Fallout Shelter: A Terrible Game by Terrible People

Monday , 5, June 2017 22 Comments

Fallout Shelter is a terrible game by terrible people. It’s completely awful, top to bottom, with nearly no redeeming features.

“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.

It’s devilish.

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.

Jasyn Jones, better known as Daddy Warpig, is a host on the Geek Gab podcast, a regular on the Superversive SF livestreams, and blogs at Daddy Warpig’s House of Geekery. Check him out on Twitter.

  • Aaron B. says:

    Yes, games like that make backroom casinos look morally upright. They bring all the addictive power of a well-calculated intermittent reward system right into your hand, and let you buy more “chips” to play whenever you want, as long as your credit card holds out.

    I played one of the farming-type ones for a while, out of curiosity because I have some game ideas of my own, but it was the exact same thing. I’m too frugal and stubborn to spend money to speed up a game, so they didn’t get to my wallet. But it was surprising how addictive it was, even though I knew what it was doing. There’s something about the routine mixed with rewards that’s compelling. I won’t call it fun, because it’s really not; it’s more of a compulsion to keep the wheels turning.

    I joke that it’s too bad we can’t harness the energy that people put into games like that, and turn it toward something actually productive — planting real crops instead of fake ones, maybe. But that wouldn’t produce the same psychological response.

    • Jeremy Andersen says:

      Y’all release it’s a straight breeze to mod this mobile game right?

      • True_poser says:

        Yeah, about that.
        Have you noticed that the vast majority of freemium games have only client-side “protection”, though they do need to connect to the server?

        Usually, unless you for some reason do a competitive mobile game, it’s just not cost-effective to implement a non-token protection.

        You do have to do some lip service, so that paying people won’t get irritated, but other than that no one cares.

        The reason is twofold:
        1) as with PC games piracy, people who search for cracked .apks wouldn’t have paid anyway, so they might as well not exist
        2) and everyone else pays anyway

        So why bother? You’ll need that coder time you’ve paid for spent on the next game.

  • Alistair says:

    I played this game for about 6 hours total before I uninstalled. Shame on me for playing for that long.

  • Douglas Ghizzoni says:

    It should be noted the game released before they added the “quests”. So it really was a pure SimAntFarm the first few months it was out.

    I’ve never spent any money on it. And I tend to play it when I’m stuck waiting somewhere and wifi is weak…in others, once every 2 weeks. Since you don’t really have any direct input, even during the quests, it’s nothing more than a time sink. Shame, since they could have made a good game that did require true player input.

    But as Jasyn points out, the goal was not to make a good game, it was to make money. And it is incredibly sad how much money this game has made. MPAI indeed.

  • Christian Loveridge says:

    It’s interesting that the author called it a “Skinner Box”.

    Knowing what we know about Vault-Tec, it would be absolutely amazing if Bethesda revealed that this app, like any given Vault-Tec vault, was indeed a Skinner Box, and a manifestation of the game’s lore in real life.

    They would earn my undying respect for something so ballsy and brilliant.

  • Erik Brandt says:

    Okay, show us on the doll where the bad game touched you. I’ve played the game and it’s a waste of time… but in the same way a rock garden is a waste of time.

    • Anthony says:

      What is with people and these douchey non-responses?

      • NARoberts says:

        I think it is when we come into contact with “fandom.”

        The last time it happened was with the Supernatural thread.

        Gamers get triggered over people disliking their favorite games all the time, but I am impressed that someone is this upset over what is sounds like a dumb F2P P2W thing.

      • Aaron B. says:

        It might be that the things we’re saying about these games don’t reflect very well on the people who play them. Like Alistair said above, I’m ashamed I played one as long as I did.

        But all video games are ultimately a waste of time other than whatever enjoyment you get out of them, so if people enjoy these, what’s the difference? Two things I see: first, I wasn’t enjoying the game. It wasn’t fun the way Baldur’s Gate or Pac-Man are fun. It was more like a fat guy eating potato chips, knowing he should stop, but always reaching for one more. Satisfying a compulsion, not enjoyment.

        The other thing is the manipulativeness of the pay model. They have to get paid, fine. So sell extra turns or something, but too many of these games are constantly trying to nudge you in that direction. In the farming game I played, you had to have three different items to expand your farm. You needed the same number of each item (like 9 deeds, 9 hammers, and 9 stakes), which you could buy or receive as rare random rewards. Since you need the same number of all three, why have three different items; why not just one? Because that way they can program it so one is a more common reward than the others, and when you have enough of that one to expand your farm, you start to feel like it’s “time” to expand, so maybe you buy a few of the other two. There’s a lot of manipulation like that, and it just feels dirty.

    • Dr. Mauser says:

      I know you think your Rock Garden was a waste of time, but it’s entirely your own fault that they all died.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    I played this game for months.

    Never spent a dime on it.

    My phone is an older model so if my colony ever reached a medium size the game would slow to a crawl making it impossible to do time sensitive action like put out fires or fight.

    A couple of things not mentioned:

    The game reinforces gender norms. Women are women and men are men. You need both to make babies and only women get pregnant. There is a even a nightie you can put on the ladies to make them more alluring to men and speeds up the baby making process. There is no gay romance or gay sex at all.
    I don’t recall if after getting pregnant women are worse fighters or workers but because of the visual cues, (happy ladies in maternity cloths rubbing their big bellies) at least for me, you would put them pregnant ladies in a safe area until the kids are born.

    All of this is great by the way and I would not be the least surprised to find some SJW article out there autistic screeching about “muh gender norms”.

    What isn’t great is there is no family. You just put a dude and a lady (or ladies) together a living unit and they make babies. And right after you can switch out the dude with another dude and make more babies. There is no bonding no marriage no husbands and ultimately no fathers.

    At least thankfully there is a mechanic that prevents sisters and brothers and parents and children from breeding.

  • roughcoat says:

    I played Fallout Shelter for a couple days a while back, though I never indulged in any microtransactions. I don’t remember there being all the mentioned types of microtransactions, so maybe they were added after I stopped playing. I can’t remember when I was playing. It might’ve been all the way back in 2015.

    I stopped playing because it just got boring after a short while. It’s a pretty simple system and once I figured out how to minimize my need to actually do anything besides tap icons–there are ways to build the vault to make attacks almost totally ineffective, for example–I lost interest.

    Fallout Shelter doesn’t offend me nearly as much as Clash Royale. My Clash of Clans group switched over to CR once CoC was dying and while it was fun at first, eventually it became obvious that the developers had designed the game to put the player on an emotional rollercoaster. What I mean is, they would adjust the difficulty of the opponents not based on rank or skill of the player, but in a way to encourage winning and losing streaks. I’m pretty sure they actually used crappy bots to help with the winning streaks too.

    So the way it would work is I’d win a bunch in a row against easy to moderately strong opponents, often beating people who were “stronger” in terms of their unit levels, and that would make me feel good. But then I’d get matched like 10-15 times in a row with ridiculously strong opponents who would totally destroy me and knock me way down in trophies. Then the cycle would repeat. I tracked the matches once I became suspicious and the manipulation of the matching was not just my imagination.

    Putting someone on that sort of rollercoaster makes them more likely to spend money on the microtransactions, I suppose. And of course, the whole game is designed to prey on the impatience of people even without that rollercoaster effect, since chests take forever to open and you can pay to open them immediately, or buy chests that open immediately instead.

    Even the music–which I always turned off–is designed to suck people in and make them want to play a lot. I suppose they pulled that idea from slots.

    I stopped playing Clash Royale once I concluded that the game was purposely manipulating my emotions to try to get me to cough up money and never investigated further, but I would not be surprised if the bit of manipulation I saw was just the tip of the iceberg.

  • True_poser says:

    Well, the monetization is made this way in mobile games because nothing else works.

    It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation, but the current state of the market is that a “premium” (as in you pay once, you own it) game is highly unlikely to get even low five-digit number of installs.
    Given the pricing on mobile games, it means you’re looking at 50-60k USD before the store cut at best.
    There are some exceptions once in a while, though Starbase Orion failed to get enough money on their kickstarter campaign to port to Android.
    However, making a “proper” (not a tie-in or a port of an established game) “premium” game on mobile is usually fruitless.

    It’s not like making a microtransactions game is a walk in the park, though.
    Developers play the casino too with hardly 3% of games making any money.
    And the audience’s mood is pretty volatile too and you can’t expect the mechanics that worked two years ago to earn you something today.

    So it’s as ruthless as it gets.
    The development time is really cut down (to 3-4 months) to crank out the games from the conveier.
    The mechanics are endlessly cloned with slight mutations.
    And, of course, the principles of an emotional roller-coaster stay the same.
    You’ve got onboarding, an economical pit the player has to get into, gentle or not so gentle proddings to bu something (a player is ten to twenty times more likely to stay in the game after a single purchase) and, of course, a shallow social system (as nothing holds a player in the game as other people).

    And with a high userbase pros commonly do A/B tests, putting different groups in different conditions (it’s not like the players will ever have a sample size enough to prove something) to see how… spending habits change.

    So, hate the player, hate the game and replace your smartphone with a rugged dumbphone as the mobile games market may die eventually, but may not change.
    Most probably you need a smartphone just for games and for social networks, and social networks do exactly the same, but with a twist.
    It’s, of course, good if they manage to sell you some product, but first and foremost you are the product.

    If you must, well, the bane of F2P is “buy it tomorrow”.
    Chances are you won’t even remember you wanted to buy something.

    That’s, by the way, why so few “proper” PC games have demos now.
    If the decision to buy is delayed, you’re much less likely to buy the game.

    It continues into another conundrum, of course.
    Sure, about 40% of game copies bought on Steam never get launched, but even with strategy games that has never been on sale you’ll be looking at about 1/6 of owners never launching it and about a 1/3 at best winning a single game.
    Sure, a player who never launches the game is the player who does not refund or leave a negative review, so it’s an outcome second only to the glowing review.
    But the notion that you design an intellectual strategic game only for 5-8% who care is a bit mind-boggling.

    So it goes.

  • Alex Archer says:

    You wrote an entire article on a smartphone game that Bethesda made as a little experimental project. Something that they could do while developing their other games and have fun with. To me, that is just sad. If Fallout shelter was some big triple A game, then go ahead and criticize it and tear it to pieces. But it’s not. So why don’t you go and ‘review’ Candy Crush and Flappy Bird while you’re at it. You clearly have nothing better to do with your time and are just a complete waist of space.

    TLDR: You’re sad, get a life

    • roughcoat says:

      Well that added to the discussion.

      Why is Fallout Shelter not worth reviewing, precisely? Do you think it’s also a waste of time to, for example, criticize slot machines? What’s the minimum bar for “significant enough to merit criticism” in your eyes?

    • True_poser says:

      First of all, thank you for being a part of paying F2P audience and possibly contributing to my payslip.

      Second, thank you for making me chuckle.

      Now, point-by-point.
      – Fallout Shelter wasn’t made by Bethesda, it was made by Behaviour Interactive. They’re seasoned, professional and jaded devs. Bethesda’s “just” a publisher and IP owner.
      – There’s not much experimental about Fallout Shelter. It was made as a part of the Fallout 4 launch marketing campaign, it wasn’t meant to have a life of its own (though it is always welcome).
      – Fallout Shelter was a very high-grossing game and still continues to be competitive. While the financial data is, of course, closed, it’s safe to assume that it earned at least 30-40 million, though it might be on par with Fallout 4. It is AAA, like it or not.
      – Candy Crush is (yet?) unparalleled in revenue and is single-handedly responsible for match-3 mechanics revival. People still do make clones of it and reviewing how exactly does a match-3 game prod you to buy things (level generation tied with moves left) is non-trivial, to put it mildly.
      – Flappy Bird is a lucky hit with a spot-on feel. Its developer was shocked and retracted the game instead of trying to monetize it, but, well, a bit too late. It is really beneficial to review how simplest things (like flapping the bird or moving tiles in 2048) can effectively induce a compulsive loop.

      So, well, thank you for being proactively unaware of all that and paying us (and maybe me some time in the past or in the future) your hard-earned money.

  • maniacprovost says:

    It sounds like you’re describing the “game” as it launched, not as it is now.

    Actually it’s more of a “toy” than a “game.”

    There’s actually slightly more depth to it than what you describe. But yeah, it’s only fun for a day or two, maybe a week. It’s free. A day or two of entertainment with a simple, silly game is fine.

  • Karrthus says:

    The thing that got me was when this was shown at e3 2 years ago alongside the release of fallout 4 the words from their mouth was “this game will cost nothing, there will be no mxt no premium content, just a little mobile game you can enjoy while you wait for fallout 4

    Month later lunchboxes arrive
    Year later nuka cola and petcrates arrive

  • Jamie says:

    @ “I cannot overstate how loathsome I find this model of game design.”

    No, no, you did.

  • Vlad James says:

    Apparently, this game epitomizes the worst of the “cow-clicker” genre. Games with energy refresh and waiting have made strides in recent years to get away from their brain-dead, predatory roots, but every so often, especially with popular franchises that have a built-in audience, one gets a real “throwback”.

    The Game of Thrones Flash MMO is even worse.

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