Conversations: Emil Pagliarulo on Fallout 3

When I was over at Bethesda a couple of months back I had the chance to sit down with Emil Pagliarulo, lead designer on Fallout 3. Some of that interview appeared in the latest issue of OXM (with Fallout 3 on the cover), but he said plenty of interesting stuff that I simply didn’t have the space to use. So here it is, finally! Full interview after the jump…

Note: if it appears we jump between topics, it’s simply because I’ve edited out the questions that have already appeared in OXM.

DW: Why did you guys want to make a new Fallout?

EP: It was one of those wish list things. We were talking about what we want to do if we could get a licence, “Oh, this could be cool, this would be great”, and we realised Fallout was top of that list.

DW: What else was on that list?

EP: I think Todd and I had wanted to make a Batman game forever. I think we talked about Bladerunner at some point. Bethesda makes the Terminator games so I’m sure that came up. But for me it was Fallout. For some reason when Fallout hit the list it was like a pipe dream, it wouldn’t happen, you know? And then [when Interplay auctioned off its licenses] it was like “Oh wow!” We just jumped on it.

DW: So would you have made a post-apocalyptic RPG even without Fallout?

EP: No, it wasn’t like we were going to make a post-apocalyptic RPG and then Fallout came along. We were going to make Fallout or something else.

DW: Would you say you’re consciously making Fallout 3 for Fallout fans or making it for the new fans that you’ve reached through the success of Oblivion?

EP: We make games for each other here. We are the type of Fallout fans who play the original games and love them, but we love other games and we love free-form games. So that’s the type of person I’m making the game for, someone whom I assume would probably play Oblivion and likes an open-ended experience. But part of that too is I’m making it for someone like me who played Fallout back in the day but, you know, doesn’t worship the game, but remembers it fondly as a great game and would love to be in the world again.

DW: How do you think about the direction of each new game you make? When you look at the Elder Scrolls, each one seems to have sold better and better each time, do you look at those sales and think we’re on the right track here?

EP: The sales do tell us that we’ve got a market for this type of game, you know for these giant open-ended games people don’t get a lot of. We want to make games we know a player is going to want to get invested in and not a lot of people make that kind of games that we do. Bioware does and there’s Rockstar – you know, giant open-ended games that you can lose yourself in, that’s where I think we’ve found success.

DW: But on the other hand you can trace the Elder Scrolls games – from Daggerfall to Morrowind to Oblivion – they seem to be getting smaller and maybe more intimate and personal. It seems that perhaps Bethesda as a company is maturing.

EP: Yeah, I would agree. It’s two things: one, you want to reinvent yourself with every game you do, and two, we love quantity but you realise sometimes with too much quantity there’s no way you can control quality. I mean, I just read this somewhere that I think Daggerfall is in the Guinness Book of Records for having the largest landmass in any videogame. You look at Daggerfall and it’s procedurally generated random thousands of cities but they are all the same so it’s like… it’s ridiculous! We understand because of the giant size of the games we make, gamers are more forgiving of some things. It’s like if I can do this, this and this and sometimes this other thing doesn’t work quite as well, people are more forgiving because we gave them all the other stuff too. We’re still pushing the boundaries of quantity – in Fallout 3 we’ve made the wasteland bigger than we originally designed for – but we’ve now got a lot better at controlling our quality.

DW: Sorry, this is a bit of a long question. You’ve worked on Thief 2 and Thief 3 and you also designed the Dark Brotherhood quest line in Oblivion. I wanted to ask you about stealth. I’m a massive fan of Thief and pure stealth games and I always roll myself a stealth character in RPGs – I did it in Morrowind and Oblivion, the original Fallouts and now I’ve done it here in Fallout 3.

However, I often think it’s somehow less immersive than if I was playing a fighter or a mage character because you’re exposed to more of the underlying mechanics – you’re checking whether you’re hidden or you’re wondering if there’s enough lighting or if the NPCs can hear you. Also you’re worried about getting that critical hit in combat to get the x3 or x6 damage bonus.

Sometimes it seems like it’s more immersive to simply wade in with an axe or a fireball or whatever because it’s simpler and it’s more immediate and you don’t really think about the number-crunching going on in the background. How do you approach implementing stealth mechanics in an RPG where the player can opt for those more immediate solutions?

EP: You know obviously when I first came here Todd and I talked about the Thief stuff and how much of that stuff did we wanted to find its way into Oblivion. I mean the real issue of making good a stealth game like Thief or Splinter Cell is that you know these are linear games with one core gameplay mechanic, and that is sneaking. And you know when you work on a stealth game, you realise how tightly designed stealth gameplay has to be. In a game where you’re a fighter swinging in with a sword or where you have a gun, a lot of times the environment doesn’t make a difference. But for sneaking, the environment is half the gameplay. Back in the Thief days the game designers were also the level designers, they were creating the gameplay in the space they were building because they were so interdependent. Now that’s not really the case.

But that said, I think there’s a level of tension you get with stealth gameplay that you don’t get with anything else. So we started with Oblivion and the stealth system in Fallout is actually a lot more robust than the stealth system in Oblivion. A lot of that has to do with the enemy AI and the different search states that they have. In Oblivion you’re either detected or hidden, now there are stages in between and you’ll know when to be cautious. In Fallout people can be actively searching for you, they’ll actually do the Thief thing and you’ll hear “Where are you? I hear something” and there’s that level of tension there that you didn’t have in Oblivion. You know I was just playing the [Supermart area] fighting the raiders and it’s like a lot of times in Fallout, the feeling is so desperate and you feel like you’re struggling for survival and when you’re sneaking you really feel like “Oh god, don’t find me, please don’t find me”. You’d get that occasionally in Oblivion I think, but for me it actually works better in a post-apocalyptic setting than I thought it would. In Fallout it’s more like the stealth stuff complements your regular gameplay, but it’s definitely a viable approach.

DW: Just to go back to the immersion angle, you were saying how the environment is such a major part of a stealth game. I was noticing that when I was sneaking through the school, looking for the dark areas, I was analysing the way you’d lit the area. Why is that area dark or why does that lamp only have a small radius of light? You probably wouldn’t think about that sort of thing if you were playing just a big guns kind of character…

EP: That’s true when you’re sneaking around, you’re noticing the patches of shadow and stuff you’re right it’s not quite natural. But it should support the gameplay. We’re pretty good at having light coming from real light sources and controlling the ambient level of each space. We’ve gone back and forth so many times. Sometimes those discussions have been contentious, like “This area’s too dark”, but it has to be dark to support the stealth player.

DW: Do you design every space to be like a middle ground that every type of character can get through or are there areas in the game where it’s probably better if you’re a scientist or a stealth guy or a big guns guy?

EP: This is something as we playtest more and more, we try to find more paths and sometimes put more paths in. You can generally sneak anywhere if you put your points into sneak or you know you can always wait till night when the light levels are low and you have a better chance of sneaking due to environmental factors. You can generally use gun play anywhere and there’s a lot of stuff to blow up in the environment – that helps too. With the science and the speech stuff we’ve really taken pains to go back and put in the other paths for these skills. We sorta see it as there’s the gun play solution through anything and then there’s all these other little solutions like, if you’re facing this really tough battle then you can use your science skill to hack the computer to have a robot fight for you. I‘m also really proud of the fact that you can talk your way through a lot of the quests if you have put your points into speech.

DW: How do you make them more fun? When you’ve got a combat system that so far I think is really entertaining, how do you make the other parts as enjoyable?

EP: It’s tough! I think a lot of the fun there is in meeting the players expectation and making the player feel clever, making it seem like they’re not just clicking on an option you know? Like if the player took the Lady Killer perk early on and then when they get to a dialogue with a female character and there’s a Lady Killer option they feel smart, they feel empowered and they feel like they made the right decision early on. To a certain extent they feel like they earned that choice, like no other character would have gotten that choice. That’s where the entertainment thing comes from, it’s the novelty of knowing that no one else is doing this and it’s tough, it takes a lot of handling to support all those paths.

DW: Todd said earlier that something you’re not talking about today is whether we’ll see any construction set…

EP: No, we just don’t know, you know? I think people in the past have gotten very comfortable assuming we’re going to do that and they don’t realise the work it takes for us to put into that, so it’s something we haven’t been able to think about for now.

DW: Obviously you’ve done it for Morrowind and Oblivion. What do you guys think when you see what the fans do with those tools?

EP: Oh, we think it’s fantastic, I mean we’re amazed and we’ve just started highlighting that stuff on our blog. The fact that people still make mods for Morrowind is to me… the legs that that game has because of that, that’s why we love it. We love the stuff that people do, we think it’s awesome.

DW: Have you ever seen a mod and thought that’s a great idea and put it into the next game?

EP: You know that’s funny, usually when I see something like that I know the reason we didn’t do it because, you know, it’s…

DW: It was going to break all these other parts of the game?

EP: Exactly, it was going to break all these other parts or simply it’s a time resource thing. It’s taking a year to make a mod after the game’s come out, that’s development time that we might not necessarily have. Someone made all the thief tools in Oblivion as a plug-in and, I mean, come on, if we could have done that from the start I would have loved to. So stuff like that is just amazing.

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3 Comments on “Conversations: Emil Pagliarulo on Fallout 3”

  1. […] David Wildgoose made an interview with Emil Pagliarulo some time ago for OXM. It came up a bit short, so now he placed the entire content on his blog: […]

  2. Ingo Thees Says:

    DW: (…) It seems that perhaps Bethesda as a company is maturing.

    Asking them hard questions, I see.

  3. David Wildgoose Says:

    @ Ingo Thees

    As the preceding comments outline, I was following a train of thought that lead me to that conclusion. I wanted to see Emil’s reaction.

    Care to expand on why apparently you don’t agree?

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