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Starting from creating mods and transitioning to developing a standalone game, we delved into the world of game development with the Creators of Fallout: New California, an unofficial prequel to Fallout: New Vegas. We discussed their modding adventure, the potential for earnings from creating mods, and their plans for the upcoming game.
Curious to learn more? Read the full interview for all the fascinating insights!

What were the biggest challenges you faced in creating Fallout: New California, particularly considering it's an unofficial prequel to Fallout: New Vegas?

New California was a tough project, being my first at that scale to be written and produced by me as the lead. Rick Hukkanen, who was the chief programmer responsible for coding all the quests and their architecture, also had a massive technical burden. My goal was always to make something in a low risk environment so that when I graduated from that experience, I could learn the lessons from my mistakes there, rather than in a professional environment. Which mostly worked! And as an unofficial prequel, those lessons were learned for sure.

We spent quite a lot of time pre-planning and experimenting, and redoing old work later in production, because the scope of the project falling almost entirely on the two of us required an inordinate amount of work. So the biggest challenge was the novelty of what we were doing, in a community that had very few people willing to put effort into a planned project with any form of leadership, and the scope of it, making an entirely new main quest from scratch.

Maintaining momentum and motivation over a lengthy development period can be challenging. How did you keep the energy high from the release of the first installment in 2013 to the beta of the second installment in 2018?

Motivation really comes down to two components in any human life: biology and philosophy. Together those two meet and fight with your beliefs and daily practice, which you can measure how effective it really is and how it endures under the various pressures to quit. 

In a lot of ways, FNC was my first chance to make myself put my philosophy into practice and overcome my own ADHD. It required that I balance my work life, my relationships, and my own procrastination with the ten thousand hours required to finish such a task. 

Rick was coming up on retirement, working as a system admin for some major companies by day, and working mornings, nights, and weekends. I’ve never asked him to write how he managed it exactly, but he went through periods of burnout, sometimes for months, before he finally finished it with me.

For me, the solution was to isolate myself as much as possible, minimize my personal obligations to communities and people, and reduce my expenses vs my income as much as possible. That made me kind of a mod hermit from 2015 to 2018, where I worked remotely for vfx houses in movies from what was basically a large metal warehouse with an 11’x14’ office in it, on property my mom owned after my father passed away, and just dedicate every free hour to FNC that wasn’t spent on work.

I found the internal switches that allow me to work, to build a routine, and avoid distractions. It required my full dedication to that routine building, and learning to regulate my distractions. 

The key was learning to chart distraction frequency and causes, and address them, no matter how inconvenient or annoying their elimination may be. I learned how to manage a project, how to chart it from beginning to end, and how to assign daily practical tasks that can be realistically accomplished by myself, or when delegated to another human being. And not let myself quit until at least something got done, every day.

That manageable chunk system I am still using, and I still have regular office hours where I have removed any source of entertainment or comfort. All distractions are removed, and I just focus on my work in a room that is dedicated as a temple to the craft. Nothing else ever enters that space -- it is only the work, and reminders of past achievements, or future goals.

Can creating mods be a sustainable source of income? Did you generate revenue from developing such a popular mod like Fallout: New California?

Modding is only ever going to be a source of income for the top maybe 1% of modders, and there are both practical and existing EULA/TOS hurdles as reasons for why that is true.

Firstly, modding is very niche. For every user there will only ever be a handful of modders who are spontaneously motivated to learn those tools and execute on a vision. Vision is the most rare thing of all, followed by competence, followed by a desire to learn, followed by the desire to act. That little hierarchy is like a series of ever finer sieves, only letting through the most dedicated, before resolving to a mixture of luck and circumstances.

You also run into the reality that only games that pass a series of litmus checks will ever get mods in the first place. These are games that are good for modding, and are considered good enough that players spend hundreds if not thousands of hours in that ecosystem.

It’s nearly impossible to engineer such an ecosystem on purpose. You have to make a very good game first, and hope you get the right mix of people in that community that fulfill those filters I described above. So you are attracting people with a lot of free time, who are probably technicians or engineers, with people who are artists, and they are willing to cooperate. All within a game with a very passionate community that loves it, and is willing to promote and host and moderate works within that community. You almost can’t set out to have that on purpose. It has to emerge spontaneously from the quality of the product and the whims of its audience.

You can get modders who support themselves through Patreon. Those are a VERY rare few. They make 2000-4000$/mo and tend to support multiple modders around the globe, not just one, and they produce mods every month of a big size, almost like a franchise.

But 99% of modders will never see a dime. Even with donations, which a lot of people think is a solution, you’re lucky to see 20$/mo, and grateful for it, when you have a mod that pulls in thousands of monthly players. FNC only brought in 7641$ over 8 years of development, $4000 of which was at the tail end, and it had over a million downloads. That didn’t even cover rent when I wasn’t living in a shed, and it didn’t last through the pandemic.

So if you get into modding -- you will make more money doing let's plays on youtube, than you ever will making mods. That is a competitive and difficult route too, and only a few will ever make it sustainable.

The reality is, the audience doesn't respect the idea of paid mods for a plethora of both good reasons, which include the fostering of an open community and accessibility, and horrific reasons, which include pure selfishness and spite. On top of that, paid mods represent major legal and management responsibility for the host, and that means only a few corporations that are already well funded can sustain that kind of push. These are the kinds of corporations you typically don’t want monetizing microtransactions in games.

So while I’m sure there is a solution to a career professional making mods not as a hobby, but as a way of making enough money to live and entertain a mass audience -- it’s such a tiny niche, that only a tiny tiny percentage will ever achieve it. Even smaller than those who make indie & solo games professionally.

There are an inconceivable number of ways to do it wrong, and I haven’t seen a way to do it right. If there is a right way, it will look more like aftermarket parts for cars than microtransactions for games that don’t want or need them.

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Balancing new content creation with maintaining the original style and tone of the Fallout games must have been challenging, with over 16,000 lines of dialogue and extensive gameplay. How did you approach this balancing act?

At the very beginning, Rick and I set down a series of 4 core goals:

  • The Mod’s content should fit the core content of the base game as closely as possible.
  • If we can’t make it ourselves, or we can’t merge it in, we don’t do it.
  • The mod should have as few dependencies as possible for ease of install & maintenance, meaning no dependencies but vanilla (even script extenders and dlcs.)
  • If it doesn’t serve the completion of the main quest, we cut it and don’t do it.

These four rules ensured we stayed on task, kept the project lean, and tried our best to maintain a bar of quality. That obviously didn’t fully pan out, as even our own skills drastically improved across the mod’s lifetime, leaving areas of waving quality. We lacked agility, the ability to cut material and redo it, just because of the size, complexity, and lack of help.

Modders really didn’t like being constrained by those vanilla standards, and would refuse to join us on those grounds. The GECK was really hard to use for a lot of people who would prove great writers, for instance, but they wouldn’t want to do the work in that format, and would quit. Scripters also would refuse to work without NVSE and would quit. 

The dialogue was tough, but I had worked in television and film for years before and I loved doing that part. If I had to pick one job on a project, it would be writing that dialogue in those levels, and recording and editing the voice performances and motion capture. I loved it. And had it been my only job, it would have been 10x better. 

I loved level design too, and all the 3d art, but writing and editing a big playable experience full of dynamic branching choices & consequences was the most fun.

Some fans have criticized Fallout: New California for straying too far from the established Fallout lore. How do you respond to these criticisms, and do you believe fan-made content should strictly adhere to existing lore?

I would have loved to make it more lore friendly and maintain the same quality of veteran writing as New Vegas, but to do that, I needed a QA pass and revisions, and you need veteran writers. I couldn't afford that and no help was ever coming to satisfy that need. We did what we could with what we had, which was totally improvised.

Ultimately, FNC is closer to a Fallout experience as a zero budget mod as you can get before spending money hiring a dedicated crew. That I’m proud of and think we excelled at. But there’s no way to satisfy a AAA appetite on a DES budget. You don’t go to a soup kitchen expecting four star dinners for free.

The real thing fans hate most is the lack of side quests. And that is 100% due to being no-budget and a crew of two. They believed FNC should have many more side quests to fill the vast space, which we couldn’t afford. And I hate that more than anyone. I would have loved that. But you can’t rely on volunteers to accomplish such a task. You need paid professionals.

Reflecting on the development of Fallout: New California, what achievement are you most proud of with the mod, and are there any aspects you wish you could have approached differently?

I loved the characters, the locations, and the big choices that had big consequences. If I could do it all over again, I would have finished writing the main quest at least a year before production began, and started level design concurrently with that writing with a small core crew of environment and level artists, who are aware that the writing will be revised and improved through multiple drafts. I’d start the gameplay coding alongside that pre-production push too, all so these three aspects evolve together in a low stakes, low risk environment of improvisation and experimentation.

In that environment, we’d allow for spontaneous creativity around a solid core spine that could flex and adapt to that improv. Create a community of peers, not just me alone. This means this job pays their bills and keeps them coming back day after day, with tons of support.

Then have four years as a low budget voice pass fleshing out the core and branches, polish that main quest and the non-linear side quests, add and fix issues in that story through testing, and finally do a last pass of the high budget voice performances and supporting content to roll into end-production.

A mod really can’t do that for free, so I’d obviously only do this again in a professional setting.

You need to be naive to be dumb enough to try this no-budget. Once you have the wisdom, you know better than to try.

Your upcoming game, codenamed Project Morningstar, is generating buzz, especially with its modding core feature. Can you share any insights about it, or would you prefer to keep it a surprise for players?

Right now Project Morningstar is in “stealth mode” where we aren’t seeking attention and not advertising it. Once we have a rock solid core gameplay loop that supports itself, we’ll start promoting it far and wide under its official trademarked name.

The goal is to have a game that is totally non-linear, taking inspiration from RimWorld and StarSector, or games like Project Zomboid, Kenshi, or Bannerlords. Give players the tools to tell their own story in a wide open and dynamic environment with tons of environmental and political challenges to your survival.

You start with some custom characters you build from scratch, enter a world full of risks and opportunities, find a town, recruit more people to it, and begin to craft a legacy through trade, war, and exploration.

That core design philosophy will support modding as a core feature in its DNA, and hopefully, that inspires a community to add to it. We’re building an editor suite that’s inspired by our time modding Bethesda games, StarCraft, and RimWorld. So hopefully, that gets people excited to mod this one, being familiar and approachable. But as I said earlier -- you almost can’t engineer that. You just have to make a good game and accept who comes to the table.

Where can fans follow updates and news about Project Morningstar and your other projects?

Our website is RadianHelix.com, or you can watch us on Patreon, where I have a free monthly blog and occasional insights for paid members, and finally, our Discord.

Thank you for sharing the fascinating story behind Fallout: New California! A big round of applause to the talented team at Radian-Helix Media for their incredible dedication and passion. If you haven't experienced the wonders of this mod yet, why not dive in and support these fantastic creators? Here, you can download it!

⭐ Remember to stick around for more captivating interviews and content here at ModsLab or join our Discord to discuss the latest news in the modding world.

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