“But it makes a lot of money!” So do crack kingpins. What’s your point?
Fallout Shelter is a virtual ant farm, but with little people instead of ants, set in the Fallout universe. (Post-nuclear apocalypse, in a world based on what modern people wrongly think 1950’s people imagined the future to be.) It’s superficially similar to “God games” like SimCity and Civilization, but whereas those games worked hard to present a fun and playable game, Fallout Shelter works hard to present a game you can’t play for more than 30 seconds without spending money.
It’s hard to overstate how shallow the gameplay of Fallout Shelter is. Your job is to build and manage a Vault, an underground shelter against nuclear war. (Or something. See the other games for the truth.)
Here’s the core gameplay loop: you build a power plant, water works, and cafeteria and every few minutes you tap the screen of your mobile device to harvest power, water, or food. Then you wait for a few minutes. Then you tap again. Then maybe a character levels up. So you tap. Then you wait some more. And tap. And wait. And tap. And wait. Occasionally, you earn a few caps (bottlecaps being the currency of Fallout) and you can finally upgrade your rooms or even build new ones.
Now and then bad stuff happens for no apparent or avoidable reason, and your citizens have to fight fires, cockroaches the size of dogs, or psychotic cannibalistic Wasteland bandits straight out of Mad Max, all while you sit there and wait. There’s nothing for you to do. Oh, if someone gets close to death, you can heal them… by tapping on them. Then you wait for someone else to get hurt. Then tap them. Then wait.
There’s no skill involved in play, and precious little planning or strategy. To play, you open it up every few minutes, tap several times, than put it away. If you get invested, you’re thinking about it all the time. You check it every so often, and tap. And wait. And tap again. And put it away. And wait.
It may sound boring, but in fact it’s a nearly perfect electronic Skinner box. Give people a goal, and the need to periodically tap a button to reach that goal, and each tap lights up the brain’s reward system like nobody’s business. It’s addictive.
This is where the micro-payments come in. There’s randomized “Lunch Boxes” with contents that may or may not help—random weapons, new citizens, caps, etc. Most of the time they’re mostly useless, but every now and then you get SOMETHING TOTALLY AMAZING. (Randomly dispensed rewards? Key parts of an effective Skinner box.)
Technically you can earn them through fulfilling completely pointless quests, but you never earn enough that way to really affect the course of the game. Instead, you can buy 1 for 99 cents, up to (best deal!) 40 for $19.99. The purchased ones are, of course, better than the ones you can earn in-game, so you’re motivated to spend that dough.
There’s also a “Starter Pack” with a bunch of random things, for $4.99. You can only buy it once for each vault you build, and in the context of the other micropayment options, it’s not totally insulting. Unless you stop to consider the fact that you’re paying 5 bucks EACH TIME YOU PLAY to begin with some decent resources, caps, and citizens. Then it’s totally insulting.
There’s also a mechanic to wait less, based on bottles of Quantum Nuka Cola. Again, you can kinda earn these with the same stupid quests, or you can buy them in lots running from 6 for $.99, up to 1000 for $99.99.
One Hundred Dollars. Not to buy virtual items, like a suit of armor or a weapon (as you get in Lunch Boxes), but just to play the game without all the damn waiting. (The tapping? Totally intact. PHEW! LUCKY ME!)
The game does have some positive points. The art style is classic Fallout, every dweller drawn in that Vault Boy style. The characters say funny things, the outfits and weapons are colorful, and watching characters chat each other up in the Living Quarters, exchanging cheesy post apocalyptic one-liners is a stupid kind of fun (although the entertainment value soon palls).
But the game is nothing more than an exercise in franchise nostalgia—it exploits the love people have for Fallout 3, without providing as entertaining or worthwhile an experience as that highly popular open-world RPG. It exploits it, to milk the audience of money.
I cannot overstate how loathsome I find this model of game design. Yes, people play and people pay but only because the game exploits weaknesses in human nature, like habituation, periodic random reward reinforcement of repetitive tasks, and addictiveness. This used to be called “taking advantage of people”, and was considered a bad thing. Fallout Shelter, and similar games, are insanely effective at taking advantage of people, and as a result make astonishing amounts of money.
Sometimes making money means you’ve crafted an impeccable example of the art, something audiences love, and for good reason. Sometimes it means you’re churning out crap, milking a popular franchise by throwing out a slipshod, half-assed entry in a series. (HELLOOOO HOLLYWOOD!) And sometimes making a lot of money means you’re not even rising to that level, but instead using a finely-tuned electronic Skinner box to milk people of their money, without providing anything of worth in return. Yes, you can make money that way, but it’s low and despicable work, and shames the maker and the audience.
Fallout Shelter is a terrible game by terrible people, who should be ashamed. Those who defend it, and games like it, are jerkfaces and also wrong.