Bethesda’s Fallout 76; A False Advertising Conundrum

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A Brief Preamble

 

During E3 of 2018, Bethesda announced a new Fallout game. Something that was unprecedented in the past as they tended to release a new Fallout roughly every six years, and just one-year prior gamers had been given Fallout 4. Naturally, there was a level of hype surrounding the release, gamers on both sides were excited for another entry into this venerable franchise. And this is where it began.

    Bethesda offered a lot of promises for this new game, promises that would prove to be rather damning further down the road. At the announcement, Todd Howard went on stage and said; “All new rendering, lighting and landscape technology, it allows us to have sixteen times the detail, and even view distant weather systems across the map.” While it is easy to say that his statement did not age well, it is much more important to recognize that it is blatantly false and absolutely misleading. Todd Howard’s statement is relatively easy to find and display, what is not as well known (and perhaps more important to the case of false advertising) is that statement by Bethesda’s VP of Marketing and Communication, Pete Hines,  had this to say following 76’s Announcement when asked about the microtransactions within the game; “Yes, as we have said there will be cosmetic ones. And you can buy any of it with in-game currency as well. All the dlc/new content will be free.” This would be followed up with; “No. Only cosmetic.” Keep these two phrases in your mind while we progress through the months leading up to the launch of 76.

Chapter 1: Broken Promises and Broken Games Make Bad Bedfellows

    Before we talk about the issues of Bethesda employing empty promises and the legal/social ramifications of false advertising, we need to first establish some legitimacy to these claims.

November of 2018, Fallout 76 is gearing up to release, but about a week before consumers get their hands on it, critics and influencers are receiving early editions of the game. And feedback, was rather harsh while the general reception and scoring of the game, is at an all time low. It is important to establish that it was not just a portion of the consumers that were intensely critical  of the game at release, several professional reviewers had some rather troubling things to say about 76 before launch and well before the coming controversy of the game; publications like Game Rant gave the game a middling review, focusing on the possibility, if not the probability, that Fallout 76 feels like it was a good game at some point, but it was too broken to really say for sure. While outlet Game Spew was decidedly less enthusiastic about it, saying; “Fallout 76 is bad, and not even in a “it’s so bad it’s kinda good” way. There’s nothing I can say that’s fun or exciting about Fallout 76. In my time spent with the title, I’ve never been impressed with any element of it. It’s simply a disaster”. It is not easy to imagine that there might be a potential divide between critical opinion and consumer opinion, and so the community held it’s breath in hopes that perhaps the critics were just being overly harsh. Then came November 22nd, and the game was released to the masses, and the reception dropped even quicker than before. Even now, a year later, with multiple fixes, bug improvements and events, Fallout 76 is still sitting at a 3.3 user aggregated score on the high end across the platforms and a dismal 2.8 on the low end.

It is also important to note that several YouTuber personalities had made it fairly clear during the Beta for the game, that they were not impressed and that they would be surprised if the game received even lukewarm reception.

Upon release, while it was not immediately where everyone’s mind jumped to, the things that had been promised by Todd Howard and touted as things that would push Fallout forward in graphical prowess, turned out to be false and misleading. The additional rendering software that was supposed to give the player a far-off view of coming weather turned out to be nonexistent. Advanced lighting techniques turned out to be broken when multiple players uploaded footage of the sun streaking through solid objects and shadows being completely bugged out no matter how stable the connection. People began uploading screenshots of different textures at maximum 4K settings and denounced the claim that there was 16x any amount of detail within the environments and structures. The landscape technology turned out to be nothing new whatsoever, as a good portion of the textures, enemies and landscape was seen in previous games and had not changed in any significant way. And this is all without mentioning, the game breaking bugs.

Before the launch of Fallout 76, but after the advanced releases for critics, Bethesda released a sort of disclosure on social media, found here: https://t.co/STRzjzv7gt

This was Bethesda asking for assistance with the upcoming release in finding and helping the developers fix the bugs. The only problem was, despite multiple gamers and fans relaying information about bugs that were present in Fallout 4 and multiple bugs found during the Beta for 76, it seems that not a single one was addressed and the game was launched anyway. While it is misleading to say something along the lines of, 76 “unplayable at launch” it should not excuse the fact that 76 was universally panned as not fun to play at launch, because the bugs were so rampant and atrocious that people could not progress as the game intended. These bugs were everything from simple texture glitches all the game to game crashes and frequent corruption files being displayed and everything in between. AS can be expected, players were not happy that they had waited all this time, Bethesda claimed it had been in development for three years and being launched at a full sixty dollars US, many felt betrayed by the released product.

The reason that I’m bringing this to your attention is in relation to that preamble at the beginning; Todd Howard promised a certain amount of graphical upgrades to the game, and a good portion of those upgrades were causing meaningful amounts of harm to the games files and the playerbase at large, despite the three years of time developers had to fine tune these issues. Constant technical issues was the headline of Fallout 76’s release table. It is easy to jump to Bethesda’s defense, especially when they say back in October that they are aware that bugs were rampant. It is significantly less easy to jump to that defense when you realize that many developers confirmed this was a work in progress for three years, and that these bugs were there because they had essentially imported a version of Fallout 4 to create the template for 76. Meaning, that not only were they aware of these bugs and technical shortcomings during the creation of 76, but during the entirety of 4’s lifecycle which spans nearly an entire decade of work. What is more easy to defend, people who were not paid to support the game and had valid complaints and just wanted a good product or, a developer who seemingly ignores issues that have been present for more than three years.

Now, this is all well and good. After all, Bethesda is known for games that are plagued with issues at launch and well into their lifecycle. However, the problem only continued to extend and grow even more rampant. As Bethesda began taking inquires for players to email them and make known technical shortcomings within the game’s infrastructure. The problem is that while Bethesda did, arguably, listen to these player’s feedback the incoming hot fixes and subsequent patches (even up to today I might add) only broke the game further and created new problems. Bethesda was performing the equivalent of throwing gasoline on a bonfire and then telling a large group of people; “well, we told you this would happen and look, we’re trying to put it out but shit happens”. As their defenses continued to falter Bethesda made on last big mistake, and it came pretty near to breaking the internet in terms of much shade was being thrown around the gaming community, and it would become known as: The Duffle Kerfuffle.

The Kerfuffle is something that can sort of round up this whole essay in one easy sentence; Bethesda promised one thing, delivered another and then said that they did not plan to fix it. The item in question was a large canvas bag that was supposed to be included with the Collector’s Edition of 76. An item that effectively cost one hundred- and fifty-dollars US. Not a cheap edition of a game by all standards. Bethesda advertised that the duffle bag in the description was made of canvas, when the editions were eventually sent out and received, well it was not canvas. It was a cheap plastic/nylon bag. While the feedback was furious and players were quick to send out requests for refunds. This spawned a much more interesting reaction, even players who did not purchase the Collector’s Editions learned that they were eligible for a refund through Bethesda’s game client that they were playing 76 through. Suddenly, almost to the point of crashing the website. Inevitably, this meant that Bethesda would change their Return Policy and lock people out of returning the game if they had played a certain number of hours. Unfortunately, this also meant that the people who felt that they had wasted over one hundred dollars were now mostly exempt from returning the game as well since there were no physical discs. This led to Bethesda sending out one of the worst responses from a AAA Developer in gaming history, saying; “We are sorry that you aren’t happy with the bag. The bag shown in the media was a prototype and was too expensive to make. We aren’t planning on doing anything about it.” Now, I feel as though I do not have to point out how poor of a response this is when you’re in charge of mitigating blowback and reassuring fans of a more professional response. The blowback in this case, was probably the most warranted that it will ever be. This led to such an uproar among the fanbase that Bethesda was forced to offer a replacement bag, to those who filled out the forms but that the bags would not be available for another six to seven months. This would ultimately culminate in a lot of people leaving 76 for good, feeling that their time had been wasted and they did not want to support a company that was handling this issue with such a failing of communication.

You must bear in mind that feeling dissuaded because of a lack of communication is completely justifiable. At this point in 76’s lifetime, everything was failing because of a lack of proper communication and now things were failing because the communication was unprofessional and belittling. Bethesda was riding a dead horse to the finish line, and the whole while they kept deflecting the blame onto other members instead of actively trying to discuss issues and fix the game.

Next straw attempting to break the camel’s back was the interview that Todd Howard gave concerning how he felt about the launch of 76, wherein he admitted that they knew there would be issues with the game, saying; “We were ready for…a lot of those difficulties that ended up on the screen. We knew, hey look, this is not the type of game that people are used to from us and we’re going to get some criticism on it. A lot of that is very well-deserved criticism.” I know you may be thinking that Todd was accepting the blame for what had ultimately happened, which in a way he was. However, looking at the underlying subtext here, Todd also said, in a somewhat roundabout way admittedly, that they knew a lot of those difficulties would be present. And yet they seemed to have reacted completely emotionally to it, despite knowing them ahead of time. Shortly after this interview, the game continued to have technical issues, that are still within the game files as of writing this article. Communication is a key trait to have, especially when in charge of a multimillion-dollar game development studio that was well liked by all players. And when you fail to relay solid and reliable communication mired in with terrible technical shortcomings, it is very hard to have a lot of sympathy for Todd Howard and much less empathy for the team that seems to have ignored issues at large.

 

Moving on from the technical side of things, we need to discuss one more aspect of Fallout  76 before we talk about the grandstanding issue. This is the issues of broken promises that stemmed directly from Pete Hines, the aforementioned VP of Marketing and Communications. Despite his claims that there would be no paid gameplay affecting microtransactions, within just a few short months, that promise was broken and it only continued to fester and grow more omnipresent within the game all while Pete Hinds said absolutely nothing to stymie concerns and complaints from players and critics alike.

While it is difficult to argue about the repair kits, as I personally find myself on the side of it being a convenience item and not very affecting of gameplay, there are two entries that very much so affect gameplay and are completely locked behind a microtransaction paywall and one of which is locked behind a paywall that you can not earn with in game currency. Only a few short weeks ago, Bethesda announced Fallout First, a subscription-based service that ultimately gave you everything that the fans had been asking for, only to lock it behind a steep paywall. The first item was a scrap collecting robot, while this is supposed to be available within in game currency, it was an item and a feature that was actually shown within the launch trailer for the game doing exactly what it does now. Leading to the conclusion, and confirmation via code divers and people way more technologically savvy than me, that this was a feature included at launch but subsequently taken out when they realized that they would need to sell something further down the road when controversy started to ramp up. It is very hard to see much of a defense for Bethesda’s actions when things fall into place against them like this, however due to the robot being available with in-game grinding, there was an argument to be made for both sides. The larger issues would come with the inclusion of a portable camp that allowed a secondary fast travel point and was able to travel around with you, and this is exclusive to First members. All of the features within Fallout First goes directly back on what Pete Hines claimed to be the focal point with Fallout 76, and it only continued to get more annoying when Bethesda double down on the pricing of First and gave no clear indication that anything within the exclusive items would become available to those who did not care for the subscription.

One last note here before we move on, despite multiple old and current issues going directly against Pete Hines, there is something that became a little more of a controversy very recently. Bethesda, actually took down a section of their website that restated Pete Hinds comments on the non-gameplay microtransactions. While there is no definitive proof for why they did that and Hinds did not, there is a fairly clear thread that one can follow and see where the mentality may have been heading.

 

Chapter 2: How to False Advertise for Dummies

    Allow me to pose a hypothetical to you; say you advertised a car for sale on a local sellers list or in the newspaper. Someone contacts you with an interest in purchasing said car, you allow them to test drive it, tinker and examine it. You allow them to go home, sleep on it and consider it. Then, that person contacts you again and says that they would indeed like to purchase the car, while it may have some mechanical troubles the purchaser feels confident in the product that they feel they can handle it. Instead, you offer them a different car, a car that has many more mechanical issues than the other, you take the other car off of the consideration and tell them it costs this amount and they will have to take it or leave it.

Within this hypothetical scenario, do you feel as though the purchaser would be justified in being angry or possibly vindictive in their vocabulary and demands? Or do you feel that they, despite having no immediate way of knowing, should have seen this coming and have no one to blame but themselves? However, you see the dilemma. This hypothetical has no clear yes or no answer, but there are clear right and wrong things about what entailed between the two people involved with the purchase. Applying the same hypothetical to the situation that Bethesda found themselves in, there is a much more clear distinction with the benefit of knowing a lot of info about what exactly led to the breakdown of the community.

The first issue is that Bethesda guaranteed a certain number of things about Fallout 76 that simply would not come to fruition at launch or since. There were multiple missing features and multiple things that were given an answer but done so in a way that guaranteed no fix was planned or being considered. While it can be relatively easy to find a way to excuse certain things missing from the physical game itself, it is much less excusable when it comes to things that were blatantly advertised for a certain amount of money, and then the product handed out was completely different. This last sentence is not only completely disingenuous but directly illegal. The only Bethesda skirted around that illegality is because they eventually offered to replace the bags after a while.

However, where there’s smoke, there is fire. And the fire would come first, int the form of a civil action lawsuit by Migliaccio & Rathod LLP. While this would ultimately go nowhere, it sparked a bit of a fire as people began seeing more and more correlation between what Bethesda said and how it was falsely advertised. The issue being, people who signed onto this class action suit did so under the pretense that it was for the technical shortcomings that they feel cheated them out of their sixty dollars and that is most likely what led to the lawsuit not really gaining much traction. When arguing from a technical perspective, there is some credibility to the false advertising and the misleading communication on part of Bethesda and Howard but there is not enough to hinge an entire case on. This was not the case with physical sales and demanded refunds however, when this was revealed to the Australian government via the ACCC ruled that players who had purchased the product within the first 7 months of release, should be and will be entitled to a refund or the ACCC would move towards more definitive action. As expected, Bethesda acquiesced and accepted refunds, but only from those who fell within that bracket and only the bracket of those living in Australia.

Now, what exactly is the problem here, you might ask. As a company, they are able to change refund policies and companies mislead people with advertisements all the time, right? To a degree this argument held some water, before the ACCC debacle. The problems that stem from this particular case with 76 is that Bethesda failed to communicate any changes to the community until Bethesda realized they were losing money over it. Not only this, Bethesda continues to make decisions that are almost always preamble by them saying “due to community demand”. When looking at the community from the spectrum of Metacritic, Reddit, IGN and YouTube, the community had no desire for things like Fallout First, more microtransactions or changers to policies that affected their outlook on the game.

This becomes painfully evident when one delves into how many people were banned due to discussing their frustrations on Bethesda forums. Or how many people have been seemingly blindly banned from the game due to glitches they could not control. Bethesda seems to be incapable of proper damage control, and it has been a problem since the very beginning of the launch. As mentioned above, the problem is that this is actually illegal to do. Promising one thing, then selling another and making a large profit off of it is actually illegal and a criminal offense. Bethesda just happens to backpedal quickly enough because their parent company Zenimax has a penchant for shutting down potential legal trouble rather quickly.

The thing to take away from this is this; Bethesda may have the ability to create something solid, however; when you promise one thing and deliver something else and then continue to double down and belittle your paying customers because they are unsatisfied with  a product that you advertised and provided them with, then you forego any right to say that you are determined to fix the issues and create something truly wonderful. When you continue to ignore large swaths of people that are clamoring for refunds, important fixes or updates and the only people you listen to are government bodies, then something is truly rotten within the walls of Bethesda. It is unfortunate that no class action suits made any headway against Bethesda, as it may have deterred them from introducing Fallout First and continuing to evade rightful complaints from the public.

 

Chapter 3: Summarizing a Long Subject

    This is no small event in gaming. The downfall of 76 and the subsequent following distrust of all things Bethesda, has led to a lot of repercussions within the gaming community especially when involving AAA developers. While it can be easy to be angry at 76 for being buggy, broken and monotonous, the more important thing to remember is the deceit and wrongfulness of Bethesda’s advertising groups. It is one thing to say Bethesda did it intentionally, it is another to say that Bethesda did not think things through very carefully and took the good will of their community for granted when releasing certain articles, tweets and trailers.

What this comes down to is that whether by willful misleading communications on the part of the entire Bethesda hierarchy or by the assumed good will that they did not need to put a certain level of quality, ultimately most everything that could have gone wrong did indeed go wrong. That is a major issue when you’re put in charge of such a readily available and anticipated product. What may come as a surprise is just how little dissuading information in favor of Bethesda actually exists even from outlets and creators that have historically enjoyed the game that Bethesda has made in the past. When there’s not even a solid defense around a giant publisher like Bethesda, it does admittedly make poking holes in their mistakes all the easier. It may seem unfair to mention any positives within the debacle that has been Fallout 76, but that is the problem with bottom line of this game’s evolving lifecycle; there are really no positives to how Bethesda and team handled this game and they have shown no signs of improving the communication efforts and reassuring what fans still remain. All this being said, there is still hope for the future of Bethesda and 76, and hopefully it will come sooner rather than later.

 

Thomas McKinnon

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