Fallout 76: what you need to know about one of the biggest games of the year

Todd Howard from Bethesda explains why the post-apocalypse simulator Fallout becomes an online multiplayer game and why he is just as afraid of the players

While billionaires buy up property in New Zealand and pay technologists huge sums of money for advice on how to keep their staff in check after “the event” – that is, whatever it is that wipes out enough of the planet to justify living in bunkers – the rest of us are left to deal with the looming threat of catastrophe by playing video games. Bethesda Game Studios’ Fallout series offers a very American take on the post-apocalypse: humans, ghouls and mutants protect their respective corners of the wasteland with big guns and power armour, in a retro future with sci-fi technology and a 1950s aesthetic. The games present a ravaged, irradiated all-American picket-fence fantasy with classic cars, suburban homes and US landmarks devastated by nuclear bombs.

Fallouts 3 and 4 are explorative role-playing games that cast the player as a survivor emerging from a vault after more than 100 years into a world they don’t recognise – though, after a few hours, they have significantly more weapons and resources than the average pitiable remnant of humanity. The games offer the player 100 or more hours exploring the wasteland and meeting its dogged inhabitants. But developer Bethesda surprised fans this year by announcing Fallout 76, an online multiplayer game set in the same universe. As one of the first survivors to emerge from the vaults, you’ll be up against other players as well as the usual mutants, monsters and hazardous environments.

Todd Howard, the director and executive producer who leads the Fallout series at Bethesda, explains that, as suggested by early reports on the game, Fallout 76 began as a concept for Fallout 4. “We never actually got to prototyping it [during development of Fallout 4]. It was just the design: if we do multiplayer, what would it look like?” he says. “That was in maybe 2014. It was really just on paper. We started putting people on it in 2015, before we finished Fallout 4.”

Bethesda has never done an online multiplayer game before (there is an online version of The Elder Scrolls, its beloved fantasy role-playing series, but it’s made by a different developer). A survival-style game where other players are a threat fits well with the post-apocalyptic setting, but it is new territory for the developer and, with plenty of other very successful online survival games out there, why isn’t Fallout sticking to what it knows?

“We avoid the word ‘survival’, because people’s minds immediately go to DayZ and Rust and certain other games, and those comparisons are not really accurate for what we’re doing,” Howard says. “If you think about the survival modes we’ve made in Fallout 4, it has that vibe … Fallout 76, although it’s an online game, when I play it, I mostly still play it solo. We like those experiences as much as our fans do.”

Players share the world with maybe a few dozen other players in Fallout 76, not hundreds. You can choose whether or not to interact, help or hinder each other. Every human you meet in the game will be another player, but robots, intelligent ghouls and mutants also exist in the world. Unlike in Rust or DayZ, this isn’t a game in which someone can run up to you in the first five minutes (or five hours), kill you with a superior weapon, steal all your stuff and leave you back at square one. “No, that’s not fun,” says Todd. “Well, it’s fun for whoever killed you, but not for you … Death is already bad enough in a game, because you’re losing time, that we didn’t feel we needed to add any further penalty. We wanted to make sure you don’t lose your progression.”

Footage of the game shows that players can still fight, however, attack one another’s bases or even launch dormant nukes to wipe out whole areas. (On balance, Fallout is not a game with much of an anti-nuclear message.)

Howard feels that the addition of other players simply amplifies what people love most about Bethesda games: the one-off moments that result from exploring and playing around, rather than the scripted ones. “I usually find in our games, the best moments aren’t the ones that we designed,” he says. “They’re when you’re out in the open world and different systems collide. Putting that power in the hands of the players exponentially increases the number of different magic moments that can happen in the game.

“Some other games out there have done a little bit of that, but not in the way we wanted to do it. Fallout 76 is a mix of what you’d expect of us – there’s an open world, with our kinds of quests, and you do have a goal – but then you don’t know what’s gonna happen when you run into somebody else. That interested us greatly from a design-mood standpoint.”

Fallout 76 does not mark the end of Fallout as a series of single-player games tuned to give everyone who plays a unique personalised adventure. It is a departure from Fallouts 3 and 4 but Howard stresses that it is not replacing them. “We want to be careful with our fans and other people who ask, ‘Is this what Fallout is for ever now?’ It’s clearly not. It’s definitely its own thing,” he asserts. “We had the idea, and for a while now we’ve been thinking we should try it … we are sometimes afraid of doing it, as much as our fans are afraid of us doing it. But we’ve got to try new things.”

In his 24 years at Bethesda, Howard has often talked about defining games by the experience a player will have – a design philosophy outlined in a 2009 speech at the DICE game developers’ summit. What experience does he want players to have with Fallout 76?

“I want them to see the world as their oyster,” he says. “What a game is, is what the players ultimately make of it. Our job is to give them all the interesting tools. We want to design a really interesting world for them to collide with.”