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Tim Cain Interview: Game development changes over the past 3 decades, his role at Obsidian, and the future of RPGs and Fallout

Willooi October 26, 2011 User blog:Willooi
Tim Cain 2008

Following in the footsteps of recent interviews with Joshua Sawyer, Chris Avellone, and Jason Bergman, I was lucky enough to have the privilege of interviewing the father of Fallout himself, Tim Cain.

(Full interview available either at Gamasutra or willooi blog

[His new role at Obsidian]

I really enjoy working at Obsidian. I know many of the people there from our time at Interplay or Troika, and I have played all of Obsidian's games, so in many ways this new job was the smoothest transition I have ever made. Everyone there has been very friendly and welcoming, and I am excited to be back in the RPG game space.

But I should explain that I am a temporary contracted employee at Obsidian. I am considering joining another company in the spring of 2012 and have been talking with them since August, so in the meantime I am working at Obsidian on one of their games as a senior programmer. My contract extends thru March of 2012, at which time all parties (myself, Obsidian and the other company) can decide what the next step should be.

As a senior programmer, I have been assigned to work for Dan Spitzley on their New York project. I am working on various coding tasks concerning combat and general gameplay. The group is very open to design suggestions from all of its members, and they hold weekly meetings where the game is played and anyone can suggest changes to gameplay, anything from new abilities to UI to voice over. Everyone at Obsidian is very passionate about their games, and it shows in their development process.

[How the industry has changed over the years]

I started in the game industry in 1981, while I was still in high school. I made an editor for a local company making games played on cable boxes, and that turned into a full-time programming job on Grand Slam Bridge, released by Electronic Arts in 1986. So this year marks my 30th anniversary in the industry. And I still have no idea where we are headed.

The rise of smartphones and social media has introduced a whole new group of people to playing games. These casual games are driving the industry as much as the hardcore segment, so my best guess is that over the next few years we will see the industry schism into two big development types, small developers who make several small games a year on tiny budgets and big developers who take years to make a game with budgets of 50 or 100 million dollars. The big question is what will happen to mid-tier developers, the ones who used to make all of the games we grew up on. Can they compete with the other groups or will they morph into being one or the other? Only time will tell.

[What makes an RPG an RPG]

I think an RPG should be about creating and playing a "role". First, an RPG should always include some kind of character creation system, to let the player choose what kind of character to play, and I prefer that the game let me name my character, although I can see why some games don't allow that so that they can include voice overs that talk about the character.

Second, I think RPG's should be about choice, and that choice should matter in some way. The player should be able to decide how to play their character and the game should react to that choice in some way. NPC's should change their behavior, or vendors should change their prices, or the storyline should change and the game should offer a different ending.

I play a large variety of games, not just RPG's, so I enjoy many of the action titles that are released. I think that including RPG-like systems improves many of these games, but there will always be a soft spot in my heart for true RPG's.

[What he thought of New Vegas]

I really liked Fallout: New Vegas. I thought it was the most Fallout-y of the post-original games, especially humor-wise, and I think the designers at Obsidian really understand and respect the franchise. And I do like how the game has been extended in many ways, into 3D play, into real-time combat, and into new areas of the world. These extensions enrich the IP and bring it to a new audience of gamers.

[The future of the franchise]

I think there are lots of areas in the Fallout IP that are ripe for exploring. And I don't think that people should be afraid that such exploration will make for a lesser Fallout. Expanding the IP is always a good thing, as long as its nature stays true to the original. That nature consists of exploration (both of the exterior world and one's inner self), of examining gray areas (because what important ideas are truly black and white), and of finding humor in the darkest situations.

I mentioned in a recent interview that I am for the repealing of copyright extensions. I feel that 28 years is more than enough time for a creator to make money off of his creation. After that, I want people to be encouraged to explore the works of other artists and to try to extend them in ways their original creator never imagined. There is a risk that horrible products will be generated, but that's a risk we should take to allow the occasional diamond in the rough to shine through.

[Pets]

My twenty-year old dog Cooter, who I picked up at a shelter when he was nine, passed away a few months ago. He was very well-behaved and was at Troika for the development and shipping of all three of our games. He will be missed. I have a cat, a tabby named Bonkers. I treat her like a dog and taught her to fetch and to come when I call her. She tolerates me.

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