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How Fallout's Developers Created the Game's S.P.E.C.I.A.L. Character System

by David Craddock on 10/08/18 04:08:00 pm   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

The following excerpt comes from Beneath a Starless Sky: Pillars of Eternity and the Infinity Engine Era of RPGs, a long-read feature written by David L. Craddock and published on Shacknews.com.

--

S.P.E.C.I.A.L. Relationships

As enthusiastic as Fallout's team was about their game, few among Interplay’s sales and marketing departments shared in their anticipation. There were too many other games for one to become a focal point. On top of that, post-apocalyptic settings were bizarre and unorthodox. Sword-and-sorcery was all the rage in roleplaying games. When Interplay secured the pinnacle of sword-and-sorcery licenses, developers of Fallout and other RPG projects found themselves fighting for scraps.

TIM CAIN

            We weren't attached to GURPS yet, although we were using it just as a template. [Interplay] picked up the Dungeons & Dragons license, and that was the first time Fallout almost got cancelled.

LEONARD BOYARSKY

            They didn't want to give us any more people to work on our game. They thought that [Dungeons & Dragons] was where the money was, so they wanted to switch everyone over to D&D projects. Once again, this is my interpretation of events. I thought it was when they got the Dungeons & Dragons license.

BRIAN FARGO

            D&D was kind of going out of favor. In fact, I think it was [TSR vice president] Lorraine Williams, they wanted to sell TSR to us. I wanted to buy it. I think Universal Studios had invested in the company at that point, and I told them, "We've got to do it." I think it would have been less than $20 million. I said, "Let's do it." They didn't want to, which was a huge shame.

TIM CAIN

            Fargo said, "Hey, we've got this Dungeons & Dragons license. I think I could use your people more effectively on Dungeons & Dragons games." Also, they were worried it would cannibalize sales if we had two RPGs out at the same time. I begged him not to. I told him how excited and committed everybody was, and it would be "out in a few months anyway."

           That was, like, a year and a half before it shipped. I tried to comment on how RPGs don't cannibalize [other RPGs] because they have such long tails. I actually got someone in sales to back me up on that, saying, "Yeah, you can have two RPGs on sale at the time, and they don't cannibalize like, for example, flight simulators." If there are two flight simulators, people will buy one and not the other. But if there are two RPGs, they'll buy one, and then a few weeks later they'll come back and buy the other. Once they finished the first RPG, they say, "I really feel like playing another RPG."

S.P.E.C.I.A.L. has endured in contemporary Fallout titles such as Fallout 4.
S.P.E.C.I.A.L. has endured in contemporary Fallout titles such as Fallout 4.

CHRIS TAYLOR

            There were a lot of off-the-cuff meetings, and I think that's credit to the small team that we had, and the fact that we weren't the primary focus at Interplay at that time, because they got the D&D license and were more interested in Dungeons & Dragons games. While they still supported us and obviously gave us paychecks, we weren't as monitored quite as closely as we had been before the D&D license came on. So, we had a lot of freedom and flexibility.

TIM CAIN

            Also, RPGs didn't feel like they were cutting edge. An RPG that had been out for three or four months didn't feel like it had lost any of its luster, where, if you were playing a shooter or a flight simulator—especially back then when technology was changing so dramatically—one that came out six months later would be dramatically improved from the one that came out earlier, and many players would say, "Eh, I don't want to play the [old] one. I want to play this new one."

BRIAN FARGO

            TSR was not going strong at the time. I'm sure there were other people interested in the license. We certainly weren't the only ones, but I wasn't up against Electronic Arts, or Activision, or any [other big studios]. In fact, I remember after I signed the D&D license, Bruno Bonnell of Infogrames, they were doing great with their Asterix, these licensed cartoon characters in France. Things were very licensed at the time, but more in the lines of mainstream, [cartoons]-on-Saturday-mornings type stuff. Bruno said, "You got the Dungeons & Dragons rights? Ugh. Nicheware for nerds. You'll just never learn."

           That's what he said. He poo-pooed all over the idea. There were people who thought it was too niche and stupid. I don't think I've ever done a product that other people thought was a good idea.

Fallout’s scrappy but committed team plugged along. When Tim Cain expressed need for more developers to speed things along, one of Brian Fargo's best producers rose to the occasion.

FEARGUS URQUHART

            I was a producer, and it wasn't until they put me in charge of the RPG division in '96—and Fallout was not immediately a part of that—that's around when Tim [Cain] and I talked, and they really needed support to staff their team up and really have the producer support to get that game done. That's how it became a part of [the RPG division] and how I got involved. I'm a big RPG nerd, and it looked so cool.

 

BRIAN FARGO

            I think you have to start somewhere in an organization, and you need to be noticed. I think it's a function of getting your foot in the door, and then being able to relate bugs and comments back on products.

           You're able to determine people's sensibilities based on what they report. If they're reporting really insightful things, then that's going to tell you how much they understand the creation process of what we're doing. Anybody who moved up from QA, including Feargus and several other people, showed an aptitude in their ability to have insight into the process of what made a game fun.

To this day, some of Fallout's developers remain convinced that Interplay's acquisition of the Dungeons & Dragons license threatened development of their game. Others are less certain.

FEARGUS URQUHART

            I think I was in more of the conversations with Brian, and I don't think so. I mean, if we'd gone six months and the game was in disarray, yes, probably. But Brian didn't just cancel games. There were games that needed to be cancelled, and they didn't, so I think we were far away from that.

BRIAN FARGO

            I remember when we got the Star Trek license, people said, "Why did you get that? It's old." If you think about it, the first [game] Interplay did was 25th Anniversary. The show wasn't even on the air anymore, yet the game was a big success.

FEARGUS URQUHART

            Now, that doesn't mean that Brian couldn't have said some stuff to people suggesting that it get done quickly, and that he didn't want to keep paying for a game that didn't have a license, and that there were people questioning that the game was worthwhile that it didn't have a license—he may have said that stuff to people. But just me knowing Brian and working closely with him, I knew we had quite a runway.

 

Leonard Boyarsky considered Fallout his baby. Tim Cain was responsible for writing code, but Boyarsky was at the forefront of defining its look and much of its feel. His interest extended to the game’s cinematic introduction, which he knew would be most players’ introduction to the world he and the team had created.

TIM CAIN

            We were making this game, we're all young guys, and we were going over the top with violence. I remember going to Austin to demo the game to Steve, and I remember showing him the flamethrower, which was one of the few area-of-effect weapons that had huge particle effects, and [anyone set on fire] walked around screaming. He laughed.

           I said, "Is that okay for the violence level?" He said, "Yeah! Do more." We were like, "Yeah!"

LEONARD BOYARSKY

            The first thing was, we knew we needed to make an intro. The second thing was, we need to convey as much about the world as we can, but we can't show people up close. We just didn't have the technology. I'm sure there were people who could make really good-looking, 3D models but we weren't those people. And we didn't have the time, also.

           So we said, "What can we do? Oh, we'll put them on a TV set that the camera's pulling back from, before you see any human beings on it." I felt like the intro was very successful at conveying the mood and tone we wanted to convey. Tim wrote the narration, the "War never changes" part, and Jason and I found a bunch of old pictures and put them together to work underneath that.

 

ROB NESLER

            There were talking heads that needed to be made, so I assisted in gathering the talent for and managing that process. I think they called me the 3D art director, in that I assembled a team of 3D artists to do facial modeling toward the eventual goal of facial animation. That involved some very clever modelers from the entertainment industry as well as the Natural History Museum who were used to modeling in clay.

           The overseer's head was our first, I think. I believe we sculpted that. There was a process for getting those heads made and then digitized. Then those would be given to the team.

TIM CAIN

            Fred Hatch, my assistant producer, was renting a room in my house, and he came home one night and said the next day he was going to meet Ron Perlman to record the opening of Fallout. I was eating dinner and watching Simpsons, and he said, "This is what I've got for Ron Perlman to read." I don't remember what it said, but I didn't like it. He said, "Yeah, I don't really like it either."

           So during the commercial interruption on Simpsons, I wrote the "War. War never changes." That whole opening paragraph: "War never changes, Hitler, China, superpowers... All that stuff, and uranium being used for war and fueling war." All of that was written during The Simpsons.

LEONARD BOYARSKY

            We started off with the Vault Boy, and we built it around the ads and some news reports. Jason and I came up with the idea for it in an afternoon. We decided, roughly, "Here's what the shots are going to be." It was really rough. For instance, when I went to do the scene that turned into the execution, it was just supposed to be something about a newsreel like, "Our boys are fighting for peace," or whatever, and you saw a firefight going on.

           I started working on it and decided it was going to be really difficult to show, to make it dramatic and to stage it. I thought about pushing it further, making it ridiculous and over the top. I don't know where the idea came from, but I do know that as soon as I had the idea about a guy being executed, I turned around to Jason and said, "I'm going to have him execute this guy in the middle of the street. What do you think?"

           He turned to me and said, "That's a great idea."

 

TIM CAIN

            Before Fred, my assistant producer, went to the VO session the next day, I said, "Just have Ron Perlman read both. Read what this guy wrote, and then read what this guy wrote so we can hear him say both, and we'll decide later which one we like best." To put the cherry on the sundae of that story, I was really nervous about what I was going to sound like, and Fred was supposed to leave at four o'clock from the VO studio and drive back down to Irvine; the studio was up in Hollywood.

           He calls me at 3:30 and says, "Hey, Ron Perlman had two tickets to a baseball game up at the LA stadium. Can I go to that? I'll just get this stuff to you tomorrow." I was like, "Yes, but did he say anything about the dialogue?" Fred said, "I can't really talk about it, I need to get to the stadium." This was pre-smartphone; he was calling us from the studio. We had to wait until the next morning to hear what the stuff sounded like.

LEONARD BOYARSKY

            While I was animating the execution, I decided I would make them turn to the camera and wave. I go, "Jason, how much will you give me if I make these guys wave at the camera?" He said, "If you do it, I'll give you twenty bucks."

           I don't think he ever paid up, but I might not be remembering this correctly. But we'd do things like that. We'd come up with these ridiculous ideas and kind of dare each other to do them. I said, "Tim's either going to freak out when he sees this, or think it's hilarious." We'd just do things and show them to people after they were done. We didn't get OKs for any of this stuff. We didn't run it by anybody. It was just us sitting in a room going, "This is what it's going to be." As we worked on it, it just became what it was.

CHRIS TAYLOR

            We had great voice actors. That's one area where we were really fortunate, people whom I had idolized while growing up. Going to those recording sessions and meeting Ron Perlman in real life? I mean... Being present for the birth of my kids is slightly more important than meeting Ron Perlman, but it's close.

LEONARD BOYARSKY

            I knew I wanted a haunting song for the intro. I didn't know where it came from. Years later I remember, Oh, that's the end of Dr. Strangelove where they're playing We'll Meet Again while bombs are dropping. That's what I was trying to evoke. We were trying to find a song but didn't have any ideas. Gary Platner, an artist, came in one day and said, "I just heard this song that we have to use." It was I Don't Want to Set The World On Fire, by the Ink Spots.

           We couldn't get the rights to that, so we ended up using another of their songs. Fortunately their songs all sound virtually identical. That's no exaggeration: If you listen to their songs, they all sound the same. We ended up with Maybe, which was a stroke of luck. We used it because it sounded like I Don't Want to Set The World On Fire, but it also had what I felt was a haunting sound.

           Years later I saw the trailer for Blade Runner, and they used I Don't Want to Set The World On Fire. I vaguely remember seeing that as a kid and thinking it was pretty cool. Maybe it was really cool because the lyrics of the song could be interpreted as the world is going to miss him when he's gone, so it's an ode to the world that's gone, but it turns out to be an ode from the player saying that to the people in the vault: "You're going to miss me when I'm gone."

           We hadn't worked out the ending at the point we chose that song. It just all fell into place.

 

TIM CAIN

            I have to admit, the opening turned out pretty well. It's probably the only time I wrote something that people liked. I tried writing for an RPG later, and it's... not well-liked for its writing.

Competing with Dungeons & Dragons was one obstacle on the road to Fallout's completion. Another arose from an unlikely source: A partner who was getting cold feet.

LEONARD BOYARSKY

            I did the intro with Jason [Anderson], Tramel Isaac, and Sharon Shellman. We'd done this intro that everybody loved. To me, it was this very successful thing. It's still one of the things I'm most proud of that I've ever done. Steve Jackson came down to look at the game, and he did not like the intro. He did not like the '50s [theme]. He really objected to the guy getting executed in the intro. He said everything was too violent.

           We said, "We showed you how we can set people on fire. We don't understand."

TIM CAIN

            He never had any trouble with [violence] until he saw the opening movie. Once he saw the opening movie, which shows a guy with his hands tied behind his back and someone in power armor shoots him, he didn't like that. He didn't like that at all.

            Along with not liking that, a host of other things he didn't like came up.

BRIAN FARGO

            I was the one who dealt with Steve Jackson at the time. He had an issue with the violence in the opening movie, and I said, "Well, gosh, you ain't seen nothin' yet."

CHRIS TAYLOR

           We were going to compromise. We were going to keep it, but during installation, we would let players decide if they wanted violence or not. Based on that toggle, we would show one of two intros: One with the execution scene, one with it censored. At least, that was our proposal.

 

LEONARD BOYARSKY

            The two things he hated were the intro with its '50s vibe, and the Vault Boy, which everybody seemed to really like. Those seemed to be the things people were really keen on, so we were really confused. Push came to shove, and he said, "GURPS is my product. I'm not going to let [Fallout ship like this]. Changes have to be made."

CHRIS TAYLOR

            We had been showing the game to Steve Jackson. We had brought him out to meet the team. We took him out to a nice restaurant at Disneyland. We played games with him. As far as I knew, we had a good relationship. So, it was really a bummer when Tim Cain called me into his office, and he had a letter from Steve Jackson Games.

            It was twenty-four items long, something like that. Twenty-two items. All these changes they wanted to see. All of them except for two of them, the entire team was behind: "Oh, sure, we'll change that, and that, and that, no problem." But two of them were, like, "Well, we're not sure about this." One was the intro scene.

            The other item was, you know in Fallout, there's a card for all the stats and skills? Well... I'm trying to describe this nicely because to this day I'm still blown away by it.

TIM CAIN

            He had never said a word about it, but all the sudden he didn't like any of the skill cards with the Vault Boy on them. That's now an iconic, beloved cartoon character. He didn't like those; he wanted them removed. We had already done hundreds of them. They were on every skill card. A skill, trade, attribute—anything in the game we'd made a card for, had a matching [Vault Boy] cartoon. We'd put a lot of work into it.

            Also, it was not polarizing. We had shown it to people. We had our own QA group, but there were probably thirty or forty other QA people [at Interplay], and we exposed them to it. We said, "Hey, what do you guys think of this?" We asked them to look at the whole game and tell us what they liked and didn't like. That character of the Vault Boy was universally liked. I didn't know what to do.

CHRIS TAYLOR

            We had the character illustrated there, and Vault Boy was kind of our take on the Monopoly character, and he was universally loved on the team. We had an artist, Tramel Ray [Isaac]. We sat down and gave him descriptions of all these cards, and then he ran off and made these illustrations, which we all loved. We thought it was a great bit of character to the game and added a lot to it. But for whatever reason, Steve Jackson did not like that art. He did not like that character.

            We were like, "Well, it doesn't have anything to do with GURPS. It's really about the setting and helping to sell the setting." So, we pushed back. The next thing I know—and this is from my perspective; I wasn't [in the meeting]—but when we pushed back a little bit, he said, "Well, then you're not going to ship the game. I'm referring to our contract, and we're not going to give you permission to ship the game."

 

TIM CAIN

            I was talking to Steve a lot, just over email, about, "Hey, we really want to keep this. We'll talk about what we can do for the [intro] movie, but we really want to keep Vault Boy." I forget what happened, but, basically, back and forth in the exchange, Steve said something about his legal rights and him having to talk to his lawyer.

           As soon as he did that, I was told that was my trigger word: Once he did that, it was out of my hands. I had to escalate it above me. I did.

CHRIS TAYLOR

            It just kind of spun out of control. From my perspective, one day we're all talking about Vault Boy and how much we love it, and we wanted to let Steve Jackson know, "Hey, we'll fix all this other stuff, but we want to keep Vault Boy." And the next day, the license is being pulled. I mean, it was like overnight.

            One day, we got pulled in and told, "We're not GURPS anymore." What? No. This is terrible. This is horrible."

LEONARD BOYARSKY

            There were a few places along the way where we almost got cancelled, and that was one of them. A lot of companies would have been, "Well, this is a partner we're working with. Make the changes."

           But Brian liked what we were doing, too, so he stood up for us. He said, "No, we're not making those changes. We're going to remove GURPS."

TIM CAIN

            It went up to Feargus, and then up to Fargo. The next thing I know, they're asking me how hard it would be to remove GURPS from the game.

BRIAN FARGO

            I told Steve that we're going to have to sever the contract, because he wasn't going to like the product. I was part of that decision to remove the GURPS system. All those guys are super bright. I knew they'd come up with something good. But the most important thing was to keep the integrity for what they were building. They had a wonderful vision and execution for Fallout, and I didn't want to see it compromised.

TIM CAIN

            Since GURPS was the first thing I'd written, it was contained in separate modules that could be plugged into the game. The way the game worked was, you could point your gun at somebody, and it would go, "Hey, this guy holding this gun, at this rotation, from this far away from that character, with these values—what's the percentage chance to hit him?" And it would go off into a little module that returned the answer.

           I said, "It's pretty easy. It [GURPS] already is disconnected. I just have to invent something new and connect." They said, "What if Chris Taylor invented the new thing, and you coded it?" I was like, "That would take a few weeks." The next thing I know, we weren't using GURPS anymore.

 

BRIAN FARGO

           Sometimes when you do licensed products, whether it's Lord of the Rings, or Star Wars, or whatever, and I've done a lot of them, oftentimes the licensor is great. But sometimes, they're not so great, and they try to make you do stuff that you know gamers will absolutely hate. In the same way, we knew what our audience wanted. We knew what we wanted. We didn't want a licensor dictating the sensibility of Fallout.

FEARGUS URQUHART

           I hadn't played GURPS at that point, and I thought that was a cool aspect of it, but I think Fallout is what it is because we had to walk away from the GURPS license. It was obvious it had something special... Oh, of course. "S.P.E.C.I.A.L."

LEONARD BOYARSKY

            I'm pretty sure [production assistant] Jason Suinn came up with the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. acronym. The one I saw immediately was ACELIPS.

The flexibility of Tim Cain’s engine made its modules easy to replace. The trouble, Cain knew, was finding an equally pliable set of game rules with which to replace GURPS. One of his designers just happened to have some lying around.

TIM CAIN

            Now, my understanding was we were going to make a GURPS game later, but that just never happened. We started the contract for making a GURPS game at Interplay, but what I was told was Fallout was no longer going to be a GURPS game. We weren't contractually to make Fallout a GURPS game; we were just contractually obligated to make a GURPS game. So, I was told, "Rip everything GURPS out and replace it."

CHRIS TAYLOR

            We had a meeting about what we wanted to do. Now, all game designers fall out of love with D&D at one point or another, and they make their own roleplaying game. I had done this in middle school. I had made an RPG on paper called Medieval—which is a terrible name, and I'm embarrassed to say it out loud after all these years—and it had all the stats that are in S.P.E.C.I.A.L., even though we weren't calling it S.P.E.C.I.A.L. at the time; it had all of S.P.E.C.I.A.L.'s core mechanics; it had a lot of those elements.

           It wasn't complete. It wasn't an exact copy. But all the stats were there, and how it fundamentally worked was pretty solid. I had run games with this. I was very used to it. It was my system, so I had an answer for any question about it.

TIM CAIN

            Chris Taylor, in just a few days, made what's now the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system. But he didn't have Luck. I wanted Luck in there. And he didn't have Perks. Brian Fargo said, "There's not enough stuff for me to buy when I go up a level." Chris said, "I could put something like perks in," so we threw that stuff in along with the traits, because I wanted something that had negative [characteristics] in addition to positive.

CHRIS TAYLOR

            I told Tim, "I could port this over." It took about two weeks, I think, of design work to go from my old home-brew system to what would become S.P.E.C.I.A.L.. I wrote up a document and took the system into Tim. Within ten or fifteen seconds, he goes, "Oh. S.P.E.C.I.A.L.."

           He had noticed the first letters of the stats, anagrammed them and reordered them, and called it S.P.E.C.I.A.L.. The name stuck right then and there. We tuned it, and tweaked it, and within a few weeks, he had the system up and running. Within a few weeks, the game was no longer GURPS. It was Fallout. I never would have caught that, not within a million years, and Tim Cain saw it within seconds.

Like Fallout’s intro, camera angle, and gritty setting, the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system flowed naturally from Fallout’s design, almost as if it had been there since the beginning.

 

LEONARD BOYARSKY

            I use this term I learned in school: found objects. There's a lot of 3D pop art, or post-modern sculpture, that uses found objects. I thought a lot of that was just silliness posed as art, but I liked the idea of found things informing your art. That was my mantra on Fallout: Everything should look like it's a part of the game [world]. The interface should look like it's an object you would find in the game. Even the manual looked like propaganda; maps looked like they were found inside the game world. The manual was a vault dweller's survival guide.

CHRIS TAYLOR

            I get a smile on my face just thinking about it, because now it's integral to the system and to the franchise. The first time I played Bethesda's Fallout 3 and they brought up the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system screen, I got all giggle-y, just because it was so cool to see it again.

TIM CAIN

            What's interesting is I bet you Fallout is the only RPG where the underlying system was made after the majority of the content. The reason it feels like it ties in so well [thematically] is, we literally looked at all our content and said, "What kind of queries do we need to make [in code] to make all this stuff work?"

           We had things like, we some kind of agility and dexterity stat; we need to know if you're doing bonus damage; we need some kind of strength. So it kind of informed the system. It was interesting how that worked. I would never, ever want to make an RPG like that again, though.

LEONARD BOYARSKY

            For me, I wasn't thinking much about story. I think it was in the back of my mind, but it was more about setting. It was more that everywhere you turned, I wanted to reinforce the feeling of this nostalgic, 1950s future.

TIM CAIN

           It went through the same module interface, but it wasn't GURPS anymore. It took about two weeks, maybe three, and we had it all back up and running. Six months later, Fallout shipped.


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