Interview: How Bethesda is turning Fallout 76 around to win back fans

Two of the minds behind Fallout 76 share how they're improving the game.

Bethesda is well-known for crafting rich RPGs that capture the most important aspects of the genre. They’re also known for having some severely unstable games but fans can usually look past that because the games are solid. That wasn’t the case for Fallout 76, an online-only RPG.

Fallout 76 took out some of the most beloved fan elements of Fallout and on top of that, it was wildly broken. The game was thrashed by fans, critics, and YouTubers, garnering scores lower than a 5/10 and being publicly shamed. It was a humiliating time for Bethesda to say the least.

How could they truly recover? Well, it looks like they know how. At E3, they announced a battle royale mode on top of a whole new main quest that adds dialogue choices, NPCs, and much more. It’s what fans truly want. I got to sit down with co-studio director Marc Tardif and project leader Jeff Gardiner at E3 to talk about their journey from Fallout 76’s launch last November to now.

So, the elephant in the room. Back in November, you had a bit of a rough launch but you’re making a strong effort to turn things around. What was the thought process/mindset after the release in November?

Marc Tardif: Determination. [Bethesda Game Studios] makes good, quality games so we said “Let’s make this a good, quality game” and that’s what we’ve been doing for the last year.

Todd Howard recently said that maybe that the game wasn’t totally ready for launch, was that a studio-wide thought?

Jeff Gardiner: Well, let me first clarify what he meant. We were pretty enthusiastic about the early reactions to the game and once it went live and we went from a small pool of users to an incredibly big pool of users, many things happened including a bunch of game-breaking bugs that we didn’t realize were there. We were determined to fix them as quickly as possible and in hindsight, we would’ve left the beta open longer and had longer periods of beta.

Fallout 76

Is it nice to know – and I know you’re going to say yes to this but elaborate – that there are people who don’t want to give up on Fallout 76, even those who are lapsed players?

[both laugh]

Tardif: Absolutely. The core of the fanbase and the community that plays [Fallout 76] and has over the last year, they’re the reasons why we’re still doing this. They’re the rock that we’re building this product on top of and for, they’ve been incredibly supportive of us. They are one of the – I think Todd mentioned this in the showcase – the nicest gaming communities you’ll ever meet. There are people whose sole way they play Adventure Mode is that they’re a welcoming committee for new users. They just hang outside the entrance of Vault 76 and if they see a new user, they take them under their wing, give them a bunch of stuff, and give them tours of Appalachia. What other game are there people that do that kind of stuff?

Was the new content a direct reaction to the criticisms the game faced or was it always planned?

Tardif: It’s not necessarily a reaction to the criticisms, it’s a reaction to the feedback because we’ve had a lot of positive feedback from our community. So, when we sought out to figure out what does the roadmap for [Fallout 76] look like over the next 18 – 24 months, we had our own ideas for what we wanted to do but we also spent a lot of time just listening to feedback and taking the input from the community and Jeff can speak to Wastelanders and where we’re going with that. There was a lot of influence from the community that made us go in that direction.

Gardiner: Obviously, when you take NPCs out of a game from a game maker that’s used to making RPGs, you’re setting a tone. We really were committed to having the players be the NPCs, we saw fruit from that quite a bit but at the end of the day, we know what we do best and we saw this as a huge opportunity to introduce the NPCs into the wasteland. That said, the existing game is going to fully be there. So players enjoying player vending and all the things they’re doing that’s making the community wonderful will still be there, we’re just adding this on top of that.

Nuclear Winter is a game mode we’ve wanted to do for a while and we thought it fit so well into the Fallout universe… [looks at Marc Tardif] Do you want to talk about Nuclear Winter a little?

Fallout 76

Tardif: Yeah so, a lot of people have asked ‘How far back did you know you were going to make a battle royale game?’ and the answer is not very far back. What we did know is that we wanted to provide users an experience that was shorter, in and out type thing. Most people playing adventure mode are in there for hours at a time but we wanted something where someone can get in and out in 20 minutes but have an experience that still felt like Fallout. We did a bunch of prototypes and Todd Howard actually suggested ‘Let’s try to prototype a battle royale game just for the heck of it’.

We all play battle royale games we’re all huge fans of them so we did. Even in its roughest state, it was incredibly fun and I know it’s ridiculous, why would we do this? It’s just so fun, let’s just keep going with it! Next thing we know, we’re launching it at E3 and the world loves it. Going forward with Nuclear Winter just like Adventure Mode, we’re going to listen to the community and we’re going to steer the product in the direction the community wants us to go.

Some people would say that Fallout’s gunplay’s not exactly meant for PVP but that has improved over Fallout 4 and Fallout 76 especially. Is there any polish being done for battle royale or is mostly remaining as is?

Tardif: There was a great deal of work that the team on Nuclear Winter did for the general feel of combat. If you grab [Fallout 76] today, a lot of those improvements have made their way back into Adventure Mode like simple things like damage indicators when you shoot stuff. That was something we brought back over, it just helps that feedback of combat. So yeah, the team is working on improvements all the time that are both beneficial to Adventure Mode and Nuclear Winter.

Gardiner: Little things like aiming down sights is faster, the responsiveness of the guns are better, still maybe not 100% competitive with certain games but we’re doing our best to make it as competitive as possible and to do so going forward.

Nuclear Winter’s not in a full launch but a version is out right now?

Tardif: Nuclear Winter is out right now in what we call a sneak peek for E3 so we could get it out there for the free week to see what people thought of it. Then, we’re going to make some decisions after with what we’re going to do with the mode going forward.

Fallout 76

You guys are adding NPCs to Fallout 76, how does that play in an online setting? Are the NPCs reacting uniquely to you, are they closed off and reacting one way to me and another way to my friend?

Gardiner: Yes, one of the biggest hurdles we’ve had to do for Wastelanders is to reintroduce our dialogue/camera system and how this works with multiple players talking to a single NPC. So, there are two ways this will happen: Right now, you will get your own instance of the camera. Three of us will be talking to you and all three of us will see a unique conversation happening because we’d just go to a different camera.

We’re also putting instancing tech in our vault raids that are coming this summer which means once you go into a door, you’ll go into another version of the world that is unique to you or your team. So, we’re going to heavily use that for settlements and stuff so that if you do certain actions to certain NPCs or certain points of a quest will affect those instances differently from other people.

With the new main quest line, is the old one still there?

Gardiner: Yes, the old one is still there, we’re bolting this on top of it. We might have to slightly change certain things to make sure the spaces work but we’re definitely keeping the old main quest, we like that journey.

Do you have to finish the old one to do the new one?

Gardiner: Nope! You can do them in parallel, so an old player can go back to the vault and start back at the start of that quest. We’ll also be able to pick it up at some of the settlements we’re adding to the game, so you can pick it up mid-way if you want. Like most Bethesda games, you can sort of enter and exit these things as you will. A new player coming out of the vault will pretty much experience new content.

Fallout 76

This is obviously a lot of content but the question always is ‘What happens next?’

Gardiner: We have a roadmap that takes us easily through next year, the biggest thing to remember is that we’re committed to both private servers and modded private servers so those are still on our roadmap. We just haven’t been able to commit to dates on that, I know fans are really excited about that and I’m really excited about that.

And, remember, we’re doing vaults this year, we’re adding more events into the game, we’re going to take a hard look at our character progression so high-level players will have something to entice them to keep moving forward. We’re calling it the legendary character system, we’re looking at a wholelistic balance pass across the whole game for Wastelanders so that high-level players and low-level players can still participate in events and other things together so new players don’t feel so overwhelmed when they come out of the vault by level 300s. We’ve got a lot on our plate!

Tardif: We want the gaming community to know that Bethesda is 100% behind [Fallout 76] and it’s going to be around for a while, it’s going to continue to grow and change. Who knows what it’s going to look like a year from now?

Gardiner: We want to revisit seasonal events, we’re more than 100% committed to Fallout 76.

Fallout 76

A friend of mine who is really big into Fallout 76 wanted to know if you’ll add other Bethesda game items to the cosmetic store like the Doomguy or Skyrim helmets?

[both laugh]

Gardiner: Maybe… maybe. It’s one of those things that for us, I get the cross-promotional elements of those and I think they’re cool but they’re a little immersion breaking for me so we’ll see. I have mixed feelings on them, personally.

Tardif: As do I, I think it would be cool but I can see the argument against it.

Gardiner: Some people really want to live in a Fallout universe, so when you see a Doomguy running across the map, it’s cool, don’t get me wrong but it’s a smashing of worlds.

Thank you to Marc Tardif, Jeff Gardiner, and Bethesda for helping with this interview. Fallout 76 is out now on Xbox One, PS4, and PC with the Wastelanders update coming this fall.