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Interview: Josh Sawyer on Fallout: New Vegas

Kevin Kelly

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Imagine going to work on "Van Buren," the original Fallout 3, as a designer for Black Isle Studios, only to see the title canceled due to parent company Interplay's financial problems. Then, imagine Bethesda buying the Fallout 3 license and developing an entirely different game, which goes on to win multiple awards and accolades. Now, imagine you're brought back into the franchise, as a designer for Obsidian Entertainment, to create a sequel to Bethesda's popular title. Preposterous, you say?

Josh Sawyer is the lead designer on Fallout: New Vegas and, after having the rug yanked from under him on the original Fallout 3, he's happy to be working on the latest new Fallout project -- one that will be released later this year. Read on for our conversation with Sawyer.

Joystiq: What's your history with the Fallout franchise?

Josh Sawyer: I worked on what's called "Van Buren," which was the codename when Black Isle started to work on what would have been Fallout 3, and we had worked on it for maybe half a year, and then it was canceled because Interplay had a lot of financial problems.

Has it been a bizarre journey for you -- to have worked on the original iteration of Fallout 3 and now to be creating New Vegas, the sequel to the Fallout 3 you didn't work on -- or is it just "business as usual"?

I don't know if it's necessarily business as usual. You know, I've had a few high profile games be canceled, and so when I start working on a game at this point I'm kind of like, "I'm not confident that a game is going to ship until the manual is printed." Although, I have heard of examples where even then games have been canceled.

So, I mean, I'm really glad to be working on Fallout again. But like I said, until we get really close to the finish, I don't think I'm really going to have the same level of excitement that I had back in the early 2000s, because when I came to Black Isle, all I could think of was working on Fallout 3. So it has basically been 11 years coming to this, so I don't want to get ahead of myself until it's actually out the door.

Why should fans of Fallout 3 want to revisit Fallout in New Vegas?

There's a ton of new stuff in it. If they liked Fallout 3, I don't think they are going to find stuff in New Vegas that is super crazy, radically different. Mostly, we've just tried to focus on making the gameplay experiences better overall and really creating a lot of awesome content. So we're not trying to reinvent the wheel, but whenever there is something in the game's formula that we think we could improve, especially if it adds more player choice or more tactical depth for the player, or more reactivity, we've tried to do that -- so, whether that's in our game design itself or whether it's something more systemic throughout the game.

What specifically has Obsidian changed in New Vegas from Fallout 3?

Well, we've done a lot to tweak the combat, especially for VATS, but also for real-time. We moved to an aimed-down sight system because it feels more immersive. You feel more connected when you're actually in combat. VATS is basically a resource for the player to use.

Some people like playing only in VATS. There are very few people we've found who play Fallout 3 who enjoy playing real-time, so we tried to address a lot of the deficiencies with that so that it's a lot more enjoyable to play it. And so you can switch between real-time and VATS and it is much more viable. So concretely, what we've done, is we've switched to the aimed-down sight system.

We've also made the relationship between how the character moves and what the effect on accuracy is. We've made that a lot clearer and more concrete. We've improved the responsiveness of the controls for firing and reloading and stuff like that. Basically, technically, we've added button buffering and things like that. So there's a lot of tweaking that we've done in that regard.

And, in addition, we've added stuff like the Hardcore mode, which really does make a pretty big change in how you play the game. You have to think a lot more about what gear you're taking along with you, because you have to worry about dehydration. You also have to worry about the weight of ammunition, and then the way that you approach combat is also pretty different, because healing over time really makes you think tactically about how you kind of rush into combat or don't rush into combat. So being at range and taking cover and sort of avoiding fire is a much more important component of gameplay.

Last year Todd Howard, admitted that Fallout 3 failed in some ways as a "shooter." Have you tried to improve that element of gameplay?

We're still kind of tweaking the third-person camera, but we have looked at it and made a few adjustments. And again, it's mostly like a feel thing. There are a few things about the third-person camera that can make things tricky. One of them we found is the sort of offset of the camera from the character itself, because, basically, the bullet is always originating from the weapon, and because it's like a pretty wide field of view -- it's like a 70-degree field of view -- it can produce a disconnect.

So, where you are aiming in terms of the screen versus where your character is aiming, there is a pretty big disconnect there. So we've tried to address some of that just by kind of pushing and pulling those angles and distances around a little bit. Because we have found that people here do like playing in third-person. And those changes seem to have made a pretty big improvement in the feel of third-person shooting especially. I'm sure there was another component to your question.

What about specific changes to satisfy the shooter fans -- players who want to play New Vegas as an FPS?

I guess the thing is, I don't really view RPG and FPS as separate genres. FPS is the style of combat that the game has outside of VATS. But the RPG always influences how you use that combat system, whether it's in VATS or in first-person real-time. So what I tried to do is really look at, you know, how can we make our weapons different, because there are a lot of weapons.

One of the reasons I wanted to have so many weapons is that so there was more stratification between equipment. And then within each stratum, there would be more differentiation. So we don't want people to pick up guns and not really get why that gun exists. We do feel that, at any given point in the game, when you see a number of weapons to choose from, each one of them has a pretty specific role' which I guess some people would say, like, "Well, that's just good FPS design." But it should just be good game design. It's good RPG design.

So, you know, basically, like the Varmint rifle, which we showed in the demo, the Varmint rifle is not a powerful weapon at all. It's really, really weak. But it's incredibly accurate and it has a pretty high magazine count. So for shooting at range, and also, later, you can get a scope and a silencer for it, it's a really good sort of range combat weapon. But it's very poor once things get up close to you and they are aware of you. Whereas, like, the 9mm, is kind of a balance between that and the .357 revolver. The .357 revolver is very slow, but also very powerful. And so that stratification goes throughout the entire game across all the different types of gear.

So we do want people, when they pick something up, we want the weapon to feel good to use, but we also want it to feel like it has a very specific role, and that the player should have to make a tactical choice about which weapon they want to use in any given circumstance.

Did you guys make any changes to the inventory system?

Let's see -- what have we done there? We changed around some of the stuff, like with the Pip Boy in terms of what stats are displayed. We obviously had to do that for mods. And, let's see -- what else? There's obviously the Hardcore ammo weight stuff ... We haven't made a bunch of dramatic changes to inventory.

Speaking of the Pip-Boy, and given that this is a new Fallout game, did you think about moving away from that menu system at all?

Well, we did want it to feel familiar. But obviously, not having a Pip-Boy means we would have to rebuild the menus. So, no. I mean having a Pip-Boy and having the suit is very like, "Wow. It's Fallout." So we knew we wanted to do that from the beginning.

What are the changes you've made to the "companion" element?

Well, we do have quite a few companions and we are putting a lot of effort into them. We did make the companion wheel specifically for managing companions. And we also want the companions to have their own little mini-plotlines. So when you get companions, they usually have something that's going on with them, and you can sort of help them work through whatever their issues are. And also, they comment a lot more on what's going on in the world. Also, as with the weapons, we wanted each of the companions to feel like one -- that they had some aspect of combat that they were good at -- and also that there was some other thing that they gave to the player that would basically be a bonus that they could not get through any other means.

Raul, for instance, Raul is a mechanic. As long as Raul is with you, he basically gives you a Perk called Regular Maintenance; and Regular Maintenance slows down the condition decay rate of equipment. So it's not like a major thing, and it is sort of just based on him being in a party, but it does provide a benefit that you can't get through perks, you can't get through any other equipment, and it is a valuable sort of addition.

So with all of our companions, we've tried to make them feel like if you want to go into combat, you don't have to worry about them. They're not going to bowl the entire world over, but you don't have to worry about them just being completely incompetent. And then also, they are providing an additional bonus to you just by being there.

We noticed that Doc Mitchell doesn't seem to know if you're a man or a woman when he's putting you back together at the beginning of the game. Are you going to smooth over that character creation process that happens within the game's narrative or leave it as a sort of comic absurdity?

We basically avoid using any sort of association of what sex the character is in the intro, up until the point where you define what your character is. We avoid using any sort of gendered pronouns or anything. Which I guess, when you get into Russian translations or whatever, might be a problem. But basically, because we know the player can choose whatever they want, he doesn't ... it's not that he doesn't know. It's just that we, as designers, don't know whether you want to play a male or a female or old or young or whatever. So Doc Mitchell is very vague. He doesn't use anything that is descriptive of who you are.

Is the Hardcore mode inspired by a Fallout 3 mod? Were there mods form the PC community that inspired design choices for New Vegas?

I don't think it was one specific mod that we looked at for Hardcore mode. A lot of people will just build mix and match mods. One of the great things about the Oblivion/Fallout 3 engine is that it's very easy to just turn on and turn off mods as you see fit. So one person can make like a basic needs mod, like food and sleep and water. And another person can make something that, you know, changes how VATS works. And you don't have to download that as one big massive thing.

So we looked at a bunch of different mods. We looked at weapon mods. We looked at the various basic needs mods. We looked at the ways that people tried to make new Perks, especially when it came time for thinking about how we wanted to do Perks. Looking at how modders makes perks gives us an idea of the sort of boundaries and limitations of the engine as it stands.

You can sort of see where a line gets drawn once somebody makes a mod. Like this level of kind of working with what you've got is acceptable and does not seem like a hack. And after a certain point it starts to seem like a hack and causes bugs. So we often look at mods to see like, is what these people are doing within our own capabilities just right out of the box or are they really doing some crazy shit?

If they're getting a cool effect, and we want to do it, that might involve us actually coding it so that we can do it more easily than they did. So mods are very, very useful for developers, even if we're not specifically doing what they're doing. Just by observing people using the mechanics of the engine and the scripting and everything, it gives us a lot of ideas of what to do and what not to do.

I know you can't talk much about the music for New Vegas because it's still being licensed, but the music in Fallout 3 had that Word War II era, big band vibe. Are you putting together a similar, thematic soundtrack for New Vegas in the sense that it recreates the sounds of Vegas in the '50s?

Well, it's interesting because a lot of the music that was involved in Fallout 3 was '30s or '40s music; and there was a sort of goofy upbeatness to it. A lot of the pieces had a very super-cheerful vibe. The music of the late '50s, which is when Vegas started to really become a place that anyone cared about -- that era was a little bit different in terms of the Rat Pack vibe, and so I think we said in the interview session we are going for something that is a later shift.

It's still '50s but it's late '50s. And in addition to the crooner style music we also want to add in some bluegrass and country music from the '40s and '50s as well, because that's a pretty interesting era for our country.

Are you guys going to reuse any of the music from Fallout 3 or will it be all new stuff?

Can't say. Can't say till we're done licensing everything.

What about voice actors? Are we going to hear any familiar voices from Fallout 3?


So how many trips did you take out to Vegas for "research"?

Actually, I took a big trip ... it was last spring. We came out here on a motorcycle trip. I rode up on I-15. Went through Primm, Goodsprings; went up into the mountains east of Vegas; went all around and got a lot of reference photos and camped out in the desert and stuff like that. Because the thing is, like, Vegas is obviously a big part of our game, but so is the Mohave Desert. Because it is an open-world game, we want to have an open world to explore in. So I wanted to get, especially, a feel for the desert.

When Fallout 3 came out, a "Surivor Edition" was released with the Pip-Boy replica. What would you like to see as a possible item that could be included with a collector's edition of New Vegas?

Oh, well I know what I want, but I can't say it.

So something might be in the works?

See, it's weird because Bethesda does lots of crazy marketing and PR stuff and there are a lot of possibilities for what we can do. And I've talked with them about a lot of ideas, and they've been really supportive so far. So I'll let you know later, if it winds up being the thing that I wanted.

Okay, we'll be sure to follow up and ask you, "Is this ....

... the thing?"

Right, exactly. "The thing."

So, have you taken a look at id's RAGE, another post-apocalyptic game to be published by Bethesda? If so, what were your impressions?

I thought it was really great. I was very impressed by a number of things. I think id always has -- you know, obviously no one disputes that it always pushes the technology boundaries. But I think I saw something more impressive than I even honestly expected, because I really appreciate that id has put more of a design emphasis on making their environments have a lot of character. And making their characters have a lot of character. And I think I could see it in the character designs.

I could see it in the environment designs, and I could see it also in the style of animation. It seems like they really have put, in many ways, almost a more traditional animation style into the way a lot of the characters move in conversations and also in combat. I think it showed a lot of really cool style and technologically, again, the fact that that it was running at 60 frames a second on a 360. I was really impressed.

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