Fallout 3 Interview

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posted 10/23/2008 by John Yan
other articles by John Yan
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Can you introduce yourself and talk about your role on the project? How did you get into the game industry and what drew you to the field?
My name is Emil Pagliarulo, and I’m Fallout 3’s Lead Designer and Writer. It was basically my job to come up with the game’s main story, quests, and gameplay and guide the other designers as they implemented all of my insane ideas.

I first entered the industry as a writer and editor of the Adrenaline Vault website back in the day. My first design job was with Looking Glass Studios, working on Thief 2. I had actually reviewed Thief 1 for the Adrenaline Vault (and worshipped it), so that helped get my foot in the door at Looking Glass. It was a dream job back then, and it still is to this day.

Fallout is a property that a great deal of gamers hold in high regard. How nervous were you when you first heard/decided to take on the task of creating a third game in the series? Is there added pressure to create a game where the level of expectations is very high?
Not really, but part of that is because I don’t think I was fully cognizant of just how highly some gamers regarded the property. I mean, I had always loved Fallout; so did everyone else at Bethesda. That’s the very reason we wanted to obtain the license in the first place. But as a gamer I’ve played lots of titles, and there are other licenses I love as well. I’ve never been completely attached to just one game the way some fans are attached to Fallout, so it was interesting coming into that.

So that ignorance on my part was sort of to my benefit, because I was able to go into all of this without that pressure. I just wanted to make an awesome Fallout game, and a sequel that was true to the originals. I wasn’t concerned with meeting anyone’s expectations but my own.


The Fallout series has a fairly strong following, was it difficult to balance their expectations with the game that you wanted to create? What are some of the more "interesting" feedback you've received with your approach to the game?
Look, in the years since Fallout 2 was released, the game’s community has only grown stronger. You know, it never dissipated – it survived, and those fans became incredibly attached to the existing games. They knew what they liked, and what they wanted from a new Fallout. There are some people who love our vision of the game, and others who clearly aren’t as enthused at our approach to the license. And that’s what’s great about the internet – that “interesting” feedback is just a click away! It doesn’t take long to find some of the more colorful comments.

Was there a mindset change from working on Oblivion to Fallout 3? What's been the core design idea behind Fallout 3? Were there major things that changed from the original design of the game that were unexpected?
There was certainly a mindset change, as far as design is concerned. We knew we wanted to use our existing technology, but also give players a much different role-playing experience than that offered by Oblivion. Oblivion is about being all things to all people – after 200 hundred hours, you look back and find that you’ve created a sort of super character. You’re the head of the Fighter’s Guild, and the head of the Dark Brotherhood, and you’ve closed all the Oblivion gates… In Fallout 3, we knew we wanted the player to have an experience that was at the same time more intimate, and more meaningful. Call it old school RPG if you’d like, but in Fallout 3, you create a more specific type of character, and part of that is making some hard choices, and having to stand by them.

How big is the development team for Fallout 3 compared to Oblivion? What did you learn from working on Oblivion that you applied to the development of Fallout 3?
The team is a bit bigger, but not by that much. We’re always improving our internal processes, and always learning (at least, trying to learn!), so applying lessons learned is all part of the experience. Structurally, Fallout 3 has really benefitted from the work of our dedicated level design team. It’s the first time we’ve had really specialized level designers – you know, those guys who really straddle the line between art and design – and the gameplay spaces in Fallout 3 are markedly better because of the great work they did.


How will the missions work out in Fallout 3? Any chance you could describe some of the new mission types we'll be seeing in the game?
For us it’s never been about trying to squeeze in a certain number of quest types, or filling a quota. For Fallout 3, we really just wanted to tell some interesting stories, and give the player a chance to make real choices and determine the outcomes of those quests. So there are fewer quests than there were in Oblivion, but they’re much richer, much deeper. Most have multiple paths and solutions. And, because it’s Fallout, even the simplest task might seem like a clear-cut fetch quest on the surface, and then reveal itself to be something much deeper. So we had a lot of fun with that.

My first viewing of any game footage was the presentation at last year's E3 which I must say was one of the big highlights of the show for me? How did you feel after you showed off the game a few times and heard and saw the reaction from the crowd? Did it feel like a weight was lifted knowing that so many fans have approved on your change from a top down view to a third person view as well as all the other game design changes?
Well, we won that E3 Best of Show award and yeah, it was pretty amazing. Because, you know, we had a hands on demo for the press. So we felt like there was no B.S. there, it wasn’t us giving some kind of smoke and mirrors staged demo, it was, “Here’s Fallout 3. Play it for a while and then let us know what you think.” So when we won that award, it was pretty clear that the press folks who played the game enjoyed it for what it was. And that was amazing for us.

The other really exciting time for us was at PAX, the Penny Arcade Expo. At E3, we let the press play the game. At PAX, we let the public play. And let me tell you, that was nerve wracking, trying to anticipate the reaction of average gamers. Would they like it? Would they get what we were trying to do? And you know what? It was amazing. Our booth was jammed with people. I mean, the game became this sort of spectator sport, with people cheering and yelling as someone played. It was crazy. I think that’s when we really knew we were on to something.


It's been so long since there was a Fallout game. What were some of the things you did to prepare you for creating a world in the style that Fallout is known for? Did you play a lot of the previous games again? Did you draw on other influences?
Yeah, personally, I replayed all the Fallout games again, just to sort of get my head back into the experience. I was actually amazed how well Fallout ran on my machine with no tweaking!

I also watched (or in a lot of cases re-watched) pretty much every post-apocalyptic movie I could get my hands on. The amazing thing about the post-apocalyptic film genre is that there are so many variations of the theme. It ranges from the serious to the over-the-top to the comedic to the downright depressing. I guess global nuclear war has that effect on people – it’s the most horrible thing imaginable, so it’s hard to look at it realistically… it’s just SO soul crushing. In Fallout 3 we emphasize the comedic and exciting aspects so you don’t have a nervous breakdown.

Will the PC version feature Mod support? Is there any chance we'll see mods make their way to the PS3 version (like how Epic is doing with Unreal Tournament 3)?
No news yet on if, or when, that might be possible. Our tools only are supported on PC. As far as user created content on a console, that’s really more on the side of the console manufacturers and what they’re comfortable with allowing people to release and play. I don’t see that happening for games like ours any time soon.

Why develop a PC version at all? Given piracy and all the other issues with PC gaming why did you decide to release a PC version?
Bethesda’s been around the block a few times now, and we got our start on the PC. So we’ve still got quite a few old school fans who played the early Elder Scrolls games (not to mention other stuff, like the Terminator titles) on the PC. So there’s no way we’re going to abandon those fans.

From a production standpoint, developing a PC game is fairly easy for us, since all of our tools are on the PC, and we can get the game up and running instantly on that platform. The real difficulty for us is in stuff like compatibility testing. Our games are huge, right? So it’s difficult for us to test all the different permutations within the game itself. What if I do this quest, and then chose this path of this quest? Etc. Now throw endless hardware configurations into that mix and the amount of testing we need to do becomes mind numbing. But in the end, it’s worth it for us, and for gamers, certainly.


Bethesda obviously learned a lot (both good and bad) about downloadable content with Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Can you talk about your DLC strategy a bit? Will it all be pay for content or are you looking at some free content as well?
The plan is to do for-pay downloadable content. We’re looking at pretty meaty stuff, similar in size to the Knights of the Nine DLC for Oblivion.

You know, when we first did the Oblivion DLC, what I think people forget is that we were one of the first developers to offer ANY kind of downloadable content on Xbox Live. So we were really testing the waters. Horse armor has become kind of infamous, but for us, back then, it was us testing the service out. We really didn’t know what gamers wanted, or what was even the right price point. So we’ve certainly learned some lessons there, and have been proceeding appropriately and they’re still hugely popular on Oblivion, even today.

Like Oblivion the game has a moral choices though out the game, based on customer feedback/your own stats do most people tend to play it good, evil, or somewhere down the middle? Does that impact your design decisions at all?
I don’t know what it is, but for some reason, I love designing “evil” gameplay. I love letting the player get into that really dark place, and experience something really sinister. I always have a sense of humor about it, but it’s something I can’t resist. That sort of started with some of the work I did in Thief 2, and definitely carried over into the Dark Brotherhood questline in Oblivion, and boy of boy is there some of that stuff in Fallout. I mean, even beyond the gameplay videos that have been released. You have no idea! But part of this – and this is the interesting thing – I have real difficulty playing an “evil” character in a game. So I love designing that stuff, but when it comes time to playing it, I just can’t do it. I think I have a serious Catholic guilt complex, to be honest.

Fortunately, most people don’t seem to share my aversion, and love to play the evil characters, so at least I know it’s not wasted work! Bottom line, it’s just really fun to let loose and be evil and do whatever the hell you want – which is to say, everything you can’t do in the real world.


Fallout 3 is a large open world game that allows for a lot of freedom, can you talk about how that impacts the design of the game and do you feel that you have to put things in place to keep the players on track with the plot of the game or do they do that themselves?
These large open world games have become Bethesda’s trademark, and with each new title we become better and better at it, I think. A big part of that is knowing how to keep the player on track, and putting the gameplay in his or her face. So while it’s a giant open world, we always make sure the player has an objective that points them toward the next part of the main quest. You can go off and wander all you like, but at any time, you can look at where you’re supposed to go and pick up where you left off.

The other part of this is making sure there’s plenty of additional gameplay on that main quest path. So say the player is sticking to the main quest – we make sure they stumble over some miscellaneous quests along the way. We’re always directing the player, really, it’s just that most of the time it’s so subtle you never even realize it.

One of the big new features in the game is the V.A.T.S. system in the game, what was the inspiration behind the feature? How do you incorporate a feature like this without interrupting the flow of the game? How has the V.A.T.S. system evolved over time?
Fundamentally, the inspiration for V.A.T.S. came from the Aimed Shots in Fallout 1 and 2. If you look at V.A.T.S., you can sort of see the natural evolution there. But for us, it wasn’t just a matter of wanting to copy what the previous games did. We knew we were going to have lots of first- and third-person combat, and wanted it to be just as much about character skill as it would be player skill. That’s really what V.A.T.S. accomplishes – it’s all character skill, and doesn’t require crazy twitch skills.

It really took putting the system in and playing with it to see where it fit most naturally into the course of the game. For a while we wrestled with the complexity of it. You know, what should V.A.T.S. be? Should it be a much more robust, tactical component? Should we allow the player to do more in V.A.T.S.? But we realized how much that would slow down the pace of the game. I think one of the beauties of the system is that it is so fast. You go in, you queue up your moves, you leave, and you see them played out cinematically. So the gameplay flow isn’t interrupted. It’s the opposite, really – V.A.T.S. feels like a natural element WITHIN the flow of combat. So we’re really happy with the end result.


Is there anything important about the game that we didn't talk about? Safe to assume we won't see a demo for the game?
Nope, no demo. We prefer to put our resources into making the actual game, and besides, with a world this big, you just can’t get an accurate assessment after playing a small demo and there’s no way to just rip a part of the game out and have it work. It’s one big, giant, interconnected “thing.”

One thing I think your readers should know is that, whether you played the old Fallouts or not, Fallout 3 is its own beast. We created what we feel is a really fun game, and we want you to experience it any way you want – good, evil, or somewhere in between. We’re really proud of what we accomplished, and hope you can find a home in the Capital Wasteland!

Fallout 3 hits stores next week.  We'd like to thank Emil for taking the time to answer our questions and to Kate for helping to coordinate the interview