For Obsidian Entertainment's Chris Avellone, Fallout is an old mistress. When he was at Interplay, he worked on cult hit Fallout 2 and was lead designer on Van Buren - the Fallout 3 game that never was. Now, Chris has come full circle. As lead designer of Fallout: New Vegas, due out this autumn, he's once again been sucked into Fallout's retro futuristic post-apocalyptic world. So, how's he handling it? And how is he improving on what many consider to be the greatest game of this generation? At Bethesda's recent Gamers Day event in France, we found out.
Q: Cast your mind back to when you thought you were done with Fallout. Did you think you'd ever go back?
Chris Avellone: Never.
Q: How long has it been?
CA: It was probably... I'm going to guestimate about five years. And then one day Bethesda brought up the opportunity, and we were totally surprised and totally enthusiastic about doing it. I love working on Fallout. The chance to do it again, I was like, woo! The guys at work, especially the Black Isle guys, were like, woo! People just love Fallout. It was good times.
Q: Did you go on a massive bender to celebrate returning to Fallout? Did you have to go back and look at all your work on Fallout to refresh?
CA: No party, because we had to jump into things really quick and we had other titles we still had to juggle at the time, too. However, in terms of a refresher course, I absolutely had to go back and look at stuff. I was like, you know what, it's been a long time since I memorised the time-line, where I knew the ins and outs of super mutant culture. All that stuff I had to go do a refresher course and go, okay I'm going to clear my brain, get all the Star Wars out, get all the Aliens out and bring Fallout back in.
Q: You were working on a Fallout 3 that didn't happen, called Project Van Buren. Are there any ideas or mechanics you had in place for that game that we'll see in Fallout: New Vegas?
CA: We thought we would but actually it ended up not being the case. If you ever read any of the Van Buren documents you might recognise certain titles for groups, like Caesar's Legion. But what they actually became in New Vegas was far divorced from anything they were planned for in Van Buren. So it's actually taken kind of an interesting spin. That five year break, I think you just end up having new design ideas. You're like, well you know actually it would be more interesting if they went this way. So I mean Van Buren was a good testing ground for some of that stuff, but New Vegas is basically a brand new game.
Q: Why New Vegas? Why that part of the world?
CA: We were given the parameters for like, just do something on the Western side of the world, go off and do your own thing. We were like, okay. So then we were like, what's a signature city that's comparable to Washington DC but in the west? We asked people independently and Vegas just kept coming up all the time. We were like, okay well you know that is a cool signature city. But at the same time, it turns out people in different departments got excited about it for different reasons. An example would be the artists got really excited about it because that's one city where you can play around with the architecture within almost every city block and go, hey here's a theme for this casino and we can go fucking crazy with it because it's Vegas. Like, here's a signage we can use. Here are the different colours we can use. Here are the lighting schemes we can use. When you walk down the strip in Vegas in real life, all those signature casinos like the Luxor have these really cool themes. And the artists were like, oh this would be fun to do. And we were like, okay let's just take that energy and momentum and just make a fun location.
Q: Have you been to Vegas on any benders in the name of research?
CA: You know what, I think some were already pre-planned for the other guys on the team. I actually have not been to Vegas in quite a while. It's kind of a shame. In fact one of my friends threw a birthday party there this past weekend, but I was coming here.
Q: It's an alternate time-line Vegas, so it's not like you're taking the Vegas we have now and making it post-apocalyptic. You have to go back to the Fifties and make a retro-futuristic version of post-apocalyptic Vegas...
CA: Yes exactly. And that actually created a lot of interesting spins, too. The idea isn't just creating, like you said, the modern day Vegas with the themes. What you do is you go back to the Fifties, imagine what they would have thought a sci-fi Vegas was like, and incorporate that Fifties visual theme into it, and then go. That was really interesting.
Q: What did you come up with, then? What do you think people in the Fifties thought Vegas would be like in the future?
CA: Well there are some aspects to it. I think from the cultural aspects and looks of some of the gangs in Vegas. We have a gang that revolves around... my best description would be they're evil Frank Sinatras. Sinister gangs like that. But at the same time they have access to all the sci-fi weaponry and what not. The whole feel of our casino has some high tech elements about it. It has the throwback Sinatra elements and some of the signage for Googie architecture.
Q: The real-time FPS elements of Fallout 3 weren't great. How are you improving that for New Vegas?
CA: Our project director actually went back through the real-time first-person experience and looked for ways to improve the weapon animations, some of the feel for the reload times, and the feel and responsiveness of some of the weapons. I wish he was here so he could give you the detailed list of changes that he made. One thing that jumps to mind is we did want to include the option to have the cinematic kill cam for real time. So if you do want to have that satisfying critical death you get in VATS where you don't actually have to go into VATS, that's an option you can turn on now, too. So as long as you can wipe out an enemy on screen you actually get that cinematic kill movie, which is good. The feel of the weapons is definitely a lot different. Just from playing Fallout 3 versus New Vegas, I notice that when I'm choosing various weapons, like the shotgun, I have to be really careful about exactly how I use it for its maximum effect. The system that Josh [Sawyer], our project director set up, communicates feedback to me as to how well I'm using the weapon and if it's really the right thing to use against an opponent, and I'm targeting correctly - that felt a lot more cool and tactical to me even though I was using it in real time. So I think that was a plus.
Q: So New Vegas feels like a much better shooter than Fallout 3?
CA: Yeah, basically.
Q: The game is being developed using the same engine that was used to create Fallout 3. It's a few years old now. Have you made any significant graphical improvements?
CA: It won't look similar to Fallout 3 just because of the story elements for the foundation of how the New Vegas area develops. But that aside, we tried to make sure the sky box is improved, just for that same reason: if you can see the sky we do want to pump that up. We spoke to Bethesda and they really wanted to invest more resources into improving animations in general across the game. So if you want to pull back into third-person, you can see more detail and cool things for your character to do as well as other people in the environment. When we showed them some test cases they were all thumbs up about it and went, you know what? Here's all the support you need, just go ahead and do it.
Q: Is playing the game without VATS viable this time?
CA: Well one thing we recognise is even though we have all these different play styles for different things like Stealth Boy, Talk Boy and Combat Boy, we recognise that even when it comes to combat, there are different players who like to approach that in different ways in Fallout. I'm not going to lie, I played part of the game in VATS and played part of the game in real time, depending on how fast I wanted to get through a location. We recognised that the real time players that don't want to use VATS is an important segment of the actual combat guys, so we wanted to make sure that we tried to improve that experience for them, too.
Fallout: New Vegas is due out for the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 this autumn.