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How Player Feedback Is Shaping the Future of ‘Fallout 76’

When “Fallout 76” launched in November 2018, it didn’t quite hit its target. The first online-only entry in the long-running post-apocalyptic series suffered from a number of technical issues in its early days, and fans weren’t receptive to some of its core mechanics. The lack of NPCs, instead of encouraging players to interact with each other, just made the world feel empty. The campaign lacked the gravity of previous games’ stories. Overall, it didn’t deliver on its promises or its potential.

In the months since launch, developer Bethesda has been fairly open about “Fallout 76’s” shortcomings, even vowing to do better in 2019. Some significant improvements were detailed at Bethesda’s E3 press conference earlier this week, including a whole new vault and the glorious return of NPCs.

“Some guy named Todd asked me to do it,” Project Lead Jeff Gardiner told Variety. (He’s referring, of course, to Bethesda Game Studios head honcho Todd Howard, who’s also the director of “Fallout 76.”) These NPCs are part of a free DLC-sized update called “Wastelanders,” which also adds a new main quest concerning Settler and Raider factions. “When we launched ‘Fallout 76,’ we were committed to having the other players act as NPCs,” Gardiner said. That may have been the original intent, but it didn’t quite work in execution. So “after launch and listening to the community,” the developers started planning to put NPCs back into the world of “Fallout.”

This presented its own technical challenges, of course. It’s one thing to talk to a story character in a single-player game, but in a multiplayer game it could easily turn into a crowd of people attempting to engage with some poor dweller. The solution: “We ripped out all the camera code,” Gardiner explained, incorporating a system in which each player gets their own camera when talking to an NPC, instead of players “shouting over each other.”

“Wastelanders” isn’t the only big addition “Fallout 76” players can expect this year; Bethesda also announced its own battle royale mode, which is now playable in trial form. The “Nuclear Winter” update is playable until June 17 in trial form, after which we’ll get more details about its full launch.

“We were looking to build an interesting PVP mode and this is where the Nuclear Winter mode came from,” Bethesda Co-Studio Director Tom Mustaine told us. This 52-player fight to the death doesn’t just spring up out of nowhere; it’s actually tied to the opening of a new vault. Vault 51 is missing its overseer, so a ZAX supercomputer has taken it upon itself to find a new one — through trial by combat. As players launch nukes, the effects stack up and the map gets smaller. Mustaine said that Nuclear Winter is part of the game’s “ongoing storytelling,” and the events of Vault 51 fit into “Fallout” lore just as any other expansion would.

Regular “Fallout 76” players probably noticed that the developers have already incorporated a number of updates based on player habits, like continuously increasing the size of the stash box and adding vending machines to camps. Additionally, “we’ve made thousands, literally thousands and thousands of fixes and repairs to both performance and stability and little annoying bugs,” Gardiner said. “We spend a lot of time reading community feedback… ultimately the community has really good ideas. It’s an endless well of information for us.”

Bethesda’s openness about “Fallout 76’s” launch issues, and its willingness to work with its community, isn’t something you find in every studio or every game — and perhaps that’s why its player community is so darn friendly. As Todd Howard put it at Bethesda’s press briefing, “We made a post-apocalyptic survival game where you can do whatever you want and everybody’s nice to each other.”

Mustaine and Gardiner couldn’t pinpoint exactly why “Fallout 76” players are so keen to help each other out, but Mustaine speculated that camp-building had an effect. “In previous ‘Fallout’ games, it wasn’t multiplayer. You built this really cool thing, and the only way you had to show it off was to take screenshots or make YouTube videos.” Thanks to the multiplayer experience, players are able to share their dwellings, making resources available to newer players through vending machines. “People are able to express themselves within the camps they build…  it’s really endearing to see people actually having a good time.

Both Mustaine and Gardiner stressed that “Fallout 76” is a different game than it was at launch, thanks to the many fixes, balance tweaks, timed events, and additional content — all of which is free. But you don’t have to take their word for it; “Fallout 76” is free to play on PC, Xbox One, and PS4 until June 17.

“Nuclear Winter” is available to preview this week, and the “Wastelanders” update will hit Appalachia later this year. Beyond that? Nothing’s been detailed, but Mustaine called “Fallout 76” “a living ecosystem,” so changes are ongoing for the foreseeable future. It’s tough to say if Bethesda’s aggressive course-correcting can overcome the repercussions of “Fallout 76’s” rocky launch, but the future of the wasteland is looking bright.

Of course, that might just be the radiation speaking.

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