The Vault - Fallout Wiki

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The Vault - Fallout Wiki

A while back, IGN has released Episode #32 of IGN Unfiltered, this time sitting down with Fallout: New Vegas lead designer, Joshua Sawyer. Lasting over an hour in length, it can be found here or downloaded as a podcast here. To help those who don't have an hour to spare - or the attention to divide - we've taken some rough notes.

Interview notes

These notes are arranged in a roughly thematic order, rather than purely chronological. Please note that any dumber jokes or quips are the fault of Tagaziel, not JES.

Personal background

Lawrence History major/Theater minor

Originally went to Lawrence Conservatory, was a bad student; thought he was to be a prof. actor and singer.

He loves history, esp. magic/religion, early modern/Renaissance history. 

Broad variety of interests, including singing, arts, gaming, history, etc.

No solid career plan, early plans were fuzzy, focused on tabletop in early days; always liked games. 

JES is colorblind, artwork is a challenge as a result.

Parents were always extremely supportive of him; father is a freelance bronze sculptor, very proud of him whatever he did - just wanted him to be happy

JES is aware that luck was critical to his career and the support of other people.


His entry: Self-taught HTML and Flash animation; joined Black Isle as a web designer, writing a four-page cover letter that mostly rambled about RPGs/their direction (for a secret project - PS:T).

His progression to game developer was the result of constant harrasment of the devs, making sure that the website was accurately representing the game - from the graphics to the lore. He forged close ties with MCA, Colin McComb etc. at that time. 

Then he kept badgering Feargus about doing design work. Feargus kept pushing him off, until a position opened for Icewind Dale for a junior designer. 

Icewind Dale 2 came in the tail end of Interplay and JES accepted the responsibility for the project, moving to a higher position thanks to his ID experience. 

Black Isle: JES left two weeks before its death, as he saw no way to move forward as part of BIS. 

After: Worked briefly at Gauntlet at Midway San Diego (1.5 years), different experience - didn't feel as a core part of the studio. Money problems at Midway caused pressure and crunch, so JES left, joined Obsidian to work on NWN2.

Coming to OEI felt like being part-FNG, since they already did KOTOR2 and he was coming in partway through the project as a senior designer. He wasn't syncing well for a while, moved to a different project with a starter team, then returned as NWN2 lead. 

NWN2 was in a difficult place, and JES focused on finishing it and making it complete before shipping (so that KOTOR2 isn't part of a pattern). 

Fun fact: Presidential codenames were used Black Isle, Obsidian uses state names in order of their incorporation into the Union. Codenames are meant to maintain OpSec and avoid both leaks and giving people expectations as to the name (which is why Deadfire is Louisiana; other names mentioned are Ohio or Indiana). 

Role-playing game design

Differences between tabletop and computer games: Pacing, improvisation, esp. in combat - in game, one minute translates to thirty in pnp. Plus, the fact you're controlling every character simultaneously changes the perception. 

JES tries to include PNP elements like dialogue options, faction options, double-crossing, killing everyone and finishing the game still, to reflect that improvisational aspect, the spirit of tabletop. 

Similarities: Fulfilling a diverse set of fantasies for players and allow a degree of freedom in story and decisions, even with codified characters like Geralt, Adam Jensen etc.
===[[Van Buren]]===
Van Buren: Just the lead systems designer at first, MCA was lead designer, had a massive bible full of ideas and characters (he writes down), they first thinned it to find the most appealing and interesting elements. Stressful time too, as Interplay was bleeding people in every single way and most veteran designers were looking to jump ship. 

Designers knew they will likely fail, but passionate developers stayed on to try and make Fallout 3. After MCA and many others left, JES stayed behind to try and finish it with other people. 

It was a game with lots of promise, but Interplay could never finish it most likely. 

JES isn't really bothered by VB's cancellation after making FNV. 

It's a good thing Van Buren didn't ship, as it would have happened under durress and it wouldn't be a healthy project. 

Fallout: New Vegas

Bethesda's Fallout 3: 160 hours played (most after he knew they were going to do the game), wanted to exhaust everything in the game. BGS mastered the art of exploration gaming, whether it's open world or dungeons. Good at encouraging players to explore. 

MCA observation: At every point on the map you see at least three more landmarks to guide exploration. Experience in TES definitely helped master this. 

FNV: Obsidian tried to embrace these exploration principles in their game. 

Goals for FNV: Move perks away from skill bonuses towards unique gameplay benefits. Make choices more impactful. Worked with John Gonzalez to flesh out the conflict over Hoover Dam. Gonzalez developed much of the story, including fleshing out the characters, factions, Mr House; the story is designed to hook the player into the conflict and lead them to meeting all the groups vying for control over the Mojave. 

Dealing with Benny puts the player in the center of the conflict. Exposure to factions was meant to challenge and alter their perception; NCR went from AMERICA FUCK YEAH to Yeah, this is pretty corrupt and petty out here - Legion was intended to go from BABY-EATING MONSTERS to a more comprehensible evil, not tolerable, but understandable. 

The decisions were meant to make players question their morals and values while deciding who is best for the Mojave (and who to screw over). 

How do you implement choices that matter: Planning is everything. Ground rules that are inviolable are vital, including the Flamethrower Principle: The player has to be able to kill any character (except children) and still complete the game. 

FNV focused on small-scale reactivity in both short and long term, rather than making major diverging story. 

Example: The White Wash. Siphoning water from the sharecropper farms for Westside (inspired by Chinatown) can cause the farms to fail and the farmers eventually move back to California after the timer expires. 

Little Buster: After completing the bounties, he moves on to Vegas, but is found dead in the Freeside. 

Small payoffs for decisions make the world feel alive without the need for branching paths. 

Metacritic bonus: JES doesn't really remember anything about in development, it blew up after release. 

JESawyer.esp: Not an official patch because design is about needs and constraints; audience for FNV was particularly the audience for FO3, which was relatively forgiving and easy-going. It's fine and valid, which is why JES emulated it for FNV; tweaking difficulty and making it more challenging. JSawyer was a personal mod in keeping with his preferences and sensibilities, experimenting with feedback from highly motivated face. 

Mod rules: Not changing stuff based on player requests; requires every DLC; it wasn't a Director's Cut, but his personal thing. 

He named it JSawyer based on Obsidian's convention for personal work. 

JES would like to make another Fallout game - it would be a lot of fun. 

No comment on Bethesda's plans for the West or lack thereof. 

Aliens RPG

Aliens RPG: Hurts like every other project that got cancelled. In general, cancellations hurt less when it's six months in than when it's years into development.

JES met unfortunate developers who worked for six years on three games - all of which were cancelled. 

Shipping a game is different from pure development, and lacking that experience is a problem. 

It was going to be a different game. People couldn't comprehend it at first, until JES explained it in simple terms. 

Perhaps sci-fi RPGs weren't a big thing outside Mass Effect? Especially with a franchise such as Alien(s).  It's a great material for RPG, offering opportunities to explore how people fall or rise up in the face of the incomprehensible. Many amazing story arcs could be had with this material. 

This is what OEI and JES wanted to emphasize. 

Travis Stout (?) wrote the pitch, called it Aliens: Almire (?), JES came in as the lead designer (no directors at the time, the position came in at the end of the project). 

Project directors were a reform to make projects more governable and break ties between the different branches of development. 

For Aliens RPG, there were lots of ideas and stuff, but it exposed the problems with the structure of OEI at the time; project directors were needed to keep a singular vision. 

The game had problems on both sides, including area, animation, and other issues on the side of development. Lots of cool stuff too, but the development lagged and the game was eventually cancelled. 

JES is bummed out by the fact that the footage on YouTube is not the footage from the last build (it's one or two milestones behind), and they made real strides forward. 

Kickstarter and Pillars of Eternity

Fans never left isometric games - publishers did, making it impossible to get funding. 

JES is comfortable making near-milion sellers; publishers mostly want cash cows that sell millions. FNV sold like 12 millions. In essence, high floor, low ceiling is fine. 

Pillars of Eternity: JES doesn't like being credited with the idea to Kickstart the game. The first person to do so was Nathaniel Chapman (now at Blizzard, working on WoW). Loose idea, inspired a lot of people at the studio, but it didn't gain traction until Double Fine Studios had their big break. 

Kickstarter was a Hail Mary: After Microsoft's project was cancelled and OEI's experience with publishers, Obsidian was with little money, had to lay off most people, and had a very poor negotiating position - publishers have money and fund you as an investment. If you don't have leverage, you're basically screwed: They can wait and starve you out until you acquiesce.

JES invokes Ensemble: He interviewed there and he learned that during Age of Empires' development, their hold on the license was an advantage, allowing them to make publishers bid for them, rather than having to submit pitches and hope of the best. 

OEI's situation was basically publishers having the studio over a barrel. Owners weren't enthusiastic, but they were eventually convinced. Adam Brennecke was important in pushing forward with ideas etc. 

The Pillars pitch was not attractive enough to publishers (mid-2000s through 2012), as they want to invest tens of millions and get hundreds of millions in revenue. 

On Kickstarter, he expected a 50/50 chance. Then they got 1.1 mil in 27 hours. 

'''Notably, does not believe fans' love can be taken for granted. You must continously work to earn it.''' 

[also good relationship advice]

Biggest changes at the studio: Trades one set of design constraints for another. Publishers usually want to market the game for a wide audience; when making a game for a narrower, more hardcore slice of the playerbase, the contraints are different and might even be narrower. 

The feedback process with players is healthier, even if they say it's crap, crap, then give a grudging OK. Better than development in secret, with feedback from publishers. 

JES prefers the restrictive constraints of designing for players, rather than for publishers. 

OEI had continuous funding, but wound up exceeding their budget. It was manageable, as Obsidian has multiple sources of revenue - Feargus made sure the whole system worked and they could work on the game. 

When the game was in a working, shippable state, but needed additional polish, the release date was pushed despite the additional expenses. 

JES had no sales expectations, but the critical response exceeded what he thought the reception would be. JES is happy that the game sold and still sells well. 

Pillars as a franchise and future plans

Pillars was set up from the beginning as a large IP, Obisidian's own to develop and grow, one that can accommodate multiple projects, as intellectual property adds the most value to the company. Hardware can be swapped out, employees can leave, but the IP stays with the company. 

IPs can also accomodate a great many things: Isometric game, crazy TES-like FPS (it's a joke), an even crazier tabletop game JES is making. 

JES would love for other developers to work on the game, license it, make other games in the setting - and he really, really wants to make that tactical combat game. 

JES is kind of burned out after six years on Pillars, so wants to take a step back and focus on his role as design director at OEI. Mentor other designers, for example, do smaller games, and so on and so forth.