The Misunderstanding of Fallout 76
an Expose on Bethesda’s Marketing
an Expose on Bethesda’s Marketing
(After getting to play the Fallout 76 Stress Test, I was inspired to write some thoughts on the marketing for this title. Those with superb memories may recall an article of mine with this same title about Fallout 4 in the run up to its 2015 release, although that was a very different situation (you can read an archived version of it right here). Overall I enjoyed my short time with the game, but Bethesda’s NDA is preventing me from elaborating further on my experience. My full impressions of the game itself will be forthcoming once the NDA lifts.)
Since even before its reveal, I’ve struggled to figure out what exactly Fallout 76 is. Is it a Rust inspired cash grab? Is it a traditional Bethesda Game Studios game, just with online multiplayer? Or is it something entirely different? This confusion can be partially blamed on typical games media sensationalism, but the blame must largely fall on Bethesda’s marketing; which I would describe as unconventional at best, or mind bogglingly stupid and counter productive at worst.
After an E3 showcase which didn’t dive as deep into the game as some hoped, the marketing for Fallout 76 consisted primarily of animated Vault Boy cartoons. While these cartoons were well made and funny in their own right, they did little to give me any sort of feeling of what this game is like. Very little was shared by Bethesda besides these cartoons, save for a “making of” documentary (by Noclip Studios, you can watch it here) and some previews/interviews which featured largely the same regurgitated info. Even lead designer Todd Howard, when pressed on how different 76 is from other BGS titles, couldn’t provide a clear answer stating “it is 80% similar, and 20% is really different” Whatever the hell that means.
Fallout 76 is not a cartoon animated game, but you wouldn’t know that from its marketing.
Then a couple weeks ago, we finally got to see the game in (very stuttery and laggy) action; as dozens of youtubers shared footage they recorded at a Bethesda event in West Virginia. Sadly, much of the footage was almost unwatchable due to performance issues. Bethesda said this footage was of a 2 week old build, which begs the question, why they would even let footage of the game in this state be shown without limits? Wouldn’t it make more sense for Bethesda to show the game off themselves, the way it’s meant to be played, and in the best possible light? I think so.
The performance issues were also largely due to the fact that many of these youtubers darted to the far reaches of Appalachia, and ran around the map like chickens with their heads cut off. Obviously, this is not the way the game is meant to be played. Yes, a core tenet of Bethesda games are that you can go anywhere and do anything, but all of their games still have a clearly designed progression that players are supposed to follow in the early stages of the game. In Fallout 3, that path leads from Vault 101, to Springvale, to Megaton, and then usually the Super Duper Mart or another nearby location. Fallout New Vegas is maybe the strictest in this regard, virtually blocking players from heading straight North to New Vegas (by filling the area with Deathclaws and Cazadors), players are supposed to go from Goodsprings to Primm and almost circumnavigate the map before heading to Vegas. In Fallout 4, the Sole Survivor’s path is supposed to take him or her from Vault 111, to Sanctuary Hills, then to Concord where you meet everyone’s favorite companion, Preston, and obtain (too early) a suit of Power Armor. After the training wheels come off in these early stages, the player can continue to follow the path of the main story, or they can venture off to pretty much wherever without their experience suffering. Fallout 76 is no different in this regard. Your path through Appalachia begins in Vault 76, then to a camp set up by the Overseer, then to the abandoned town of Flatwoods, then to Morgantown Airport. Unlike many neurotic youtubers, I decided to follow this progression, and I’m glad that I did. Going straight from Vault 76 to The Greenbriar is the equivalent of going from Vault 101 straight to The Citadel in Fallout 3. The whole experience feels disjointed, and neither the player nor the NPC’s seem to know why you’re there.
Another example of a lapse in Bethesda’s marketing for Fallout 76 is the new realtime VATS system. Usually, when a game franchise has a new take on a staple feature, the developer showcases it themselves to ease fans into the change. Unless you were paying very close attention, the average consumer likely knew nothing about how VATS works in Fallout 76 prior to the new Youtuber footage being released. So, said consumers were probably caught off guard when they saw the new VATS mechanic in all its disorienting, real time glory. Bethesda could have easily demonstrated and explained the new mechanic themselves in a brief trailer, and avoided any confusion. Instead, they let random Youtubers do their job for them, and it backfired miserably; with many on social media (including myself) deriding how awkward the new VATS looked.
Fallout 76’s VATS mechanic is in real time, and its received mixed opinions so far.
Bethesda (the publisher) often likes to be creative and inventive with their marketing; the marketing campaigns for Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, and most recently RAGE 2, were some of the best in recent memory, and very successful in getting attention for their respective titles. Pete Hines and his team are also very calculated (like all AAA publishers); everything they do and say (or don’t) is purposeful. So it’s no surprise that sometimes these marketing campaigns don’t work as well as initially planned. Maybe in an era of downgrades, misleading marketing, and outright lies (looking at you Sean Murray), Bethesda wanted to be as transparent as possible; and let Fallout 76 be shown by neutral (in theory) content creators. Or maybe they just thought the best way to showcase an online survival game was by having famous Youtubers, the masters of surviving and thriving online, put it on full display. Maybe they just got complacent after the success of Fallout 4. Whatever the reason, Fallout 76’s marketing campaign likely won’t be taught in University marketing courses. If anything, it may serve as a lesson for how NOT to market a game. Regardless, the best remedy for a poor marketing campaign is a great product; and Bethesda has a history of delivering them. Should they succeed with that, all of their marketing shenanigans will likely be forgotten about once players leave Vault 76.
Please stand by as I will be posting my full thoughts on actually playing Fallout 76 on Oct. 23rd when the B.E.T.A drops on Xbox One!
Follow me on twitter @4allout, and also follow my Fallout 76 dedicated account @Fallout76_HQ, and SB @SB_GameMedia