GDC 2012: Tim Cain Tells the Story of Fallout


Fargo’s steadying influence also resulted in two key design decisions. One, the perk system, which made leveling up more than just a stat increase, was implemented by developer Chris Taylor in less than a day. Fargo also came up with the title; originally called “Vault 13,” the name was changed to “Fallout” four months before the game shipped.

Seemingly every last-minute design decision resulted in serendipitous genius. After two years of development, GURPS suddenly pulled their license, citing objections to the team’s planned art style and the game’s profusion of ultra-violence. Cain and his team were forced to create the now-legendary SPECIAL system from scratch, re-coding combat and character creation in just two weeks. The designer was originally intending to call it “ACELIPS,” until a colleague suggested a better acronym.

The follower system was another spur of the moment idea, and was added towards the end of the design process through scripting — there wasn’t any time to retrofit the code. Ian and Dogmeat were added first, and the other companions followed. Though it would eventually prove to be a major source of bugs, testers (and eventually players) loved it. Other features that seemed risky during development were eventually vindicated when the game came out. Cain was adamant about the eerie, ambient music, which underscored the post-nuclear setting. The designer wanted something you heard, not something you listened to.


Fallout’s perspective is often referred to as isometric although, as Cain explained with a chuckle, it’s actually called “cavalier oblique.” The angles involved in oblique perspective made it easy for the designers to divide the gameworld into hexes, and facilitated calculations based on mouse clicks into hex space. It’s one drawback was that it made vertical movement of characters on screen look extremely awkward, resulting in a lot of zig-zag running. The Fallout team tried to fix this problem, but eventually gave up.

Other challenges simply required persistence. The game’s 3D-animated talking heads were each sculpted in clay and then painstakingly scanned with a point-by-point 3D scanner, at a cost of four man-months per head. Talking heads were therefore limited to important characters like Gizmo, Junktown’s obese plutocrat. Many fans have assumed that Gizmo is named after the character from Gremlins, but he in fact bears the name of a pet skunk that Cain owned as a child. The designer was adamant that cultural references be subtle, so as not to date the game.

Cain did admit to one regret: the water chip timer, which he felt caused players to rush too quickly through the game’s early stages. In contrast, he defended the decision to include child-killing, which he considers an important part of Fallout’s ambiguous morality and powerful choice-and-consequence system. This feature eventually had to removed to placate European censors.

The game was initially pitched to the U.S. ratings board as a “Teen” game, a ludicrous proposition due to its profusion of sex, drugs, and brutal violence. Undeterred by an “M” rating, however, the game sold well, and role-playing games were forever transformed.

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2 Comments on GDC 2012: Tim Cain Tells the Story of Fallout


On March 10, 2012 at 11:17 pm

Awesome article!

I never knew about the history behind Fallout.


On March 11, 2012 at 4:39 pm

i loved that game