What's The Magic Behind Fallout Shelter?

by Joe Juba on Jul 05, 2015 at 11:15 AM

Bethesda's deep dive into Fallout 4 wasn't the only news about the franchise the company brought to E3. The team also made the surprise announcement of Fallout Shelter, a mobile vault-building simulation set in the post-apocalyptic universe. You can read our official review, but among the rest of the staff, feelings are mixed. Some of us love it, and others deleted it just minutes after installing. Game Informer's Joe Juba (a Fallout Shelter fan) and Tim Turi (a skeptic) had a chat about what clicks and what doesn't in this interesting experiment for the Fallout franchise.

Joe: Tim, how long was Fallout Shelter installed on your phone?

Tim: Funny thing is, it’s still installed on my phone, Joe. I haven’t deleted it yet, partially out of laziness and partially out of hope that something might click and I’ll understand why everyone is still playing it. How long have you had it on your phone?

Joe: I actually downloaded it on camera during our post-show rundown of the Bethesda press conference, though I didn’t really get a chance to play until after E3. I’ve been checking in pretty regularly since then, though. It grabbed me immediately. Not you, though?

Tim: I actually did try to play a little of Fallout Shelter during E3, mostly before bed, in the morning, and during the occasional wait in a line. Turns out that trying to play a game all about persistent micromanagement while covering the busiest show of the year isn’t ideal. I gave up halfway through the week because I felt stressed out. My vault dwellers were constantly hungry, thirsty, sad, and hurt from being attacked by radroaches. I've tried getting back into it since and it's just not happening.

Joe: Yeah, that’s definitely a problem in the early phases of the game. But to me, this seems like just the opposite of a game that should stress you out. It’s a fairly simple experience that doesn’t require a ton of upkeep. Kind of like NimbleBit’s Tiny Tower (which I played sporadically for a long, long time).

Tim: I played a lot of the inferior Tiny Death Star, which was my first experience with a game about persistent upkeep and expansion of a personalized structure. I enjoyed my time experimenting with building new shops for a time, but games like Tiny Tower don’t punish you for neglecting your people or progress. Things just slow down. Whenever I step away from Fallout Shelter for too long I feel like slight sense of dread since I know resources are being depleted and things are gradually falling apart. But you find it relaxing?

Joe: Yeah, I do. Resources don’t continuously deplete when you’re away from the game – they just go down for a few minutes. Unless you have a really bad balance of production versus consumption, stepping away from the game shouldn’t leave you in a bad spot. However, I will concede that the game could do a better job explaining some of these things more clearly, but after a little experimentation (and two restarts), I got a good handle on things. After getting that squared away, I’ve been really enjoying checking in my vault. A couple minutes lets you upgrade dwellers, equip some new gear, send someone out into the wasteland, and optimize your production. And you make slow, steady progress, which is something I always find satisfying.

Tim: You mentioned a couple restarts, which is something I’ve always had trouble getting used to in games. I get that you can take your learnings through to a clean slate and manage/build your shelter more efficiently from the beginning. Ultimately, what’s the point? That’s the other issue I have with the game. What becomes of all the frequent check ins, warding off raider invasions, and exploring the wasteland? I’m not expecting some grand story payoff or anything, but is Fallout Shelter simply about seeing how long you can keep a vault going after the bombs drop?

Joe: The restarts are mainly a result of the lack of thorough explanation early on. I don’t think this is a game that is built around the idea of learning through failure; I probably spent less than 30 minutes each on my first two vaults before I realized what I was doing wrong, so it didn’t really feel punitive to me. As for the point of it all, I know one of the problems that Dan Tack mentioned in his review is the lack of an end-game goals and activities. Right now, the main goal is just to reach the maximum dweller count of 200. But like I mentioned before, the gratifying sense of progression is the primary draw, as opposed to any gigantic payoff.

I also want to point out that Fallout Shelter is considerably deeper and more interesting than other games in this vein. In Tiny Tower, for instance, you aren’t really making many active decisions. Fallout Shelter has a layer of simple strategy to your efficiency, but it also does away with those annoying “this will take 10 hours unless you buy premium currency with real money” timers. If you want to drop in and play for 30 seconds, you can. If you want to play for 15 minutes, the game has enough for you to do sustain those sessions.

Tim: I appreciate the level of complexity Fallout Shelter brings to the genre, but maybe that’s another area where I’m being turned off. I might be discovering that I like playing breezier, shorter experiences on my phone like You Must Build A Boat’s match-three puzzles. But the main things that keeps me from investing in it are the feeling that things are slowly crumbling and that the goal just doesn’t feel worth it to me. I played for a couple hours, and didn’t feel like I understood the progression loop or best ways to optimize, and am lacking the motivation to figure it out.

Part of me wishes Bethesda would’ve offered to award competent Overseers with some sort’ve award in Fallout 4 based on how they’re shelters performed. Maybe a bottle cap or small XP bonus? Probably just a pipe dream, that might’ve gotten me more invested. For now, I boot up the game, feel overwhelmed by my vault’s state of disarray, then close out the app. Do you think you’ll play until you hit 200 dwellers?

Joe: Possibly. I’m having a lot of fun with it now, but some of that is also tied into naming dwellers after my friends and then crafting my own little dumb stories around them. I don’t have 200 friends, so maybe I’ll get bored before that. I can see where you’re coming from, since that same sense of despair is what caused me to restart the game a couple times. However, if you ramp up slowly and focus more on having enough resources (rather than building up dwellers), you get over the early hurdles quickly and then the game is practically on autopilot. That’s another thing Dan Tack didn’t like – that you can basically stop trying after a certain point. For me, hitting that point is almost like a reward itself, and I can focus on optimization rather than survival.

Tim: Your suggestion to keep wannabe dwellers waiting outside the door is actually the best advice I’ve heard so far for managing my scant resources. My obsessive gaming need to help everyone kicks in and I tend to overextend my vault’s ability to comfortably accommodate folks. Maybe next time I load up Fallout Shelter on a whim I’ll nuke it all (again) and start over with that in mind. Or maybe I’ll never play it again. Ultimately, I’m happy Bethesda put this out there. It’s awesome to have an official Fallout spin-off game in a world usually dying for more from the franchise. Plus, the Vault Boy art style has always been awesome and I love seeing more of it here.

Joe: For sure. I can’t separate my love for Fallout and its general aesthetic from the gameplay here – they all combine into something I enjoy playing. If this same game were based on a theme I didn’t care about, I doubt I would like it so much. It just strikes that sweet spot for me, and I admire how it lets players get a new taste of the Fallout world on iOS without resorting to some of the sinister tricks that many free-to-play games employ. I can see how it isn’t the right game for everyone, but it’s definitely the right game for me.

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