No, seriously, what game are we making?
The team was still trying to find the perfect genre for our first (of hopefully many) GURPS role playing games. We had discarded high-fantasy, since most every role-playing game in the market was filled with spells, swords, orcs, and elves. Because you could do so much with GURPS, we wanted to do something different. We kicked around the idea of making a science-fiction planet exploration game, potentially using Tim’s galaxy generator as the seed. However, that seemed to overlap with the Star Trek license that Interplay was already developing. Drat.
Then inspiration hit: Why not remake Wasteland!?
The Wasteland franchise had ended tragically in 1990 with EA’s abysmal sequel Fountain of Dreams. Why not resurrect that incredible game and give it the justice it deserved?
Everyone immediately loved the idea. Tim even mentioned that Steve Jackson Games was working on GURPS: Survivor; a role-playing sourcebook with rules for post-apocalyptic adventuring. What a perfect fit!
The ball was in motion; our first game was going to be GURPS: Wasteland.
I began replaying Wasteland, breaking out my boxed set of Gamma World, re-watching the Road Warrior, Steel Dawn, and Damnation Alley, and re-reading A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Beach.
The post-apocalyptic genre is still very dear to my heart. The idea of humanity destroying itself is one of the darkest themes in all of literature. However, the archetype of the Survivor – the lone hero who does not succumb to the anarchic world or his base desires; who is his own justice and treats people like he would like to be treated – no other heroic figure is stronger. He is literally one man against the world, and no matter the cost to himself, he remains the paragon of the best aspects of humanity, carrying the hope that the idyllic and prosperous world of his past – our world – will eventually be revived.
The world after an apocalypse is fraught with danger and adventure; it brings out the worst – and best – of humankind. It is a brutal world, full of savagery and devoid of honor. There is only Survival. That and a distant dream of lifting themselves from the ashes. Few genres can elicit that level of primal emotions from an audience.
As the team gathered for the upcoming Christmas break, we all shared our ideas of where a GURPS: Wasteland could go. We liked the idea of setting it in Southern California; close enough to the Las Vegas of the first game where we could still use some characters, but different enough where we could tell our own story. Our player would be a member of the Desert Rangers dispatched to So. Cal. to investigate a mutant uprising, or a robot uprising, or something. . . but it was going to be great!
As we were about to end the meeting, Interplay’s legal counsel stepped in to say “have a good holiday!” And, just as he was leaving, he said, “Oh yeah, it turns out that EA still retains the rights to Wasteland. Merry Christmas!”
Sadly it was true. We wouldn’t be able to use the Wasteland license. Even though Interplay created the game, Electronic Arts had published it and still retained the rights. The worst part? EA had let the Wasteland license die, since it was seven years since the product had been released. However, because Interplay had released Wasteland as part of Interplay’s 10th Anniversary collection (and had given EA money for the right), it was as if EA re-published the game, thusly securing the Wasteland license for EA for another seven years.
So we all left for our vacation completely adrift. The genre and the story we had settled on were now gone, and it was back to the drawing board. Not a good start to the project.
Interestingly enough, I later learned that EA didn’t even care about the Wasteland license at the time. Apparently there was still some animosity over Interplay becoming its own publisher; competing with EA when only years before they were publishing through EA (and making them fat money). I had also heard that after denying Interplay the right to use Wasteland, EA asked their internal teams if anyone wanted to use this license. Apparently one did. Years later, after Fallout had shipped, I was pitching a game at EA Redwood Shores. I remember walking through their development cubicle-farm and seeing lots of wild-west-meets-Wasteland concept art and was hinted that this was to be a sequel to Wasteland. Although it never was released, that game was prompted by that phone call to deny Interplay the use of Wasteland.
I had done a lot of thinking over the holiday, and came to a conclusion; So what if EA owns the rights to Wasteland? They don’t own the rights to the post-apocalyptic genre! I told the team, when we met in January, that we should still push forward with our Wasteland-like concept and make it our own. We all agreed: “Screw EA.”
Now, the only hurdle we had was: How do we make ourselves different from Wasteland?
The next week I wracked my brain to come up with ideas to make our game “a different kind of apocalypse”:
- An alien invasion! Aliens have conquered the earth and humanity fights a guerilla war through the devastated wastelands to retake their home!
Nah. Too easy to re-create an “Earth vs. the Bug Eyed Aliens” B-movie.
- Watership Down with Guns! Anthropomorphic animals mutated into sapience by radioactive materials work with the last of humanity to survive the HORDE: terrible bestial gopher-critters eating everything in their path!
Nah. Too Gamma World-esque.
- Radioactive Zombies! A virus kills and subsequently reanimates the dead into various hive-minds, driven to “acquire” the last of living humans. Throw in a few crazy humans who follow the “Zombie Gods” and some high-tech soldiers and you got action!
Nah. There were some things I liked about this, but I didn’t want to recreate Omega Man or a George Romero movie.
That’s when Tim Cain had the idea. He said that he had it in a dream. Something about being in a huge fallout shelter locked behind a massive door. This wasn’t just a shelter, this was a whole city. People lived their whole lives there, never seeing the outside world…
To me, that idea was like a lightning bolt to the brain. I was so excited that I blathered some ideas of the top of my head, and being unable to stop the flow, I had to run to my computer to start writing them down. From that one seed came everything that made our game Fallout.
A near future; one where the threat of war was becoming a reality. The only way to win a nuclear war? Have more survivors than the other guys! Thus, government creates underground city-sized fallout shelters – not just for the elite, as in most dystopian futures – but for as much of the populace as possible.
To most-rapidly and cost-effectively make these underground shelters, a hole is drilled a half-mile down into a granite mountain. At the base of the hole, a one megaton nuke is detonated. This creates a quarter mile diameter sphere of liquid magma which eventually compacts and cools into a flat stone floor, leaving a small dome of gasses which escape from the hole in the top. Voila! A domed underground structure!
(It’s probably completely untrue, but I had heard that the US experimented with something like this back when they were building NORAD.)
Each shelter was made for 100 to 1000 people and was completely self-sustainable with 100% water recycling, vegetable and livestock farming, recreation, and housing. It was estimated that it would take 50 to 80 years for the nuclear fallout to be filtered from the air, so generations of people would have to live and die inside of these underground cities.
My immediate thoughts were: Why would they ever want to leave? If these people were told all of their lives that the outside is a contaminated wasteland, why would they leave their sheltered homes?
Because nothing is self-sustainable forever! What if something were to break? What if they were down there for so long that they could no longer replicate the technology they relied on? A hero would be needed to leave paradise and explore a proverbial hell to save them.
What about the other shelters? Did they have malfunctions? Did they come out once they thought it was safe? Were they dug out by those unfortunate enough to be outside when the bombs hit? What about the sanity of these people? What about the almost absolute power their shelter “overseers” could have over them?
I took all these ideas back to Tim, and we riffed on the idea. I’m pretty sure he was the one who came up with naming the shelters “Vaults” – but I seem to recall the lucky “13” was from me.
I remember describing these Vaults to our marketing department when they asked what our game was going to be about. I’m pretty sure they nicknamed the game Fallout soon thereafter. I recall initially not liking that name at all – it didn’t sound as tough or dangerous as I wanted – but it grew on me. (Hell, I probably would have ended up calling it RadZone – yeesh!)