Can Fallout 76 Pull Off Gaming's Biggest Turn-Around?

The introduction of the new “Nuclear Winter” mode to Fallout 76 has made the much maligned title one of the most trending titles on Twitch. Is it an aberration, or a sign of things to come?

Can Fallout 76 Pull Off Gaming's Biggest Turn-Around?

The introduction of the new “Nuclear Winter” mode to Fallout 76 has made the much maligned title one of the most trending titles on Twitch. Is it an aberration, or a sign of things to come?

It’s no secret that Fallout 76 has had a rough go of it since releasing last year. The online multiplayer prequel, taking place in the earliest days of post-war recovery, eschewed many of the key components that gave previous entries their unique identity. Fallout, since its earliest days, has been about roleplaying and tactics, with dialogue choices influencing the story and the V.A.T.S. system slowing down combat. All of this is absent from the original release of Fallout 76, including a complete absence of NPC characters to make the world feel alive.

Total streams of Fallout 76 in its first four months.

The result was a lack of staying power on Twitch, with daily peak viewership dropping below an average of 1,000 audience members by the new year, only a month and a half after release, in addition to the game becoming the target of a internet-wide campaign of poor reviews, critical think-pieces, and flat-out vitriol. With Bethesda having a full slate of other titles on the horizon, from id Software’s Doom and Wolfenstein sequels to the much-hyped but as-of-yet unseen Starfield and Elder Scrolls VI, many in the gaming space assumed this would be the last we’d really hear of Fallout 76, with the developer and publisher happy to move on to other projects.

This year’s E3 proved this wouldn’t be the case, as the game was heavily featured in Bethesda’s annual conference. Much of what was on display was about the future, the promise of additional story content and missions, the addition of NPCs, a consistent release schedule of smaller additions, and more. In many ways, they were providing the details that have been missing from their “roadmap,” something that has become essential to the success of any live-service title. But, another piece of announced content was released almost right away, and at first, it seemed like a terrible idea.

“%$@#! yeah, we put a battle royale in Fallout 76,” Tom Mustaine, co-studio director of Bethesda Game Studios shouted from the stage, and while the live-audience buzzed with excitement, many in the game press and elsewhere rolled their eyes. Battle royales have been ubiquitous for years now, with Fortnite becoming the biggest game on the planet and many, many others carving out large audiences of their own. For a game that was accused of leaving the identity of its own series behind to try and mirror the success of others, this felt like just another step in the wrong direction, another popular genre being forced in to try and salvage a disappointing product.

But then, something strange happened. People got their hands on it. And they liked it. A lot.

A brief foray into the game’s subreddit reveals headlines like “Is it me… or is Nuclear Winter’s Battle Royale actually… fun?” with many commenters sharing in the original poster’s surprise. “I generally don't care for PvP at all, let alone BR. I played two matches of NW and had a blast!,” says one participant, while another adds that Nuclear Winter is amazing, “and this is coming from a guy who generally doesn't care about any kinda battle royale, but for some reason it fits Fallout so well.” This is, of course, just anecdotal, but it bares out in the game’s Twitch performance, which has pulled a massive turn-around since the new update.

Viewership before and after the release of "Nuclear Winter."

As noted in this week’s #Top5OnTwitch rankings, Fallout 76 has experienced a whopping 2109% increase in Twitch viewership, with a total of 8212 new creators streaming the title, and an average of 162 channels at any given time, compared to just 36 the week prior. These numbers easily made it the fastest growing title on the platform, and it begs the question, can Fallout 76 use this opportunity to build a real, stable community? Does the promise of more updates mean this momentum will continue? Let’s project forward by taking a look back at another live-service title that has managed to carve out a similarly sized footprint on Twitch: Sea of Thieves.

Released on March 20, 2018, Sea of Thieves reached a peak of over 4000 active streamers on its first day, but then steadily fell to an average closer to 150 before the release of its first expansion, “The Hungering Deep.” Between its first day and the end of the year, the game saw three such expansions, and each time it pulled creators back in, reaching peaks, again, near 500 creators and just under 50,000 viewers. These were substantial improvements, but it’s important to note that they were only momentary bumps, and each time, within a few days, numbers returned back to baseline.

The first nine months of total streams for Sea of Thieves.

That is, until the release of “Shrouded Spoils,” a significantly larger content release featuring new puzzles to solve, lands to explore, and myriad updated features fans had been clamoring for. In the eyes of many players in the game’s community, this was the update that fulfilled the promise of the original game, the point where the amount of variety of content reached a critical mass and made the game sustainably fun to play and stream, and this bares out in the metrics. In the two months prior to this update, the title was streamed by an average of 59 channels at any given time. Meanwhile, that number climbed to 152 in December, then 423 in January, and it’s maintaining this new level of success ever since.

Sea of Thieves streams since release of "Shrouded Spoils."

What does this mean for Fallout 76? That there’s still more work to be done. The “Nuclear Winter” expansion has been a stellar start to the process of reinvigorating this game and its community, but it won’t do the whole job. Updates are essential to the ongoing health of any live service title, but when they’re limited in scope, and most are, the amount of time each individual content drop will boost Twitch numbers is limited. It’s clear that streamers and viewers are enjoying this new battle royale mode, but if it was all that was on the calendar, the game would be right back where it started in only a few weeks. But, Bethesda has no intention of sitting on its hands.

The promise of additional content means that further moments of punctuated Twitch momentum could be in the cards, as new missions, weapons, and game modes should, as with Sea of Thieves, draw smaller numbers back to the title. The real promise, though, lies in the upcoming “Wastelanders” expansion, which introduces NPCs and new questlines that should completely reinvent the game. It holds the potential of finally delivering on what fans first imagined when they heard there was going to be an “Online Fallout,” and if it’s well received, could permanently alter the state of its community and culture, to the point of providing sustainable, consistent engagement from streamers and audiences. Who would have thought that was possible for this game only a month ago?

The team behind Fallout 76 seems to be learning the lessons of other live-service titles and applying them to the game’s future, and it demonstrates a real commitment to turning the story of this title around. If they can deliver on their promises, the possibility for a real, dedicated community is, suddenly, within reach. If they can pull it off, it will be one of the biggest turn-arounds in recent memory. We can’t wait to see how it plays out.

Be sure to check out this week's #Top5OnTwitch rankings to see how Fallout 76 stacks up, and our breakdown of how Watch Dogs Legion represents a huge opportunity for streamers. Also follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn for all the latest blogs, announcements, and game marketing news from the team at GAMESIGHT!