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Fallout week: Fallout 2 editorial

Black Isle Studios with Chris Avellone on board returns to the surface for Fallout 2 - take a look at the development process of the sequel to one of the best RPG games ever created.

War. War never changes. Game design, however, is an industry in constant fluctuation. The success of the original Fallout dictated that Black Isle Studios and Interplay craft a riveting and worthy follow-up. Such suffocating pressure brought about a reshaped development team that saw many familiar faces leave the figurative Vault in pursuit of other goals. Fallout designer Tim Cain was one of the first to move on.

by David Craddock



War. War never changes. Game design, however, is an industry in constant fluctuation. The success of the original Fallout dictated that Black Isle Studios and Interplay craft a riveting and worthy follow-up. Such suffocating pressure brought about a reshaped development team that saw many familiar faces leave the figurative Vault in pursuit of other goals. Fallout designer Tim Cain was one of the first to move on.



When asked the specific cause for his departure from a team that had created a title quickly regaled as iconic, Cain confesses that the specifics are hazy to him now. "I was feeling burned out mostly, and a little unappreciated. Plus, the idea of striking out on my own with a shiny new game under my belt was very exciting."



Also venturing out into the wasteland was designer Chris Taylor, though his departure was fundamentally different from Cain's. "I didn't leave Black Isle Studios, I was kicked out," Taylor says bluntly. "For good reason, so I don't hold it against anybody--except, maybe, myself. I did have a chance to go work on another dream project of mine, so it worked out in the end."




A lack of editorial and visionary oversight hurt the game's tone, although not the game's mechanics or the amount of fun stuff you could do


Such upheaval left gaping holes in the Fallout 2 development team, one that would surely be difficult given Cain and Taylor's influence on the original foray into a post-apocalyptic world. Chris Avellone boldly accepted the title of designer. His first challenge: to recalibrate the development team that had been derailed by such a dramatic shift in composition.



"A lack of editorial and visionary oversight hurt the game's tone, although not the game's mechanics or the amount of fun stuff you could do," Avellone says. "The game was moving very, very fast."



Creatively speaking, the sky was still the limit, but a stringent schedule and lack of resources dictated just how much time the team had to touch the clouds. "We had one full-time programmer on it," Avellone says, "with some occasional assistance from Chris Jones, but the title probably could have benefited from help on the programming front. Our lead programmer was pretty overwhelmed with dealing with issues on the title and occasionally had to field surprise feature requests and the tricky AI."



With few resources and even less time to use them, Fallout 2's team narrowed their task to two intertwined objectives: use what worked in the original and fix what didn't. Chosen for improvement were hand-to-hand combat skills, a broader selection of weapons and abilities, and random encounters.



Companions, such as the shabby yet loveable Dogmeat from Fallout, were given particular nurturing. As Avellone recalls, "companions in Fallout were not planned from the outset; they came in last-minute. I don't recall the exact quotes from Tim Cain, but I believe the words 'hacks' and 'afterthoughts' were part of the conversation. Even so, companions were very well-received, and Dogmeat alone was definitely one of the highlights of the game. Based on fan reaction, it was pretty clear that we wanted to give added attention to companion AI and companion setting design for Fallout 2, as well as give them ever more design attention in dialogues and reactivity."



Black Isle knew that the moral theme that had garnered so much praise for Fallout would be just as pivotal to Fallout 2. To expand the theme, Avellone and the team placed heavy emphasis on the narrative's scope. "We chose events that would be referenced between towns, and whenever possible, set up chains of towns that would respond to each other; Gecko and Vault City are the most prominent example," Avellone says. "Whenever possible, we also used perk scripting checks and tokenization of nicknames to create the illusion of popularity or infamy in some towns, such as New Reno."



Avellone was no stranger to the ripple effects made by every in-game decision. "I felt an intense desire to murder the kids in the Den when I realized they were stealing my stuff," he recalls from one early play session. "Then I realized that if I did that, I would be stigmatized in the game. This was a holdover from the original designers for Fallout 2, their souls be damned."



As the development clock clicked inexorably toward milestones, the team subjected themselves to as much overtime as was required to ship the product they had envisioned. "We were tweaking the boxing ring rules in New Reno literally in the last hour before the game was scheduled for its final submission," Avellone says. "We probably should have downscaled the game, but even cutting an area or two would have required extensive bug-fixing at that time, and we didn't have all the QA support--or even the developers able to test stuff--at the end. I do know that San Francisco almost got completely rebuilt in the last few weeks of dev time; designer John Deiley locked himself in his room for two weeks to redesign the area."




[...] Ron Perlman threatening to kill me (Chris Avellone), my family, and I believe my dog, even though I don't have a dog. It was pretty scary.


Fallout 2's development also contained its fair share of snafus that, despite the hectic pace of the schedule, made for fond recollections. "Ron Perlman threatened to kill me for how I wrote the end-game narrative text," Avellone says, grinning. "It had some pretty horrible lines for any voice actor to try and say. I wasn't there at the session, but the audio producer brought in mp3s of Ron Perlman threatening to kill me, my family, and I believe my dog, even though I don't have a dog. It was pretty scary.



"To conclude the tale, I had to sit in on a voice session with him for Icewind Dale: Heart of Winter, but he didn't know who I was. Then I had to explain he was going to be playing a transvestite dragon [in Heart of Winter], and I got that sinking feeling he would simply murder me for the hell of it."



On September 30, 1998, approximately 10 months after Fallout, Interplay and Black Isle Studios released Fallout 2. Like its predecessor, Fallout 2 was lauded for its mature theme, dynamic narrative, and deep character development. Some critics applauded Black Isle for not attempting to fix what wasn't broken. Internally, such praise was viewed as slightly ironic. Bugs that had existed in Fallout reprised their panned roles in Fallout 2, and were often compounded by new problems related to the title's expanded scope.



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"Fallout 2 had its strengths in terms of scope of the world--I think there was a lot of fun stuff to do in the game--but it suffered from a quick release schedule," says Avellone. "I wish I could excuse that, but frankly, there wasn't much choice unless you wanted to see your friends down the hall laid off unless you got the title off--Interplay was really hurting for money at that time, and layoffs were looming. Also, there was a lack of a core vision holder, and we often simply tried to do too much in the engine without the resources to support it."



Though no longer part of the development team, Chris Taylor and Tim Cain enjoyed Fallout 2 as gamers. As designers, their qualms echoed Avellone's. "I have a personal preference for Fallout 1, since it's the one I worked on, and in all honesty, I think Fallout is a better game," says Taylor. "It has a tighter story and the world building isn't all over the place as it is in Fallout 2. The ending of Fallout is darn near perfect. Fallout 2 is a bigger game, and that fixes one of the very legitimate complaints about Fallout, but I think it lacks consistency. If the Fallout 2 team had more time, I'm sure they would have been able to fix most of those problems. However, Fallout 2 does fix some things that were broken in Fallout. The SPECIAL system is better balanced in Fallout 2 than it is in Fallout. NPCs work a little better. The car was nifty," Taylor finishes with a laugh.




Fallout 2 was bigger in scope, had follower control, and let you find a cool car. But I feel its humor was off in places, and the pacing was less than Fallout's


Tim Cain shares most of Taylor's views. "Fallout 2 was bigger in scope, had follower control, and let you find a cool car. But I feel its humor was off in places, and the pacing was less than Fallout's, which had a tighter storyline and more memorable NPCs."



Despite Fallout 2's shortcomings, the game was hailed as a success, and a sequel seemed inevitable. Black Isle Studios soon began development on Fallout 3 under the codename Van Buren, but Fallout 2 did little to cure Interplay's financial woes. The publisher went bankrupt, and the Fallout 3 development license was sold to Elder Scrolls developer Bethesda Softworks in 2004.



Intent on leaving their mark on the franchise, Bethesda scrapped Van Buren and completely retooled what would become Fallout 3. The game quickly became a critical and consumer success, though many hardcore Fallout fans lamented never being able to see where Interplay and Black Isle would have taken the franchise they had built with blood, sweat, tears and code.



Never say never, especially in the video game industry. Using the money they had accrued from selling the Fallout 3 license, Interplay began work on Project V13, a post-apocalyptic-themed title being made in the spirit of early Fallout games. But when players ascend from their Vaults, they may find the wasteland more crowded than they remember.



Rather than create a single-player experience, Project V13 will take its place in the ever-growing massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) genre. To ensure that the experience maintains the atmosphere that made Fallout and Fallout 2 so renowned, many former Interplay employees have returned to lend their skills to the project. Chief among them is Chris Taylor, who couldn't be happier breathing radioactive air and fighting mutated humans once again.



"Project V13 is so far off from release that we really can't get into specifics," Taylor says. "So many things are likely to change as we move from pre-production to full-blown production and into testing. It's going to be a long time, but this is the project that I've been trying to work on for many years. I'm a fan of the MMO genre, and I hope that we can bring some of the same goodness to MMOs like we brought to CRPGs will Fallout."



It is obvious that Interplay's intent is to establish V13 as a spiritual successor to Fallout, yet many wonder if such a goal is achievable. Given the social-driven nature of MMOs, will a heavily populated wasteland induce the same feeling of isolation that is so crucial to Fallout?



"The idea of sharing the wasteland with thousands of people at the same time is really exciting," says Tim Cain. "Think of the kind of things you can do with a whole group of blue-suited Vault Dwellers armed with miniguns and Bloody Mess perks. But at the same time, that’s a pretty crowded wasteland. Part of Fallout’s charm was its post-apocalyptic style and sense of isolation, and I hope that can be conveyed in such a busy, overflowing world."




Fallout and Project V13 are similar, but by definition, different. [...] We have to make changes, and I'm sure that some of them will be controversial.


Those fears are shared among many, including Chris Taylor. "It is a challenge," he readily admits. "We can't hope to match Fallout and that sense of loneliness and hopelessness exactly. Fallout and Project V13 are similar, but by definition, different. We can't take Fallout and plug in a bunch of people and assume that it's going to work. We have to make changes, and I'm sure that some of them will be controversial.



"I think one of the keys will be the presentation to the player of the state of the world and what his/her role is in that world. One of the problems of MMOs is that it's hard for an individual player to get the same sense of purpose and importance to the world like you can in a single-player CRPG. We've got some ideas about that, and it's something that we're going to work on."



Missed the first part of our Fallout retrospective? Click here and learn secrets of the original Fallout development proccess from Tim Cain and Chris Taylor.


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