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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.”

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.

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…

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.

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