Community Corner: Atomic Ninjas Interview

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For this first interview with members of the communities that follow the Fallout series and Fallout 3 we have something special, an interview with Brother None and Suaside, the No Mutants Allowed members that went to Leipzig to see the Fallout 3 demo. This blog thanks both Atomic Ninjas for their time.

—X—

Tell us a bit about yourselves.

BN: I’m a 23 year old student of Russian Studies and History at the University of Leiden. In my online form I work at NMA and GameBanshee. In other free time I do whatever the hell I want, during the holidays I like to travel, especially to my orphanage in Russia.

S: Not much interesting stuff to tell really. I’m just an average gamer with a love for Fallout. I currently work as an Infrastructure Manager (read: Network Admin). My hobbies other than gaming are riding my motorcycle, reading, recreative sport shooting and Krav Maga (selfdefense).

Why do you think you’ve grown such close ties with the Fallout community?

S: While I’ve been an active member of NMA for quite a while now, I never really had ‘close ties’ to the Fallout community as a whole. I was and still am more of a bystander than a contributor, with the only real exception of the FO3 preview. In the end, I’m just a regular poster at NMA and occasionally read up on related forums (and of course your blog).

As to why Fallout and not another game? I think because as soon as I bought the game, I recognized the awesome potential of the game. It was clearly a game that would set a standard and survive. Even though I never experienced the games and playstyle that Fallout was trying to revive, I was immediately sold…

BN: Hell if I know. I joined the Fallout community originally shortly after the release of Fallout 2 (the first Fallout I owned, Fallout 1 I played before at a friend’s house), joining and summarily getting banned from the Unwashed Villagers. I joined NMA soon after and apart from disappearing for some years I just stuck around. When you have about 8 years of invested time in a community it kind of sticks and I probably couldn’t leave if I wanted to.

How did the idea of going to watch the Fallout 3 demo come about? Was there really a need of some secrecy and why?

S: I simply heard that NMA was thinking of sending people to Leipzig. I figured I might as well chip in and go see FO3 for myself. I’m sure you would’ve done the same if you were given the same opportunity. Since I was available and had the right background, I decided to volunteer.

I used to write for a few local hardware and games sites and as such it didn’t take long for me to find an editor willing to back my request for a press badge at the GC and a press seat at the FO3 preview. Madshrimps.com did the backing and off I went to Leipzig. The idea was that I’d write a preview for them and at the same time I could help Brother None with his preview. Or simply provide the community with honest answers to their questions (be it on NMA or Bethesda’s forums).

Later, the whole Madshrimps preview was scratched, because the editor felt that it was of little use to try and compete with NMA’s preview, which already mentioned all the core elements and went to much greater lengths to inform the reader. Madshrimps is mostly a hardware website with a fleeting interest in gaming, so we never planned to write such a large preview.

As for the secrecy part? I never hid the fact that I was an NMA regular. My nickname on the Madshrimps.com site is the same as the one I use on NMA. I never actually lied about my motivation either, I was there to write a review for [M] but at the same time I didn’t see much harm in cooperating with NMA and answering a series of questions from the fanbase. And to cap it all off, I also told Pete that I visited NMA when it was my turn to ask some questions, though that was after the demonstration…

BN: Well, after the press showing Bethesda did where they invited a few journalists to show the demo, and after not going to E3 to see the demo there, NMA kind of realized it had to take matters into its own hands. It was originally just a luftballon putting it out there idea, but after a while we figured it was actually realistic thanks to help from friendly media (GamerNode, our host AtomicGamer and SuAside’s boss at Madshrimps really helped us out) and financial support from the fanbase. A typical independent move, really.

Was there need for secrecy? Depends on what you mean, I’ve always communicated with Pete Hines on my private address so he knows my real name, and I applied under that name, for a company that was officially backing me, and they never asked who I was intending to write for (I wrote for GamerNode on another game I took a look at while in Leipzig).

The only secrecy was not applying in the name of NMA and yes, that was necessary. NMA’s head, Silencer, applied for NMA just after I got in with my application for GamerNode, and was turned down because there was “no room”. In Leipzig, SuAside and I could see journalists getting in by signing up on the spot. So the “full” thing doesn’t seem that likely the reason NMA didn’t get in. Matt Grandstaff later confirmed that it just wasn’t the intention to show it to fansites (despite showing it to smaller and less professional sites than NMA, but it’s the fan-stigma, I guess), so we wouldn’t have got in without some secrecy, yes.

Any idea why Matt Peckham felt the need to write this? And how did you feel about it?

No, and not to sound all preachy, but this is how a couple kids without scruples screw it up for the rest of us by turning already paranoid-enough companies into impregnable PR fortresses. Thanks a lot, guys.

BN: I don’t know. Maybe he’s just an angry person? Why are you asking me, ask him. It looks to me like he just doesn’t understand that part of his job as a journalist is not to get knuckled under by the corporations he reports on, but that’s really his affair. As for how I feel about it, offended, but I can’t do much else with nonsensical criticism.

S: Well, we’ve been over this before. I think that the simple fact that nearly none of ‘his’ readers on his blog defended him when Brother None and a few others went over to his blog to get the issue straightened out says enough. He also briefly came over to NMA, but kept grasping straws and dodging issues.

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Do you feel that what you did is the result of the way communities and individuals are more and more creating their own content and participating actively on the Web, instead of being passive receivers of pre formatted info?

S: I wouldn’t say so. I simply saw an opportunity and went for it. If you really want to scratch it up to something, it probably was a simple action/reaction from the way the fan community as a whole had been treated by Bethesda. That and the fact that I didn’t trust anyone in the regular press to give me all the facts that I wanted to know.

BN: I would. Especially since in a lot of ways it was created because not a single gaming site or magazine seemed to be interested in covering the story from our perspective, so we had to go look for ourselves. That’s the way the internet works, I guess, if no media are providing what you want, get it yourself.

What were the main lessons you got from this experience?

BN: Leipzig is an ugly city and gaming conventions really aren’t my thing.

S: What did you expect, BN? 🙂

For me… Probably that a little initiative will get you far. While the old SAS adage “Qui audet adipiscitur” might be a little over the top, I think the gist of it still applies.

—X—

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After what you saw in the demo do you think there’s any truth in this statement?

People don´t realize that most reviewers probably didn´t do much in oblivion before giving a final score because the game is so big. With F3 being a smaller game, they will get to experience more of the game so it could go either way I think.

BN: I have no idea, except that that reflects really poorly on reviewers.

S: I’m not sure what this comment is trying to say… If reviewers didn’t play the game enough before giving their marks, they did a bad job. End

of story. Besides, you could rather easily make up your mind about Oblivion without having to explore every nook & cranny of the world, since the general gameplay and the game’s flow doesn’t change that much throughout the game. I think if you’re unable to judge Oblivion after putting in 5 hours, you won’t be able to judge it after 50 hours either.

You’ve talked a lot about what you saw in the demo, so let’s just go through your memories once more 🙂 .

Is Vault 101 well made, in terms of Fallout canon and level design?

BN: Yes. It looks more or less like a 1:1 conversion of the vaults from Fallout into 3D, except for the odd steampunk door and the changed vault suits.

S: Quite a few elements were skillfully transformed into 3D and Beth obviously did try to incorporate the FO look & feel of the vault. We raced through a few parts of the vault, only stopping at some scripted events, so it’s pretty difficult to offer a real opinion on the global design. There was only one room where Pete took the time to really look around, and I’ll admit that that one felt rather well made.

But don’t expect a copy! They naturally tried to incorporate their personal vision into it as well. Overall, the parts of the vault that we saw did look rather good, with a few minor exceptions. Personal downers for instance were the way the vault door opens, the vault jumpsuits and the tool belts. It should also be noted that the vault had a distinctively darker feel to it, and appeared less well maintained (compared to Fallout’s isometric view of the vault, not as much some of the talking heads, which sometimes had pretty dark backgrounds in the vault).

But then again, it might as well be a wrong impression from my part…

When you first go out did you get the same feeling of suspense and danger that many had in the beginning of Fallout 1?

BN: No, but I wasn’t playing the game, just watching it. The “temporarily blinded by the sun” effect is really well-done, though, and shows visually what Fallout 1 wrote: “you see the sun for the first time”. Other than that, I imagine it feels similar to the start of Baldur’s Gate, your guardian just disappeared and you’re tossed into the world.

S: Technically and visually, it was rather nice. One of the few valid uses of bloom, even. It was nicely played out. The vault dweller steps out of the cave and is blinded by the sunlight. That’s a nice touch. However, I never had a feeling of suspense or danger. This could be because the quest leading up to leaving the vault was pretty much skipped (with the guards movements disabled and whatnot). Still, I think any real sense of danger would be shattered by the childish and vulgar attempt at humor of laying two corpses at the entrance with a “let us in motherf*ckers”-sign.

Are the facial expressions really better than what we saw in Oblivion?

BN: No. The facial animations are better, the NPC don’t look as badly crafted as they did in Oblivion, but expressions? Same as Oblivion, and kind of a joke compared to Mass Effect.

S: Better than Oblivion for those that we did get to see, I’d say. Especially the key NPCs. But probably not better than some fanmade Oblivion mods… And certainly subpar when compared to contemporary games.

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Do you think the areas will feel different between each other, or at that point was there still a lot of repetition on the textures and architecture?

BN: Areas do feel different. Desert, vault, wooden shacks in Springvale, Junktown-look in Megaton and concrete buildings all looked unique.

S: While BN is correct in that we did see a few different settings, I think it’s too hard to say from such a short preview… But I’d also like to point out that repetition in textures and architecture isn’t necessarily bad, especially not in a supposedly huge & open post apocalyptic world. Repetition can be turned into a tool, if used correctly.

Either way, the architecture didn’t look too bad and some had some nice flavor to it, but it appears to have been rather hit & miss overall. There certainly is hope for those who hope to see an awesome post-apoc world, but obviously only if they put the necessary work into it. Whether they will is another matter entirely.

From the pics we’ve seen I personally found the environments well made and believable from a Fallout standpoint. Yet you’ve seen the game in motion, what were your impressions?

BN: Environments don’t move. That said, most of it looks like standard post-apocalyptic stuff, Bartertown-esque towns, Silent City-esque ruins. A bit too bland for Fallout, and it could well use more than just a sprinkling of the retrofuture and unique Brazil influences to be less generic PA.

S: Yeah, it often lacks flavour or inspiration, but every now and then there is a little gem to be discovered. I also got the feeling that the parts we saw were pretty much designed around a single purpose, with the exception of a few token ‘choices’. Which is no surprise since it was a demo, but only time will tell if the area design will leave the player as much options as in the previous Fallout games.

Did the dialogs felt as their presentation was finished, or do you think it will be different in the end?

BN: I’m not sure what you mean. They looked, visually, like Oblivion dialogue, and that’s probably what it’ll look like in the end.

S: On the side of the audio, there were a few hick-ups and quite a few bland portions in the soundbits that hopefully will get some more love and attention, but I think the largest parts of the dialog that we saw were considered finished by Bethesda.

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Did you have the impression that the most pulled back camera will have any interest in the final game, or was just a gimmicky thing?

BN: It’s not supposed to function, it’s just there because the game is 3D anyway so why not? As far as I know, it’s not supposed to be a “feature” as such, so it’s not even a gimmick.

S: I disagree. They did go through the hassle to attempt to make the PC walk up steps correctly and stuff like that. Pete also said that they were planning on giving the 3rd person over the shoulder view some more love, because apparently quite a lot European gamers were disappointed by the horrible 3rd person view in Oblivion.

Either way, at the moment it appears that the way it behaves indoor is pretty borked. But if they fix that, I’m sure some people will find it a worthwhile playmode. Even if they don’t, it’s probably a little change of scenery if you use that view while exploring the open wastes.

But if you’re expecting it to behave as a substitute for isometric, it simply won’t do…

Anything in the humor that lead you to believe that Bethesda is on the right track?

BN: Not really. Just a lot of childish cracks, too much joke-density, closer to Fallout 2 than Fallout 1 (though not identical to either) in execution and showing an unnecessarily juvenile obsession with swearing and gore. Darkly ironic humor? Didn’t see much of it. The skeletons outside the vaults and some of the signs dotting the landscape were closest. The exact text on the skeletons’ signs, the Protectron encounter in the subway, blowing people’s heads off or that sad, sad joke with Mr Handy really aren’t even remotely close, though.

S: As we mentioned in the preview, Beth’s humor is very hit & miss. Some parts I loved, but most parts I utterly loathed. So there surely is potential, but whether it will be tapped? I couldn’t say.

I wouldn’t say that the humor was “out there” like Fallout 2, but it certainly isn’t the -often subtle and nearly always dark- humor of Fallout1. I’d say the humor used was mostly slapstick and often somewhat childish or vulgar, but every once in a while, there were a few gems that really did make me smile.

—X—

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What did you think of the reactions on the web, inside and outside the community?

BN: What, to the review? I think people appreciated the density of information. As one press guy told me, it is the “next closest thing to having seen the demo”, and that’s good.

S: I was quite pleased with the feedback we received. I think most reactions validated our work, which is of course always nice. While many fans told us we had confirmed their fears, others told us that they would give FO3 a chance while they had been very negative on the subject before. While our own opinions were strong, I think we did a good job at telling people what we had seen at the best of our capability.

Even the professional press chipped in, usually with a kind word here and there. With the exception of a few overly negative comments of course… But overall, the reactions were rather positive.

Apparently many fans thought it good enough to donate a little bit of money, which meant we were able fund the trip without too much of a financial hangover. Thanks again for that, guys! Much appreciated.

I think people forget that since Bethesda owns the license, it would be very easy for them to completely ignore everything done in the past and make their own game, but they are trying to be faithful at least- whether or not it actually turns out to be a good game.

Do you agree with this assessment after watching the demo?

BN: No. That assessment fails to recognise that Bethesda is working on a franchise and their ownership of the license doesn’t change that or the consumer expectations. And I think the assertion that they are “trying to be faithful” is a simplification of what Bethesda is doing with the license, which is more a mix and match of inspirations from different games, including Fallout, and their own touch.

S: It’s no secret that Bethesda is “doing what they do best”. That while more or less adhering to the general Fallout background. But to call it faithful? I wouldn’t, not as a Fallout sequel anyway. I think I would have been more lenient if they had made this a spin-off, like Fallout: East Coast, but they didn’t. There are certain things you grow to expect from a sequel…

From what I’ve seen, they’re not especially faithful to the spirit of the game, nor to the established canon. They simply take what they like, and discard the rest.

Has NMA got any more tricks up in their sleeves for the future?

BN: No.

S: I wouldn’t know. While not “up” anyone’s “sleeve”, I’m going to request another press invite for the next demonstration in Europe. Who knows, maybe they like honest reporters?

Is there anything else you wished you had added or changed to your articles at the time?

BN: No.

S: More detail, deeper analysis, broader opinion pieces, and perhaps a list of pointers for Bethesda? That would’ve been nice, but I’m very happy with what we published. While there’s always room for improvement, I don’t feel as if anything requires fixing.

Any message to the Bethesda developers?

BN: It’d be great if they made an effort to grasp what Fallout is actually “about” more. That’s not really up to them, though, Bethesda isn’t a very creative company (if you don’t understand what I mean by that, consider that Bethesda hasn’t created any original IP since Weaver left, that apparently ZeniMax didn’t trust them to make their own IP and instead had to purchase one), and that stifling influence comes from PR and the producers.

S: Well, if I could say something to Bethesda, it likely wouldn’t be aimed at the developers. I think that most devs that are really interested in Fallout already read sites like NMA and already listen to fans. And those that aren’t interested in Fallout itself would likely not be interested in what a Fallout fan would have to say about ‘their’ game, so that would be a lost cause.

However, I’d ask the PR and community management to start a real dialog with the fans, rather than giving them some token attention and interaction. I’d also ask them to treat fansites like real press. Afterall, sites like NMA are bigger than some of the other ‘news’ websites that received an official invitation. The only difference being that Bethesda is nearly sure to receive a “future GAME OF THE YEAR 200X”-preview from those smaller press sites, while they know that sites like NMA will paint a bigger picture, both good & bad. But in the end, do you really think yet another “GAME OF THE YEAR”-preview affects more people than an honest review? Perhaps even Bethesda has now noticed that a lot of fans responded more positively to Fallout 3 now that they saw a real preview instead of yet another rehashed propaganda leaflet.

—X—

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