Fallout 3 is coming! Fallout 3 is coming! Oh, wait, no it’s not. A game called Fallout 3 is coming, but Fallout 3 will never be.
The video game industry, like the movie and television industry, trades names and ideas in a way that makes me scratch my head. And as if there were some magical power in the name of a game or movie, fans obediently froth at the mouth when offered the opportunity to enjoy more of the same name. But games aren’t names, they’re artistic products crafted by specific people.
Fallout 3 is just a name, and Bethesda cannot make an actual Fallout 3 by owning the letters F, A, L, O, U, and T arranged in a specific combination. Games are designers, artists, and coders and if those people change, the series changes. Bethesda is not comprised of those who designed the first two games and as such cannot create the third. This does get a slippery since the original people rarely all stay even in a game that is a legitimate sequel, but surely it is apparent that if a different company is creating a sequel (company culture matters a lot in game design) and zero people who worked on the previous games are involved, well then it’s not actually a sequel.
Companies buy names to make money off of a fan base. The roar of excited Fallout fans (well, the ones who aren’t sticks in the mud like me) can be heard all across the internet. But Bethesda could have just created their own post-apocalyptic RPG. What in the new game will demand the Fallout name? I highly doubt the title will make strong, deeply woven plot ties to the previous games beyond “the world blew up and war sucks.” Likely, the game will include a few past Fallout things in easter eggs to appease fans (Dogmeat, Holy Handgrenade, hopefully Hubology). Then I guess there’s Pipboy.
As an exercise, think of a field in which you excel, and then a personal inspiration. Would you want to own a band’s name so you can personally release albums with it? Do you want to own the name of your favorite book series in order to write the next novel? Bethesda said they wanted to keep the Fallout series alive, so they bought it. What are they keeping alive besides a name? If Bethesda were fans of Fallout, wouldn’t they want a new game designed by the Troika and Black Isle guys? To want to own someone else’s art so you can make more of it and pass it off as your own is either a business decision, or bizarre fanboyism.
What if I made Fallout 4? Would you acknowledge it as canon because I named it Fallout? If not, why? I suspect that you ultimately value a piece of paper that says someone else owns the IP above all else. If so, you essentially believe the game you love so much is nothing more than some words on a legal document. Satan could buy the rights to Fallout then you’d be forced to accept that it’s a Fallout game.
Crucially, all of this means absolutely nothing about how good or bad Fallout 3 will be. My point is not to imply that Bethesda is talentless or even that this game won’t be amazing. Put simply, a company may claim to own ideas, thoughts and creativity, and they may claim to have passed these things to another company via a piece of paper, but this is all nonsense. Fallout 3 may kick ass, but quality of craft is not contained in a contract passed between parties. Fallout 3 is not automatically awesome because of its pedigree, nor is it Fallout in more than name.
OK, I’m done. Dig in.