During our time with Bethesda at this year's GamesCom, our resident socialite Joe Robinson managed to play a bit of Fallout: New Vegas. This stand-alone expansion to Fallout 3 is being developed by Obsidian Entertainment, which is actually made up of members from the original Black Isle Studio that worked on the classic Fallout games. One of those members is Josh Sawyer, Project Director and Lead Designer on New Vegas, who chatted to us about their de facto homecoming.
Strategy Informer:How have Obsidian taken to the development of New Vegas? Obviously the company was formed out of the remnants of Interplay's Black Isle Studios, who made the original Fallout games. You could argue that is a homecoming of sorts?
Josh Sawyer: We're really excited about it. Obviously a number of our founders had worked on previous Fallout games - I worked at Black Isle, I worked on Van Buren, the cancelled Fallout 3 project, so I was very excited to get back to it. A lot of people are new though and new to the franchise, but everyone I think has taken too this exciting opportunity we've been given to work on Fallout: New Vegas.
Strategy Informer:Those people who had worked on the original games, have they tried to apply any lessons they had learned from back then to this game? Or are they coming at it with a fresh perspective?
Josh Sawyer: I think there are certain things that we understand that people really enjoyed about the Fallout series overall, especially moral ambiguity, how the different groups are portrayed in the world - how everything is not black and white, and player choice and how the consequences from those choices are really important as well. We've really tried to emphasize all that stuff in New Vegas.
Strategy Informer:When Bethesda took over the franchise, they obviously had their own 'take' on things. Have you now brought it back to being closer to what it used to be? Or have you stuck more towards Bethesda's image?
Josh Sawyer: One thing that we really tried to bring back was that sense of moral ambiguity with all of the different organisations... there was moral ambiguity in Fallout 3 but we've really emphasised it now. The New Californian Republic are the quote "good" guys, but the more you get to know about them the more you're like "well, actually they're kind of corrupt and incompetent...", some of their high level commanders are terrible people and do terrible things as well. Coming to Caesar's Legion as well, yeah they're a slaving organisation, but there's also some things about them that, whilst are not necessarily 'redeeming', but there are things that are appealing and that make sense.
So we tried to bring that back, and also the reputation system is very important for us. What you do with different groups impacts your standing with them, and gives you a way to understand your position in the overall world, affects how quests open up, how people react to you, in even with minor things. For example, in my latest play through, I started off with a good reputation with the NCR, then I got a bad rep so I was hunted by NCR Rangers who were sent to kill me, and then I got back into their good graces again, and I was walking around one of their camps and one of their soldiers said "at least Caesar's Legion know what side they want to take". And it's this kind of little reactivity to my character that's kind of cool, I have a mixed reputation with this group and they're responding to it. We really tried to emphasise that stuff in the game and we hope people enjoy it.
Strategy Informer:Speaking candidly for a minute - your last game, Alpha Protocol, wasn't received that well. Has that affected the development of New Vegas at all?
Josh Sawyer: Well whenever you put that much time and effort into something, and there's all that negative opinion on it, it's kind of sobering and we think "Ok, this isn't a fluke here, we made some mistakes that we want to learn from". Personally I felt all along that we want to make the gameplay experience feel good - I know that sounds like a very simple thing but in some cases I feel like designers sometimes kind of internalise their opinions about something, and don't think from the perspective of the players. Is the player going to enjoy shooting? Is the player going to enjoy doing this kind of thing in the game? Are these objectives clear to them?
They seem really basic but sometimes I think they can be really difficult to pull off, and I think with Alpha Protocol people criticised things that were really basic gameplay elements. For New Vegas I was like "ok, we don't want to reinvent the wheel here", what can we just improve upon? A lot of people liked Fallout 3, so shooting mechanics, VATS, stealth... don't just break the mould and start again, how can we take what's there and improve upon it? We want players who are coming into it to feel like this is similar to what they've seen, but better.
Strategy Informer:Fallout: New Vegas is the official Sequel to Fallout 3, it's about the same physical size as well with new content - should we consider this officially as Fallout 4? Fallout 3.5?
Josh Sawyer: Well the analogy I've always used is that we're the 'Vice City' of the Fallout franchise. It's similar technology, there's no great leap forward or anything. The systems are largely similar, there's just a lot more content for people to get through.
Strategy Informer:If you could provide a bit of background on the game, how does New Vegas 'fit in' in regards to Fallout 3?
Josh Sawyer: It takes place 4 years after the events at the end of Fallout 3, which puts it about 40 years after Fallout 2.
Strategy Informer:Will Obsidian want to continue making Fallout games after this one?
Josh Sawyer: We'd love to keep making Fallout games, it's a really unique setting. Some people might take it for granted but you can do a lot of interesting things with it. It's got mixtures of Science-fiction, western stuff, weird humour, just all sorts of stuff like that, so it allows you a lot of opportunities to a lot of weird creative things. The last project we were involved in which got cancelled - which was an Aliens game, just didn't really have that flexibility. Even Alpha Protocol was a more serious grounded experience. With Fallout, it's a much more interesting setting. It's always nice to go back to the original stuff but also come out with new content as well.
Strategy Informer:Are there any specific plans in place? Have Bethesda said "right, you can work with us on the next game too"? Or anything like that?
Josh Sawyer: No nothing so far. I hope Bethesda will want to keep working with us on stuff. But so far they've been really easy to work with, the tools have allowed us to create a lot of great content, so it's been a really great experience over all.
Strategy Informer:You were working with Sega on Alpha Protocol, and then you started working with Bethesda on New Vegas, so there was some overlap towards the end - were there ever any issues there?
Josh Sawyer: No it actually wasn't too bad, because we had a separate team for Aliens, and they just moved over to New Vegas immediately, so there wasn't a competition for resources or anything, although there's always a little bit of that. New Vegas though started out as a small team, and as Alpha Protocol ramped down, we took people on and grew until we got to maximum production.
Strategy Informer:How far along is New Vegas?
Josh Sawyer: Oh it's done. We're actually getting ready to submit. The only thing we've been doing recently is fixing bugs, stabilising frame rates, certification at Sony and Microsoft and that's it! We're getting ready.
Strategy Informer:This is just a personal observation, but apart from Alpha Protocol, and now New Vegas I suppose, Obsidian has had a history of doing sequels to other people's games. Was that a choice on your part? Did you even notice that trend?
Josh Sawyer: I think the thing with making sequels to other properties is that we understand RPGs and RPG tools very well, and because we're an independent developer. You won't see Bioware doing the sequel to a Fallout game because they're owned by EA. So because we're one of the last independent developers we have the flexibility to do that. If some other team wants to move on and not want to make a sequel, we have the ability to move in and do it for them, and that's cool.
Thanks to Josh for taking the time to speak with us. We only got a brief session to actually play the game, so it's touch and go whether a preview can be generated from what we saw, but we hope you enjoy the interview anyway. New Vegas is actually shaping up to be pretty good, so definitely make room in your calendar for its October release.