Op-Ed: Bethesda, Obsidian, and $6 Million for a New Fallout (Part 4)

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

8. They Don’t Have To Make Fallout (or) The Merits of a Spiritual Successor

Feargus Urquhart has mentioned his fervent desire for Obsidian to work on a new Fallout game, including New Vegas 2. But I suspect that if any Obsidian staff are reading this, there may be a part of them thinking about the complications that presents.

Specifically, the relative lack of freedom in order to conform to Bethesda’s view of Fallout: there’s no way for them to change much of the status quo in that world, drastically alter core aspects of the gameplay in their own way, or move the story further ahead in the timeline. Doing so might interfere with the production of Fallout 4, and those limitations must, understandably, be in place.

Couple that with the eighteen month development time for Fallout: New Vegas (compared to the four years spent developing Fallout 3), you can see the potential frustration present in such a proposal.

Licensed games, of course, have always had that limitations: but in a franchise that had been a part of their lives as developers for so long, I can imagine a much greater desire for control over Fallout than they would have for the upcoming South Park: The Stick of Truth.

But, as I said, they don’t have to make a Fallout game.

Earlier, I mentioned Troika’s efforts to create a post-apocalyptic RPG of their own. During its prototype development, Troika co-founder and Fallout designer Leonard Boyarsky said:

As far as overall feeling of the game, we’d really like to capture a distinctive mood and style like we were able to in Fallout. Whether this will be similar to Fallout’s style and mood or something totally different is not something we want to discuss yet. From a gameplay/system perspective, this game is definitely a spiritual successor to Fallout.

Obsidian could do that too. Developers have been doing it for decades when the publisher is unwilling to relinquish the property, the team dissolves, or a key creative staffer moves to another company. There’s even a name for this kind of design: the spiritual successor. Whether it’s design choices, writing, the setting, or outright gameplay, it creates a new, but familiar experience for players who enjoyed the original title, while still improving on what came before.

Let’s look at a few examples:

Fire EmblemTear Ring Saga

Total AnnihilationSupreme Commander

System ShockBioshock

Final FantasyThe Last Story

Planescape TormentKnights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords

Wasteland Fallout

That’s right: For those of you not in the know, after Electronic Arts published Wasteland, Interplay was unable to get the rights to develop Wasteland 2. It was from this that a post-apocalyptic RPG was put in to development at Interplay, taking design cues (open world, the setting, choice and consequence oriented writing, and certain elements of the dialogue in particular) from the original Wasteland. However, the gameplay, setting, and methodology behind the storytelling was revamped, creating a fresh experience that improved upon the elements that made Wasteland such a beloved title.

In the cases of these spiritual successors, each of them acclaimed in their own way, you can see that it wasn’t the setting that made them successful: It was the people behind them. With the utilization of new and different design choices, the titles managed to create a fresh but familiar experience, beloved in their own right rather than as just extensions of their predecessors.

The reason that spiritual successors are often necessary isn’t because of a lack of interest in the original title, rather, it’s because game developers generally do not own the rights to the content they create. In the case of major game development, they make pitches to the publisher the same way a director or screenwriter does to a studio.

If the pitch is accepted, the publisher will fund the game’s development, distribution and marketing costs in exchange for the intellectual property rights, the majority of the profits, and a say in how the game is developed.

Now, this series isn’t intended to rail against the evils of publishers. After all, a similar system has been employed by television, comic strips, comic books, and movies since the inception of their mediums. And given the choice between the developers at Obsidian working on a Fallout game, or a new intellectual property set in a post-apocalyptic world, I would be tempted to pick Fallout.

But they don’t need the Fallout license to create a good game in that vein. The SPECIAL system, combat, and the setting itself aren’t why people love the series. If that were the case, Fallout Tactics would be looked at far more fondly than it is. It’s the reactivity, consequences, tone, the way you shaped the world with your presence, and the voices of talented developers that make Fallout, if you’ll pardon me, special.

Bethesda can provide Obsidian with a license to the setting, and the funding to develop the game. The profits for a spin-off title on the PC could be theirs. But if the setting isn’t necessary to create a new title that kept the things that make Fallout great, if there is an additional freedom to be gained by using a property that Obsidian owns outright, that leads only the question of funding – and if Bethesda is needed for that at all.

9. Kickstarter

I suppose it had to come to this, didn’t it?

I’m not going to run over the merits of kickstarter and crowdfunding in general as a concept, either as a whole or specifically as it relates to the gaming industry. Talking about it would entail my discussing developer/publisher relationships, the horrors of crunch time, intellectual property rights, inflated budgets in the gaming industry due to bleeding-edge technology, my frustration with Metacritic, and so much more.

What I will talk about, however, is what it is allowing developers to do. I mentioned before that movies, television, comics, comic strips and gaming were handled the same way: The creator of the property generally does not hold the rights to said property. I hold no malice towards the system, and I hope to enter one of them someday. But when I look to kickstarter, I see it as an opportunity for something that has not always been readily available: independently created content that might not otherwise have mass appeal.

Mass appeal is the operative phrase when it comes to kickstarter. Imagine my shock when the new Tomb Raider, which holds a Metacritic score slightly higher than Fallout: New Vegas, sold 3.4 million copies (not counting digital sales) – and was considered a failure.

But Obsidian Entertainment isn’t Square Enix, they’re a medium-sized developer. This is a big part of why Project Eternity, a game which appeals to those who played a style of RPGs which largely stopped development after Icewind Dale II, is a workable model.

The entirety of Project Eternity‘s development costs have been funded at $4.3 million, from (roughly) 75,000 backers. The developers have been paid, and every copy that is sold upon launch is effectively profit: there are no more costs related to development to cover.

And even if they sold another 75,000 copies at a theoretical budget price of $30, it would generate $2.25 million in income for Obsidian – a little more than half of Project Eternity‘s final budget.

Obsidian has already promised an expansion pack for Project Eternity to be developed without using their kickstarter’s money, and expressed their desire for full-on sequels. It’s unknown whether these sequels were self-published through the profits from Project Eternity or funded through kickstarter, but the scope for what they consider a success, and what they’d need to continue the franchise, is vastly different than that of a big publisher.

When you add together the idea of lateral thinking with withered technology and the concept of spiritual successors, you get a better understanding as to why crowdfunding has been successful for gaming. The most successful gaming campaigns are, for the most part, either licensed sequels or spiritual successors to past games. Torment: Tides of Numenera, Project Eternity, Wasteland 2, Shadowrun Returns, Shroud of the Avatar, and Broken Age being just a few of the bigger names.

You could claim that these successes are born wholly from a sense of nostalgia or brand loyalty, but I disagree. I donated for a boxed copy of Wasteland 2 without ever having played Wasteland, the original Fallout titles, or any inXile game – nor am I much of a PC gamer. I was simply fascinated with the prospect of playing this kind of game.

There is, of course, another option. It worked for Veronica Mars, Leisure Suit Larry, and Shadowrun Returns: License the property to Obsidian for one title and let them do a kickstarter to fund it. While such propositions from publishers were offered to Obsidian, they were all related to new IPs, not a license. A Fallout title would give Bethesda the best of both worlds – minimal investment, and the profits from what I believe would be a great game.

And no matter how it was funded, for newer fans who only know Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, I suspect there are more than 75,000 of them with an open enough mind to take a look at something new.


Op-Ed: Bethesda, Obsidian, and $6 Million for a New Fallout (Part 3)

Part 1

Part 2

7. Obsidian Entertainment’s Staff

I love Obsidian Entertainment’s games for the simple reason that they have remained steadfast in their efforts to push the narrative for WRPGs. There is a concerted effort to never rest on their laurels, with every game working to take what they’ve learned in the past, do it better, and do new things on top of it. I don’t want an isometric Fallout game because I love isometric games, I want it because Obsidian has proven that making RPGs, and Fallout, is in their bones.

I’m not going to have a chance to talk every Obsidian employee, nor is it my intention to diminish their accomplishments by omitting them, but I will talk about a few key developers that I believe need to be involved in order to make the best Fallout game possible.

Tim Cain (Fallout, Fallout 2, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura, Temple of Elemental Evil, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, Project Eternity)

One of the co-creators of Fallout, Tim Cain crafted the SPECIAL system, served as the lead programmer (and later producer) of the first Fallout, wrote the original treatment for Fallout 2, came up with the secret of the Vaults, and was the reason for the memorable style employed by Mark Morgan’s score.

While he is quick to say that he was lead programmer on the original game and not a purely creative voice, I suspect that his understanding of what makes a Fallout title work and talents as a designer run far deeper than code. Working on Fallout on his own for the first six months of development, he crafted the engine in his spare time and stayed throughout its three and a half year development cycle.

When we talk about directors, writers, musicians, and yes, game designers, it’s important to understand a specific word: Voice. It is the style, the feeling, the degree to which one’s personal vision is expressed within the creative content presented to the audience. It is for this reason I want Tim Cain to serve as one of the two project leads on Fallout: it isn’t because I believe that the original creator of a work is the only one who can fulfill its promise, but because of this quote.

[T]here’s more of me in Fallout and Arcanum than in any other game… – Tim Cain

For a man to spend three and a half years on a game, it is only natural that his voice would shine through so prominently. While he is quick to credit the remarkable work of Jason Anderson, Chris Taylor, Leonard Boyarsky and others, Tim Cain was lead producer for the original title. His voice, so prominent within the setting, the engine, the game mechanics, were part of what made the original Fallout so successful. Tim Cain’s talk at the 2012 GDC is a testament to how much he helped to guide that game.

Like Ulysses said, “Can’t have been just a job. Was something more to you. Don’t feel for a place that hard unless it’s home.”

But all that needs to be said about his passion and personal ownership of Fallout comes from the man himself:

I left [Black Isle Studios] when I felt like I had lost control of Fallout. … I was proud of the game and happy that people were so passionate about it, but I realized it wasn’t mine anymore and never would be.Tim Cain

After his departure from Black Isle, he founded Troika Games with Jason Anderson and Leonard Boyarsky, co-creators of the original Fallout. While Troika’s work on Arcanum – of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, Temple of Elemental Evil, and the cult classic Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines are all well regarded, it was this unsold tech demo, the last attempt at a game Troika produced before its collapse, that shows where their hearts had been all along.

While he has been given the opportunity to work on the fan-series Fallout: Nuka Break as a writer, I can think of no better Project Director (equivalent to his position as producer for the original Fallout) for a new Fallout game. But I hope he would be willing to accept a co-lead to work with him, because after all,

… I’ve always wanted to work on a game with the masterful Chris Avellone. – Tim Cain

Chris Avellone (Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, Fallout Van Buren, Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, Alpha Protocol, Dead Money, Old World Blues, Lonesome Road, Project Eternity)

I could write an entire article on why I love Chris Avellone’s work (in fact, Knights of the Old Republic II is my favorite WRPG), but let’s talk about why he’s right for the project, starting with a little story about his history on Fallout.

I call it “Chris Avellone’s Luck Stat is Zero.”

Fallout: Our story begins with the first game. Tim Cain wanted a young Chris Avellone to work on the original Fallout, something he was eager to do: after all, Fallout was the spiritual sequel to Wasteland, a game he adored and to this day places in his top ten best video games ever. But Avellone was forced to turn it down due to the time spent as lead developer of Descent To Undermountain, a game which is largely discussed in the context of “that junker that stopped Chris Avellone from working on Fallout.”

Descent to Undermountain
Comic by Chris Avellone

Fallout 2: While Descent to Undermountain was critically thrashed, Avellone’s talents were never in question, and he was brought part of the design team for Fallout 2. He designed New Reno, as well as Vault City, to great acclaim. While some fans took objection to his approach to New Reno, his work on the game (as well as his first time as lead developer on a good game, Planescape: Torment) was certainly proof enough for him to work on the Fallout Bible: a series of interviews, Q&As, and developer stories that expanded on the Fallout universe, which the fans unanimously looked at as fantastically well done.

Fallout Bible
Comic by Chris Avellone

In the years to come, he was permitted the chance to pursue a wonderful dream: the title of lead developer for Fallout 3.

Fallout Van Buren: The original Fallout 3, codenamed Van Buren, is one of those projects that just makes me want to cry.

Drawing on his years of DMing, Avellone designed the story for the game as a tabletop RPG to play with Black Isle staffers. This would allow him to see the way players would react to the narrative choices firsthand, forcing – and allowing – him to react quickly to actions he didn’t expect. In a series as choice-driven as Fallout, it made sense that he would run the game for two groups to see how different play styles would interact with the story: and it’s as devious as I’d expect from him to have both groups playing in the same universe, totally unaware of each others presence.

The game would have played much the same way, with one of your greatest obstacles being one of the most powerful and destructive forces not just in Fallout, but in all of gaming: another adventuring party. Van Buren would have been an immensely reactive experience, with the other party working for their own purposes in real-time as the player acted, creating a unique and challenging experience with every playthrough. Coupled with the extensive development time prior to ‘official’ pre-production, the game was on track to be solid gold. When he discussed Van Buren in a Fallout retrospective, one memory that came to mind was this:

[W]riting up the design vision document for Van Buren and feeling that same singing sensation I did after writing the Torment vision doc and feeling it click…

Fallout Van Buren
Comic (and ineffectual prayer) by Chris Avellone

At least, that’s what it sounds like in retrospect, because Van Buren was never released due to Black Isle’s collapse. Much of what we know of the original Fallout 3 was released through interviews, leaked internal design documents, and a tech demo. Avellone, on his part, quit about three months in to pre-production to join Feargus Urquhart in forming Obsidian Entertainment.

Fallout: New Vegas: When Obsidian was given the opportunity to create their own Fallout title using Bethesda’s Fallout 3 engine, Avellone was not given the position of Project Director or Creative Lead: I believe this was due to his responsibilities on Alpha Protocol, though it is conjecture on my part to say so. While a number of elements in New Vegas’s setting came about from the aborted Van Buren, such as Caesar’s Legion, Avellone’s involvement in the game was limited to being one of the writers and senior designers. He was, however, allowed to write Sharon Cassidy, the daughter of the Avellone-created Fallout 2 companion John Cassidy.

Fallout: New Vegas DLC: And so we come to an oddity in the last installment of our tale, not just for Chris Avellone’s luck (look up the development history of Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Alpha Protocol sometime) but for Fallout itself: great content without the “Yeah, I liked it, but…” factor.

The DLC, while a different experience from New Vegas proper, was successful. It brought in some content from Van Buren, told the story of Ulysses and the Courier, paid homage to Wasteland, showed Avellone’s skill as a writer and a designer within the tight confines of a DLC budget, and to my knowledge, the content was neither rushed nor glitchy. Like all Fallout products, some fans of the series took exception to the DLC packs for their change in setting from the main game, but for my money it was a complete and fun experience that in some ways surpassed the strengths of the main title.

Since his completion of the New Vegas DLC, another oddity came to pass: he’s been given recognition and work relative his level of skill and talent. Not only is he the co-lead of an Obsidian-owned RPG Project Eternity, he’s been brought in as a designer for two of inXile’s titles, Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera. On top of that, he was one of the writers for the second season of the fan series Fallout: Nuka Break.

I don’t know what he did, but I suspect it had something to do with getting rid of the Pariah Dog.

Like I said, I could write an entire article on Avellone’s work: His ideas for Fallout Van Buren alone are indication to me that he is willing to challenge himself and the player in the way he designs games. But it’s more than that. Choice, reactivity, genuine consequences born of your actions rather than authorial fiat, the importance of giving the player control, a comfort in the grey areas of morality and writing, a need to make the player think, and an earnest belief in roleplaying all permeate his voice as a developer.

I’m not asking for Obisdian’s Fallout to simply be Van Buren. Too much of that game has been made public, and Avellone is ten years older, ten years more experienced, ten years craftier. As important as Tim Cain is to creating a new Fallout title as Project Director, part of creating the best game possible is having Chris Avellone as his partner. Given the chance, I believe this game would be just as innovative as Van Buren would have been ten years ago.

Avellone’s luck may have changed, but his quote from New Vegas’s development remains:

I’d also like to lead a Fallout title, just once.

Feargus Urquhart (Fallout 2)

I’m doing an enormous disservice to Feagus Urquhart here, because the man was the head of the Black Isle division of Interplay, from its founding in 1996 until his departure in 2003, where he left to form Obsidian Entertainment… and I’m still not entirely sure what the extent of his responsibilities were at Black Isle, or at Obsidian today. He won the Unsung Hero Award from IGN in 1999, which specifically noted that it was difficult to track down what role he had in Black Isle’s operations.

What I do know for certain is that he was the co-lead producer and co-lead designer for Fallout 2, taking over these roles after the core Fallout team left to form Troika Games. This column is not a review, but I must discuss the development of Fallout 2 to talk to you about his role.

The game was shipped on September 30th, 1998, twelve months to the day after the original Fallout. Even with that rushed development cycle, Urquhart wanted the game to be double the size of the first Fallout, with more characters, quests, and stories. While his team ably accomplished this goal, the amount of cut content was massive: the Fallout 2 Restoration Patch is being worked on to this day, allowing people to see more of the stories that he and his team had to tell.

Chris Avellone and Tim Cain have both admitted that the game also had tonal problems, finding it inconsistent and somewhat unfocused.

The game, undeniably, attempted to do more than the development cycle attempted. Yet it has as much, if not more, love from its fans as the original Fallout. Ambition is an important trait in a game designer, it shows a willingness to improve on what came before rather than retread familiar ground, and a desire to push things from a creative and technical perspective. 

I believe a lot of smart design choices that would later become hallmarks of Obsidian Entertainment games first formed here. A greater emphasis was placed on characters, choices, complexity, and consequences: The four Cs that Obsidian does so well.

There is a fifth C to be mentioned: Fallout 2 showcased the later-to-be Obsidian developers talents for comedy. While the way humor was handled may have been divisive (even inspiring rules at Black Isle and Obsidian to avoid some of its comedic pitfalls), it was actually more to my tastes. Whatever problems the game has do not detract from its well-deserved status as a classic, and I suspect more than a bit of its success is due to his hand.

This section, as I said, is unfair: I can’t speak with authority to the full extent of his contributions on Black Isle and Obsidian games. But his invisible hand in creating a culture for great game development is illustrated in this quote from Chris Avellone regarding the end of his tenure at Black Isle:

Speaking for myself, the moment Feargus walked in to my office and said he had resigned, my response was “when do I quit?”

Josh Sawyer (Icewind Dale, Icewind Dale II, Neverwinter Nights 2, Fallout Van Buren, Fallout: New Vegas, Honest Hearts, Project Eternity)

Describing Josh Sawyer’s role in New Vegas is difficult. Game development isn’t a standardized process, and people often dip their toes in to multiple areas of development, particularly with Obsidian’s model. He wasn’t the head writer, that position went to John Gonzalez, but Sawyer did craft the basics of the main narrative, and the outlines for companion stories. The best analogy I have to offer is that his role in Fallout: New Vegas was that of a director for a movie, using the methodology similar to auteur film-making. It was guided, from a creative and design perspective, by his vision.

Or, to put it more simply, Josh Sawyer was responsible for guiding, organizing, and implementing the general feeling of New Vegas in all aspects of design, including its story.

When I talk about Fallout: New Vegas, it’s with a twinge of guilt and ignorance. There are many strong elements present in the production of New Vegas, but it also feels very much like what it is: A developer’s first attempt at an open-world, 3D voice acted FPS/RPG. I can accept that, because it achieved many of its goals. Strong characters, interesting settings, fun gameplay, and an improvement on what came before it in Fallout 3. But when I first played it, there was something about it I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It kept me from getting fully in to the experience of the game.

Looking back, such thoughts are likely because I am not in sync with Sawyer’s strengths as a developer. When people discuss New Vegas, I’m shocked at the subtle things I’ve missed, such as the exceptional detail paid to Mormonism, or the backstory of the Sorrows in Honest Hearts – perhaps one of the finest moments in the DLC is the moment where you finally put together what you’ve been reading from the Survivalist.

Sawyer’s understanding of the sociological implications of a setting influences his design in ways so small, you might not notice them. He’s willing to create more subtle threads, forcing the player to put together the pieces on their own to gain a holistic understanding of the universe your characters inhabit: or more succinctly, his strengths as a designer are geared towards world-building, with less of an emphasis on the narrative. This approach adds layers to the characterization that were not obvious, and if you can penetrate that barrier, it is immensely satisfying. He is a historian and roleplayer’s game designer, through and through.

Sawyer’s work on Fallout prior to New Vegas was taking over Chris Avellone’s duties on Fallout Van Buren after his departure from Black Isle. With Tim Cain and Chris Avellone as project leads, I would love to see his talents used in a senior story and design position, where I believe his talents reign supreme.

The four people I’ve discussed have collectively led the development of Fallout, Fallout 2, Fallout Van Buren, New Vegas, and the New Vegas DLC. If there was a Justice Society of America for Fallout games, Obsidian Entertainment’s building would be their headquarters. They’ve never had the chance to create a Fallout title together – I say it’s time that changed.

The conclusion goes up tomorrow with Part 4.

Op-Ed: Bethesda, Obsidian, and $6 Million for a New Fallout (Part 2)

Part 1 can be read here.
Fallout Logo

6. The Curse of Voice Acting

I have nothing but admiration for voice actors. The truly talented ones, the ones who aren’t just reading off the sheet, are character actors, able to find just the right spot within their range and create an entire personality around it. There is so much depth and emotion that comes from a good performance by a voice actor that even the most stock dialogue is given personality. It allows for greater immersion in to the game’s universe, and the writer can convey things in a way that pure text can’t. Listing the voice actors whose work I so admire in gaming would be doing a disservice to those I would invariably forget, whose work I do not know, or simply do not have the space to discuss.

So when I say that I don’t want voice acting in an Obsidian-based Fallout game, it’s not because I think there’s a lack of talent out there, or because I don’t enjoy voice acting in gaming. It’s because voice acting has made games much, much more difficult to develop.

RPGs are, by their nature, dependent on dialogue in a way that most games are not. With a larger cast of characters and heavy narrative, it’s only natural: it becomes all the more complex when choice is introduced in to the game, as is common in WRPGs. Lines have to be crafted depending on your response, lines have to be crafted for other characters depending on your response, entire story paths are laid out due to a push of a button.

Unfortunately, these exact points in RPGs have frequently forced writers work around voice acting, rather than use it solely as a tool to better tell the story.

For example, Fallout: New Vegas’s DLC. There were four story packs, Dead Money, Honest Hearts, Old World Blues, and Lonesome Road. Combined, they were budgeted for 10,000 lines of dialogue. That’s 2,500 lines per 4-10 hour experience, compared to the 3,000 lines of dialogue you are likely to hear in an average motion picture, and the 63,000 lines in the main game.

To better understand what that limitation means, let’s look at what you can reasonably extrapolate to be each individual DLC pack’s design objectives:

A: Tell a complete story without requiring you purchase other DLC

B: Interweave with the other DLC

C: Relate to the main campaign so as to not feel too separated from the main game

D: Be playable in any order

E: Be 4-10 hours long

And of course, you won’t hear every line in a single playthrough – like the rest of New Vegas, the choices you make in the story impact NPC reactions and their dialogue.

So, obviously it means these packs have to, in some ways, focus less on character interaction than the main game. It certainly helps that The Courier isn’t given a voice actor, but how else do they accomplish this?

Well, every DLC pack starts by separating you from your companions. Then, you’re removed from the main setting of the game. You’re put in to a new setting which is contained (Old World Blues, Dead Money), separated from much of civilization (Honest Hearts), or simply desolate (Lonesome Road). All three of options lead to a minimalist cast.

The effects of the DLC affecting the main story of the game would require recording more dialogue, so the stories are essentially self-contained. Old World Blues, the most blatant example, outright brainwashes your character so you can never discuss the events of The Big MT outside of the DLC.

A greater emphasis is put on atmosphere and visual storytelling. Dead Money with its terrifying, cramped setting and survival horror elements. Honest Hearts with its vast wilderness. Old World Blues and its strange, broken high tech environment. Lonesome Road with its horrific landscapes and monster design.

And a number of other, very clever devices were used to help tell the story within that budget constraints – such as mute characters, characters who were discussed in the main game but only introduced in the DLC, journal entries from dead characters – to tell a story in a setting that made sense.

Other tricks in dialogue have to be used as well, not just in the New Vegas DLC, but through most RPGs: While your (often mute) player character can pick multiple dialogue options, they might end up getting the exact same response, or the writing is subject to dialogue-splicing. Here’s an example of the latter:

Option 1

PC: So where can I get some grub in this armpit of a town?

NPC: Elda’s Diner, just down the street.

Option 2

PC: Any recommendations on where I can get something to eat?

NPC: The same place I eat every night: Elda’s Diner, just down the street.

Option 3

PC: I’m looking for Tommy Two-Tone, you know where he hangs out?

NPC: That rat? Yeah, I know where he is. Heh, the same place I eat every night: Elda’s Diner.

PC: Where’s Elda’s Diner?

NPC: Just down the street.

This is just sample text I wrote to illustrate the point. You can see the various tools being used in dialogue trees to create fully fleshed out dialogue on a budget.

While dialogue-splicing this does create more of a variety in how you’re able to interact with characters, relative to the amount of dialogue that’s actually recorded, the responses can often feel bland and lacking in characterization due to the (understandably) utilitarian nature of the writing. Another issue in this process is that voice acting requires that the dialogue be finalized earlier in the production process in order to allow for beta testing.

Anyone who isn’t Hunter S. Thompson will tell you that writing is rewriting, so this loss of opportunity for iteration creates a lack of polish to the dialogue that might otherwise be allowed.

And most damningly, reactivity to your actions is drastically reduced. They can’t afford to include as much dialogue in the game, so they don’t write it. The choices you have in conversational dialogue become two, perhaps three, and rarely more than that, because the responses must be limited to reduce studio time. On top of that, there are less ‘triggers’ (consequences occurring in later events due to a specific action within the dialogue) in order to reduce the amount of lines that must be recorded later.

The writing becomes less nuanced as a result, and the game, no matter the talent behind it, loses the opportunity for some creative choices. These issues are not unique to the Fallout: New Vegas DLC, though the implementation of their workarounds might be.

And from the perspective of voice actors, they’re forced to read for a performance that will be used to fit the needs of any number of splices that occur within in a dialogue sequence, which does reduce studio time… and the quality of their performance. As much as I love many different parts of Alpha Protocol, including its excellent audio engineering and performances, once I caught on to the use of dialogue-splicing I could not un-see it.

Now, after all that, I want to clarify my position. Voice acting is not bad, it is restrictive.

Voice acting also can add emotional depth to a scene, integrate gameplay and story, and bring a new dimension to a character. In particular, voice acting lends itself well to humor and the nuances of speech: the subtle anger when speaking a name, a breathless joy upon being reunited with someone thought-long lost, and so much more. And when I think of my favorite vocal performances in gaming, they tend to be from RPGs.

And like I said, not having voice acting is a restriction too: Portal could not have been the same game without a voice actor for GLaDOS.

So why would I suggest a six million dollar budget for Obsidian’s Fallout when that’s not enough to support full voice acting? There are two reasons: The first being that full voice acting isn’t the only option for voice acting at all. Fallout and Fallout 2 used a method where major and memorable characters had voice acting, though not necessarily for every line of dialogue. Minor characters, or less important dialogue sequences, didn’t use voice acting at all. It was used at critical junctures to help emphasize elements within the story and setting, without eating up the entirety of the game’s budget. It was used as a tool, and to great effect.

But the second reason is this. Good voice acting does, as I’ve said, add a lot to the dialogue. But for that potential upside – there is, after all, bad voice acting – it incurs not only a large cost, but the need to sacrifice certain creative choices. Those choices, like the ability to write complex dialogue, reactive dialogue, and reactive quests, are Obsidian’s greatest strengths. Why, of all things, would you ask them to sacrifice that?

Part 3 will be posted tomorrow, discussing some of the Obsidian Entertainment staff that deserve to be involved in a new Fallout.

Op-Ed: Bethesda, Obsidian, and $6 Million for a New Fallout (Part 1)

Fallout Logo

Why should Bethesda, the current owner of the Fallout franchise, give Obsidian Entertainment, developers of Fallout 2 and Fallout: New Vegas, six million dollars?

The answer’s pretty simple: I want them to make a new Fallout game.

“But Mathias,” you exclaim because you’re pretty sure that’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard, “You can’t produce an open-world 3D game worthy of Fallout with that small of a budget! Skyrim’s budget was 85 million dollars!

That’s absolutely true. But  Skyrim was a Triple-A game with a budget to match, designed to push the limits of an open-world game on the hardware of PCs and consoles. That’s not what I’m asking for in this article, nor is it what Obsidian is best at creating. While I’m looking forward to playing Bethesda’s Fallout 4, Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas proves that there’s room for success outside of the main, numbered Fallout titles.

So let’s take a look at the first in a four-part series to help answer this question: Why should Bethesda spend this kind of money for another Obsidian-made Fallout?

1. Six Million Dollars

It’s a fair question to ask why I’d pick that specific number. Wasteland 2’s budget was approximately $3 million, a game of a similar scope and genre to the first Fallout game. Project Eternity, Obsidian’s current Unity Engine RPG, is budgeted at $4.3 million, is roughly identical to the budget for the original Fallout (when adjusted for inflation). So why six million?

Bethesda is known for its lush production values and immense worlds. I believe they wouldn’t put their name on a product that didn’t represent the scope of play that Bethesda is renowned for. If Project Eternity can promise a truly expansive game with a budget of $4.3 million, then it stands to reason that Bethesda would want Obsidian to push themselves that much further, especially with the foundation their work on Eternity has given them.

2. Fallout: New Vegas Was Profitable

While the creative vision of a game is important, video games are a business. So what is the monetary advantage in giving Obsidian this money to create a new Fallout game?

Let’s not forget that the game made $300 million within its first month of release. With six DLC packs, an Ultimate Edition, and two and a half years since its launch, it’s unlikely that the game stopped there. People loved New Vegas, Metacritic issues or not, and they proved it with their wallets.

And this with only 18 months of development. 

The names Fallout, Bethesda, New Vegas, and Obsidian all have their own forms of brand recognition, meaning the publication of a new Fallout title is not only good for the built-in market, the market makes it good for the publisher. For a less expensive game that plays entirely to the strengths of Obsidian’s staff, I can’t imagine it being a poor investment.

3. Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology, and the Unity Engine

Gunpei Yokoi, creator of the Game and Watch, Game Boy, and mentor to Nintendo guru Shigeru Miyamoto, had a phrase that I have always loved: Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology.

The concept is wonderfully simple. By examining older, less-cutting edge technology and finding new ways to utilize it, you have access not only to affordable development tools, but an enormous base of understanding available for such technologies. This allows developers to move away from just recreating the basics. Quoting Brian Fargo, producer of Fallout, Fallout 2, and the upcoming Wasteland 2,

We get access to a huge code and art base immediately, and stuff that’s streamlined already for the system. So we are able to get things up really really quick. And that’s the biggest difference – that ability to do that. With Wasteland, we are a year in, and it would have taken at least two years to get this far if we had started from scratch.

Particularly noteworthy is the speed with which developers can generate content, allowing them the opportunity to see what does and does not work during development, and more importantly, fix it. Art is experimentation, RPG design is iteration, and the more they are able to do both, the better the game will be. Again, to quote Brian Fargo,

Nothing replaces iteration. Nothing. There’s no amount of pre-planning in the world that will make up for iteration time. It’s all about getting the game in and working, so you can start iterating and making it better. The faster you get there, the better the game.

It’s part of why the Unity Engine is such a critical element for Project Eternity‘s success: While it’s true an understanding of the mechanics, level and story design for an open-world RPG are all being brought to the table by the Obsidian team, Unity offers a wealth of resources that wouldn’t be available in a newly developed engine. This allows them to redistribute their efforts in a way that creates a better workflow, as shown in this comparison chart between Project Eternity and the typical Obsidian development cycle.

Obsidian Chart
Source: Project Eternity Kickstarter

Support, documentation, and multiple iterations of said engine for the purposes of increased functionality and ease-of-use allow Obsidian’s team to focus their efforts where they belong: using existing tools to better shape the entire gameplay experience, rather than fighting with the engine to conform to their needs.

With Wasteland 2, Project Eternity, and now Torment: Tides of Numenera budgeted at $3-4 million apiece, they promise isometric RPGs that are likely to be as expansive as Fallout, perhaps even Fallout 2. All three use the Unity Engine, and all three are made by designers who worked on the original two Fallout games. So let’s do the obvious: let Obsidian use the Unity Engine to develop an isometric Fallout game.

If you look at the video demonstrating the some of the graphical elements introduced in Project Eternity, you can see that type of lateral thinking at work. Rather than use 3D graphics for the backgrounds, which would likely pale in comparison to games with a much larger budget, they spent a little more money to use 2D, hand-painted backgrounds. This was the same method they used to render games in the Infinity Engine and creates an artistic look that, relative to its contemporaries, looks new and visually impressive.

They made a number of other smart choices too. Instead of sticking solely with what worked in the past for the sake of nostalgia, they did make changes: higher resolutions, producing the game in widescreen, dynamic lighting to feel a greater sense of integration between the characters and objects, and running water and ‘wind’ for trees/bushes to create a less static environment. These changes are small, and make all the difference in the world when it comes to making the game feel modern.

Project Eternity won’t have the photorealism present in a game like LA Noire, because it isn’t necessary for them to provide that specific kind of immersion. They’re using older development ideologies to create a specific effect within the budget they have available, not pushing graphics for the sake of pushing graphics.

To my delight, inXile has agreed to share their Unity Engine tools and technology with Obsidian Entertainment, and vice versa. Not only will this improve Project Eternity, it would improve what Obsidian would be able to do for a new Fallout. Take a look at what the Unity Engine allows a group of small developers to do at the alpha stage of Wasteland 2 – a game that just happens to be an isometric, post-apocalyptic RPG.

4. The Game Won’t Be Buggy

Whether you agree with the rest of this article or not, for those of you who played Alpha Protocol or the launch version of Fallout: New Vegas, there has to be a “Yeah, but…” going through your mind.

Just hear me out.

No one on the planet is defending how bad the launch version for New Vegas was, including Obsidian. In fact, the CEO of Obsidian Entertainment publicly stated that after the launch of New Vegas, the company did an overhaul of the entire quality assurance process to optimize bug removal. Add to that Obsidian’s experience with the Unity Engine after Project Eternity, their technology sharing with inXile, and a gameplay style they’re more familiar with, and you have a recipe for the polished game a paying customer deserves.

There is one point I need to mention in relation to Obsidian’s reputation for buggy games: While Obsidian has worked to optimize and streamline their process, QA is a two-way street between the developer and publisher. The inner workings of game development sequestered the same way as sausage-making, which is why I was so shocked to read another quote by Brian Fargo:

[Obsidian] did Fallout: New Vegas, the ship date got moved up and, who does the QA on a project? The publisher is always in charge of QA. When a project goes out buggy, it’s not the developer. The developer never says, “I refuse to fix the bug,” or, “I don’t know how.” They never do that. It’s the publisher that does the QA, so if a product goes out buggy, it’s not the developer’s fault.

5. Fallout: New Vegas Was Great

Obsidian’s work on Fallout: New Vegas may have resulted in the infamous Metacritic debacle, but I’d argue that there were two aspects in reviews that influenced its score.

The first is simple: many of the initial reviews that led to it were based on the frustration towards the launch version of the game. Properly patched, it was a far different experience. Obsidian had never developed an open world RPG in the 3D, voice-acted realm of modern gaming, but they built upon the well-crafted work that made Fallout 3 so popular and made it their own, altering game mechanics, reintroducing the faction system, and populating it with memorable characters and some of the levity that made the original Fallout games so great.

The second, and certainly more subtle, is something only noticeable upon replaying the game: The narrative of New Vegas was built not on length, but replay value. The reactions characters had to the Courier made the game more multifaceted, often only showing the whole picture of a character by using different approaches with them on multiple playthroughs. I found discussion of this kind of reactivity to be lacking in some of the reviews and discussions I’ve seen in New Vegas.

I’m not going to do a full review of the game here, but its gameplay, world building and narrative were really all I could ask for in a game developed the way it was. My only real complaint about the game was related to certain elements of the writing, which we’ll discuss tomorrow in Part 2 with “The Curse of Voice-Acting.”