There are many different people working in this industry. They all bring their own perspectives and biases regarding video games and what make them good. This is no less true for the designers of video games. Each design team and each person on those teams brings different ideas and different viewpoints to the table. This week's article is about how these differences can lead to radically different games. Fortunately for me, there are two games that are perfect for this article as a way to compare/contrast design philosophies. They are very similar, yet fundamentally different due to the teams who created them and the circumstances behind their development. These games are the recent Fallout games: Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas.
I want to start off with a disclaimer: This is not a debate as to which one these games is better. This is just as analysis of different design philosophies resulting in fundamentally different games. These games are ideal for an analysis like this. Both of these games were developed with the same engine and are in the same “Open-World RPG” genre, meaning that they look and play very similarly. New Vegas improved on Fallout 3's mechanics, but did not significantly change them, so they are close enough that it does not impact the comparison to a significant degree. They are part of the same series, which means they are using the same lore and building on the same world. On most levels, these games are the exact same. The only differences between these two games are the result of design decisions, which puts them in the perfect position to compare and contrast on a purely design level.
Fallout 3 is made using Bethesda Softworks's standard rulebook for RPG design. They applied the same philosophies that governed the creation of hit titles like Oblivion or Skyrim when developing the third installment of the Fallout franchise. They favor building open sandboxes that the player is free to explore at will, which is reflected in the choices they made. The layout of the Capital Wasteland is wide-open and generally flat terrain, allowing players to see many of the world's set-pieces from a distance and encouraging them to travel around and explore each of them. When the player first exits the vault, he/she gets an amazing view of the nearby town Megaton, a school building to explore, and the image of the DC ruins in the distance, establishing several possible destinations that the player go choose to go to.
Another strength of typical Bethesda design is that they are very good at telling small, self-contained stories within their games through careful design of the environment and the people in them. I have talked about this briefly in the past in a previous article, but it cannot hurt repeat. Bethesda puts enough detail into the places and set-pieces that they all tell their own stories. It is hard to describe this in any way put through example. In the DC ruins, there is a nuclear shelter that takes $0.10 to open. In this shelter there is a male skeleton, a female mannequin, a bottle of wine, and a clothing item called “Sexy Sleepware”. I do not think I have to spell out what all of that means. You can figure the story out without any guidance. Another example comes from a scene I once came across. When exploring the Capital Wasteland, I came across a group of wanders who were selling an item called “Strange Meat”. They claimed that it was some of the best meat in the Wasteland. Those who are familiar with either Fallout 3 or my earlier works know that “Strange Meat” is actually human flesh. Since I knew this, I killed every single one of them and gained good karma for it. I like how Bethesda just leaves details in the game and allows the player to use common sense to infer what happened. It gives the player a motivation to explore and see what else is out there.
The final strength of Bethesda's style is that they are very good at using the RPG mechanics to bolster the spirit of exploration. One of the most noticeable and well-known parts aspects of this is the level scaling mechanic they used in Fallout 3, which most people agree is vastly superior to the one they used in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. In Fallout 3, every location has a level associated with it. As the player's character level rises, the levels of these locations also rise. However, when a player first visits an area, that area's level is locked, which prevents it from rising any further. The way this works gives the player freedom to explore where ever they want without fear of being completely overwhelmed (with some exceptions).
Another good way they use RPG elements is that they give the player a clear sense of progression and a feeling that they are growing stronger as the adventure goes on. The player gains experience for doing most of the things an adventurer would do like killing enemies, completing quests, hacking terminals, picking locks, etc. As with most RPGs, getting enough experience will cause the player to level up. As Bethesda explained it in the interviews leading up to the release of the game, they wanted every level up to be a special moment that players look forward to. On that count, they succeed. Each level gives the player skill points based on his/her Intelligence stat and a perk. Perks are little bonuses that give the player a diverse and interesting set of advantages. Players will crave experience, hoping to level up and gain skill points and perks and making them want to explore the world even more. Beyond that, the perk system and the skill point system give the player a clear sense of progression. A player can feel the difference a single level in make in the character's stats.
As good at Bethesda style games are in terms of exploration, they do have downsides. For one, while they give a lot of attention to the smaller environmental details, they are not very good at looking at the big picture in terms of environment. For example, in the whole Capital Wasteland, there is no farm land anywhere. The game explains that most of the food is from two-hundred years ago and scavenged from the DC ruins. This makes no sense. Food that old, even if it was stuffed with preservatives, could not possibly be edible. They have animals and creatures around that drop meat when killed, but there is no explanation as to how they live in an area with no vegetation. Water is also a huge problem. According to the game, since DC was hit the hardest in the nuclear apocalypse, all of the water has a lot of radiation and is somewhat toxic to humans. There is a explanation for this since a major plot point in the game is providing fresh water to the Wasteland, but it still poses a significant problem. With the fact that basic resources cannot be found overlooked/omitted, the Capital Wasteland realistically could not possibly sustain life. There is no notable way to provide food or water to the people of the Wastes. Another crucial environmental detail that was overlooked was in a place called Tenpenny Tower. In this tower, located in the Southern half of the Capital Wasteland, there is a group of people who live in the tap of luxury... only there is no reason for them to be rich. As far as I am aware, the residents of Tenpenny do not engage in any sort of trade and have no real way to profit. They are only rich simply because the game needed stereotypical rich people to serve as evil-aligned characters for a few side quests. All three of the details here are crucial details about the world that Bethesda failed to take into account, either because of constraints or through focusing too much on the exploration aspects of the game, when creating the DC area in Fallout 3.
The other problem with Bethesda design is that while they excel at the use of environmental storytelling, but the storytelling of their main plots are not up to the same quality. Fallout 3 in particular had several moments in the story where either what was happening or what the player is expected to do does not make sense. For example, there is a scene in the game where the player is going into a old vault to look for his/her father. On arrival, the player is greeted by a robot and told to get into a “Tranquility Pod”. The quest objective updates to tell the player to comply. The problem with that is that there is no motivation for him/her to do that. The player is looking for his/her father. Looking around at exploring the vault seems like a better idea than resting in a pod.
There are a couple of other problem spots similar to that one. Later in the game, the player needs to go into a separate vault to retrieve an artifact called a GECK (Garden of Eden Creation Kit) to make the giant water purifier that everyone wants work. The problem is that the entrance is covered in so much radiation that it would instantly kill the player if he/she got close. The player needs to sneak around through another entrance hidden in Lamplight Cavern. The problem with that is that Lamplight Cavern is home to a group of children who formed their own kid society. They will not open the little, indestructible plywood door until the player speech checks them or goes to save their friends from slavers who kidnapped them to sell off to the highest bidder. Let me repeat that for you so that you fully understand it: Infiltrating a compound filled with trained, murderous slavers is easier than infiltrating the town of a group of little kids. This is stupid. There is no reason that a group of kids should pose any sort of obstacle to the player. These are just a few examples of the problems with Fallout 3's plot. There are more than that. This is the consequence of Bethesda's design philosophy. They build fantastic worlds to explore, but tend to forget the details that help it to be a coherent and believable place with believable people.
New Vegas, on the other hand, was made with Bethesda's engine, but not their philosophies on RPG design. Rather, it was created by Obsidian Entertainment and using their design style. Obsidian's style has emphasizes creating a believable and having the player impact that world through choice. To that end, they are very detail oriented. The first strength of this design style is that the world is much more plausible and fleshed out. The player can look around and see how people might live in a world like the one in New Vegas. Small towns are seen to have farmland and sources of fresh water. Wandering around the first settlement the player encounters, Goodsprings, he/she can look around and see farmers cultivating their harvest of fruits and vegetables. The player can travel to the springs and water pumps to take a swig of fresh, clean water. The saloon in town is a great place for the player to rest. Talking with the owner reveals that they trade with other settlements in order to get meat and other forms of protein and that she keeps caravan drivers happy by providing drinks and entertainment (for a small fee). It is more than a set-piece, it is a town. Other towns have different ways of maintaining their economy. One town, Novac, scavenges technology from a local rocket base and trading with other places for their resources.
Beyond the towns, the inhabitants of the Mojave Wasteland are equally fleshed out. The owner of Novac's general store and gift shop has a collection of dinosaur toys from before the war that he tries to peddle off to every person who comes around because they simply take up so much space. In Goodsprings, the local doctor mentions that he grew up in a vault and learned medicine there. Later, he found a woman that he grew to love and later marry, but she died later on. There is a farmer, located on the outskirts of the Vegas strip. He is a part of the New California Republic's sharecropping program. As he goes about his daily tasks, the player can strike up a chat and learn that the NCR is bad at resource management and that the farmer might be under quota because of it. These people are not at all vital to the plot of New Vegas. They are background decorations, but they all have stories and personalities of their own. They are people inhabiting this world that the player has also chosen to inhabit. This is a reflection of Obsidian's ability to make a believable place with interesting locals.
The second strength of this philosophy is that they are very good at guiding the player in the direction that they want him/her to go while keeping the plot consistent. One of the best examples of this is in the beginning of the game. The very first scene of the game involving the player character has him/her being shot in order to secure the package he/she was supposed to deliver to the New Vegas strip. Naturally, the player will want to seek revenge on the guy who did it and his obnoxiously loud checkered suit. This whole scene sets up the plot in a way that when the quest objective says “Find the man who shot you,” the player goes “I thought you'd never ask.” It hooks the player into the world without creating any of the inconsistencies that plagued the plot of Fallout 3. While some parts of plot are weaker than others, most of the things that the player is asked to do make sense. The player naturally goes from town to town in order to track the shooter down. Though the people often make requests of the player in exchange for the information necessary to keep going. It is an easy enough motivation for people to understand (though it does relies on the player having a tolerance for revenge stories).
Obsidian's third strength lies in its ability to use choice in its narrative and have those choices produce realistic consequences. The second half of the game is almost completely dedicated to this principal. Once the player tracks down the shooter and extracts revenge, he/she learns that his motive for trying to kill the player was to attempt to take control over New Vegas. From this point on, as I have gone over before in older posts, the player can choose which faction of the big three to side with in the war for New Vegas. Alternatively, the choice can be made to screw all of them over in a bid to maintain New Vegas's independence. This choice radically affects the route which the player will take to get to the end of the game. However, each faction will ask the player to deal with the various side-factions of the game (as does going Independent). The final battle and the ending changes radically depending on which faction the player sided with and how he/she dealt with all of the side-factions (or, sometimes, if they were even dealt with at all). This system is great because it encourages the player to think about what they are going to do and how it will affect the citizens of New Vegas and the Mojave.
The choice of which faction to side with has real, lasting consequences after the story is over, but the player is never locked into a choice until the quest line they are on is near completion. At any time they can switch to a different faction (provided their reputation with that faction is not too low) if they feel that the story will not go the way they want it to go. The player can convince most of the side-factions to align with the major factions and turn the tides of the war one way or another. The player feels like they are playing an active role in determining the future of New Vegas through the choices they make in the plot, which increases his/her immersion and involvement with it.
The theme of choice extends to day-to-day operations in New Vegas. Obsidian has a style that focuses as much on customization as Bethesda focuses on exploration. Many of the weapons the player can use have weapon mods that the player is allowed (and encouraged) to find/buy and install, increasing the weapons effectiveness and physically changing its appearance. Another change that reflects choice is the crafting system. While Fallout 3 had crafting, it was nowhere near as robust as what is seen in New Vegas. The former only allowed for the creation of specific weapons through crafting, the latter does much more. New Vegas allows for the creation of new weapons and armors, custom ammunition, medical supplies, healthier and more nutritious food and drinks, narcotics, poisons, and repair kits. The player is completely free to skip crafting entirely, but taking advantage of it will give him/her an edge over those who neglect it. It can even be enjoyable to gather ingredients and create custom stuff for some people, letting them build their own fun.
The next place where Obsidian's preference for choice shines is in the changes they made to the leveling system. The reduced the number of skill points accrued at level up and reduced the perk gain rate to every other level. Plus, they changed a few skills around, added a new Survival skill and many more perks than Bethesda did. This means that every point the player allocates and every perk they choose become much more crucial choices than they were in Fallout 3. In Fallout 3, the player was guaranteed to be incredibly strong by the end and able to take on most threats. In New Vegas, the player's power is more limited. The player has to choose which skills they will specialize in and which perks to select over the others (unless the player install the DLCs, which raise the level cap by twenty).
The way skills interact with the world also reflect choice. Obsidian made each quest in the game so that there are several ways to approach a given situation. For example, when a military doctor asks the player to find out who has been stealing his supplies, the player can has a choice between different solutions. He/she can just sit in the tent and watch for somebody to come around. Another option is to sneak around the base and look for clues. Lastly, the choice exists (provided the player has enough Medicine skill) to learn the symptoms of addiction to the particular stolen drugs and catch the thief by going around and looking for somebody with the symptoms and diagnose them. These are all viable options and all of them solve the quest in a good way. Other quests will need high skills to get good resolutions and/or to skip objectives. It allows for players to see their skills having an impact on their experience, encouraging experimentation with different character build and propagating a notion of choice.
But while this style has its strengths regarding story and choice, it has its own, critical weaknesses. The most damaging of these weaknesses is that while the world is very rich and detailed, it is simply not fun to explore. Several choices made that help to promote verisimilitude are detrimental to exploration. The biggest example of this is the topography of the area. Where Fallout 3 was a vast, open area, New Vegas is much filled with much more hills and valleys. This in itself, while it makes the world feel smaller and discourages exploration, is not inherently detrimental. What is detrimental is the fact that there are several mountains and hills that the player should be able to climb thanks to the games engine, but are blocked off from the player by invisible walls which Obsidian put in. This makes the world less fun to explore because it feels like the game designer actively discourages players from doing so.
Another way exploration is discouraged is in the placement of enemies. In a Bethesda game, the enemies scale to the player's level. In New Vegas, enemies have predetermined spawn locations and minimum levels. This means that if the player decides to make a trek directly to New Vegas (because the fact that the shooter is from New Vegas is fairly obvious if the player is familiar at all with the region), then the going will be difficult because of creature tens of levels higher than they are. It is not impossible, but it is difficult enough to dissuade even the most determined of gamers. The game uses these spawns, coupled with the layout of the Mojave, to funnel the player through a decidedly linear path during the course of the first act. It also inadvertently makes wandering, even on at higher levels, an annoyance instead of a pleasant excursion.
The interiors areas of the game are no better in this regard. In fact, more often than not, they are far worse. Many of the locations are incomprehensible rat mazes with several different paths that all look incredibly similar, yet lead to different locations in the building and the map often does not help. Several times when I gave up and decided to use the map, I ended up slightly less lost, but still so lost that I had to rely on luck to get through the area. This is nearly every interior space large enough to take multiple floors. While all of the above criticisms of this style essentially come to “The world is simply not fun to explore,” this is a critical problem. After all, the player will be spending hours exploring in order to get from location to location and dealing with the trials on the way. For this part to be boring is almost akin to intentionally sabotaging the game.
While this is not immediately noticeable in Fallout: New Vegas, there is another problem with this plot and choice focused style. All of these choices and branching paths take time and money to create, especially since it requires voice acting and other assets. In the AAA gaming industry we have right now, this kind of commitment is incredibly difficult to pull off. This often results in Obsidian releasing products that are either unfinished or lacking of a degree of polish that other games have. This was a first noticeable in New Vegas with all the bugs and glitches (many game breaking ones) that it had upon release. Since then it has mostly been patched out, but there is one feature that was left on the cutting room floor, one many fans were angry about, because of time and budget constraints. The team at Obsidian was originally going to allow post-ending play so that the player could see the aftermath of the game much more visibly than through the slideshow they used and continue to explore the Mojave. The reason they avoided this was because lacked the time, money, and processing power to make alternate versions of the places that would be visible affected by the ending (notably New Vegas and Hoover Dam). New Vegas got off easy, usually this kind of concern ruins Obsidian games in other ways.
As for which design philosophy or which game is better, it is completely subjective and dependent on what you are looking for in a video game. And these two styles are far from the only ones. There are tons of different design styles that developers use and they each have their own pros and cons. This is just to show how much the design has an impact on the final product. Thought these two games have the same engine, the same gameplay, the same lore, and the same genre, they are radically different and showcase two totally separate ways of thinking about games and game design. Keep this in mind when playing your next video game. Think about the design and the intent behind each choice the developers made. Think about how it affected the experience. You might be surprised at how much you learn.