The New Vegas Fallout

Major video game launches are a huge deal these days, and sprawling, feature-rich open-world titles like Obsidian Entertainment’s Fallout: New Vegas come very close to being MMO-like in their courting with danger. As soon as the early reviews begun pouring in, New Vegas indeed turned out to be just as bug-riddled as Fallout 2 originally was back in 1998:

At least the player above got in-game, though - while personally installing Fallout 3, I was met with a faulty DVD, an “Error: -5006 : 0x8000ffff” notice and finally the magnificent extent of Bethesda’s Windows 7 support. A veritable brick wall, in other words… in any case, New Vegas senior designer Chris Avellone, who also worked as designer on the aforementioned Fallout 2 (a connection that we detailed in an earlier post, From New Reno to New Vegas), quite unsurprisingly explains away the bugs with the length and scope of the game:

I think when you create a game as large as Fallout 3 or New Vegas you are going to run into issues that even a testing team of 300 won’t spot, so we’re just trying to address those as quickly as possible and so is Bethesda. … It’s kind of like the bugs of the real world - the sheer expanse of what you’re dealing with causes problems.1

In other words, having never completed Fallout 3, it becomes much easier for me simply to stand back and enjoy the show of fireworks until this latter-day Frankenstein’s monster gets stitched together and squeezed into yet another “Game of the Year” box. I don’t mean at all to imply that I find enjoyment in Obsidian and Bethesda’s misfortunes; instead, what’s exciting to me are the dynamics and mechanics of a major botched launch… after all, instances such as these are rare glimpses into closed-door game design and corporate decision-making at its most tangible, glimpses that only really become available if something goes truly awry.

Which bugs cause the greatest alarm in players? How do players cope with them? Which platform is prioritized, which bugs get fixed first? These are the things that pique my interest. Equally interesting is how a company responds in the face of adversity, adjusting its flow of information. For instance, I’m sure fans were not all too happy to hear Avellone reveal that “Almost everyone who was on New Vegas was slated to move over to another project within a week or two after it went out, so they’re all getting ramped up on other projects now.”2What’s extremely curious, though, is how very little actual effect the massive extent of bugs (of which more than 200 have already been fixed) had on the game’s grades. Given New Vegas’ archaic multi-purpose engine, its empty streets and overall poor graphics (that are admittedly largely redeemed by successful art direction), I expected much more fluctuation from the game’s reviews, yet sans a lone 6/10 from Edge and 1Up’s gentle slap on the wrist, Arstechnica’s Ben Kuchera is pretty much the first person I’ve seen comment on the curious lack of criticism on the behalf of critics and players:

You need a franchise with a large amount of goodwill up front and gameplay that’s strong enough to combat a high number of bugs. New Vegas has both, which is why we’re seeing the game gain critical accolades, as well as funny YouTube videos covering the game’s technical flaws.3

Even though the reviews remain positive, the company has not completely avoided the debacle unscathed. Take the Escapist’s Shamus Young, for instance:

A few hours later I forgave the game and came back. I managed to win a $16,000 jackpot at the slot machines. (An exceptionally unlikely spin.) And then the game insta-crashed on me. This was like scratching off a winning lottery ticket and then getting hit by a car. A car driven by Obsidian Entertainment.4

In his article, Young scrapes together evidence for a history of failed sequels, frequent bugs and poor performance, painting a picture of the company as hired goons that are called in to produce sweatshop-style third-rate sequels. (I’m paraphrasing here.) As harsh as the article is on Obsidian’s track record, it’s not by all means a complete fabrication. But even then I cannot quite shake off the feeling that the Obsidian narrative is undergoing revisionism as we speak.

After all, the manner in which New Vegas so far compares to Fallout 3 seems to be very similar to the company’s previous titles, with the difference between the PC version of Fallout 3 and New Vegas being a mere four points. In fact, this is a narrower gap than exists between the two-part Knights of the Old Republic, where the difference is eight points – and at the time of release, KotOR 2 was touted as a highly successful sequel, something that is quite illustrative of just how short our collective memory is.

I can’t help but feel that the landscape took a sharp turn to the worse with Alpha Protocol, which by all means should be considered a high-calibre flop from the company. Even then, if I had to come away with something from the New Vegas launch is not only the players’ burning desire to keep on going despite having to deal with potential game-ending bugs in the game, but also the utter ingenuity and passion with which fans go about trying to discover, avoid and isolate the various bugs and errors - simply to keep on gaming.

What do you think, is Obsidian really, truly a second-rate sequel company, or is the current backlash more of a matter of perception?

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