Interplay is not giving up on its best-selling franchise just yet, but the legal battle that started in 2009 might be soon over as Interplay continuously fails to produce substantial evidence that Fallout MMOG is indeed in the works. At the same time Bethesda fails to fully capitalize on the license as they are unable to decide on the direction the franchise should be taking.
The original Fallout was released in 1997 and became an instant classic
Maybe you heard of Interplay, a once-great computer game publishing company responsible for titles like Baldur’s Gate, Descent, Fallout and many others. I say "maybe" because not being informed about an existence of a company that hasn’t published anything of substance in the last twelve years is not a big deal. On the other hand, you probably heard of Bethesda, a game developer known for The Elder Scrolls franchise, as well as the two latest - and successful - Fallout games. After years of success in the 1990s, Interplay went public, a move that proved eventually to be disastrous, resulting in an involuntary bankruptcy order in 2006. It cancelled most of their plans, including the would-be fourth game in the Fallout franchise - Fallout 3.
Fallout MMORPG - Selling License, Licensing Back, Court Issues
Instead of creating its own game, the new management of Interplay decided to sell the license for three single-player Fallout games to Bethesda. This, in my opinion, given the situation, was really the best thing to do. Bethesda was willing to pay, had the will and skill to create good RPG games (thus unlikely to ruin the franchise) as well as giving Interplay enough time to get back on its feet and - after a few years and three Fallout games later - pick up the single-player license again. At the same time, Interplay kept all other rights to the Fallout franchise, as it was planning on making a Fallout-based MMOG. In 2007, when the MMOG industry was booming, it was rather obvious that a successful MMOG would solve most, if not all of Interplay’s financial problems.
Unfortunately, not everything went according to plan. Interplay got sued by some former employees for not paying out salaries - and lost. This put Interplay into a rather unpleasant situation. The deal where Bethesda was paying for the Fallout license on a game-by-game basis was no longer so appealing; they needed the cash now. Interplay had little choice but to sell the whole Fallout franchise to Bethesda for mere $5,750.000. Interplay managed to salvage something out of this situation as Bethesda agreed to back-license the rights for a Fallout MMOG to Interplay under several conditions, most notably securing funds for initial development as well as starting full scale development of the game by a certain date (April 2009).
Fallout 3 by Bethesda Softworks turned into a mega-hit with over five million games sold
As Fallout 3 (released by Bethesda in 2008) was highly successful, earning over quarter of a billion U.S. Dollars, Bethesda became less and less excited about Interplay releasing an MMO game that would partially "ride" on the success of its new single-player counterpart. This new animosity eventually led to several unpleasant events like Bethesda failing to grant permission to Interplay for creating a Fallout Online web page. These events subsequently led to a judicial game that still rages on. After sifting through hundreds of pages all the legal documents Bright Side of News* requested and received, I conclude that things look grim for Interplay: two years after the initial complaint by Bethesda was filed, Interplay still fails to produce evidence that would prove financing was secured or that the MMOG is under development. Everything is still possible as neither party presented enough evidence to gain the upper hand. It might turn out that Bethesda really deliberately sabotaged Interplay in its efforts to produce and advertise its upcoming online title. Still, if Interplay fails to back its claims in the near future, it’s going to be a short fight.
Who Can Invest Millions of Dollars into Fallout MMO?
Regardless of what final verdict will be, it is unlikely that a Fallout MMOG will ever be published, and even the future of the single-player games is unclear. The mystical "fifth element" of successful computer games - player immersion - seems to evade the vast majority of game developers, Bethesda not excluded.
Five years ago MMORPGs were still a huge hit. Everyone was playing at least one, at least once. People know better now. Not everyone can play a game 40 hours a week, chained to the computer "because guildies are waiting". Those willing turned it into a habit (worse than smoking, I say!) and people who are not willing to let go of their habits are unlikely to replace one habit with another. There might be room for another big MMORPG on the market, alongside World of Warcraft, and that’s probably going to be Bioware’s Star Wars: the Old Republic. Considering the estimated development costs of $75 million, it’s pretty safe to say it is the amount of resources that could be the final nail in Interplay's coffin.
On top of that, the actual development of Project V13 (Fallout Online) - regardless of the lawsuit - doesn’t look promising either. There’s an official website that offers nothing, there are a few screenshots that are supposedly proving that the game is under development (might as well be photoshopped, or in this case 3dmaxed) and the developer is Masthead Studios, a Bulgarian company best known for an MMORPG nobody ever heard about. Is there really some super-secret development going on that is going to attract new gamers, steal players from existing and upcoming MMOs, made by an unknown developer and published by a company that haven’t placed anything on the market for more than a decade? I don’t need Heinlein’s Mike to tell me: "Man, the odds of Interplay releasing a Fallout MMOG are one in a thousand." I know that.
A Fallout MMORPG based on the initial franchise could’ve been a huge success and a new benchmark in the game industry, much like Activision Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, currently a three billion dollar franchise. To fully understand the importance of Fallout and its core mechanics, we must first very briefly look at the history and significance of the Pen and Paper Role-playing Games. Although the Dungeons & Dragons franchise is the best known RPG system ever created (in the computer gaming world Baldur’s Gate would be the perfect representative), almost every hardcore PnP RPG player will agree that Jackson Games’ GURPS is the "final word" in the world of PnP RPG game mechanics. Dungeons & Dragons (also World of Warcraft) uses a class-based system where everything about your character is restricted by class. A thief cannot cast a fireball, for example. GURPS is a point-based system - you can be a thief that can cast fireballs as long as you put points into both. The benefits of point-based systems over class systems are numerous, but the most obvious one is that everything can co-exist within the same system.
Gandalf can fight Darth Vader and a sorcerer can learn how to use a grenade launcher. If you’re a game developer and want to create a system that enables your players to be anything from a bear to a spaceship engineer, GURPS (Generic Universal RolePlaying System) should be the first and foremost reference. The first GURPS rulebook was published in 1986 but reached a broader audience in the 1990s. It is not unusual, then, that Interplay decided back in 1997 to make its new computer RPG Fallout based on the GURPS system. Well into development it turned out Interplay didn’t really get the license for GURPS (sounds familiar?) so they modified it into what eventually became the SPECIAL game system. To conclude, a developer that wants to create a believable and very flexible game system will have to eventually create something like GURPS. SPECIAL is already halfway there. If you look at the replay value of Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, you’ll plainly see that it stems from the core mechanics and not so much from the story or the game setting: the first time you play a brute with big guns, the second time you play a hacker-scientist that zaps people with lasers and so on.
The other very important aspect of player immersion (and thus the longevity value of games) is the game setting. From my long RPG experience I can tell you there are only three game settings (or game worlds) that offer long-term entertainment: medieval plus magic (Fantasy), modern plus magic (Cyberpunk) and future plus magic (SF). If you look at any RPG or MMORPG game that hit the Western market in the last 15 years, you can see that almost all top sellers are either Fantasy or SF. DeusEx, SystemShock 2 and BioShock franchise are exceptions that prove the rule. One of the reasons why Fallout was and still is so successful is because it offers Cyberpunk. It is logical to conclude then that Interplay’s decision to make a solid MMORPG based on Fallout would’ve been a huge success. If released in 2009.
As for the future of Fallout single-player games, the outlook is grim as well. Interplay’s Fallout 1 (released in 1997) was a success because it perfectly combined excellent storytelling, good pace, a flexible game system, gritty realism, an unusual game world (cyberpunk plus wasteland) and humor, all leading to fanatical immersion of RPG-hungry gamers. Fallout 2 was also highly successful, although I found the excess humor ruining the perfect immersion (a feeling probably shared by many fans). The next game in the franchise was Brotherhood of Steel, a turn-based strategy game I personally liked a lot (fans will probably disagree) not only because it offered something different but stood true to the spirit of the Fallout franchise. The Fallout series up to this point, along with all the other excellent RPGs by Interplay and its subsidiary Black Isle really marked a Golden Age in the world of computer RPGs.
My first contact with Bethesda Softworks was in 1996 when it released it’s The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall. I was truly amazed by the freedom and flexibility the game offered, and also amazed by the number of bugs and the pointlessness of such a game. I have a friend who played it through-and-through and loved it. I personally never felt intrigued by Elder Scrolls games. Oversized green/brown/grey worlds were never my cup of tea. But I know the value and quality of these games; I’m sure there are many players who enjoy them thoroughly.
Fallout: New Vegas was the second hit from Bethesda/Obsidian, with over five million games sold
The clash of these two worlds- let me call it "Daggerfallout" - occurred in 2008 with Fallout 3, the first Fallout game developed by Bethesda. For an experienced RPG player, the game was... horrible. Somehow Bethesda managed to merge the most unappealing aspects of two franchises and create an RPG Cyberpunk shooter. People loved it, game was successful. Was it because the game was great or because people are starving for a good Cyberpunk game? It’s not that Bethesda didn’t want to create a good Fallout game. They do love and make RPGs after all - the probable reason why they hired Obsidian Entertainment (former members of Black Isle, developers of Fallout 1 and 2) to make the sequel, Fallout: New Vegas. Obsidian’s New Vegas was indeed a much better game that solved some (but not the essential) issues that Fallout 3 suffered from.
The How Games and The Why Games
I’m amazed that such renowned companies like Bethesda and Obsidian fail to grasp that there are two very distinct types of players: those who play games for "the how" and those that do it for "the why". "The how" revolves around excitement in the fact that you (the player) interact with the digital world. From kids who pick up a gamepad for the first time to people who simply love mashing buttons or swinging their faux-guitar - these are the "how people". Super Mario, Serious Sam, Duke Nukem, arcade simulators, Wii games would be a perfect example of "how games". There’s nothing wrong with "how games". As a matter of fact, they can be fun as hell. They should exist; there should be many of them.
And then there’s the "why games", games that people play for reasons that transcend "the how". Be it competitiveness (e-sports like Starcraft2, Pro Evolution Soccer etc.) or the urge to enter and exist in a fantasy world for brief periods of time: RPG games, adventure games etc.
Some games succeed (like World of Warcraft) in merging these two worlds (let us call them "hybrids"), but it’s difficult and games usually fail to please either population. This happened to Bethesda with Fallout 3 and to some extent with Fallout: New Vegas. The roleplaying elements and the action elements simply fail to fuse seamlessly. I would even go that far to claim that the developers do not fully understand the world they are creating. To create a believable fantasy world into which the players can and want to immerse into (and thus adding hundreds of hours of playtime that sett ground for expansions, DLCs etc.), both the overarching story and the mini-stories need to be in sync with the game world. Both computer games and TV series of late suffer from this problem: the inability to create believable, synchronized storylines. Let me give you a perfect example taken from the very start of Fallout: New Vegas.
"You play a character, a courier, in a devastated, post-apocalyptic world. Shanty towns, diseases, mutations, strange beasts, hunger everywhere. People will gladly kill for a bottle of clean water. Some people will even eat you. Survive or fail to survive. You play a courier that wanders the dangerous wasteland to earn for a living (bottle caps, scraps of food and a few drops of clean water are your salary). You avoid danger, your only goal is to get to the next village and pray it’s not full of cannibals. On your journeys, you get shot in the head for carrying the wrong package. By some miracle you survive and get patched up by a good doctor."
Fallou: New Vegas Game Description, Bethesda Softworks 2010
My reaction would be: "Phew, I can’t believe I’m alive! Hooray! Now let’s get the hell out of here, as far from New Vegas as possible". Instead, Obsidian Entertainment presents us with "Doc! Why did you sift through my stuff? I should kill you right now! Where did the guy that almost killed me go? IT’S TIME TO GET MY REVENGE! RAAAGH! KILL!"
It doesn’t matter how many great storylines Obsidian implements into the game - it failed at the very beginning. And inconsistencies just keep piling up and piling up, until "the thinking player that plays for the ‘why’" just gives up and quits. I guess it would be too difficult for Obsidian to come up with something like "After exiting the village where the doc patched you up, you get ambushed by slavers and are dragged to a former prison, now a slaver’s camp. There, after years of humiliation and harsh treatment, you are being trained (depending on your traits) to be either a slave gladiator or a repairman or whatever. One night you escape and vow to eventually come back for revenge, but your first goal is to get back on your feet by putting your newly acquired skills to use. And what better place to do that than to visit the place you heard so much about, the shining city of lights - New Vegas."
Conclusion? Consider this a beginning...
I have no doubt that both Obsidian and Bethesda are more than capable of physically producing more Fallout titles, but whether they can lure back "the why" gamer population is questionable. Adding more games with "new lonely wanderers", more and more vaults and same canned food that have been lying around for hundreds of years does not seem like a formula for success.
Then again, can Interplay do one better? We'll see if there is something more than legal smoke and mirrors.