The Human Toll Of Fallout 76’s Disastrous Launch

The Human Toll Of Fallout 76’s Disastrous Launch

No one wanted to be on that project because it ate people. It destroyed people,” one former developer on Fallout 76 told Kotaku. “The amount of people who would go to that project, and then they would quit [Bethesda] was quite high.”

Kotaku spoke to 10 former employees of Bethesda and its parent company ZeniMax Media who were familiar with Fallout 76’s development, all of whom shared their accounts only under the condition of anonymity. Some sources said that they signed non-disparagement agreements upon leaving the company, and feared that ZeniMax’s influence in the industry would prevent them from being hired elsewhere.

Testers who worked during the months leading up to the original launch said that they crunched 10-hour days for six days a week as the game trudged toward the beta’s optimistic launch date of November 14, 2018.

Some testers would only find reprieve when they finally left the Fallout 76 team. Two former testers recounted that one of their colleagues said in a QA group chat after leaving the project: “I didn’t cry last night when I was taking a shower.” Another said in the same chat: “I pulled into work today, and I sat in my car for a second, and my chest didn’t feel heavy like it normally does.”

Within the games industry, QA is seen by many consumers and even some non-tester developers as an easy job that involves “playing games for a living.” They are often treated poorly by their managers, work long hours, and are underpaid, to the point that QA testers at Raven Software recently formed the first AAA-studio video game union as a measure to help better their working conditions. Accounts of game production at major studios over the last seven years have painted a picture of an industry where testers are granted lower professional status compared to colleagues with skills that are perceived as more technical or creative. As a result of this dynamic, testers told Kotaku that they felt more vulnerable to production issues on the Fallout 76 project, resulting in more brutal crunch.

These testers shared stories with Kotaku about ZeniMax management, and how it would habitually require overtime from QA, even when that overtime wouldn’t contribute to fixing a bug. A former tester who worked on the game’s DLC recalled being coerced into coming in to crunch on the weekend because the latest version of the game needed a fix. The individual tester would later discover that the development team had not implemented the fix, and that any work they did on the unfixed build would be for nothing. According to the former tester:

I remember seeing one of my coworkers stand up, look at the person who was in charge that day, and scream across the room: “Why are we here? We gave up our day for this. The build isn’t the build we need. This is useless. This is a waste of our time. Like why are we here?”

QA contractors were rewarded with low hourly pay, while permanent employees would work for slightly above that. But no matter how desperate their circumstances, two sources believed that their colleagues felt financially compelled to stay at ZeniMax, the largest games employer in the Rockville, Maryland area. Crunching at ZeniMax was considered by Rockville-based developers to be the only way to work in games without moving their families.

When QA staff got called in for weekend crunch, the companies tried to motivate them with the possibility of being paid an extra $US200 ($278) that week and the opportunity to eat “free” pizza. However, they found out that such perks did not make up for their work circumstances. As one explained,

I mean, we got overtime, but like all the money in the world doesn’t matter at that point… When we did weekend work, they would get pizza for us… [It] takes time to, you know, come out of that mindset and realise, yeah, they’re giving us something for free, but it’s not worth it. And it’s kind of the same with the overtime money. It’s like, yeah, it’s more money. But at what cost?

In fact, a couple of former ZeniMax employees tell Kotaku that no amount of financial incentive could erase the physical and mental exhaustion they experienced from the continual onslaught of non-stop, obligatory overtime. Two sources claim that they tried to flag the issue to Rob Grey, the director of QA at ZeniMax. However, they say he continually deflected or denied that crunch was happening in his department. Kotaku was able to obtain a copy of the email that one source claimed that they sent to him about the testers’ working conditions. The existence of the letter is corroborated by two other sources familiar with the situation in QA.

One QA source recounted how badly they wanted to stop working, despite their financial need. When they almost broke a bone on the stairs, they fantasized about the prospect of being too injured to go to work the next day. They said it was the most comforting feeling they felt while working crushing hours on Fallout 76.

The testers also coped with the pressures of being surveilled. A couple of sources told Kotaku that QA workers would have their breaks timed or sometimes even be followed into the restrooms by non-management employees described by one source as “chronic snitches.” According to them, these otherwise normal testers, designated as “coordinators,” did not have a real title or pay bump, but felt that micromanaging their peers would help their career standing at ZeniMax. Another did not recall if people were specifically followed, but knew testers whose bathroom breaks had been timed.

Rather than bringing an end to their hardship, Fallout 76’s launch only brought new problems, as QA testers now had to endure constant vitriol from players who were dissatisfied with the buggy state of the game. Some staff received death threats. While it’s common for game companies to ask testers to moderate official forums, Fallout 76’s testers worked shifts around the clock to moderate bug reports written by frustrated players, all for a game that reviewed extremely poorly. One of Kotaku’s QA sources vividly recalled a bug report comment that said: “I am going to take a gun and go to the QA department and shoot all of them.”

The QA department was constantly losing headcount, but it wasn’t the only one. Other departments were also losing talented developers to the awful working conditions.

Even if developers outside of QA didn’t want to work on the dreaded project, Fallout 76’s management team was not shy about borrowing. They drafted developers from all over the ZeniMax umbrella, to the point that other projects were negatively affected. Arkane Studios’ Redfall and Bethesda’s Starfield both lost team members to the black hole of Fallout 76.

Howard had told IGN that, “We’ve been through every type of crunch you can imagine. And long ago, some ones that were very, very difficult for a lot of us personally, with your time, and your health and things like that. We have gotten much, much better at it. Now we’re at the point where we can really manage it. … I think it’s why people stay here.” He had framed the personnel shifting as a positive. In truth, the post-launch content for Fallout 76 took a demoralising toll on employees across the ZeniMax network.

Some sources noted that the project drove an exodus of senior developers who had worked on some of Bethesda’s most prolific titles. Many developers developed physical health issues, such as tinnitus and back pain. One source said it “wasn’t uncommon” for artists to have wrist braces. Senior staff who’d remained loyal to the company for 20 years finally found their reason to quit. Some had been around since Fallout 3 and Skyrim. Fallout 76 was their final breaking point.

People don’t need to suffer so that patch 42 can come out on time. It is a deliberate decision to foster a workplace and a work cycle where that can happen,” one source said. “It is prioritising the work over the people.”

Fallout 76, the high-profile online multiplayer RPG, started off as a grand promise. On a dazzling stage at E3 2018, executive producer Todd Howard told thousands of fans that Bethesda’s next major game would give the player freedom.

“When we think about games, we think about worlds, and the choices you can make, the stories that you create and tell yourself,” Howard said. “We have a game, more than any game that we’ve ever done, where the choices are yours, where you’ll decide what happens. You’ll decide the heroes, and you’ll decide the villains.”

Unfortunately, when Fallout 76 actually came out in November 2018, players discovered that the grand vision Howard presented at E3 made for an empty, boring game. The player-versus-player (PvP) system was a ripe opportunity for griefers who could kill pacifist players who weren’t even in combat mode. Bugs abounded. Items and even entire camps would occasionally disappear. Fallout 76 was not the game that Bethesda fans expected from a studio with a prolific history of creating fascinating, albeit buggy, worlds.

Sources say they had seen the writing on the wall well before the bug-laden launch or player critiques. It didn’t seem wise to launch a game without non-player characters in a franchise that had, up until that point, garnered acclaim on the strength of its role-playing and narrative mechanics. Already, Fallout 4 had seen significant backlash from the fandom as Bethesda stripped what had formerly been a description-heavy franchise and turned it into a quippier, action-focused one.

But for better or worse, Bethesda found a balance and Fallout 76‘s predecessor went on to break franchise records. Releasing a follow-up with zero NPCs, on the other hand, was a more brazen gamble that did not sit comfortably with developers who worked on Fallout 76, according to sources.

A couple of sources Kotaku spoke with didn’t feel that the teams had a coherent direction for what Fallout 76 was supposed to be during its initial three-year development cycle. According to one source, Howard was supposed to be in charge of the game, but he spent most of his time working on Starfield, which reportedly started development after Fallout 4 shipped in 2015. One source told Kotaku that his subordinates would call it “seagulling” when he would “fly by later and shit all over an idea” that had popular traction within the design team. Another source felt that Howard was a decent executive producer, albeit one with a “bigger is better” design philosophy.

According to Kotaku’s sources, Bethesda leadership did not fully anticipate the challenges of producing a full-fledged live-service game, or the costs that doing so would inflict on their employees. Bethesda seemed to assume that putting “rock star” senior developers with extensive Elder Scrolls and Fallout single-player experience on the Fallout 76 team would smooth out any difficulties in making a live-service game, but this would not prove true.

“As the game increased in size and scope, no additional time was ever really given for [testing],” one source told Kotaku. “A full pass of this huge multiplayer game with multiple expansions? [QA] got three days in a good week. It was one day if production issues resulted in a late build being delivered.”

It wasn’t just testers who were having problems. Some designers raised questions about griefing, multiplayer stability issues, and quest checkpointing, but said their concerns were dismissed or postponed by management. Even as the designers created major gameplay events, they had no clear idea of how many players would be on a server. Effective multiplayer design requires precise mathematical knowledge of how long it will take for players to clear encounters. Fallout 76’s designers, a source said, weren’t given the resources to derive that information, either. Bethesda did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

In June 2019, Howard gave an IGN interview about how Fallout 76 was a game that “we wanted to play.” In reality, sources said that morale was also very low among some former Fallout 4 developers who were assigned to work on Fallout 76. They joined Bethesda’s Rockville studio because they were fans of the studio’s single-player games, but now they were working in a genre they had little interest in. Two sources told Kotaku that many former Fallout 4 developers they knew especially resented being assigned to make a live-service game. These were veterans who’d spent many years at a studio that was famous for prestigious single-player RPGs.

A source familiar with the situation noted that some developers from the main Rockville office had a chip on their shoulder about the success of live-service games. For example, the free-to-play mobile game Fallout Shelter grossed $US100 ($139) million in four years, making it one of the most successful Bethesda games ever. But even as studio executives eagerly eyed online games’ potential to rake in cash for years after their initial launch, some senior developers at the main Rockville studio were not enthused about Fallout becoming a live-service franchise.

Bethesda Austin, which was tasked with helping to bring Fallout 76 to life, was well-known as a multiplayer studio, and ZeniMax Online is the sister studio that released the highly successful Elder Scrolls Online. However, two sources told Kotaku they did not believe that the two studios’ online multiplayer expertise was utilised to its fullest potential until after Fallout 76 launched. Employees with multiplayer experience said they pointed out major problems during production, but they would not be satisfactorily addressed until after the scathing reviews at launch. Bethesda did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

A similar phenomenon occurred around The Elder Scrolls Online. The MMO’s launch had been rocky, but the developers managed to significantly stabilise the game by the time Fallout 76 began production. However, the multiplayer studio’s successes were not internally given as much merit or considered aspirational.

“[Senior Bethesda developers] basically treated Elder Scrolls Online like it was this complete fluke,” a source told Kotaku. “[There was] no respect at all for the hard work and dedication that it took to make an MMO that is still running and is still popular.”

“While we had experienced multiplayer designers [in both Rockville and Austin], they were routinely sidelined and ignored,” said a source formerly at Bethesda Game Studios Rockville. “During development, our design director Emil [Pagliarulo] didn’t seem to want to be involved with the product at all. He didn’t want to have any contact with it…or read anything that we put in front of him.”

Pagliarulo did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

According to one source who was privy to Bethesda Austin’s discussions, the Maryland studio “has a lack of respect for folks who are working on things that they consider theirs.”

The more single-player-focused main studio at Rockville was the most favoured, most profitable studio within the ZeniMax portfolio, and developers from Austin felt resentful that the main studio seemed to undervalue the multiplayer expertise they’d built up on projects like BattleCry, a cancelled online action game. One of the major criticisms of Fallout 76 was that it launched with no NPCs to interact with. Though there were some senior-level concerns about technical challenges, almost none of the Bethesda designers wanted the game to launch without NPCs. The design teams at both Rockville and Austin wanted NPCs to fill out the world of Fallout 76, but they say executive producer Todd Howard was not willing to budge all the way up ‘til launch.

Image: Microsoft
Image: Microsoft

One source said that the amount of work required to adapt the engine to support a multiplayer experience put additional time pressure on the schedule. Some desirable features would have to go, and leadership decided one such feature would be NPCs. Holotapes, robots, and environmental storytelling were perceived as less risky approaches for conveying the game’s narrative.

Multiple sources stated that technical factors contributed to the game launching without NPCs. Fallout 76 was built with Bethesda’s Creation Engine, which the studio uses to develop its single-player games. Unfortunately, this technical decision created difficult challenges that the developers hadn’t encountered before.

One prominent reason the higher-ups at Bethesda decided to use the Creation Engine was that developers at Rockville primarily had experience using this traditionally single-player engine. According to a 2021 survey by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), only a fifth of respondents expected to remain with their current employer for more than six years. In an industry that regularly lays off large numbers of employees, Bethesda was unusual in how frequently it was able to retain staff for over a decade. It would cost a significant amount of time and money to re-train senior employees in new scripting languages.

Using the Creation Engine was supposed to be the lesser evil. Instead, it created complex problems that constantly required more people in the QA department. According to one source who worked on the game, Fallout 76’s tools were so poorly optimised that simply updating the build could break it, which could add even more production pressure on the developers. Since the design department would not move deadlines, sources from both design and QA say they were forced to accommodate for such errors with crunch, typically racking up between 10 to 16 hours of work a day. One source said that they clocked over 60 hours a week, and that they weren’t the only ones.

One source explained why Bethesda ideally would not have used the existing single-player engine to make a multiplayer game. In Fallout 4 and Skyrim, every element is an “event” centered around the player. If a player isn’t in an area, then the game thinks that the area doesn’t exist. In online games, areas have to exist at all times because multiple players could be observing the same location at once. Fallout 76 struggled with trying to make everything exist at all times since the engine was designed to make games in which objects only sometimes existed.

Given Bethesda’s reputation for janky games, it’s no wonder that in an interview with PC Gamer, Howard said that he hoped that the Xbox acquisition will help Bethesda’s games be better tested at launch. However, Kotaku’s sources said that Fallout 76 underwent no shortage of testing.

When Kotaku asked about which features were broken as a result of poor scheduling, a developer replied: “Tongue in cheek: the whole game. In general, every major bug in 76 [that appeared at launch] was known by QA.” Bethesda did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

Though they worked in the same building complex as the main development team, the testers at Rockville say they were expressly forbidden from directly interacting with any of the non-QA developers, including the devs who worked on bug fixes. If QA testers found a major problem, they were usually expected to escalate it to QA department leads rather than to the specific designers who owned the broken quests (and had the authority to fix them). With test leads being among the busiest people in the QA department, one source felt that this division between testers and designers caused significant delays in which a single issue could ping-pong back and forth for days or months.

Working on a beloved IP was supposed to balance out the stressors of working in game development. However, sources told Kotaku the misalignment between the business goal and the actual team members proved to be devastating for morale. One source felt that there was a feeling that “we were making a game that wasn’t primarily for us.”

Or even the fans. The source said that the developers who came from the Fallout 4 team thought that Fallout 76 would disappoint a sizable chunk of their loyal audience. “Even though the studio has a reputation for buggy games, I initially still had faith that they would delay rather than putting out a bad game.”

Fallout 76 was never delayed from the release date announced at E3 2018.

“I don’t know how [Bethesda] made [Skyrim]. It doesn’t make sense to me,” a former employee told Kotaku. “Like it had to have been like monkeys with a typewriter creating Shakespeare. I don’t know how things can be so chaotic and people are still able to do their jobs.”

There’s a story that some Bethesda developers believe: That it is special among big-budget studios. That its scrappiness can overcome any major creative challenge. Compared to Ubisoft Montreal with over 3,500 employees, Bethesda Game Studios only has around 400 employees at the time of publication. And when you consider that Fallout 4 and Skyrim, both games that have gone on to sell millions of copies, were made with only around 100 people at the same time, the self-mythologizing becomes easy to believe. Some developers, who were used to crunching with relatively small teams, were convinced that they could make the same magic happen on Fallout 76.

Image: Microsoft
Image: Microsoft

Nevertheless, Bethesda is hardly an indie studio. One source said, “Bethesda is a big company that thinks it’s a small company,” with a mentality of “well, this worked in the ‘90s, so we’re just gonna keep doing it.”

A former tester said: “Apparently it used to be much worse. [Senior developers told us that] we don’t hear all about the good old days, where people were sleeping in the office for Fallout 4… [management] wants to run it like a ten [person] QA department from the 80s. And that’s just not how [testing] works.”

Even at Bethesda, the same resistance to change persisted. “We’re the only ones crazy enough to try [making AAA games with lean teams],” said another source, “[but] it does come with a cost.” For the Fallout 76 project, the result was buggy features, broken builds, and lots of crunch.

The crunch on Fallout 76 was also part of a larger tradition of valorized overtime. Former ZeniMax developers from MachineGames had publicly said that they were trying to escape the years of AAA “overtime,” which had caused them to become “burned out.” Multiple sources Kotaku spoke with said they had crunched on various other ZeniMax-published games, such as Dishonored 2, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, Skyrim, and Fallout 4. Multiple sources also told Kotaku that development staff (with the notable exception of QA) were not under a mandate to crunch or explicitly coerced to do so.

However, in practice, Kotaku was told by four sources, developers still crunched on every one of these games, and one source said that “I can’t speak to whether it’s scheduled on the production side, but everyone seemed to always know it was coming.”Multiple sources from both design and QA stated that crunch on Fallout 76 was mandatory.

One of Kotaku’s sources said that both testers and leads called it “voluntold overtime” when management said that if nobody volunteered for weekend overtime, then everyone would be called in. A current employee said that peer pressure was the main motivator for crunch, and interns and contract workers could improve their odds of being converted to full-time if they crunched.

Despite the constant crunch, some testers believed that ZeniMax was one of the better companies, since they converted QA to full time instead of laying everyone off. However, a source said that testers were still afraid of speaking up about their working conditions to leadership. The fear they developed as temporary contractors persisted even after they were converted to permanent employees.

In a 2019 IGN interview, Howard acknowledged the existence of crunch at Bethesda but felt that employees stayed because overtime was adequately managed. However, he did not completely disclaim the necessity of crunch, telling IGN, “Every game deserves some amount [of crunch] at the very end.”

One source acknowledged that it was “fair” for the team to believe in putting in extra hours for Bethesda’s fans. However, they were wary about the belief coming from leadership, because it was “admitting that they weren’t doing good enough planning.”

When asked about the interview from 2019, a former tester told Kotaku, “I find that absolutely disgusting that [Howard] said that [Bethesda was really managing crunch], because it means that either he was really ignorant of what was going on, or he didn’t consider QA to be a part of the studio.” Howard did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

Some former employees believed that the company simply never had its employees’ best interests at heart. A couple of sources specifically described ZeniMax as “litigious,” in reference to the “grapevine” belief that the legal team is “very aggressive.” Former MachineGames developers who broke off to form their own studio, Bad Yolk, were sued by ZeniMax–MachineGames’ parent company–in 2018 after trying to hire other former Zenimax employees less than 24 months after they had left the company. Bad Yolk co-founder Michael Paixao joked to GamesIndustry.Biz, “Isn’t being sued by ZeniMax like a bucket list thing in this industry?”

In the lawsuit between MachineGames and Bad Yolk Games, David was able to overcome Goliath. The Swedish courts ruled against no-solicitation clauses in employment contracts, and the case set a new precedent for Swedish employment law. Kotaku was able to view the letters that the lawyers sent the defendants, which said that they represented both MachineGames and ZeniMax Media.

Despite being sued by his former employer, Bad Yolk’s (now known as Ember Trail) Joel Jonsson told Kotaku that he didn’t blame MachineGames for the lawsuit. He was under the impression that ZeniMax had pushed for it. When asked why, he responded: “Our employment contracts felt very American. I’ve never seen a contract like that in Sweden… It was very long and in many ways describing how much they own whatever you make… Me and [Paixao] said to management: ‘Many of these parts of the contract might not be viable in Sweden.”

Bethesda officially became a part of Xbox Game Studios on March 9, 2021, which placed Fallout 76 under Microsoft’s stewardship. When asked whether or not the acquisition had improved the internal work culture within Bethesda, several sources offered lukewarm responses. One source suggested that Microsoft’s emphasis on a “hands-off” culture toward its studios meant that the new owners trusted Bethesda to take care of its own problems. Sources at Undead Labs also mentioned that Microsoft had a “hands-off” policy, which they claimed had “allowed dysfunction to fester” at their studio.

Image: Microsoft
Image: Microsoft

“The impression that I got was that Microsoft would not make big changes unless they needed to,” one staffer told Kotaku. “Simply because they’re like: We hired you to be excellent. And if we touch you, it could be like a house of cards situation where you just fall apart [as creatives]. I don’t think health benefits are going to do that to anybody.”

Microsoft did not address a request for comment by the time of publication.

A former Bethesda employee told Kotaku, “[Xbox CEO Phil] Spencer’s word when picking up Bethesda [and ZeniMax] is largely that his preference is that studios be let to operate as they always have, let the talent be the talent.”

One source spoke cynically about Bethesda’s potential for changing from within: “It would be great if something like [Activision Blizzard worker advocacy group] A Better ABK existed for Bethesda, but everyone is terrified…because [Bethesda] HR is super cutthroat.” A current employee agreed it did not feel like Bethesda HR was actively interested in addressing “any real employee concerns.” Similar cynicism is reflected in the company’s Glassdoor reviews.

Two others said that ZeniMax recently introduced a tiered system that helped employees get titles and pay bands for jobs they had been doing for years without recognition or extra compensation. A couple of sources attributed the sudden change to the Microsoft acquisition, while another suggested they did it to keep employees on Fallout 76, which was always losing both testers and senior developers to the invisible hand of the job market.

One source told Kotaku that many Bethesda developers were excited at the prospect of improved employee benefits that might come with an acquisition, such as healthcare.

“Microsoft has like, really amazing employee benefits,” the source said. “And all of us were looking at the benefits and saying, oh, man, are we going to get these benefits? Are we going to get more parental leave [and] health benefits. And they were just like, No, nothing is changing… Don’t look at these benefits and think that you’re going to get them…”

Though some of the sources Kotaku spoke with have since moved on, the emotional damage that Fallout 76 inflicted on them lingers, they say. One mentioned the Bethesda t-shirts they’d proudly collected over the years.

They’re gonna be at the back of my closet for a really long time,” they said. “I can’t even look at them. It’s sad because I grew up being a Bethesda games fan. I played Daggerfall and Battlespire. Working there felt like a childhood dream for me that just turned into a twisted nightmare.”


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