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Dead Money, Design Breakdowns.

Posted by Chris Avellone , 21 February 2011 · 12508 views

With Dead Money coming out for the PC and PS3 this week, I got into a discussion about how I feel about its reception and some of the design decisions. In short, my feelings concern the context of the specific design elements. Some folks understand the "why" of the challenge elements even if they don't agree with them, which is fine, as long as they get why we did it the way we did - and that may not be apparent. So: If you play the adventure and want to dig deeper into the reasons behind the content and challenges, read on (although play first and form your own opinions).

Slight spoilers apply (although most was in trailers and interviews already). Most of this is general enough that you may be able to read safely - a lot of this concerns the overall design decisions made in the DLC, it's more a general treatment than a series of details.

First off, Dead Money is a short story in the Fallout universe, pulp fiction style: it's a dime-store comic book (issue one in a limited series), an adventure story, a casino heist with a post-holocaust spin. It's never intended to have the length of a regular product, and being able to do a "game short story" is something that was fun to work on... usually we work on multi-year products, so doing a one with limited scope in a short time frame was gratifying in many respects. How do you create a game-equivalent ($10 vs dime store) paperback adventure? How long should it be, how should you present it?

As it says at the outset, Dead Money's a brutal, vicious adventure that puts the player in a bad situation, and it was designed to scare the hell out of Fallout players - although it didn't, in my opinion. The Survival and tension aspects ended up trumping that, which is fine, since survival's a subset of fear in my book.

We didn't set out to make Dead Money a Survival experience - we set out to make a Horror game that put Survival second. In terms of horror, I don't feel we succeeded, although it was a conscious effort to try and shake things up a bit with the enemies you faced to scare the player, definitely. The enemies are not only tough (which is easy to do with numbers, so I don't feel that's a real challenge), but also intended to be unpredictable when they fall, so you couldn't always count on shooting an enemy until they fall as being a guarantee that you're safe. The original hope was that the enemies couldn't simply be headshotted continuously - this is a selfish reason, as I get tired of watching people play like that non-stop (it doesn't feel like they're experimenting with limb-targeting tactics, despite the array of weapons), although the non-headshotting tactical diversion didn't turn out that way (it's just as easy to decapitate a head as a limb with the right blasts).

So why did we choose survival? Well, the question of Survival sums up questions I've had about Fallout as its timeline advances... the post-wasteland's gotten more civilized as the decades since the nuclear war have gone on, and when I was scripting Dead Money's layout, one thing that kept coming up was that I missed the desperate "Road Warrior" feeling when I hit the wastes. I miss being in a situation where I'm scrounging for every last bullet, water's precious, and I have to fight tooth and nail for any edge I can get. That goes double for the environment, I want it to be terrifying and be something you're constantly fighting against, Vault 34-style. I confess, there's been times I wish someone would drop more nuclear warheads on the Fallout world if only to bring parts of it back to its roots, so I wanted to create an area in the Wasteland that felt just as desperate as you'd expect a post-holocaust environment to be.

So the Sierra Madre and its surrounding Villa were designed as a reminder that some sections of the wastes are still scary, hazardous places where few can tread and survive, and while NCR may tame parts of the Mojave, there are other parts they can never hope to settle and claim as their own, and that's just the way I want it.

Regardless, we were shooting for a Horror experience with Dead Money. As for what we tried to do with Horror, to make the game scary, we tried to do two things - one, have enemies you couldn't headshot and required a different approach (holograms, toxic cloud), and worse, they could headshot you if you weren't careful (bomb collars + radios). My experience with most horror games is that the enemies become scarier when you can't kill the adversaries (which most role-players will try and do if the enemy has any number of hit points or any measurable way to hurt them, no matter how small). So what am I happy about, even if the final result ended up veering from the intention, is watching YouTube playthrough videos where folks (1) start panicking when they hear beeping (exactly the experience we wanted), and (2) seeing players take a step back, figure out the puzzle, and then study the environment to solve it (again, what we wanted).

As for Horror: Things get scarier and tense when you can't escape, no one's coming to help you, and your resources are limited, and Dead Money was built around this. Watching the YouTube playthrough footage where players started re-appreciating chems and Stimpaks made me happy - these things are miracles of medicine, and they should be viewed as such and appreciated for that in the world of Fallout. One issue I've always had with Fallout is it's really easy to amass a lot of chems and stims, so much so you lose the sense of wonder and relief when you get these items, and I feel situations like in Dead Money can give you a new appreciation for food, crafting (we put a higher priority on crafting and supplies to make crafting worth more in the DLC), unconventional water sources, and the joy at finding an otherwise common chem in the Mojave takes on a new level of preciousness when you're in hostile territory. One YouTube video showed someone finding Buffout - and to hear them say, "thank god" and hear genuine appreciation for finding something so rare is exactly the kind of value I want people to attach to these items... usually people seem to care less when they find Buffout, but it all depends on the environment context. I want players to attach value to them again rather than, "oh, more Buffout." It's BUFFOUT. It's a STIMPAK. Your character should be OVERJOYED to find these things, each and every time.

We also wanted to maximize the real estate. We couldn't build a whole other world for a DLC, so we paid more attention to what we put in it and increased the gameplay density. We did a serious, quantified exploration and loot pass, included challenges that required paying attention to your surroundings (hazards above and below, hidden cache markers to encourage targeted exploration and navigation, second story adventure areas, and even putting crafting items on walls) - artists spend a lot of time fleshing out rooms and environments, and we wanted to include challenges and rewards for folks who carefully hunted through the environment - and were rewarded for their efforts. In short, make them pay attention to their surroundings.

Dead Money's story: Narratives in games should be entertaining first, and also have a theme when possible. I wanted to make sure that despite the Survival elements and the adventure story elements, there's still something larger being told beneath the DLC's surface for people who care to delve into it. There's a thematic spine that we built the characters and the Sierra Madre which most folks appreciated, and our lead level designer put the finishing touch on (thanks, Charlie, that was brilliant). I feel when your adversary sums up his frustration with the human condition, and you get to see the results of what the bomb collars do to four (five?) individuals who would normally butcher/devour/assassinate/con each other, that's the point... but it's reflected in the design as well, notably their Perks. The idea was always intended that if you talk to them and study their abilities, you see how they can help you survive much easier as long as you cooperate and choose the right companion for the right time... a level of cooperation that would be impossible if your lives weren't wired to each other. And when Elijah snarls about that exact issue, I wanted players to realize that as much as they may hate him, he's got a point... in this situation.

There's a few other things I'm happy with and always wanted to do, and I'm glad DLC allows for experimentation with this. Having an opening narration movie per location is something I've wanted ever since running Van Buren pen and paper games at Black Isle (and thanks to Bethesda for being on board with that), reactive end slides per DLC, having a "join the bad guy Fallout 1 style end movie" (which I missed ever since joining the Master's Army in Fallout 1, so we put it in DLC1 to allow the player to join Elijah), and being able to hook into some of the backstories in previous Fallouts as well as Mojave hooks (Veronica's relationship with her mentor, who Dean Domino really was, and Dog/God's ties back to the origins of the Nightkin and how some folks have exploited that in the present).

A few last minor things that make me happy that doing a DLC gave a chance to experiment with - I got to finally try to write a Torment "they communicate everything via text" character for a modern-day role-playing game with Christine to see how that would be received (mixed reaction, some people thought we were lazy or cheap, and they're partly right, even if that wasn't the intention - voice acting is expensive, and if we can get more story with less voiced words, I'm fine with that). Wouldn't have gone over so well in a larger game, I suspect, so glad the DLC allowed for it.

So while I have mixed feelings about the DLC, I'm pretty happy with it, and I like the fact the way DLCs are structured allows for some degree of experimentation. And the price of admission and the amount of gameplay Dead Money provides (including explorers, there's a lot to find even in supposedly confined world spaces), I'm more than happy with it in the end, as difficult as it can be at times for even veteran players. I always figured if folks had played F3 and FNV for 100+ or more hours total, they may be ready for the stakes to be raised.

I also like the fact that the DLCs can have continuity, they don't need to exist in isolation. If I had to picture the DLC series, it would be it's a limited series in the Fallout universe, spiraling to its final conclusion that brings everything back to the start, so Dead Money sets a nice pattern for future FNV DLCs, especially layout and narrative-wise, which folks have picked up on - and many thanks to them.

The Courier's adventures aren't over yet.




This was an interesting and insightful post, thanks. I've started Dead Money today (have just recruited the team) and am enjoying it so far.

The fact that you were aiming for a horror-ish experience was interesting to read for me. I actually thought about this when I first started up Dead Money, more specifically in terms of the audio. I think one "flaw" is that the audio-scape constantly reminds me of New Vegas, you hear the same music snippets and so forth that you hear in the wasteland which introduces a certain level of familiarity that perhaps shouldn't be there. Now, I really loved the audio of New Vegas (actually one of the best soundscapes in a game that I know of) but it seems to me that the Sierra Madre could've really benefitted from a more separate audio to make the player feels out of the comfort zone. When I heard familar musical snippets as in vanilla New Vegas, there was immediately that "connection" that took me out of the hostile feel for a bit. Don't know if that makes any sense.
Two very simple audio cues that work wonderfully was when recruiting Dog/God and Christine. In the case of the Super Mutant, hearing the voice talk to you when going down into the basement was plenty creepy I think. In Christine's case, it was a nice touch to hear the "thumping" throughout that level.

Just some random thoughts that sprung into mind since you mentioned the horror aspect of it.
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Hombre Gato
Feb 22 2011 10:41 AM
As soon as I viewed the Ballad of Gay Tony trailer I knew DLC was allowing for more... freedom of expression.

From reading this, it sounds like the format of downloadable content provides some opportunity for risk taking not only in areas of content but also design. I was gonna wait for a GOTY package, but now this kind of feels like the weeks leading up to Alpha Protocol, where I can't take anything for granted. Too exciting to put off until I "have time."
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FunnyEnough
Feb 25 2011 01:17 AM
I signed up just to ask about this so:

You mentioned this bit which piqued my curiosity.

QUOTE
having a "join the bad guy Fallout 1 style end movie" (which I missed ever since joining the Master's Army in Fallout 1, so we put it in DLC1 to allow the player to join Elijah)


This is... obtainable? It's the first time I've heard of this.
I'd say the scrounging is what kept it riviting, dying due to lack of supply and watching rationing kept me on the edge of my seat to the point that I had to quit playing it at points because I found myself getting frustraited, and by being in that mental state was more open to the other things going on, like that breathing noise for the ghost people. which signalled me to open my inventory and see if i had enough chems to support a fight or if i could whip up a cloudtini. and to the poster above, yeah you can kill everybody
Here's what you need: Headless enemies whose arms and legs give them an immediate, dramatically lethal advantage over the players, and who are so tough that they won't be close to dead even after all of their limbs/parts have been crippled.
Hi Chris,

Just want to say I'm greatly enjoying Dead Money so far. One thing I'd like for future DLC's is more scaling difficulty for hardcore mode. It would be neat if hardcore mode made ammo, food and water more scarce...as it is now I'm practically swimming in food and ammo even though I'm using a mod that greatly increases the rate of hunger/thirst.
Also, I must say I'm very disappointed in reviews that complain about the collar and poison cloud mechanics, I really like what they add and haven't died once because of them (though I did die to some grenade traps).
Keep up the good work and don't be afraid to make hardcore mode even harder in future DLC, I think most people who play on that setting really do want to be challenged!
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Chris Avellone
Mar 13 2011 01:11 PM
Yes, the Elijah ending is obtainable, although you have to really hate NCR and have talked to Veronica about Elijah thoroughly (perhaps again) after DLC1 is installed.

Having the "join the bad guy" ending has been important to me since Fallout 1, so if we can do that in our titles, even in DLC, we try for it. Also, writing the Elijah joining end movie was a lot of fun in an evil way.

And on the headless enemies - we did joke about that, although I suppose in the end, Ultima cornered the market on those creatures. original.gif
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Chris Avellone
Mar 13 2011 01:20 PM
QUOTE (thesisko @ Feb 28 2011, 06:57 AM)
Hi Chris,

Just want to say I'm greatly enjoying Dead Money so far. One thing I'd like for future DLC's is more scaling difficulty for hardcore mode. It would be neat if hardcore mode made ammo, food and water more scarce...as it is now I'm practically swimming in food and ammo even though I'm using a mod that greatly increases the rate of hunger/thirst.
Also, I must say I'm very disappointed in reviews that complain about the collar and poison cloud mechanics, I really like what they add and haven't died once because of them (though I did die to some grenade traps).
Keep up the good work and don't be afraid to make hardcore mode even harder in future DLC, I think most people who play on that setting really do want to be challenged!


Thanks - Dead Money was actually initially a lot harder than its final release. A lot.

First off, all the hardcore mechanics in DLC1 were par-for-the-course in normal mode, it had a lot more traps, the toxic cloud was even more lethal (rather than reduce you to low hit points in normal mode, it would kill you and kill you faster than it did now). I did want the player to feel apprehensive while playing and create a sense of tension, but the end conclusion was that it was too punishing overall: not challenging, punishing. One joke was that Dead Money was going to become the Tomb of Horrors for the Fallout universe - all I wanted was people to pay attention to the environment and space more.

Feedback from Bethesda QA did provide a lot of good metrics for what felt right in terms of enemy strength, trap placement, and toxic cloud scaling, and we used a lot of those same feedback appraisals for future DLCs, so that's good.

I did want the player to scavenge and scrounge, however, and see each last resource as precious, as mentioned above - it was my way of trying to restore value to things Fallout players may now be taking for granted (and really, Stimpaks should be an amazing find for any player living in the Fallout universe).
QUOTE (Chris Avellone @ Mar 13 2011, 01:20 PM)
Thanks - Dead Money was actually initially a lot harder than its final release. A lot.

First off, all the hardcore mechanics in DLC1 were par-for-the-course in normal mode, it had a lot more traps, the toxic cloud was even more lethal (rather than reduce you to low hit points in normal mode, it would kill you and kill you faster than it did now). I did want the player to feel apprehensive while playing and create a sense of tension, but the end conclusion was that it was too punishing overall: not challenging, punishing. One joke was that Dead Money was going to become the Tomb of Horrors for the Fallout universe - all I wanted was people to pay attention to the environment and space more.

Feedback from Bethesda QA did provide a lot of good metrics for what felt right in terms of enemy strength, trap placement, and toxic cloud scaling, and we used a lot of those same feedback appraisals for future DLCs, so that's good.

I did want the player to scavenge and scrounge, however, and see each last resource as precious, as mentioned above - it was my way of trying to restore value to things Fallout players may now be taking for granted (and really, Stimpaks should be an amazing find for any player living in the Fallout universe).


I found the difficulty appropriate in hardcore mode, but I felt that consumables and ammo should have been more scarce. Does the engine support varying the spawn rates across normal/hardcore?

For me, this was a major issue in the main game - once you leave the starting areas the wealth of food and ammo available trivializes the "needs" portion of hardcore mode, making it more of a chore than a feature (since you'll always have food and water in your inventory). Perhaps it would also make sense of your needs would increase with certain stats/skills, like a high strength character should require more food.

Anyway, I hope you can continue to use hardcore mode to incorporate some of your more "punishing" ideas in future DLC tongue.gif
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Chris Avellone
Mar 18 2011 06:45 PM
QUOTE (thesisko @ Mar 17 2011, 08:38 AM)
I found the difficulty appropriate in hardcore mode, but I felt that consumables and ammo should have been more scarce. Does the engine support varying the spawn rates across normal/hardcore?

For me, this was a major issue in the main game - once you leave the starting areas the wealth of food and ammo available trivializes the "needs" portion of hardcore mode, making it more of a chore than a feature (since you'll always have food and water in your inventory). Perhaps it would also make sense of your needs would increase with certain stats/skills, like a high strength character should require more food.

Anyway, I hope you can continue to use hardcore mode to incorporate some of your more "punishing" ideas in future DLC tongue.gif


There is a script function to check Hardcore mode, that's not a bad idea. I'm not sure how it affects item spawns, although I don't think that would be hard to do.
Great Write-up and thanks for the information. I for one LOVED the DLC. the writing, the overall feeling of oppression it gave off. some perks did trivialize some of the atmosphere tongue.gif like rad child or the regen implant. but it was a very Smart DLC and Its really the 1st DLC I would Actually say was worth the price. so much to do and Find in there. it really rewards you for exploring original.gif thank you and Looking forward to the next DLCs.

Mak
This reply is really late, but I didn't think to reply directly to your blog post previously. I read your design breakdown on the DLC shortly after I beat the scenario, and I found it a great read. Personally, I enjoyed the DLC scenario a lot, and I'm looking forward to the upcoming DLC releases as well (finally announced!). There were a few points in particular which I would like to talk about regarding Dead Money though.

First of all, my main disappointment was the way the endgame event was scripted. I played Dead Money with my end game save, and I went straight into it. I had already had extensive conversations with Veronica previously on the subject of Father Elijah. I did not expect that the DLC would require me to talk to her again after installing it, for the proper flag values to be registered. As such, I was unable to talk to Father Elijah at the end with Veronica. It's a minor issue in terms of overall gameplay experience, but I feel it is a significant flaw in terms of impacting the roleplaying experience.

Secondly, I would like to say that I really appreciated the internal economy system the scenario. It wasn't just about making basic common Fallout items feel valuable and useful again. What really struck me as solid game design was that the vending machines effectively created a value system for otherwise useless junk, and in a way which made complete sense within the logic of the setting. Adding this additional layer in the setting made me pay a lot more attention to digging around in places which I had grown accustomed to ignoring in the normal game, like dressers. It also made me see the object models for cigarette packs and cartons in a whole new way. They weren't **** that I would ignore any longer, but something I would actively seek and get excited over. Great job.

Lastly, I really liked how the companion interactions were designed. Not only were they all unique and memorable, but the way their perks were designed to specifically help with different parts of the scenario, and how there were unlockable "secrets" designed into their dialog trees. I feel that the best designed games are the ones which give back to the player as much as the player decides to put in. It is satisfying that there are gameplay rewards and story/background content which can only be discovered by putting the extra effort in. Another touch I really liked was that the companions who were not in your party at the time would actually have conversations with each other around the fountain. This is something I would have loved to see in the Lucky 38 Suite in the main game. It would have been really rewarding if gathering a full team at the suite would result in them interacting with each other.

I'm looking forward to the upcoming DLC releases, and I hope you will do design breakdowns for Old World Blues and Lonesome Road as well. Keep up the great work, and all the best!

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