Following our most recent hands-on with Bethesda's post-nuclear role-player, we caught up with Peter Hines in Leipzig to chat about morality, the lessons learned from Oblivion and the pressures of taking on a dearly beloved series.
VideoGamer.com: How much do you feel that the game is a continuation of what existed in the Fallout series before, and to what extent do you think it's evolved into something new?
Peter Hines: Well, my hope is that it's 100 per cent a continuation of what was there before, that even with some new ideas injected into it, or some new ways of doing things, that it's a sequel to the Fallout games or to the Fallout universe. That was every bit our intention. We didn't think, "Ok, we'll keep 60 percent of the old games and the rest can be new stuff. Everything we do, even when it's new, needs to be in the tone and of the original games. Take VATS, for example. The violence is almost like Kill Bill , kind of silly and over-the-top - but that was how it needed to feel for Fallout. We didn't want it to just be violent; Fallout was violent but was also funny, like when you blew a guy away and his body split in half before it toppled over. We wanted cool stuff like that, and we wanted to really immerse you in this world. We wanted to make it more daunting, so that when you are walking through the destroyed streets of DC and the blown-up buildings are looming over you, you get this claustrophobic feeling.
VideoGamer.com: Fallout is a great license, but one of the things that comes with it is the fact that the series is famous for its protective fanbase...
PH:... it's infamous!
VideoGamer.com: How much did that figure into the development of the game?
PH: Not much. When you're designing a game, you have this group of people on the inside who are working on it every day and who know everything about the decisions that are being made. You don't just take a chunk of that, throw it out to the community and say, "We don't know how this question works, so let's ask the fans". You're working and changing every day - it's a constant, fluid process. It's not like we say, "Okay, everything is done now, let's see what they say then go back and change it." We're big believers in playing the game, putting things in and then letting folks see how it feels, as opposed to "Oh, that sounds terrible!" It turns out that ideas that sound terrible, when slightly tweaked, can be f$!king awesome in the game. And it's sometimes the case that awesome-sounding ideas will suck when you actually put them in. You're never a slave to how something is written on paper - you put it in the game an play it. You have to take feedback from the people who are actually playing the game.
VideoGamer.com: Interesting moral choices have always been a big part of the Fallout series. The whole Megaton situation has been given lots of coverage, but are there a lot of similar decisions to be made in this game?
PH: There are various parts of that spectrum. It can be as simple as the fact that the first time you show up outside of Megaton, there's a beggar asking for purified water - which is really hard to come by in the wasteland. If you want to, you can give him some and get good karma, and he'll be like, "Wow, I can really have this?". Or you can tell him to got to hell and screw himself. At another moment you'll meet a ghoul bartender. Ghouls are sort of outcasts in the Fallout universe, looked down upon by human NPCs. When you talk to him you can choose to be horrified by his appearance, or you act along the lines of, "Hey, it's alright man - you're cool," and you'll get karma for being a decent guy. It's really about how you're going to treat people in the world. The Megaton thing is sort of the ultimate example, but there are a lot of variations along the lines of moral choice, and how they are reflected in your karma.
VideoGamer.com: So there aren't many moments on the scale of the Megaton choice?
PH: We can't have the player going around deciding to blow up or not blow up every city on the map; that would get old very quickly. It's an interesting way to give the player a sense of the tone. Yeah, you can really blow this town up. If you come back later, there's going to be a big smoking crater - all people are dead and all the quests are gone. It's all gone! You'll know we weren't bluffing... So it's sort of like a stamp we can put on the game. There are going to be moral choices to make, and people will react to the way that you behave.
VideoGamer.com: Moving on to a slightly more technical question. While playing the game, we found that we used the VATS system a lot more frequently than we thought we would...
PH: I think most people do.
VideoGamer.com: So, was that always your intention? To make VATS the player's primary combat mechanism?
PH: I'd have to say yes. I think the understanding all along was that if we didn't make it in such a way that you would want to use it a lot, then it probably wasn't very fun or any good. So we kept working on VATS and re-doing it until it was the case that it was really fun to use. I was in the theatre yesterday giving a demo every thirty minutes, a total of 16 times in a day. I've been playing this game for 18 months now, and I'm not ashamed to say that when I throw a grenade or pull out a shotgun and blast some guy's head, I still laugh. It's still funny to me, it hasn't got old. The real intent was to have it that way - for it to be cool and fun, but not game unbalancing. If you don't use VATS you'll still be able to get through the game, but if you do it'll slow the pace down and make you think more strategically.
Like, say if I want to take out one guy's legs - he's got this big thing he's going to whack me with, so I want to cripple him and slow him down - I can do that in real-time, and my percentage chance to hit will be about the same. But there is a player error factor in real-time that you don't get with VATS. If a guy is bearing down on you and you're wrestling with the thumbsticks to target his legs, you're introducing human error into your character's ability to hit whatever you're aiming at. In VATS, your character's skill will determine whether or not they hit a target, whereas in real-time it's reliant on their skill plus your ability to line up the crosshair and pull the trigger in time.
VideoGamer.com: VATS was clearly developed with Fallout in mind, but do you think there were any lessons learned from its development that might be carried over to other Bethesda games?
PH: I think that what we've found and really enjoyed is the fact that VATS is fun, but that the best part of it is the gratifying killing blow - whatever it is. There was something that happened here yesterday that I heard about both from one of my PRs and from the boss of the guy who was playing at the time - they both came up to me to tell me about it. Here's what happened: the player throws a grenade at this guy in VATS. He kills him, but he also hits this vicious dog that was running in front of the target. The dog now has only one tick of health left, but as soon as he comes out of VATS its almost upon him. So the guy panics. He goes back into VATS and pounds the trigger without thinking about it - boom boom boom! He thought he had a grenade, but he'd run out so he was actually unarmed. The dog jumps for him, and the player just punches it in the head, mid-air, and kills it. Everyone went nuts.
So yeah, a gratifying ending to a battle is really fun, and perhaps that's something we'll take forward in some way. But it's like the whole Oblivion-with-guns argument. We come up with stuff custom-built for Fallout. Just because we've done something with Oblivion doesn't mean we'll do it in Fallout, and things we've built for Fallout won't necessarily go elsewhere. What works with guns, in this game, might not work in another - so it depends on the weapons available, and how the combat works.
VideoGamer.com: Clearly you're all gearing up now for the initial launch, but do you have any plans for a Shivering Isles-style expansion pack?
PH: Our big focus at the moment is on the downloadable content we announced a while back, exclusive to Windows and the 360. That will be our priority at first. Whether or not we'll do a full expansion... no announcements yet. But DLC is a big part of the way we plan to support the game, post-launch.
VideoGamer.com: In terms of loot, is there going to be a lot of stuff for people to seek out in Fallout 3?
PH: The Fallout series is known for its Easter eggs. One the big things in this game is bobbleheads. The idea is that Vault-Tec would have brought out all these collectables of Vault Boy in different poses. Hidden throughout the world are bobbleheads corresponding to each of your skills and specials, and every time you find one it'll give you a boost in that area. Then if you get a house in-game, you can get a little display stand to line them up on - a completist will want all the bobbleheads on their special Vault-Tec rack!
VideoGamer.com: We have another question relating to how Fallout 3 compares to the older games. In the first two entries in the series, you could play through the whole story as a complete pacifist. Is that possible here?
PH: You can finish the game having killed only one creature - and that's actually a rad-roach that shows up during character generation, when we teach you how to use VATS. That's the only thing you have to kill, otherwise you can have other people handle battles for you. You'll never have to pull out a weapon again.
VideoGamer.com: Is it quite a challenge to play the game that way?
PH: Oh, it ain't easy! There are a lot of things in the world that have no interest in talking to you, they're just out for blood. You have to sneak, run and talk your way out of situations - but you can totally do it. One of our artists actually went out to see if how far he could get, and he went all the way through. It wasn't like it was a major goal for us, that you had to be able to finish the game without fighting.
VideoGamer.com: On a final, combat-related note... what has your approach been to the levelling of enemies? Oblivion took some flack for the way it dealt with this issue.
PH: There were two major things that people objected to in Oblivion. One was the issue of "what used to be X is now Y," - when I left it was a skeleton, now it's a friggin' dread wraith. The other example of something that jarred with people was the levelling of bandits, how they got better armour as the game went along. You got tougher, they got tougher. Now our rule is that a creature is always a creature. When you go away and come back, it's still a bat. In some instances, a mutant that used to have a nail-board will now have found a rifle - but it's still the same creature; it won't have turned into something way more dangerous. The other approach we took is that we set areas of the world to be of a certain difficulty. If you get there and you're not prepared, you're going to die a lot or you're going to want to leave. You'll come back later, and when you do you'll be the same but you'll be tougher, and will kick ass. Then you'll feel good about your new weapons and armour.
The feedback that helps us the most is when someone has played something and responded to it. So this was an example of where there was something in Oblivion that people reacted to, and we knew it needed to be handled differently. Obviously we had our own thoughts too, as we're very critical of our own stuff. But certainly with these kinds of things there's going to be feedback on Fallout 3, what people did or didn't like, and those are the things we may carry through to the next game, whatever it may be.
VideoGamer.com: Peter, many thanks for your time.