,” because it was built on its own custom engine (rather than say, BioWare’s Infinity engine, which Interplay had the option to use) and didn’t bear a well-known license.
(Incidentally, the question of whether to use an existing engine or roll your own is one many developers still struggle with today, even as Unity and Epic have done their best to make their engines easily available and approachable.)
What’s more, Cain recalls that some folks at Interplay tried to get Fallout cancelled multiple times because they were afraid it would compete directly with the company’s other projects, role-playing games based on the Forgotten Realms and Planescape licenses that had larger teams.
Todd Howard once estimated that roughly 80 people worked on the team that made Fallout 3, and studio follow-up Skyrim boasted a team size of more than 90. By comparison, the original Fallout was developed by a team of one for months -- at its height, the game had a total team size of roughly 30 people, according to Cain, who recalls the game costing “about $3 million” to develop -- nearly $4.5 million in 2015 if you account for inflation.
That's a significant amount of money, and I think it's important to talk about game budgets (then and now) at a time when some developers are undercutting themselves and the industry by asking for too little on Kickstarter, making the cost of game development seem cheaper than it is.
In the face of that initial outlay, Interplay started production on a new Fallout game using the same tech and assets while the first one was still being finished, and set a strict ship date of holiday '98.
Project lead Feargus Urquhart, then chief of Interplay's Black Isle Studios and now CEO of Fallout: New Vegas developer (and Black Isle spiritual successor) Obsidian Entertainment, remembers hard lessons learned during that period about pushing yourself and your team to hit a ship date.
"The biggest challenge of Fallout 2 was that we had set its launch date based upon having started it in the middle of 1997. That meant we would have about 18 months to make the game in order to get it out for Christmas of 1998," says Urquhart. "I pushed everyone incredibly hard to get the game done. It was pretty early in my career, so I'll admit that we (mostly me) pushed too hard to get Fallout 2 done that year...we ended up making most of the game in about 8 months."
The team hit their ship date, an achievement Urquhart feels is weighed down by how buggy the game was at launch -- a recurring issue in the Fallout franchise.
"One of the biggest, and most visual bugs, was the car trunk bug," says Urquhart, relating a Pratchett-esque tale of a trunk run amok. "We came up with idea about midway through development for the player to have this car that they could store stuff in. We could easily store stuff in containers on a map, but we didn't have a system that would have that same container available on another map. To make the inventory of the container, the car's trunk, persistent across maps, we decided to make it a companion."
"However, it was a special companion that didn't follow you and only showed up on certain maps. And, when it showed up, it showed up in a specific space and didn't follow you. Unfortunately, we didn't find all the bugs before we shipped, so a disembodied (disem-chassied) trunk would follow the player in areas from time to time."