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Posted by Brother None

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Think Big! But not that big…

Like many designers, I like to think big. If someone tells me to come up with a side-quest, I have to physically restrain myself from my keyboard or I’ll provide a script that rivals the Tuatha Dé Danann. The same goes for technological improvements; good designers are always looking to push the boundaries.

So, in my quest to create the biggest and best game possible, there were inevitably some things that simply didn’t make it into the shipping game.

The beginning of the game was intended to be a lot more interactive. Instead of just a movie of the Overseer, the plan was to start the game in Vault 13:

You would start out in your room, with pleasant music playing, and a computer voice prompting you to dress and go to work. Your closet is full of Vault Jumpsuits – all the same color. As you leave for work, people dressed exactly like you wave and say hello. You pass some people complaining about the taste of their water. Where you work depends on the skills you assigned to your character: Security Guard, Scientist, Maintenance Worker, Vault PR. You are able to pick up a few items in the vault, and talk to as many people as you like. People are generally nice but in a malaise. A few are afraid of the “water problem” but seem a little scared to mention it in public. Luckily, your utopian boredom is quickly brought to an end. The vault’s Overseer calls you into his office.

He explains that the vault’s water purification chip has burned out. It’s only a matter of time before the water recycling will become toxic. The vault’s central computer has chosen you as the citizen most likely to succeed in leaving the vault and returning with a new chip.

After this, you can gather whatever supplies your character can beg, borrow, or steal. The people know you are going and hope for your safe return. Some are anxious to hear of news of the outside world, others think only death awaits you. As the mighty vault doors grind open, you enter the tunnels leading out… and that’s where the shipping game actually begins.

Personally, I thought that this was an important buildup to entering the Wasteland, for the player to realize what was at stake if they failed.

I intended the Vault to be your base of operations, allowing you to return there as often as you liked. I had also planned that the Vault was to be attacked by some of the desert gangs, and eventually by the Master’s hordes of Super Mutants, dragging your family to the Mariposa Base unless you stopped them.

However, the interior of Vault 13 was simply cut due to time. Sure it makes me a little sad, but in the end, all creative endeavors are a business, and sometimes hard decisions must be made.

When I played Fallout 3, as I first left the confines of the Vault and entered into the wasteland, I actually choked up a bit. There was such an air of unbridled exploration and wonder that lay ahead – and that was exactly the feeling I was hoping to invoke in the original. Good stuff.


“But I want to Seduce everyone!”

Another crazy idea I wanted to employ was something I saw in Ultima VI: those NPCs kept to hand-crafted schedules. The woodcutter would get up at 6am, sit at his table until 7am, go to work until 5pm, then return home until 9pm, and then go to bed. This gave a convincing illusion of a living world.

Of course, I didn’t just want to steal the idea – I wanted to expand upon it in the following ways:
  • We can describe the actions required by certain jobs, so when an NPC is cleaning the sewers, they know where they need to go, what actions need to be performed, and how much time they should take. This means that if the player decides to watch them, they seem to behave intelligently.
  • You could alter an NPC’s task list. If you tell a friendly NPC to meet you at the fountain at 8pm, they will modify their schedule to appear at the fountain from 8pm to 9pm (and if you leave them waiting, they’ll be ticked off!) Also, if the environment changes – like someone in the city is shooting it up - they can override their tasks to get help, find cover, or try to apprehend the lawbreaker.
  • You could talk to anyone about anything. There would be a range of pre-defined personalities that could run the gambit of emotions. And, they remember you. If you make them laugh or help them out, they will treat you with respect, become your friend, or even fall in love with you.
  • Because anyone can be your friend, enemy, or love interest, technically you could recruit any character in the game into your party. This was intended make the Seduction skill immensely powerful for all those Mata Hari archetypes.
  • Personality differences matter. If your actions offend a follower, they might leave you. However, personalities are malleable over time. Instead of an NPC or follower continually being offended that you drink, after a while they just might join you (depending on the strength of their personality.)
  • Reputation is king. GURPS has a whole mechanic for reputation effects, so this would be an important part in interacting with NPCs. As you adventure through the game, people will say, “Hey! That’s the guy that killed Gizmo in Junktown!”, which will have different reactions based on the NPCs personality traits.
Although very little of this made it into the game, I’m glad that future games had similar ideas and ran with them. When Fable was announced, my immediate reaction was: “See! I wasn’t crazy! It can be done! Look, they’re doing it!”


As it turns out, Role-Playing Games are complex

From the beginning, Fallout was intended to be the first in a series of GURPS games. Our goal was to recreate the GURPS mechanics faithfully in digital form. This way, we could reuse our core engine over and over for future games.

Early in development, I started designing the game's main interface. The team was very familiar with GURPS, since we played it frequently. It's a very robust game system with lots of options for combat and skill use. And I mean LOTS of options.

At the time, I had a love-affair with X-COM: UFO Defense. In fact, many of the visual decisions for Fallout stemmed from the three-quarter perspective view from that game. The interface was no exception. I wanted to emulate their static, icon laden horizontal combat bar. I kept their big graphic icons showing character's readied weapon (which kept things sexy looking) but there were so many action buttons, we needed a better way to identify the icons. A readout at the bottom of the screen would give the description of the button you were highlighting – and there were A LOT of buttons. You had buttons that changed your stance, buttons that showed and let you use your active abilities, buttons to perform skills, buttons to change up your inventory, to see your reputations, access your stats, to attack, defend, evade, acrobatic dodge, macramé . . . is your head spinning yet?

At the end, I had an interface that faithfully recreated any actions you could perform in a GURPS game.

After it was laid out and coded, it was given to playtest to try out. Apparently it was the most complex and unintuitive thing they had ever seen. Even testers who were intimately familiar with GURPS were completely overwhelmed by the myriad of options and branching / toggle buttons.

The only ideas kept from all this design work? The large item buttons and the readout.

Still, it illustrated that to implement GURPS in its entirety, we would be introducing a huge amount of complexity. What we really needed to do was implement a “GURPS-lite” system; something streamlined for the kind of game we were making.


GURPS becomes a problem

So, Leonard and Jason had just completed the opening movie for the game. It was a slow pan-out from an old 50's style black and white television showing quick documentary style scenes that silently gave the player an idea of the dystopian future they were about to step into. In one of these quick scenes, two soldiers in power-armor shoot a kneeling and unarmed man in the back of the head, and then gleefully wave to the camera. It was a tiny scene, but one that let you know that you were about to play a violent game. We all liked the movie and, just to keep Steve Jackson Games in the loop, a copy was sent to them.

And then it happened. The response came back “Unapproved”. The reason? They stated that “The movie was too violent”.

Whaaaaa? Too Violent!? Haven't they been looking at the game we'd been making!? There was blood and violence all over the place! We had Head Of Gore Technology™! You could split people in two with a chainsaw for chrissake!

Apparently they hadn't been looking at the game we'd been making. All of that “The more violence the better” stuff was long forgotten. With that rejection it became apparent the game would need dramatic changes to get approval from our IP holder.

A decision had to be made: Keep GURPS, abandoning our creative freedom and yielding to the mercurial whims of the licensor – or throw out all of the mechanics and interface we made functional in the game and start over.

And thus, the SPECIAL System was born, and both problems, IP rights and overly complex game system, were removed in one stroke.

The SPECIAL system was almost identical to the “GURPS-Lite” system that we had been implementing, so in the end, what could have been a big setback was in actuality an enormous boon.


Remember Kids: Finish What You Start

I wish I could continue to tell stories about the joys and terrors of shipping Fallout, or of some of the later decisions that crafted that game to its level of greatness.

One of my biggest life decisions was to leave Interplay while Fallout was still in production.

My old friend, Burger Bill had formed a new company and asked if I would be its Creative Director. The story for Fallout was completed; the locales, NPCs, and the missions well defined. With my growing unease at Interplay's embrace of “Movie Games”, and still stinging from the cancellation of my previous projects, I took Burger up on his offer.

All these years later, I still regret not having seen Fallout through to its shipping. Although I did learn much at my new studio, there's something to be said about finishing what you start. For good or bad, success or failure, joy or pain – you are always shaped by your endeavors. Abandoning them always leaves emptiness.

Games are a magnificent collaborative effort. It's very rare to find a team of creative people skilled at their craft, capable of working together, and determined to create a remarkable product. If you find yourself with such a team, stick with them – you'll thank yourself later.

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