Homework Notes: Fallout

Years ago, I played a little bit of Fallout 2, which gave me a basic understanding of the game's gemeplay, but I didn't really enjoy it and I stopped playing after something like two or three hours. But I had watched several in-depth videos on the first Fallout in particular over the last year, that widely praised it for its accomplishments and dove deeper into its gameplay mechanics. So when I started thinking about what kind of game I would want to make, and zeroing in on some kind of isometric RPG, Fallout was one of the main references for how I want to approach things. Though I'm not really that much interested in the series, having played Fallout at least once will surely be hugely valuable in the future. This really is part of the necessary homework to get into developing this kind of game.

Having now played some 10-12 hours of Fallout, I have to say my most objective assessment would be "I am not enjoying the game. To phrase my overall perception in the most positive way, I think that looking at Fallout side to side with Baldur's Gate is like looking at Nosferatu and Casablanca.

Nosferatu is a groundbreaking and classic movie, with incredible importance for movies as a medium. It's a huge achievement and the creators were clearly having an amazing creative vision for what their work in particular but also the medium as a whole could be. But it doesn't change the fact that on a technological level, it's incredibly crude and primitive. And the same goes with Fallout.

Fallout was developed from 1994 to 1997, while Baldur's Gate was in development from 1995 to 1998. So basically concurrently and with the same total development time. And the difference in quality is like night and day. The only aspect in which Fallout gets the same score as Baldur's Gate is its music, which is still really damn good. I am understanding of the facts that the Baldur's Gate developers had a much larger team and apparently much greater resources. And I think the developers of Fallout probably did the best job they had the capacity to do. But at the end of the day, the game that shipped looks crude and primitive in comparison. My impression is that Fallout seems to be severely underdeveloped and unfinished. This game probably would have needed another year of development, perhaps even two. Though of course, a five year development at that time would have been completely outrageous.

If you can't be a good example, you can still be a terrible warning. There is still a lot to learn from this game, and the experience playing Fallout will surely be highly useful for me in trying to create a similar game of my own. So here's the notes I've been taking on Fallout's design I've been taking while playing, which are like my playtest notes I would give to the developers.

  • A hexagonal movement grid, isometric square tiles for the backgrounds, and a cartesian mini-map screen do not work well together in the same game. In particular, the mini-map is nearly useless because its looking at the level from a completely different perspective than what you see normally.
  • The time it takes for enemies to take their turns in combat takes too long on the default speed setting. You can increase the combat speed, but then the movement animations look silly. This obviously would have had to been worked out before all the sprites for all the characters had been created and probably impossible to fix later without remaking everything.
  • The transition from normal mode to combat mode and back takes too long. In particular, when walking through a cave with aggressive rats, that have a very short aggro range and can die to a single attack, combat often last for just one round and you have eight or ten fights in a row. The little animations of the UI when the game enters and leaves combat made becomes very tedious even if it's under two seconds long.
  • At the start of combat, sometimes the enemy makes the first turn and then the player character gets both the second and the third turn. Since backing away from an enemy with leftover action points, and letting the enemy close up and burn through its action points is usually a great tactic, backing away and the enemy then not following is really annoying, as you have to walk back to the spot you just left to make a close range attack yourself.
  • The mouse cursor having a movement mode and an interact mode that you switch by clicking the right mouse button is annoying and pointless. You never want to click "observe" on the ground that you can walk on. It should just be interact mode by default, and if you click on walkable ground it does movement.
  • Menu screens like inventory and character screen are opened by clicking on a button on the main UI bar at the bottom, but the button to close them is on a very different location on the screen. And you first have to close the current screen before you can open a different menu screen. Clicking the button that opened the screen should also close it again.
  • Having all the inventory items in a single column, with only five items showing at a time, is really annoying. No ability to sort items in any way is also annoying.
  • When trading items, seeing their value only once they are pulled into the trade section is annoying.
  • Having to manually move your own money or the trader's money into the trade section to make up the difference in value of the goods being exchanged is also annoying. The game should automatically fill in the difference and then allow you to modify that to barter for a different deal.
  • Accessing the skill buttons by first opening a UI sidebar feels clunky.
  • Most of the skills seems useless. In 12 hours of playtime (and I think I'm halfway through the game), I have not taken a single injury that would need the Doctor skill to fix. I have not seen any opportunities to use Traps or Outdoorsman either, and only a single use for Science.
  • Most of the houses in the towns that you can go inside have nothing at all in them. Which always feels disappointing.
  • Most of the crates and shelves that you can search have nothing in them. In that case, there's no point in letting you search them.
  • NPCs that have meaningful dialog should in some way stand out from the crowd. The all brown and grey color palette of the game does not help the game in that regard.
  • During dialogs, the NPCs name should be visible somewhere in the dialog screen. This greatly helps with the NPCs name staying in the player's memory later.
  • If an NPC tells you to talk with another NPC, the dialog should include hints where you should go looking for that NPC.
  • The scale of the environment tiles for settlements is much too large for the screen area that you can see. Buildings often get so huge that you have no sense of their shape and the street layout between them, as you can only see such a tiny portion of the environment at any given moment and you can only move the screen in the vicinity of the player character. Almost no distinguishing colorful environment features does not help.
  • The way that settlements are split into different maps does not help. Having only the current map on the mini-map makes navigation through larger towns even more confusing.
  • The area transitions between maps of a town are often placed in seemingly random and unpredictable spots and can be hard to find or easy to miss.
  • Objects being hidden by the player facing walls is annoying. Having the walls become transparent if they cover up the character only helps very little with that. Clicking door when standing right behind them becomes nearly impossible.
  • Clicking any ladders is really difficult as their area is too small.
  • Enemies that pursue the player character to area transitions and then staying in their position when the player returns to the map can quite easily soft block part of the game. The player might return to the area hours later when it's no longer feasible to load the last save to avoid provoking them in the first place.
  • The game auto-saving on all area transitions is absolutely mandatory!
  • The game should have an auto-save function. Not just a hotkey to take you to the regular save menu.
  • In-game time in a given area seems to move at the pace of real time. Since you probably stay in one town for only an hour or two at the most, this feature is pretty pointless and you have to manually wait for daytime or nighttime to see the time making any progress.
  • Skill books that increase your skills when you use them need an explanation how you use them.
  • Badly wounded NPCs sometimes try to run away. You only get XP for them if you follow them and kill them. Letting enemies that are no longer a threat go should not cost you XP.
  • By default, the character moves slowly unless you hold shift when you click the ground to move. Which is much too slow given the map sizes. You can enable always-running in the options, but then the character will automatically leave stealth mode when given a movement command. The character being in stealth should override auto-running.
  • Being able to have only two items equipped at a time is frustrating. It's interesting for tactics in combat, but annoying most of the rest of the time.
  • Using items directly from the inventory uses really fiddly mouse inputs. (Right click anywhere to put the cursor into observation mode. Left click and hold on the item and then move the mouse down to expand the interactions menu. The selected action activates when you release the left button, making it easy to drop items when you don't mean to.
  • Several areas have NPC saying they won't talk to you if you hold a weapon. If you have two weapons equipped to be ready in a fight, you have to go into the inventory menu and move one of the weapons from the equipment slot to make it empty. If the game wants you to not hold a weapon at times, there should be a UI button that lets you draw and holster the active weapon.
  • When reloading a gun set to burst fire, it automatically resets to single shot mode. (I lost half a dozen death claw fights because I wasted a round firing only one shot instead of eight.)
  • Special item interactions need better explanations. The repair parts for the water pump in Necropolis being labeled "junk" is misleading. Having to equip the junk like a weapon and using it on the water pump is not intuitive. Clicking on the pump while having the junk in the inventory should be enough. Planting the bug "in Gizmo's office" requires you to use "Steal" on Gizmo himself and then move the bug from your inventory into his. This is not intuitive.
  • The dialog writing is all very lackluster. Quests like Kilian and Gizmo in Shady Sands are way too short.
  • Towns seems to have barely anything in them. Shady Sands being particularly bad, but Junktown too.