Interview with Brian Mitsoda

RPGNuke: I want to talk about VTM: Bloodlines for a while. About storyline — how much has changed during the development process? We all know what happened with this game in the past — how much you had to cut from the game, in spite of everything?

Brian: A lot of that is documented, but I have gone on record as saying we really didn’t cut much at all and we should have. We were adding new elements or changes rather late in the development process. Most of the major elements of the story — the Prince, Kuei-Jin, Anarchs, major areas/hub progression — that didn’t change much.

Did you ever played this game with «unofficial patches»? There are actually two of them these days — «Unofficial Patch» by Wesp (which was considered a controversial mod by some players, and not without reason), and «True Patch Gold» by Tessera and Acrimonious, and hard ideological relationships between their creators caused a disaster, known as «The Patch Wars». What do you think about it?

I haven’t played Bloodlines at all since it was shipped. I can’t really offer any insight here, just that it would have been nice if Troika could have fixed many of the issues ourselves in additional patches. Not being able to touch a game after its out was one of the reasons for me to go indie — I quite like the idea of managing the rights to my IP and retaining the authority to release patches at the team’s discretion.

During one of your previous interviews, you mentioned that almost everything you did for Alpha Protocol either was cut from the game or completely reworked. Was there something you made, that actually made it’s way into game? What else you’d like to change in this game today?

I never played Alpha Protocol after its release, so I really don’t know what made it in other than the dialogue system I created. I know Travis Stout (writer/designer) kept some of my Heck lines in and kept his character close to the original version, but other than that, I’ve been told most of my work is absent from the release version. As I never had final oversight over any of the material/characters I created, I have pretty much disowned that material.

So, why did you left Obsidian Entertainment and started your own independent studio?

I started an indie studio to have freedom over what I worked on and to have ownership over IP and creative direction. From a business perspective, it was a bit intimidating to start a company, but the intent has always been to profit from our games and use the money from our back catalog to fund the team during development of new games. Many companies do not have any control over their games once a contract is fulfilled and I didn’t want to be in a situation where I had to constantly chase publisher dollars to keep the doors open. Indie development is still a very risky proposition for many developers, but I would rather work the long hours for my own company than crunch for the sake of somebody else’s stock price.

Ultimately, I would like to assemble some more amazing people and set them loose on new properties and make sure they can focus on their work without the specter of cancellation creeping around all the time. For Dead State, we have certainly lucked out a few times over in terms of talent and we couldn’t make this game without the team we have. I would consider DoubleBear’s games a success if I can continue to work with the same team and add some additional great people to our ranks. Working with people whose work you admire is one of the best things that can happen to you as a developer.

Not so long ago you’ve been (don’t take this the wrong way) among the so called «goals» in Kickstarter project — Torment: Tides of Numenera, now you are one of the developers. Many players are skeptical due to the fact, that Brian Fargo’s new game got so many writers and designers. In your opinion, is it reasonable for such a game to have such big development stuff? Are there any conflicts between all these creative minds (given the fact that most of them got used to work alone)?

To be fair, most RPGs need more than one or two writers — they’re really ambitious and swollen with content compared to most genres of games. If anything, Dead State has too few writer/designers, which was really due to our budget more than anything. I don’t know how much I can talk about Torment right now, but honestly, the setting almost requires that large groups of creative types throw a bunch of crazy ideas into the mix. It’s an ideal setting for letting writers take a section of the game and add their personal touch. To be fair, very few games are strictly controlled by one creative designer and are the product of a lot of collaboration and compromise.

Now let’s talk about your current project — Dead State. This game got many things in common with Age of Decadence — same technologies, same developers. But how similar will they be in the end? Are we going to see the same kind of dialogues in Dead State (presented as text quests)?

I don’t know how much we really share in terms of design to AoD outside of turn-based combat. We’re a completely different type of game and have a few tools designed specifically for Dead State, even if we started with the same code base. However, we do share some team members and ultimately all of the people involved are huge RPG fans with a lot of ideas about how free the player should be in controlling their fates in the game. In AoD, the focus has been on creating a completely different experience based on the type of character you create. In Dead State, the game is all about the choices you make as a leader of a group of survivors. I think both games are going to appeal to RPG fans who want to feel like their decisions matter. If you’re a fan of the old Black Isle games, I think you’re going to be incredibly happy with the output of Iron Tower and DoubleBear.

Why zombies? During one of your previous interviews you told, that you’re not so big dead guy’s fan. What exactly this zombie crowd means to you? Is this some kind of a metaphor of an invincible power, or just a decoration that would make the inner selves of characters obvious? Or maybe something else?

The zombies in our game are a background radiation in the story. When it comes to combat, they’re not much of a threat unless you make noise — so in that sense, they work well as a combat balance mechanic. I think the zombie apocalypse appeals to a lot of people because everyone thinks that they’ve got it all figured out and that they would survive and rebuild a society in their own image — it speaks to our egos in an incredibly powerful and kind of sad way. So, the zombies in our game — that’s the easy way to set up a massive catastrophe and constant combat risk, but we are driven to rediscover the horror elements of zombies as a genre and return the focus to the humans.

I think we all tend to underestimate the depths we’ll sink to as human beings when our survival instinct kicks in and we start to resort to tribal behavior. You will probably do some awful stuff in this game, and if we’ve done our jobs properly, you will feel every decision you’ve made rather than just writing it off as a power gamer min/max solution. I think even calling Dead State a zombie game is incorrect — we’ve been calling it «the zombie game about humans» for a long time now. It’s an RPG first and foremost, so if you’re a fan of classic RPGs, turn-based combat, complex characters, or branching dialogue, we are making this game for you.

As you’ve stated, Dead State is quite non-linear, but where is the edge of this non-linearity? Will there be situations, for example, where some awkward player is excluded from the leader’s position and going to be replaced with somebody else?

You’re always the leader in Dead State, because let’s face it — players want to be the boss. You will have to make tough decisions and if you do an especially bad job, you will face the consequences. The game is centered around the player’s character — run your shelter the way you want to, but if you want to survive, you are never going to please everyone. It’s up to you to gather the resources you need and deal with internal/external threats, but we keep the narrative fairly open-ended. Most players are going to have very different stories to tell about how they survived.

What about the combat system? If I recall correctly, half year ago you decided to give the squad control in the player’s hands completely, but many people wouldn’t accept such thing in RPG. Will there be an option to leave the squad control to AI system?

We switched to full party control because it was way more fun and offered a lot more complexity in combat. I think party control is pretty common for turn-based combat games, especially influential games like X-Com and Jagged Alliance. If anything, AI controlled allies are the exception and most people would have thrown us under the bus for leaving so much up to the judgment of the allies’ AI. Trust us, full party control was for the best and I don’t regret switching for a second. One playthrough was all that it took to convince us that full party control was the superior gameplay decision.

At this moment we already have much information about Dead State. But there is still something we don’t know about. The storyline. Are we going to see the kind of narrative, that will guide the player from the start of the game until it’s end? Or survival is going to be the main thing in the game? What are we going to strive for, as a players in Dead State?

I’ve been intentionally vague about the story on purpose. I really don’t like the trend in modern media to give away every plot point in previews. Here’s what I will say about the plotline — you’re the leader, the game entrusts you with keeping your allies alive over several months, and the plot is reactive to your decisions and success as a leader/scavenger. There’s definitely an ending to the game, but there are many ways to end the game depending on who you have, who you know, and what actions you have taken. There are several dozen people that can potentially join your shelter and each ally is unique and about as complex as the most complex character in Bloodlines. Some events will happen based on time passed, but many will be dependent on actions you took or the way you have treated your allies. There aren’t many games that are structurally similar to Dead State, so I really can’t compare the story to anything else out there.

Are we going to see Romero, the caretaker of the cemetery? Pleeease?

Sorry, Romero couldn’t make it into Dead State. He might show up in some other form somewhere, some way. He’d be a bit OP for Dead State anyhow — most of your allies have no experience with combat, much less combat against the undead.

Oscar, Nick and Ivan is working on two games at the same time — Age of Decadence and Dead State, how are you going to share them with Vince Weller? Don’t you think about cooperation in the future?

AoD has been in production longer and most of their work is already done for that game. Those guys spend most of their time on Dead State these days, but we also have a bigger team than AoD, so we tend to get changes in a lot quicker. One of our artists, Mazin, has also worked on both projects. As I mentioned earlier, ultimately our teams work on RPGs because we all want to make the best RPGs possible. I would like Dead State to be just the beginning.

What are you planning to do after release? Will there be any future game on a Kickstarter?

The only thing I’m planning is finally taking a few days off when Dead State is finished. We plan on supporting it and creating additional (non-DLC filler) for a good long time after it’s out, until we’re finally ready to let Dead State go. Whatever’s next will have to wait until we’re not entirely wrapped up in DS development every hour of the day. I have a few ideas on where to go, but I’m not really interested in exploring them until I’m done with the current project. As for using Kickstarter, it’s always an option, but our second project will likely be much farther along before we announce anything to the world or seek additional funds. I’m kind of jealous of sandbox projects that can offer early access to the build because we really can’t do that with a traditional RPG without spoiling the experience. But really, our next project is all going to depend on the success of Dead State, the whims of the team, and the scope we set for ourselves at the start of project two. If we don’t make Dead State a great debut from the studio, I can’t imagine there will be much of a demand for a second game…

Thanks for answers, Brian! I’m wait with impatience for your new game.