The following is an editorial by DAC's Cimmerian Nights. The permanent link for this editorial in our Content System can be found here.
VATS : How Bethesda Set their Sights on the Lowest Common Denominator and Hit a Bullseye
By Cimmerian Nights
When word came out that Bethesda had purchased the rights to Fallout in 2004, the news was received with mixed feedback. Initial responses ran the gamut, but beyond the acquisition of Fallout, little else was known at the time. Speculation ran that it was likely, given Bethesda’s recent track record that the Fallout series would be entering new territory – most significantly from the standpoint of game design philosophy, and in turn how that philosophy would manifest itself in game mechanics, an early established and defining strong point of Fallout’s gameplay that distinguished it as a cRPG heavyweight.
We're treating it as if we made the first two. Pete Hines, Bethesda 
Despite assurances that Bethesda would stay true to the spirit of Fallout many skeptics had their doubts in light of the marked game design tack that Bethesda had taken with it’s venerable RPG franchise in The Elder Scrolls following the meteoric rise of Todd Howard. Although the series had achieved critical and commercial success with sequels Morrowind and Oblivion, many felt that this was achieved at the expense of the beloved series’ RPG roots, that the game had become too “dumbed down” (nee streamlined per Bethesda PR). That common sense RPG conventions were expediently tossed aside in order to achieve a broader market appeal, especially considering that the series was now being offered on consoles as well.
Bethesda proponents might counter that the streamlining resulted in a more “visceral” or “immersive” experience. These marketing buzz words and “innovation” would be the aegis to justify any and all changes as the TES and Fallout series went from solidly designed RPG series, to games relying more on graphics and trendy, easy to understand game concepts that were meant to resonate with the broader console market.
When one saw the increasing “streamlining” under the helm of Todd Howard, coupled with an approach that showed little fidelity to RPG roots, into a more console friendly shooter style game. The message was becoming clear, the appeal would be to the gut, not the mind. Rather than appealing to the RPG crowd with a fundamentally sound RPG, they would go for a more corporate, trendy, “McRPG” style of game that would put training wheels on it’s RPGs so as not to alienate the lowest common denominator. A profitable approach I’m sure, but not the most conducive to RPG fundamentals or fidelity to Fallout and it’s RPG system, which was Fallout’s entire rasion d’etre.
As the veil slowly lifted on Fallout 3, we began to see this more Oblivion-like approach (same design team, same engine) with some familiar Oblivion concepts new to Fallout (FP perspective, mini-games, scaled down threats, large but shallow world, same reliance on marketing, gimmicks and superficial graphics or big name Hollywood voice actors, r) added in as well, mostly at the expense of Fallout’s defining and integral RPG foundation.
Fallout’s RPG Roots and their Effect on Combat
Paper and pencil role-playing games were the single biggest influence [of Fallout]. We had a goal of trying to recreate the tabletop gaming experience as best as possible. For the most part, I think we succeeded.
Chris Taylor, Lead Designer on Fallout 1 
One of the defining features of a PnP RPG is character skill over player skill. Meaning, the character should succeed or fail based on their stats – and the strengths and weaknesses, not the personal skills (or weaknesses) of the player himself. This is antithetical to a FPS style of gameplay where the player’s reflexes dictate success or failure (attempts to merge the two have been iffy as FPS always rely on some degree of targeting skill by the player, thus negating dependence on the character’s limitations).
To illustrate the point, Mike Tyson (despite his intellectual shortcomings) should be able to play a character with the mental faculties of a Stephen Hawking, and succeed or fail based on those faculties, and not be limited by his own. Hawkins in turn should be able (despite his physical issues) to role-play a character with the physical attributes and combat prowess of a Mike Tyson, and not be limited by his own lack of strength or reflexes. This is one of the basic fundamentals of a sound RPG. If your character’s success or failure rests on your personal abilities, then what’s the point of stats and how does this engender role-playing?
This concept was clearly not a priority for Bethesda, in their quest to court the broader console market, they felt a mostly FPS style would appeal more, and confuse less, regardless of the break this would take from TES’ and Fallout’s RPG pedigree. Oblivion itself was oft criticized as being a LARP simulator – that the player was required to imagine different things in order to enhance their playing experience due to inadequacies of the game’s shallow mechanics. This differed markedly from standard role playing games in that most RPGs support the roleplay with in game mechanics and rules. Since Oblivion was mostly an action game, there were no in-game mechanics to satisfy roleplayers.
You can approach Fallout 3 as a completely straight-up, first-person shooter with RPG elements, if you want. Gavin Carter, Lead Producer on Fallout 3 
While Fallout 1 & 2’s combat was not the deepest form of TB combat, it was solidly designed and grounded in RPG fundamentals. The pen and paper roots were clearly there and even a novice player would find himself cogitating concepts like action points, the effects of stats on skills and actions, ST requirements for weapons, damage resistance, AP cost (concepts that were extricated completely from Fallout 3 or neutered). These concepts were explicitly explained through formulas, like the ones P&P gamers were familiar with using already. The game system was transparent to the point that it could (and later would be) able to be played in a Pen and Paper environment. Although lacking in the complexity of TB combat high-water marks like JA2, Fallout’s combat system certainly achieved the goal of emulating PnP gameplay, right down to the familiar DM like feedback replete with colorful descriptions – another defining and beloved feature of Fallout’s that would meet the chopping block.
We knew what S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stood for. We could see what effect it had on derived stats and skills. We could see clearly how these skills translated into success or failure of the player character’s actions. Through this framework one could analyze and strategize their course through the Wasteland with the certainty that these rules afforded. This was a tight, solid RPG system (if somewhat shallow combat-wise) with a strong foundation in Pen and Paper concepts and the interplay of these stats was transparent.
NMA: In 2004, Tim Cain stated in a PC Zone interview that Fallout's combat was meant to show "how popular and fun turn-based combat could be, when everyone else was going with real-time or pause-based combat.", so why did Bethesda go against that?
Pete Hines: We're making the sequel as we think it would be best in the modern age and how it would work best today. This means taking full advantage of all modern technology and first person to facilitate immersion. There is no reason today not to do so. We also didn't want to make our 'own' series because we want to make a true sequel to the first two Fallouts. 
Fallout 3’s mechanics were very nebulous. The game felt and played like a clunky FPS and the inner workings of S.P.E.C.I.A.L. (if they were there at all) were obfuscated. We were told that “dice rolls” factored in some how, but it was never disclosed how, or to what degree. But, solid RPG fundamentals were never the goal, the goal was an immersive experience based on the trends of the day (FP perspective, mini-games, reliance on shiny graphics). Not the approach that Fallout took in it’s back-to-basic approach to RPG fundamentals (remarkably so given the context of Fallout 1’s release – a time when the RPG industry was in a serious slump and many series were dying off).
Where Fallout had a solid RPG foundation, Fallout 3 came off looking like Oblivion was used as it basis, and some token Fallout iconography tacked on, sometimes in a rather feeble, and ham-fisted manner, mere foot notes referencing to the creativity of Black Isle's Fallout series. Some residual RPG mechanics from some bygone game were jettisoned as a casualty in pursuit of broader market appeal. Fallout was being sold out again.
It’s a glorified aimed-shot mode... Todd Howard, Executive Producer for Bethesda Game Studios on VATS 
Nowhere was the difference in philosophy Bethesda brought to Fallout more remarkable than with their highly touted and marketed gimmick VATS. VATS was billed as an innovative approach to combat, but its main appeal lay not in tactics at all, or RPG mechanics, but in the slow-motion ‘money shot’ of gore it rewarded the player with. The basis for which Todd Howard claims he was inspired not by any Fallout game or RPG, but the slo-mo mayhem seen in Burnout – a car racing/crashing game. In Howard’s own words VATS was akin to “crash mode from Burnout ... with body parts.”  Not exactly a design philosophy conducive to solid role-playing, nor in keeping with series' spirit as the company line continually touted.
VATS ostensibly was to be the compromise that would appease the old Fallout fans: a TB-like alternative to the previous game’s combat, complete with a similar aimed shot mode and even employing the same familiar sound effects. Behind these superficial elements, the execution had little if anything at all to do with Fallout combat from a mechanical standpoint..
To start, it was not turnbased at all. It was a pause followed by a shot(s). There were no turns. The action would pause, shots (no other actions whatsoever) could be queued up, and the resultant shots would be summarily carried out, while your character stood statue still. In contrast, Fallout’s combat system allowed for a full range of action beyond that of merely shooting. On a given turn a player could do anything they could normally do – full range of movement, heal, reload, equip items, sneak, emerge or hide behind cover, use skills. In short, Fallout’s combat presented the player with nigh-infinite tactical permutations of movement, combat, skill use, etc. VATS on the other hand was a completely passive exercise as you watched totally detached as your character carried out shots. The options presented while in VATS (who/where to shoot) were miniscule in comparison to the robust tactical options of Fallout (which again, was on the shallow end of the TB combat pool in comparison to game like Jagged Alliance 2). VATS lacked movement, the most basic component of tactical gameplay!
Queuing shots itself was not really any kind of advantage, In Fallout you could strategize on the fly – so you had a critical failure on your first move, time to reevaluate the rest of the round. In VATS you passively watch as the action takes place without the ability to intervene – miss that first VATS shot and want to revisit the queued actions – too bad, you’re a passive observer as the actions are carried out.
My idea is to explore more of the world and more of the ethics of a postnuclear world, not to make a better plasma gun. Tim Cain, Fallout 1 Producer and Lead Programmer 
Violence is funny! Lets all just own up to it! Violence done well is fucking hilarious. It’s like Itchy and Scratchy or Jackass –now that’s funny! Todd Howard 
The main draw of VATS seemed to lie in it’s near pornographic depictions of violence and gore (certainly not an unknown concept to Fallout, but never before spoon-fed in such an explicit, detailed manner, nor relied upon as combat’s main draw). The high point of VATS was not strategy, nor the choice and consequences of the character’s actions, but the visceral, oft-times, funny violence that played out – heads exploded and severed body parts took flight. All the while the player could watch, although passively, like an uninvolved bystander. The humor and shock tended to wear off, while weak physics and awkward graphics often ruined the desired effect. VATS was a one trick pony and it lacked sustain even in that arena. Once the appeal of the shiny representations of gore had lost their luster, the gimmick was laid bare.
VATS was a miserable failure when it came to thrown weapons and melee combat. The melee road was always a favored one in Fallout as one could eventually develop a character capable of disarming his foe, knocking them out with headshots, blinding them, or laying him low with a well-placed shot to the groin. While shooting firearms in VATS allowed for these aiming options, this would be inexplicably not the case for melee. Clearly neglected, underdeveloped and underappreciated, melee combat in VATS is half-baked at best. An afterthought which results in another door closed on the role-playing opporunities in Fallout 3.
Add to that, that what little integrity VATS did have was completely compromised during development due to some unforeseen annoyances:
Consider this scenario: You are surrounded by three Super Mutants, you queue up your shots and let fly – woohoo! Blood shall flow! Unbeknownst to you, fourth SM is behind you in melee range (hard to tell without that ISO perspective). Trouble is, you character is standing statue still while this fourth SM takes the opportunity to club you over the head. Oblivious to the assault, your character blithely carries out his ordered shots whilst being pummeled. Now, I’d say that’s dealing with the consequences of your poor strategy, did you really think you could stand still and fire off numerous shots without and retaliation? And why rob the player of the joy of getting his ass-kicked once in a while – another cornerstone of a good RPG. Not scaling or dumbing things down for those of use lacking in sound tactics. Taking away the challenge makes the game an exercise in 'going through the motions'.
Bethesda’s solution, was to nerf the damage received from adjacent enemies while carrying out VATS shots. You get an unexplained immunity – I'm unsure of how this magical immunity contributes to immersion. The ultimate result of these modifications basically encourages and rewards poor strategy. The presence of VATS itself reinforces this as only the player can take advantage of it, - it’s a built in cheat mode! Contrast this to Fallout’s solid RPG system where the same rules of combat apply to all.
The training wheels were once again brought out at the expense of RPG integrity by Bethesda in the pursuit of the lowest common denominator.
NMA forum poster Uncanny Garlic summed things up excellently:
“They didn't want to change VATS so they adjusted the world to work with VATS in VATS but not outside of VATS. It shows that the system is fundamentally broken and if the only fix you can think of is making enemies weaker when in VATS than they are normally, you need to reexamine VATS. Sometimes cool ideas can't be done because it's creator(s) can't figure out how to make it work right, this is one of those cases...There is nothing wrong with requiring the player to be mindful of their surroundings before shooting in a mode which not only allows them to make targeted shots but allows them to better observe their surroundings (particularly enemies in their surroundings). What you're doing is promoting sloppy play instead of making the player think and look around before taking action.”
In light of this, it’s hard to think of VATS as little more than an ill-conceived, gimmick based on compromise, not any overriding design philosophy at all, certainly not any grounded in the role-playing. Given the fact that it had to be nerfed once it was discovered how annoying some aspects could be clearly shows that they made VATS up as they went along, flying blind. What kind of tactics was this system meant to engender? There is no answer, the system was based on the shallow appeal that slow motion violence could offer and unforseen aggravations that arose from poor strategy would be swept aside so as not to offend the sensibilities of the broader market Bethesda had targeted.
As long as heads were asplodin’ nothing was broken.
After the Dust Had Settled
Once again, Fallout 3 received ebullient praise from the gaming press and succeeded commercially. But one must consider that this was achieved at the expense of the game’s RPG pedigree. That the game sold well is more a testament to how broadening the market beyond the RPG niche can be profitable, not that they built a better RPG. Most of the new Fallout fans were likely too young to remember the series’ RPG pedigree, likely more familiar with straight FPS, a shooter with some token RPG elements probably would seem to be the pinnacle of the genre.
Bethesda had “innovated” the series by changing the features and core aspects of the game for marketing and foolish developer decisions.
Ironically Fallout’s initial appeal and success was based on a back-to-basics approach to old-school RPG fundamentals at a time when other franchises were bowing and bending to the trends du jour, in mostly futile attempts to stay relevant.
Fallout was a breath of fresh air from the old school that didn’t have any trendy gimmicks in it. It is part of RPG history, from tabletop days, and being from P&P roots down to every possible element (after all "A Post-Apocalyptic Role-Playing Game" was in the title). Evidently, was lost on Bethesda.
The Legacy and Future of VATS
While from a role-playing standpoint VATS must be looked at as a failure to capitalize on basic RPG concepts, it certainly doesn’t spell the end for it. It’s showcasing of over-the-top violence and gore certainly holds the attention of the wider market that Bethesda intended to reach. It should be interesting to see what modifications if any Obsidian can incorporate with their upcoming spin-off based on the same engine. Ultimately, it is Bethesda and it design philosophy (mass market appeal at the expense of RPG foundation) that will dictate the inclusion of this gimmick in future titles, or it’s relegation to the scrap heap with other “innovative” cul-de-sacs.
Whether they see VATS as a success or not will be evident when future iterations of the series are released. But given the intent the original developers of Fallout had, and the RPG elements they employed to acheive that, and the foundation they built the series upon, VATS must be viewed as a the ill-conceived, gimmicky compromise it is.
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