There's a new trend emerging of AAA open world games built for longevity that flop at launch, only for the studios behind them to spend months, even years trying to save them.
No Man's Sky is one shining example of a rally that worked. Anthem, despite sputtering along for a year already, is just now beginning the process. And in about a month we'll see whether the results of Bethesda's attempt to save the flopped launch of Fallout 76 will bear any fruit.
That's because on April 7, Bethesda is launching the Wastelanders expansion, a supposedly massive free overhaul that adds -- among many other standard expansion components -- a huge change for the world of Fallout 76: non-player characters.
"We learned from launch was that there was a lot to do, but what we needed for a lot of our audience was to bring the humanity back"
If it seems odd that an open world game in a series known for its characters and writing might launch without any NPCs to support its world-building or quests, yeah, everyone else thought so too. The game launched in late 2018 to criticism for being "soulless," lacking a "strong focus," and "boring" -- problems which were all tied in some way to the lack of in-world characters with stories and stakes to provide motivation. While all the other additions included with Wastelanders -- new locations, enemies, equipment, and quests -- will likely improve Fallout 76's chances, lead designer Ferret Baudoin feels the NPCs are the most important key to righting the ship.
"There was quite a lot that worked at launch," he says at Bethesda's PAX East fan event. "If you're a person who liked exploration, for example, from our traditional games, it was possibly one of the best worlds to explore that we've ever had. It was just huge, full of stories and stuff like that. But there was a large portion of our audience that wanted people. They wanted an emotional connection. And if you know everyone is dead, and you come across a holotape from someone, it loses that hope that you might meet that person and help them out.
"I think what we learned from launch was that core combat was fun, it was great to explore, there was a lot to do, but what we needed for a lot of our audience was to bring the humanity back."
Baudoin acknowledges the humorous contradiction of needing computer-controlled NPCs to provide "human" experiences, but he adds that Fallout 76 isn't totally devoid of humanity. Because players only have one another to interact with, he says, the team has seen all sorts of unusual and uniquely human stories unfold just from players interacting in strange and often wonderful ways.
"The funny thing is that in some respects [the players] added the most human things of all," he says. "The role-playing, for example, or some of the stories you hear about people dressed up as Santa Claus giving out gifts. That was something we didn't anticipate.
"We had whole plans for ways to let players murder each other, and they just wouldn't do it"
"We had all these plans for PvP, and actually, we have the least PvP audience ever. We had whole plans for ways to let players murder each other, and they just wouldn't do it. We have a weird, wonderful audience that would rather help each other out even when they have the other options."
Baudoin is also candid about launching the game without a world full of characters not being the best decision. Had the team known what the response would have been at the time, he admits, they would have included more of what's coming in Wastelanders in the launch version of the game. But because of Fallout 76's relative novelty, Baudoin doesn't think there was any way the team could have known that not having NPCs would be so frustrating.
"At the time, there was no clear analog to what we were making," he says. "So it was very tricky, because you would make arguments as to what you think the game should be, but there was no clear right decision.
"As soon as we saw what people were saying, there was a real fire in the belly to say, 'No, we can address this.' If we solve these problems, there's a whole package here that is very enticing to people, and we just need to provide that extra step... It's far more of a Bethesda experience than we were at launch."
"At the time, there was no clear analog to what we were making"
Because it's such a well known series, Fallout 76 was met with rapid, vocal disapproval at launch. There have been plenty of suggestions across forums and social media outlets for how to improve the game, and while Baudoin says he tries to read as many of them as possible -- he checks one particular popular message board at least twice a day for feedback -- there's a degree of filtering that takes place when the team designs what to change, and how.
"In some respects, our own internal team makes suggestions which are mirrored by the community. We're experts at dealing with that. But you can definitely notice trends.
"Neil Gaiman has that quote, 'When people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.' If there's an itch somewhere and it's bugging people, it's our job to figure out as experts how we can address the problem. Sometimes communities get it right, but you have to think of the millions of factors that go into that and make the best decision to address the problem that makes the itch go away and doesn't create further itches down the road."
"This is one of the first times I've been able to, before launch, see what people are reacting to and course-correct"
Later on, he adds:
"As a developer this is one of the first times I've been able to, before launch, see what people are reacting to and course correct. It's been fantastic."
Because the Wastelanders update is free, Baudoin is optimistic that a good chunk of the community that bought the game over a year ago will make their way back to see what's changed. He's hopeful, too, that an overarching love for the Fallout series among the community will keep them in the game.
"I think [Wastelanders] looks a lot more like a traditional Fallout game," he says. "The tagline in my head a lot of the time is: 'Fallout 76 is Fallout with friends.' I think now we've added more of the Fallout into it, the things you expected from Fallout 3, Fallout 4, are now in there. I think we're more properly delivering on that expectation that some people had."
Though Bethesda isn't revealing anything else new for now, Baudoin says that Wastelanders won't be the end of the team's work on Fallout 76. He describes the game as "a chance to tell an evolving story," with those opportunities only expanded by the addition of the characters and plotlines of this new update.
"You have to take risks," Baudoin says. "You have to reach for the stars sometimes. Sometimes you'll fall short, but if you don't, if you lack that ambition, the game is going to feel flatter. It's not going to be as interesting. Some of the things we've done...at the time sounded insane, but then we worked on it and we did it and lo and behold it really works. If we hadn't been willing to take that risk, it wouldn't've been there."