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Why Fallout Online Failed - Great Failures in Gaming

VO: Ashley Bowman WRITTEN BY: Jarett Burke
Fallout 76 is not the first multiplayer Fallout game. Unfortunately it was never released, after it's publisher Interplay got into a legal battle with Bethesda, the new rights holders to future Fallout games. But what was Fallout Online? What was the game supposed to 'be' and how much did it's loss hurt the once great studio?
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Great Failures in Gaming: Fallout Online

When discussing failed attempts to transition a series from singleplayer to multiplayer, it’s pretty hard to ignore the debacle that grew out of the Fallout series’ first attempt to join the MMORPG universe back in the Late 2000s. From the day the idea was pitched, “Fallout Online” encountered pushback from within Interplay’s management and faced endless legal and financial issues on its way toward cancellation. Now, with the release of “Fallout 76” the franchise is finally entering the online multiplayer space, but let’s take a look at how “Fallout Online” tried and failed to do that almost 10 years earlier.

Now, if you’ve never even heard about “Fallout Online” before, don’t worry as the game had barely been introduced to the public before it’s cancellation, getting one thirty-second trailer back in 2010 that was devoid of any gameplay or anything highlighting just what the game would be. But, we do know that the game, whose working title came to be known as “Project V13” which stood for Vault 13, was set in the western region of the United States after a series of natural disasters and, of course, nuclear fallout; it featured characters from the first two entries in the series; it had puzzle elements integrated in its quests and storyline; and, it also had a small (very small) explorable space fully programmed by the time it was cancelled. Outside of that, however, it’s really up to our imagination to think what could have been.

The tale actually beings during the Late 90s when Interplay Entertainment was a much bigger company, enjoying the successes of the first two “Fallout” games and the “Baldur’s Gate” series. They were still no stranger to rough development cycles during this early time, however, as their 1997 release of “Descent to Undermountain” was marred by issues, cost the company a fortune, and resulted in one of the worst Dungeons and Dragons video games ever made. But, then again, at least “Descent to Undermountain” made it to store shelves, which is something that can’t be said for “Fallout Online.”

The idea to make a “Fallout” MMORPG had been floating around Interplay during the 90s, but was met with hesitation due to the production costs and manpower required to create a game on such a scale. However, the success of the first two “Fallout” games always kept the idea alive and on the backburner, with some in the company wanting Interplay’s own Black Isle Studios to develop the title. So, with the dream of one day making an MMORPG set in the “Fallout” universe, Interplay continued work mainly on single-player games until deep financial trouble led the group to be taken over by the French company Titus Software, which resulted in mass layoffs and Interplay briefly closing its doors in 2004. The company would reopen shortly after, however, and announce it would be focusing on MMO-style games, specifically a “Fallout” MMO.

Roughly three years later in 2007, due to continuing financial struggles, Interplay sold the “Fallout” franchise to Bethesda Softworks for 5.75 million dollars. As part of the agreement, however, Interplay was left with the rights to continue developing their “Fallout” MMO as long as they could raise enough money to finance the project and hit specific production deadlines to Bethesda’s satisfaction. And, in return for allowing Interplay to continue making the post-apocalyptic MMO, Bethesda would take 12% of sales and subscription fees. So, later that same year, Interplay announced it was officially working on an untitled MMO (which most people knew was “Fallout” related) and two years later in 2009 announced that Masthead Studios would be developing the project, now fully set in the “Fallout” world and with the working title “Project V13.”

Despite having to sell the “Fallout” franchise, Interplay looked poised to deliver the online version of the post-apocalyptic game they’ve dreamed about for many years. Unfortunately, Bethesda wrapped the game up in endless legal battles in what seemed like a 180-degree turn from their initial agreement. Their first attempt to revoke Interplay’s rights to “Fallout Online” hit courts in 2009. According to Bethesda, Interplay failed to meet its first deadline of starting full-scale production in April of that year. Interplay disputed this claim, provided evidence to the contrary, and the case was eventually thrown out of court. Later that year, however, Bethesda filed a copyright infringement suit alleging that Interplay had only licensed the “Fallout” name and none of the assets associated with the series. Again, Interplay won the injunction in court, but Bethesda refused to quit and sought an appeal while also targeting Masthead Studios with lawsuits as well. While Interplay battled Bethesda in court, they continued to create their labor of love project and in 2010 a short trailer was released amidst the chaotic legal troubles.

People working for Interplay at the time, however, had little hope of the project succeeding once the lawsuits began and claim that the financial targets and production deadlines set by Bethesda were not remotely attainable and that Interplay was set up to fail because Bethesda didn’t want anyone else to release a “Fallout” game but also didn’t want to pay the 50 million Interplay demanded for the rights to “Fallout Online.” Whether Bethesda employed such tactics or Interplay wasn’t able to hit their targets and deadlines, the fact remains it was a steep, uphill battle for Interplay to create such a huge MMORPG at a time when the company was struggling mightily; and, once the legal proceedings began, it only became that much harder. Further, when Bethesda hit critical acclaim with “Fallout 3” and “Fallout: New Vegas,” which were radically different from the original “Fallout” games, they upped their efforts to shut down Interplay’s vision for fear it could hurt their brand long term.

And, with far superior lawyers, Bethesda started to turn the courts in their favor, which left Interplay little option but to fold “Fallout Online” in 2011, selling the rights to Bethesda for 2 million dollars. Of course, Interplay could have released the MMORPG under a different name, but they feared that Bethesda would sue for any likeness to anything slightly “Fallout” related, and since they didn’t have the money to fight it in court, they declined. Interplay didn’t give up altogether, though, as they set up a Kickstarter campaign in an effort to turn “Fallout Online” into a single-player adventure; but, it largely went nowhere and accumulated very little money in the end, leaving the project all but abandoned and ending the hopes of another Interplay title seeing the light of day – which wrapped up a rather sad tale about a once prosperous video game company and their drive to create an ambitious MMO set in the “Fallout” universe.

With news of a “Fallout” MMO coming after the successes of the first two games in the franchise, Interplay looked poised for great things, but financial troubles, coupled with licensing issues with Bethesda, would erase any chance of “Fallout Online” seeing the light of day. Also, the failure to release the title all but ensured that Interplay itself would never return to its early glory days or, really, to any form of success, as the company eventually sold all its intellectual properties in 2016 and went silent.
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