25 years ago, Fallout perfected post-apocalyptic RPGs

Role-playing games traditionally take place in fantasy worlds, full of unknown lands, mysterious monsters and hidden treasures. But a quarter century ago, a brave team stepped into the future and created a post-apocalyptic adventure that would forever reshape the genre. Fallout, originally released on October 10, 1997, has gone on to become one of the most high-profile series in role-playing history. Let’s find out how it got there.

Before the war

Newport Beach teenager Brian Fargo was captivated by computers after his parents bought him an Apple II in 1977. He was quick to develop his own games. After graduating, he founded Interplay to create role-playing games for various publishers, including the critically acclaimed series The Bard’s Tale. It wasn’t long before the company got into publishing itself.

In 1988, Interplay released Wasteland. Inspired by popular madmax franchise, the game placed players in a world generations after the Global Thermonuclear War, exploring a radiation-ravaged American Southwest and discovering an artificial intelligence threatening to wipe out the scattered dregs of humanity.

It was an immediate critical and commercial success, a breath of fresh air in the dying landscape. The team put together a sequel, the less successful Fountain of Dreams. But after a third title in the series was dropped, programmer Tim Cain started running something new in-house.

Top of the safe

In the past, many computer RPGs were based on the rules of existing tabletop systems. In the 1990s, one of the hottest pen-and-paper franchises was Steve Jackson’s GURPS, short for “Generic Universal Role-Playing System.” GURPS was kind of a catch-all product that wrapped sci-fi, fantasy, the Wild West, and more into a streamlined combat system.

Cain persuaded Brian Fargo to license GURPS and let him develop a computerized version of his ruleset. For a while, he was the only person on the project, building an all-new game engine to go along with it. Eventually, he held an after-work open meeting with a free pizza to entice the other team members to work on the game, which still had no premise, setting, or characters, just mechanics.

The informal group delved into a bunch of concepts – time travel, medieval fantasy, etc. – before settling into a post-apocalyptic world, encouraged by Fargo telling them he might be able to get Electronic Arts’ Wasteland license back. This process took a year without results. What seemed like a huge setback actually turned out to be the creative jolt Cain and his team needed. They were now free from liability for pre-existing products and could do whatever they wanted.

Artist Leonard Boyarsky provided the final missing piece: the new game would be set in a post-nuclear world, but the post-nuclear world of the 1950s and the Cold War. The tone was satirical and dark, contrasting the absurd optimism of the time with the utter mess in which the crumbling world found itself.

On the programming side, the team was also making huge progress. The primitive, windowed interface of Wasteland and other Interplay RPGs felt dated from the nascent 3D era. After experimenting with first-person viewpoints, Cain settled on an oblique trimetric perspective that allowed them to pack in massive amounts of detail through dirty sprites full of character.

Geiger counter

One of the main design principles in play in Fallout was player choice. The development team cut their teeth with epic paper and pen role-playing sessions, where scenarios played out differently depending on participants’ actions. Unlike the strict, linear narratives of many RPGs and adventure games, the team wanted the player to wake up in this post-apocalyptic world and follow its whims wherever they took them.

There is an excellent quote from Cain in ShackNews(Opens in a new window)Oral history of the project: “The first thing I learned was that no player ever does what you think he’s going to do.” For many designers, that would be a red flag. But the Fallout team embraced it. By constructing an airtight set of rules that allow players to express themselves in different ways, the developers have unwittingly innovated a new paradigm for adventure gaming.

Instead of leading players through encounters like beads on a string, they built content-rich environments with lots of different things to do and let people choose how and when they did them. And, more importantly, these actions did not exist in a vacuum. The world has adapted and responded to player choices, making them feel meaningful.

Obviously, building something this flexible and complex was a lot more complicated than the alternative. The team even had a dedicated player, Eric DeMilt, who performed absolutely ridiculous things like maxing out skills to kill immortal NPCs just to see what would happen. A time limit of 150 game days was instituted just to give people a boost to play through the main plot.

drop the bomb

Fallout was released in a lunchbox-like retail package. It was an immediate critical and commercial success, moving over 120,000 copies in its first year. The role-playing world had been dominated by a shift towards Japanese-style games after the explosive release of Final Fantasy VI in 1994, and many believed that traditional PC-style role-playing adventures were on the verge of extinction.

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What Interplay’s game did was stake out land that was thematically and visually distinct from what competitors had done. Instead of a single epic 60-hour storyline, a single Fallout game could be relatively short. But starting over would allow you to play differently in hundreds of ways, big and small, from character creation.

Many industry historians regard Fallout as the first “modern” computer role-playing game, and its innovations – the morality system, the perk system, the fully open world – would be copied and developed tirelessly in the years that followed. followed. The start of the second CRPG revival can be directly attributed to its impact.

Radioactive residue

Interplay immediately began working on a sequel even before the first game was released, but the success of Fallout definitely led the company to ramp up production on Fallout 2. The team made no major changes to the game’s system. , choosing instead to greatly increase the size of the game world and the length of the main plot. It also did well, but Interplay was struggling to find money at the time after expanding too quickly and investing in too many projects that failed.

It didn’t help that Cain, Boyarsky, and artist Jason Anderson, the three people most responsible for the original game’s success, bailed out the company to found their own studio, Troika. With them gone, Interplay would release Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel, a tactical fighting game, as well as Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, a repetitive action-RPG with a heavy metal soundtrack that flopped on consoles.

Interplay would teeter on the brink of bankruptcy and sell one of its most valuable assets, the Fallout franchise, to Bethesda in 2007. At the time, Fallout 3 was in development under the codename “Van Buren”, but the The game’s new owners ditched everything to create Fallout 3 in 2008, which shifted the game to polygonal 3D first-person. Several additional offerings in the franchise followed, achieving critical and commercial success until the release of online multiplayer Fallout 76 in 2018. The next game in the mainline series, Fallout 5, is expected to begin development after the next game is completed. Elder Scrolls.

While there have been other CRPGs with the same seismic impact – the original Wizardry, for example, or Ultima IV – Fallout stands as an inflection point for the genre, firmly delineating territory that would be fruitfully exploited. by mutants for generations to come. More importantly, the original game still stands. It’s easy and fun to drop back into the wilderness with your trusty dog ​​and discover a new character or story you missed last time, even a quarter of a century after leaving the vault.

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