If you follow The Rad-Lands on Twitter, you might know I’ve been playing a lot of Fallout: Shelter recently. I find the game pretty intriguing. The art direction has a lot of charm, the gameplay is smooth and can be picked up in a few minutes, and it feels great to do whatever is necessary to earn a lunchbox. Although this game does a lot right, it also takes a few missteps. Rather than providing a consistent curve of player interaction, Fallout: Shelter suffers from peaks and valleys.
The majority of Fallout: Shelter is built upon waiting. You put dwellers into the right room and you wait. You send people out into the wasteland and you wait. What separates Fallout: Shelter from similar time-lapsing mobile games is the illusion of agency. Because new rooms are built instantly and there’s an emphasis on collecting better equipment, players feel like they’re doing more than they are. Although unlocking a new room feels interactive, it is really just the beginning of a new timer.
That having been said, not all unlocked rooms are equal. Some provide the player far more satisfaction than others. To better explain how Fallout: Shelter wavers in player interaction, I’ve made the following graph:
- First lunchbox
- First explorers return
- Overseer’s office
- Radio Station
- Weapons Workshop
- SPECIAL Rooms
- Rare Weapons Workshop
- Barber Shop
- Rare Clothes and Weapons
- All unlocks
If we accept this graph, we see a huge valley right at the mid-point of the unlock schedule. In a lot of ways, this makes sense. Up to the mid-point, the game gives just enough to keep players engaged. After the mid-point, gameplay is comprised of long term goals, goals that may take over a week to accomplish. Let’s briefly deconstruct each of the 13 points.
- First Lunchbox: This is the high point of the game for two reasons. The first is opening a lunchbox (usually) feels rewarding. Legendary characters and weapons are most useful at the beginning of the game, making the player feel great when a familiar face shows up at their vault door. Second, three free lunchboxes can be obtained at the very start of the game. This means if you’re unhappy with your lunchboxes and don’t want to spend money, you’re never more than an hour away from a second chance.
- First Explorers Return: Once your explorers come back, you’ll have a handful of new loot to distribute to your dwellers. This doesn’t really do much, except slightly increase production speed and the survivability of future explorers, but it serves as a significant moment in the game’s interactivity curve from the novelty of distributing gear.
- Medical: The second most important part of the interactivity curve. The Medbay allows dwellers to stay out longer, which allows for greater player interaction when they return with armfuls of loot. Again, this feels interactive, but it actually causes the player to invest less time as they no longer need to recall explorers every hour and a half. Psychologically, this ensures players don’t get burned out from checking on their vault.
- Waiting: A somewhat uncomfortable dip in the early gameplay. The vault is essentially in limbo until the population reaches 18. The science lab should serve as a bump between the Medbay and the Overseer’s Office, but radaway is practically useless. An exploring vault dweller will use roughly 1 radaway for every 5 stimpaks. The problem here is threefold:
* Quest are not unlocked at this point
* Radioactive enemies do not appear inside the vault at this point
* Your Medbay will (probably) not produce enough stimpaks to make equipping radaway worthwhile at this time.
For those three reasons, this period between unlocking the Medbay and the Overseer’s Office feels like a natural stopping point.
- Overseer’s Office: Quests are critical to a player’s long-term commitment. Although combat is incredibly simple, navigating dungeons feels fun. The fog of war effect only adds to this, making dungeons appear larger and more mysterious than they actually are. Holiday quests and exclusive loot keep players coming back months later, if only for a few hours.
- Radio Station: This is where gameplay starts to dip again. The radio allows you to recruit new dwellers faster than you could by breeding, but there’s a problem. The majority of dwellers arriving from the wasteland are what I call “X-Models.” X’s are vault dwellers who aren’t good at anything. They have a 1 or 2 in every S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attribute. The issue with having so many X’s is you cannot begin the lengthy process of enhancing them until you have at least 24 dwellers. Even then, you cannot begin optimizing them until you have 35 dwellers.
- Weapon’s Workshop: There’s an initial excitement when you unlock the weapons workshop. Unfortunately, this part of the game is a nonmedy; something that makes you enjoy the product a little bit less. At this point, everyone in your vault probably has either a sawed-off shotgun or a rusty laser pistol. The problem is the best weapon the workshop can initially produce is a rusty laser pistol. A standard laser pistol is available with the tier-1 workshop, but it requires a randomly obtained blueprint. That means you cannot build a weapon dealing more than 7 damage until you upgrade. Unfortunately, while the workshop is unlocked at 22 dwellers, the upgraded workshop is unlocked at 45 dwellers. Further, quests require weapons with a minimum damage count. Meaning if you never received a rare or legendary weapon from a lunchbox, you’re stuck until you double your population. Again, this is an obvious quitting point.
- S.P.E.C.I.A.L. Rooms: Another natural stopping point, despite the potential long-term rewards it brings. The training rooms are required to improve productivity, meet prerequisites for quests, and improve loot collection in the wasteland. Again, the problem is twofold: The first is that the most important room, the endurance training room, unlocks third before last, just ahead of the charisma and luck rooms. Endurance is required to improve health, which increases time in the wasteland, which increases loot, which is important since you can’t build rare weapons or clothes at this time. Second, the costly upgrades to these rooms have little effect on the timers. The difference between a tier-1 room and a tier-3 room is a 5% reduction on the timer. In other words, if a tier-1 room had an 8 hour timer, a tier-3 room would have a 7 hour 35 minute timer.
- Objectives: There’s another uncomfortable lull while waiting for both a population increase and the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. rooms they bring. At this point, the player has probably completed all of the easy objectives and will likely receive objectives they cannot complete in a few hours. The issue here is that there’s no short term reward to work toward. New room unlocks, training, and objectives can take days at a time to complete. This dramatically reduces interactivity, which reduces retention.
- Rare Weapons: If you’ve played long enough to unlock the upgraded weapon’s workshop, you’ve likely amassed a horde of rare crafting supplies and blueprints that you’ve been completely unable to use up to this point. Unlocking the weapons workshop feels fresh only for a moment. Despite the new possibilities, there’s an overarching issue of time. A rusty laser pistol takes 30 minutes to make. A rusty plasma rifle takes 9-18 hours to make, depending on the number of people in the workshop. Again, there’s no short term reward, but rare weapons are required to start mid-level quests.
- Barber: Other than new quests, the mid-game is absent of short term rewards. The time between the radio station unlocked at 20 dwellers to the barber shop unlocked at 50 dwellers feels like a long, long haul. Luckily, the barbershop brings back some of the magic as cosmetic changes only require about an hour of waiting.
- Rare Clothes: With rare clothes and rare weapons, the player has everything they need to address any problem the game can throw at them. Although this unlock gives the player direction, rare weapons and clothes should have been unlocked much earlier in the game. Alternatively, there could have been a consistent (and randomized) unlock schedule by only requiring blueprints to create new items. When I finally upgraded the clothing workshop, I had 35 rare hides. 35 hides that were taking up storage space but had no possible application.
- All Unlocks: This is where gameplay levels out completely. The vault has become self-sufficient and the player has the ability to create anything they want. The only thing left to do is engage in quests. From the moment the vault has 100 dwellers to the time when the player finally decides to stop playing, interactivity is locked at a solid 5.
Fallout: Shelter has an unusual interactivity curve. It feels like it was designed not to get people to spend money, but rather to let players engage with a lighthearted incarnation of the Fallout brand. However, it’s important to remember what this app is: A mobile game meant to prime an audience for Fallout 4. The game has been overhauled several times since its initial release and although it has its issues, Fallout: Shelter is still an enjoyable and addictive mobile experience.