Finding Fallout 76’s Core Audience

Fallout 76 may have a future but will it find success with its current focus, especially in such a crowded market?

Posted By | On 28th, Nov. 2018 Under Article, Editorials


When Fallout 4 first released, I didn’t pay it too much mind. Sure, I pre-ordered my copy eagerly before launch but it was the same open world story for me at the time. Purchase game, try it for a few hours, get intimidated by the scale and decide to come back renewed. My return to it took place a few years later though and in that period, I saw first-hand the community’s backlash to the game. Yes, there was a vocal fan base that downright hated it and took every conceivable step to hate Bethesda. However, there were a decent number of players that also took it for what it was, admitting that it wasn’t like Fallout 3 or Fallout: New Vegas and sort of taking the good with the bad.

It’s imperative to note that while a vocal community probably represents a small percentage of the actual user base, it is a direct source for identifying preferences, interests and feedback. It’s not strange at all to see a developer take feedback from a percentage of their user base since, well, it’s not the be-all, end-all solution in a developer’s thought process. However, even after the dust settled with Fallout 4 and its “exploration, shooting, looting” loop was enjoyed for what it was, the sentiment to have a more narrative-focused experience, one that could compete with modern contemporaries like Horizon: Zero Dawn, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and even linear single-player games was pretty clear.

"Despite what you’ll hear, the initial reaction to Fallout 76 wasn’t immediate anger. Instead, there was a mixed response geared more towards skepticism at just how the game would work."

Yes, an enormous open world would have been great. But freedom of customization, the ability to role-play a character as opposed to arbitrarily leveling up Perks on a large sheet, and having a multitude of ways to expand upon the core gameplay as opposed to sticking with its narrow focus, was desired. Having a strong narrative on top of all this would have been the icing on the cake.

To be blunt, I don’t think implementing all of this is currently possible for the franchise. You could argue that the first two Fallout games did it while Fallout 3 and New Vegas did it quite well from a first person perspective. But to have the massive world that Bethesda is known for, co-existing with a strong narrative (or what’s considered as such these days) that can compete with the best is a massive undertaking. Even something as simple as providing enough freedom to role-play whatever the player wants is at direct odds with following a constrained narrative. Consolidating the two, that too in a universe with lore that’s both established and a bit iffy, is tough.

So perhaps, Bethesda decided to go all in with the aspect of complete freedom. Perhaps it wanted players to be exactly whoever they wanted to be, even if the blank slate was far more pronounced than ever. Perhaps it wanted them to have a world that they wholly affected and controlled as opposed to simply being the hero within the context of its stories. And sure, why not, let’s go multiplayer because that’s something that’s never been done before.

Despite what you’ll hear, the initial reaction to Fallout 76 wasn’t immediate anger. Instead, there was a mixed response geared more towards skepticism at just how the game would work. It’s always online and seems to have survival elements (but don’t call it a survival title, insists Bethesda). Is it like Rust? Well, it’s very heavily focused on co-operation and you kind of exist within the world as your own entity, helping travelers along the way. So was it a shared world experience like Destiny?

Destiny 2 Forsaken_02

"I can’t help but think at this point: Who would enjoy Fallout 76? This isn’t an indictment on people who like the game. Heck, if you just like playing games, alone or with your friends, then that’s great."

Well, sort of but the over-arching narrative didn’t put too much focus on you as a protagonist (which Destiny 2 wholeheartedly did). Instead, it was about wandering the world, trying to find the Overseer of Vault 76 and launching some nukes to prevent the Scorched virus outbreak. The lore and side-stories inherent were meant to flesh out and build upon the world but only within the context of what’s essentially a side game in the mainline series.

While some could appreciate Bethesda’s desire to try something different – especially after numerous assurances that it had full-fledged single-player projects like The Elder Scrolls 6 and Starfield in development – others quite simply couldn’t find the initial appeal in Fallout 76. I was one of those people. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve played and enjoyed experiences like Destiny and The Division over the past few years. But when I played Fallout 4, it was because of the larger context of the world to its narrative, the different characters and their stories populating these areas, and the bizarre circumstances that possibly awaited around every corner.

Fallout 76 didn’t exactly provide that. The news is rife of retailers discounting the title – which seems to have been due to Black Friday sales. The majority of critics have outright panned the game. Those who liked some aspects still took serious issue with the bugs and other fundamental design choices.

I can’t help but think at this point: Who would enjoy Fallout 76? This isn’t an indictment on people who like the game. Heck, if you just like playing games, alone or with your friends, then that’s great. It’s just an honest question – who is meant to enjoy Fallout 76? Which audience is it for?

Let’s break down the mechanics and who they were meant to appeal to. The base-building and survival elements could appeal to a wide demographic of players from Rust to Minecraft. However, it falters due to the restrictions of the C.A.M.P system, terrible inventory management and bugs that stop you from retaining your base if someone builds on top of the same location. Heck, you could log out and all the progress made in the world – from turning different locations into bases and sanctuaries – is effectively undone. The survival mechanics also don’t extend beyond simply eating and drinking water while administering RAD-X every now and again. There’s no real depth to any of it. Don’t even get me started on the limited stash space.

Fallout 76_04

"Even those who enjoyed Fallout 4, for all of its faults, are receiving an extremely stripped down experience that is rife with bugs and issues while dealing with all the hangups of a multiplayer title."

Okay, how about those who enjoy looter shooters, particularly with their friends in co-op? You know, the Borderlands crowd? Also, let’s throw in some events in the shared world that the whole server could take part in a la Destiny 1 and 2. In terms of loot, Fallout 76 suffers from a lack of impressive weapons, a degradation system that punishes players for engaging with its combat and limited ammo in the world. Build diversity feels very limited – you can’t even respec to change things. Some Perk Cards seemingly work on a whim. The core loop of looting seems to emphasize farming for garbage to convert into materials to upgrade and build your C.A.M.P. And ultimately, even if you find some cool piece of loot, the game’s terrible gun play and clunky melee combat ultimately prevent you from deriving any joy from it.

How about Fallout fans, let-alone RPG fans? The game doesn’t just strip away many aspects of the Fallout franchise – like dialogue systems, interesting quest-lines, worthwhile non-playable characters and companions – to shoehorn multiplayer and shared world elements in. The features it substitutes those with, like the repetitive side quest design that’s mind-numbingly one-note and boring, are ultimately boring from a multiplayer perspective as well. What kind of online Fallout title could possibly feel so restrictive and so boring on such a massive scale, from the selection of playable races and skills to the sheer dullness of the environments and their lore? Fallout 76, apparently.

The list just goes on. PvP fans have nothing rewarding here and the gameplay isn’t even dependent on skill. MMO players would laugh at the end game, reward system and encounter design. Even those who enjoyed Fallout 4, for all of its faults, are receiving an extremely stripped down experience that is rife with bugs and issues while dealing with all the hangups of a multiplayer title. There isn’t even official mod support so that players can customize their own experience (aside from current bootstrapping solutions).

Honestly, we could spend all day talking about the bugs, crashes, glitches and performance issues with Fallout 76. All of that can be fixed in good time and in fact, Bethesda has announced features like a stash limit increase, SPECIAL point respec, quality of life C.A.M.P. improvements and whatnot. Those will be out in updates for December 4th and 11th.

Fallout 76

"There’s nothing that says someone can’t spend time playing and enjoying Fallout 76, either now or when it’s been improved down the line."

Even if the multitude of performance issues and bugs aren’t fixed, modders will probably bring in enough to improve the experience in good time. Having modders fix everything isn’t something Bethesda can always fall back on though – unlike with its single-player games, the developer has promised extensive post-launch support, from small content updates to large expansions, on a relatively frequent basis. If the game changes so significantly on such a frequent basis, likely introducing new bugs in the process, how far can modders can really go?

But I digress. For all the technical issues that Fallout 76, Bethesda has a bigger problem. Even if it manages to outright revamp the title, raising it from the ashes like your average No Man’s Sky, The Division, Diablo 3, Destiny 1 and 2, Rainbow Six Siege, and so on, who will play it? Open world fans are already more engaged in Ubisoft’s offerings.

Competitive PvP players find more solid experiences with the hottest first person shooters and MOBAs. MMO and looter shooter players have similarly more rewarding experiences that are riddled with significantly less issues by comparison. If Fallout 76 suddenly becomes “good”, who’s to say there will be an audience for it?

I can empathize with those who like the game and want it to improve. The wait for the game to get “better” will no doubt be an agonizing one given the magnitude of issues on hand, especially at the fundamental design level. And hey, if it does offer a rewarding experience for all and sundry, catering to multitudes of audiences as the designers probably intended, then that’s great. There’s nothing that says someone can’t spend time playing and enjoying Fallout 76, either now or when it’s been improved down the line.

anthem

" Fallout 76 isn’t dead yet but the clock is ticking on its relevance in today’s crowded games-as-a-service space."

The main problem is the economics side of it. Fallout 76 is, for all intents and purposes, a “games-as-a-service” title. All the post-launch content will be free and it’s propped up by a microtransaction store. Forget the competition that’s coming in the next few months, namely Anthem and Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 (or the recent Red Dead Online). Other titles that offer frequent updates and either paid or free content drops like Destiny 2, Overwatch, Sea of Thieves, Monster Hunter World, Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn and Rainbow Six Siege are simply in a better place. Games like Minecraft and No Man’s Sky are in a far better place. Even free to play titles like Path of Exile, Fortnite: Battle Royale, Dota 2 and Warframe are in far better places.

If Fallout 76 becomes a “good” game in the coming years, there’s no guarantee that it will survive in such a crowded space. Even if Bethesda ultimately turns things around, what guarantee is there that even current players who inevitably leave will ever come back? With the reputation that Fallout 76 has garnered, what’s the guarantee of new players ever hopping on board? This may all come across as doom-saying but if the numbers are not up to Bethesda’s mark, who’s to say that Fallout 76 won’t simply be shut down, even if its reputation is further besmirched?

The only real future for Fallout 76 lies in its community. If the community doesn’t stick around because it doesn’t want to wait for improvements, what reason is there to keep the game running (besides microtransaction revenue, obviously)?

It’s a tough spot for the development team – either revamp the whole experience (which itself will be tough) or scrap it, leaving future consumers distrustful. I don’t know what could have possibly guaranteed the success of Fallout 76. But if the various developers under Bethesda Softworks had targeted their core audience, providing a compelling role-playing experience (even if it did have online support) with minimal issues, who’s to say if things wouldn’t have been different? Fallout 76 isn’t dead yet but the clock is ticking on its relevance in today’s crowded games-as-a-service space.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.


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