Deconstructing Fallout 3: Difficulty Curve

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When I first played Fallout 3 on my Xbox 360 way back in 2008, I found myself drawn to the hubs and the quests. Exploring the wasteland was fun, but ultimately I was looking for structure and a story. I’ve recently booted up Fallout 3 again, but this time on the PC. With extreme (but lore friendly) modding, I’ve found the exploration aspect far more enjoyable and the quests frankly lackluster. I want to deconstruct the quests in Fallout 3 to think about how they work in relation to an open world map and the player character’s development choices.

Let’s start with the basics. Not counting the three childhood quests, Fallout 3 has a total of 66 quests in the base game: 10 story quests, 18 side quests, 22 unmarked side quests, and 16 repeatable fetch quests. Again, I want to briefly break down each of these to see how they’ve made use of the new environment and the RPG elements.


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Fog of war stifles exploration and strongly encourages player to discover locations through dialogue

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.

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Deconstructing Fallout 3: Tenpenny Tower

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When I first played Fallout 3 on my Xbox 360 way back in 2008, I found myself drawn to the hubs and the quests. Exploring the wasteland was fun, but ultimately I was looking for structure and a story. I’ve recently booted up Fallout 3 again, but this time on the PC. With extreme (but lore friendly) modding, I’ve found the exploration aspect far more enjoyable and the quests frankly lackluster. I want to deconstruct the quests in Fallout 3 to think about how they work in relation to an open world map and the player character’s development choices.

Let’s start with the basics. Not counting the three childhood quests, Fallout 3 has a total of 66 quests in the base game: 10 story quests, 18 side quests, 22 unmarked side quests, and 16 repeatable fetch quests. Again, I want to briefly break down each of these to see how they’ve made use of the new environment and the RPG elements.


TP Tower

You know what? “Tenpenny Tower” is a good quest. It’s well structured, it’s got some great roleplaying options to expand your character, and it has three major endings, each of which has a noticeable impact on a prominent trading hub. Unfortunately, the entire quest falls apart after it has been completed.

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Deconstructing Fallout 3: Andale

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When I first played Fallout 3 on my Xbox 360 way back in 2008, I found myself drawn to the hubs and the quests. Exploring the wasteland was fun, but ultimately I was looking for structure and a story. I’ve recently booted up Fallout 3 again, but this time on the PC. With extreme (but lore friendly) modding, I’ve found the exploration aspect far more enjoyable and the quests frankly lackluster. I want to deconstruct the quests in Fallout 3 to think about how they work in relation to an open world map and the player character’s development choices.

Let’s start with the basics. Not counting the three childhood quests, Fallout 3 has a total of 66 quests in the base game: 10 story quests, 18 side quests, 22 unmarked side quests, and 16 repeatable fetch quests. Again, I want to briefly break down each of these to see how they’ve made use of the new environment and the RPG elements.


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Andale is a microcosm of lazy game design. The settlement’s associated quest,Our Little Secret, feels like a scene from a hat. It’s a neat idea, but it’s not developed enough to become anything interesting.

The quest begins when you walk a short ways south from Fort Independence. You’ll find three houses and a child playing outdoors. The child tells you he never has a chance to talk to new people because his dad always takes care of them. You’ll then meet an old man who claims the town’s other residents are crazy. If you talk to those other residents, you’ll find out they’re all related and believe they still live in Virginia.

Andale doesn’t exactly make sense in this context. The lore goes that four families (now a single family divided into two houses) have been living on this bombed street for 200 years. This is another microcosm of bad writing and bad game design.
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Deconstructing Fallout 3: The Power of the Atom

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When I first played Fallout 3 on my Xbox 360 way back in 2008, I found myself drawn to the hubs and the quests. Exploring the wasteland was fun, but ultimately I was looking for structure and a story. I’ve recently booted up Fallout 3 again, but this time on the PC. With extreme (but lore friendly) modding, I’ve found the exploration aspect far more enjoyable and the quests frankly lackluster. I want to deconstruct the quests in Fallout 3 to think about how they work in relation to an open world map and the player character’s development choices.

Let’s start with the basics. Not counting the three childhood quests, Fallout 3 has a total of 66 quests in the base game: 10 story quests, 18 side quests, 22 unmarked side quests, and 16 repeatable fetch quests. Again, I want to briefly break down each of these to see how they’ve made use of the new environment and the RPG elements. We’ll continue this series by slowing down and looking at one particular side quest.


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The Power of the Atom is the first side quest of Fallout 3. Arriving in the game’s first town, the player is tasked with either detonating or diffusing an atomic bomb. This quest makes a strong statement in setting the stakes as high as possible right out of the tutorial.

I want to break this quest down into four sections.

  • Gameplay
  • Moral Choice
  • Burke
  • Improvement

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Gameplay

The gameplay of this quest has some strong points geared toward low level players. Destroying the town requires zero skills. You simply apply the pulse charge and run away.
Disabling the bomb only requires an explosives skill of 25, but the game knows players might not want to invest their precious points in an underutilized skill. For that reason, an unmarked side quest is expertly crafted into this scenario.

Someone in Megaton has a drug problem. By learning of their issue (through several different options), the player can help the settler solve their addiction. In exchange, the player gets access to a drug stash. The stash contains mentats, which raises perception, which raises the explosives skill. This is a fantastic (and rare) mix of marked and unmarked quests which also teaches the player about addiction as a gameplay mechanic.

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Deconstructing Fallout 3: Story Quests

2014-03-fallout-games-wallpaper

When I first played Fallout 3 on my Xbox 360 way back in 2008, I found myself drawn to the hubs and the quests. Exploring the wasteland was fun, but ultimately I was looking for structure and a story. I’ve recently booted up Fallout 3 again, but this time on the PC. With extreme (but lore friendly) modding, I’ve found the exploration aspect far more enjoyable and the quests frankly lackluster. I want to deconstruct the quests in Fallout 3 to think about how they work in relation to an open world map and the player character’s development choices.

Let’s start with the basics. Not counting the three childhood quests, Fallout 3 has a total of 66 quests in the base game: 10 story quests, 18 side quests, 22 unmarked side quests, and 16 repeatable fetch quests. Again, I want to briefly break down each of these to see how they’ve made use of the new environment and the RPG elements. We’ll start with the story quests.


Story Quests

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Escape! This mission is similar to killing tunnel rats in the original Fallout. It’s a simple way to teach players about combat, choices, and unlock mini-games in a tight environment. However, I think there was a lot of missed opportunity in this quest. There’s no opportunity to sneak around enemies as their bodies physically block the exits. There’s no opportunity to barter with the security guards. The Lone Wanderer must kill (or possibly flee) people he’s known for 18 years without a second thought.
The options outside of the combat are pretty weak as well. Both the key and terminal password to the Overseer’s office can be collected without so much as a speech check.  The reason I consider that an issue is because, in the main game, keys (and especially computer passwords) aren’t commonly found. They’re usually stolen or they don’t exist. In this one quest, arguably the most important quest for teaching the player how to move through the world, the player is not required to play either of the unlock mini-games.

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The Interactivity Curve of Fallout: Shelter

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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:

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  1. First lunchbox
  2. First explorers return
  3. Medical
  4. Waiting
  5. Overseer’s office
  6. Radio Station
  7. Weapons Workshop
  8. SPECIAL Rooms
  9. Objectives
  10. Rare Weapons Workshop
  11. Barber Shop
  12. Rare Clothes and Weapons
  13. 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.

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  1. 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.
  1. 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.

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  1. 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.

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  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

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  1. 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.
  1. 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.

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  1. 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.

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  1. 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.
  1. 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.

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  1. 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.

The Practicality of Vault 68: Trickle Down Genetics

The Vaults were never designed to rescue the people that lived inside them. They were a vast social experiment, designed to study pre-selected segments of the population.” So begins the Penny Arcade comic One Man and a Crate of Puppets.

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For this series, we’ll be deconstructing a handful of Fallout vaults (both canon and fan created) to determine which, if any, could be viable. We’ll start with Vault 68, an experimental environment comprised of 999 men and 1 woman.

At first glance, this vault seems doomed to fail. A new child can only be born every 11 months. The larger difficulty is to create as many children as possible before the vault’s only female passes reproductive age. Assuming the vault door doesn’t open for 100 years, this experiment is barely, if at all, possible. To explain the rationale behind this piece, we first have to understand the vault’s social structure.

  1. Socially

My rationale for the future of Vault 68 relies heavily on establishing a social structure within the vault. I believe the only way for the first woman (who we’ll call Eve) to survive would be to take advantage of her position within a month of entering the vault. Eve’s best bet would be to ally herself with the most powerful man in the vault, the Overseer.

Once Eve and the Overseer had established a partnership, Eve could begin having children. I suspect for the first few years, Eve would be in constant danger of violence from frustrated men in the vault. To ensure Eve’s safety, the Overseer would establish arranged marriages between his daughter(s) and Vault 68’s security team, who in turn would arrange marriages for their daughters. Vault 68 would devolve into a caste system, where women would become currency. I call this “trickle down genetics.”

Once a handful of security guards were given sexually mature wives (likely 17-18 years after entering the vault), they would pass their daughters to the next most important caste. Thinking of this in a Fallout Shelter mindset, I imagine doctors and workers either in the power plant or waterworks would threaten to cut their services and utilities until marriages were arranged.

I suspect the lowest caste in Vault 68 would be either cooks, handymen, or janitors; essentially anyone who did not contribute to the security or immediate needs of the vault. The way I see it, the experiment could end in two ways. The first is that daughters of the lowest caste are married off to the Overseer caste, where partners would be 1/20th related. The second is that the vault door could open after 80-100 years; its inhabitants would invite/abduct wastelanders to maintain genetic diversity (ala A Boy and His Dog).

  1. Practically

Before we begin, let’s consider a few things:

  • 50% chance the child will be female.
  • In its first years, Vault 68 can only produce 1 child/11 months.
  • Pregnancy related complications increase significantly after the 5th natural birth.
  • Generally, 1:67 births will be multiples. However, fertility drugs (if the vault has them) can raise that probability to 1:4.

Let’s say Eve enters a partnership with the Overseer and takes fertility drugs. Assuming she is pregnant as often as possible (as she realizes her position of power), 5 years later her family will look like this:

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Now 30 years old, Eve will be at a higher risk of complications during natural birth. However, if needed, a C-Section birth significantly reduces that risk. Marriage arrangements can now be made with the security team to ensure the protection of Eve and her daughters.

16-18 years later (21-23 years after the vault was sealed), Eve’s daughters are married to the security staff. Because men remain fertile until death, they will be able to have children, despite the clear (and somewhat uncomfortable) age difference.

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Now we have a few more families. Including Second Child’s sisters

32-34 years after the vault is sealed, assuming Eve’s three daughters all have five children each, there are now (on average) 7-8 daughters to distribute either to other security officers or the next lowest caste. Men who entered the vault in their 20s are now in their 50s and it is likely that Eve is no longer fertile.

Assuming similar birth rates, the third generation born in the vault will consist of 17-18 women. At this point, there will be roughly 30 women living in Vault 68, none of them inbred. As some of the lower caste men begin to age, the vault could create a sperm bank (odd as that sounds) to ensure genetic diversity if lower caste members die before the women trickle down to their level.

Where this model gets hairy is at the bottom. Once there are children in the lowest caste, the only place to go is up. Unfortunately, assuming monogamous relationships (fitting with Fallout’s 1950s motif and lifestyle), all children would eventually be related on some level. It appears that by the fourth  generation (65-70 years into the experiment) the only place for the lowest caste to go would be to the top caste (assuming every man in the vault had a wife at this point), so Eve’s sons (who would be 60-65 years old) would be married to their great great grand nieces, who they are 1/20th related to.

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Once at the bottom, it looks like the only way to go is up.

Luckily, in Fallout canon, most vaults weren’t meant to stay closed for hundreds of years. Vault 68 could probably be opened around the third or fourth generation. With the door open and genetic isolation lifted, residents would be free to take in wastelanders or leave the vault altogether and form a new tribe. Either way, so long as the inhabitants of Vault 68 can avoid infighting for the first few decades, they have a good chance at survival. Although that could be the case, the world of Fallout is filled with deception, violence, and extremism, making it more likely that Eve’s existence would end up causing a war within the vault.

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Did we miss anything? Can you see any way to increase the genetic diversity of Vault 68? If so, let us know either in the comments or on Facebook and Twitter!

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