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Irational interviews Todd Howard

Recently the Irrational Games website has started a new series of interviews with top members of the entertainment industry. In this first episode Shawn Elliott and Ken Levine (Creative Director of Irrational Games) interviewed Todd Howard (Executive Producer and Game Director from Bethesda Softworks). No new info for upcoming games here, but it is an interesting retrospective look at how game developers design their games, including Fallout 3.

Listen online, or download the whole interview here.

Among the topics they discussed:

  • The beginning portion of Fallout 3 and how it eases new players into the game world.
  • Giving the player balance and also a sense of achievement in gameplay.
  • Rewarding players who choose higher difficulty.
  • Focus testing.
The beginning portion of Fallout 3 and how it eases new players into the game world:
Todd Howard:
What are the stages of character experience? The first one is learning- learning the game, and that's probably the thing that a lot of people are worst at. How do I make that first part of learning the game fun? Because learning is not, by its nature, often fun. A lot of times you play games, I'm sure you all feel this, [and] its not 'till you are a few hours into it that you are really having fun, when you understand the game systems...
Ken Levine:
I think Fallout definitely gets better when you get out into the world, because you do sort of hide your light under a bushel for a while there, because the world is so insanely awesome there's just nothing like it when you first go out of that Vault, it's just such an incredible experience...
Shawn Elliott:
Is either of you willing to argue for the power of the contrast there though? Because, of course, by keeping you sequestered within the Vault in the beginning of Fallout the experience of seeing the world for the first time in the state that it's been reduced to is that much more dramatic when you've been held inside.
Todd Howard:
With Fallout it was, if the whole story is about- we need to make you feel like you've lived your whole life in the Vault, and then, ok, how can we compress that? We wanted it to be about a half hour before things started going, before the bullets start flying. Well, when you sit down it might be a long time, but as long as they're doing things, we're keeping it interesting, it'll work. And I think it did, I'm just saying in retrospect it's fairly slow paced compared to what you'd ultimately want to do, but then that moment of stepping out as the kid who's lived his whole life in the Vault, it would have never felt that way.
Giving the player balance and also a sense of achievement in gameplay (the Fat Man):
Todd Howard:
Because it is a game the player needs these moments where they feel proud of themselves, like 'look what I did!" You don't want to stop their forward momentum. The little things we do, and it's easier in an RPG, [is] where you give them some sort of device that is very powerful, like in Fallout we give you the Fat Man very early -this nuclear bomb catapult, it's incredibly powerful- and in most games you would be like, well, we're not going to give you this incredibly powerful thing really early. But we give you... whatever it is, four or five shells for the thing, so you get to try it a few times, be like 'this is awesome' and then most people, if you're really stuck in the game on some hard combat, you could use the thing, but most people don't. They finish the game with a lot of the Fat Man shells. They didn't use them all because they didn't want to puss out. Like, 'I can do it, I don't need to use this.' But they kind of, in the back of their mind, know they have it as an out, like 'uh, this is too hard, I'll use one of my shells here.' So little things like that can make a big difference, and players often are kind of self policing in 'well I have this thing I can use, but I do or don't want to use it because I don't know what's coming around the next corner.'
Ken Levine:
If I recall, my experience was that I thought I should save these things, but I think having them is empowering for people because they feel like, 'look, if I get really ****ed there's something I can do about it', even if they do get kind of screwed and they are dying a lot, they kind of feel like its their fault, rather than the game's fault, which is better because they feel that they could do something about it.
Todd Howard:
That's actually the trick, is what you said there, making it feel like its your fault, and not the game's. This is interesting, sort of going back to old video games or arcade games being games of skill. We did an arcade version forever ago of one of our Terminator games, and so I read some things on arcade game design, and it said the trick to arcade game design is to let the player see what they should have done right before they die so they go 'oh, I should have done this, that's my fault, I need to get better' and they put another quarter in. But if they feel like the game screws them in any way they're like ' **** it' and they walk away.
Rewarding players who choose higher difficulty (XP and level caps):
Shawn Elliott:
Do you think it's still important to allow the room for invention and the experimentation that the hardcore players will do and benefit from?
Todd Howard:
I think so, absolutely. I think it works in the world of Xbox achievements that you can give them some sort of badge of honor if they do that stuff. You gotta find some way to reward the person who's making the game harder on themselves. We do little things- I wish we had done more. Like in Fallout, the harder you make the difficulty the more experience points you get for doing activities. It didn't quite work out, but the thinking was: 'Well it's going to be really hard to reach the level cap, the only way really to hit the level cap was if you set your difficulty high enough' and that way you're getting a lot of XP for killing things that a person who's playing on a normal level wouldn't. So if they finished the game they'd cap at- we thought it'd be like 12- whereas the hardcore guy could cap at 20, but what we quickly found was that there were lots of ways to mine XP that we didn't really cover and people were quickly hitting the level cap.
Focus testing:
Todd Howard:
We don't do focus testing. We do focus test the first few hours of the game, like does it teach itself right? I tell ya, the stuff that's come out of there... Like the first Fallout one nobody used VATS, ever. We had a menu that comes up, 'here's what it is, here's what you do,' and they never used it. We'd poll them afterwards. We'd be like, 'did you ever press the VATS button?' and they're like, 'what's that?'
Shawn Elliott:
If your focus testing is giving you such invaluable feedback why not go through with the whole game?
Todd Howard:
It's very difficult when we're tuning it. We'll do it with the dev team. You know, once we get to a certain stage our QA staff here, the internal staff, is big enough we can do the game balancing stuff. It's mostly 'did we teach it right', and we can't do that internally because everyone knows how to play the game and we can't do a valid test of 'are you learning it'.

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