It’s no secret that I’m not the biggest Bethesda fan. Over the past two years, I’ve slowly gone from a fanatic to an admittedly harsh critic of the company. Despite this, FALLOUT 76 caught my interest.

In contrast to their single-player RPGs, 76 is an online survival game. While many fans are worried about this change, I’m trying to stay open-minded. For better or worse, Bethesda is finally trying something new, finally iterating on their formula. But can they make it work?

That’s where I start to get nervous.

FALLOUT 76 comes with a number of unique challenges, and given Bethesda’s track record, I’m not convinced they can rise to the occasion. Whether you’re excited for FALLOUT 76 or not, there’s plenty of reasons to be cautious.

So why are we skeptical about FALLOUT 76? How can Bethesda tackle these challenges? Well, let’s take a look!

Shifting Priorities With FALLOUT 76

You may not have heard, but FALLOUT 76 won’t have much of a story. Many quests will be procedurally-generated and there won’t be any human NPCs to interact with. Instead, Bethesda puts the focus on emergent gameplay and player-driven activity.

At first glance, it looks like they’re playing to their strengths. Bethesda hasn’t told a good story in over a decade. Their characters are often flat, and the games lack the level of choice you might expect from an RPG. So if they’re not going to improve these features, it’s good to see them place their focus elsewhere.

So in place of story, choice, or character, what does the game focus on?

Settlement building.

Fallout 76
Oh God, he found us! Image courtesy of memegenerator.net

Settlements Need an Overhaul

I’ll just come out and say it: settlement building was a mess in FALLOUT 4. The interface was clunky. The mechanics were both limiting and unintuitive. I never felt like I had enough freedom to build what I wanted, and no matter how much work I put in, my settlements would be covered in garbage and rubble. I normally love building but even I found it to be a disjointed distraction from the rest of the game.

FALLOUT 76 takes this mediocre feature and makes it the centerpiece of the experience.

Granted, they’ve made a few changes to the building system. Unlike in FALLOUT 4, you can build your town anywhere, without being restricted to pre-set locations. But if the core mechanics are the same, then this is just a Band-Aid on a bear bite.

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If this is going to work, Bethesda will need to overhaul the settlement system to make it more user-friendly. We need more freedom, more creativity. I want more than just a few cosmetic differences between each settlement. Give us activities to perform. Let us control the economy, the industry, and the general style of the towns we make.

I want to see casinos with actual gambling. I want to see futuristic utopias. Let us get into drunken bar fights at dingy saloons that we created. Let us feel like we’re actually rebuilding the wasteland. If Bethesda is going to focus on settlements, they need to go all the way.

New Game, Same Bethesda

Let’s face it: as fun as they can be, Bethesda games are broken. One look at the “Unofficial SKYRIM Patch” could tell you that much. We’re pretty much used to it by now.

But FALLOUT 76 comes with unique challenges. This is an online-only game. That means, on top of the usual problems, we’ll be dealing with lag, downtime, and hackers. This game will live or die based on the quality of its servers.

But even if the servers are perfect, every issue in a Bethesda game becomes worse when you put it online.

More players mean more opportunities for something to go wrong. Not only is it putting more stress on the system, but it’s just a matter of probability.

FALLOUT 76
This is a disaster waiting to happen. Image courtesy of Bethesda

Bugs are far more disruptive to multi-player games than single-player games. What happens when a glitch gives your enemy an advantage? When you’re lagging while another player destroys your base?

When something breaks in FALLOUT 4, you reload your last save. You can’t do that in an online game. For better or worse, you’ll have to live with every glitch.

If Bethesda brings the same level of quality to FALLOUT 76 as they have to previous games, it’ll be a disaster. If 76 is going to succeed, it’ll require an unprecedented level of polish. We can only hope they’re up to the task.

The Survival Trap

So let’s say the problems above are fixed. The building mechanics are perfect and the game is bug-free. FALLOUT 76 is still a survival game, and it’s hard to make a survival game fun.

Now, I’m not trying to bash the genre. I actually love survival mechanics, especially when they’re combined with RPGs. But survival games tend to fall into the same old traps. If 76 is going to be successful, Bethesda needs to avoid these common pitfalls:

A Delicate Balance

First off, how do you balance the survival mechanics? This is an age-old question that will determine the pace, difficulty, and immersion of the gameplay. It’s a delicate balance, and few titles get it right.

Make the survival mechanics too relaxed and they may as well not exist. Make them too intense and your character will be dying of thirst every few minutes. It all comes down to what you want the player to experience.

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Some games are meant to be frantic and tense, where the player needs to constantly gather resources to survive. In other games, the survival mechanics are meant to immerse the player, to give them organic motivations to explore the world and complete objectives.

Before you can balance your system, you need a firm grasp on what you want the player to experience. Even then, it’s rare for a game to reach the proper sweet spot.

Some survival games let you adjust these settings on your own. So long as you’re playing on a server you control, you can determine how many resources it takes to make items, how often you need to eat, what happens when you die, and more.

It’s not an elegant solution, but it helps keep everyone happy. Ideally, the default system will be adequate, but players can fine-tune it to suit their tastes.

Multi-player Mayhem

But let’s not beat around the bush here. When you’re developing a survival game, your worst enemies are the players themselves.

How much should you police the multi-player experience? How do you encourage both conflict and cooperation? What do you do with griefers and trolls? Most importantly, how do you do all of this while maintaining the sense of freedom and anarchy you’d expect from a post-apocalyptic wasteland?

As it stands, player interaction sucks in most survival games. There usually isn’t much to do with other players besides grinding resources. Without any sort of guidance or special activities, players often default to killing each other on sight and destroying everything they’ve built. It’s easy to see why a lot of people don’t like these games.

Granted, if you’re with a group of friends on a private server, most of these problems solve themselves. But that can be limiting for casual players or people who’d rather play alone. You shouldn’t need to jump through hoops to have a good time.

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The best way to improve the online experience is to give players more things to do. Things like bosses and dungeons are a good way to encourage cooperation and good behavior. If certain obstacles require a team to take down, then players will be more inclined to work together.

You’ll never eliminate the random psychopaths who kill everyone they meet. Nor should you. The goal is to add more variety to the multiplayer experience.

These Games Get Boring

But worst of all, survival games are repetitive.

Without much of a story, and a lack of handcrafted quests, how do you keep a survival game interesting? What does the core gameplay loop look like? Does it allow for variety and experimentation? How do you keep players interested after 20, 50, or 100 hours?

This is where most survival games fall apart. Many developers think that building and resource management are enough to keep players engaged, but eventually, the shine wears off and the grind sets in.

The game should be open-ended enough for the player to make their own fun on top of what the game directly offers. This is where systems-based gameplay comes in. The mechanics of the world need to be fun to interact with. The environment needs to feel alive, and I should feel like I can affect it in exciting ways. I should feel like I can go on my own adventures, tell my own stories, and get into all sorts of unpredictable situations.

Bethesda is no stranger to systems-based gameplay. In OBLIVION and SKYRIM, NPCs have complex lives. They go to work, go to sleep, go on vacation, have secret affairs, and more. It’s always fun to use these schedules to my advantage, or even disrupt them in various ways.

Bethesda games are also known for their random encounters. These events allow the player to stumble on a robbery, or a hunting party, or even a battle, and interact with the situation as they see fit.

Bethesda FALLOUT 76
You never know what you’ll find in the wasteland. Image courtesy of Bethesda.

Systems like these keep the game fresh. When used right they increase the longevity of your game, even without a linear story. This is the sort of thing FALLOUT 76 needs.

The Point

FALLOUT 76 is facing an uphill battle. Not only are survival games hard to make, and not only is Bethesda inexperienced with the genre, but people are already skeptical. Many players are afraid of change, while some were hoping for a different kind of game, and they aren’t willing to give Bethesda the benefit of the doubt.

If Bethesda wants this game to succeed, they’ll need to bring their A game. They can’t afford to cut corners here. Hopefully, they’re willing to tackle these challenges and release a game we can all enjoy.

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