Unlike the familiar Fallout opening line, Fallout 76 is going through some very big changes. Following a very rough launch, Bethesda has been hammering Fallout 76 into shape, fixing bugs and performance issues. It's also added a host of new updates, including the Survival and Nuclear Winter game modes, C.A.M.P. decorations and brewing facilities, and seasonal events.
Now, the team is preparing for the launch of Fallout 76: Wastelanders, an expansion coming to PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 on April 7. Wastelanders is a full rethink of Fallout 76, keeping the combat and exploration systems the same, but adding a new story campaign, new locations, fully-voiced NPCs, dialogue choices, factions, and a new reputation system.
During Bethesda Game Days at PAX East 2020, the team outlined what Wastelanders is going to look like. Instead of a post-apocalyptic West Virginia devoid of life outside of the mutated Scorched and a handful of automatons, you'll run into other survivors as soon as you step out of Vault 76. The pair of NPCs will lead you to the next destination in your journey, but not before you have a discussion with them. You can even lie to them if your stats are allocated right, and the two also have unique responses if high-level characters return to talk to them. In short, Wastelanders is bringing Fallout back into Fallout 76.
Of course, it took 16 months since Fallout 76 launched to get to this point. Bethesda clearly misjudged what the community wanted from its original vision of an online Fallout, something Bethesda Senior Vice President of Global Marketing and Communications Pete Hines admits.
"At the end of the day, our intention was always we're going to put this out there, see what folks think, and then cater the stuff that we do later to their reaction. I think we were a little surprised how few people wanted to take part in PvP and how much more they were interested in PvE together. As opposed to, 'I want to test my mettle against you and let's get into a duel.' There's some folks who do, don't get me wrong, but I think it's a smaller percentage of our player base than we thought," says Hines.
The first new location that many new players will see in Wastelanders is The Wayward, a bar that's been set up near the Overseer's Camp. The change is immediate; there's a full, lively settlement instead of a bunch of derelict houses, with a man dutifully reinforcing a wall while an automaton patrols. Entering the bar itself shows off a new feature for Wastelanders: instancing. When you're inside the Wayward, it's specific to you and your current team members.
"That is a technical decision that's really important because we want you to be in The Wayward and have all your NPC interactions be based around you and your choices," says Hines. "Not like I'm talking to an NPC and then somebody else walks up in the middle of that and just starts shooting everybody. Then they've made a choice that changes your choices. So it's an instance to you and your party; anybody else who goes into The Wayward is going to be in their own version because your choices do matter."
With the larger narrative this time around, Fallout 76's voice acting has ballooned massively. In order to bring all these new characters to life, it required the team to create new, interesting characters, write more dialogue, and invest in a large voice cast. All that growth is not without cost though. "Yeah, of course they went much beyond what they were budgeted to do because designers can't help themselves. So they blew past their word count budgets," Hines jokes.
There are two major factions that the players can join, each with their own major city. The Settlers have taken over the Spruce Knob campground in the original Fallout 76 and built it into a city called Foundation. The Settlers are led by former members of the Washington D.C. Construction Workers Union, hoping to rebuild a new life. On the other hand, the city of Crater has been established on the fallen wreckage of Valiant-1 space station. The Raiders make their home here, a bit rougher and more survivalist than the Settlers. Players can interact with both factions up until a point where they'll have to commit to either side, similar to previous Fallout games.
The new NPCs factor heavily into the new story quests, but they're also a part of the replayable events you'll find in the open-world. These events are a huge part of what keeps players engaged in-between larger content releases, because the truth of an MMO is players will consume content faster than developers can create it.
"[A]t some point what you know for sure about your hardcore players is it doesn't matter how many quests you write," says Hines. "I don't think content generation is the answer. There's just no reasonable cadence that you can put out large volumes of quest content, that will keep up with the extent to which players burn through it, because it's gonna take you six months, nine months, a year to make content that they're gonna burn through in two weeks. There's just no way to scale that, no matter how hard you try, it's never gonna happen. So it's also about what are the other kinds of things that we can come up with that are like dynamic and replayable, or more event-based, or other things that make me feel like they're stuff that I can do that isn't what I've already done."
Bethesda is also looking to bring players closer together, renormalizing Fallout 76 to make the whole world useful. If you're level 300, early regions won't be cakewalks, and if you're just starting out, wandering a bit too much won't be a death sentence. The system will also normalize groups, allowing friends of different levels to play together. That's not coming immediately in Wastelanders though, with a planned release later in the year.
The team is calling the renormalization pass, "One Wasteland," similar to the One Tamriel update of The Elder Scrolls Online. In fact, marching Fallout 76 back to health is similar to the work Zenimax Online had to do with The Elder Scrolls Online.
"You heard them talk today about One Wasteland being a big initiative for them and how much that mimics—probably not accidentally—One Tamriel, which was a big initiative for ESO where they said, 'We don't want to have barriers between players based on what faction you join, what level you are. We just want everybody to be able to play together with whomever they want.' What they're doing with Fallout 76 very much mirrors that, in terms of we want to remove the barriers," says Hines.
One thing that's missing is any focus on player-vs-player encounters. Hines says PvP players won't be forgotten, but Wastelanders isn't addressing them directly. "Right now, the biggest thing that we really felt like we had to solve was NPCs, dialogue choices, factions, quest-based stuff. For most folks that was the biggest want," says Hines. "I also think there's plenty of folks who enjoy PvP and you will still also enjoy this. You can see how many folks choose to participate in that and it's just such a small subset of our players compared to the number of folks who say, 'Can I please talk to some real people? Can I please have the dialogue options and choices.'"
Wastelanders is the end of Bethesda's original roadmap for Fallout 76, covering the updates Wild Appalachia, Nuclear Winter, and Wastelanders. Wastelanders itself was delayed from its planned Fall 2019 release in order to get everything working great. Now that Wastelanders is on the horizon, what's next for the Fallout MMO-lite?
"We have a plan. We have a roadmap that we'll be sharing before too long, probably after Wastelanders. Let's get through Wastelanders and then talk about that. That will cover all the way through the end of this year. We've already been talking about, internally, what is our plan for content into next year. When we feel confident enough to share that with everybody, I'm not certain, but like, we throw it out pretty far. Not just for the next year, but beyond," says Hines.
You'll be waiting some time for a Fallout 5, as Bethesda develops games on Bethesda Time, and it's currently working on Starfield and the next Elder Scrolls. With Wastelanders, Fallout 76 is looking like a firm alternative for such a release, and it's one that will continue to be updated. Bethesda pledges that it'll continue to listen to its community to prevent further catastrophic releases in the future. "We are well and truly listening to you," says Hines, "and doing our best to deliver the kind of experience that you want and expect."