Bethesda Navigates The Pitfalls Of PvP Balancing In Fallout 76

Bethesda Navigates The Pitfalls Of PvP Balancing In Fallout 76

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Full disclosure: I consider Bethesda to be one of my favorite game makers, and I rank the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series’ as defining franchises of the modern gaming era. I have played them all to extremes most people would consider unhealthy. But I’m still conflicted about Fallout 76, mainly because of the developer’s stated intention of putting spontaneous PvP into the game in a way reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto Online. It will have a large open world with servers rumored to hold in the range of 25-30 people, and players you cross paths with might be either hostile or friendly. Bethesda is hoping this element will create a measure of suspense and drama.

Bethesda Navigates The Pitfalls Of PvP Balancing In Fallout 76

Part of me is excited about a new Fallout game world, and the idea of jumping into coop with people I know or even strangers. At the same time, this notion of persistent PvP has raised many red flags for me. I’m an old dude from the Atari generation and I’ve seen my share of PvP, not all of it enjoyable. Gaming has the distinction of being one of the only recreational pastimes where online games can, through sheer random luck, match a beer league amateur with someone with world class twitch skills. As a result, developers have their work cut out for them when designing systems that maintain skill balance.

Taking a Leaf Out of FromSoftware’s Book

If Bethesda is looking for a set of guideposts when developing a game concept like this, they would be well advised to study the pitfalls that FromSoftware navigated over nearly a decade of creating games in their “Soulsborne” franchise. As beloved as these games are within the community, no one denies the flaws each of them has shown while creating conditions allowing players to invade the games of others for the soul purpose of wreaking havoc. While the PvP has always been steeped in an honor code to some extent, replete with emote-bowing before duels, you are just as likely to get the facepalm emote to rub salt in your wound after a loss. Trash talk is as old as gaming. The games featured their share of epic oversights, allowing “griefers”, the more malicious breed of players, to exploit those who were new and/or inexperienced.

Prime example of “griefing”

What We Should Learn from Demon’s Souls

For example, in Demon’s Souls there was a spell you could use called Acid Cloud. It did no physical damage, but could degrade your equipment quickly, forcing you to make costly repairs. Veteran griefers would stay at a low level and acquire the spell to use it on new players, who might not even be aware what was happening until they got the message “equipment broken”. Then, when they likely died to the invader, they lost all their “souls” (game currency), and had no way to repair the gear until they went out and grinded more souls, probably without armor or a good weapon. Some griefers spent their entire game time doing nothing but breaking equipment of other players.

From One Souls to Another

In Dark Souls, people who knew all the tricks of the game would push through to endgame areas in order to acquire upgrade materials to create elemental weapons that would do 500 damage to people carrying swords that were lucky to do 100. As you can imagine, people could barely get through the starting areas without getting pummeled. Essentially, when people have time to play around with the game systems, they inevitably discover exploits to give themselves an edge. In most games it isn’t even cheating, but rather taking the framework and using it ways the the devs didn’t intend.

By the time Dark Souls 2 rolled around, FromSoftware had started to realize their griefer issues were marring an otherwise brilliant franchise. For invasions they started to put in restrictions on not just your level progress, but the amount of time you had been playing your current character (measured by something called Soul Memory), and how much you had upgraded your weapon. The community, as expected, became divided over these issues, and eventually Soul Memory was abandoned in Dark Souls 3, but the weapon upgrade restrictions remained. Many argue that this third iteration of the game is the most refined one we have for PvP.

What Bethesda Should Learn from Past Mistakes

Which brings us back to Fallout 76, Bethesda seems to have good intentions when it comes to putting controls on griefing, but history shows that this issue is an uphill battle which never stops. The developers can play-test until their fingers cramp up, but once you turn a couple of million or more players loose in the game world, somebody’s going to find all the nasty holes in their safeguards. It’s like that old analogy about putting enough monkeys in front of a keyboard; eventually one of them will write Hamlet.

It surprises me that Bethesda is going forward with this considering parent company Zenimax knows the pitfalls of persistent PvP, which is why Elder Scrolls Online restricts it to Cyrodil or duels. Fallout 76 has an opportunity to follow a similar route, one not unlike The Division, by turning their “irradiated zones” into PvP areas while maintaining an aggression free part of the game for traditional RPG fans who like to explore and discover secrets in the game world at a relaxed pace. These PvP areas can lure players with the promise of big rewards, if they choose. If not, they can avoid it.

Ten Things I’d Like To Know About Fallout 76 PvP and Co-op Play:

In the event that Bethesda does go forward with this intended game structure, I believe there are questions many fans are going to want answered. Personally, these ten come to mind. Most revolve around PvP, but some pertain to the co-op structure.

1. Will there be any sort of level and/or gear restrictions on PvP? Or will people with endgame stats and gear be mingling (and killing) everyone beneath them?

2. If there are level restrictions, will it be server wide, or simply a case of making someone too far beyond my level threshold unable to engage me in PvP?

3. When skirmishes break out between two small groups comprised of 2-3 people, will there be friendly fire that could kill your squadmates and instigate unwanted PvP?

4. It’s my understanding that structured matchmaking won’t exist. People will simply join a friend’s server, or group up with random strangers in the world. With random grouping, how does it work? Do you simply meet up with people and ask to join? Will there be fast travel nodes of any kind to use when seeking people for coop or PvP (to get closer to them across the map)?

5. How is the chat going to work? Proximity? Group only? Text? I understand it will be part of the game, but so far no specifics have been offered.

6. In traditional Fallout games, stealth builds were very much an option (and popular). Assuming from the Hines interview that we can build any way we want, including stealth, will this provide ways to avoid groups of players where you would be at an obvious disadvantage (similar to the way crouching allowed you to avoid Zergs in ESO)? If so, does this mean anyone wishing to avoid PvP who doesn’t build for stealth won’t have this option? Or will all players have tools for going “off the radar”?

7. In a related question, what efforts have you made to provide balanced “classes”? In games like ESO and The Division, builds were limited in scope compared to previous Fallout games. I am assuming you will be watering down the RPG elements fans are used to. If not, my concern is that one particular build may become a powerhouse. Example: a player loads up in sniper related skills and just runs around head-shotting people.

8. If you are killed in PvP, it has been stated you don’t lose any items or progress. I’d like to know about respawning. If a lone player is jumped by a group and killed, do they respawn in the same place (like using stones in ESO). If so, does this mean that each person in that group then gets an opportunity to kill the poor loner (since it has been stated that a person can kill you once before you can ignore them). Or will you be using the “first kill free” rule to cover the entire group?

9. Following up the previous question, if players respawn with some distance between themselves and the opponent(s), will you provide markers so we can go back to the spot where we died? With exploration being an important component of Fallout, I’m not keen on discovering obscure locations, only to be ambushed, and not remember where I was.

10. And finally, in a worst case scenario, where people find the PvP in this game too annoying/frustrating/pointless and decide to just go solo (as you’ve said is an option), will enemy scaling in some places be too much for a single player and require group play? If so, should potential buyers not be told up front about this, as other games have done in the past?

Final Thoughts

I believe we have every reason in the world to be both excited and wary of this new Fallout game. Pushing the envelope is a key element of advancing the possibilities of what games can accomplish, but the developers must always be willing to take lessons from the failures of previous attempts by designers. And I can’t stress this enough, they must provide clear and honest information about how their game systems work in order to maintain the trust of their fanbase. This is why I posed those ten questions. Knowing the answers would go a long way to helping me decide whether this will be a game for me. But if their marketing remains vague or, even worse, misleading, it will only sour my respect for Bethesda as a developer.

Fallout 76 is set to release on Xbox One, PC and PS4 on November 14th, 2018 with beta version coming to Xbox One first prior to the release date. Players can opt-in for beta via the Bethesda website.

If you enjoyed reading this article be sure to check out more Fallout 76 in Fallout 76 Fans Make Full Pre-Release World Map and Fallout 76 Confirmed Online Multiplayer Survival At E3 2018.


Chris Graham is a longtime video game junkie from the wilds of Eastern Canada. While he is now a fully certified “old dude gamer”, in his youth during the early eighties he spent embarrassing sums of money on quarter-munchers in some of the skeezy local arcades. He even ventured into disco roller skating rinks from time to time, since they carried upscale titles, but always swore to his friends that he was only there for the games, since, y’know, disco sucks! When he picked up his first console, the classic Atari 2600, he used a VCR to record game clips and study patterns in order to clear tough levels. A former mobile DJ, as well as writing teacher and tutor, Chris has spent nearly 25 years crafting literary short fiction for periodicals and university journals. He became interested in writing about games and the game industry after immersing himself in social game communities. He’s written reviews and gameplay guides for both Xbox and Playstation games. His interests run the gamut, from shooters to sports and racing genres, although he spends the bulk of his time with RPGs.

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4 comments on “Bethesda Navigates The Pitfalls Of PvP Balancing In Fallout 76”

  1. Avatar Fexelea says:

    This is a great article that brings about many interesting questions that we def need answers for. I am also not a big fan of involuntary pvp, so I’d like to see how they’ll manage that aspect. I’ll be adding all info I find to the Fallout 76 Wiki we’re putting together so check it regularly!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I think a good place to look for an idea of how the PvP will work, would be Sea of Thieves. A big complaint I see many people have is that this game will have you being shot every two minutes by other players. Which just isn’t true. While PvP is an inevitability, there’s still one big thing to consider; Fallout 76 will be 4× the size of Fallout 4. And each server will only have so many people. Todd Howard at E3 stated there should only be a couple dozen in each server. I’ll go over the two numbers I see people most commonly reference:
    48. With forty-eight people in one server, if divided evenly that’d be 12 people, including you, in each quadrant of the map.
    72. With seventy-two, you’d have 18.
    Now put those into scale with Fallout 4. Fallout 4’s map has hundreds, if not thousands of human NPCs in it, and you’re not running into them around every corner. Now, I know it most likely won’t be divided evenly, there could be some areas where you’ll have maybe 50 players in it. But that also lowers the traffic of the other areas. You’ve got a 1/4 chance of being in the bad area. As for joining friends, again, Sea of Thieves may be your best source of info, of not then Destiny. The way they say seamlessly joining into a friends server sort of signifies that. You could also look towards Dark Souls’ server pools for that as well. Overall, online will be a big part of this game, but it by far isn’t going to be as big as some people make it out to be.

    As for the single player aspects, I’m not quite sure how scaling will work. I assume they’ll make it open enough, seeing as how they want old, and new fans to be satisfied, as well as, wanting a "soft-core survival" game.

    They’ll also later down the line be introducing private servers for you and your friends to play on alone. These servers will also allow for mods, so you may play with Randy Savage dragons all you want.

  3. Avatar Fallenangel700 says:

    Regardless of how they handle it, I’m only playing this game if there is an option for a private world where only my friends can join. I want to know if such an option exists and how it works well ahead of time.
    Open world multiplayer like this attracts griefers and trolls like a dumpster attracts flies and vermin. Even if they can’t outright attack you, they’ll still find a way to mess with you. That is something I just do not want to deal with.

  4. Avatar announakis says:

    "the soul purpose" :00008:

    nicely written.
    I am also quite worried for the ssame reasons.
    With "servers" hosting 20-30 players, can they not simply allow for an option on login as to whether or not you want to have PvP activated during your session?
    or let players choose wether they want to hop on a PvP focused server?
    I would love to have the first solution: being prompted to each login whether you want it to be including some PvP exposure….which would end as soon as you log off and reset to initial choice on each subsequet logins…

    this might alleviate most of the worries to start with.

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