From a design perspective, one of Fallout 3’s biggest hurdles was managing the difficulty curve in an open world. Fallout and Fallout 2 addressed this by placing Vault 13 and Arroyo in the far north while crafting a narrative that relied on unlocking the location of new, more difficult settlements. In terms of structure, these games also benefited from a timer, discouraging players from exploring the vacant wasteland in favor of following the story.
Fallout 3, on the other hand, placed Vault 101 in the center of a fully explorable, fully lootable wasteland. Because there’s no urgency to follow the story, players are encouraged to march off in any direction from the start. As players can reach any location in the Capital Wasteland within 40 minutes, the developers had two options:
- Make a difficulty radius in which the center of the map has the easiest enemies and skill-checks while the edges of the map have tougher enemies.
- Make most of the wasteland accessible to any player with any build at any difficulty while sprinkling in a few difficult skill checks and tougher enemies.
Overall, Bethesda went with a cross between the two. Difficult enemies are basically relegated to corners of the map, but it’s inconsistent. Harder areas have harder skill checks, but most ruins feature at least one difficult science or lockpick opportunity.
Dungeon difficulty can be broken into three categories based on enemy type:
- Easy: Raiders, ghouls, ants, roaches, bloatfly, mole rats, dogs
- Medium: Mirelurks, low-tier robots (protectrons, robobrains), mutants, radscorpions, Talon Company
- Hard: Yao guai, deathclaws, high-tier robots (mister gusty, sentry bot) Enclave soldiers
While human enemies receive equipment relative to the player’s level, creatures have leader variations such as giant radscorpions, mirelurk kings, and glowing ones who add some much-needed spice to enemies with biological weaponry. Basically, you have three tiers of infantry (base, veteran, elite) for three tiers of difficulty (easy, medium, hard). Despite the apparent enemy diversity here, players still wanted more (after all, combat is the core of Fallout 3’s gameplay) which is why add-ons like Mart’s Mutant Mod are so popular.
The Broken Steel DLC addressed this shortcoming by adding feral ghoul reavers, albino radscorpions, and super mutant overlords. These enemies appear when the player has reached a sufficient experience level, adding some variety to normally easy and medium dungeons by essentially adding randomly generated mini-bosses. Fallout 4 would develop this even further with power armored raiders, Skyrim-style enemy tiers, and mutating enemies.
The base game of Fallout 3 overwhelmingly adheres to the easy, medium, and hard tier structure, with the player rarely witnessing interfaction/interspecies battles. One major exception is The Enclave, who can bridge this gap with mind-controlled deathclaws (bringing top-tier melee power to an otherwise ranged army).
So how are these three dungeon tiers spread out across the wasteland and how does that effect pacing? Let’s take a look at a map. I’ve circled “easy” dungeons in green, “medium” dungeons in yellow, and “hard” dungeons in red. Mutant and Talon Company camps are marked with yellow stars. Enclave camps (only appearing after the “Waters of Life” quest) are marked with red stars.
Using this map, we find that most of the Capital Wasteland falls under the easy difficulty tier. Indeed, only the top left and the bottom right of the map fall within a medium-tier wilderness zones. You’ll immediately notice that while there are medium-tier wilderness zones, there are no hard-tier zones.
There are five permanent hard-tier dungeons in the base game: Yao Guai Caves, Deathclaw Sanctuary, Old Olney, Fort Independence (hard-tier enemies, but won’t attack unprovoked) Raven Rock (only for a quest and you gain hard-tier allies midway through), and Jefferson Memorial (only for a quest and you have hard-tier allies). The National Guard Armory and National Archives may also fall under hard-tier, but tiered robot enemies spawn based on character level.
Notice that two of those locations, the locations with ranged hard-tier enemies, are only for quests and the player is accompanied by heavily armed NPC allies: sentry bots and The Brotherhood of Steel respectively. So that leaves three permanent “difficult” dungeons, all of which are filled with melee enemies, either yao guai or deathclaws.
Look at how many Enclave camps are around the Megaton area. This gives good/neutral characters the illusion of a larger Enclave army while evil characters living in Tenpenny Tower may hardly notice them. These camps enforce the narrative of invasion and their increased difficulty and enemy/equipment variation offer something more for the late-game player.
Here’s the problem. After the Enclave appears, the story has players will spending far more time exploring the north-east side of the map (specifically the area between Little Lamplight and Fort Constantine). However, there are hardly any Enclave camps in what should arguably be their territory. Without story quests, there’s nothing to say Raven Rock is the Enclave’s main base.
Now look at the map again and notice the placement of the medium zones. Because only the top left and bottom right corners generally fall under medium-tier (due primarily to super mutant enemies), you can almost cut a diagonal line of easy-tier from the bottom left to top right. Why is this?
I think it has to do with the pacing of quest placement. At the start of Fallout 3, you receive three of the 16 marked quests in Megaton. Players may stumble upon an additional quest, “Big Trouble in Big Town”, while completing the first three quests. “Big Trouble in Big Town” actually has a really nice pacing because the super mutants serve as a difficult encounter for the low level “Megaton bubble.”
Because nearly 1/5 of quests are given in the game’s first town, they all have to be accessible to low-level characters. Just look at “The Power of the Atom.” But another problem with “Power of the Atom” is that low-level characters must be able to claim their reward after destroying the game’s central hub. This means that the path between Megaton and Tenpenny Tower must have low-tier enemies so as not to alienate players with nowhere to stash their loot.
To extend the idea of a “Megaton bubble” and quest-area bubbles further, look at Rivet City, which contains two marked side-quests and two story quests. These quests, again, have a nice pacing to them as they send players into medium-tier environments during the middle of the story.
We don’t really see this same pacing with the final hub, the Citadel, because it has no side-quests. The Citadel is connected to half of Fallout 3’s story quests, but the third act holds the player’s hand because, again, the story is designed to be completed by any player, with any build, with any equipment, at any level, at any time.
Look at the map one more time and you’ll find another location that sticks out as having poor geographical pacing. Old Olney is a tight quarters deathclaw dungeon in the middle of an easy-tier bubble. It rests between The Republic of Dave (a community made from a handful of low-level characters), the Temple of the Union (a community made from a handful of low-level characters), and Vault 92 (a quest location with medium-tier enemies).
This imbalance in Old Olney’s unique location is exacerbated by its surroundings; on numerous occasions I’ve seen wild deathclaws wander into The Republic of Dave and slaughter the entire village. In my opinion, for the purposes of pacing, Old Olney should have been the center of a medium-tier environment, like Deathclaw Sanctuary, rather than a high-level stronghold in the middle of a peaceful region.
What I don’t understand is why the other two corners of the map don’t have medium-tier bubbles with difficult strongholds as this would leave designated zones of difficulty.
In all of this, it’s important to remember that there is another kind of difficulty: skill checks. While enemy tiers determine if the player is capable of reaching the end of the dungeon, skill checks determine the loot they’ll bring back. Unfortunately, in my opinion, Fallout 3’s skill checks are poorly geographically paced.
Let’s take a look at some of the game’s recorded lockpicks, as per the Fallout Wiki. You’ll immediately notice Megaton has four “Very Hard” locks and an additional “Hard” lock. This is an example of good pacing. Megaton is the central hub of the Capital Wasteland and, in most cases, the player’s most visited location. It’s actually a good idea to pace the unlocking of Megaton itself because it gives the player a small motivation in upgrading their skills to unlock known goodies. Additionally, a few of these Megaton’s locks can be opened by finding keys.
However, look at some of the game’s other lockpick opportunities. Many low level locations (Grayditch, Dukov’s place, Minefield) have a “Very Hard” lock. I understand that in an RPG not every location and piece of loot is accessible to every character. However, even if you created a character who only exists to pick locks, you’d still never level up your skill in time to align with your exploration.
That leaves two options: Either ignore what is obviously rare loot or mark locations with very hard locks so you can come back at a higher level. If you ignore the loot, you’re missing out on something the developers wanted you to find. If you come back later, you’re exploring an already vacant dungeon just to discover a single piece of loot. Neither option bodes well for pacing or player enjoyment and the hacking minigame is subject to this same dilemma.
The original Fallout games overcame this issue by making skill checks tied to the relative difficulty of the location, allowing players to attempt the lock pick regardless of skill, and adding the lock pick item (with its own tiers based on location). Disallowing players an opportunity to attempt the lock without the proper skill is a bad design move for everyone.
What we see with Fallout 3’s bizarre difficulty curve is the result of Bethesda’s take on pacing and world design. If you look at their other open world titles, namely the Elder Scrolls, you start to see a pattern. Oblivion had the game’s main hub, Imperial City, in the center of the map. Skyrim had the game’s main hub, Whiterun, in the center of the map. Fallout 3 follows this trend by having Megaton, the game’s main hub, in the center of the map. This style of map design gives the player a sense of scale by allowing them to march off in any direction from the start of the game.
Fallout and Fallout 2 on the other hand didn’t really have a main hub. Ironically, the Hub from the first Fallout is a medium-tier area; you’ll find no plasma rifles or power armor there. Fallout 2 required the player to engage in political intrigue, encouraging constant travel between NCR, New Reno, and Vault City to complete trade agreements. All of this is the result of pacing based on tiered equipment and a timed storyline. It doesn’t mean that Fallout 3’s map design is inferior, it just means Bethesda approached it with a different design philosophy, one that fits their standard of huge explorable worlds.