Fallout 76 still has a fan base that’s committed to the core

Fallout 76 had a rough launch that managed to get worse. From merchandise surrounding the game, to dupes within the game, Bethesda Game Studios couldn’t catch a break when it came to the development of its first major online game. As time goes on, other games have taken the spotlight, like the similarly troubled Anthem, and Fallout 76 has more room to breathe.

There’s hope for the online game and its future, according to many community members and players. Bethesda’s continued development on Fallout 76 has been more akin to a rider desperately trying to stay on the back of a bucking bull than a graceful marathon through a predetermined roadmap. Regardless, that roadmap has been laid out, and more quest and group content is set to arrive through spring and summer.

Fallout 76’s player base has remained committed throughout, and even though the game isn’t out of the fire yet, they’re still logging on and making their own fun in Appalachia. What draws them to West Virginia?

Take me home …

The internet’s knee-jerk reaction to Fallout 76 is that it’s a dead game. The dust has settled, the game failed, and that’s it. That’s an overreaction, yes, but it’s a common one. The cycle of discourse elevates a game into the spotlight until it’s time for the next big release; the ongoing coverage of Fallout 76 has largely focused on its launch, and each follow-up failure in fixing the title from Bethesda.

Taking part in that dialogue is safe; it’s a stance that allows someone to watch from afar with no skin in the game. To love Fallout 76 is far riskier, thanks to its position in the internet zeitgeist.

“I think the controversies about this game are interesting, because I can recognize and acknowledge all the flaws in this game, yet none of them have impacted my enjoyment enough for me to want to stop playing,” says a fan named Matthew. “My friends are often curious about how I am getting so much enjoyment from a game that is widely regarded as a failure.”

There is no real “endgame” — the game still has technical limitations and issues, and content is being drip-fed into the game at a slower rate than its peers in the games-as-a-service field. This has pulled players away en masse but, in some ways, that’s a benefit to Fallout 76. The people hoping for a full-fledged Fallout MMO, a Fallout they could play forever, have moved on. Those who remain have bought into the fantasy that the existing Fallout 76 offers.

Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks via Jacobjtl

They set up flea markets and pit fights. They congregate in Discords and set up Enclave-themed role-playing spaces, or organize Brotherhood of Steel patrols across West Virginia. They set up shops and try to beckon passersby to come examine their wares, while other players take on the role of bandits and prepare to attack those shops.


This Fallout 76 player has declared himself an endgame boss

Jacobjtl, a community organizer behind the pit fights, is one of the players who has stuck around for these odd gems. “I really enjoyed the Fasnacht event where everyone on a server joined together. When the event ended, I wanted to find a way to replicate that environment — everyone on a server coming to one spot on the map and participating in something.”

He and his buddies had started a tradition of fighting to the death over contested items. From there, Jacobjtl and his friends had the idea to expand that into an arena, with a controlled and lore-heavy PvP environment. Fifteen people gathered in his CAMP (Construction and Assembly Mobile Platform) wearing power armor or preparing for bare knuckle brawls.

For many of these players, whether Fallout 76 is good is immaterial. For them, it’s fun.

A vision of apocalypse

Kayla has been a fan of the Fallout franchise since Fallout 3 in 2008, and the story and dialogue was what hooked her. “At the time of Fallout 3 release I had never really played a game that let you focus on Charisma and conversations in place of just shooting all the time and I really got a kick of seeing how much I could talk my way out of thing instead of just shooting.”

That vision of the Fallout franchise was enough to keep her playing all the way up to Fallout 76. Even though Fallout 76 lacks the ability to talk to NPCs, she still found herself engrossed in the game. Kayla has been on the ground for every major controversy; she was “a little let down” over the Collector’s Edition bag snafu, and her bag didn’t have a working zipper. “Fallout and Pokemon are two of my favorite franchises of all time, so I look past so many problems and still put in a lot of time.”

The Fallout 76 Power Helmet shown at Bethesda’s E3 2018 booth.
Ross Miller/Polygon

There are no NPCs in Fallout 76, but that’s a role the players end up serving. “One of my friends I play with all the time now, and talk to outside the game, I met her in game,” says Kayla. The two bonded over being ladies in the wasteland and set out to adventure.

Tiffany, another fan of Fallout 76, also came to the franchise via Fallout 3 and its follow-up titles. When Fallout 4 was released, she and her best friend worked hard on their settlements, and would drive to the other’s house to examine the work the other had done. They yearned to explore the Wasteland together, side by side. For players like Kayla and Tiffany, the idea of exploring a modern Fallout game with a friend is enough of a sell to keep them interested in Fallout 76, regardless of the controversies.

Mike, who was 15 when Fallout 3 came out in 2008, says that the game — as well as Fallout: New Vegas and Fallout 4 — became a media touchstone for him and his developing tastes. Today, he has a Brotherhood of Steel tattoo and an in-progress NCR veteran ranger cosplay in his closet. “My wife always tolerated my Fallout obsession, but Fallout 76 is the first game she actually liked herself. I go out and scavenge us springs and plans, and come home to her CAMP where she’s building herself a dream home. It’s amazing to share what I love with her.”

Bethesda Softworks

Ever upward

Bethesda Game Studios has been working against a unique set of challenges. Duping ran rampant in Fallout 76, with burner characters running around outside Vault 76 with their pockets laden with weapons capable of one-shotting even characters who had never opted into PVP. Bethesda fell behind duping until they finally weeded out each duping method, and then purged all suspicious items, leaving everyone with just one copy. It worked, and shut down the external black market that had festered to sell the game’s most powerful items en masse. A new game mode, Survival, further trimmed down the griefing and conflict between play styles that players experienced.

When it comes to ‘content’ — bosses, character models, scripted encounters — Fallout 76 hasn’t changed much at all. There have been new quests, additions, and things to do around CAMP … but no dramatic No Man’s Sky-style overhauls.

Instead, the game has calcified around less tangible experiences, like sitting down for tea at a random person’s CAMP, or fighting a stranger in a Cult of the Mothman pit. Fallout 76 has remained weird and experimental, even if those gambles don’t always work. These fans hope that future additions to the game shore up those strengths, like NPCs to kickstart new roleplay or quest opportunities, or the ability to mark your CAMP on the map as a place of interest.

Even in the face of the duping issue, these players have buckled down. Many of them took a ‘vigilante’ approach to dupers, taking the role of bounty hunters in a lawless land as opposed to quitting and walking away entirely. The game is still rocked by the occasional mini-controversy, including a fracas over Atomic Store repair kits, but there’s no longer the constant uproar and anger. The outrage has moved on, leaving the fans of the game to rebuild.

In a game that is considered done and dusted by many, a base of players have found a world they love. It’s an experience they cherish, even though they worry that the critical reception might lead to the game’s early demise. “I got my wife into a game I love, and I can’t talk about it without people shitting on it and quoting YouTubers about how it’s dead,” says Mike. “It shouldn’t be so hard to just like a thing.”

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