Q&A: Fallout 3 executive producer Todd Howard
Bethesda Softworks' veteran developer talks about the future of the legendary postnuclear role-playing game series.
The past year has been miserable for Fallout fans. 2003 ended on a low note with Interplay's closure of Black Isle Studios and the cessation of development on "Van Buren," the company's code name for Fallout 3.
2004 opened with the ignominious release of the Xbox and PlayStation 2 game Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel. Hardcore PC gamers greeted it with hostility, critics were lukewarm, and console gamers reacted with resolute indifference. Sales were even poorer than those of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance 2, Interplay's other tent-pole release.
Together, the one-two punch of the two games' failures pushed the already listing Interplay closer to financial insolvency. The company was sued by former business partners, threatened with eviction by its landlords, and even temporarily shut down by the California Department of Labor. When Interplay released its last quarterly earnings report two weeks ago, it revealed that it would run out of cash by the end of July if it did not receive outside funding.
Even though Interplay CEO Herve Caen had floated the idea of a Fallout MMORPG, a new console Fallout, and bringing back Fallout 3, Interplay's dire finances caused many to despair that the franchise would die alongside its owners. Others thought Caen would finally be forced to license Fallout, possibly to Troika or Obsidian Entertainment, two studios founded by former developers of the game.
As it turns out, the latter group was right. This week, Interplay announced that Bethesda Softworks would develop and publish Fallout 3 and other Fallout games for PCs, consoles, and all other platforms. Interplay will technically retain ownership of the Fallout brand and still holds the rights to a Fallout MMORPG.
But while the announcement sparked elation in some gamers, others fretted. Many forum-posters worried that Fallout 3 would merely become "Morrowind with guns," while others feared for the game's perk system, its uniquely dark humor, and its unapologetically mature content. Still others expressed concern that Bethesda's intention to develop the game for PCs and consoles could dilute its role-playing elements a la Deus Ex: Invisible War.
To help address Fallout fans' fears and to comment on one of the past year's most surprising publishing deals, GameSpot talked with Bethesda Softworks' Todd Howard. An Elder Scrolls designer since 1996, Howard was project lead of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and has since become executive producer of the award-winning RPG series. He will also oversee development of Fallout 3, upon which preproduction has already begun...
GameSpot: It's been widely rumored that Interplay has been shopping the Fallout license for months. When did you first hear about it?
Todd Howard: We've been interested in it, well, forever. We just love the work they did on the first two games.
GS: Was it just the Fallout brand that attracted you, or are you a fan of the series itself? Have you played either of the first two games?
TH: I've played the first two many times but only dabbled with Tactics and Brotherhood of Steel. What I really love about the first two is the overall atmosphere, tone, and role-playing. Those two games really let me choose to play a certain character--and the level of immersion was outstanding. I was that guy on the screen wandering the wastelands trying to survive and helping humanity survive. And you could play it so many times and in so many different ways. The character system and the choices you could make were fantastic.
GS: Did you go to Interplay, or did Interplay come to you?
TH: We went to them first.
GS: How long did the negotiations last?
TH: Not long. It seemed like a great fit from the beginning.
GS: Do you know what other companies were in the bidding? Many people thought the Fallout license would end up with its former developers at Obsidian or Troika.
TH: I honestly don't know anything about that.
GS: Are you also vying for rights to the Fallout MMORPG? If not, why not?
TH: Interplay wanted to hold onto those rights, and it doesn't really fit with what we would do anyway, so we all agreed they should keep them.
GS: Will Interplay's retention of "all online gaming rights for the Fallout franchise" affect whether or not Fallout 3 has an online component?
TH: No. They only keep rights for a persistent online massively multiplayer game. We could still have a multiplayer or online component to our titles.
GS: Will Fallout 3 feature the Interplay logo on the box?
TH: I'm not sure. We're a long, long way from worrying about what logos are on the box.
GS: Will Bethesda's Fallout 3 retain any elements of the "Van Buren" game that was in development at Black Isle Studios? Reports are that it was nearly complete.
TH: No, we're going to start fresh.
GS: Will it have the same storyline as the Black Isle Studios Fallout 3?
TH: Unknown right now. I doubt it though.
GS: Do you have any plans to involve any former Black Isle Studios developers in the game's development?
TH: No firm plans, but anything's possible at this stage.
GS: Your release said that Fallout 3 will be developed alongside the next Morrowind. Will they be based on the same engine?
TH: We've been developing some new technology for a long time now that could be used in many games, so we plan on using that. It is not the Morrowind engine.
GS: Morrowind was a first-person, real-time, action RPG. Fallout and its sequel were isometric-view, third-person, turn-based RPGs. What will Fallout 3 be?
TH: Too early to say. We're looking at many options.
GS: Fallout had many unique elements for an RPG, including its extensive (and iconic) perk system and darkly comic tone. Will those be present in the sequel?
TH: Oh, yes. Most definitely. "Bloody Mess" is the best perk ever, where your enemies die in ultraviolent ways.
GS: Morrowind is a huge game with a sprawling environment. Will Fallout 3 have a world of similar scale?
TH: Too early to say yet.
GS: What impact will developing Fallout have on continued work on the Morrowind franchise?
TH: We've been working on some new Elder Scrolls stuff for a while now that has yet to be announced, and [we] have been expanding our group and prepping for our "second project," and this is it. It really helps to have multiple projects going for a studio, as it allows us to move staff around at key times. So, if anything, it helps our Elder Scrolls development as well.
GS: Will Interplay have any say in the project's development?
TH: We have total control over it. That being said, I think there are people there who have very good insight into the franchise, and their experience can help.
GS: Fallout is one of the most beloved franchises of all time. Are you worried about meeting gamers' high expectations?
TH: I worry about meeting our own expectations. We take this stuff as seriously as anyone and are more critical of what we do than the fans. We're very careful in how we handle franchises. I think people can look at how we've treated the Elder Scrolls and know that we'll give the same care to Fallout. We pride ourselves in keeping franchises relevant and bringing something fresh to the market with each game. That being said, I'm sure there's a vocal minority that wants to kill us for even attempting to do it. But they wanted to kill Peter Jackson too, so you have to ignore that and just do something great that you'd love to play.
GS: Pete Hines, your director of marketing, has said that preproduction on the title is already under way. How much work as been done on the game so far?
TH: We're in the "messing with stuff" phase. Nothing is pinned down until we play it. And then we always change it.
GS: Bethesda's license agreement is for PCs, consoles, handhelds, and other media. Which platform will Fallout 3 arrive on first?
TH: Way too early to say. We always like to hit as many as possible at the same time, but that's not always possible.
GS: There is some concern in the PC gaming community that if Fallout 3 is developed for both the PC and consoles, it won't have the same depth as other PC RPGs. What can you say to allay this concern?
TH: Play Morrowind on PC, and then play it on Xbox. Anyone who says a console game can't have depth hasn't played enough of them. The platform is 100 percent irrelevant.
GS: According to your Web site, Bethesda is hiring developers to create RPGs for "future-generation consoles." Given the Elder Scrolls' long development cycle, should we expect to see Fallout 3 on a next-generation console? Or is it far along enough in development to be released on current-generation consoles?
TH: I can't say what platforms it will or won't be on yet. We hope to hit as many as them as we can.
GS: When can we expect to see Fallout 3?
TH: When it's done (trademark of id Software).