Interview with Josh Sawyer

RPGNuke: We heard a lot about Obsidian games that were canceled. Off the top of my head I can remember Seven Dwarfs, Aliens: Crucible, Backspace and Project North Carolina. But I’m sure there were much more. How many projects actually were there?

Josh: I think that number depends on what you consider a canceled project. We’ve had a few projects that never really got out of the concept stage and weren’t pursued. I don’t think I’d consider those projects to be canceled. The other ones are all known about, mostly because they had bigger development teams.

Ever since you started developing games, do you still get the enjoyment out of playing other people’s games or the experience takes its toll and you constantly see some mistakes, cut corners, etc?

I still enjoy games a lot. I think that I notice errors and bugs very easily, but I’m more forgiving of many of them because I think I understand how or why they happened. However, I’m less tolerant of things that were clearly choices made by the developer that I don’t think help the game.

It became a good tradition to ask this question: do you want to work on some series or franchise? And if you do, which?

I generally don’t daydream about working on established franchises, but I do like Darklands (the 1992 game) and Ars Magica (the tabletop RPG). They’re both essentially set in different forms of a «mythic Europe», which I really enjoy. They also both have some interesting and detailed mechanics that are fun to play around with.

Recently I discovered JRPGs when I played Persona 4 on a PS Vita and I was astounded by the number of social elements and interactions. They are much interesting than battles, which took around 3% of the whole play time. Then I started thinking: can there be an RPG without a combat system? With what should it be replaced and should it be done at all? What do you think about it?

Sure. I don’t believe in «gatekeeping» the RPG genre. If people want to make games without combat that have complex character interactions and call them RPGs, I’m certainly not going to complain. Personally, I like a variety of combat gameplay, but there are a lot of people who don’t. If developers can build interesting gameplay and find a market for it, more power to them.

Left to right: Larry Liberty, Josh Sawyer and Chris Avellone

I believe the RPG genre has a serious problem with choices. Usually the player is given one right choice and a several wrong ones or force the player to choose the lesser of two evils (usually it only means that all the choices are wrong and the players have to suffer for no reason, like Buridan’s ass). And sometimes the developers restrict the choice and give only the choices the player doesn’t want to make. Like, when I was playing The Witcher 2, I was telling myself over and over «No? Why?! I don’t want to play like this! I want to do things differently!». Do you think there’s a solution to this problem?

I think that choices should be somewhat difficult to be interesting. Otherwise they won’t make players question their actions. There are two major axes that the choices often revolve on: the good you desire most and the evil you detest least. I believe which axis gets emphasized should depend on the tone of the game but also should be varied throughout the course of the game and story.

If a game consists of Buridan’s ass or Sophie’s Choice-style decisions, it can be extremely draining for the player. Maybe some developers want to achieve that, but I prefer a flow that ebbs between the extremes.

I remember half year ago there was a lot of whining on your forums concerning the crafting system. It came to it being simplified and the item durability was taken away (the latter upset me a lot). Now, a year after your studio successfully finished the Kickstarter campaign, can you still say that «working» with the backers is simpler than with the publishers?

It’s much simpler than working with publishers. When we’re working with publishers, we also still have to work with the audience. When we work with the audience, there are many inarticulate and dissonant voices, but there are enough people making clear and well-intentioned statements that we can draw value from them. Those statements and viewpoints aren’t always rational, but then again, neither are a lot of the statements and viewpoints that come from publishers.

When we listen to the audience, in the majority of cases the people who give their opinions are giving genuine feedback. That counts for a lot — much more than someone second-guessing what a nebulous silent market might like or dislike.

Keeping with the fan interaction theme. A month ago Brian Fargo released a beta version of Wasteland 2. One can discuss its strengths and weaknesses for a long time, but there were a lot of people that were dissatisfied with the game for one reason — they didn’t see the «true Fallout 3» in it. Are you afraid of this situation repeating with Pillars of Eternity? So far it seems that any attempt to stray from IE-games’ design decisions is punished with backers’ resentment.

I’m not worried, no. I’m sure some people will object to the decisions we make (as they already do), but I’m confident that the majority of backers and Infinity Engine fans who play Pillars of Eternity will enjoy it. For all of the mechanics we have altered, large-and-small, it very much looks, feels, and plays like an Infinity Engine game.

Josh sabotaging a wheel of a bicycle that belongs to one of the publishers

During your Kickstarter campaign you promised your backers a huge 15-level mega-dungeon. A lot will be happy to run around it, but some will be horrified by the scale. If it’s not a secret, what is such a colossal location for? Is it a rest for those who just want to kill monsters in good company and find valuable loot or there will be a storyline tied to it? Will this dungeon be essential or optional?

There is a storyline associated with the Endless Paths of Od Nua, but it is separate from the main plot. During the first third of the game, the player will come across the Endless Paths on the critical path. The crit path only takes them down into the first level. The rest of the dungeon is entirely optional. It should be a fun (but very difficult) dungeon crawl that players return to as they gain power and experience over the course of the game.

In many RPGs the player character’s companions are very dependent and it’s difficult to see them as full-fledged characters with their own personalities. They don’t have their own things to do, they are under complete control of the main character, they rarely take part in the story and only treat the player’s character as the player wants (or as the persuasion points allow, etc). How will the companion interaction be made in Pillars of Eternity? Will they be able to, say, make a drunk party, thrash a local tavern and unwittingly burn down my lovely stronghold while I’m walking around the mega-dungeon?

The companion interaction in PoE is largely based on Baldur’s Gate II and Planescape: Torment. Ultimately, companions are strategic and tactical tools. Adding more self-driven personal agendas would certainly make them more realistic, but at a certain point they could become more of a gameplay hassle than a benefit. We don’t want to drive players to ditch companions out of frustration.

For quite a while we haven’t heard anything about your Wheel of Time RPG. Can you tell us a bit about what happened to it? Isn’t it the very licensed project, Kickstarter campaign of which Feargus Urquhart mentioned recently?

I was never really part of anything involving Wheel of Time. Feargus is the guy to ask about that.

What the creative process of making games is for you? Are you inclined to fountain ideas or you prefer more thoughtful process, scrupulously and logically thinking out the details? Or you try to combine the two?

I bounce around a lot on what I’m working on, but I fall back on high-level design and gameplay principles. Sometimes I’m doing world development, sometimes I’m developing or refining systems, and a lot of the time I’m just dropping by someone’s office to ask questions and offer advice.

One thing I minimize as much as possible is a large number of scheduled meetings. I prefer and strongly promote informal meetings and personal discussions among groups of two to four people. Despite being less structured, I’ve found that they are generally much more productive for everyone involved.

I also think development by e-mail and documentation stinks and I discourage it. E-mail and documentation are vital for reference but should not form the spine of communication. Personal interaction develops better mutual understanding and esprit de corps on teams, in my experience. This is much easier on a smaller game like Pillars of Eternity, which is one of the most enjoyable things about it.

No-idea-who-that-is, Feargus Urquhart, Josh Sawyer and Tim Cain slacking off

And the last question. What for you is the hardest thing about working as a game designer?

I don’t write dialogue quickly, so I usually only write a handful of characters on any game I work on. I’ve actually been doing some personal projects using Write or Die to improve my writing speed. As a project director, the most difficult thing is always building a common understanding of what we’re making and how we’re going to get there. Whenever a project starts, every member of the team has a different vision in their head of where it’s going. It’s my job to work with them to see things from a similar perspective. This also applies to the audience and their perspectives. In both cases, it requires regular and forthright communication about what we’re doing.

Thanks for your time, mr. Sawyer! I am sure that Pillars of Eternity will be excellent game. And I (as the many others Obsidian fans) hope we will see you and your colleagues in the credits of such games as Fallout 4 and Arcanum 2.