Fallout Shack: More Players, More Problems
In 2007, Interplay sold the Fallout property to its current custodian, Bethesda. The one caveat of the deal was that Bethesda would license the rights for a massively-multiplayer online Fallout game – now known as Fallout Online – back to Interplay. Since the deal was originally struck, Bethesda has gone on to publish Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, while Fallout Online has continued to gestate, or more properly, languish in development limbo.
Interplay’s journey to release Fallout Online has been fraught so far with adversity. Disregarding the well-documented financial woes of the once proud publisher, in late 2009, Bethesda took legal action against their licensee. Citing Interplay’s marketing of the ‘Fallout Trilogy’, a budget bundle including Fallout, Fallout 2 and Fallout Tactics, Bethesda was concerned about the confusion Interplay might create, leading up to Bethesda’s own Fallout 3. With injunctions and counter-suits filed in the years to follow, the likelihood of Fallout Online ever truly materializing seems to wither a bit more every day. Ever since, the two publishers have repeatedly been at each other’s throats, claiming that neither has held up their end of the licensing agreement. In truth, the ongoing legal battle could house an entire trip to ‘the Shack’ itself, and it probably will, someday; today is not that day.
In an alternate post-apocalyptic world, Fallout Online would fittingly come to market sometime in 2012. Assuming that does actually happen, it’s still hard to imagine how a property like Fallout might actually work as an MMO. Many aspects of the franchise, including races, factions, topography and even wildlife all seem to lend themselves to the MMO template, but those are really only the trappings of a Fallout title. The themes, the humor, the tension and most importantly, the flexibility of the narrative, are what actually define a Fallout game.
Assuming Fallout Online were to build on the foundation created by Interplay’s original ‘trilogy’, the MMO would have to be a filthy, decrepit place, populated with a wide range of shady, despicable characters. Creating suitable NPCs to populate this new, much larger wasteland wouldn’t be the issue, but, consider populating that same wasteland now, with thousands of player-controlled lowlifes. Will Interplay, and co-developers Masthead Studios, really allow people to role-play slavers and slaves, drug dealers and junkies, or pimps and prostitutes? The answer, I suspect, is no. Fallout Online doesn’t necessarily have to offer those roles to its players to be good, or even a proper Fallout experience, but there are certain expectations that fans will carry forward from the old series – I’m sure I’m not the only one who took a lesbian wife during my first brush with Fallout 2.
If Interplay chooses to shy away from the darker elements, they risk depriving Fallout Online of the black comedy the series has become synonymous with. If they do follow through, you can already begin to envision the Fox News headline, ‘New online game teaches gamers to survive through cannibalism’. These aspects are what make the world of Fallout so perverse and fun. No other series boasts features like ‘Bloody Mess’, which is a well-known Perk that causes enemies to die in the most comedic, over-the-top manner possible, at all times. It serves little purpose other than generating the occasional sadistic chuckle while watching a Ghoul’s head erupt into a shower of blood. Something small, such as Bloody Mess, can be easily brought into an MMO setting, but when Interplay’s entire publishing future is essentially riding on Fallout Online’s success, it’s hard to envision them pushing the envelope any further.
The most troubling concern, however, is the dynamics of the wasteland itself. Every Fallout game, including Bethesda’s entries, has strove to create the sort of atmosphere where any conversation can quickly deteriorate into a bloodbath. How does that dynamic translate into a multiplayer game? Fallout has always encouraged players to define their roles, either through action or in-action. Don’t care about a certain quest? Skip it, or better yet, kill the NPC who gave it to you. That works fine when there is only one protagonist and only one story being written, but what happens when the next thousand players want to follow that quest line? Surely NPCs could respawn, be invulnerable, or the game world could have some sort of periodic reset, but any of those solutions work in direct conflict to the core ideas of Fallout, which are player choice and consequences.
Moving past dead NPCs, player versus player interaction becomes another obvious hurdle for the wasteland. Most MMOs have quarantined PVP to designated areas, but that won’t cut it for Fallout. The wastelands of every Fallout title are generally ruled by raiders and anarchy, while the settlements are overseen by colorful, crooked individuals or sheriffs who like the sound of their name a bit too much. Both are places where anything can happen at any moment, and that’s what makes Fallout so tense. Like knocking off an NPC, players will want to do as they desire, wherever and whenever they choose to do so. Governing that sort of mentality, which has been thoroughly ingrained in the series’ players and DNA, will be a tall order. Ultimately, Fallout Online players will likely need to revise their expectations.
With a passionate, dedicated following, Fallout Online has some extremely large shoes to fill – especially considering the positive receptions to both Bethesda titles. Although still an RPG, bringing an established, well-revered universe to another genre is always a tall order. Blizzard proved it was possible with the venerable World of Warcraft, but they were two significant differences in play: one, this is Blizzard we’re talking about, and two, Warcraft was a real-time strategy game, people had no preconceived notions of how it should work as an RPG. Singleplayer Western-RPGs and MMOs inherently lend themselves to different strengths, and in the case of Fallout, the loneliness, the tension, the emergent storytelling, are all aspects that don’t fit quite so snuggly into the existing MMO space.
Despite the obvious design clashes, Interplay has put their best foot forward, rehiring a pair of Fallout’s more notable original designers, Chris Taylor and Jason Anderson – though the latter has since left Interplay. The developer is obviously committed to the project and the integrity of the universe they created so many years ago, but even with the best of intentions, many factors – including Bethesda’s outstanding lawsuit – seem to be working against Fallout Online. As a long time Fallout fan and a gamer, still waiting for the right MMO, I sincerely hope the stars align for the once proud Interplay. I’m not holding my breath though, remember Van Buren? Or worse, remember Brotherhood of Steel?