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Falling Out Of Love With Fallout 3.

A lackluster time with Fallout 3 sends me down open world memory lane.

Josh Bycer, Blogger

July 1, 2010

8 Min Read

My trip through the wasteland is over. This has been attempt #4 to get into Fallout 3 after getting it from a steam sale a few weeks ago. Each time I played for about an hour and each time I quit the game annoyed. It wouldn't be very analytical of me to say that "this game sucks" and be done with it. After sitting down and thinking about it I realized where my trouble is.

Before I begin I want to say that I respect Bethesda and their titles. I bet it is not easy to develop games at that scale; however after playing Oblivion and FallOut 3 I've come to the conclusion that their game design style is my antithesis.

When it comes down to it I've always been about quality over quantity in just about every factor of my life and that of course goes for games as well. I'd rather play 8 hours of amazing game play against 20 hours of mediocrity. The major selling point in Bethesda's titles is a huge open world to explore allowing the player to control the pacing of the game. They love allowing the player to put together a character and basically send them off into the world. My chief problem however has to do with that wide open attitude.

To be frank there just isn't anything meaningful to do out there. Being able to define a character to your specifications is great, but there isn't much you're going to be doing with that person. When I'm trying to get information out of people or picking a door my overall skill at the game is meaningless in the matter. Looking at the game play there are basically two systems at work, the stats that define the character and the player's input. Stats are the biggest factor in the game and affect everything from getting a better deal when selling to having your bullet hit its mark. Player input mainly is for movement, selecting dialog options and firing your weapon but none of that was really satisfying for me. My character feels very wooden when I control him and with so much about the combat determined by stats which keeps things from being interesting.

This lack of player interaction also hurts the world in my opinion. Besides a main quest the player has the entire world to explore with landmarks to be found which could either mean dungeons or new towns with quests. However I'm just not motivated to run across the map looking for goodies when there isn't much to do. The prospect of finding a dungeon or some hidden piece of real estate is tempered by the lack of anything good to be found or to test the player's skill. I completed two different dungeons in Fallout 3 and other then health and ammo I found nothing that made it worth my time. No rare pieces of equipment, or clues to other quests in fact I wasn't sure that I was finished the dungeon but then I realized that everyone else was dead.

As I explored several cities I found that the biggest affect I can have on the land is deciding who live and who dies. Going around completing quests there doesn't seem to be much of an impact in the world (other than the big megaton quest). This coupled with a lack of game play are the two nails in the coffin for me. I was thinking that open ended games were not my thing but then I remember two that I loved.

Sid Meier's Pirates! (yes the exclamation point is important) was a remake of the original Pirates which was created by Meier as well. In Pirates! you have the entire ocean open to you and can choose where to go. The game play is split between controlling your ship, buying and conversing in town and mini games for the rest. Ship battles, duals, dancing, treasure hunting and city raids are each broken up by its own mini game. What I enjoyed about Pirates! was that even though each interaction was a mini game they were still engaging enough in my opinion to keep the player going. Player skill was the determining factor to succeed; however there were items the player could buy to give them an advantage such as flintlock pistols or a fluffy shirt.

The story in Pirates! leaves the player to do what they wish while a scoring mechanic is used to drive the player to certain goals. Each event in the game from dating a governor's daughter to finding a family member adds a notch on your belt and an increase in score. When the player retires (IE ends the game) all the accomplishments you've earned is tallied up and you are given a score based on it. The player is allowed to do what they want but the idea of getting a better score is always there to focus the player. My main complaint with Pirates! was that I wish my actions had a greater affect on the world but the game was still good enough to play through several times.

My other example comes from one of my all time favorite titles: Star Control 2. Which if you haven't played it I order you to look up " Star Control 2:Ur Quan Masters" to find a freeware version of the game. SC2 much like Fallout and Pirates! had a main plot that allowed the player to do what they want within the game space. The player had to free Earth from enslavement by an alien race by getting the resources needed to upgrade their fleet. Similar to Pirates! (and in a sense X-Com) the game play in SC 2 is split between three different modes. First is a general ship control and management where the player chooses what systems to explore and how to upgrade their flagship. Next is going down to a planet in a Lander to gather minerals and animals to gain the needed resources for upgrades.

Lastly there was ship combat; every species in the game had its own ship design from the cloaking Ilwraths to homing missiles from the human ships. As you explore the universe you'll be able to recruit ships to your fleet to supplement your flagship.  SC2 also featured a time limit like the original Fallout where after enough time has passed one of the alien races will start a genocidal march across the universe limiting where you can go and eventually destroying the Earth and ending the game. My only 2 legitimate complaints about SC2 are a lack of a randomize Universe feature and a high learning curve (prepare to restart a few times to get it right).

Looking at SC2, Pirates! and FO3, all three of them share similar elements of open world design, however SC2 and Pirates! have one important distinction that separates them from FO3. They each rely more on player input and skill to drive the narrative compared to FO3 where stats rule. There is a guiding purpose to go out and explore in SC 2 and Pirates! that I find lacking in FO3. Now to be fair though, FO3's game space is larger than SC2 and Pirates! but this goes back to my original point on quality vs quantity.

To put it another way, imagine a game that has incredibly refined and tight game play something you would see from a AAA developer like Blizzard or Nintendo as a five star restaurant. When you eat at one you're going for their specialty, you wouldn't go to an Italian restaurant for Chinese food. Now take a game like Oblivion or Fallout 3 where the game play is all over the place, instead of having a few refined game systems you just have system overload.  To me this is like eating at an all you can eat buffet, sure there is a lot there but don't expect the quality of food you would see at a five star restaurant.

If you are going to give the world to the player you have to make sure that the player is going to have something to do. My final example that is the most modern would be S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadows of Chernobyl. The game had a huge game space to wander around but unlike FO3 there was a point to this in the form of rare artifacts or guns. Also the combat was good enough to carry the game and required both player skill and decent gear to survive.  

In my opinion to create an excellent open world or macro experience, you have to start in the details, look at each element of the game and try to make it the best that you can. If you are going to have a character who can run, shoot, sneak and be witty, either create an involving system for each, or one system that can handle everything the best way it can. Now then if you'll excuse me I feel the urge to play Portal again or maybe Braid.


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Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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