Interview: Josh Sawyer

Interview: Josh Sawyer

The night before I chatted with Josh my house played host to no less than 30 people and one keg.  Now that might not be a great way to start a written interview, but I like doing my interviews a bit more off-the-cuff than some. There are folks that like to have a list of questions, have them answered, and call it a day.  I prefer having a few rough ideas of things I’d like to talk about and then just go for it.  I mention this because I think having a bit more of a plan might have served me well like… waking up before I was being called by Josh at 10am.  Minor edits aside the following is exactly what happened from the moment I began recording to the end of our chat.

(This is an honest site and sometimes even professionals aren’t as prepared as you might think.  I’d prefer to tell you about those little hiccups that happen instead of editing them into oblivion.)

The man himself

Del:  Ok, I’ve got it (PC and iPod to record) running now–clears throat–uh…  Weather question aside (I had just asked how the weather was down in southern CA to kill time as I ran through my house trying to find the iPod touch I was going to use to record this; it was on my desk…) uhmm… Oh!  Congratulations on the Kickstarter!  I guess that’s a good way to start off.  Was it just over 24 hours that you hit goal?

Josh:  Yeah, I think we hit a million in less than 24 hours, but our goal was one-point-one and we hit that at around 27 or 28 hours.  So really, really fast.  We certainly didn’t expect it to accelerate that quickly, but we’re really glad.  There’s a lot of pressure on us now, but it’s good to be funded.

With 14 days to go Obsidian has twice what their goal was

Del:  Now something I’ve talked about with the Gather Your Party guys is… How much of that is coming from people going exclusively to Kickstarter and how much are–I don’t know if you can tell, but how much is coming from outside?  Like Kotaku, or 4chan, NeoGaf, Reddit, etc.  I guess what I’m getting at is why use Kickstarter at all if a lot–or most–of the attention you’re getting isn’t even coming from there?

Josh:  I think there’s a few reasons.  I don’t know exact numbers, but we do know that everytime coverage goes out it brings more people in.  I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence that people hang out on Kickstarter.

Del:  Yeah, true.

Josh:  I think we used Kickstarter specifically because it is a phenomenon.  There’s a lot of places doing crowd-funding now, but Kickstarter is the big one people have heard of.  People are familiar with it, backing things through it, so they feel more comfortable when someone like us uses it for their project.  It just made sense to go with even if the majority of people are coming in from somewhere else.

Del:  Ok, makes sense.  Given some of the recent stuff with the whole Metacritic ordeal and Fallout: New Vegas.  What was morale like knowing, ‘Oh wow we don’t have to cater to a publisher now.  We have enough money to make this.  We can make a game with this.’

From Joystiq

Josh:  It was great that it was funded, but it happened so fast that I don’t think a lot of us were really thinking about how great it was as much as how much work we had ahead of us.  It was sort of weird too because we work very high level in how we pitch things.  We draw from a lot of nostalgia when we talk about things like games and the Infinity Engine.  Real time pause in combat.  Having a party.  We were seeing a lot of discussions like, “Give us everything we love about the Infinity Engine games… except for the isometric view, the real time pause in combat, and the full party.  Oh, and the fantasy setting.  Everything else we love though!”  So [laughs] I mean it wasn’t necessarily dominant, but there was so much conversation going on–which was good, but it happened so fast that we didn’t have time to pause and go, “Oh wow this is so great!”

Del:  That’s something I have noticed.  Just how much you’ve been updating.  It’s nice to see.  Another thing I was wondering about this particular project is why the Unity Engine?

Josh:  We’d been prototyping a few other things and Unity too.  And we were… pretty much across the board, we were stunned by how fast we were able to get things up and running in Unity.  We prototyped a bunch of old-school style games.  I think it was seven guys that got a first person dungeon crawler running in five days.  We took assets from Dungeon Siege III put some creatures in there and it all worked really easily.  And it was legitimately worked.  Then we got it on a Mac.  I’m not trying to trivialize it at all, but it was so easy to use.  So it just seemed like a good fit for all the right reasons.

A few games made with Unity 3D

Del:  Nice.  So I guess I’ve got another Kickstarter question.  Given how well you’ve done so far, how well Brian Fargo did with his Wasteland 2 project, Tim Schafer and the Double Fine adventure game, do you think it’s something that’ll be a viable tool to bypass publishers going forward?  Or is this a ‘hit it while it’s still hot gravy train that you better jump on now because this isn’t going to last’ kind of thing?

Josh:  Chris Avellone has expressed this fear and all it’s going to take is one really big screw up to totally sour people a lot.  And we are very grateful… You know, honestly, people are putting a lot of trust in you.  We’re very grateful to those that have backed our project and our thought is, “We can’t let them down.  We’re answering directly to them.  Not to a publisher.”  But sooner or later there’s going to be some bad news that goes down.  I think already Kickstarter has started to revise and clarify some of their language and policies.  So I don’t think it’ll go away, nor do I think publishers will go away, but I feel that as we transition into the next console generation it’ll be weird.

Chris Avellone

It’ll be weird seeing smaller publishers making games for less than a million dollars, maybe a couple million, while big publishers keep on adding more ‘A’s’ to their tipple ‘A’ games.  I mean is it going to become typical to have over a hundred million game development cycle?  I don’t know.  It’s going to be a really weird world where you have publishers and developers working on such extreme ends of the scale.  I hope, I hope–I know there’s going to be some bumps–but I hope it can be a viable outlet to make smaller projects.  A million dollars is a lot of money and I don’t think many people would have expected a project on Kickstarter to get that much money awhile ago.  There are smaller games too.  Card games.  Board games.  Games made by teams of two or three people that are much smaller in scope than things like Project Eternity.  So I think it’ll be around, but I think there’s going to be some growing pains.

A sampling of game projects on Kickstarter

Del:  Faster Than Light is on Steam now and I’ve heard nothing but good things about it.  I was thinking, ‘Here was a Kickstarter game that met its goal, was made, and is doing well.’  The whole reason that game exists is because of Kickstarter.

Josh:  Yeah, I’ve also heard nothing but good things about that game.

Del:  Speaking of bumps and hiccups, ah [chuckles] something that–sadly–Obsidian has been known for is–while having incredible stories and characters–gameplay wise there have been some issues.  I’m thinking specifically of Alpha Protocol, but do you think that’s something you’ll be able to overcome?  Let me try and ask this more concisely.  Are some of those technical problems due to publishers getting in the way?  Or something else?

Josh:  In the case of Alpha Protocol we have said we’re responsible for some of that.  It had a pretty long development cycle and there were some things that the publisher wanted that we were not comfortable with.  I was glad that my system wasn’t touched.  That was the close-quarters-combat system and I was kind of happy with how that came out.  It wasn’t very deep, but it was pretty decent.  Moving on from Alpha Protocol I think that Dungeon Siege III was a pretty solid game.  Technically it was pretty good, that was our own tech.  There were very few bugs, it was stable, and the gameplay wasn’t insanely deep but it was very solid.  Then on New Vegas people did appreciate the improvements we made to gameplay like the gunplay and changing how various mechanics worked under the hood.  Obviously there were stability issues with New Vegas and… well, of course no one is happy with that.

I think that with this project being directly under our control it really is up to us to make sure that we’re being smart about the number of systems we’re putting in and we’re not trying to get real silly with mechanics.  I think in the past we have gotten really experimental with some things and it hasn’t worked in our favor or the player’s.  So when we talk about doing an Infinity Engine style game, we really are trying to create a game that feels like a game with those mechanics.  We have a lot of experience working with that kind of game.  So I think we know what we’re trying to do and we’ve been through some bumps so we’re going to stay focused and make sure it feels really solid.

Del:  Do you think that some times these hiccups happen is simply because a developer is working outside of its comfort zone?  Say they know storytelling really, really well and then a publisher asks them to do something they’re not used to.  Is that were issues like technical hiccups come from?

Josh:  That can certainly happen.  I know, for example, on Alpha Protocol we had a lot of people moving over to do a shooter game that had never worked on a shooter type game before and that was troublesome.  At the same time we’ve had people come here from different backgrounds that have had to work on a role playing game coming from a different perspective and different control schemes and they don’t really know what they’re doing.  So I think that can happen.  Things can get a bit weird when you’re doing something you’re not used to.  With Alpha Protocol that was us trying something new.  We have so much experience working with a third person view, RPGs, deep stories, and so that was our way of trying to branch out.  Keep what we knew and at the same time try something a bit different.

Del:  Speaking of which, not really a question, but something I really liked about Alpha Protocol was the whole conversation system.  How you had a time limit to respond.  I was talking to some of the site guys and was saying how there are other RPGs with twos or threes slapped onto the end of them that have come out recently where you could walk away, you could go out, you could even work a full eight hour shift and just sit there on the speech wheel and it wouldn’t matter.  This conversation somehow just hangs in limbo.  With Alpha Protocol you couldn’t do that.  You had to respond.  If you’re going to walk away from the game you had better not be in a conversation. 

Do you think there are certain aspects to an RPG that carry through?  Obviously characters, the story, and writing of them are important, but are there other elements that every RPG needs?  Regardless of genre, sci-fi, modern, fantasy, do they all need something to be even decent?

Josh:  So for role playing games that’s a really dangerous term [laughs].  Because it means something different to everyone.  You ask ten people and you’ll get ten different answers.  Some people with emphasize charcter advancement, some think that loot is what is needed, others say that an RPG has to be in a certain setting.  People will say, “An RPG has to be set in a fantasy world.”  Or for some people if they see a fantasy setting then that game is automatically a RPG to them.  So, for example, when we were making the Aliens RPG people’s brains exploded, they were like, “How can that possibly be a role playing game?”  And we were just like, “Uh… why not?”

This is from Alien Vs. Predator, not the RPG Obsidian was working on

From my perceptive, and I think this is an Obsidian thing overall, is we want people to feel as though they have control over their character.  Not just mechanically, but also who they are in the story.  Their personality and how they portray themselves is not only something they can express, but that the game reacts to in a believable manner.  I think Alpha Protocol excelled at this.  You can play the game as a huge jackass, you can be very professional, you can be chill, you can be flirty, you can do all these things, and there are trade-offs for all of it.  There’s a lot of relationships to navigate and they’re all influenced by the kind of person you’re playing as and the things you do.  That’s very important to me in an RPG.  Even if you’re playing a character that’s rather predefined like Michael Thorton is in Alpha Protocol you get to decide who he is.  And that’s something we try to put into our games as much as possible.  It’s really about choice and consequence and how it plays out.  There are plenty of games that have loot, or advancement systems, or cool writing, but they’re not RPGs.  It isn’t common to see a game where you’re not just playing a game that allows you to be something different mechanically, but you’re able to be a different person and the story reacts to that.

Del:  Oh for sure.  A perfect example would be Borderlands 2 that I’ve been playing recently and it’s as though my character doesn’t exist.  The story would go on regardless of my actions.  I’m just going through these missions because they’re there and there are objectives I need to complete, but at no point have I made any kind of choice that’s had any kind of impact on anything at all.  It’s all, “Go here.  Do this.”  And yet they call it an RPG.

Josh:  Yep, because it has loot in it.  That’s all some people need.

Loot? Yes. Stats? Yes. RPG? Not so much.

Del:  Yeah, and some stat gains.  A level up system, so I guess that’s what makes it an RPG.

So I couldn’t help but notice that at the end of your Kickstarter video the one game you lingered on the longest was Planescape: Torment.  Was there a specific reason you placed that one last and allowed it to stick on the screen longer than any of the others?

Josh:  We recognize that among our most devoted fans their favorite and the one they feel the most emotion about is that game.  We recognize that.  And I think of the Infinity Engine games Torment was one that really focused on deep interactions and being able to change the story in incredibly huge ways.  Because our studio has moved increasingly in that direction, making games with really strong player agency and a lot of impact with choices and because the fans of Torment are sort of ultra fans we were sort of like, “And Planescape: Tormeeeeeeeeeent…”  [Laughs]  Sort of holding it an extra second or so.

Del:  [Laughing] Yeah.  So a question I asked Austin Wintory and Gerard Marino was what sorts of music they drew inspiration from and oddly enough they both told me that when they’re on a project they didn’t like to listen to music much.  They were just focused on the work and didn’t want distractions.  Is that similar with what you do?  Or do you like to play other games.  Say, “Oh, ok, here’s something I do not want to do” or “Oh I like this.”  How does that work?

Josh:  Are you asking about music or games?

Del:  Yeah, sorry, that wasn’t clear.  Not music, but games.

Josh:  I try to play games.  I actually think a lot about mechanics and I steal the %$#! out of them when I can.  A lot of times I’ll need to go back to make sure I remember things correctly.  What’s important to me with mechanics is–first and foremost–the feeling they give the player.  So it’s not the mechanic itself, it’s what it does for the game.  How does it make it better?  That’s something very high level.  So if there’s something I really liked, something that worked really well, it’s important I remember the positive feeling, but then I need to go back and figure out why did I like it.  Something that I and one of the other guys featured in the video, Adam Brennecke, like to do is go back and play old games and analyze them.  So we’ll go back, play through them, but then we’ll really bear down and look at how something works.  “How does this work?  How is it doing this?  Why is this fun and making me feel like this?”  We’ll really look at unlocking the magic of those things.  So I’d say I try to play games more when I’m in production so I have a comparison.  Sometimes you’ll get in the zone and be thinking, “Yeah man, this is pretty great.”  But you’ll get a reality check and then go, “You know… I think this game is actually doing it better.  Maybe what we’re doing is pretty decent, but this game does it better.”

It’s also good to pull influences from other places.  I played Journey and it took me in a whole new direction as far as something to focus on.  So we had been focusing on a lot of traditional RPG things and then I played Journey and said, “You know this is very good at establishing a mood and a feeling and atmosphere.”  So then I went into work and said, “Hey guys.  I want you to see how very little can do a whole lot.”  That was very useful, so then when people went back they kind of stopped–I don’t want to say stopped–but they’d been bearing down on rocks and shrubs and tiny things and then kind of backed up and said, “Ok, let’s look at the whole world.”  So yeah, it’s very good to play other things so you can rip off their mechanics or at least compare them.  I also think it’s extremely good to play things out of genre.  Or thematically similar, but not in genre.  So you can see how things work in a different setting.  If it can translate to a completely different genre then thematically it should have a broad appeal and you’ll be able to explore it from a lot of different perspectives.

I guess that’s a very long way to answer your question.

Del:  No, it’s a good point you bring up.  Makes me wonder how many people that are making the latest… uh, whatever-whatever-shooter-war-person-game XYZ number umpteen twelve have actually gone and played something not like what they’re making at all.  How many people play some Words With Friends, of Angry Birds, or Final Fantasy–these hugely popular games–and take something from it?  Are they doing that?  I don’t know.  I have no idea, but it makes me wonder.

Josh:  I will say from my experience from talking to people–and this is something I will criticize a lot of people in the industry for, not everyone, but a lot–is that we’re very self referential.  And we get stuck in ruts.  Like, you know, we’ll go back to the same touchstones a lot.  And it’s good to make sure we’re not doing something new for the sake of doing something new, but I have found resistance in a lot of people to the idea of looking at something  of a completely different genre.  Yet is thematically similar.

For example, let’s say at a story level you’re looking at something that’s dealing with corruption and it’s in a fantasy setting.  Well, ok, corruption.  So is what you’re doing fantasy or is it corruption?  If you go and look at corruption in, say… a western setting, or science fiction, where the gameplay is different.  Maybe it’s a movie.  But if corruption is the theme and it ties back to the human condition, such as it is, you should see recurring things.  You should be able to say, “Oh, ok, I see how they’re dealing with this in this western is similar to how things are in our game even though it’s a totally different setting.”  It’s universal because it’s about something that ties into human beings and why we empathize with it.  I think it’s a very important thing that, unfortunately, we don’t do a lot.

Action, action, and saving the world with some more action

Del:  Yeah, so is there any game you’ve played or seen played, or even just heard about that…  Ok, so heard about wouldn’t be too good.  But something you’ve witnessed that you feel hits a lot of these elements you’ve talked about really well in the past, oh… let’s say five years.

 Josh:  Hmmmmm… HMMMMMMM…  That is, uh, a good question.  Uh…  [A full ten seconds pass as Josh makes clicking sounds and finally says…]  That is a very good question.  I don’t know if I have a very positive answer right now.  I can’t say I’ve seen anything where I feel they did a really– Man… that’s a good question.  Nothing is leaping to mind.  I will say that I was very impressed how well Journey invoked mood.

Del:  Yeah [chuckles] I was not expecting that game to do what it did to me at all.

Josh:  Yeah, it’s weird because you look at Journey and it isn’t really… There are some things you can see in there like loneliness or companionship or isolation.  There are some elements that come through in that, but really it was more about emotion to me.  It was so very good at doing that.  Much more so than other games and I think it was because it was so minimalistic.  Even though it isn’t much of a game in a lot of the traditional ways it is still more successful than anything else that I can think of off the top of my head.

Del:  Speaking of getting a feeling out of something, I was talking to my brother the other day about Red Dead Redemption.  So this was some years ago when, I want to say it was Fable 2…  I’ve lost count of them.  But I recall Peter Molyneux saying he really wanted to focus on the feeling of loss and companionship.  How he’d played Final Fantasy VII recently and had really felt the loss when Aerith dies and he wanted to bring that to players.  To do this he was going to put a dog in the game and this dog was going to be your pal and you’d care about it and it’d help you.  I played Fable for a bit and I couldn’t have given two craps about that dog.  Maybe it was because he’d said something, but I don’t think so.  I think it’s because I didn’t have a choice with the dog.  I knew it going to be with me.  To me it was like a sword, just another tool.

Peter promising something

But then in Red Dead Redemption I noticed something with the horses.  Because–in the world–it’s a living thing, unlike Grand Theft Auto where you have cars and you can jump from one to another; when I had my first horse I didn’t want to get rid of it.  When it got hurt or I got away from it I wanted to find that horse again.  I don’t think that was any intention on Rockstar’s end… And I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but it’s really interesting to me how developers will make a game and try to do something only for it to fall flat.  Then something they didn’t mean for at all comes can happen.

Josh:  I think you’ve touched on something that’s important.  It’s very key to think about choice.  So Final Fantasy VII is sort of interesting to me because I didn’t feel as though I had very much agency in that game and maybe it’s because it feels more like a film, but it can–this’ll sound cynical–but it can manipulate you in the same way a film can.  So when Aerith dies, since it has been built up similar to how it would have been in a film, that manipulation works better.  But when you have more agency and something is kind of thrust on you, and you’re pulled like you have to give a $#! about something that’s when I think people bristle at it.  Like, “No.  I don’t want to.  I don’t want to do this.”

In contrast, Dogmeat from Fallout one is a character that people would bend over backwards to keep alive.  Like way, way beyond the utility of that character.  Did you ever play Fallout?

Del:  No, but I’ve seen plenty of it so I know exactly what you’re talking about.

Josh:  Ok, so in the original you run into this dog and if you’re wearing this jacket that’s a total rip off of Mad Max’s jacket from Road Warrior, then this dog–which looks just like the dog in the movie–will come up to you and follow you around.  You don’t have to have him with you, he doesn’t say anything, but he helps you in combat.  And we found–or I shouldn’t say ‘we’ because it was before I was at Black Isle–but the guys found that people would go into areas, lock Dogmeat into a room, and kill everything in the rest of the area to prevent him from being hurt, and then let him out.  He was a side character, he was optional, you did not need him to finish the game, but people really bonded with him.  And as we’ve written companions over the years what we’ve found is when we force people to spend time with companions they really don’t like it.  Especially if they get the feeling that we’re trying to make them care about that character.  Where as when we make it an option it feels much more natural to them.  More importantly when we give them choices that affect those characters it actually hurts them, because they have to make some kind of a sacrifice.  If something just happens to a character, that can be sad.  But if you’re forced to make a decision that hurts a character then that is much more painful, because it was up to you and you made that choice.

Del:  Yeah, that makes perfect sense.  I had no control over the situation with Aerith in Final Fantasy VII.  To be perfectly honest I shed a tear when that happened in that game.  I didn’t know it was coming, maybe I was just naive at the time.  It was my first RPG.  I remember when I played the demo just the screen tearing into a battle blew my mind, “You can do this in a game?  This is happening?  It’s like two games in one!”

But what you’re talking about with a player having choice is so huge to story telling and what you can do with that.  Back to Journey, one of the first times I was playing through was when you get to the mountains and there’s snow blowing and your scarf keeps draining.  The guy I was playing with, I had no idea who, some random guy in the world, but I wanted to stand next to him and he seemed to do the same so our scarfs didn’t run out all the way and keep each other ‘warm.’

Josh:  And it subtly slows you down too if you’re apart, so as you move closer you speed up.  But if you’re not breaking it down an analyzing it that’s now something you’re going to likely pick up on.  It just feels natural.  It’s pretty awesome.

Del:  Things like that in games will make me think, “Did they mean to do that?  Or did it just work out that way?”  I think some of the best things–like when you talked about Dogmeat–some of the best things in games are a product of the game being in-an-of-itself good.  Not forcing things down your throat.  “Here, love this person.  Care about this one.  Kill this one.”

That’s something I look forward to seeing in your as of yet unnamed project.  Choices.  Or is it named?  It isn’t going to be called Project Eternity, is it?

Josh:  No, no.  That’s just the working title.

Del:  Oh ok, that’s what I figured.

Josh:  And we’ve already said that our companions will be totally optional.  We would like you to use them, because we do feel they add a lot to the game.  But we know that some people won’t like certain companions or don’t like them at all.  So they won’t have to use them if they don’t want to.

Del:  Now given that this project has already succeeded, at least monetarily speaking, do you think you’ll do another Kickstarter for the follow up games?  Or will you do your own, “Hey, come to our site and back this new project.”  Your own version of Kickstarter or do you think given the success of this current one you won’t even have to do either and that people will just buy your game?

Josh:  Well, funding wise we still have some time to go so we’re going to try and get as much as we can for the game to be as good as it can be and tested it as much as it needs to be tested.  Which is something that’s very important, especially for us.  I think we would use something like Kickstarter again in the future if it made sense.  What we would like is to be able to self-develop and self-fund small projects like this.  I mean, hell, we’d love to self-fund and develop all of our projects.  But I think it’ll really depend on the success of the title.  We’ve had a pretty great roll-out of people backing this project and with some pretty sizable amounts of money too.  It’ll be interesting to see if that then translates to more widespread success.  Super fans are great, because they back things.  But we’ll probably need to sell more than–I think we’ve got close to fifty-thousand backers–we’ll need to sell more than fifty-thousand copies to really make a good profit on it.  If we are successful in this I know we want to do more with this world and the setting.  I’d like to do other types of games, if we can.  Which is something that comes with a certain amount of financial independence and if they go wrong that’s ok too if you’re in a good place.

Gambitious.  An alternative to Kickstarter, for only games, and only Europeans at the moment.

Del:  I can imagine that publishers can get in the way of a lot.  I think of tossing a publisher–or something like one–into the realm of an artist, a painting artist, and saying, “Ok… so your fans don’t want XYZ.  You need to put more black into your paintings.”  And the artist says, “What are you talking about.  I never use black.  Ever.”  It just seems like a really, really annoying and–for lack of a better term–ass-backwards way of doing things.

Josh:  It’s kind of weird, because there are some publishers that really do get role playing games and the kind of games we make.  So when we have conversations with them about the things we’re doing and why we’re doing them, things go really well.  Everyone’s on the same page.  Maybe we don’t see one-hundred percent eye-to-eye, but we get each other.  There have also been times where people will ask you to do things and you just go, “I… don’t think the people that play our games actually like that.  They’ve never responded well to that in the past.  It’s not like we haven’t tried, we have, and people responded badly.  We probably shouldn’t do that.”  And, you know, they mean well, but they’re trying to filter things through this extra layer.

Like with what you were saying about the artist that never uses black and has tons of fans.  Then some agent comes along and says, “Start using black.”  And he’s just going to go, “You know, the people that are buying my work buy it because I don’t use black.  Sooo…”

Del:  It makes me wonder how many games, or other things, would be different if there wasn’t that third party saying, “We need to appeal to a broader audience.”  Whenever I hear something like that concerning a game, some game I like or am looking forward to, and then I hear an interview with–usually–the publisher and the the way it goes is: game comes out; game does well; and then for the sequel we hear, “And for the next game we’re looking to appeal to a wider audience.”  As soon as I read that I just shake my head and think, “Well it’ll be worse than the first.”

Josh:  Yeah, it can be really strange to see how publishers react to an initial title in a series that does well.  Let’s say it does well, modestly well.  Sells enough to warrant a sequel and then the sequel comes around and the things they change to get that wider appeal.  So I would say a success story of that would be from Assassin’s Creed to Assassin’s Creed II.  That was probably a rare success story of that happening.  The first one had a lot of problems.  People really liked the concept of it, but there was some weird stuff going on in it.  And it wasn’t terribly fun either.

Now I don’t know a lot about the AC II team, but looking at the final result it’s easy to see them saying, “You know people really do like running around on roofs.  They really like the stealth kills.  They probably don’t like collecting flags.  They probably don’t like doing this other stuff.”

Del:  Sitting on benches and listening to conversations.

Josh:  Yeah, yeah!  “They probably don’t like any of this stuff so why don’t we keep the stuff people really like and ditch the stuff they didn’t like.”  And again it really seemed as though they paid attention to the people that really wanted to like the game instead of the people that hated it.  I don’t want to name names, but I can think of other games where it’s a new IP.  It does modestly well and I don’t know if it’s the developer or publisher, but they come to all these weird conclusions and change these things that cause the people that liked it to hate it.

Del:  I really don’t understand that mentality.  I don’t know what happens.  Going back to what you said about games and the human condition. It seems like people see something and go, “Ok, so if X amount of people bought this then we just need to change this-and-this-and-that and then X plus Y will buy it next time!”  You know maybe that’s not a good thing.  Maybe it’ll make you more money, maybe.  If X plus Y do indeed buy it, but maybe just going for the original X again is fine.  If that paid the bills and made enough money to make another game, isn’t that ok?

Josh:  I think it comes down to–in a lot of cases–that instead of people listening to criticism they just know there is criticism and then they decide independent of it that they’re going to change some stuff.  So like you said, you made a modest impact, you really struck home with some people that really liked the game, and maybe the execution needed some work.  So why not just make the execution of what you were going for so that the next one is totally awesome and those things that people loved about it is now even better.  Then if there’s stuff that’s janky about it, yeah change the janky stuff, but not if it’s something that those people that loved the game really liked.  Just make it better.  I think there’s where things go wrong.  People look at something and go, “Ok, so we have this core of people that love the game and this other group that fundamentally hates it, so let’s make it a different game.”  And it’s like, “Well… no.  They hate the game.  They didn’t like anything about it.  You’re not going to win those people over.  They don’t even like the idea of what you’re making.”

Some people think it’s a cliche phrase, but when I was at Interplay the model of Interplay was, “By gamers, for gamers.”  And some people are like, “Well that’s every game.”  But no, it really isn’t.

Del:  Yeah, no, it really isn’t.

Josh:  There are people that focus on making games for people that hate games.  And… well, that’s ok, but I’m not not interested in doing that.  I want to make games for people that love games.  People that really enjoy them and playing them.  I’m not not trying to make a game for people that do not enjoy the challenge of them of the idea of them.  So it’s interesting when you get into these genres that are kind more enthusiast or ‘hard-core’ genres like RPGs and you’ve gotta be careful how much you’re appealing to people that don’t like RPGs.  It’s like, “Well… they don’t like them.  They don’t like any of them or anything about them.”

Del:  I guess that’s one more nice thing you’re able to side-step with Kickstarter.  You don’t have to– well… I can’t not name names when I bring this up.  When BioWare came out with Dragon Age: Origins I remember them saying that they wanted, with Dragon Age II, to appeal to the Call of Duty audience.  And I– I just– I can’t–  My brain couldn’t–  To me it’d be like Werner Herzog after Grizzley Man saying, “I want to appeal to the Avatar audience with my next documentary.”  And I just… I mean, what would that even mean?  You’re going to make it 3D?  Set it in world that doesn’t exist?  How is that a documentary at all?

Josh:  [Laughing]

Del:  It just makes no sense.  I wonder how many times conversations like that happen.  Say Platinum after finishing Bayonetta being told, “Ok guys, we want you to try and appeal to the Minecraft audience with your next game.”  I can just see them saying, “I’m sorry, no.  We don’t do that.  We do action.  Over-the-top crazy like you’ve never seen before.  How could we even do that?  You want us to do what?”

Josh:  Yeah, I don’t know.

Del:  I guess that’s a good as any place to wrap things up.  It’s been really nice chatting with you and I really wish you the best of all luck with this project and anything in the future.  I really do hope that Kickstarter and crowd-sourcing can become a viable option for bypassing publishers that want things that the people buying the games really don’t want at all.

Josh:  Yeah, and like I said, I think there can be–I don’t really want to blow over publishers.  You know there are millions of people that love Call of Duty and you know that’s great.  I think we can have these huge games and you know that’s fine, that’s cool, you know, whatever… man.  We can have publishers making hundred-million dollar games that are really broad appeal and that’s great.  But I think it’s also great that we have a way to make games that cater to a more niche audience.  I hope it can spark a rebirth of some genres of games that have been dead for awhile, or at least very sleepy.  But it’s cool and I hope we get to a point where we can all play the games we want to play.  I don’t care about… You know I care about being able to do what I want to do and if other people don’t want to do that, that’s great.  That’s fine.  Do the things, play the games, and make the games that you love and we’ll all have a great time.  That’s my dream for the future.

Del:  Totally.  Every game doesn’t need to be on every single person’s shelf.  Again, best of luck with the rest of the Kickstarter project.

Josh:  Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me.

  1. Thrasher says:

    Well, that was an excellant interview! Thanks!

  2. jvempire says:

    While the interview is very informal, it still was pretty great. Sawyer’s mentality for RPGs (freedom of choice, actual character role playing, etc) is not only the reason why I loved New Vegas so much, but also seems like that mentality is throughout Obsidian.

    I’m hoping that project eternity turns out well in the end.

  3. Mark Ceb says:

    Fucking stellar interview, Del.

  4. jamie kerr says:

    Brilliant interview! i hope they dont drop the companions too far for the next game i actually really liked them in all the obsidian games i played they are usually superbly written. Looking forward to another fantastic rpg by obsidian its been a while

  5. NightScope2142 says:

    Long read but well worth it. Very informative and interesting. Thanks!

  6. Salty says:

    When you guys started talking about companions and how you don’t really attach to them if they’re “forced” onto you, I kinda suddenly reminisced glumly about Agro. Sure he was forced on you, I mean, you really can’t get anywhere without him. But that last moment with him was just…

    Have you played SotC? Did you like or dislike Agro? Were you sad when he was gone?

    I know I was, but maybe that’s just me. But if it’s not, then I guess the phrase “there are always exceptions to a rule” still holds true.

    • Marcus Puckett says:

      That’s exactly what I was thinking while reading that part. I think that’s different, though. He isn’t exactly forced on you, he’s part of your character.

      It’s also like what they said about Aerith’s death. You didn’t have a choice about her, but the game was more cinematic, so they used cinematic devices to play with your emotions and elicit that response. Also, there weren’t any other friendly characters in the game besides him, so I think that’s part of it as well.

      • WC Pemm says:

        The same thought went through my head, as well. I was extremely attached to Agro and so were many of my friends. I never played Fable, but I imagine it’s a pretty standard kind of RPG where there’s plenty of townspeople and NPCs.

        SotC, on the other hand, was so completely isolated. Agro was the only friend you had. Thinking about it now, it could have really backfired, the way the dog did!

        I have a lot to say about Agro, haha. Almost everything about him was just so well-executed. Even the way you interact with him—the only experience before SotC I’d ever had with a horse in a game was Epona. When you’re riding Epona, you have complete control over Epona herself, and it’s not like that with Agro. You’re still Wander, and you’re directing Agro with the reins, and he actually responds incredibly well once you realize that. Little things like that really made him his own character, I think.

  7. Nick Michal says:

    Great interview! I actually liked that it was informal, gave it a very conversational tone, as if we were sitting on a couch with you two. I’ll also echo everyone else in saying that your transition to companions in games and being able to organically develop a relationship with them was excellent.

  8. gaymur says:

    woah, i had to read this in two parts, but i must say it was well worth it. THIS IS GAMING JOURNALISM. Corny, I know, but It’s how I would really imagine a conversation, not watered down like every other interview out there.

    • Delio says:

      Thank you! It’s so nice to see all the kind feedback I’ve gotten for this interview. Goes to show that my off-the-cuff style seems to be far more appreciated than some calculated series of questions.

  9. anonymous says:

    Interviewing Sawyer without having played Fallout? You owe it to yourself to play it. It’s a far better game than any of the other ones you spoke of. Assassin’s Creed? Game was half-baked in the first one and Ubisoft has only gone further in the wrong direction with each successive attempt to refine it.

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