An interview with Josh Sawyer
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Obsidian entertainment’s Josh Sawyer. Josh is the project director for Project Eternity, the Kickstarter for which is entering its final phase. At this point, anyone who has followed this blog will know how high my regard for Obsidian’s work has always been. The fact that Project Eternity is looking to bring back the magic of old school RPGs is good enough on its own but to do so with what I consider the best team in the business is nothing short of phenomenal. Needless to say, the fact that I got to interview one of the A Team of game developers is making my inner fanboy convulse with pleasure. Without further ado, here it is:
B: Project Eternity’s Kickstarter is still going strong. You mentioned how blown away you were at the initial response. It’s a sentiment that has been mirrored by all successful projects of this type, ie, old school games Kickstarted by well-loved developers. My question is why the surprise? Surely you know how cherished Obsidian’s games like KOTOR2 and NWN2 are?
JS: “A beginning is a very delicate time.” Kickstarter is still a new phenomenon. I think it’s hard to be sure of anything. We felt confident that people would respond well to our pitch, but most of us were being cautious even if we were optimistic. In addition to the general newness of Kickstarter, there are also hundreds of opinions on what you should or shouldn’t do when setting up and running one. With so many conflicting schools of thought, it’s easy to second-guess what you’re doing.
B: In your opinion, why did development of old school titles like Baldur’s Gate stop? These were commercially successful titles after all. The market always existed. So why the cold shoulder from traditional publishers?
JS: I’m not positive, but I think there was a big push toward 3D and with it, a different camera view. We tried to keep the traditional isometric view with full party control going on at Black Isle with our internal projects (codenamed Jefferson and Van Buren), but I heard a lot of feedback that it was “a waste” to use 3D from an isometric angle. After Bioware stopped using it and Black Isle and Troika went under, I don’t think there were any studios left to champion it.
B: As of now, PE supports Mac OS, will this include the iPad too?
JS: It will not. I think the enthusiasm a lot of people have shown for Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition does suggest that there’s a market for this sort of game on tablets, but we’re focusing on the Windows/Mac/Linux platforms.
B: Apart from other games, what would you cite as your influences (with regards to Project Eternity)?
JS: Personally, I take a lot of inspiration from history. Because Project Eternity is set during an era of exploration and colonization, I’m looking at the interactions, violent and otherwise, between colonizing and colonized cultures. I’m interested in exploring daily friction and the difficulties that people run into when they try to live in the area between two (or more) cultures. There are famous “great men of history” examples like T.E. Lawrence, but I’m more interested in figures of lesser notoriety like the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci or Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, the son of Sacagawea. Also, I find some of the more contemporary “reverse” colonization trends like the French Congo’s La SAPE movement fascinating. I’m also starting to look in more detail at the state of epistemology and metaphysics in the medieval world prior to the rise of humanist thought, mostly exemplified by writers like Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham. The printing press doesn’t exist yet in the world of Project Eternity and academic disciplines still tend to be elitist and exclusionary. Popular movements, on the rare occasion that they do occur, tend to be driven by passion and basic human needs rather than any sort of widespread philosophical movement.
B: What would you say defined the spirit of old school RPGs?
JS: A sense of danger and uncertainty, rollercoaster difficulty, a feeling of discovery, full party control, a lot of options. Camera styles, advancement systems, and mechanics varied a lot, but I think those elements were consistent (except for TES games, Deus Ex, Ultima Underworld, and a few other “party-less” games).
B: The success of PE’s Kickstarter notwithstanding, does it “intimidate” (for lack of a better word) you in any way? I mean in terms of pressure.
JS: The only difference in terms of pressure is that normally we are much further into development before the public is even aware that we’re making something. People want answers to a lot of questions that we have only started to answer — and almost nothing definitively.
B: I’ve been on the forums for a while now and it’s easy to see how varied opinions are on, well, everything really. How do you keep from getting overwhelmed? That’s a lot of feedback!
JS: When feedback is really intense, I try to not get involved, or to only get minimally involved so I can see various ideas players present in their conversations. Often, the weight people give to a developer’s comment can be disproportionately large and unfortunately, often disruptive to healthy conversation.
I try to filter things by trying to read between the lines and find what the high-level desires are. A lot of people can get caught up in individual mechanics or ideas. Ideas and mechanics are important, but we use those things to achieve goals. Often there are many ways we can achieve a goal with a variety of approaches. It just takes time and some patience.
B: Who do you think is the “mainstream audience”? I’ve always scratched by head at the term. As a guy in his 30s, I played the hell out of all the old Infinity engine games. My 15 year niece on the other hand equates the term RPG with stuff like Mass Effect. How do you bridge that gap? Or is Obsidian going in with the idea of catering only to people like me?
JS: We’re not necessarily concerned about bridging the gap between “younger” RPGers and Infinity Engine gamers. We’re making this game for people who like the style of RPGs found about 10-20 years ago, ranging from somewhere around Darklands in 1992 to Temple of Elemental Evil in 2003. However, within that group, there’s still a wide variety of play styles and preferences, so we’re trying to provide a lot of options for players.
B: As project director, how do you spend a typical day at work? Is this any different from what you would do had you been working the traditional way, ie, with a publisher?
JS: I spend a lot of my time talking to people about what they’re working on and what they will be working on. I also write up a lot of small design documents or reference sheets on high-level goals and ideas for the project. Occasionally I’ll do more detail-oriented work, but often that’s too time-consuming.
My day-to-day habits are not much different than they would be if we were dealing with a publisher, but we don’t have to worry about the publisher’s expectations or schedules. We also don’t have to clear things through a publisher when we want to talk to the public. Once we’ve decided, internally, when we’re ready to discuss something, it can be approached at our own pace.
B: What’s the one thing you would change about the games industry?
JS: The financial side of things, primarily. I want to see a wider spectrum of game types, but often traditional financing makes that very difficult. Most investors want to see big bets with a high return on investment. Kickstarter and other funding models are helping to break that trend, though, which is nice. Also, I think that the emergence of large markets with small-scope games (mobile and tablets) are helping change the landscape of game development overall.
B: Which one of your projects did you enjoy the most and why?
JS: While I was developing it, probably Icewind Dale. That was the first game I worked on and I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Brian Fargo sent Feargus a nice compliment on the game, which was amazing since Bard’s Tale was my first introduction to CRPGs.
In terms of the project I’m most satisfied with, I’d say Fallout: New Vegas. When I got into the industry, I really wanted to work on a Fallout game. There were ideas I wanted to try out in the SPECIAL system and Fallout setting, but when Black Isle dissolved in 2003, that opportunity evaporated. It felt good to get a second chance.
B: Do you have a favorite game? Or does your job make it so that you view games differently now?
JS: I don’t think I have a single favorite anymore. My classic RPG favorites are Darklands, Pool of Radiance, and Fallout. Some of my other all-time favorites include Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Ninja Gaiden (Xbox), Thief, Quake, Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, Pikmin, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dark Souls, and Assassin’s Creed II.
Since the year is winding down, I’m really looking forward to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Dishonored, and Assassin’s Creed III. Next year, I’m looking forward to Wasteland 2. 🙂
A huge “THANK YOU” to Josh for taking the time for this.
As I write this, Project Eternity has 6 days to go on Kickstarter. It has already hit more than double its original funding goal and shows no signs of slowing down. One of the new stretch goals announced includes hiring the talents of George Ziets…Pardon me while I dance a little jig.
Spread the word folks!
Kickstarter. So much awesomeness.
God, I’m sooooooooo looking forward to this. Go Obsidian GO!!!!!
It’s gonna rock, Im so exited about this! Just threw all my money to the project, and didn’t even break a sweat!
I love that he made a Dune reference!