60 Seconds! – Revisited

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I originally bought 60 Seconds! when it first came out, back in the summer of 2015. After about two hours of play, I requested a refund. However, after hearing that the developers put a lot of work into upgrading and balancing the game, I was willing to give it another try. Unfortunately, 60 Seconds! did not age like a fine wine, but rather like a discarded hunk of smoldering cheese left at the bottom of a radioactive crater.

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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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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.

Radiation as a Gameplay Mechanic

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You can’t have a post-nuclear setting without radiation. Many films overlook this crucial aspect or at most offer a token Geiger counter scene (She Wolves of the Wasteland). This is largely because radiation cannot be seen, felt, or heard. Generally, special equipment is required to detect the presence of radiation. While this element of world building is often overlooked in film, radiation serves as an important gameplay mechanic in the majority of post-nuclear video games. However, with gamification comes new challenges. Radiation typically does not kill outright. Even several lethal doses will not result in immediate death. Therefore, because radiation attacks the body slowly, game developers have approached this mechanic in a variety of ways.

To further explore this mechanic, we’ll be analyzing three game series that make extensive use of radiation.

  1. Metro 2033
  2. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
  3. Fallout

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The Geiger counter in Metro 2033 is primarily used for immersive world building. Small set pieces such as bioluminescent mushrooms or pools of bubbling green slime will cause the Geiger counter to tick. These pockets of radiation are mostly harmless, though Artyom can die if he stands in a hotspot for a few minutes. Although subtle, this gameplay mechanic immerses the player into the setting. Without radiation, the world of Metro 2033 could be mistaken for a sci-fi setting similar to Gears of War, especially since Moscow’s surface is considered poisonous rather than radioactive. This is why so many post-apocalyptic movies have an obligatory Geiger counter scene: it puts the audience in a survivalist mindset. The Metro games take this a step further, subtly reminding the player that the world above the tunnels is not like the world in the postcards.

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Though technically not post-nuclear, fans of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise are constantly aware of their radiation exposure. Contrary to a handful of contaminated puddles and mushrooms in post-nuclear Moscow, the Zone is positively covered with fields of radiation. Players who wander into these hot spots will find their vision distorted by grey TV static.

Radiation damage is pretty simple: the more radiation you’ve absorbed, the faster your health decreases. Radiation can be removed either with a radiation absorbing artifact or a dose of anti-rad. Because artifacts drain radiation slowly and anti-rad is somewhat rare, players are forced to respond quickly after absorbing deadly amounts of radiation.

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Although the Zone’s radioactive hotspots (and anomalies) seem like a nuisance, they actually encourage exploration. Artifact hunting aside, anomalies and pockets of radiation act as landmines, encouraging the player to take the long way (usually ending up at a lootable location), rather than risk wasting resources or instant death.

Moreover, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. encourages a high risk/ high reward style of gameplay when dealing with artifacts. Although artifacts grant stalkers special abilities, they also emit deadly amounts of radiation. Before obtaining high tier anti-radiation artifacts, players will occasionally be forced to balance their health, elemental resistance, carry weight, and radiation levels. Having artifacts emit radiation was a brilliant idea and one that makes the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series all the more satisfying and rewarding.

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Finally, there’s the Fallout franchise. Radiation sickness has been a gameplay mechanic since the first Fallout, but it originally didn’t effect much. In the first game, there were only two ways to get irradiated: Get smacked by a glowing one or wander into The Glow.

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Lets cook some hot-dogs!

The original Fallout has the most complex take on radiation sickness, requiring a chart to fully understand what it does. Every part of the character is effected: HP, healing, and SPECIAL (with skills as a result). If either HP or any S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attribute drops to zero because of radiation sickness, the character will die. However, as I said previously, I don’t think radiation was used to its full potential in  the original Fallout. Two doses of Rad-X makes the player completely immune to radiation, giving them 24 hours to explore The Glow without worrying about any side effects. Even if the player took a few points of radiation damage on arrival, they can use a single Rad-Away to instantly cure themselves. Allowing the player to reach 100% radiation resistance detracted from the danger of The Glow as the lore (and environment) shows that even Brotherhood Paladins have died due to the intense radiation exposure.

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Fallout 3 streamlined the mechanic of radiation sickness. Instead of effecting several variables, radiation sickness only lowers endurance (at minor sickness), agility (at advanced sickness), strength (at critical sickness) and finally caused death at 1000 rads. Additionally, radiation was far more present in Fallout 3 than previous games in the franchise. The Lone Wanderer could not eat or drink  without absorbing at least a few rads. Additionally, radiation resistance was capped at 85%, making it challenging to approach areas like Vault 87.

As a side note, rads are a real (if outdated) unit of measuring radiation. 1000 rads delivered in a short period of time will usually cause death.

With Fallout 3 and New Vegas came special perks associated with radiation sickness.  These perks are often overlooked as the majority of players want to keep their rads as low as possible. However, the brave few who uses these bonuses will find their gameplay dramatically shifts toward min-maxing.

  • Rad Regeneration: Offers the player free healing of crippled limbs in exchange for advanced radiation sickness (-2 EN, -1 AG). This perk comes free with the “Wasteland Survival Guide” quest, but is lackluster compared to admantium skeleton, which decreases limb damage by 50%. Perhaps this perk was ahead of its time. It would have been great for survival mode in New Vegas (as rare doctors bags are required to heal limbs), but in a game where a single stimpack instantly heals crippled limbs, this is a useless perk.
  • Rad Child: This perk is where high risk/high reward shines through. Each level of radiation sickness increases health regeneration. In exchange for minor radiation sickness (-1 EN), player are treated to +2 health per second. At advanced sickness, players receive +4 health per second. Again, this is often overlooked simply because it relies on radiation, which brings S.P.E.C.I.A.L. penalties. However, by utilizing Wasteland outfits (which provide +1 EN, +1 AG) the effects of advanced sickness are practically nullified, while the Courier still benefits from extreme HP regeneration. While this perk should bring a lot of risk, it actually provides far more protection than power armor or a higher damage threshold while still allowing players to travel at maximum speed.
  • ATOMIC: This perk grants players a faster run speed, +2 strength, and +2 damage threshold while being irradiated. Additionally, action points regenerate much faster based on level of radiation sickness. This synergizes amazingly well with Rad Child. The challenge is that the best parts of the perk are only available while being irradiated. Luckily, New Vegas has coyote steaks, which irradiate the player over time and whose effects stack. If the Courier should buy coyote steaks at every opportunity, they will become more powerful than any wastelander could possibly imagine.

Although overlooked, New Vegas’ radiation perks are definitely worth the penalties they bring, especially when combined with wasteland outfits and the Travel Light perk.

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Most recently, there is Fallout 4 and Fallout: Shelter where the mechanic of radiation sickness was streamlined once again. Radiation sickness now merely reduces maximum health by 1% per 10 rads (making 1000 rads still lethal). This eliminates the complexities of the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system as a whole and reduces roleplaying opportunities.

At a first glance Fallout 4 seems like it moved away from the aspect of radioactivity. Although the game moved away from player interaction with radiation, it expanded on NPC interaction in the form of weapons that utilize radiation damage. These weapons reduce the max health of an enemy, making it more difficult (if not impossible) for them to heal. What’s interesting in this new gameplay element is that some enemies are immune to radiation while others are highly resistant. This is a big shift from Fallout 3, where all NPCs were immune to radiation and could approach the door of Vault 87 without any trouble.

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Gamma Guns are fun

Overall, each game (even within the same franchise) deals with radiation differently. It’s a difficult feature to include in a game and it’s even harder to get right. There’s no right or wrong answer to the inclusion of radiation sickness in a video game or movie. Metro 2033 uses radiation merely to set the tone, while S.T.A.L.K.E.R. uses radiation to make players think about resource management and navigation, and the gameplay mechanics of the Fallout franchise continue to mutate in entirely new directions. Radiation is a necessary part of the post-nuclear atmosphere and I hope game developers continue to experiment with this genre specific gameplay mechanic.

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How would you like to see radioactivity and radiation sickness used in video games?  Tell us in the comments!