Josh Sawyer began his career in Black Isle studios, where he was employed in the late 90-s – that were famous studio’s golden years. And he stayed true to it almost until the end. His last work there was notorious Van Buren, never to be finished. Black Isle is a part of history now, and Sawyer has settled into Obsidian, working with his old comrades. This is how gofer kid grew to be wide-known and respected person in game industry and earned a seat behind our RPG-dedicated round table.
Greetings, please introduce yourself to our readers. Tell us about your position and job responsibilities.
My name is Josh Sawyer. I'm a project director and lead designer at Obsidian Entertainment. I'm responsible for establishing the high-level vision of a project, for coordinating the lead team, and for working with individual team members to achieve quality goals. I also tend to do a lot of system design and a modest amount of writing.
Is it safe to say that role-playing genre is having the second birth now? Which RPG do you consider to be the main ones in this console generation?
I don't think RPGs really went away, but a lot of developers have shifted from being PC-centric to making cross-platform titles. For consoles, I think the Mass Effect series; Oblivion and Skyrim; Fallout 3 and New Vegas; Demon's Souls and Dark Souls; and Deus Ex: Human Revolution are the big ones. On the PC, I'd also include The Witcher and The Witcher 2.
We are very disappointed that the majority of the developers make us manage a no-name deaf-and-dump Chosen. Should the main character of the role-playing game be a «full-bodied» like Adam Jensen from Deus Ex: Human Revolution? Or it would be harm to identification of the player with the character?
I think it depends on the game. Different players have different preferences and different franchises establish different precedents. Personally, I like my character to be customizable, as much of a "blank slate" as possible, and I like to hear my character speak. Some people don't care if the character is customizable (I heard a figure that the majority of Mass Effect players never customize Shepard's appearance at all; that sounds crazy to me), don't care about his or her role being pre-defined, and don't want to hear their characters talk. The story and approach to Deus Ex: Human Revolution probably wouldn't make as much sense with a no-name character. The franchise also has a history of establishing some aspects of the character ahead of time, so Adam is simply part of that tradition.
What biggest failure in RPG genre could you recollect?
In general, I think the biggest failure with RPGs is a tendency for designers to not think about player experience. They fixate on ideas or concepts instead of how a player is going to interact with content. In other genres, player experience is often all the game is. Ultimately, that's all RPG players have, too, but designers can often get lost in systems and spreadsheets instead of focusing on what the player is going to do in the game from moment to moment. It's important to start with a good idea, but if the good idea doesn't produce a good experience, it's a failure.
How much time does take from the moment of the first idea till the story outline writing? When do the game-designers start their work, how is further cooperation of the group built with the material written? On which stage is the ready scenario with dialogues and scenes enriched?
It varies a lot, but story development usually starts early on the project. We develop the main plot, an outline of how it will progress, profiles of the major characters and factions, and an exploration of themes. We will also write some sample dialogue and begin to establish our writing conventions. At Obsidian we have some "universal" writing guidelines, but each project has its own specific rules.
As we develop our areas, narrative designers work with area designers to flesh out the main plot and develop side plots that reinforce the story's themes. We also try to periodically review our narrative content to make sure the themes we've discussed are actually being reinforced -- and to ensure that we're properly communicating the major points of the story.
Ideally, we also perform peer review on the dialogue to ensure that everyone is seeing things with the same eye, so to speak. The goal is not to restrict the writers, but to make sure that everyone understands what we're trying to collectively accomplish.
Have you got congenial developers who have the same idea and point of view on game industry?
I think most of the people I work with have similar views, though I doubt any of us overlap perfectly. I don't think that would be a great working environment, personally. I know some studios hire based on like-mindedness. I think that's reasonable to a point, but I like working with people who have well-founded reasons for disagreeing with each other. Game development is insular and we tend to regurgitate a lot of culture. I don't think that's good for the long-term health of companies or the industry as a whole.
To what extent does the final result correspond to the one you planned to receive in the beginning?
It depends on the game and the development cycle. When I first started in the industry, games like Icewind Dale and Icewind Dale II were made in about a year. There wasn't much time between the conception of the project and the final product. The longest shipped project I've been on from start to finish was Fallout: New Vegas (about 18 months). While some aspects of the project did change over the course of development, the final product was reasonably close to what we originally conceived. Starting with Fallout 3 helped frame a lot of our expectations, I think.
On the canceled projects I've worked on, things changed much more over time. Gameplay, story, and overall scope can shift around dramatically over the course of development. I think that's fine as long as developers stay focused on the player's experience. If you find you're changing something and it's going to produce an experience that's worse overall for the player, you're in a bad position.
What in your opinion are the key moments in RPG genre that defined the direction all the games made after?
Without a doubt, the existence of tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons defined the paradigm for what RPGs were in the early days. For me, Bard's Tale, Wizardry, and Ultima were the "big ones" that shaped my experiences. The "Gold Box" games (Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, et al.) were the next wave. In the years that followed, the new real-time games like Darklands, Eye of the Beholder, Ultima Underworld, and TES: Arena really expanded what RPGs could be.
After that, I think Fallout and Baldur's Gate marked the renaissance of RPGs in the late 90s. I feel that Fallout and Planescape: Torment established a great standard for player reactivity. That's the environment I came into when I started at Black Isle.
First RPG's made used board games as a prototype, where numbers and a talented storyteller mattered the most. Nowadays, have the story and action-packed gameplay become keystones in making a successful game, or do people still want hardcore games, only maybe changed a little? If they do, what are the changes needed?
One of the things that I think is great about the growth of digital distribution, whether it's via Steam on Windows PCs and Macs or through Apple's app store and Google Play, is that development costs can potentially go down for a lot of people. Additionally, Kickstarter campaigns like Brian Fargo's for Wasteland 2 show that there are plenty of gamers out there willing to pay good money for a "classic"-styled RPG.
To me, RPGs are fundamentally about choice and consequence. I think we can do that in big, high-action games and in small, slower-paced games. I'm glad there's room for a lot more developers and game styles.
Most games use classic scheme of Campbell Joseph - you escape, you find allies, you return in all the glory, but are there any other ways to introduce the story? What would be the craziest synopsis for a role-paying game?
I think stories told in a non-chronological order can be very interesting. I also think there are a lot of terrific things authors can do with ambiguity of sequence. Harold Pinter's play Betrayal uses reverse chronology to create a unique perspective on the events and characters in the story. Ambiguity of perspective and changing character perspectives can also create amazing narrative landscapes for players to think about.
In general I'm disappointed by how many developers approach conceiving and growing a game's narrative. I don't think there's anything wrong with using a storyline featuring a "hero's journey", but it's depressing when I see developers scoff at the suggestion that there are other things we can try. Every other form of fiction has managed to explore different avenues. Surely game developers, who also have the unique feature of player interaction are capable of doing more, aren't we? I'm not suggesting it's easy, but come on, guys.
What is your favorite games system of the all time, and why?
My favorite systems are the ones that work well for the game I'm playing. I don't think game systems are universal. They're a means of creating a simulative abstraction for the player to use. Their propriety and value are relative to the individual game.
Other Knights of The Roleplaying Table:
- Swen Vincke: "The key is to make people to believe in the game".
- Brian Fargo: "It was only 6 months ago that I was in China lamenting the death of the genre".
- Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda: "The scope and type of the project you're dealing with are also factors in scheduling".
- Chris Avellone: "I think Kickstarter is a breath of fresh air for the industry".
- Jason Anderson: "People don’t relate to ideas or concepts".
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