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It may not be possible to save Fallout 76

Fallout 76 went through a shaky launch. The next three months were worse

Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

Online games often launch with problems that must be fixed, and fixed quickly. Fallout 76, Bethesda Game Studios’ first large-scale living game, was no exception. Fallout 76 was troubled during its beta period and suffered multiple issues throughout its extended launch.

I’m not surprised by this: I’ve played too many online games in their first weeks to expect perfection out of the gate. Fallout 76 is unique in one troubling way, however: Post-launch developer support has managed to make many of these problems even worse.

The future of Fallout 76 depends on ongoing improvements to its current, broken state, but with every patch, Bethesda continues to move in the wrong direction.

I’m not sure how Bethesda is going to fix the game, to put it bluntly. And it’s becoming less clear whether Bethesda itself has an effective plan for how such a thing might be possible.

Buckle in for a bumpy ride

Fallout 76’s rocky launch and subsequent negative reception has been well-cataloged, with problems ranging from the basic performance and utility of servers, to the thematic tone of the in-game nukes, and even the quality of merchandise released along with the game itself. Nothing seems to be going well.

Other developers over the past few years, including Ubisoft with Rainbow Six Siege and Hello Games with No Man’s Sky, have buckled down and committed to addressing launch-era complaints. This commitment has sometimes turned these games around, while earning back the trust of players who might have been angered by shaky debuts. The expectation is now set for Bethesda to turn things around with Fallout 76, or at least attempt to.

But the more I look at Fallout 76’s problems — and I’ve been playing, and continue to play, since launch — the fewer opportunities I see for Bethesda to save the game. There are too many problems already, and too many of those problems are interconnected. Worse still, the company has been releasing patches that make things worse, introducing new problems and further demoralizing the player base.

The problem isn’t with Fallout 76’s state at launch, which isn’t rare in modern online gaming, as much as it is with Bethesda’s inability thus far to make anything better — while making so much of the game even worse.

What works for Fallout 76 really works

There are times when Fallout 76 works, of course. It works when I’m crawling through an abandoned prison or a government facility with my pals by my side. It works when I’m getting a group together to figure out the depths of a conspiracy, and while exploring hidden bunkers until we find ourselves confronting an Enclave AI, who happily welcomes us aboard. It works when we’re finding a building where a politician has given a speech, his only notes at the podium being a frantic “LIE!”

Fallout 76 - two players on a ridge above a bridge
Fallout 76 could have been fun, but the game barely functioned.
Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

We are able to create unique builds for our characters with perk cards, which change how we approach the game and help us build a team. I’m the melee scavenger, often hip-deep in enemies and wildly swinging a spear. My buddy, the alcoholic sniper who also acts as a doctor, provides cover. We also travel with our gunsmith, who has a taste for dog food. The CAMP building system lets us take our character fantasy further; one of us runs a humble shop for trading, even though trading currently requires that both players navigate an awkward series of menus, while I enjoy my riverside cabin with pictures of cats on the wall.

It might not always feel like a Fallout game, but it can be a fun experience on its own terms. Building these characters, and the act of expressing our play styles through perk cards and the CAMP system, was enough to help me forgive Fallout 76 for many of its faults. These parts of the game functioned well enough for us to be hooked, even though — and sometimes because — the game itself has massive issues. Sometimes the ridiculousness of a broken game can be its own reward.

But that positive feeling didn’t last long. Frequent disconnections and other server issues made it hard to set up groups. While we could joke about it at the time — the common refrain was that anyone who couldn’t log in hadn’t properly sacrificed a goat while Mercury was in retrograde — the truth was that it wore us down. Constant visual glitches further hurt our experience.

Fallout 76 just doesn’t work, and I mean that on the most basic level. I don’t want to spend my few hours of daily gaming time fighting with connection issues; I want to play a video game. Fallout 76 has offered the basic functionality of a working game only intermittently since launch.

The progress I make in Fallout 76, and the satisfaction I feel while playing, works a little like cryptocurrency — it only matters as long as everyone agrees that it has weight and value. But that progress feels like it’s constantly in jeopardy. There was a time when structures disappeared if any other player in the world put down a CAMP while I was offline. This issue was ultimately patched, but then players encountered problems with disappearing inventories, vanishing CAMPs, and other progress-destroying bugs.

The feeling that your time is wasted due to the developer adjusting the rules or bugs destroying your progress is death for living games. If nothing I do matters, if I don’t believe my hard work will actually be counted for anything and could disappear at any moment, what am I doing here?

But the problems go even deeper.

Duping (and duping, and duping, and duping … )

Bethesda failed to fix many of the exploits identified early in the game’s life fast enough to limit their damage. The biggest of them involves duplicating (or “duping”) items infinitely, which has turned a game that needed a little bit of help to succeed into a game that’s currently in crisis.

I won’t describe the process here, but instructions are easy enough to find online. Players can turn one powerful weapon into two, then duplicate that stack of two into four, then into eight, and so on. A player may end up with rare items numbering in the thousands in their inventory. And players like these are the people you’ll be meeting, teaming up with, or fighting in the game’s world. How do you expect to measure up if you’re playing fairly?

Players who dupe items have all but destroyed Fallout 76’s community, and Bethesda has yet to find a way to fix the problem. People have even been able to exploit clipping issues and item duping to access developer-only rooms filled with every item in the game, which can then also be duped. Suddenly, there are a thousand copies of one powerful endgame item, and anyone can have one if they find the right person to ask.

Well, anyone willing to break the rules, anyway. And what’s the risk in doing so when everyone is breaking the rules?

Fallout 76 - profile of power armor helmet with autumn trees in the background
Don’t worry about earning powerful items; just dupe or buy them.
Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

Plus, all these items are also sold through third-party services, where dealers take your money in exchange for dropping off in the game whatever item you purchase. Diablo 3 launched with a real-money auction house that eventually proved too problematic and was removed from the game. Blizzard took steps to adjust, and protect, Diablo 3’s economy. Bethesda needs to do the same, and quickly, even if controlling the flow of items through outside services may prove to be more difficult.

The community itself tried to fight back, but it didn’t help. Players used to hunt down dupers, but the charm of playing vigilante wore off once it became clear that stripping dupers of hundreds or thousands of items did nothing to improve the situation. You can’t hurt the cheating players when cheating is so easy and the repercussions are so minimal.

Worse yet, overeager players would sometimes target innocent non-dupers, leading to encounters where vigilantes would attack random Vault Dwellers for refusing to show their inventory or hanging around their CAMP for too long. Now even those well-intentioned players are met with suspicion throughout the Fallout 76 community.

Patching the damage

Fallout 76 is affected by multiple serious issues, but the game’s most recent patch has actually made things worse.

Released at the end of January, the fifth patch made sweeping balance changes that lowered the value of duped items. This had several unintended consequences. The patch hit endgame builds that relied on the current meta of the most powerful items hard, causing them to deal significantly less damage. It nerfed the powerful explosive and two-shot modifiers to an extreme extent: Now they’re at 20 percent, not 100 percent. Which, again, wipes out the progress of the players who had worked hard to create a character with those abilities. The nerf was a blunt instrument, impacting cheaters and legitimate players in the same way.

The patch also reintroduced old server infrastructure that brought with it old bugs, including the primary duping bug Bethesda had fixed at the end of 2018. It took yet another patch to fix many of the old problems that patch 5 reintroduced, and the game will need more balance changes in future updates. Every patch that should help the game take a step forward has ultimately forced Bethesda to take multiple steps back. And item duping has persisted, in some form, through every iteration of the game.

The latest version of Fallout 76 caps each player at 1,500 pounds above their standard carry weight, and anyone whose inventory exceeds that limit cannot gain new items or caps until they drop the excess weight. This is a change that will hinder dupers in some ways, but it won’t stop them. Nor will it provide a solution for the millions of existing bobbleheads, weapons, and items that are duped and ready for trade.

Bethesda has stated that it has banned some players whose behavior and inventory suggest duping, and the company has disputed reports of false positives. But cheating is still rampant, and the game still feels unbalanced when I play it.

Bethesda and the cheating players are in a race to see who can get the upper hand, and so far, the patches and updates seem to be doing as much harm as good, if not more.

Fallout 76 ‘this is fine’ illustration

Can we fix it?

Players can still make their own fun by role-playing different characters or by setting up their own boss encounters, but Bethesda’s own systems can and often do work against the players who are trying to salvage some enjoyable experience in the game.

The current opt-in system requires players to manually tag in opponents in group PvP encounters, instead of waltzing by them to their priority target. And there’s always the risk that someone will be killed in one shot by overbuffed characters using duped weapons. The current PvP system is easy to game, meaning that any story-based scenario between factions or a shared agreement to role-play combat can be ruined at any time.

Fallout 76 just isn’t the social game it may appear to be from a distance. Bethesda doesn’t offer any way to indicate to players who is friendly or looking for squadmates. Players can’t advertise a shop or a CAMP that’s welcoming visitors. CAMPs must be a respectful distance from each other, so you can’t create a sprawling network of settlements with friends. And everything is brokered through menus and systems that don’t cohere into meaningful interactions or conversations.

The lack of in-game tools forces the organization to happen outside of the game, like on Reddit or Discord. Bethesda may want players to work together to try to create the fun and social interactions that the game originally promised, but the company seems unwilling to offer the tools that would allow players to do so.

There’s a moment in the game’s live-action trailer where two players in power armor approach a settlement with a sign that says “friends welcome,” and knock on the door. I desperately want to experience something similar to that situation in a game that rewards being friendly, or gives players better ways to play together and interact. Fallout 76 allows players to build walls and put letters on them, so I can recreate the visual impact of that moment, but that’s as far as it goes. That scene in the trailer was an empty promise — at least for now.

Contrast this reality to something like Sea of Thieves, where the players created social structures and emergent strategies that the development team later embraced. Everyone works together to have fun, with the support of the people creating the game.

I’ve had fun in Fallout 76, but it often seems like that’s despite Bethesda’s best efforts, not because of them. Fallout 76’s patches have only moved me further away from that fun, kneecapping player progress while often reducing the game’s stability and adding to the sense that everyone is cheating but me.

Where do we go now?

Fallout 76 is now in a more perilous place than ever. Bethesda has announced that both weekly events and a Survival game mode are coming in the future. Weekly events sound promising, especially if they keep the game’s content fresh, but Survival mode is going to be a much harder challenge.

Bethesda says it intends to allow players to transfer characters between Survival servers and the current version of Fallout 76, Adventure. This means that Survival won’t require players to start over, but will instead offer a player-versus-player version of the existing game, where powerful players can enter and leave at will. Will players with powerful duped items instantly reign over the rest of us honest players? Who knows. But there aren’t many reasons to be hopeful.

How will Bethesda balance this new content when anyone can go to a shady third-party site, purchase great weapons, and proceed to steamroll everyone else? I don’t know.

The Fallout 76 economy is broken, all of Bethesda’s efforts to fix it have failed, and now the plan is to introduce more complexity to the game? My fear — based on watching the game tentatively evolve over the past few months — is that players will simply find new ways to cheat. Bethesda will find itself even further behind the curve as it attempts to fight back.

Fallout 76 - guy sitting alone in shack
Fallout 76 isn’t the social game that Bethesda would like it to be.
Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

This lack of improvement means that even new quality-of-life features, like the promise of player-created shops, sound scary. Player vending could allow us to run our own storefronts, setting up in-game trade zones instead of fumbling with the current trade interface. That would be a neat addition if everyone were on the level, but I’ve played World of Warcraft and received those endless whispers from spam bots asking if I want gold. Bethesda may just be bringing the symptoms of the third-party item trading sites under its own roof, without a solid plan for fixing the disease itself.

This virtual Appalachia could fill up with a new society of dupers, scammers, and bots, each one asking new Vault Dwellers to go to external websites for some sweet deals on everything they need to master the apocalypse. Or maybe the stores filled with duped items will be right there, within the game. Either way, this situation has the potential to scare away the game’s already beleaguered player base.

War never changes

Not only does Bethesda have to solve these issues, but it has to stay ahead of the competition while doing so. Fallout 76’s frustrated players can just as easily turn to games like Red Dead Online, which is already offering some of what Fallout 76 promised, but in a functional, more enjoyable form. Even Far Cry New Dawn seems like it’s ready to eat Fallout 76’s lunch.

There might be some hope, however. Fallout 76 offers hints that players are in a Vault-Tec simulation, such as a constantly resetting clock, scrawled graffiti warning us that nothing is real, and a government letter from an Enclave official who was told they were trapped in a simulation. Maybe it’s possible to “reboot” the system if we’re not actually playing in what’s supposed to be the physical in-game world, but instead some flavor of the Matrix. That plot twist might offer one of the few options Bethesda has that could help the game: a lore reset that brings with it sweeping changes and fixes.

But for now, the problems are getting worse faster than they’re getting better, and players won’t stick around forever waiting for things to improve.

All along, the Atom Store continues to chug away, offering more cash items than you could possibly buy with in-game activities alone. It’s hard to stomach a request for more money when I’m already having such difficulty trusting Bethesda with my time.

I want to love Fallout 76, because I think it’s built on strong ideas. But Bethesda has followed a rough launch with three full months of controversy, server issues, lost progress, and anger. So much has gone wrong that it’s incredibly difficult to fix one thing without inadvertently hurting something else. It’s going to take a monstrous amount of work for Bethesda to fix the issues while also reaching out to players, begging that they stay involved in the game.

The question remains: Is that even possible?

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