Did Fallout 4 need a new engine?

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The internet is a sea of opinions, and many of them concern Fallout 4. Hot takes roam the comment threads like Deathclaws prowl the Commonwealth. “Fallout: New Vegas is a vastly superior game,” argues one, oblivious to all of New Vegas’s many faults and failures. “It’s a really bad FPS with statistics,” reckons another, blind to the fact that it’s a great FPS (with statistics). “A brilliant, massive sandbox of systems,” says me, in my review. It’s opinions all the way down.

Most are harmless enough, and some even make a good point. But one repeated refrain bothers me greatly. It’s the idea that Bethesda should have created a new engine; the suggestion is that, by sticking with Skyrim’s Creation Engine, Fallout 4’s developers were in some way being lazy. This isn’t just wrongheaded, but damaging. It propagates the idea that developers should be forced to utilise the latest, best tech, despite all the ways that could harm a project.

On some level, it sounds sensible. Fallout 4 has its fair share of bugs and glitches. It functions in a way reminiscent of past Bethesda games. It even looks like like past Bethesda games. Given the increased popularity of Bethesda’s RPGs, it’s understandable to see familiarity breeding contempt. It’s easy to get carried away when you play Fallout 4—to imagine a version that’s prettier, smoother and more polished.

The problem is that game development doesn’t work like that. Fallout 4 is a complex, dense production. It works because its development team is now very good at making the kind of games Bethesda makes. They’re deft at weaving together disparate systems into a player-led adventure filled with moment-to-moment choice. A whole new engine could well upset that balance. I suspect that’s why, for all of Skyrim’s improvements, its Creation Engine was just a heavily modified version of Gamebryo. It’s this tech that allows Bethesda’s designers to do what they do, and so it seems counterintuitive to expect them to deviate from it.

Bethesda should be celebrated for sticking to a modest, sustainable model, because the alternative is fraught with problems.

The assumption made is that, because Bethesda is a successful studio, it’s also a large one. That isn’t so. A photo of the development team was released at the time of Fallout 4’s launch, showing just over 100 employees (and a dog.) That isn’t many people. I think Bethesda should be celebrated for sticking to a modest, sustainable model, because the alternative is fraught with problems.

As open worlds become more complex, the returns need to be so much higher. It’s likely this reason that Assassin’s Creed games now flirt with microtransactions; why Metal Gear Solid V has a tumultuous development history; and why Just Cause 3 is a huge, lavish, beautiful space with sod-all in the way of interactivity. Fallout 4 has a season pass, but, based on the studio’s past games, its DLC will at least be substantial. And where every other big release features a lengthy, complicated pre-order reward plan, Fallout 4 had none. There are big consumer benefits when a company can afford to develop its games properly.

The Creation Engine has other benefits, too. The most obvious of these is mod support. Time and again we’ve seen developers invest in new, more complex engines, resulting in an editor too unwieldy to release to the public. Mod support is the lifeblood of any Bethesda RPG. It will keep Fallout 4 relevant for years to come.

Despite all this, Bethesda is, to an extent, responsible for the criticism it has received. The announcement trailer for Fallout 4 was pure marketing hype—presenting moody and beautifully lit versions of environments that look much plainer in-game. The most egregious shot is Nick Valentine walking through the town of Goodneighbor. In the trailer, it’s bathed in smoky reds and purples—a scene impossible to recreate in-game without mods. But bullshit marketing is a different problem. It’s not a reason to criticise Fallout 4’s developers for creating an excellent game within their means.

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