The Game Archaeologist: The tangled legal history of Interplay’s canceled Fallout Online
With the recent revelation that Bethesda’s Fallout 76 is going to be an online multiplayer survival game, players who have been hoping for a Fallout MMO finally have something to anticipate. Sure, it’s not a proper MMORPG, but it’s all we could ask for in this day and age, right?
Actually, Fallout 76 isn’t the first time that the Fallout series was heading for online shenanigans, nor is it the closest concept to a pure MMO. Years ago, an attempt was made by the original creators of the Fallout series to bring an online game to the community, but this effort was stymied by Bethesda and a mess of legal issues.
For those who look back at the Interplay era of Fallout with deep fondness, the thought of the canceled Fallout Online project is a sore wound that continues to cause pain whenever prodded. Which is, I guess, what I’ll be doing today as we look at what Fallout Online was going to be — and why it never came to be.
From Van Buren to Fallout Online
In 1997, Interplay Entertainment and Black Isle Studios rocked gamers’ worlds by releasing a spiritual successor to 1988’s Wasteland with Fallout. This “post-nuclear adventure” delighted fans with a romp through a grim and occasionally funny wasteland that was based on an alternate timeline that led to a devastating worldwide nuclear war. Fallout 2 came out a year later, improving on just about everything from the first game, and a spin-off called Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel using the same game engine helped to tide players over when it came in 2001.
Black Isle did begin work on a third installment of the series, code-named “Van Buren,” which was to use a 3-D game engine (still retaining the classic top-down camera perspective) and contain some sort of multiplayer option. The team was laid off and the project was canceled in 2003, however.
An online version of Fallout was pitched at the time to Black Isle Studios’ Feargus Urquhart, who liked the idea but shot it down anyway due to concerns of the possible budget, support needs, and limitations on other projects. “I believed that Interplay was just not in a situation where they had the resources to do it,” he said.
And even though the series was an undisputed hit and further titles seemed an inevitability, Interplay started to struggle financially in the early 2000s and suffered the loss of its founder Brian Fargo. The studio was acquired by Titus Software in 2001 and ended up dragging that company down into bankruptcy by 2005.
The MMO clause
In a fateful move — one that is still debated as either a savior or the doom of the franchise — Interplay sold Fallout’s rights to Bethesda in 2007 for $5.75 million while retaining back-licensing rights to continue to sell the old titles.
As Bethesda began working on 2008’s Fallout 3, Interplay figured that an MMORPG was fair game due to very specific clauses and requirements in its purchase agreement that allowed this to happen. And so Interplay began work on Fallout Online that year in the hopes of fulfilling all of these requirements and pushing out an MMORPG within four years. Bulgarian studio Masthead was brought on board as a partner in 2009 to help finish the game.
For the next three years, the project would push forward, and by the time Fallout Online was announced, beta sign-ups for it started, and its website went live during June 2010, some fans were thrilled to see the old team come back to deliver an online experience (you can take a look at the old site here). The goal? To get the game out by late 2012 with a team of about 90 people.
A hefty dose of vitamin V13
Fallout Online, code-named V13 (for Vault 13), involved many of the original makers of the Fallout games and was designed from the ground-up to foster both competition and cooperation between players. A truly massive world that spanned 65,500 square miles of terrain was mapped out and a heapload of concept art was released to whet fans’ appetites. Playable humans and ghouls were among the mentioned races, and “next gen” social content was planned.
Interplay President Eric Caen described Fallout Online by saying, “It’s not a shooting game we’re making. You can shoot, but it’s a very small portion of the game. The game itself is about reconstructing the world.”
Law. Law never changes.
Bethesda claimed that Interplay had failed to live up to its agreement, however, and a lawsuit ensued in 2009 as the studio tried to grab the MMO license back from Interplay. The legal battle between the two studios over this popular post-apocalyptic franchise would rage for years. And when I say “rage,” I mean it was one of those eternal back-and-forth epics that gradually wore everyone down trying to follow the legalese and read the dozens of posts on Massively-that-was that covered it. All you need to know is that there were three years of this battle, and it left a lot of players sore at both companies.
From Interplay’s perspective, Bethesda was never going to let competition arise: “It felt to me that they had no intention of allowing the game to go forward In looking over the contract between Interplay and Bethesda, it became very clear to me that Bethesda had no intention of ever allowing Interplay to actually create an MMO,” said Fallout Online Lead Designer Jason Anderson.
Ultimately, a settlement was reached in January 2012. The Fallout Online project was cancelled, Interplay was granted a much-needed $2 million, and Bethesda secured all of the rights to the Fallout IP going forward. A further court decision concerning the rights to a possible Fallout MMO was secured by Bethesda in 2016.
Interplay didn’t give up on the game and time spent making it, even so. Project V13 — now stripped of any mentions to Fallout or the Fallout universe — allegedly continued development for most of 2012 before being switched to a strategy RPG. The title has yet to see the light of day.