GDC 2012: Tim Cain Tells the Story of Fallout
To hear Fallout creator Tim Cain tell it, it’s a wonder that Fallout even got made at all. The game sustained not one but two legal challenges and suffered from a variety of setbacks. In the end, though, Cain and his team created one of the greatest PC games ever, an RPG classic whose sequels still rank among the most popular games of the current era.
Fallout’s unique setting is the product of diverse influences. Cain considered fantasy, time-travel (players would travel to a future “ruled by dinosaurs”) and alien invasion, before deciding on the game’s post-apocalyptic setting. This idea was informed by books like A Canticle for Leibowitz, , On the Beach, and movies such as Road Warrior, A Boy and His Dog, and The City of Lost Children.
The kitschy 50′s technology in Forbidden Planet inspired the game’s retro-futuristic aesthetic. Throughout the talk, Cain continually praised the efforts of his art team for coming up with some of Fallout’s most memorable features.
From a design standpoint, the game was conceived as a sequel to the influential 1988 RPG Wasteland, a plan that broke down when Cain was unable to secure the license. Nevertheless, Wasteland’s fungible morality and nonrestrictive game design still exerted an important influence on Fallout. Cain also admired XCOM‘s tactical, turn-based combat, and also wanted to emulate RPG’s like Crusader and the ever-popular Ultima series.
Pen & paper games also had an important role to play. Initially, Cain licensed the popular GURPS system. He was taken by the idea of class-less, skill-based characters. Other games such as WizWar and Gamma World also cast their die in the design process.
Despite the incredible results, Fallout’s design process seems incredibly disorganized. Cain never had a budget or development plan. “I wanted to make my own engine, and nobody said no. That was the way it worked at Interplay in the 90′s,” he explained. For the first six months, he worked alone, before being joined by a single artist and a single scripter. Eventually, as the game began to take shape, other Interplay employees became interested, helping with the game even though they weren’t part of the official team. Cain would simply buy a pizza and sit in a conference room — anyone who wanted to come by and help could do so. Eventually, he began to anger other producers, who thought Cain was poaching their staff.
By the second year, the team had expanded to 15 people. By the third, Cain had 30. Laughably small by today’s standards, the Fallout team ended up working 12-14 hours, seven days a week, in order to finish the game. At that point, at least, they could tell that what they were working on had potential to be great. Q & A testers, who were paid extra by Interplay to come in on weekends and work on assigned projects, opted instead to spend their weekends testing Fallout for free.
The money-men at Interplay were less enthusiastic. Cain’s earliest prototype was ugly, and he had trouble conveying the essential idea of Fallout. The dark humor was hard to explain, and the isolating gameplay sounded sad and morose. It wasn’t until a team member created this hilarious, hyperbolic design document that Interplay began to come around.
Even then, Cain’s employers were worried that Fallout would compete with their lucrative Dungeons & Dragons license. The game was constantly on the verge of being cancelled, for fear of lost sales on other, more established franchises. Eventually, Cain was forced to literally beg Interplay CEO Brian Fargo to let the game go ahead, against the wishes of the marketing staff. To his credit, Fargo assented.