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.