Staff Musings: Diablo III proves old-school Fallout can do well today

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On the week of Diablo III’s release last month, I was one of the millions of gamers click, click, and clicking away through the first act of the game, bashing down many a skeleton and undead foe.

As the hours passed and I spent more time in the game’s environments, glancing occasionally at the classic HUD at the bottom and an info box at the bottom-left corner, it hit me: “Wow, Fallout 3 could have been like this and it would have been awesome.”

And then I felt bummed out, knowing that wasn’t the case.

Before the Fallout franchise landed in the hands of Bethesda, the developer of the first two games in the series, Black Isle, already had the third installment in the works. Codenamed Project Van Buren, it was isometric, used 3D visuals, and allowed players to stick to the traditional turn-based combat or switch to a new, real-time system. It sounded immensely promising, but then it was unfortunately canceled due to layoffs on Black Isle’s staff carried out by Interplay.

The rest, as you’re sure to know by now, is history. Bethesda picked up the Fallout license from Interplay following the closure of Black Isle and set out to create its own vision of Fallout – one done in the style the company was most comfortable with: a first-person action RPG.

Now in 2012, as I troll the depths of Hell in Diablo III, I’m now more than ever certain that that a new isometric Fallout game would work (and sell) in today’s market.

For me, the widespread critical acclaim for Diablo III – a game that still plays much like Diablo II –  tells me that making an isometric PC exclusive title isn’t going to lead to lackluster sales. In its first week, Diablo III received rave reviews and sold a record-breaking 6.3 million units.

An isometric game making bank in 2012? Inconceivable!

I’ll start by saying that I’m not about to pull a No Mutants Allowed and go on a diatribe against Bethesda for its handling of the Fallout series. Although I still prefer Fallout 1 and 2, that’s not to say that Fallout 3 was a terrible game like many rabid Fallout fans claim – it was pretty decent.

In my eyes, Fallout 3’s writing wasn’t as great and the game’s overall atmosphere and soundtrack didn’t really gel with me as much as the first two games, but it carried the torch pretty well. I can say that New Vegas (which I admit I haven’t finished) improved upon it – specifically in the writing department, thanks to the addition of former Black Isle staff such as Chris Avellone, who contributed to the development of Fallout 2.

In an attempt to appeal to old-school fans of the series, Bethesda touted the ability to zoom the camera out far enough away to simulate an isometric experience and the V.A.T.S. system, which was described by some outlets as an evolution of the series’ turn-based combat. To the hardcore Fallout fan, however, these seemed like weak attempts at catering to fans of the original two games. Zooming the camera out all the way made the game impossible to play, and V.A.T.S. was merely a glorified cinematic version of Fallout 1 2’s aimed shot mechanic.

According to Bethesda’s Vice President Pete Hines, the decision to make Fallout 3 a first/third-person action RPG was an obvious choice.

We’re not going to suddenly do a top-down isometric Baldur’s Gate-style game, because that’s not what we do well.

Regardless of their methods, I believe that now’s the time for Bethesda to make a “risky” move in the form of an isometric Fallout game. Imagine a new Fallout with the graphical style of Diablo III – wouldn’t that be awesome? And when it comes to combat, there could be an option to make it real-time or turn-based, like Van Buren, to satiate both camps.

As far as the need for the game to be in the isometric perspective, Fallout designer Leonard Boyarsky’s shared his views on it back in 2004, saying:

I think the most important aspect of the traditional isometric view is the overview you get for combat and the ‘lay of the land.’

I don’t know how I would have felt about making FO3 anything but isometric and turn based. We did have an extremely high budget idea for another approach, but even in that scenario combat was isometric and turn based. Of course, it’s easy for me to say I wouldn’t have done a paused real time FO3 now, but I don’t know what I would have said if the offer was made.

And while some may feel that turn-based combat is too archaic for today’s standards, the $1.8 million raised for Harebrained Schemes’ Shadowrun Returns and $2.9 million raised for inXile Entertainment/Obsidian Entertainment’s Wasteland 2 via Kickstarter shows that line of thinking is dead wrong.

Clearly, there is still a large group of people willing to shell out money for a game with old-school, turn-based combat.

At this point some might argue that there’s no point in wishing for a new isometric-style Fallout now that Wasteland 2 will be the spiritual successor to the first two Fallouts, but I disagree. Fallout and Wasteland may both take place in a post-apocalyptic setting, but for me personally, Fallout has a fascinating story and universe that I yearn to see applied again in an isometric, turn-based style. Wasteland 2 can capture much of what made Fallouts 1 & 2 great, but it will never have Vault Boy, Nuka Cola, the 1950s duck-and-cover vibe, or all of the other interesting story-related elements that made Fallout what it is.

I guess it’ll only be fair to see if Wasteland 2 and Shadowrun Returns turn out well as games and as financial successes. If by some trick of fate they don’t, then I can eat my words when 2013 rolls around.

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Author: Patrick Kulikowski View all posts by
Patrick Kulikowski is a Rutgers University graduate with aspirations of joining the game industry. I have a strong love of games and their music. When not serving as Associate Editor for Pixelitis,net and a writer for Game Music Online, you'll see him working on a game music drum cover project entitled "VGdrum" and managing his Breath of Fire Facebook and Twitter fan pages.

18 Comments on "Staff Musings: Diablo III proves old-school Fallout can do well today"

  1. patryk June 26, 2012 at 4:19 pm - Reply

    could’t agree more

  2. Quarex June 26, 2012 at 5:28 pm - Reply

    Right, Wasteland 2 will not have the [Pip]-Boy, Nuka-Cola, or the 1950s Duck-and-Cover vibe that made Fallout fun. Just as Fallout was hobbled from the beginning by not being able to have the Guardiands of the Old Order, Snake Squeezins, and the 1980s Cold War nuclear paranoia vibe that made Wasteland great.

    What I am trying to say, besides that you obviously never played Wasteland to understand why it was a big deal in the first place, is that Wasteland 2 does not need Fallout’s trappings to succeed–it already had an arguably more compelling design/art ethos in the first place. Brian Fargo’s inability to retain the rights to that atmosphere is the reason they created Fallout–a compromise.

  3. Mik June 26, 2012 at 5:34 pm - Reply

    How ironic that Wasteland 2 will be the spiritual successor of Fallout 1/2, since they were spiritual successors to Wasteland 1. INCEPTION!

  4. kuba June 26, 2012 at 5:35 pm - Reply

    Yup, agree as well. Although I’m not a fan of describing turn-based isometric RPGs as ‘oldschool’ ;)

  5. Astor June 26, 2012 at 5:42 pm - Reply

    Well, Fallout’s dead my friend. Herve and Bethesda teamed up to drive it all the way down to idiocy incarnated and terminal. We should rejoice though, like you say, we’re getting your wish in Wastekand 2 form after all.

  6. Patrick Kulikowski June 26, 2012 at 6:01 pm - Reply

    @Quarex: You’re speaking from the perspective of someone who grew up with and preferred Wasteland’s universe to Fallout’s. Correct, I have never played Wasteland (I hope to someday), but I am speaking as one who started with Fallout and was more familiar and enamored with that universe. Fallout being the literal aftermath of Brian Fargo’s inability to claim rights to the original Wasteland setting doesn’t sully Fallout for me, personally. Wasteland 2’s details and setting will no doubt initially appeal to you more than it will to me, even though I am still looking forward to it immensely.

  7. e_wraith June 26, 2012 at 9:01 pm - Reply

    Yeah, I have to agree with Quarex, the phrasing is a bit dodgy considering the history. Wasteland 2 will hopefully be the first real successor to Wasteland, instead of the spiritual successor to its spiritual successor. This does not detract from Fallout at all, but trust me missing some of those Fallout elements won’t sink the game for those of us really looking forward to those long missing Wasteland elements. It is probably hard for many to appreciate how revolutionary a game Wasteland was then, and how devoted a following it still has. Many who dearly love Fallout as well, such as myself, but who would give a great deal to see a new Wasteland in its own right. It is nice to see that there are those that are hoping for the return of this style of RPG, but Rutgers grads are smart people so I am not totally surprised. Just a little bias from a fellow Rutgers alum.

  8. rich June 27, 2012 at 6:13 am - Reply

    Patrick,

    I think you’ve written an editorial making a very tenuous starting leap, suggesting that the immense popularity of a fast-paced, button-mashing loot-obsessed action RPG with its own very specific demographic ‘proves’ that Bethesda, a company which seems very set on repeating its own fairly static, immensely successful formula, can take the Fallout franchise, which has by this point in time picked up a vast number of Bethesda fans, including those in the gaming press, expecting first-person action, first-person ‘immersion’, vast worlds filled with explorable locations with junk items everywhere for the sake of said immersion, etc, and bring out an isometric RPG with real-time and turn-based capability that is not only good, but financially viable, and considered a success rather than slated as a throwback.
    I don’t agree with you about this in the slightest, based on the respective audiences of Blizzard and Bethesda, but what the hey – it’s an editorial.

    My real problem with your article is that in none of this do you articulate exactly what you personally believe are the advantages of isometric play (you quote Boyardsky, sure, but it’s very brief and it’s what he thinks, not what you think) or why it’s such a good fit for either Diablo or Fallout. Is it the ‘lay of the land’, the tactical clarity in-combat, or the more universal clarity of being able to look down upon your character rather than fumbling around from their perspective, or the possibilities for very charming art assets, or simply because that perspective is/was such an integral part of their respective identities? It’s supposed to be an editorial, after all, so it feels quite odd that you completely avoid editorialising in-depth about the actual gameplay and what you believe makes isometric viewpoints special and/or particularly suited to the Fallout franchise, as compared to predictions based on sales figures and financial support of other franchises, and a few vague mentions of a ‘classic HUD’ and ‘wouldn’t it be awesome?’ – well, what *would* be so awesome about a return to the old style of Fallout, what would it gain or lose in the process, and why do you think so many people would want to buy that?

    …hopefully that doesn’t sound too grouchy or too patronising. Probably it does.

  9. arblbrbl June 27, 2012 at 9:05 am - Reply

    Think again.

    Wasteland 2, the most promising of all these new turn-based games, with the most hype, made 2.9 million $. That’s like ~58.000 units, worth 50$ each.
    Diablo 3 sold 6.3 million units. Do you even understand the huge difference?

    While I agree that turn-based games can find their (small) market, there is really no chance they will reach even half Diablo 3’s sales. A camera alone does not give you a safe conclusion. Fallout and Diablo are very different games.

  10. Patrick Kulikowski June 27, 2012 at 10:32 am - Reply

    @rich: You’re right in that I could have went a bit more in-depth with what makes the isometric perspective (and turn-based combat) so great. At the very least, I’m glad I’ve got people talking about this.

    “Lay of the land” to me is one of the more important aspects of having a game in the isometric perspective. Much like how most RTS games are done in this way, it makes managing everything that’s going on onscreen a lot easier. Being a “surveyor” from a bird’s eye view and being able to more clearly control everything (tactical clarity, like you mentioned) from that perspective is satisfying for me. Fallout’s text box in its HUD, describing the goings-on in your environment and in combat is a neat touch that gives it a sort of “D&D” feel in which a Dungeon Master is describing everything in greater detail and allows the player to use his or her own imagination too. Movement with a simple click is a big plus too. Also, with today’s visuals it’d be very pleasing to look at (like Diablo III).

    And in this day and age, with the over-saturation of first-person shooters, another Western-style isometric, turn-based RPG would be a breath of fresh air since there’s been such a long dearth of them all of these years.

    The probability of Bethesda making its next big Fallout game a classic Fallout is slim to none, which is why I believe a side-story done in the style of New Vegas and outsourced to another company (like Obsidian) would work. In that way, Bethesda could continue doing Fallout in their own style (although if they wanted to grow as a developer they ought to branch out more in both genre and style) while another company could bring back the classic Fallout. If Bethesda was willing to let New Vegas be made by someone else, I don’t see why they would object to something like this.

    Oh, and though your post does appear grouchy, I appreciate the criticism.

  11. Wintermute June 27, 2012 at 10:34 am - Reply

    This editorial seems like it’s written from a sense of nostalgia for what those games were. Right now in gaming it seems like gamers and companies alike are finding a market for that nostalgia. Sure games like Wasteland or Shadowrun may never remotely hit any dollar mark that Diablo 3 set, but that’s not the point. Blizzard is such a huge company that it has the base and the sheer weight to get those huge numbers. The point is that the market exists for more traditional isometric games. To put it this way old forms might help revitalize stale genres and gameplay. Success is defined differently by each company and by the fans. But sometimes a company that has the resources and influence should take a leap out of the comfort zone, instead of producing the same game packaged differently every couple of years. It boils down to taste, if enough people have the same taste people will gravitate together and buy into a franchise. Diablo 3 proved that you don’t need to be a first person shooter or first person mage to use an old form and make it something super successful.

  12. podon June 27, 2012 at 12:21 pm - Reply

    Flawed logic in this editorial. Fallout 1 and 2 were/are quite different from Diablo III or any of the games in the Diablo series; thus, to equate them in order to make the argument that “Fallout 3 could have been like Diablo 3″ is illogical. Granted, Fallout 3 was significantly different from Fallouts 1 & 2, and a completely different species than Diablo III, but that is because it was INTENDED to be so by those who made it. They weren’t trying to make a Fallout 3 in sequence with the first two in the same way that the makers of Diablo 3 were, precisely, intending to make a sequence and successor to Diablo 1 & 2. The bottom line is that there are plenty of games out there now, and there will be in the future, that are “like” Fallout 1 & 2, so there is absolutely no need to bemoan the fact that Fallout 3 isn’t like them, or more like Diablo 3. I’ll put it another way: I thoroughly enjoyed Fallout 1 & 2; I thoroughly enjoyed Fallout 3 (despite some glitches); I am in the process of thoroughly enjoying Diablo 3–and part of my enjoyment resides in how different they are from one another.

  13. Patrick Kulikowski June 27, 2012 at 12:47 pm - Reply

    @podon: I suggest you reread the article. I’m not trying to equate Diablo and Fallout in terms of gameplay, but from both series’ HUD and isometric perspective. What I was saying in the beginning of my editorial is that as I was playing Diablo III, with its 3D visuals and isometric perspective combined with point-and-click gameplay, I imagined what it would have been like for Fallout 3 to be in that same style. I also made it clear that I did not dislike Fallout 3 or New Vegas for that matter.

  14. Miguel June 27, 2012 at 2:06 pm - Reply

    I entirely disagree with the view that Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas lost something from it’s predecessors because it uses a first person view and not an isometric view. I understand nostalgia and I understand the importance of the first (and in this particular case the first and second) contact with a fictional universe that we care about. I never played Fallout 1 & 2 untill after finishing Fallout New Vegas, so FONV was my first contact with that universe. And it was almost perfect. The most immersive and interesting world I ever played in a video game. The best video game I ever played untill now (and I have been playing games since the first days of ZX Spectrum). But I was also a pen and paper role player when I had the time for that kind of hobbie and I can not, for the life of me, understand, how we can compare an isometric game from the 90s, with almost no music at all, no voice acting and graphics that are… well, adequate for the time, with a game made ten years after. It completly changes the enviromnent, yes, but in a good way in the role playing point of view (and the Fallout series IS a role playing video game series, no matter what else). I can’t see how could it be possible that such great games would have lost the Fallout flavour just because it has less text (IF it has less text, ’cause I remember reading a lot of computer logs, diaries and notes both in Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas) and more voice. Nostalgia aside, we must remember that we are not talking about strategy games – and turn based in a computer game is more of a strategy concept than a RPG concept. Pen and paper mechanics uses turns, true, but those are mechanics which merely serve the purpose of trying to simulate a real combat situation in a plausible way for a group of people sitting around a table. Computer games do not need to use that kind of mechanics. Real time takes the strategy out of it and creates a more immersive feeling, which is what role playing is all about. And then there’s the choices, the interactions, the interpretation of a character, which aren’t perfected yet in computer games because AI’s have lot’s of limitations when compared to interacting with real people, but in the last few years they evolved a lot. So, please, no more isometric Fallout. I can take Wasteland 2 in a nostalgic kind of way, but I wouldn’t like to see a sequel of Fallout going back to the past…

  15. podon June 27, 2012 at 3:02 pm - Reply

    Patrick,

    I think you made my point. Wondering what Fallout 3 would be like if it were
    more like Diablo 3 is like wondering what a Volkswagen Beetle would be
    like if it were more like a Chevy Corvette. They are different beasts, and
    your implicit argument is that Fallout 3 would be better if it had been more
    like Diablo 3: it doesn’t add up. You really are comparing apples to
    oranges in comparing a state of the art action hack and slash with some
    rpg elements to what is essentially a graphic rpg with some combat
    elements. A Fallout 3 that is “more like” Diablo 3 would not be Fallout 3–
    it would be something else. No disagreement that Diablo 3 is completely
    engaging and I wish there were more like it, but I also wish there were more
    like Fallout 3, and Skyrim, etc. etc.

  16. Dale V. June 27, 2012 at 5:27 pm - Reply

    I believe what Patrick is saying is true. It’s just most of you don’t want your FO3 bling-bling and eye-candy dismissed so easily !

    1. Is Fallout’s 1 and 2 and Diablo’s 1,2 and 3, isometric view games? YES!
    2. Do all of the above use a mouse primarely, to play ? YES!

    End of argument !

  17. Matt June 27, 2012 at 7:24 pm - Reply

    Patrick, you may have a point but you’re missing the main one of this article. It is not “fallout 3 should have been different and isometric.” It is “Could a sequel to Fallouts 1 & 2 be made and do well in today’s gaming industry?” To which it tries to make the case that it could do well, which I happen to agree with.
    Also, I imagine it’s hard to make a game “perfect,” whatever that is, so criticism of Fallout 3 is fine; it did not say that the game should not have been made. I think a lot of people (myself included, and apparently you, here) were stuck up on the name “fallout 3″ as it was totally different from 1 and 2, (maybe it could have been called fallout 3D, or fallout D.C. or something…).
    I also hope, but don’t expect, to see more games like New Vegas in the future.

  18. Matt June 27, 2012 at 7:27 pm - Reply

    err just realized i said “patrick” when i meant to address this to “podon”

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