A new report on the development of Bethesda’s widely ridiculed Fallout 76 has painted a picture of a studio in disarray, when poor management, a lack of design direction, and engine challenges created an environment of apathy, confusion, crunches, and burnout and a game that ultimately ended with the players didn’t get it.
Announced in 2018 and released the following year, Fallout 76 — an online take on Bethesda’s beloved post-apocalyptic RPG series — didn’t fare well at launch. Eurogamer’s Wesley Yin-Poole even went so far as to call it a “bizarre, boring, broken mess” before beating it with an avoid badge.
Now, a lengthy new report from Kotaku – based on interviews with 10 former employees of Bethesda and parent company ZeniMax Media – has shed new light on the difficult development that has led to such a poorly received game that seems doomed from the start was.
It is alleged that many of the team at Bethesda’s Rockville studio leading development on Fallout 76 had very little enthusiasm for management’s push to develop a live service version of Fallout, after being fans of the single player -games of the studio had entered the company.
According to Kotaku’s report, the matter was not aided by a lack of coherent direction from management about what Fallout 76 was supposed to be. It is alleged that while Bethesda’s Todd Howard was technically responsible for the project, he spent most of his time working on Starfield, while design director Emil Pagliarulo “apparently didn’t want to be involved with the product at all. He didn’t want to be in contact with it…or read anything we put in front of him.”
The problems were reportedly further compounded by the significant technical challenges involved in adapting Bethesda’s single-player-focused Creation Engine for multiplayer. Management reportedly believed that using the Creation Engine was the “lesser evil,” but Kotaku’s sources claim the decision ultimately created complex issues that resulted in a significantly increased workload in both design and quality assurance, with the Employees would regularly have to expend between 10 and 16 hours of work per day. Multiple sources told Kotaku that crunch is mandatory in Fallout 76, and it is said that ZeniMax’s QA director Rob Gray was constantly distracting or denying that crunch was an issue in his department when the issue was raised by employees.
Kotaku’s sources say that the significant time investment and technical challenges involved in adapting the Creation Engine for multiplayer was not only demoralizing, but the main reason management insisted on keeping one of the Fallout series’ key staples, NPCs to drop. It’s claimed “almost none” of Bethesda’s designers wanted the game to launch without NPCs, but executive producer Howard refused to dwell on the issue until release.
Senior management also reportedly chose to ignore designers’ concerns about other issues during development, including mourning, multiplayer stability, and quest checkpointing.
Ultimately, the turmoil in Fallout 76 development — which reportedly forced Bethesda to pull staff from Arkane Studios’ Starfield and Redfall to complete two since-delayed games — is said to have led to an exodus of senior developers working on some of them had worked on Bethesda’s biggest titles, including Fallout 3 and Skyrim.
Kotaku’s sources have remained cynical about whether Bethesda’s management has learned any lessons from the development of Fallout 76. “It would be great if something like [Activision Blizzard worker advocacy group] There was a better ABK for Bethesda,” one person said, “but everyone’s scared… because [Bethesda] HR is super cutthroat.” And things have reportedly not improved under Microsoft, which continues to emphasize a “hands off” policy when it comes to its studio acquisitions.
All in all, Kotaku’s report offers another depressing glimpse into the inner workings of the gaming industry, but it’s one well worth reading.