A few more interesting questions on Formspring aimed at Fallout: New Vegas project lead J.E. Sawyer.

You lamented about the lack of serious themes in video games earlier. Why do you think the quality of writing is dependent on establishing and developing a theme? Wouldn't an entertaining plot and characters be more important for the player's enjoyment?

A: A lot of RPGs are long, certainly longer than the average film. If there is not some thematic thread running through all of that time and much of the dialogue, the experience as a whole can fall flat. Taken as snapshots, characters and plot elements may stand on their own, but they are essentially reduced to one-offs with very little connective tissue binding them together.

We already have plenty of examples of well-written characters in video gaming. Writing consistently entertaining dialogue requires skill, but I believe the best writing in any genre combines well-written characters with an interesting exploration of theme. Video games don't do that very often, overtly or subtextually.

"Entertainment value" and "depth" are not intrinsically linked. Many people are entertained by things that have very little depth. Some of the most popular "western" RPG characters, I would argue, have very little depth and are not connected to any consistently established theme.

So, when I'm asked if I think gamers have lowered their standards for writing, I honestly have to ask, "What standards?" From what I see and hear people discussing, those standards stop at entertaining dialogue and an interesting plot. In my opinion, that is a very low bar to reach -- and I write this fully aware that I do not write the most entertaining characters or plots. I just think that with all of the good writers in the industry, we can do much better than we have. How do publishers and developers interact in the world of game design? Is it usual for publishing companies to get residuals, or are they usually just funded and compensated for development?

Publishers take the majority of profits. Developers are paid on a milestone basis with some bonuses or royalties (usually) negotiated into the contract, but said bonuses/royalties are usually contingent on some strict criteria (shipped on time, 85%+ rated, X million units sold, etc.).

In the 11 years I've been in the industry, I've received one royalty check for one game: Icewind Dale. Some very successful companies have a lot of bonuses and royalties flying around, but they are the exception.

As a "hardcore" RPG developer, Obsidian could make a mint releasing budget hardcore RPGs on Steam that focus more on story than graphics and take less development time or resources. Does this interest you at all?

Story vs. graphics isn't actually an antagonistic relationship in my opinion. I don't think I've ever had an experience during development where I've thought, "If only this game could get by with lower fidelity graphics, then I could tell the story I really want to tell."

What lower budget titles offer to developers and publishers is lower loss potential. If a project "only" costs $1-3 million to make, even if it sells zero copies, the publisher is only out $1-3 million. Compared to the operating project budget of most publishers, that's relatively minor.

Lower loss potential can possibly be negotiated into "wacky game idea time". So if you want to make a game that has really niche or experimental game play, a non-traditional setting/set of characters, etc., a lower budget game is probably the place you're going to do it -- if anywhere.

As a side note, I am not primarily interested in telling stories. I am a game designer and my primary interest is in making games. I always want the stories in the games I work on to be good, but that is secondary to ensuring that the game play is enjoyable. If I were fundamentally concerned with telling stories, I would become a writer.

So you've made it pretty clear that you're more interested in developing games than writing the stories in those games, despite your company's reputation. Do you at all resent that so many people keep focusing on Obsidian's writing?

Not at all, but I think people should have higher standards for game play. Slapping "RPG" on a game should not give it a free pass for clumsy or poorly balanced mechanics. Additionally, I believe that an RPG with a "great story" that does not mechanically work well with player choice might as well not be an RPG.

A lot of RPG designers fixate on telling the player a story instead of giving players tools to make *their* stories unique and reactive.

When defining an RPG, what about abstracted mechanics? IMO, a greater degree of abstraction that explicitly expresses or rewards a player's choices should be part of the definition, would you agree or disagree?

Agree, and I think it can apply to any/all aspects of game play: conversation choices, skill choices, weapon choices, etc.

If have two weapons available to me, make them tactically different, then present me with situations where their tactical differences matter. If I make a strategic decision to invest in one skill/faction/"alignment" over another, be sure to reward me for my choice and also remind me what I am missing out on because of that same choice.

You seemed to dismiss the idea of working on smaller-budget titles. As a video game designer, do you view big projects with corporate backing and a marketing campaign to be more prestigious, more fun, or just more lucrative? Does it make a better game?

The only reason I dismiss it is because I don't think publishers are interested in it. I would certainly work on a small budget title if that's what a publisher/Obsidian wanted. This has not happened as far as I know.

Brian Mitsoda says that he thinks that certain companies have undeserved reputations for good writing and even though good gameplay is more important it'd be nice if they tried to live up to them. Do you think gamers have lowered standards w/r/t writing?

After decades of industry evolution, our subject matter and thematic delivery are still juvenile. Count the number of games that have established and reinforced a consistent theme through subtext. In the rare case when a game story has a clearly discernible theme, it is delivered with the subtlety of a claw hammer to the skull.

I don't see many gamers noticing this, much less complaining about it.

Do you think that the view of video games as low art, or not art at all, might stem from the fact that despite being mass-produced, their media value is entirely Cult as opposed to traditional art which is non-mass produced with high exhibition value?

When a person classifies something as art (or not art) of any grade, the reasons are arbitrary. I don't find any value in speculating on the source of those reasons or attempting to argue against them.

Ultimately, I would rather spend my time making something new that a another person may or may not consider art than argue with them about why they definitely should consider what I've made before to be art.

Every Obsidian game has some kind of Reputation or Influence system. What makes that heavily abstracted, numerical system preferable to, say, tracking specific statements or actions that can have a more concrete effect on a relationship?

I don't think these sorts of systems need to be used for every character and group. In some cases, the number of inputs is so small, and their impact so large, that using quest variables makes more sense. Abstracted, finely granular systems make the most sense when the player has a lot of ways to influence a character's or group's opinions. If a character speaks to you often, or if you have many opportunities to perform actions that can influence the character's opinion in small ways, using a reputation/influence score is easier, more flexible, and generally less of a headache.

Connecting to the reputation/influence question, Obsidian's games always had a visible feedback, e.g. the '+1 reputation with XXX' pop-up in Alpha Protocol. Some would argue that this breaks immersion, what's your opinion about it?

People have different expectations of feedback clarity/immersion. Because character/faction influence often builds over time and cannot show immediate results, letting the player know when small increments are being made is a way for the game to indicate that yes, something changed based on what you just did.

Health bars can also break immersion, but being able to see health bars helps the player make tactical decisions. Some players would rather see the health bars and lose the immersion. Others would rather lose the health bars and retain the immersion.

Because I believe that game play should be the primary focus of a game, I will always push for more clarity/certainty if the mechanics of the game are inscrutable to the player.

Meanwhile, New Vegas senior designer Chris Avellone tweets. Lunch with Tim Cain and old Black Isle folks. Got to see an iPad in action. Beef Curry super spicy is indeed suuuuuper spicy.Would've liked to be a fly on the wall with that one.

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