Playing alone is a defining part of Bethesda’s flavor of RPGs. You become the sole hero of your story, venturing out to right the wrongs of the world, growing ridiculously stronger than everyone else by the end. The past Fallout games have been no different, and so the announcement of the entirely multiplayer Fallout 76 left fans worried. If a game is bogged down by matchmaking, server lists, and hours of trying to meet up with your friends, is it really Fallout? Can a single-player RPG master the gameplay that makes multiplayer games fun?
In order to figure out how to make multiplayer work, Bethesda turned to some of the titans of multiplayer gameplay: MMOs. In studying how massively multiplayer online games support thousands of players, Bethesda took a few lessons in what to do to make the multiplayer experience seamless and fun for the players—and a few specific lessons in what not to do.
What MMOs do right
Events. With a world map as big as Appalachia, it’s entirely possible—easy, even—for players to vanish into the wilderness and almost never see another player. While some may prefer to play that way, questing solo through the game, Bethesda has borrowed the idea of world events from MMOs to bring players together. These events, like the Dynamic Events in Guild Wars 2 and the FATEs in Final Fantasy XIV, appear for only a short period of time with a quest that must be completed before the event disappears. This means that any players interested in the rewards offered need to head to that specific area before the quest disappears, and will likely run into one another. In my play time, I saw a few different types of events, including an escort mission, one that had me infiltrate a base to reprogram the killer robots inside, and another that tasked me with surviving four waves of enemies—all missions made easier by having other players on your side.
A persistent world. In most single-player games, the world is generated around the player as they move in order to save on system resources. The game doesn’t need to calculate the physics of the wind in the trees when you’re too far away to see it happen. Like the worlds in MMOs, though, Appalachia is constant, and doesn’t vanish just because you can’t see it. If you see a Scorchbeast flying east, then it won’t just vanish when it’s out of sight. Your friend with a camp a few miles east of you may be in for a nasty surprise.
Emergent content. This is something that many games strive to achieve regardless of the numbers of players involved. Emergent content isn’t planned, but is something that arises when different systems in the game interact, such as enemies that begin attacking each other and move their fight into a nearby town. In Fallout 76, like in other MMOs, some of this content is made to be simply too big for any one player to handle, encouraging more play together. A Deathclaw prowling around may encourage multiple players to band together to take it down, or a nuke could send a wave of suddenly radioactive creatures into a previously peaceful valley.
What MMOs do wrong
Only one character. Some MMOs only require players to level one character, but the vast majority of them have multiple classes, each of which need the player to start anew. Bethesda specifically rejects this design philosophy, making it so that players can swap their perks, gear, weapons, and overall playstyle at any time. Players can also change their characters’ appearance in the menu, making it so there’s no reason to ever need to start over. If you want to try a different playstyle, you can do so with the resources you’ve already gathered.
Find your friends. While playing together with friends should be a goal of all MMOs, Bethesda looked at the existing models of meeting up with your friends in the biggest MMOs and decided they were all too clunky. In Fallout 76, there are no servers, and no point in the game where you choose a realm that locks you out from all other realms. You’ll always be able to meet up with any of your friends. Once in the game, players can fast travel straight to their friends, for free, to meet up and play together without any hassle. There are no instances, so there will never be a case where you and your friend are in the same location but can’t see each other. There are no lobbies, no extra matchmaking. Playing together is as simple as starting the game, inviting your friend to a group, and fast traveling instantly to your friend’s location.
Play together. Most MMOs have a separation between the “leveling” stage, when a player is new and making their way up to max level, and the “endgame,” when players have reached the level cap. Usually, there’s a new set of content, such as raids or organized PVP, that only opens up at max level. The biggest downside of this, of course, is that new players joining have to go through the entire leveling process before they can even begin to play with their friends at the level cap. In Fallout 76, there’s no such distinction. Content is balanced so that a level 50 character and a level 1 character can play together right from the start. While the level 50 player will obviously have advantages, with better gear and many more perks, it’s entirely possible for a level 1 player to hold their own and even beat the higher-leveled player in a fight. While I didn’t get the full details on content scaling, it seems that there’s some method of balancing enemy levels against the players, and on rewards being distributed appropriately, making it so that the lower level player will always be able to keep up and the higher level player will never waste their time by helping a newbie. No matter what level you and your friends are, you’ll always be able to immediately group up and get both challenges and rewards from the game.
From what I saw and heard of Bethesda’s design philosophies, I’m all in. In fact, many of the changes that I saw in Fallout 76 are ones that I wish more MMOs would implement (I’ve been in that frustrating spot of being either too powerful or too weak to play with a friend, or of finding another friend plays but we’re on different servers, or of having to try and convince someone new to “just level up 110 times, I promise it’s fun at the end! See you in a month.”) Once Fallout 76 is out and being tested by a large-scale audience, I’m curious to see how well these design principles hold up—and to see if any currently-popular MMOs will sit up and take notice.