Review Or Die

Op-Ed: Bethesda, Obsidian, and $6 Million for a New Fallout (Part 1)

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Why should Bethesda, the current owner of the Fallout franchise, give Obsidian Entertainment, developers of Fallout 2 and Fallout: New Vegas, six million dollars?

The answer’s pretty simple: I want them to make a new Fallout game.

“But Mathias,” you exclaim because you’re pretty sure that’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard, “You can’t produce an open-world 3D game worthy of Fallout with that small of a budget! Skyrim’s budget was 85 million dollars!

That’s absolutely true. But  Skyrim was a Triple-A game with a budget to match, designed to push the limits of an open-world game on the hardware of PCs and consoles. That’s not what I’m asking for in this article, nor is it what Obsidian is best at creating. While I’m looking forward to playing Bethesda’s Fallout 4, Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas proves that there’s room for success outside of the main, numbered Fallout titles.

So let’s take a look at the first in a four-part series to help answer this question: Why should Bethesda spend this kind of money for another Obsidian-made Fallout?

1. Six Million Dollars

It’s a fair question to ask why I’d pick that specific number. Wasteland 2’s budget was approximately $3 million, a game of a similar scope and genre to the first Fallout game. Project Eternity, Obsidian’s current Unity Engine RPG, is budgeted at $4.3 million, is roughly identical to the budget for the original Fallout (when adjusted for inflation). So why six million?

Bethesda is known for its lush production values and immense worlds. I believe they wouldn’t put their name on a product that didn’t represent the scope of play that Bethesda is renowned for. If Project Eternity can promise a truly expansive game with a budget of $4.3 million, then it stands to reason that Bethesda would want Obsidian to push themselves that much further, especially with the foundation their work on Eternity has given them.

2. Fallout: New Vegas Was Profitable

While the creative vision of a game is important, video games are a business. So what is the monetary advantage in giving Obsidian this money to create a new Fallout game?

Let’s not forget that the game made $300 million within its first month of release. With six DLC packs, an Ultimate Edition, and two and a half years since its launch, it’s unlikely that the game stopped there. People loved New Vegas, Metacritic issues or not, and they proved it with their wallets.

And this with only 18 months of development. 

The names Fallout, Bethesda, New Vegas, and Obsidian all have their own forms of brand recognition, meaning the publication of a new Fallout title is not only good for the built-in market, the market makes it good for the publisher. For a less expensive game that plays entirely to the strengths of Obsidian’s staff, I can’t imagine it being a poor investment.

3. Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology, and the Unity Engine

Gunpei Yokoi, creator of the Game and Watch, Game Boy, and mentor to Nintendo guru Shigeru Miyamoto, had a phrase that I have always loved: Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology.

The concept is wonderfully simple. By examining older, less-cutting edge technology and finding new ways to utilize it, you have access not only to affordable development tools, but an enormous base of understanding available for such technologies. This allows developers to move away from just recreating the basics. Quoting Brian Fargo, producer of Fallout, Fallout 2, and the upcoming Wasteland 2,

We get access to a huge code and art base immediately, and stuff that’s streamlined already for the system. So we are able to get things up really really quick. And that’s the biggest difference – that ability to do that. With Wasteland, we are a year in, and it would have taken at least two years to get this far if we had started from scratch.

Particularly noteworthy is the speed with which developers can generate content, allowing them the opportunity to see what does and does not work during development, and more importantly, fix it. Art is experimentation, RPG design is iteration, and the more they are able to do both, the better the game will be. Again, to quote Brian Fargo,

Nothing replaces iteration. Nothing. There’s no amount of pre-planning in the world that will make up for iteration time. It’s all about getting the game in and working, so you can start iterating and making it better. The faster you get there, the better the game.

It’s part of why the Unity Engine is such a critical element for Project Eternity‘s success: While it’s true an understanding of the mechanics, level and story design for an open-world RPG are all being brought to the table by the Obsidian team, Unity offers a wealth of resources that wouldn’t be available in a newly developed engine. This allows them to redistribute their efforts in a way that creates a better workflow, as shown in this comparison chart between Project Eternity and the typical Obsidian development cycle.

Support, documentation, and multiple iterations of said engine for the purposes of increased functionality and ease-of-use allow Obsidian’s team to focus their efforts where they belong: using existing tools to better shape the entire gameplay experience, rather than fighting with the engine to conform to their needs.

With Wasteland 2, Project Eternity, and now Torment: Tides of Numenera budgeted at $3-4 million apiece, they promise isometric RPGs that are likely to be as expansive as Fallout, perhaps even Fallout 2. All three use the Unity Engine, and all three are made by designers who worked on the original two Fallout games. So let’s do the obvious: let Obsidian use the Unity Engine to develop an isometric Fallout game.

If you look at the video demonstrating the some of the graphical elements introduced in Project Eternity, you can see that type of lateral thinking at work. Rather than use 3D graphics for the backgrounds, which would likely pale in comparison to games with a much larger budget, they spent a little more money to use 2D, hand-painted backgrounds. This was the same method they used to render games in the Infinity Engine and creates an artistic look that, relative to its contemporaries, looks new and visually impressive.

They made a number of other smart choices too. Instead of sticking solely with what worked in the past for the sake of nostalgia, they did make changes: higher resolutions, producing the game in widescreen, dynamic lighting to feel a greater sense of integration between the characters and objects, and running water and ‘wind’ for trees/bushes to create a less static environment. These changes are small, and make all the difference in the world when it comes to making the game feel modern.

Project Eternity won’t have the photorealism present in a game like LA Noire, because it isn’t necessary for them to provide that specific kind of immersion. They’re using older development ideologies to create a specific effect within the budget they have available, not pushing graphics for the sake of pushing graphics.

To my delight, inXile has agreed to share their Unity Engine tools and technology with Obsidian Entertainment, and vice versa. Not only will this improve Project Eternity, it would improve what Obsidian would be able to do for a new Fallout. Take a look at what the Unity Engine allows a group of small developers to do at the alpha stage of Wasteland 2 – a game that just happens to be an isometric, post-apocalyptic RPG.

4. The Game Won’t Be Buggy

Whether you agree with the rest of this article or not, for those of you who played Alpha Protocol or the launch version of Fallout: New Vegas, there has to be a “Yeah, but…” going through your mind.

Just hear me out.

No one on the planet is defending how bad the launch version for New Vegas was, including Obsidian. In fact, the CEO of Obsidian Entertainment publicly stated that after the launch of New Vegas, the company did an overhaul of the entire quality assurance process to optimize bug removal. Add to that Obsidian’s experience with the Unity Engine after Project Eternity, their technology sharing with inXile, and a gameplay style they’re more familiar with, and you have a recipe for the polished game a paying customer deserves.

There is one point I need to mention in relation to Obsidian’s reputation for buggy games: While Obsidian has worked to optimize and streamline their process, QA is a two-way street between the developer and publisher. The inner workings of game development sequestered the same way as sausage-making, which is why I was so shocked to read another quote by Brian Fargo:

[Obsidian] did Fallout: New Vegas, the ship date got moved up and, who does the QA on a project? The publisher is always in charge of QA. When a project goes out buggy, it’s not the developer. The developer never says, “I refuse to fix the bug,” or, “I don’t know how.” They never do that. It’s the publisher that does the QA, so if a product goes out buggy, it’s not the developer’s fault.

5. Fallout: New Vegas Was Great

Obsidian’s work on Fallout: New Vegas may have resulted in the infamous Metacritic debacle, but I’d argue that there were two aspects in reviews that influenced its score.

The first is simple: many of the initial reviews that led to it were based on the frustration towards the launch version of the game. Properly patched, it was a far different experience. Obsidian had never developed an open world RPG in the 3D, voice-acted realm of modern gaming, but they built upon the well-crafted work that made Fallout 3 so popular and made it their own, altering game mechanics, reintroducing the faction system, and populating it with memorable characters and some of the levity that made the original Fallout games so great.

The second, and certainly more subtle, is something only noticeable upon replaying the game: The narrative of New Vegas was built not on length, but replay value. The reactions characters had to the Courier made the game more multifaceted, often only showing the whole picture of a character by using different approaches with them on multiple playthroughs. I found discussion of this kind of reactivity to be lacking in some of the reviews and discussions I’ve seen in New Vegas.

I’m not going to do a full review of the game here, but its gameplay, world building and narrative were really all I could ask for in a game developed the way it was. My only real complaint about the game was related to certain elements of the writing, which we’ll discuss tomorrow in Part 2 with “The Curse of Voice-Acting.”

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