This may be Obsidian's first crack at the Fallout series, but it certainly isn't Josh Sawyer's. The Fallout: New Vegas Project Director and Lead Designer was involved with Black Isle's aborted attempt to make Fallout 3 back in 2003. Now back working on the series he clearly loves, Sawyer is making up for lost time.
With Fallout New Vegas just a couple of months from release, we took the opportunity to talk about old engines, new shooting and the Wu-Tang Clan of voice casts.
Gaming Union: The first thing that strikes you about the area in the demo is that - while it's far from lush - the environment has a lot more life than the Wasteland of Fallout 3. Was that a reaction to the bleakness of the previous game?
Josh Sawyer: Most definitely. We wanted to make sure that - because we're on essentially the same technology as Fallout 3 we knew we had to push the differences in the settings as far as we could.
So we really wanted to emphasise the fact that you're in a desert. This area was not heavily hit by nuclear attacks. We've got blue skies and a warmer palette and even in the desert there's quite a bit of life in terms of plant life and stuff like that. It was a very clear decision to make a distinct break from Fallout 3.
GU: What was behind the decision to use the same engine again, without trying to push the game further graphically?
JS: It was mostly time. Basically this is not a sequel, it's a standalone project. In many ways we've referred to it as the Vice City of the Fallout franchise. So it's really more focused on new content, new characters, and tweaks to gameplay, as opposed to completely reinventing what's already been done.
GU: It strikes me that this is a series with a lot of history to it. So when you make this game you have to think about the people that loved the original games, as well as those who love Bethesda's approach to Fallout 3. How do you juggle those expectations?
JS: One, ignore some people. I mean flat out, there are people that are reasonable and people who are unreasonable. And then there are people that are completely reasonable, but in a small minority.
So for us, really the way that I approached it was - there are two camps of people. There are the big fans of the original games, the characters of the original games and the factions of the original games. And then there are people that are more into the experience they had with Fallout 3.
So with our story we try to have a lot of characters and organisations from the first two games. You are not required to play those games to appreciate them, but I think that the fans really appreciate things life the California Republic is back, characters like Marcus from Fallout 2, even minor organisations like the Gun Runners. People appreciate all that stuff.
But people coming to it from Fallout 3, there are no barriers to them getting into it because it's so fundamentally similar to it.
And then in terms of difficulty, we've done things like add a new hardcore mode, which is separate from normal difficulty, and it really does ramp up the challenge for people that want a more hardcore experience.
So hopefully those two major contingents will find that Fallout New Vegas has something for them.
GU: Something about Fallout 3 that attracted criticism was the shooting. Has that been addressed in New Vegas?
JS: Definitely. We really put a lot of effort into it. In the realtime shooting we tried to make sure that it feels more responsive. So we've done a lot to make it feel a lot more reliable, you shouldn't find you're getting hung up or missing queues to fire.
Also, we've implemented a true iron sight, or aim down the sight system. So in Fallout 3, when you went to aim you would just kind of bring the gun up, change the zoom and you'd still have the reticule. In Fallout New Vegas, for most of the weapons when you bring them up you are actually bringing them up to the centre and looking down the sights. So that should make you feel more connected to what you're doing.
Also, in terms of the accuracy, condition doesn't have much of an effect. I think that a lot of negative feeling towards Fallout 3 really came from the fact that you start out with bad weapons that you are bad with. So we thought, 'Ok, how about we start out with decent weapons that you're pretty good with.' And it just goes up from there.
So, when you start Fallout: New Vegas you have a Varmint Rifle and a 357 revolver, and a 9mm laser pistol and they feel good to use. They don't feel super strong but they feel reliable. You feel competent using them, not frustrated. And then, as long as you keep advancing your skills, the more powerful and cool they'll feel.
Really it was about not making people work toward the fun. We felt it should feel fun as soon as they get into it.
GU: With regards to progression, are you going to be adding any new skills and perks?
JS: Yeah, we start with the original S.P.E.C.I.A.L system, but for the main skill set we took the Big Guns Skill away, because there is such a small selection of weapons in there, and we distributed it around the other skills.
So the Minigun now goes into what is now the guns skill, the Flamer and the Gatling Gun go into the energy weapons skill. So we've just kind of condensed that.
Also, we've added a new skill called Survival. Survival complements hardcore mode, but it's very useful in the standard game too. It affects the efficiency of using all food and drink items. So the higher your survival skill, the more benefit you'll get out of using food and drink items.
Also, it unlocks certain crafting recipes, so you can mix poisons and gunpowder, just like in Fallout 2. Or even new food items, so you can take raw meat and turn it into a steak or something like that. So lots of little things like that.
GU: Are there going to be returning super enemies, like the Deathclaw?
JS: Yup! The super enemies will feel even more super here. We do not scale content a whole lot in the game, especially stuff that is off the critical path. Because we know that some people don't want to do side content, we do scale the main quest quite a bit in terms of difficulty.
But when it comes to the side content, there are areas within five minutes of the start of the game, that you will go into and you'll probably get destroyed until you're at the fifteenth or twentieth level.
So we didn't want people to feel like they couldn't explore, and there's lots of cool stuff to see, but they'll have to be a little cautious about it. And there really is a challenge out there, like, if someone finds a big nest of Deathclaws this is not the kind of thing where you can just poke your head in and start blasting people. It is pretty hard.
GU: Obviously you're using the engine from Fallout 3. Have you been able to make any changes to the characters animations? They have been criticised in the past for their woodenness.
JS: We've tried to progress the animations. Some of the animations in conversation, but also a lot of the in-game animations, on your character as well as people in the environment. There are a huge number of animations in the game total, so I can't remember the amount that we've retouched or added to, but we do recognise that as a criticism and we tried to improve it as much as possible.
Really it was just about taking assets that we felt could be polished a bit more and addressing that.
GU: Do you consider the Fallout series to be yours now?
JS: I don't consider it to be anybodies. It's whoever is working on it. It belongs to everyone who is a fan of it and everyone who has worked on it. There are so many games in the franchise now, that I think it's all these different developers and publishers or fans - there isn't a monolithic version of what Fallout is.
People talk about a hardcore fanbase. But even from that fanbase there are a lot of different opinions. It's not like they are a unified group of people. A lot of them have some very strong opinions, but those opinions are not always the same.
GU: So do you go on the communities and see what they're saying?
JS: Yep. I go on and sometimes I say stuff and sometimes I just read. And it's very interesting. Sometimes I go on the German sites, because I can barely read German, sometimes I'll go there and I'll read what people have to say because I'm pretty sure that they don't think that I'm there. Y'know, anywhere that I can go where I feel that I can get unfiltered feedback. Where they don't think the developers are reading it. I like to go to more obscure places so I can see what people have to say.
GU: I guess you'll be having DLC, right?
JS: That would be nice. You'll have to ask Bethesda first. We would certainly like to work on DLC.
GU: With regards to DLC, Todd Howard said it was released on Xbox 360 for Fallout 3 first because more people cared about it on that platform. Any idea how it will work out this time?
JS: We're really focusing our attention on all the platforms equally. I think the 360 has traditionally been the main focus. But we really want to make sure that all three platforms are very solid on launch.
GU: So in terms of development, what's the lead platform?
JS: Like I said, I think for convenience the 360 was the lead platform. But obviously we've worked on the PC, we've worked on the PlayStation 3, we've always tried to keep those platforms in mind as well.
Different problems arise on each platform. It's not like, 'Oh, this is clearly the easy one!' They all have their own issues.
GU: What about the Wii?
JS: I don't think it's quite right. [Laughs]
GU: Going back quickly to what we were talking about before, you said that you don't feel like Fallout belongs to you. Does that mean that you don't expect to work on the sequel, if there is one?
JS: I would love to work on the next project. I would assume that Bethesda wants to make more Fallout games, either externally or internally. Obviously at Black Isle I worked on Van Buren (the canned follow-up to Fallout 2), so I'm used to it being taken away from me, even though it wasn't mine in the first place.
I kinda feel like I'm renting it, because I wasn't at Black Isle during Fallout 1 and 2, I came just after Fallout 2. I started on Van Buren but that was cancelled. So I don't take anything for granted when it comes to being able to work on any given project again.
GU: Because you've been around the series for such a long time, you're obviously aware of the lore of Fallout and what that means to people. How do you avoid slipping up?
JS: Yeah, we have to be very thorough in researching what we're doing. The thing is - and this isn't a cop out - the Fallout series has a lot of internal contradictions. So in the cases where we encounter a contradiction we're free to interpret it however we wish.
In other cases we can just make up new content. We do have a lot of throwbacks to the older games, but we didn't want our entire game to be a throwback. So especially with the new groups we've introduced like Ceasar's Legion, we were free to what we wanted to do.
GU: I played about 60 hours of Fallout 3 and didn't even get close to doing everything. How big is Fallout: New Vegas?
JS: It is physically the same size, but I'm confident that in terms of quests, it is bigger than Fallout 3. This is based off my own experiences. I am also about 60 hours into my current playthrough (of New Vegas), in hardcore mode. I've done about 30 quests, I have another dozen in the queue and I know there's a ton more that I haven't done. Each companion has their own quests - I've done like half of those. There's a lot to do in this game.
GU: Did you design the characters knowing that you would have the voice cast that you ended up with?
JS: No. We built up the companion list pretty early on because we knew we were going to focus a lot on companion development. And we always knew that Bethesda wanted to get high-profile voice talent.
But really with a lot of them it was just kinda really surprised, like, 'Hey! Here's Zachary Levi for Arcade!' and we're like, 'Alright, cool! Wasn't really expecting that!' and Danny Trejo plays Raul the Ghoul, that was a huge surprise and everyone was thrilled about it. Yeah, so it's really cool, but we went into it not really knowing.
GU: Did bringing them on board change the way you approached the characters?
JS: What we did was look at the language that we used to reinforce the style that those actors could bring. There was definitely a bit of back and forth on that.
GU: What do you think that says about the growing reputation of games, that they can now command such impressive voice talent?
JS: It's interesting. Recently I read something, someone said that if we keep making games about space marines and guys with big swords, we're gonna marginalise ourselves. I don't think we're going to do that.
Obviously we're still making games about space marines and people with big swords, but we're making a lot of different games as well. And it's definitely becoming more mainstream in the same way that comic books, at least though movies, are gaining more mainstream acceptance.
So I think that, as gaming becomes more popular, there's going to be a large spread of games. There's going to be the super casual, popular games, there's going to be everything from Facebook games to the really hardcore stuff. There's going to be a really wide spectrum out there.
As that develops, you're going to find a wider range of people getting involved with games, not just in the overall market, but also celebrities offering their talent. Obviously, Matthew Perry talking about Fallout 3... that's one of the reasons we talked to him about doing a voice for New Vegas.
Actually, I was really surprised. I like to refer to our voice cast as the Wu Tang Clan. There's just so many people. You know, if somebody told me that ODB and Tupac were in our voice cast, I wouldn't be surprised. It's such a weird variety of people. And a lot of them really, really like the Fallout franchise.
But yeah, it's definitely gaining more acceptance. Especially as voice over work tends to be less demanding than going to a set, doing make up and working on all that stuff. Voice actors feel like it's a very viable, low maintenance thing to do. They can go to the studio, spend four hours and get a decent cheque for it.
And they get a lot of exposure for it too, because people are really excited about this cast.
GU: It was a pleasure talking to you.