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More Formspring answers from J.E. Sawyer

Ausir June 6, 2010 User blog:Ausir

Here's yet another batch of Fallout: New Vegas project director J.E. Sawyer's answers to community questions from Formspring. Feel free to ask him anything, as long as it's not directly Fallout-related or just too damn silly!

Where are the isometric party RPGs with tactical combat? There's a starving market for them and they are (by my guess) cheaper to make than most modern games?

It is hard for me to penetrate the inscrutable minds of publishers, but I'll give it a shot. Many publishers are publicly traded. They are primarily interested in two categories of games, both of which generate a large return on investment (ROI): big budget/big sellers and shovelware. ROI is what matters, because ultimately they answer to a sea of faceless, uncaring investors who want their $4/share investment to turn into $100/share in two quarters. Absolutely everything else is subordinate to that. Everything.

The "lovingly-crafted mid-budget niche game" doesn't fit into most publisher strategies. For the same reasons that they are considered niche games, they must be marketed in a different way, pitched to retailers in a different way, and most publishers don't want to deal with it.

The exceptions to this trend may include digital distribution only, since retailers/cost of goods are out of the picture, and platforms where the hardware is relatively low tech (cell phones/Nintendo DS/Sony PSP, etc.).

Do you believe a game such as Arkanum (or similar game we're not supposed to mention!) would have been possible to develop if you were expected to implement modern features (full voice acting, AAA level graphics, physics, dynamic lighting, etc)?

With time and money, a lot of things are possible. Could it have been done for the same amount of money in the same amount of time with all of those features? No, but I think that's just common sense.

Most skill-based rpgs I've played put every ability on the same scale of importance when it comes to leveling, yet it's pretty clear that combat is the core gameplay mechanics and that a character without a combat skill is simply 'wrong'.

There isn't a question here, but I think I understand where you're going with this.

It can be hard for designers to consistently support non-combat paths for game play -- whether that's an actual path through a level/quest or simply a level of support in an area. Once combat mechanics are in place, it's relatively easy to throw hostiles in an area as obstacles and call it a day. If, to that, you have to look at lighting for stealth, conversation options for speech-y characters, etc., well, eventually all designers run out of time. In the best of all possible worlds, designers allocate their time well and dedicate equal time to all potential ways of approaching a level.

In cases where the content does not support the system, a designer can do one of two things: change the content or change the system. Changing the content means that you go back to all of those "run out of time" levels and put more effort into the non-combat routes. On projects with a lot of content, I like to keep people moving relatively briskly from area to area, establishing an alpha level of quality early and returning to it later (in a dedicated alpha stage) for revisions. Working in this fashion allows the designer to survey all of his or her work over the course of a project and bolster the things that really need help -- as opposed to carrying an area's work from milestone to milestone and pushing the schedule out.

Some character advancement systems deal with the combat vs. non-combat problem by having a separate point pool for combat skills. I.e., all characters gain a certain number of points (or ranks, or whatever you want to call it) per level that can only be spent in combat skills. This ensures that all characters have some combat capability of one type or another. This really only makes sense in games where characters are guaranteed to be in combat regularly.

Alpha Protocol has mouse smoothing on PC even though PC gamers hate mouse smoothing. Games still use escort missions even though people hate escort missions. Can you comment on why developers use things they know most gamers dislike?

Sometimes they think that games don't really (in any significant volume) dislike that thing. Other times they believe that gamers only dislike that thing because it hasn't been done "right".

On occasion, they are correct. Usually they are dead wrong.

arachronox is a game i really want to finish but i cant stand the turn based combat they used for it, yet i keep coming back, but only because of the setting and story. have you had a similar experience?

Honestly, no. When a game has bad game play, I stop playing it. I like good stories in games, but as seasoning, not the main course.

Do you game? A lot of designers say they don't have the time. If you do, what games are you looking forward to in the next year or two?

When I have time, I do play a lot of games. I currently have a back log of fourteen games that I can't get to until work slows down.

I can't even think about what's coming out in the next year or two; I still have last year's games to play through.

Isn't having too much or too firm of a 'concept' in mind when approaching concept art a danger? The initial character designs for Deus Ex: Human Revolution provoked a huge backlash because the New Renaissance concept had overtaken good taste.

It is better to be talked about than ignored. I believe the following:

If you enter into creative endeavors cautiously and conservatively, you will create things that are cautious and conservative.

If you enter into creative endeavors aimlessly, you will create things that feel empty and disconnected.

I think it is best to be passionate but flexible, to consider mainstream tastes and expectations, but not to be bound by them.

Do you still keep in contact from coworkers/buddies from Interplay - Black Isle (i.e. Leonard Boyarsky) ?

Leonard had already left Black Isle by the time I arrived. I try to keep in touch with members of the old crew when I can. Not all of them are in the industry anymore, but if they are, I bump into them every few years. As large as gaming has become, the industry is still surprisingly small.

How come so many RPGs lately have minigames in place of simple skill checks? Do they really add anything worthwhile to the game?

They add player challenge. Whether or not you consider that to be worthwhile depends on your point of view (and probably the quality of the mini game). Simple skill checks only reward (or punish) your strategic choices. Outside of manipulating the character's skill rating, there is nothing the player can do to influence the outcome.

What's your opinion on full voice-over for games, especially, you know, role playing games? Do you think they're a necessity? Do they hinder development in your opinion (you know, like 'I can't write a dialogue so long because the budget doesn't let us!')

It's expensive and can be hard to coordinate. It doesn't really have much of any impact on how we write, though.

In eleven years of making CRPGs, full voice over/lack of full voice over has honestly never factored into how I have written dialogue, structured a quest, etc. I have also never had someone come to me with a writing problem involving full voice over or lack thereof.

I'm curious about the divergence between the systems used in tabletop RPGs vs those used in CRPGs- it seems to me that mechanics regarded as outdated in tabletop are regularly used in CRPG's, such as classes, levels, and HP. Why do you think that is?

Mainstream tabletop games use many of these things and so do mainstream CRPGs. In Nomine and Everway players may consider classes, levels, and hit points to be outmoded conventions, but the ratio of them to D&D players is about 1 to 1,000,000.

A main problem reviewers have with Alpha Protocol is that it looks like a shooter, but its mechanics are that of an RPG. Do you agree a game should play like it looks on the surface? Is there still a place for stat mechanics in real-time action games?

You shouldn't confuse or irritate the player. Please also see Brütal "Not an RTS" Legend. Note: challenge can occasionally produce some irritation, but is ultimately followed by satisfaction, not angry exhalations of consternation.

There's certainly a place for stat mechanics in real-time action games. Just don't make it feel crappy. Castlevania games have been consistently using stats for about thirteen+ years now, so I think it's pretty viable to marry stat progression/character advancement with real-time action.

By this point in time, I think we have enough examples of games that get it right and games that get it wrong that we shouldn't be re-treading the same mistakes.

Would you rather create your own IP or work with a license?

I would rather create my own IP, but I'm sure the general populace would rather play something that's licensed.

Of course, these are only the ones relevant to game design. For answers to more personal (or downright silly) questions, check out Formspring itself.

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