12 minutes into Fallout 76’s reveal at E3 this year, the celebratory atmosphere of Bethesda’s showcase shifted. As Todd Howard told the crowd his studio’s new game would be entirely online, the packed auditorium took on the feel of a support group.
“Look,” the Bethesda Game Studios director said. “This is a whole new world for all of us here.”
Remarkably, that’s true. Throughout Bethesda’s 17 year history the studio has demonstrated extraordinary focus, dedicating itself to the craft of the single-player RPG almost completely - to the exclusion of online games. Fallout 76 will be its first.
That’s not to suggest Bethesda doesn’t have plenty of expertise on-board - the Austin studio that joined its roster officially this year is composed partly of veterans from BioWare’s nearby MMO office. Nevertheless, Fallout 76 will see Bethesda’s rebirth as an online developer. We chatted to some of the experts in the field to find out what challenges the studio will be facing.
“Cheats are the bane of PC game development”
“I can’t imagine they’ll do a worse job than us,” Garry Newman tells us. As head of Facepunch Studios, he’s overseen the launch and growth of Rust, one of the biggest online survival games on Steam.
“The only big thing really is cheats,” he says. “Cheats are the bane of PC game development. You'll spend more time responding to cheats than actually making the game. It's the one thing consoles have on us.”
With so much of Bethesda’s mod-hungry audience concentrated on Steam - where Fallout 4 regularly sits within the top 20 most played games, despite just a handful of updates in the last year - it’s likely the studio will be dealing with cheats on a grand scale. And if there’s anybody who knows how to do that, it’s Phoenix Labs.
The Dauntless developer was founded by Riot Games alumni. Working on League of Legends, they were shocked to discover that cheats and hacks were an industry in themselves.
“Detecting and removing players for cheating is easy enough, but that’s a short term measure,” Phoenix Labs says. “Educating players, listening to why they want to cheat in the first place, and finding cheats at their source has been instrumental in helping build a healthy online game space.
“One thing is certain - you need to understand and accept that you will have cheaters and dedicate effort toward mitigating it. Competition brings out the best in us, but sometimes the desire to win brings out the worst.”
“Reward players for positive behaviour”
Competition is particularly pertinent to Fallout 76, in which the prospect of PvP looms large - quite literally in the case of the player-launched nuclear bombs that can level rival settlements. Much of the post-E3 discussion around the game has revolved around griefing.
“Griefing is an interesting topic and something not just contained to games,” the Dauntless team says. “We strive to positively incentivise and reward players for positive behaviour instead of punish for negative behaviour. Verbal abuse, discrimination, or actively trying to ruin the game for others is never cool, and we don't tolerate it.”
As in Dauntless, an anti-griefing outlook is built right into Fallout 76’s systems. It’s impossible to kill another player until they’ve hit level five, for instance, so you can’t ruin a newcomer’s experience. And even once you can hurt them, you’ll be dealing with a wanted level should you make a habit of it. Nukes aside, Bethesda-style PvP sounds more like a challenge system than unrestricted murder, befitting the player-directed pace of the series at large.
“Turn-based combat is a solution to many multiplayer woes”
While Fallout 76 might retain Bethesda’s traditional pacing, its combat will inevitably be faster. It’ll include a real-time variant on VATS, weakening a mechanic that made the series more accessible to non-shooter players. The move away from Fallout’s turn-based roots means Bethesda will be facing new problems, too - some of which are beyond its direct control.
“Balancing high fidelity gaming and online connections is always a challenge,” the Dauntless team says. “We promise frame perfect dodges, and lightning fast attacks. You can’t do that if your roommate is downloading the entirety of Dragon Ball Z.”
Part of the solution is relentless optimisation; another is player education. Often, Phoenix Labs find that players assume they have a bad connection - where in fact the root of the issue is as simple as an overzealous firewall or too many background programs running at once.
By contrast, Frozen Synapse 2’s Paul Kilduff-Taylor has made a career out of avoiding that problem altogether.
“I strongly recommend turn-based combat as a solution to many multiplayer woes,” he says. “So what they absolutely shouldn't do is - say - take an IP that was originally renowned for its turn-based combat and then try to... oh no wait.”
“Servers are going to die no matter what you do”
As with any nuke, getting the launch right is absolutely critical if you don’t want your online game to blow up in your face. Although according to Kilduff-Taylor, a certain amount of radiation is inevitable.
“No amount of scale testing is ever enough,” he says. “Servers are going to die no matter what you do, and it's about how you prepare for that inevitability rather than trying to pretend it isn’t going to happen.”
Jonathan Chey, the Irrational Games co-founder and designer on the multiplayer turn-based tactics game Card Hunter, echoes the sentiment.
“I think it’s odd how almost every successful multiplayer game runs into load issues when it launches,” he says. “It’s obviously really hard to properly stress test servers prior to launch. I have no idea what the solution to that problem is and we certainly didn't solve it.”
Even Phoenix Labs, with all its League-learned expertise, couldn’t plan its way to a perfect launch.
“We meticulously forecasted server load, pored over player data, and studied our peers’ previous launches,” he says. “Then 500% more players showed up than we anticipated even in our most aggressive estimates.”
None of which seems to bode particularly well for the days following Fallout 76’s launch on November 14th. But there’s a comforting certainty in the knowledge that, to begin with, things will fall apart before they can be rebuilt. What could be more Fallout?