I recently watched a talk given by Bethesda level designers Joel Burgess and Nathan Purkeypile during GDC 2016 on the modular level design of Fallout 4. It's a great video to absorb if, like me, you're a settlement junkie or aspiring Fallout modder.
In it, Burgess and Purkeypile covered the history of Bethesda's use of art kits to create the settings and atmosphere of Fallout 3, Skyrim and Fallout 4, detailing how the uniformity and snap-in-place functionality of the pieces within allowed them to more carefully allocate their time and resources during development.
The discussion makes it clear that Bethesda values time management in game development, as Burgess says one of their main goals during the creation of a game mission is to get to a rough playable state as early in the process as possible, so as to give the other team members something with which they can work. This decreases the number of bottlenecks in development, and it also allows for more iteration, earlier. Both of these things are tremendously valuable.
Given the enormous creative scope of Bethesda's games, their focus on time management makes sense. It's a linear relationship: The bigger the game is, the less time developers will have to work on each part. Budgets, not to mention the sizes of these teams, can only grow so much. And as the GDC talk illustrates, it would be immensely difficult to use the Creation Kit if they made fresh objects and environments for every location in their games. The sheer number of files would quickly become overwhelming, even for experienced teams.
At some point it may be worth moving the slider back a bit towards smaller games that allow for more environments that don't feel like they were cranked out of a production line. When open-world games become so vast that time management pushes productivity over individuality to the point that the end result feels generic, it's time we ask: Are games becoming too big?
If you're familiar with my work at all, you know I'm a big fan of Fallout as a series. My love for The Elder Scrolls 5 sits not far behind. I love the open-world environments that Bethesda has facilitated with their use of art kits, without which a universe so vast as the Elders Scrolls and Fallout could never exist. But it may be time to look at the question of size vs. uniformity.
Their ease of use paved the way for the G.E.C.K. and later the Creation Kit, both of which allow players the tools to make missions, characters, buildings and entire areas of their own, adding as much to the world of Fallout and Elder Scrolls as the designers themselves. Streamlining the process by standardizing the tools and assets was a move that made game design infinitely more accessible, a benefit to both amateur and professional development that also prolonged the life of these games. The benefits are hard to underestimate.
But at what point do we become too efficient? Look at this screenshot of Saugus Ironworks, used in Burgess and Purkeypile's GDC 2016 presentation. It was used as an illustration of great atmosphere created within the toolset without the need for additional assets. And to be fair, the designer did great with what they were provided.
But the grand effect they were trying to achieve when you first enter that room, during the mission Out Of The Fire, didn't quite land in the way they intended. Saugus Ironworks, like many places in the Commonwealth, has to be re-visited many times for run-of-the-mill "clear the enemies" side quests, and it becomes forgettable. Without a unique aesthetic flourish, the location is no longer distinctive, and disappears in a sea of uniformity, its significance lost to the player.
Uniformity can be a benefit in certain situations. For example, the design of The Institute, a sterile scientific environment that realistically would rely upon repetitive design elements in the interest of efficiency. Here the repetition makes sense and actually enhances the the location's ability to tell part of the story.
And of course there are many iconic Boston landmarks that are faithfully recreated in Fallout 4; not every building is a mishmash of prefabricated units.
However, other areas though could have benefited from a little diversity. I've scoured the inner buildings of the Commonwealth and the scattered ruins beyond for settlement scrap and supplies more hours than I can count, but I'd be hard-pressed to tell you anything special about them.
The ones I remember the most had a unique detail: the General Atomics Galleria with its imposing spire, Parsons State Asylum with its breathtaking architecture and sprawling, ivy-invested grounds, the great green wall of Diamond City.
And really, that's what makes me love Fallout in the first place. The story each location tells by what it left behind is the strongest reinforcement of the series' themes of destruction and rebirth. Whether a room has gone undisturbed since the bombs fell, or been stripped of its useful items and made into a den for a gang of Raiders, it gives a window into both the resourcefulness and fragility of the human race.
The need for more "hero pieces" (that is, an art asset that is necessary to atmosphere but will likely only be used once) is reinforced in the disparity between Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. As New Vegas reused many assets from its predecessor Fallout 3, resources were free to render new and sometimes one-use items to dress up the atmosphere.
New Vegas has some truly memorable locations, from the faded glamor of The Strip, to the reddened bluffs of the desert and the imposing grandeur of Hoover Dam. And the game would not have been the same without some of its one-off items, like the garish but beautiful signs of the casinos, or the giant statue outside of Mojave Outpost. Which doesn't mean that Fallout 4 didn't feature unique places. It just seems like after all the time they put into development, you shouldn't see so many hallmarks of the assembly line process behind it.
When you're invited in
My perception of Fallout 4's often generic settings is at least partially flavored by the time I've spent making settlements with the in-game workshop. Using the tools Bethesda provided to create and decorate new buildings and amenities is a fantastic beginner's look at how they assemble game locations, but as they say, familiarity breeds contempt.
While I appreciate how open Bethesda is with development tools, it also has the effect of destroying the "smoke and mirrors" aspect of the game's design. It's fascinating to see how the sausage is made, but it also makes the sausage a little less appetizing. (Similarly, this section of the GDC talk was as enlightening as it was disillusioning).
Over the hundreds and hundreds of hours I've spent on Fallout and Elder Scrolls, I've noticed that the Commonwealth feels smaller than Skyrim. This saddens me. I wish there were more of Fallout 4 to explore. But do I want more because I like the game? Or is it because my hunger for spelunking in irradiated ruins hasn't been satisfied? Is it actually smaller than Skyrim or does it merely feel that way because the landscape has become a blur? Perception flavors what seems to be reality of size. Is it smaller, or do I just think it is?
If added open-world space comes at the expense of full artistic potential, each new location banged out without the extra little flourishes that makes it special, it may not be worth it.
As a genre, open-world titles, from Destiny all the way back to Grand Theft Auto, have long suffered from technological restraint, resulting in some overuse of techniques like procedural generation, empty buildings and modular level design. Each of these development strategies and tools have their place, and employing them is an art form, but you can feel when they've been stretched a bit thin.
Boston landmarks that are faithfully recreated in Fallout 4; not every building is a mishmash of prefabricated units.
In an exploration-based game like Fallout, the loss is felt the most. I want every area I approach in the Fallout universe to be a Pandora's Box of danger and mystery, each with its own story to tell. That key series element has already been tampered by heavy enemy re-spawns, repeating side quests and the constant grind of collecting scrap and parts, which arguably contributes more to the generic feel of many areas than the art kit. The solitude of methodic exploration that first drew me to the series is gone, and the feel of Fallout 3 and New Vegas lost. It's a casualty of efficiency.
If Fallout 4 were just a bit smaller, but in return offered the mystique and addictive allure of Fallout: New Vegas with each and every location, this would be easier to handle. Size is important of course, I'm mostly arguing for a slight course correction in the other direction to even things out.
Can taking a step forward technically be a step backward artistically? Sometimes, yes. While simplified development tools facilitate more efficient open-world games design, a sandbox game is only as strong as its environments. In the case of Bethesda and open-world games, I wish they'd be a little worse at their job.
Holly Green is a reporter, editor, and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Polygon, Gamasutra, Paste Magazine, Unwinnable, and more.