Scavenging in Fallout 3

I’m wrapping up Fallout 3 and have been thinking a lot about it. It’s not my Game of the Year and I did not find it as captivating as Oblivion, but I did enjoy it thoroughly for about forty hours. The fact that I did actually play it for forty hours should be testament to that. Anybody who has talked about the nuts and bolts of design with me knows that I’m a kool-aid drinker of the MDA framework. And I think this will help describe where I think the game left me hanging.

When you choose a setting of a post-apocalyptic nature, scavenging/collecting seems to be a natural play aesthetic to work towards. Bethesda even embraced this play type in Oblivion with their Thieves Guild to great effect, weaving it into the narrative.

Fallout presents the following mechanics:

  1. Money is necessary to buy equipment needed for the rest of the game.
  2. There are many items in the world which have value.
  3. You can steal about any item in the game that isn’t tied down.
  4. There are many merchants in the game who will trade scavenged items for money and goods.
  5. You have a weight limit of items you can carry, but you can carry a large amount of items.
  6. Money and other key items have no weight.
  7. You can only safely steal when you are not being watched.
  8. You lose karma when stealing as opposed to simply scavenging from dead bodies. The karma hit is small.

The first point is the most important to notice. Where in Oblivion, there were numerous quests that give money and loot, this is less-so in Fallout. Thus, these mechanics lead to a dynamic where every player is constantly looting the world for whatever they can find, carrying to the maximum weight limit, selling and repeating. Thanks to points seven & eight, there is little recourse to the character for acting in this way. Point six is more troublesome.

Now, here’s the rub. Because this dynamic system is necessary, it creates a certain kind of economy for every player. The cost of salvaging goods is low: it takes very little labor to steal, it takes very little labor to sell, the fruit is low hanging and abundant. But the reward for salvaging goods is quite high: simply completing quests and visiting dungeons for a few hours gives you the resources to buy anything in the game. In a functioning economy, either the cost for salvaging the goods would go up or the supply of salvageable goods would go down.

It’s quite possible that the unique skill the player possesses of being able to kick ass with ease allows for an economic advantage over everyone else in the Wasteland. As this may be, it still allows the player to be the richest person in the world using only a few game-days work.

This system existed to an extent in Oblivion, yet the addition of one mechanic changed the entire dynamic system: stolen goods must be sold to fences. This simple mechanic drastically increased the cost of doing business as not only did it decrease the margins for stealing goods, but it decreased the availability of the player’s inventory for useless items unless they were planning on passing near a fence.

What happened in Fallout for me was that the aesthetic of living a scrapping scavenger’s life was valid until I had about 4000 caps, at which time I had the capital to buy whatever I wanted. After that, the aesthetic (which was supported by the setting strongly) was ruined.

There is no easy solution to the dynamic imbalance, but there are many jumping off points which could (and may have! Don’t assume!) been playtested:

  • Give money weight. This may cause a ceiling in scavenging where the player has to balance between weight dedicated to items used for survival and those used for profit.
  • Make crucial items more expensive. I find it hard to believe that ammo and scrap metal are roughly the same value in a dangerous post-apocalyptic society. Why ammo itself isn’t the de facto currency, I imagine is more of a implementation issue. If I had to spend my entire haul to prepare for my next adventure, I wouldn’t be flush with cash.
  • Give ammo and stimpak’s weight. To that end, I found myself trading junk for stimpaks when the merchant ran out of money because I could carry an infinite amount of them and they were always useful.
  • Make leveling cost money. Set up “master trainers” as they were in Oblivion, but give them a high price to teach your character the next level’s perks.

Scavenging isn’t the end-all play style in Fallout, but it seems with the setting that it would be a reasonable choice.

2 Comments

  1. While I understand the logic of your points I don’t think that it sounds like it would make the game more fun. The pay off for spending your time looting is to not have to worry about things and enjoy the spoils you have rightfully earned. I also have a sneaking suspicion they built the economy to be a broken by players because it feels good to think you outsmarted a game.

    Honestly the entire MDA philosophy is trying to make a science out of a creative endeavor — it’s rather frightening. In it’s defense I only gave it a quick read, I’ll print it out, chew it over, and get back to you.

  2. That’s the nice thing about armchair designing – you can sit back and say “I think this would make the game more enjoyable.” without having to defend it via playtesting and such if I were actually a designer at Bethesda.

    MDA isn’t a science, it is a philosophy. The three-act structure isn’t the science of creating a drama just because Aristotle taught it in Poetics, but it has helped a lot of writers since put together captivating works.

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