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Interview with JE Sawyer

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Interview with JE Sawyer

Interview - posted by Vault Dweller on Fri 17 March 2006, 04:05:40

Tags: J.E. Sawyer; Obsidian Entertainment

JE Sawyer has graced us with his presence and answered a question or two:
In Fallout 3, I wanted to make a serious attempt at balancing firearms through the availability of ammunition. I believed that ammunition as a valuable commodity made sense in a wasteland environment. Low-power ammo would be relatively common, but the stuff found in high powered rifles, machineguns, plasma weapons, etc. would be much rarer. The firearm specializations would have come through perks. I didn't really want to take depth away from firearms; I wanted to make firearm depth comparable to the depth of the unarmed and melee skills. As long as the nature of firearms and ammunition was made clear to the player, I think it would have worked.

1. What's your definition of RPG? What features are important to you and why?

I think the ability to make personality choices through my character that influence the outcome of things in the world is the only requirement for a game to be an RPG.

I don't think that the character I play needs to be one invented by me, but I have to be in control of aspects of that character's personality. And the way in which I choose to express that character's personality needs to have significant effects on the state of the world. The more the world reacts to my character's personality, the better.

I do not think that item collection, stat screens, combat style, or the presence of a lot of dialogue make a game an RPG. Using this definition, I've never shipped a game with strong RPG elements.

2. You were one of the Icewind Dale designers and the lead designer of Icewind Dale 2. The second game had very different feel and style, and, I guess, you are responsible for the changes. Can you comment on your design decisions, and compare the two games and the evolution of the series.

The development of Icewind Dale II was like putting thirty people in a Mack truck that had just been pushed down a mountainside. We all just tried to stop it before it reached the bottom and destroyed everyone inside.

I was the only core designer from the first game who worked on the second, so I think that contributed more to the difference in feel than anything I intentionally set out to do. There was a lot of inconsistency between areas which was really my fault and a side-effect of the very short development cycle. We understood the Infinity Engine well enough to develop things quickly, but iteration and significant area revision/coordination was difficult. Heavy combat areas were slammed up against really complicated puzzle areas and even areas of similar types often felt really dissimilar.

That said, I think the transition to 3E did make character creation and advancement feel much different than other IE games. I also really pushed to get people to make frequent use of the PCs' dialogue skills, race, class, and so on. Some people noticed it, some didn't.

3. Speaking of Icewind Dale, if you had a chance to work on another IWD game (note: Obsidian has the IWD license), what direction would you take? What design decisions could we expect?

I would definitely design the game with a much looser storyline and greater amount of freedom in the exploration of the game world. With that freedom, I would try to allow the player to make more meaningful character choices in the mini-hubs.

However, games where you build your entire party often offer weird logical personality conflicts (paladin + cleric of Malar = wheeeee!), so maybe it would work better as a Neverwinter Nights campaign designed around multiplay.

4. Moving on, next stop - Black Isle's Fallout 3, you are the lead designer again. What was your vision for the game? Where you were going to take the series and would your vision fit into the setting, the feel, the style of the first two games?

Not to speak too much for Chris Avellone, but we both agreed that Fallout 3 shouldn't feel like the world was really getting better. In fact, we wanted to make it feel like it was getting worse. Any infrastructure that groups like NCR had built up had become corrupted and was boiling with the nastier aspects of human social organization: tyranny, war, graft, intolerance -- all that good stuff.

NCR had been totally corrupted by the caravan houses. The Brotherhood of Steel was falling apart and rife with desperation and paranoia. A megalomaniacal tribal despot had risen from the ranks of the Followers of the Apocalypse. The Mormons of New Canaan were divided on issues of religious acceptance and racial biases. Even the remaining super mutants had to deal with a new problem: their impending extinction.

Would BIS' Fallout 3 have fit into the style of the first two? Sure! Yeah, it would have been great! Best ever! Of course I think it did, but I know a lot of people had big problems with the system changes I was making and with the inclusion of groups like the Mormons.

5. How important a setting is to you when you design games? Is it a strict guideline to be followed, a hindrance restricting your creativity, or something in between? Any favourite settings?

I think of a setting as a tool. Some tools are great for certain purposes and terrible for others. The Forgotten Realms is a great tool for D&D games because the two were made for each other. I don't think the Forgotten Realms is necessarily a great setting for the insightful exploration of moral themes because many of the movers and shakers in the world have cartoon morality and the presence of high magic makes a lot of real-world concerns disappear or seem absurd under close examination.

I like the Fallout setting. I like the world of Elric and Stormbringer. I like historical fantasy settings, like the one found in Darklands. I like the modern Call of Cthulhu setting found in Delta Green.

6. In Fallout 3 you merged 3 combat skills into Firearms and split Speech into Persuasion and Deception. Why? It's more of a general "character system" question, but using a good example is always better. Drawing a parallel with DnD games, do you think that a game with 3 combat skills: melee, ranged, unarmed would offer the same depth as a more detailed system?

The only way a designer can really decide on a skill set for a system is within the context of the game being made. I think the first two Fallout games were very gun-heavy. It was possible to play as a melee or unarmed character, but I do believe it was significantly more difficult.

There's a good reason why people use firearms in our world: they're much better at killing people than bare hands, brass knuckles, or a big sword. So I thought firearms still needed to be powerful in the Fallout world, but they should be limited in some way if people really liked the style of using melee and unarmed. I thought the division of firearm skills in the first two games felt clumsy and effectively forced a continual point dump if characters wanted to use them throughout the game.

In Fallout 3, I wanted to make a serious attempt at balancing firearms through the availability of ammunition. I believed that ammunition as a valuable commodity made sense in a wasteland environment. Low-power ammo would be relatively common, but the stuff found in high powered rifles, machineguns, plasma weapons, etc. would be much rarer. The firearm specializations would have come through perks. I didn't really want to take depth away from firearms; I wanted to make firearm depth comparable to the depth of the unarmed and melee skills. As long as the nature of firearms and ammunition was made clear to the player, I think it would have worked.

I divided the speech skills because "Charisma Boy" characters seemed to have no hard choices to make during character development. One skill covered all non-Barter aspects of talking, so it was pretty much a no-brainer. If you wanted to talk well, you tagged Speech and had high IN and CH. I also designed a lot of new perks that worked off of those two skills, so raising one or the other felt like they gave you significantly different options.

As for whether or not coarse combat skill divisions could work in a fantasy game like D&D, I think so. D&D is sort of bizarre in how it divides things: it's a game that has two different skills for looking at things (Spot and Search) and one score (Base Attack Bonus) that represents basic capability with all weapons. Excluding spellcasters, most D&D characters differentiate themselves in combat through the use of magic items, feats, and special abilities (which might as well be feats).

7. Considering all the excitement about Bethesda's getting the Fallout license, what is a Fallout game? As a FO developer, at what point it stops being a Fallout game and starts being something entirely else?

I think any game that maintains the basic art style, mood, conversation style, and themes of the first two Fallout games can fit. I think you could make a first-person Fallout game that seemed like it took place in the same world as the first two games. Of course, history has shown that you can make a third-person console action game that doesn't fit.

But really though, my opinion on the issue can't be that relevant to Fallout fans who thought I was mishandling the setting in Fallout 3.

8. TB vs RT. What are your thoughts, preferences, ideas? Also, you were trying to implement both modes in FO3, how did that work out? From your experience, is having both modes in one game a viable option or a disaster? Any comments on the Arcanum's dual system implementation?

I think both real-time and turn-based combat have the potential to be awesome or terrible. I just want the combat to be executed well. I do think that round-based combat is pretty clunky and antiquated for CRPGs whether you're acting in real-time or turns. In general, I like the idea that actions fill in on an infinite timeline that only ends when combat does. It would be terrible bookkeeping for pen and paper, but I think it would help in CRPGs, especially if developers want to support turn-based and real-time in the same game.

My favorite turn-based combat is in the Front Mission games and Final Fantasy: Tactics. My favorite real-time combat is in Ninja Gaiden. The last RPG I played with good combat was Temple of Elemental Evil.

In Fallout 3, the theory of our turn-based and real-time combat seemed solid. By the time of our demo, we were just showing real-time combat. Without pause, it was pretty crummy.

I think any time you offer multiple options for something, the strength of focus is diluted. However, players enjoy options for reasons that should be obvious. I think real-time and turn-based can co-exist in the same game. I don't think it's an automatic recipe for disaster.

I wasn't a big fan of Arcanum's combat overall. Its real-time combat felt pretty clunky to me.

9. Class-based vs skill-based. Again, thoughts, preferences, advantages/disadvantages, etc.

The advantage of skill-based systems is player flexibility in building their characters. The disadvantage is that players can spend their skill points in a way that results in their characters being terrible at pretty much everything.

Class-based systems give players a clear character concept with solid guidelines but they have more limited options for character advancement.

Sorry for the basic response, but I think this one's been covered well by now and I think the differences are pretty clear.

10. Same question I asked Dave Gaider: Text in RPGs. How much is too much, assuming that there is such a thing as "too much text" in RPGs? Chris Avellone has recently stated that dialogues sometimes get in the way of fireball casting & other exciting activities. What are your thoughts on this matter?

I think the quality of the text and the focus of the game should define that. If your text is boring, yeah, let's skip to the fireball-hurling. If your game is filled with really awesome combat, chatting it up for hours at a time probably dilutes your experience. If your game has a lot of meaningful character interactions and political intrigue, you're selling yourself short if you tightly limit how much text the player deals with.

Your audience should also have a huge effect on the "too much" limit. If you're making a game for mass appeal, forget having a lot of text and forget trying to do anything clever with the text you have. We live in a world where According to Jim tops the charts and Arrested Development gets canceled. That should put some perspective on things.

11. Factions or what your faction can do for YOU? You stated in the past that players should be given "the ability to turn the tables on those factions and squeeze them if he or she wants to." Any more thoughts on the faction mechanics? Any chance of seeing anything like that implemented in the near future?

I think all of the stuff I previously said about faction mechanics still applies. I think becoming involved in a faction should usually involve a process where acceptance is earned and the player character becomes embroiled in some internal conflict that he or she is critical in resolving. I also like it when factions have identifying symbols, outfits, and rituals that the PC can take part in. It helps strengthen the connection between the PC and the group. I would have loved to have an induction ritual for the Brotherhood of Steel in Fallout 3. I was also planning similar elements for the various factions in The Black Hound.

Of course, world reactivity to the PC's association with the faction is a must. Some people should respect you more, others should despise you, and it should feel like it makes a significant difference overall.

If I ever work on another game with attention given to factions, I'll certainly put a lot of effort into making them feel cool and special.

12. Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows. Can you describe your contribution to the role-playing elements of the game, your experience, and why there was such a dramatic difference between interviews/previews, promising us depth and fusion, and the final product, that, apparently, featured neither of those?

Even by popular standards, there are no role-playing elements in Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows. The reason I asked to not be listed in the credits is because I felt like I contributed virtually nothing to the released game. The story was completely changed, the character advancement system was torn out, item collection was removed, complex combos got the axe, and so on. The only bits that remained from me were superficial things like cultural elements that made no sense in the story's barebones framework. It's certainly possible that the game Midway released was more fun than the game I designed -- but it wasn't the game I designed, period.

13. Long time ago, answering a question about the future of RPGs at NMA, you said that they are going "straight to hell" and that "Troika is one of the last pure PC RPG developer in the U.S." How would you answer the same question today?

To my knowledge there are no pure PC RPG developers left outside of very small outfits like Spiderweb Software.

Welcome to hell!
We'd like to thank Josh for his time and wish him interesting projects to work on.

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