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 its 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 witnesses interfaction/interspecies battles. One major exception is The Enclave, who bridge this gap with mind-controlled deathclaws (bringing top-tier melee power to an otherwise ranged army).

So how are these three dungeons 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 five of the game’s 10 story quests, but these final quests hold the players hand because, again, the storyline 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 populated with medium-tier enemies).
The problem of 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 very 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!

Deconstructing Fallout 3: The Power of the Atom

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 and easily the most famous. The player is tasked with either detonating or diffusing an atomic bomb at the center of the first wasteland settlement they visit.

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.

Additionally, there’s one particular speech check in this quest worthy of mention. If you tell Mr. Burke you’re already working for Lucas Simms, the speech check demanding extra caps is more likely to succeed due to your leverage. In this one particular instance, the dialogue tree is more complex than it initially appears. Unfortunately, this never happens again.

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The Moral Choice

What exactly has Megaton done to deserve being destroyed? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. They aren’t slavers, cannibals, or even anti-mutant. The worst they’ve done is refuse to give clean water to a beggar.

Depending on the scenario, the reasoning for Megaton’s destruction is either because Tenpenny doesn’t like looking at it (even though you can’t actually see Megaton from Tenpenny Tower) OR ghoul leader Roy Phillips wants to kill as many smoothskins as possible just for funsies. Roy Phillips has “good” karma by the way.

So, your choice is: Genocide an entire civilization for literally no reason…or don’t.

This simplistic light side/dark side dynamic plagues Fallout 3 at every corner. There’s no nuance to morality choices. The majority of moral choice in this game can be boiled down to: “Do something monstrous for no reason…or don’t.”

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Mr. Burke

 Easily the worst antagonist in the entire Fallout franchise. The fact he is featured in the first hour of the game only adds insult to injury. Burke wants to destroy a 200 year old settlement simply because his boss complained about an eyesore on the horizon (in a world where 90% of buildings are crumbling or abandoned). In response to this off-hand statement, Burke procures a rare fusion pulse charge and attempts to nuke the entire town for no reason.

Somehow this isn’t even the worst part of this cardboard cutout of a character. Upon entering Moriarty’s Saloon for the first time, Burke immediately motions the player over to offer the task of blowing up the entire settlement. This doesn’t make any sense.
Mr. Burke had full trust and faith the first non-resident of Megaton who entered the saloon would not only be willing to blow up the entire city for a mere 500 caps (the value of a single Chinese assault rifle), but also that his selected person would not give the rare fusion-pulse charge to the town sheriff. Burke is a cardboard character simply so the quest has an evil option.

Additionally, because Burke is one of the few characters in Fallout 3 to have “very evil” karma, there is no penalty for killing him. You can walk into Moriarty’s saloon, throw a grenade at Mr. Burke, and suffer zero consequence. The same NPCs who will murder you for stealing a fork will then simultaneously say “Better him than me.”

Mr. Burke is a bad joke, a one-dimensional character with zero motivation.

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Improvement: There was so much missed opportunity in this quest. There could have been some fantastic storytelling and gameplay here. Instead, nothing happens.

I would fix this quest in three ways: Giving agency to the Children of Atom, adding RPG elements, and finally dealing with Mr. Burke.

As I understand it, the Children of Atom believe every split atom results in the creation of another universe. Therefore, the dormant bomb is an important part of their religion. Without the nuke, there will never be another “division.”
This leads to a handful of simple questions: How does the church feel about the bomb? Would they be upset if it was disabled? Would radical members of the church want to detonate the bomb?

I believe that last point highlights where this quest went wrong. Megaton portrays a bomb worshipping cult who believes atomic detonation will lead to salvation. This should give motivation to a radical member of the church who wants to speed up the division. Instead, nothing happens.
Despite having their own fleshed out dogma, journal entries, and their own HQ, the Megaton church has no quests associated with it. The most you get is a sub-cult outside of Megaton in the Broken Steel DLC.

By adding RPG elements, I primarily mean the sneak skill. Confessor Cromwell spends his days preaching in front of the bomb, calling for the division. When a complete stranger tampers with his holy relic (either disabling or rigging the bomb) the Confessor doesn’t bat an eye. Nobody questions the atomic bomb at the center of town making a high-pitched whine after being tampered with.

It would have been interesting if Confessor Cromwell or Lucas Simms question the player for tampering with the bomb. Instead, nothing happens. You can potentially walk into Megaton and immediately tamper with a nuclear bomb without saying a word to anyone.
Imagine if the player could only tamper with the bomb while sneaking or while Confessor Cromwell was sleeping. It would have been a great opportunity for characterization, world building, and roleplaying.

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Additionally, notice the flavor text for the bomb says it would require a “highly skilled explosives expert” to disable the nuke. The actual explosives skill required is 25, less than average. It would have been interesting if the skill required was maybe 75. Would that alienate low level players? I don’t think so.

Remember the nuclear plant in Fallout 2? Remember how you could convince one of the ghouls to do the repairs for you, but it required some clever speech options? Remember how you could reprogram a robot to do the repairs for you? Remember how you could solve a symbolic logic puzzle without using any skills?
Fallout 3 could have had that as well. Instead, nothing happens. The nuke is disabled off screen without any puzzling or thought. The two robots in Megaton have no purpose. The player could have been tasked with recruiting a real explosives expert, adding more speech elements to the quest. Instead, this quest is geared toward low level characters. The first side quest of the game sets the stakes at apocalyptic proportions. The result is ruined pacing.

Finally, how can we fix Mr. Burke, if we must have him? Simple. Add an item called “Mr. Burke’s employment contract” to either his or Tenpenny’s inventory. Perhaps add some fluff under “notes” to explain what it means to have a contract. In this manner, Charon and Burke would have the same backstory. Without any further exposition, it would explain why Mr. Burke was obsessed with destroying Megaton and why he felt the need to complete the task after Tenpenny’s demise. As it stands, Burke has no backstory and becomes an utterly dormant character upon completion of The Power of the Atom.

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Conclusion

The larger issue with this quest is that the option of destroying Megaton exists at all. Since the entire town can be destroyed within the first hour, it means the writers were forced to work around Megaton. Notice that after “Following in his Footsteps” the story line never returns to Megaton. The only other marked quest in the settlement is Wasteland Survival Guide, which is still accessible after destroying Megaton.

Perhaps the most disappointing part of the entire quest is if dad finds out you nuked Megaton. Informed his only child destroyed an entire civilization and killed dozens of innocent people, James calmly says “I can’t begin to tell you how disappointed I am. We’ll talk about this later.”  The writers of Fallout 3 saw Megaton as they saw the rest of their characters and locations: as little more than a disposable annoyance.