Fallout 4 Gameplay News Exclusive: Todd Howard Talks Playtime, Map Size And More [INTERVIEW]

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Fallout 4 Gameplay Exclusive interview Todd Howard
Todd Howard talks to iDigitalTimes about map size, playtime and more in our exclusive interview. reddit.com via u/AceO235

Fallout 4 is a big deal. As the hype train approaches runaway status this weekend before the Fallout 4 release date , I’m excited to share this exclusive interview with our readers. Loyal iDigi fans know we’ve been tirelessly covering the Fallout 4 news trail since 2013 , and that dedication paid off when our sister site, Newsweek, approached me about writing a culture feature on Fallout 4 as art . It’s a good read for non-gamers, but gaming fans already have plenty of love for the genre and are more interested in the process behind the game than how it is received as a cultural artifact.

Fortunately, I got a lot of time to talk to Todd Howard at Bethesda Game Studios in Maryland and we covered a lot of ground about Fallout 4 that never made it into Newsweek. So, as you get yourself hyped for the Fallout 4 release please enjoy this exclusive interview where Todd Howard talks to us about what went on behind-the-scenes during the making of Fallout 4.

'Define the experience' of Fallout 4 .

It's more thematic. You are somebody that lived before this world and now you're returning to it. And how are you going to find, and get used to, the new normal. Your life has been turned over. All the people you knew, everybody is gone. And it's the experience of 'how do I survive now?' Both physically and emotionally. That's part of the story. That was our experience.

Will there be more of an emotional component to this than in the previous game?

I think so, yes.

Based on what we've seen so far there's more nostalgia, more of the past, more memory.

There is and that was intentional. I don't want to spoil it. We hope so. It's a little bit more personal to your character and that you're unique to the world because you knew how it was. And so when we look at features or things we're going to do [we ask] 'how is that feeding into that idea that you're surviving?' And also progressing.

Like if you look at perks and go 'how am I progressing?' Oh, I feel like I'm getting better. Things are happening. Same with building and building settlements stuff. 'I'm gonna rebuild this stuff.' It all feeds into that theme.

In 2012 you spoke at George Mason University and revealed how the cover image of the power armor in Fallout 3 was the first image created for the game. And you said that it was important for you to have that image carry through as people learned about the game. Even the “Please Stand By” image on the disc is deliberate because it is the first image that appears on the screen. Is there a similar type of 'seed' for Fallout 4 ?

Because we already showed the beginning, which we debated, but because we already showed the beginning it's not quite the same. The disc cover of this is actually a vault door. So the idea is that you put it in and it spins and it opens up this experience. You don't want to repeat yourself but I liked that idea. You put the disc in, it spins and it's the vault door. And when the game comes up the first thing is the gear spinning and it becomes the Bethesda Game Studios logo and it goes into the power armor which is on the cover.

We're very cognizant of what we've released beforehand. So a lot of games they put out a lot of stuff. You can find the first 20 minutes of all the big games coming out online. And we are really thinking about the person who's buying it or who's given the game. What do they already know? And make sure they only know this much. We don't want to spoil everything with the trailer.

The marketing for Fallout 4 was unique in this way because there wasn't much and people became obsessed …

I wasn't aware to what level to be honest. We're heads down working on the game like 'yes we know everyone wants to know about the game.'

There were hoax sites everywhere.

I did see that one.

Your fanbase loves Bethesda Games Studios. Not just a particular title or character but all the work you do. Why do you think your work has touched people so deeply? Why has it brought out that connection in people? When you see someone who has taken the time to make a whole set of Brotherhood Of Steel armor how do you feel?

It's cool! Sometimes they'll do it as an aesthetic and we're like 'that's just cool armor.'

I think what makes it resonate is that the type of game we build lets them put themselves on it. They're excited for Fallout because they've played the previous ones, but they already see the set up and they're thinking about who they're gonna be and what they're gonna do. It fuels their imagination before they play the game. And once they're into it they're like 'that's who I was.'

You asked about it touching people. We get a lot of letters from people who are going through stuff. And they're like 'this game made me feel powerful and took me away from that and this got me through it.' And you read that stuff and go 'whoa.' We do a lot of stuff with the Make-A-Wish foundation and they want to come here and they're like 'I want to see Fallout 4 .' That's their wish. And they could do anything!

Whenever that happens it hits home. This is important. And I think a lot of entertainment is important. That's a part of it. The time people spend consuming entertainment is fulfilling for them. It's not a waste of time, unless it’s bad. [laughs] if it's bad they're like 'I could've done something else.' So there's a lot of moments like that where we do feel a sense of responsibility. Yeah it's a game and we have a business but this is important to people. It has to be as good as we can make it.

Is that why the game is going to be like 7,000 hours long?

I think our official answer now when people ask how many hours is the game is 'All of them.'

It must feel good to know your games have a noticeable impact on productivity and the economy as people call out and whatnot to play them.

I'm a little removed from all that. I think Skyrim , definitely, I felt it. I think some of it will happen this time.

Do you get to play the game like the rest of us? Do you get to stay home on November 10th and just play?

I've played it enough. [laughs] I don't think I could see it for what it is at this point. I mostly want to hear people's experiences. That's what really interests us. We know the game pretty well and it's like that extra part is missing. It's theirs. How they feel about certain decisions in the game. What kinds of characters they build. What other things we did that resonate with them. That's very exciting for us.

And then they have the editor. And they can mod. And once the official editor is out what will they make?

Did you ever see something and wish you'd have thought of it?

All the time.

The games you're most well known for, The Elder Scrolls and Fallout games, aren't technically your creations. They're games that were conceived by other people. So do you ever have any remorse over that? Is there a game that you want to start from the ground up before you finish your career?

I have two answers to that. One is that they were the kind of games I wanted to make. So even though the genesis of the Elder Scrolls isn't mine it's very much like 'here's an open generic fantasy game what do you want to do with it?' I would say Elder Scrolls became more mine than Fallout. Fallout was a much more established world when it came to us.

We thought about creating our own. Like, we like Fallout but let's do our own post-apocalyptic thing. We had an idea and I remember we  were at a meeting about it and I said that if we got Fallout , because no one was making another one, that that idea would be better. And they were like why? Why is that world better than one you'd create?

The 1950s thing - and that aesthetic and that vibe with the suit and the whole thing - is the best. There was no remorse. And we had meetings where people were like 'This is a waste of the company's money. This franchise didn't sell well. No one cares about it anymore.' And it was me and others saying 'no this is perfect. We can make this really sing.' I felt good about that even though the genesis wasn't ours.

Do we have ideas for other stuff? All the time! We're guys who make games. But they take a while to make and we'll see what happens. You never know what the future holds.

Are you ever happy with a finished game or are you always seeing improvements or thinking about new projects?

I'm happy when other people are happy. It's like anybody that does this stuff where you look at it, and we're in the final week or two of Fallout 4 now, and you're just looking at problems. 'Is that a big enough problem to fix? How risky is it?' 'Oh, that's a clear problem let's fix that.' Your list is all problems. So I'm mostly satisfied when the people play it and they love it. And they spend a lot of time with it. And they say 'that's what we waited for.'

There are clearly moments over the course of the project where I'm like 'that's great that's how it should feel.' So I would say the reward for us is how people react to it. But, the games take a while to make and we're all coming to the office, we spend a lot of time together and that process is very, very rewarding. It's rewarding to go home at the end of a week where you felt like 'hey we solved a hard problem. And this really feels good to us now.' And there's a reward in the process. And there should be

In your George Mason speech you talk about the "art of the loading screen" as one of the most challenging aspects of game design. Are we going to have a cool loading screen in Fallout 4 ?

We did a bunch and ended up with something very similar to Skyrim because we liked it. If you look back at Fallout 3 's it's really cluttered. There's a lot of stuff on it. We ended up with something similar to Skyrim but with a few easter eggs. Minor. Minor. I don't want to oversell it [laughs]

Believe it or not but how a loading screen fades out, or how does the game fade up, can actually be quite jarring. The rate at which it fades up, and the rate until you can actually move. It all adds up.

And we do a thing where you install the game, and you have this moment where you're like 'I want to play.' So what we do is let the game installs a bit and then it says you can launch it. And it plays the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. videos.

No one thinks about the loading screen or the logo screen and we ask 'what can we do there?' This is a good example. Every game has a face creator. So we're asking how to make it more interesting. And in Fallout 4 there's another person there while you do it. And the amount of time we spent on their banter, her or him commenting on what you do, there's hundreds of lines like 'I really like your eyes' and things like that. And then we're thinking about how often they say it ... but then when you close the menu it says 'You look great' right as you tap the button.

Didn't one of your voice actors have to record all of these possible player names?

Mr. Handy! We talked about that a lot. We asked 'what if you record the thousand most popular names? How long would that take?' Because just imagine that when you type your name in and turn around the robot says it. That moment! I tell you even now when I play the game I type something and I turn around 'oh fuck yeah he says the name! That's awesome!' So that turned out great.

Any other personal favorite moments in the game? Moments that made you say 'we nailed it'?

The world itself. This is our best world. It can be hard to make a post-apocalyptic destroyed world beautiful and exciting to explore. And that was our main priority and I think we did that. It's a good romp through.

So what kinds of things do you look at for inspiration for a beautiful wasteland?

We looked at, believe it or not, it was a mix of Norman Rockwell paintings of times gone by that would be in our art, and John Ford movies. These big pastoral views and blue sky. The Wasteland has a feel like that when you're out in it but it's all destroyed.

We have lots of vehicles this time to be these touchstones of color. And we can get away with a little bit because we're Fallout and the thing is old and rusty a little bit, but not as much as it should be. People who maintained things a little bit more like cars or trash cans or other appliances.

Fallout Shelter was kind of a surprise for you guys, no?

Yeah it did bonkers. It's now the most played Fallout game ever. The popularity of it shocked me, honestly.

When you're looking to do a game do you actively look at other games for inspiration? Are you always looking to be original or do you try to iterate on good ideas?

It's a mix of all of it. We play a lot of games so some of that just seeps in. We tend to look at our own stuff. The popularity of Skyrim means we get so much feedback. Even though it's a different game the similarities in the flow makes it the same type of game. How do people experience the game? What do they find entertaining? We think about that more.

Early on in Fallout 4 we had our big touchstones, feature wise. 'This is how dialogue should feel.' 'This is how we want to do the building.' 'This is how the guns should feel. Are we too close to Call of Duty ?' So we lay that out as far as features, but we're not digging in on that granular of a level. We just kind of find our way.

There are so many games with guns. How do you approach a challenge like that? People have shot millions and millions of bullets in games. How do you design a combat system that feels both familiar and unique?

Two parts there. One is the VATS system and the fact that you can pause it and choose targets.

How was VATs conceived?

It was a mix initially of Knights of the Old Republic , which came out right when we were starting Fallout 3 . We can't just do what they did and we want something that feels more strategic with the aimed shot. So it was that mixed with Burnout which was also out at the time and the crash mode in that. Watch the crashes in Burnout and the replays and imagine [the debris] is eyeballs.

We've done a couple things in Fallout 4 to push it a little more. That's a good example for us that's easy to be like 'what are you going to add to VATs?' And you could fill a whiteboard. Here's all the things. But then it starts weighing it down. So then we pick the ones that feel good that do just enough because you want to get in and out of it. It needs to be snappy in its pace.

So there's VATS and then it was the guns themselves. Because its Fallout we can give you some guns that are different and more interesting and then allow you to modify them. So that whole system of 'here's this cool pipe rifle.' And it looks cool. It looks very Fallout-y. And then you go to this bench and realize 'here's all the stuff you can do. And you can do this and do this and do this. But you need to find an aluminum can and a desk fan and this and that.' And I think that system makes it kind of unique.

The actual feel in your hand? We did go for the popular way they feel in other games because they feel great in the other games.

You watch a lot of MacGuyver to get inspiration?

[laughs] We didn't watch it but it's always in your head. It became a word. How can we MacGuyver this together? How do we MacGuyver this ? And how does it feel like you're MacGuyver? So we didn't watch it but we did say it a lot. That's why the crafting system isn't just 'find a telephone.' It drills down into the components in the telephone. Find a circuit. Find a screw.

When you play the game you'll find out that screws and glue are better than grenades. You start realizing [what components are valuable]. You'll see a typewriter and you'll kill whoever you have to to get a typewriter because it has stuff in it that you know you need to make that rocket launcher add-on. Duct tape and glue are big too. Most things you make need an adhesive and adhesive is a property of duct tape and glue. Military duct tape is really good.

You asked about stuff that turned out really good? This system is one of them. It's just this mess of data. How do you massage all that data and get it to flow right? And it turned out great. People here who play the game get really into it.

I had this moment where I needed ceramic. And I asked 'what's ceramic?' Ok, coffee mugs have ceramic. Where I was in the game there was a drive-in theater and they had a gift shop. 'Oh I bet they have coffee mugs.' I see the coffee mugs in it and I run in and 'BAM!' this landmine trap kills me. Blows me up.

So I reload the game. I gotta be really careful this time and get the coffee mug. And for some reason I missed it again and it kills me again. So then I get a follower who's with me, and you can command them, and I said 'go in and get the coffee mug.' And the follower goes in.

BAM! The thing goes off. But it doesn't kill me. But it blows the coffee mug out of the gift shop and into the grass. So now I'm hunting through the grass for this coffee mug. And you could not script that. It was this total combat just about getting this coffee mug. You would never have a designer who would say 'I have this scenario with landmines and a coffee mug you need.' It was all in my head. But it always stuck with me afterwards. I had one of my favorite experiences trying to get a coffee mug.

It seems like you guys have more fun with the Fallout series than the Elder Scrolls series. True?

Fun is the right word. You're having a conversation and say 'wouldn't it be cool if ... ?' And whatever you're describing there's a really good chance you could put it in Fallout . It's two different vibes. We love both, they're like our children. The Elder Scrolls tone is more compressed. But Fallout can go from serious family drama to B-movie lizardmen pretty quickly and it just works. You can have quote-unquote more fun.

Is part of that the genres themselves? Do people have more rigid expectations for a high fantasy like Elder Scrolls?

We do it different. I'm somewhat anti-high fantasy. You put Elder Scrolls in high fantasy, but we try to keep it as low fantasy as possible so that the high fantasy bits stick out as real magic. Then it gets gamey, and maybe that breaks down. But the Elder Scrolls themselves, the devices in the game, people will ask us to describe how that works. Never. That's mystical. Otherwise that would ruin it.

So how does Fallout benefit from that 50s drive-in movie vibe?

We have all this music in Fallout 4 , we're licensing all this music and then you put it on. There's certain songs that come on, no matter what you're doing, and you decide 'alright it's time to start throwing grenades at people. This is my song I throw grenades to.'

We have a number of 50s era songs. There's this whole suite of people who started writing music about once the bomb happens then what's going to happen. There's a whole genre of that we didn't tap in Fallout 3 that we are this time.

It's interesting that you are able to resurrect artists and connect fans to them. Like, who would've thought you'd get teenagers in the 21st century to want to listen to The Ink Spots? So, in terms of artistic legacy, where do you see Fallout going in 50 years?

I was watching this Steve Jobs thing recently where he said something like 'the things we make are dead in ten years.' For gaming, it's different. I still play retro games. I still play Donkey Kong and Pac Man like once a week. I do.

How can someone experience what we created in 50 years? I don't know the answer to that, but it'd be a shame if they couldn't. So my hope is there is some throwback or reference to it.

What interests you when you think about the legacy of games?

I'm still into the old stuff. This is going to sound weird but, like, I'll go on this binge where I have to play every version of Gauntlet . There's the Gauntlet arcade game, then they ported it to the NES but it was a crappy version. Then they made Gauntlet II for the NES. Then I'll play the Atari 7800 version of Gauntlet . I'm interested in like every version of Gauntlet made in this two-year period and who made what decision. I find it bizarrely interesting.

Or wondering which arcade games introduced the concept of health instead of lives. I think it's 1942 , I might have it wrong, but you're playing all these shooters like Galaga and stuff where you get hit you're dead. And then 1942 comes along and says you're not dead, you have a health bar. I'm interested in where these devices get introduced along the way. I doubt a museum would do that, but it interests me. When did this type of gameplay or idea come along and how do people react to it?

Another big touchstone is Guitar Hero . So Guitar Hero comes along and it becomes this super popular thing. And it's very game-y. If you want to experience it you have to be good at it. A big dilemma with games is [asking] is it a thing of skill? Guitar Hero , initially, is a thing of skill. Are you good at Guitar Hero? And then they realize how popular it's getting and then it's 'let's open up all the songs.' And then it's 'we'll score you but that wasn't that important.' It's about getting through songs and playing it. Flirting with Disaster was that song for me. I was obsessed with finishing the game and it had nothing to do with music at that point. I need to finish. Flirting with Disaster is the biggest boss fight in any game ever.

What is the game? Is it a game of skill? Because if it’s a game of skill you want that song that is the boss. But then, it’s not. It’s entertainment. They'll still grade your skill but it’s about doing it with other people. It's a game.

There's a generational shift in gaming from an arcade era where it’s all about the score to a more complete narrative experience. Does that old school scoring mentality influence you still? How is Fallout 4 like a Pac Man or a Donkey Kong ?

I think people want the scores to compare. Am I better than you? We don't have that in Fallout 4, but I think if we did certainly people would gravitate towards it. We talked about that. Is there a way we can show stats? People do that with achievements. They do that with levels. 'What level did you get to?' That's their high score.

As a gaming genius, why haven't you gone crazy yet like the Kojimas of the world?

[laughs] That's probably the best question I've ever been asked! Define 'gone crazy?'

Taking that 'art for the sake of all else' to the extreme and screw everyone and everything because I'm Todd Howard and I'm Bethesda.

I think it's because I really enjoy the people I'm working with. If I wasn't with them, or if I was somewhere else, I probably would've. Or probably would've had to muscle my way to something else. We're a private company, and that helps tremendously. I love working with everyone here.

The other part is I am pretty much left alone to do what I want. That is in part from the success but we're all fairly level-headed and we want to put games out.

We don't want to take forever and spend a gazillion. We want it to do well for everybody here. We have the creative freedom here to do what we want in the time we want. Even in the marketing. Being able to make the decision of 'this is the way I want to do it' will serve the development better because we'll really know what we're doing and it won't feel stale. I love that moment when I find out about something.

That's why I haven't gone crazy. Because everytime I say this is how I want to do something they say OK.

You've been with Bethesda a long time.

I'm crossing the line very soon where I've spent more years of my life here than not. That puts it in perspective. Or, there's people who work here who weren't alive when I started here. That's weird.

But this is me. I cannot separate myself from Bethesda. These games are part of who I am. I think about them all the time. It gives me great joy. That's why I haven't gone crazy because I love this. These are the games I obsess over.

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