Developing Modern RPGs with Bethesda Softworks’ Todd Howard

Set around a retro-futuristic Sin City and its surrounding wastelands, post-apocalyptic adventure Fallout: New Vegas  lets players live out their every Mad Max fantasy. But equally impressive as the sci-fi western’s massive world and wildly open-ended tale (which lets players freely explore ghost towns and scavenge gear from bandits and mutant adversaries) is its underlying technology. In a recent conversation, Todd Howard, executive producer for publisher Bethesda Softworks , talked with us about how advancements in AI, physics, and graphics are just as vital as storytelling in modern RPG development.

Digital Innovation Gazette: What makes the Fallout series so popular with RPG fans and PC gamers in general?

Todd Howard: The thing that makes Fallout’s universe so appealing is that its futuristic ’50s world is both very high- and low-tech. It has laser weapons and powered armor, but inhabitants never discovered miniaturization — so it also has giant computers that run on vacuum tubes and hot rods with fusion-powered engines that go 900 mph and then fall apart.

DIG: How do you create believable worlds and convincing characters?

T.H.: Our AI systems are incredibly advanced. Hundreds of non-player characters exist, whether or not players are around. Computer-controlled characters can have conversations and even get in fights independently. It makes the game that much more believable.

DIG: Both PCs and consoles like the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 are becoming more advanced. What are some ways in which this impacts development?

T.H.: Multiple processors, segmented memory and other challenges make developing games more difficult today. But they also allow for better graphics, more natural animation and hugely expansive in-game worlds. Modern RPGs are much more expensive and time-consuming to create than older games. But they’re also much bigger, better detailed and even more replay-able.

DIG: Though New Vegas is played in real time, your VATS combat system lets players pause and take turns blasting enemies to gooey chunks. What’s the secret to making it work?

T.H.: We model all projectiles dynamically, whether you’re throwing a grenade or shooting a bullet. Detailed physics modeling is crucial. Because our combat system offers slow-motion views, you can’t cheat, per se. Shoot somebody and you can literally watch a bullet fly through the sky, and then hit the guy’s head. It looks much nicer than if it were just a real-time game.

DIG: How do you make attacks accurate, down to the individual limb?

T.H.: VATS looks at the target, calculates which limbs you can see — and how well they’re hidden behind objects — and determines your chances of hitting by measuring accuracy, skill, distance, etc. We also have a database that tracks precision, speed and damage for every weapon, including makeshift creations. Then we look at the force placed on each limb of a virtual skeleton and where and how much tension exists.

DIG: Any other innovations worth noting that the title presents?

T.H.: Our animations are modeled dynamically. Most games used canned scenes when you kill someone. Here, every individual can rip apart at different places on their body. We model what resulting chunks of meat look like. When an arm or leg rips off, we apply these textures to the limb’s edge, generate particles of gore to hide the transition, and use our physics system to send it flying. Body parts also have a chance of exploding. It can produce some pretty wild results.