Why Bethesda needs Fallout like Vault 13 needs a Waterchip
A few weeks ago, Kieron Gillen predicted that Fallout 3 “will disappoint Fallout fans and delight everyone else”. He questioned why Bethesda bought the license if they could have an easier time of it just developing their own post-apocalyptic RPG from scratch. Why bother with a sequel if the fans of the series will be disappointed? His conclusion: “Bethesda are just dirty big Fallout fans and would love to play in the Sandbox.”
I think there’s more to it than that; ultimately, Bethesda needs Fallout. What’s more, they need Fallout 3 to please the fans. They didn’t need Fallout before announcing they had started work on the game, but they do now. It’s quite a journey getting to that conclusion, but take a seat next to this burning oil drum, help yourself to some rotgut… well, it’s mostly rotgut; don’t worry about the lumps… and let me explain.
There’s a fundamental key that any developer or publisher bravely striding into the Fallout universe should know, and if they don’t, they’ll learn it by the time their game is released: Fallout is all about the fans. The decent games stopped coming almost ten years ago; what’s left is a fanbase that’s notorious amongst geek and gaming culture for being rabid, mutated, angry, discordant, for infighting and for being argumentative and perverse. In other words, a fanbase that’s assumed many of the characteristics which placed Fallout outside the cosy campfire circle of Tolkien-themed fantasy worlds, an ugly, rejected duckling that turned into a beautiful two-headed swan. And the point, for an aspiring developer, is this: the route to any Fallout game’s success is through those fans.
I know what you’re thinking. Don’t credit yourself. A fanbase is disposable, especially if it’s not particularly large (though larger than you might think). Hell, Bethesda can make a new fanbase, a better and shinier one that supports cliffracer cameos in Vault 13’s living quarters. The Fallout community is old, it thinks its bark louder and its bite stronger than it really is, it’s about time someone brought out the shotgun and got all Ol’ Yeller on its ugly pock-faced ass.
Unfortunately, you’re wrong. Fallout 3’s success, measured both by sales and Bethesda’s subsequent reputation, hinges on the fans’ reaction to it. The reason is simple, and it’s to do with the core difference between the Elderscrolls, personified currently by Oblivion, and Fallout, personified since 1998 by its fanbase.
Oblivion is mainstream. Fallout is cult.
Allow me to elaborate. Oblivion’s fans are many and wide-reaching, and the game was an instant sales success. It sold on the attractiveness of its graphics and the concept of a massive world to do your thing in: a virtual sandbox. Fallout never sold much on release. Its sales were and still are a slow burn, achieved through word of mouth: whispered tales of shooting a village until all that remained was the radiated and parched ground, whilst holding down a drug addiction you needed to survive (and what did you say happened when that dog critically bit that guy’s groin?!). This was the Fallout experience’s sustenance: it adapted and changed and encouraged you. Besides, the guys who thought that village needed a good raising anyway had started taking an interest, and suddenly it dawns that the entire experience is moulding itself around your actions. If Oblivion is a sandbox, a square container which you can walk corner to corner, Fallout is silly-putty: malleable goop that shapes itself to your hand, something you’re free to stretch and pull before lobbing at absolutely anyone you like. No game-overs here; only consequences.
Most gamers have casually dipped in and out of Oblivion. You don’t dip in and out of Fallout; you’re either dunked in the vats, baptised and emerge remade, or you take one look at the bubbling green ooze and run away like a girl (mummy those things don’t look like elves!).
Cult is obsessive, cult is conversion to an idea. In Fallout’s case, cult has refused to let a game and the things it did fade from prominence, ten years after that game was released, nine years after its only true sequel, four years after its development house was closed forever and all staff made redundant, and 35 years after Watergate. Cult allowed Interplay to sell the Fallout licence to Bethesda for $5.75 million, and cult is what will determine Fallout 3’s success or failure. Some might say the game’s fans are a bunch of angry cults; that’d be right, too.
It’s the phenomenon of cult that makes it obligatory to mention the fanbase and their opinion in any review of a product bearing the Fallout name, in any discussion involving that game: Fallout is now as much about the fans as it is the wasteland. If you don’t believe me, just glance at reviews for the runt children of the series, Fallout: Tactics and Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel. Furthermore, those were released years ago; as the Fallout games get increasingly obscured by the glowing mists of time, the live and kicking fanbase grows in notoriety to fill their place. Mention Fallout these days to anyone who’s heard of it, and it’s likely to not only conjure up images of beef jerky and a dying, cracked world, but also of rabid, obsessive fans, snarling and foaming and ready to snap at any attempt to meddle with a shrine that they built and have been maintaining since 1997.
Occasionally, the beef jerky and cracked world comes behind thoughts of the fanbase; sometimes, not at all.
What I’m trying to say is this: Fallout and its fans have become one and the same, and you can’t sever one from the other. As life imitating art, they both, together, represent a chaotic and dangerous order (OK, as dangerous and chaotic as nerdy, mostly male twenty-somethings sat in front of computer screens can be), a break from the mainstream and something you can’t quite fully grasp without it shifting and slipping away. Developers may try to awkwardly solder the Fallout name onto something without fan support, but the end product will be weak and snap under pressure, leaving your investors gently weeping and wondering why the free thongs didn’t work.1
Fallout has become more than two games that did things a bit differently; it has been taken over by a fanbase that refused to let the original concept die despite repeated subsequent attempts to mutate it. It’s a fanbase that has charged itself with the series’ defence. Similar fan communities exist for other games, but nowhere to this extent: witness, for example, Deus Ex: Invisible War’s low sales, surely a result of the fanbase’s reaction, despite overwhelmingly positive reviews from the mainstream press.
The lessons are there to be learnt: if you’re working on a cult franchise, make sure you get it right. Cult is more than the sum of its parts, and the older the cult is, the more powerful its influence and the more it’s entrenched in the product.
For Fallout 3, the worst thing Bethesda could do is attempt to reinvent the franchise. They could dismiss the features the fanbase wants, such as turn-based tactical combat, as old and outdated and try to start over. They could disassociate themselves from the faithful to appeal to a new audience, fresh-faced and rosy-cheeked, untainted by a genre-defining back catalogue. I’m sure the commercial justification for this would be that the fanbase has lost its relevance (was it ever relevant?), is making irrational demands, and the angry noise coming from its members is merely an expression of the fear they hold of becoming completely insignificant; it’s either that, or trapped gas.
As this article has attempted to point out, even from a business perspective, that assumption would be a mistake. If Fallout 3 tries to start over whilst retaining the Fallout name, in a bid to garner an Oblivion-sized audience of casual, hardcore and inbetween gamers, and even if it is reviewed favorably… it will bomb. It’ll go down faster than a fat groupie on an aging rockstar; faster than a brahmin critically shot in the eye with a gauss rifle at point blank range in a puff of red and grey goop. It’ll fail just like Fallout: Tactics and Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel did before it, just like Deus Ex: Invisible War and Ultima 9 did in their respective franchises. Why? Because the fanbase is Fallout.
Furthermore, if a developer attempts to slice the fans from Fallout like a cancerous growth, that developer’s reputation and thus future will suffer. Despite the no-doubt positive initial reviews, any future mention of it (and it will be mentioned again and again whenever the company makes a new game) will include the obligatory tagline: ‘… but the game’s fanbase didn’t like it because… ’. A black mark against the developers’ name, a reputation forever tarnished. The game will fade into obscurity – the fans will remain, and the consumer constantly reminded.
So. What is in it for Bethesda? And why do they need Fallout like Vault 13 needs a water chip, like Lynette needs a lobotomy2? And was Kieron Gillen’s inference right: was buying the right to make Fallout 3 (and 4, and 5) a curse that will bring Bethesda more hassle than the effort is worth?
I doubt Bethesda realised this stuff when they initially acquired the license. From the outside, it looks like the decision to buy was a snap one; a legendary franchise going cheap from the desperate car-boot sale of a company teetering on the brink of (*ahem*) oblivion.
I suspect, however, Bethesda are becoming increasingly aware of the rock-solid umbilical cord between Fallout and its fans. The company is not as stupid as Interplay was in its final days, and Brotherhood of Steel still serves as a shining example of how the misapplication of thongs, hookers and drugs – all one would need, you would think, for a good time – can devastate a Fallout game.
It boils down to this. Bethesda have sunk enough time and money into Fallout 3 that they can’t back out without facing awkward questions from both gamers and shareholders. They need to finish it, and, given the lifeline between Fallout and its fanbase explained above, if they want a success and to keep their reputation, they need the fans to like it.
With the company’s gradual realization comes this niggling hunch that dares us to think the unthinkable, to dream the impossible dream: Bethesda might get it right.
They might only please a segment of the fanbase, but that will probably be enough, if the chunk is significant. Then the company’ll be hailed as having conquered the unconquerable anarchists of gaming, having satisfied the group of misfits that could never be satisfied. They will tower astride the Role Playing Game, each foot planted firmly at polar ends of the genre, having mastered the wide, open plains of the sandbox concept and the dusty, cragged maze of ravines that Fallout and its multiple paths represents. And if the fans are satisfied, commercial success will surely follow; a combination of Bethesda’s name and the common theme that will buzz around internet forums and echo in reviews: ‘the game has stayed true to the franchise’s roots and the fanbase’s hopes.’
Ok. I’ll sum up – this article’s gone on far too long already, and I see by your glass-eyed stare and dribbling mouth that the rotgut wasn’t so good after all (I did think the glow was odd, and usually it doesn’t start melting the bottle until after you’ve had a few). You’re probably keen to get to a medic, though a look at your quivering legs tells me you’re not going anywhere fast.
The basic point I’m making here is that when you’re dealing with cult, normal marketing rules don’t apply. You can’t think mass-market before thinking hardcore, and you can’t think hardcore before inserting an obligatory porn reference. Farmyard animals and hirsute women. Done. Moving on, the only reason Fallout was worth millions of dollars to Interplay was because of its hardcore fanbase, the only reason there’s an underground buzz about Fallout 3 is because of the dedication of a community that saw in Fallout something beautifully different from the crowd; something that still is beautifully different ten years on. Hell, the cult effect is why Interplay maintains the hope of making a spectacular financial recovery with a Fallout MMORPG (Ok, that one’s more likely to be down to some kind of hallucinogen addiction).
The common theme? The fanbase. Like chaos theory’s butterfly effect, the rules of cult dictate that the reactions of the few determine the course for the decisions of the many. Alienate those few, and you alienate your wider consumers. Alienate your consumers, and you lose money; more importantly, for a critically successful company like Bethesda, you lose reputation, which determines the development house’s future.
By publicly announcing Fallout 3, Bethesda have thrown in their lot with the franchise and its fanbase. There’s no turning back now, and there’s no denying it: Bethesda needs Fallout like Vault 13 needs a waterchip.
1 See: Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel‘s marketing campaign.
2 This is an admittedly slightly obscure Fallout 2 reference.