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Posted by Brother None

What a bitter thing it is to look into happiness through another man's eyes
About the bitterness of Fallout fans

The bitterness of Fallout fans is not a puzzle solved easily. There are several problems to face that we'll take on one by one:

(1) We should determine what the bitterness is all about and with that ask ourselves whether it is about just being bitter or about caring,

(2) We should examine how the attitudes of Fallout fans, and their receptiveness to the evolution of the game franchise, has changed through the years,

(3) We should examine how the nature of fan-developer interaction has changed with each addition of the franchise and how this has contributed to the bitterness and disappointment of fallout fans.

The distinction of whether Fallout fans have the right to feel bitter, or whether that bitterness is more honestly understood as representing their right to care, has been one of the most contested questions surrounding the fallout community. At heart is the right to an individual to have an opinion on something he cares about. This value is so essential a part of our culture that one may not even consider it a question, but for the way the gaming industry has evolved.

The gaming industry believes it is in a position to dictate terms to the community by being the only provider of the resource the community desires. Because it is in a seller-buyer relationship it seeks to maximize profits and must develop a PR campaign with the community. However, its power as seller means the industry believes it can determine the scope of that relationship because of its ability as seller to withhold that which the community (the buyer) desires.

The message is simple. If you don't like what we make, then you're not a true fan. If you don't like our product then don't buy it. But if you don't like it then we won't listen to you. If you don't like it, blacklist.

For the buyers themselves, this has created a collective mindset that would fit in Zamyatin's dystopic vision. There is little room for constructive or critical feedback from the buyer of unsatisfactory products. This discourages the buyer from anticipating the rewards derived from the buyer-seller relationship and silences critical voices.

But how fair is this? One could argue that Bethesda is "just" a company trying to make money. That doesn't work, because the Fallout fans (or indeed any fans) have no particular reason to be concerned with Bethesda's motivation in choosing a reaction. If Bethesda feels motivated purely by profit, fine, but that'll not spare them the rod.

Better to Reign in Hell: Inside the Raiders Fan Empire by Jim Miller, Kelly Mayhew
"Beyond doubt the sleaziest and rudest and most sinister mob of thugs and whackos ever assembled in such numbers under a single "roof," so to speak, anywhere in the English-speaking world."—Hunter S. Thompson on Raiders fans
The bitterness of a fan group is often a measure of its loyalty and devotion. For instance, one could turn open any page of Miller and Mayhew's "Better to Reign in Hell" about the relationship of the 2003 Raiders and their fans, for evidence of the bitterness of dedicated Raider fans. Raider fans have frequently demonstrated their right to criticize Al Davis and his mismanagement of their fandom and any who would deny the right of the fans to be bitter would either be blind, suicidal or both.

If this right to criticise by dedication applies to a multi-billion dollar business like American Football, why do people pretend it does not apply to the relationship of players to computer games? The Raiders franchise has been kept alive by its fans' stubborn unwillingness to give up. Likewise, the Fallout license has survived and thrived because of its fans. Anyone who believes that a series of events like the Brotherhood of Steel release and the Van Buren cancellation should not have killed the franchise needs a small gift voucher for Reality Shop, Massachusetts. In fact, the franchise should have technically already been dead after the disappointment of Tactics and cancellation of Tactics 2.

Remember this: the historic value of a game, how long people will remember and play it, depends on the quality of the game.

The survival of a franchise depends completely on the fans.

So far, the Fallout fans have not let the franchise down.

On to the next question. Fallout fans have developed a reputation over the years of being irrationally bitter. The key word is irrational. Some have shown understanding of this or even slight sympathy with the fans. Others have decided they'll completely ignore the Fallout fanbase because they're just bitter anyway (how these people know the fanbase is bitter while ignoring it is a mystery). None have ever put it under scrutiny. Is this a consequence of the groupthink of some? Probably, but that's not a complete explanation. Like most legends, the Fallout fan bitterness is an interesting mix of truth, hearsay and people beating other people they never met before over the head with a sword.

A closer look at the history of the fallout fan communities helps reveal how they have responded and thought about developers and the franchise.

When BIS was a thriving branch of Interplay and was pumping out a fairly quick sequel to the surprise hit Fallout, there was little for the fans to complain about.

Fallout fans did not develop a reputation for bitterness until after Fallout Tactics was released. Many, who maintain the "bitter" stereotype of Fallout Fans, were not even present during that period nor have examined the archives that track the rising frustration of FO fans to Tactics. While the disappointment of seeing the rumors of a third Fallout die and getting a tactical game instead (which really isn't the fans' genre), the response was many things, but not negative. NMA, V13 and especially DaC covered the game with interest, happy that the franchise was alive, interested to see how this game would turn out.

Fans in games
Interplay and BIS fan interaction, back when "By gamers for gamers" held very true, is legend. So much so that it became almost a habit to include fans in the Fallout games. Fallout 2 includes a random encounter in which the very first coherent Fallout community, the Unwashed Villagers, is seen battling a spammer, the Grim Reaper, who was indeed a spammer that plagued the official Interplay forums for a long time. In Fallout Tactics the well-known Fallout fan and commentator Roshambo is included, and the developers give a nod to the "friendly" conversation they had with him by representing him as an old man, gabbling like an idiot.

The release of Fallout: Brotherhood of Steal led to a more clear cut display of fan bitterness at what was felt to be a betrayal. Interplay was making bold-faced lies about the quality and direction of the game but, unlike some companies, did not have the staff to hype it up properly nor could they lean on the gaming media to hype it for them. Result? The game was the abject failure that Fallout fans predicted it would be. Attitude results? Most people don't care about it, maybe a handful like it, the rest hate it. Few people have ever attacked the Fallout fan anger towards this game, as it is too obvious it has no place in Fallout lore.

When Interplay introduced Van Buren many feared that the game was vaporware and gave up on it even before it started. This was a result of Interplay's mismanagement and Van Buren following directly on two cancelled projects (TORN and Jefferson). But as the game developed further the excitement amongst remaining Fallout fans grew. Yes, it was going to be a TB/RT hybrid. Yes, it was going to have multiplayer co-op. Yes, it did not have any significant Fallout creators working on it. And yet the Fallout fans wanted this game and were furious with its cancellation. It has to be said that a lot of good will towards Van Buren was created after its cancellation, when fans found out the game would have kept fairly true to the franchise.

As of this writing, little official information has been given on Bethesda's Fallout 3. What little news has been released has left an unpleasant impression on the fallout fans and have left many worried about what Bethesda plans to release. Thus far the fallout community has remained calm if suspicious. Does this mean consent or approval of what Bethesda will offer? No. It is more likely that the fans will reject with outrage should Bethesda betray the fans who wish to see a game they have long looked forward too, and have long been denied.

When looking at fan and developer interaction, we can skip Fallout 1 and 2 as happy memories.

In Tactics' case, the developers were open and honest about the game being a tactical spin-off of a CRPG. They, including one original Fallout developer, talked freely about the game and discussed facets of game, even going as far as altering the game in response to community feedback. With fan support, Tactics became the most pre-ordered Interplay game ever and made many top-selling lists after its release.

So why the later disappointment and anger?

Because it was a spinoff, fans were more interested in the way Tactics treated the setting than in how the tactical gameplay turned out. And there's too much to be unhappy about when it comes to how Tactics treated the setting. These arguments have also been made for Fallout 2, but a lot of Fallout 2's setting flaws are compensated by good execution of Fallout's central RPG-philosophies.

When people were shocked at how angry Fallout fans were about what they perceived as the fun game Fallout Tactics, they should have taken a moment to realize the anger was about fur-covered deathclaws first and about the quality of the game second. And when it comes to quality, Tactics also suffered from having been presented as a post-apocalyptic Jagged Alliance, a promise it never lived up to.

The console-only Brotherhood of Steel illustrates two interesting things. (1) The Fallout fans are not readily influenced by attempts to hype a game. Rather attempts to do so will bounce off the fans. This failure to hype the game with the fans is likely to be reflected in the media coverage of that game. (2) The failure of the game was in large part due to the failure of the developer to understand some of the core mechanics of how franchises stay commercially successful.

Unsurprisingly, the voices that had argued for giving the game a chance during its development were silenced by the release, and then disappeared.

The reaction to the entire tale of Van Buren proves one thing: the statement "Fallout fans will never be happy with a sequel to the game" is a complete and irredeemable falsehood. Van Buren was badly criticized and picked apart, it was attacked from all sides by mobs of angry fans, but it was never denied a fair chance and it was never discounted beforehand as an untrue Fallout despite missing or changing so many key elements and being created by a relative stranger to the franchise. Nor is there truth in the often heard argument that Fallout fans will only be happy with Van Buren. Van Buren had to conquer its place as an accepted sequel as would any other sequel.

It is impossible to say what would have followed Van Buren had it been completed and released as Fallout 3. But it is interesting that this case can be directly compared to Bethesda. The key factor is that Bethesda has shown little willingness to communicate and revealed only bits of, mostly negative, information. This has led to a reciprocal relationship between Bethesda and the community. Bethesda does not give the fans a chance for input in the game’s development, so the fans will not give Bethesda a chance to prove themselves. The chances given to Van Buren are denied to Bethesda's Fallout 3.

But this assessment is unfair for the very reason that Fallout 3 has not yet attempted to prove itself. To draw up a reasonable prediction of the future one must look over the several cases of development and reaction that we've seen. We've seen "good game, shitty setting" with Tactics. We've seen "I'll kill you!" with Brotherhood of Steel. We've seen "I don't agree with you but damn this game has some promise" with Van Buren. Bethesda can choose any of these paths and the reactions will likely be the same as they were before.

There has been a relationship between how the fans have responded and the attitude of the developers to the franchise and to the fans. What sticks out as a sore thumb is that the general reaction to Fallout games (based on Fallout 1, 2, Tactics and Van Buren) has changed to become more critical, but has always been a situation of excitement, interest and support from the fans. Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel and the current situation concerning Bethesda form the exceptions, not the rule. Assuming that it is not the Fallout fanbase that's gone insane, which is easy to support since Van Buren and BoS happened simultaneously, Occam's Razor puts the blame square on Interplay and Bethesda. But as mentioned above, Bethesda still has plenty of freedom to make choices to change the situation.

What never changes is that the fans have always upheld the essential elements and themes of the franchise over the ability of the developers to sweet talk their games. Even Interplay, which had provided both Fallout 1 and Fallout 2, could not sell the Fallout Community on the idea of Brotherhood of Steel.

Fallout Fans have been committed to the integrity of the game as established by Fallout 1. If a developer creates a sequel that upholds the integrity of the franchise, than the sequel will be welcomed and rewarded. But while developers may seek to profit from the game, Fallout fans are driven by their desire to see further expansion of Fallout that is both consistent with, and maintains the integrity of the franchise as begun with Fallout 1.

Of course, the reactions are far from neutral. Fallout fans have been bitterly disappointed and outspoken in their frustration. But is there an irrational element to the Fallout fan attitude? The answer is: “No not a lot.”

Not "no, none", because that would be stating that the abuse that Fallout fans have received over the years meant nothing. The answer still is "no", because Fallout fan attitude distills into a pure no-nonsense policy. Fallout fans tend to consider the case at hand, form their opinion on it and express it in a no-nonsense, direct way.

No-nonsense implies not taking shit from anybody, which is what confused a lot of people. Taking shit from people is a pre in anyone covering or following any game development. Fallout fans can call themselves an exception to this norm. If they do not like something, they say so, and they do not attach footnotes, ifs or buts, they simply tell you why you're wrong. And then they ban you.

Yes, Fallout fans are a pissed off bunch and have good reason to be so. But they are not pissed off in an irrational or inconsistent manner. Consider: Brotherhood of Steel shows that Fallout fans are an angry, spiteful bunch that will puncture through any attempt to veil the truth in the pr-hype manner of the gaming industry. Van Buren shows that Fallout fans posses a sense of rationalism, prioritizing and minor relativism. It shows that trying to get them to shut up about furry deathclaws, SPECIAL and turn-based is as good as impossible. But it is far from impossible for them to accept a well-meant and well-executed attempt to make a proper Fallout sequel, provided it simply does not cross the line from innovation to destruction.

Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam
On the concepts of franchise and Fallout 3

This chapter is about an "imagined franchises." While a game may stand alone as a set of programs for developers or an experience for players, each person who plays the game or participates in the creation of a game draws from it their own impressions and experiences. Once a game goes into sequels, the game begins to develop a notion of franchise among both developers and fans - essentially notions of expectations, values and constraints defined by the understood tenets of the game.

If fans, by virtue of their shared experience, values, and orientation towards a game, may be a type of "imagined community" (aka a community based on shared ideas) than we can understand the franchise they follow as an "imagined franchise". The shared experience of the games by both developers and fans creates a notion of shared expectations (Fallout has to be post-apocalyptic) as well as shared constraints (a sequel must remain consistent with the worldview and history established in its predecessor) which future additions to the franchise should not violate (no furry deathclaws). This notion is consistent with other franchises. For example, one can go to any franchise restaurant (McDonalds) and get virtually the same meal because the franchise recognizes the importance of fulfilling consumer expectations and values.

One of the big differences between what is meant with an "imagined franchise" in this chapter and a franchise in the legalistic sense has to do with these expectations. Usually when talking about this people mention "name recognition". In a positive sense, name recognition means people will relate the product, based on the line its a part of or the company it comes from, with another product they had positive experiences with. The reverse can also be true. This is an essential part of how franchises are economically successful.

X-Com UFO
X-Com UFO was the first of the series.
X-Com Apocalypse
X-Com Apocalypse was considered a big stylistic deviation, being much more camp.
X-Com Enforcer
X-Com Enforcer has little to do with the franchise. (source: Moby Games)
Failure to live up to these expectations, constraints and values can easily kill a franchise. X-Com was a popular franchise in part because UFO Defense and Terror from the Deep were games that shared common elements. The central tenets of the first game were well received by the game's fans and the developer remained determined to keep the series alive in the follow up in ways consistent with fan expectations. This led to the creation of a viable and successful franchise. The franchise was struck a blow with a modified combat system and a reformed style introduced in the third game, Apocalypse. But although the franchise was struck hard by the developer's failure to adhere to the games' tenants, it was not yet down. The killing blow to this wildly popular franchise came in the one-two punch of Interceptor and Enforcer. Interceptor hit first by being overtly campy and poorly designed, resulting in low sales figures. Enforcer killed the franchise by being completely disconnected from the first two games in gaming style and gameplay.

It could easily be construed from here that an invisible franchise line was crossed between Apocalypse and Interceptor. This invisible line can only be defined by looking at franchises as an imagined construction; people attach values to continuity in certain parts of the series. Logically or not, by attaching values to them, these values may not be inherent to the series but they do become inherent to the franchise.

It is clear that the values Fallout fans can agree on are inherent to the series are actually inherent to the franchise, simply because the franchise does not exist as any asset outside of people's imaginations, even if it is an asset in a legal sense.

This deconstructs a lot of flawed reasoning. For example, some people claim that there would be nothing wrong with Fallout 3 being developed as Oblivion with Guns. Perhaps these people lack understanding of Fallout or the Fallout universe or perhaps it is because they view Fallout merely as an asset that is now the property of Bethesda. To them the strictly legalistic view that "ownership conveys right" applies. However, this would fail to appreciate the expectations and values of perhaps the most important consumers, the Fallout Fans.

Most people understand Fallout 3 as Oblivion with Guns is not a good idea. Any person claiming that such a game would be a valid part of the Fallout franchise would essentially fail to understand what the franchise paradigm means and the importance of expectation and values to the most important participant in that shared experience- the consumer. Simply put, the Oblivion franchise is not the Fallout franchise.

This is not to say that Bethesda could not create Oblivion with Guns. It could do such a game in any one of many different genres. It could even create as Post-Apocalyptic Oblivion with Guns (and even create a franchise based on that concept). But that would not be a Fallout game. To market Oblivion with Guns as Fallout 3 would be both (1) a breach of the expectations that fans and consumers have that they are buying a "fallout product", (2) a lie told with the simple intention to capitalize on the reputation created by someone else for the simple reason of mercenary profit. If you make game and call it Fallout, than consumers, be they fans or newcomers, have reason to expect that they will buy something "Fallout."

But you can make a franchise crumble in less obvious ways. Fallout is seen to have a number of inherent factors such as choice-and-consequence, SPECIAL system (and thus isometric view and turn-based combat), dark ironic humor, PA-50's Americana sci-fi, well-written NPCs and dialog, talking heads, the opportunity to pursue either a "good" or "evil path" or a combination of the two, and so on and so forth. These factors, together with a number of facets people probably never noticed, are so intertwined within the experience that removing any one would cause a domino effect which would hollow out the franchise completely.

This is what happened with X-Com Enforcer. This is what happened with Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel. It is thus not surprising that these games were complete failures. This has nothing to do with their quality as games. Rather, it was because the developers use of the franchise name meant that these games were not judged as individual games but rather as parts of an existing franchise with highly developed and well received elements. By ignoring the central tenets, the developers failed to incorporate the necessary requirements which form the expectations of the franchise. Essentially, by failing to abide by the expectations built by the history of the franchise, the developers did what is traditionally known as "ignoring the fanbase". But discounting the imagined understanding that has been built by the history of the franchise and its fans is both a broader and more destructive choice than "just" ignoring the fans.

One might believe that the qualities of the individual games are more important than the "imagined" franchises in part because the success of the franchise depends, over time, on the success of the individual games. But actually that is pretty far from the truth. Much like invoking the name of a philosophy, religion or nation, by using the name of a series which, through shared perceptions and expectations, has become a franchise, the game is obliged to not only uphold the standards of quality expected of any game, but must also uphold and conform to the standards of the franchise. Otherwise it suffers a great risk of becoming valueless as a contribution to the imagined franchise.

Keep in mind that this is "just" a risk. Not all series die with reform. By dropping the central tenets of an old franchise and renovating the game inside-out, one kills off all ties to the franchise existing fan base. But this does not obstruct the creation of a new fanbase. This is what is known as franchise disloyalty, with the Elder Scrolls series often cited as an example.
Refueling the car
Probably Fallout's most recognisable and longest-running joke is asking "How do I refuel the car?" in various ways of bad spelling and random letter capitalisation. The gag started not too long after Fallout 2. While refueling the car is fairly intuitive once you know how (right-click, inventory option, click on fuel), it confused legions of players, who stormed the forums en masse asking instructions on how to refuel the car. This got so bad that NMA dedicated a page to refueling the car, originally linked to from the frontpage but now put under walkthroughs with the sarcastic title of "A detailed guide to the car".


Yet this is a risk that should be gambled with great hesitation. Franchise disloyalty, especially to a highly committed and loyal fanbase such as Fallout, will generate moral outrage at their perception of betrayal. Fans have been loyal to the franchise and whose past appreciation of prior games have created not only the expectations and tenets of the franchise but also the games "good name". They will lash out in anger that the developers have tarnished a reputation of a game they have grown to love. It is possible that protest could be dispelled if the original creators were doing the reform or if new developers were recovering a franchise wrongly betrayed. Short of this, many would feel as if the new developers were like foster parents who have willfully deformed another person's baby.

In cases of franchise disloyalty, one lifeline between the franchise and the fanbase is cut off to tie a new one with a new fanbase. But despite this retying the franchise is in fact dead. Arena/Daggerfall is a seperate franchise from Morrowind, which is seperate from Oblivion, despite them being a single series.

For the developer of the next addition to the franchise there is a difficult choice between these two alternatives. They may wish to cater to the expectations and values of the pre-existing fans but they may also wish to attract new fans to expand the appreciation (and sales) of the game. However, the conflict of upholding many of the essential elements while reforming other non-essential may lead to miscalculation. Furthermore, Miscalculate on which non-essential element to change may lead to compromises on what most would deemed essential. Yet failure to undertake needed reforms may stifle an increase in new fans.

In making this difficult choice, the developer is not alone. Fans may help him determine what reforms should be made or even in containing the risks of reform. By eliciting the fan base in a meaningful conversation, the developer can better understand what is essential and what is not. Furthermore, the developer can limit the consequences of those choices consistent with his desire to create a valuable addition that attracts new fans and appeals to existing fans. The benefits of this include the creation of valuable word-of-mouth and eager expectation by existing fans. This can help develop momentum and interest in the general gaming public that anticipates the release of the new addition. This values are amplified when, like Fallout, the original games have high regard within the gaming community and industry.

In fact, it is not surprising that Fallout in particular has had a rich tradition of this developer and fan interaction in sequels and adaptations of the franchise, including Tactics.

Fallout is a game that will be remembered forever by its fans. It is widely held to be among the great computer games, especially within the CRPG genre. But the Fallout franchise would not have survived without the support of the fanbase. The Fallout fanbase has only grown and is vibrant and active, if often outspoken and critical. This has a significant consequence for Bethesda. Unlike a new franchise which has enjoyed a recent initial and successful release, an established franchise like Fallout has no elbow room to move outside of its existing fanbase without killing off the imagined franchise.

In consequence of that, if Bethesda does decide to kill off the current imagined franchise, it runs a large risk of producing a flop if it fails to produce a fresh set of fans for a new fanbase. In fact, the recognition amongst the younger console crowd of this franchise is such a small factor that to attempt such a move is almost certain suicide. Want proof? Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel. 'nuff said.

Go to part 1Go to part 3

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