GDC 2012: Postmortem – A Look Back At the Original ‘Fallout’

Timothy Cain, the producer, programmer, and one of the original Fallout speaks at GDC 2012 on what it took to make the PC classic from Interplay.

Cain started off by calling out some of the film influences behind the game, including the Harlan Ellison adaptation, A Boy and His Dog, and the TV movie, The Day After.

Moving on to the challenges of making the game, he explained that for the first six months of development, it was simply him alone, later joined by two more members before the team finally started to coalesce. He says that during the last six months of development, they would work almost daily for 12-14 hour days. He says that it was awesome because they were in their 20’s but seems ridiculous now. The team effort was helped out by some QA workers volunteered to work for free on weekends because of their love of the game.

He says that in the first year, they didn’t really know what they were making and it was hard to explain the appeal and humor of the game, particularly marketing and Interplay administration, who initially wanted to cancel the game based on its dark tone. The initial concept started out as a fantasy game, another take on D&D. Then, realizing everyone was doing the same thing, they wanted to go with a time travel route spanning natural history from the dinosaurs to space involving the main character trying to save his girlfriend. The team’s love of the original X-Com and the alien concept that was at the heart of the time travel pitch along with a failed lobby for EA’s Wasteland license lead to the final Fallout concept it’s vaults, etc.

And then the game was almost cancelled: potentially treated as a B-project as well as being too competitive with other titles. Cain says he went into his boss’s office and begged on his hands and knees to keep the game alive.

Early in development, the game had a timer to create a sense of urgency which they patch out day one. Cain says he wishes that he could strip out any timer elements from the game which he feels made early players rush from the game.

He described his teammates as “cultural sponges” who wanted to get pop cultural references into the game. He made one rule to keep the game from becoming dated: if the player didn’t get the joke, they shouldn’t even know that they missed a joke at all. For instance, while some people think that the character Gizmo was a reference to the Joe Dante movie Gremlins, it was actually the name of Cain’s pet skunk. Likewise, the “Slayer” perk was a reference to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The original title was Vault 13, but marketing said that it didn’t communicate anything about the game. Brian Fargo, then president of Interplay took the game home one weekend and came back, dropped the disc on Cain’s desk and suggested the name Fallout. Cain says Fargo was great at making up names.

And then Diablo came out and almo upset everything. Multiplayer and real-time, marketing wanted Cain’s team to do the same with Fallout two years into development. Cain then described the host of technical problems like failing certification for Windows 95 because it actually worked with Windows NT and coming up with a process of getting the gsme’s talking heads in (later done through scene of clay models).

Then another near cancellation: the game was based on the GURPS license but there were disagreements about the look and design of the game. After being initially told that Fallout was axed, Cain was asked to recode the whole game within two weeks. He says he can’t remember those two weeks, but is sure he smelled bad. Then there were ratings concerns as someone in management or marketing submitted the game to the ESRB under a “T” which Fallout in no way could have gotten. Later, the ability to accidentally or purposely kill children in the game lead to a near-ban in Europe and controversy in he U.S. Cain says the team simply deleted all children on the disc.

Finally, Cain says the legacy of the game is open world gameplay and the use of multiple endings, with some of the technical and mechanical elements working their way into subsequent games from other companies. He talked about the game was about communicating Fallout as an experience, from the menus and layout, to the box, survival guide-style manual. Cain says that some gamers hated earning the most dire, world-killing endings, and would play the game over and over to get better endings. He also pointed to Perks as an innovation in the game, after Brian Fargo requested something beyond simple skill raises. He learned later that D&D v. 3’s Feat system was based on Perks. He talked about how gamers enjoyed the expressive faces with famous actors’ voices connecting them to the story and world more.

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