Well, on other stuff too, but that's the most headline-worthy. After getting hands on with Fallout 3 last month I had ten minutes or so to chat with Bethesda's VP of PR and marketing Pete Hines which I've finally transcribed. In it, I ask why they're not initially supporting mods and mention the conspiracy theory that they're sidestepping them to increase demand for downloadable content. Plus stuff on violence, misapprehensions and 100-post+ comment threads.
RPS: I've just had an hour or so with Fallout 3. In fact, lots of journalists now have now had that sort of time with the game. What are they going to miss? What apprehensions do you have?
Pete Hines: First of all, we're just throwing a character at you which we've picked for you. Part of the fun is getting to create your own character, and deciding what sort of person you want to be in the world. And then being given a reasonable chance to explore that character. Going to explore lots of parts of the world, to get quests and see them out to their completion, to get a chance to roleplay – am I a good guy, a bad guy or a neutral guy? All that stuff is not stuff you can do for a half hour or even an hour. We have had some guys who've played the game for five hours, who get a bit more of a sense of that... but as far as general apprehensions, right now all my apprehensions are about finishing the game and getting it out there. We're certainly not at a stage where if someone said “I'd like it a lot better if you could do THIS” ... well, that ship has sailed. We're not a stage where we're adding new content or making big changes. We are shipping the game and getting all the bugs out and balancing here and there, but nothing major.
RPS: Sorry - I meant more misapprehensions. Stuff which people are going to misread which you don't think would be a problem if they played more
Hines: A lot of folks who haven't got a chance to play the game still ask about is the RPG aspect of it – in terms of the quests. Is there dialogue? I mean, a lot of what we've shown so far has been combat. It makes it seem a combat heavy game. Part of that is because it's easy to show. It's very hard to give someone the payoff for playing a quest when you're showing it at a trade show or giving a 20 minute demo. It's too hard to present and have it come off right. People still have some of those concerns, but we have had folk who have gone in and played the game for much longer and their feedback on those aspect of the game are very positive. So if you take them at their word, hopefully their misapprehensions have been cleared up.
RPS: Playing it something struck me. It really manages to be both horrific and quite comic. And that exact mix is something that's not exactly thick on the ground anymore. [I'm not quite sure what I was getting at here, by the way. I suspect I meant deliberately mixing the two. There's a difference between violence that is comic and comedy violence. Gears of War is actually done with a straight face. There's a smirk with Fallout 3 - Ed]
Hines: I think we've tried to do both of those things – the violence and the sheer destruction with some of the dark humour.
RPS: I suppose what I mean that unlike common conceptions, modern games are actually less violent than they were a few years ago. The apex of modeling violence was Soldier of Fortune 2, and nothing's come near since. People backed off. Even actually supposedly extremely violent games don't actually show much. Conversely, Fallout 3 feels a little out of time in that it actually does show stuff.
Hines: Not only has violence changed, but violence in games – in terms of what you get away with on the screen has changed because the visual fidelity went up so much. We joke about back in the day, when Bethesda started making Elder Scroll stuff, back in 94-95-96... you put a nipple on the screen, it was a two pixel thing. You couldn't tell what the hell it was if you stared at the screen all day. Now, if you put a woman on the screen and show her bare breasts it's significantly more realistic. It's got bump-mapping and specular lighting and skin-shaders... it does heighten the experience more than it used to ten years ago. And I think violence is the same thing – the technology brings it to life in a much more visceral way than it ever could have before, simply because of all the technology. On the flip side, you see stuff where people are careful of how they introduce it. Gears of War is a very violent game. You chainsaw guys in half and there's no mistaking you've just chainsawed someone in half. But they do it in a way which has an aesthetic and a design quality which makes it not horrific, even though it's an incredible looking game, they still manage to pull it off without being disturbing. I think a lot of times you have to be really careful about not crossing that line. The disturbing one. There's a difference between the violence of storming the beach at Normandy in Saving Private Ryan and Kill Bill. One is funny, one is not. I think everybody gets the difference between the two.
RPS: Getting more technical – care to talk about the mod situation?
Folk probably took for granted that every time we make a game, there's a mod tool. We explained to folk that it takes a lot of time and effort to get that tool ready for release, and it's not on our schedule right now. We need to get the game done and out. It's not to say we won't do it. It's that right now we have an enormous amount of work to do, for three platforms and all these different languages to get it out around the wall. Right now, we can't say definitively “there will be mod tools, and here is when they'll be out”. That work remains to be done.
RPS: There's a Conspiracy Theory that would suggest that you're removing the mod tools to make downloadable content more attractive. As in, if you get extra value for free, why buy the official stuff?
Hines: That's a good theory, by the way. And probably on some level it would work... but from our standpoint, whenever we do an Elder Scrolls game and release those mod tools, it takes a ton of work and effort. This is a bigger undertaking for us, and one we've not yet scheduled for. Is that to say it'll never come out? No, I'll never say that. If we have the time, we'd absolutely like to put them out. As we've seen with Oblivion and Morrowind those things definitely create a sense of community and there's tonnes of people out there modding. We have our own little blog we run from Bethesda, and every week we're out there interviewing people from our mod community – so it's clearly something we support, something we take interest in and something we place value in and spend a lot of time highlighting good mods. It's just the tools take time. They don't magically appear. Someone's got to write help files for what all the scripts do, and get it released as a consumer product. Because it's not in that state otherwise. Developers will make do with anything.
Hines: That's the other thing. Yes, the PC mod community does help extend the life of a product by the number of people who are still playing it, but as we've seen in Oblivion, there's still people who are playing it on the 360 in the tens of thousands two and a half years later. In insane numbers. For two years in a row we were still in the top 10 most played Xbox games in the year, with zero user-mods. So yes, I definitely think it helps extend the community – but it's not the only thing out there. The games themselves also do lend themselves to be continuously played and replayed. So yes, it's a good conspiracy theory, but has nothing to do with the facts. It's just a case of "Who the hell is going to do this?" as everyone is working on getting the game done right now.
RPS: At RPS we tend to joke about certain subjects which we can post almost anything about and end up with 100 post comment threads. Bioshock, Piracy and... Fallout 3. It's already the most controversial game of the year, and it hasn't been released. What's it like in the middle of it? It must be fascinating to watch. I know you ignore it, but...
Hines: I don't think “Ignore it” is the right word. We're aware of it and we certainly listen to it, but it's also What Should We do about it? What do you do about the guy who says that your company is a travesty and you suck and you should not be making Fallout? Should I quit and go home? Okay... everyone is entitled to an opinion, but all we can really do is keep our heads down and work on the game, and make it the best game possible. We can't go on an individual by individual basis and try and convince people of anything. The average gamer sees through that stuff in a minute. They have their own opinions. They're very strongly held. The best we can do is present our game, and what it is which we think we do well and why it is – you, Joe Consumer – whether you play one game a year or fifty games a year might want to play Fallout 3. And hopefully convince them to go look for more information and decide for themselves that it's something they want to play.