Fallout 76, the controversial and often derided live service incarnation of the beloved Fallout universe, is the subject of poor management, lack of direction and technical challenges that have created an environment of confusion and crunch. That’s according to a report by Kotaku’s Sisi Jiang, who spoke with 10 former employees of Bethesda Game Studios and its parent organization Zenimax Media.
While most have conceded that Fallout 76 is what it is, for better or worse, the fact remains that the game was poorly received at launch and despite some improvements, isn’t the game that people hoped for. But what the Kotaku report casts light on is that its troubled development may have doomed the project from the start.
The report notes that many of the developers at Bethesda’s main studio in Rockville, Maryland – most of whom joined the company as fans of its single-player output – had little enthusiasm or interest in the push from senior management to create a live service version of Fallout. The lack of a clear direction on what Fallout 76 was supposed to be did not help matters.
The people at Bethesda you’d expect to provide clear leadership, namely Todd Howard and Emil Pagliarulo, apparently had minimal interest in the project. Howard was reportedly spending most of his time working on Starfield, while Pagliarulo, “didn’t want to have any contact with it…or read anything that we put in front of him.” Pagliarulo is credited as design director on Fallout 76, while Howard is credited as executive producer.
Unsurprisingly, technical challenges were also presented by the use of the Creation Engine, the in-house development tool used to create The Elder Scrolls Skyrim and Fallout 4. Kotaku’s sources claim that this created complex problems that led to increased workload across design and QA. Managaement considered this the “lesser evil,” but it was apparent that the Engine was ill-equipped to handle the unique challenges of multiplayer game design.
These challenges – and the time constraints that the developers were operating on – also led to the decision to ditch NPCs, one of the crucial elements for worldbuilding in role-playing games like Fallout. It’s claimed that “almost none” of Bethesda’s designers wanted to launch without NPCs, but Howard refused to budge on the issue up to release. 2020’s Wastelanders update added NPCs into the post-nuclear Appalachian world of Fallout 76.
All of the technical issues faced – additional ones including matters of quest checkpointing, multiplayer stability, instancing, griefing, etc. – all but guaranteed the necessity of crunch for Fallout 76 to be able meet the November 2018 launch date, which was never open for discussion. The result was employees regularly racking up around 10 to 16 hours a day. Kotaku’s report alleges that this crunch was mandatory and that QA director Rob Gray deflected or denied crunch was happening whenever the issue came up.
Fallout 76’s development took its toll on the entire company. Bethesda had to pull staff from both the Starfield team and from the Redfall team at Arkane Studios to complete the game, and it is said to have driven an exodus of senior devs who cut their teeth on some of Bethesda’s biggest hits like Fallout 3 and Skyrim. Kotaku’s sources were skeptical, nay, cynical on the matter of whether any lessons were learned at the company.
“It would be great if something like [Activision Blizzard worker advocacy group] A Better ABK existed for Bethesda,” one person said, “but everyone is terrified… because [Bethesda] HR is super cutthroat.” Last year, there was some hope that the acquisition of Bethesda by Microsoft would encourage a higher standard of leadership and worker welfare, but the company’s hands-off approach to studio management means that has not happened.