When Fallout 76 launched in 2018 it was, frankly, Rust's younger cousin wearing the clothes it stole from Fallout 4's closet. After two years of updates - quests, companions, factions, and more - Fallout 76 waddles like a Wastelander and quacks like one too. I chatted with Fallout 76 project lead Jeff Gardiner and lead quest designer Brianna Schneider about where the game is headed, and the answer could be out of Appalachia.
Bethesda have wrapped up a year of huge additions to Fallout 76, including a new main storyline and human NPC settlements with factions, and Gardiner estimates that next year will be even bigger. A lot of big changes that Bethesda have talked about are either in active development or being discussed, he says. Perk loadouts so players can swap their builds with ease, expanding more on the new C.A.M.P. shelters, and the ability to play with mods, are all being planned or developed.
Fallout 76's journey to become less focused on PvP survival and more of an RPG is a trajectory that anyone who's played the game will likely recognise, and Gardiner seems sure the journey will continue. "We've made efforts to make [Fallout 76] more community friendly - to increase the ways and means and rewards for playing with other people—but to still serve our core fans, which are singleplayer gamers," he says.
"I just want to make sure that the people who love Bethesda games and love Fallout are getting the best experience out of this game," says Gardiner, who's worked on the series since Fallout 3. "That's my number one goal, personally, is to make sure that the people who want to have a really great Fallout experience can come to Fallout 76 and get it - and I'd like to say we're starting to succeed at that."
On that note, I asked both Gardiner and Schneider if there are Fallout series staples that they still want to see arrive in 76. I'm thinking of the other singleplayer Bethesda series gone multiplayer, The Elder Scrolls Online, which added a justice system and a number of other Elder Scrolls conventions after launch. For Gardiner, it's even more faction-based gameplay. For Schneider, it's all about stories. "For me, it's less a question of systems and more of, who are the people that you meet and what kinds of decisions can you make as a player," she says. "What kind of places are there for you to explore and what stories are there to tell about the Wasteland?"
While bolstering its RPG credentials, Fallout 76 has become more like an MMO as well. Last year brought raids to the game, and recent months have added daily dungeons, a season pass, and a public grouping system.
Given Schneider's mention of new places to explore, I ask about planned map changes. Fallout 76 already made significant changes to its overworld in the Wastelanders update by adding two huge cities for the Settler and Raider factions. Steel Dawn has added another dedicated to the Brotherhood Of Steel. Will Fallout 76's map continue to change over time?
"To be honest with you, we've saturated it pretty well now with Wastelanders and Brotherhood Of Steel," Gardiner says. "We are looking at Expeditions to be a way to maybe do something off map. [...] We have a big list of locations. We're settling in on one right now. So we are looking at those to be the ways for people to experience different areas of the Fallout universe."
Off map, he says. So is this potentially entirely new, open world areas? Yes, Gardiner says, that's what they're hoping. He likens it to other Fallout expansions like Far Harbor in which you interact with a vehicle and head to an entirely separate map. "We know that those are some of our most successful expansions for our previous games and we want to be able to bring that experience to Fallout 76 for certain," he says.
Gardiner cautions that Expeditions, a feature that Bethesda have yet to explain in detail, aren't coming soon. They'd originally been planned for late this year but were an early victim of Covid-19 delays. As they're just now narrowing in on a setting for an Expedition, Gardiner says it's "a ways out" but that they're hoping to fit it in next year.
Over in The Elder Scrolls Online, ZeniMax Online now roll out new explorable zones at a yearly pace, sold as expansions. So far, Fallout 76's content updates and story additions have been free. Will that change? Gardiner says that he can't be certain of the future but that "the plan right now is to stick to that."
As for the pacing of updates, Bethesda definitely want to establish a known cadence. This year brought a pretty steady roadmap, though the large Wastelanders update mid-year had a gravitational pull on the rest of the year's content. It sounds as if their hope for future years will involve stories and updates being added in smaller, more regular chunks, just as the Brotherhood Of Steel story has been.
The elephant in the room, of course, is that Bethesda has recently been acquired by Microsoft. There's a possibility that a new corporate overlord could change plans for how to update or monetize Fallout 76. It's too early to talk about, Gardiner says.
How about that popular question about the possibility for a Fallout: New Vegas 2, now that Obsidian and Bethesda are together under the Microsoft umbrella. With what sound like years of plans for content coming to Fallout 76, could Gardiner's team become the multiplayer Fallout studio while another takes the singleplayer reins?
"The folks at Obsidian, some of them I actually worked with years ago," Gardiner says. "I love what they did with New Vegas. I don't know what the future holds. Personally, I definitely still love single player games. So I would be remiss to say I wouldn't want to do that myself. But you know, who knows?"