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.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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The overall 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.

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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, however, 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.

Difficulty Map

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 5 permanent hard-tier zones 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), 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. The Enclave camps enforce the narrative of invasion and their increased difficulty and enemy/equipment variation offer something more for the late-game player. The problem is after the Enclave appears, player will spend far more time exploring the far left side of the map for story quests (specifically the area between Little Lamplight and Fort Constantine), but there are hardly any Enclave camps in what should arguably be their territory.

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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. From Megaton, right at the start of the game, you receive three of the game’s 16 marked quests. 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 it serves 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 the game’s story quests, but these final quests hold 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.

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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.

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Let’s take a look at some of the game’s recorded lockpicks, as per the Fallout Wiki. You’ll immediately notice that 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.

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So you come back to Minefield at 100 lockpick skill to find…junk food!

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. FO1_Lockpicks

What we see with Fallout 3’s bizarre difficulty curve is a 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.

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What do you think about the pacing Fallout 3’s difficulty curve? Too easy, too hard, or just right? Tell us in the comments!

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.