Tim Cain reveals his involvement in the cancellation of Interplay's Fallout 3: 'I don't think it would have been a game you would have liked playing'

Van Buren menu background, industrial decay
(Image credit: Bethesda, Adam Lacko)

The original isometric Fallout games were developed by Black Isle Studios in the 1990s, after which the series went on a longer-than-expected hiatus. Publisher Interplay was not having a good time of it in the early 2000s, and one of the projects causing it trouble was the next mainline Fallout game: codenamed Project Van Buren, but for all intents and purposes, Fallout 3. 

Tim Cain, producer on the original Fallout, has in recent years been posting YouTube videos in which he reminisces about the Black Isle days and some of the defining games he and others worked on. Cain's latest video focuses on Project Van Buren, though he wasn't at Interplay at the time: Cain had left Interplay to co-found Troika Games (best-known for Vampire: The Masquerade—Bloodlines). 

Cain begins by praising a video he recently watched on Project van Buren, before adding that it was missing one detail: his "involvement in its cancellation." Cain kept in touch with old colleagues, and an Interplay VP who he leaves nameless ("We got on well… he had a 10 charisma") asked the designer to take a look at one of their projects… but not in a good way. 

Cain begins by recalling the conversation with the vice president. They said something along the lines of, "Would you mind coming over and playing one of our game prototypes? We're making a Fallout game and I'm going to have to cancel it. I don't think they can get it done... So I'm just gonna cancel it, but if you could come over and look at it and give me an estimate, there's a chance I wouldn't cancel it."

Having a look, recalls Cain, was a matter of going "across the street into Interplay's lobby", feeling that he should help out. This was not least because his Interplay acquaintance knew how to press his buttons: "If you don't do it, bad things will happen to other people."

Cain played a build of Project van Buren for "a while…. probably two hours" that, he says, was more-or-less identical to the tech demo leaked in 2007, and from which most existing footage of the game comes. He talked to some of the developers working on the game, and then the Interplay vice president asked Cain what he thought, and how long it would take to "complete this game and make it shippable."

Cain didn't sugarcoat it. He said 18 months could result in "a really good game shipped". The vice president said that wasn't an option. Cain said, well, a year of "death march" crunch could maybe get it done in 12 months, but he wouldn't recommend that because you'd get something "unbalanced and buggy" and destroy the team.

The state Interplay was in at the time meant "[the vice president] could not afford a development period of more than six months," says Cain. "To me, that timeframe was out of the question... He thought it couldn't be done in six months; I just confirmed that to him."

Cain says there's no single "villain" behind the failure of Project van Buren, even though "some of you may think I'm the villain." He says people who would point at the Interplay vice president and put it on him simply don't have an answer for where he could've gotten the money from: Interplay was coming off years of losses.

Some of the ideas mooted for the game's development (such as using the older engine from the first games) wouldn't have been realistic, says Cain. "There so many "what ifs" in there… first of all, would that engine have been acceptable five years [after Fallout 2]?" asks Cain. "Had anyone really looked at it since Fallout 2 shipped? I started the engine in 1994... it's a nine year-old engine, it's creaky."

As for blaming the team on the game, "none of those people are really to blame. I do not believe that [with] the money they had left, the game in the state it was in, the people who were working on it could have completed it within six months. And [if they did], I don't think it would have been a game you would have liked playing.

"Almost every single question people ask about game development has the same answer: money," says Cain.

Project Van Buren was cancelled, and Interplay would go under in the years that followed (albeit with the name kept alive). Bethesda would acquire the Fallout IP in 2007 and reimagine the series in 3D, to enormous and ongoing success, even if there will always be those who prefer the original incarnation and wonder what Fallout 3 looked like in an alternative universe. But from what Cain's saying… even if the multiverse was real, there aren't many versions of Earth where this game ever got out the door.

"Interplay sort-of died [afterwards], I mean it's still around, but it shut down, it lost its building, the lights were turned off, everyone lost their jobs," ends Cain. "Van Buren was kinda the writing on the wall for that. I wanted to tell that story because it is my last involvement in Interplay Fallout. And I think that's the thing that precipitated Fallout as an IP being auctioned off."

Project Van Buren will always have its place in Fallout history, and there's even an ongoing mod project to resurrect the game. But Cain was in a position to actually know where this game was, and the realistic prospects of it shipping, and his judgement has the ring of truth to it: not least because of what would subsequently happen with Interplay.

Cain himself is now retired which is why he's been talking about, among other things, his departure from Interplay, the real reason for the Vaults, various Bloodlines sequels that never took off, and how his hatred of white chocolate became an Easter egg in the Outer Worlds. Hell, he's even found time to defend the recent Amazon show.

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."