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!

What is MUTATION: The Wasteland Survival Guide?

MUTATION: The Wasteland Survival guide is a six episode long series exploring the quirky and unusual world of MUTATION, as seen in The Journal of Joe Junkman. The show itself documents the writing of the Mo-Javi Wasteland’s very first survival guide. Charged with writing this book is wasteland legend James Gray and local shyster Joe Junkman. Throughout their journey, our heroes will struggle with radioactive dust storms, water scarcity, and each other.


I want to break character for a moment to say how excited I am to be moving forward with this project. The world of MUTATION has gone through a lot of change since its conception. What originally began as a pen and paper RPG has transformed into serial fiction, a website, and a show. I can’t wait to see where it goes next.

To make a long story short, Ben and I got together in the summer of 2015 and began brainstorming ideas for this short series. Although we have all the footage, brainstorming was about as far as it got. It seems embarrassing now, but we didn’t have a script or anything. Essentially, we had a concept for each episode and a location. For better or worse, almost every scene is improvisational.

When I first established this website, I had no idea what the response would be. These past few months, I’ve been consistently amazed at the hospitality and support I’ve received from the online post-apocalyptic tribe. Thank you for giving us a chance and following our stories week after week.

I’d also like to announce at this time that Ben and I are planning to attend Wasteland Weekend this year! I’ll be in character as James Gray and I believe Ben will appear as Joe Junkman.

We hope to see some of you there! The Rad-Lands wouldn’t be here without you.

-Ron Welch

How Fallout Reshaped a Genre

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The year was 1997. The Cold War had been over for almost six years. Fear of nuclear annihilation took a backseat in the public’s mind.  Post-nuclear fiction disappeared almost overnight. 1995 saw a brief resurgence with the Judge Dredd film (a critical disaster) and the release of the I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream computer game. For a brief moment, it seemed that tales of the apocalypse might die out.

Then, like a messiah emerging from the wastes came Fallout.  The game reenergized the genre, primarily by solidifying the post-post-apocalyptic genre, normalizing sentient mutants, and developing a tone and motif between Mad Max and A Boy and His Dog that would engage fans of those respective intellectual properties.

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There’s a glaring empty space in nuclear holocaust fiction from 1990-1995

The vast majority of post-nuclear fiction before Fallout focused on the hours and days immediately after WWIII. Films like The Day After and The Road Warrior show glimpses of the terrifying times after the immediate collapse of society.
Fallout took this a step further, setting the game 80 years after the war and establishing peaceful villages and trading hubs. Even after the end of the world, people continue on as they always have. Cleverly, there’s even an explanation for standardized currency.

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Many Fallout games have a secondary theme of building a life for yourself in the wasteland, not surviving or scavenging, but really living. This theme manifests itself in the formation of NCR, the quest to save Arroyo (and later rebuild it), civilizing the mid-west, purifying radioactive waters, deciding the future of the west coast, and building settlements.
In some sense, every Fallout game has the protagonist turning the Wasteland into a place where settlers can thrive. Inevitably, this meant constructing new civilizations around the culture of the old. Many settlements in the Fallout franchise are parodies or social commentary: Cultists who are kept in the dark about their own religion, a society where martial arts rules supreme, tribal nomads becoming a caricature of 50s swing.
These commentaries and interesting factions were only possible because Fallout had made the movement from post-apocalyptic to post-post-apocalyptic.

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Deformed mutants have always been a staple of the genre. In lower budget films (such as She Wolves of the Wasteland or Warriors of the Apocalypse) these were primarily feral creatures that killed everything in their way or were merely humans with burned faces. During these times, every mutant had a different deformity (see Judge Dredd).
Fallout changed that by introducing sentient mutant races (ghouls and super mutants), in the same manner as Tolkien introduced a world of elves and orcs. In many ways, the world of Fallout is like a mixture between Dune and a Tolkienesque fantasy. It has multiple races at odds with each other and who spawn from designated homelands, but it brings a heavy sci-fi influence that allows nearly anything to happen. As Clarke’s third law says: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

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Utilizing its sci-fi elements, Fallout created a unique style of its own while invoking the familiar feelings of Mad Max and A Boy and His Dog. Endless flat desert, underground refuges full of survivors, tribal communities, and murderous slavers. Fallout’s sequels  built upon its own IP while still anchoring itself to the genre with Mad Max references.

Notice how every Fallout game has a Dogmeat or a dog surrogate. This links Fallout back to A Boy and His Dog and The Road Warrior, giving the audience a sense of comfort and companionship, encouraging immersion. Like Tolkien borrowing and building upon elements of folk lore, Fallout borrowed and built upon post-apocalyptic tropes, then molded them into a livable world where characters do not live in constant fear of bandit or mutant attacks.

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Fallout is deeply anchored in the culture of Mad Max

By establishing the post-post-apocalyptic genre, Fallout carved a niche for itself. The Mad Max times have already happened. Fallout moved away from tales of survival, instead focusing on themes of either saving or destroying new civilizations.
Because of Fallout, writers have moved away from the immediate post-apocalyptic chaos and have instead shifted focus toward tribes and civilizations that parody and critique modern culture. Effectively, the Fallout franchise shifted post-apocalyptic fiction from anxiety of nuclear annihilation to social commentary.