Review Or Die

First Time at the Movies – Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory

Willy Wonka posterWhere I knew I would be most tripped up in this series be in the following categories: sequels, remakes, adaptations, and iconic classics.

Willy Wonka fits two of those categories – the adaptation and the icon. Personally, I’m of the opinion that an adaptation should (at its finest) take what was brilliant about the original, hone it as highly as possible, and alter it as necessary to suit the medium. There’s a reason the property was picked up for adaptation. It’s special, not just as a work, but to the people who loved the original.
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First Time at the Movies – Escape from L.A.

Escape from LA

I sat here, in the same chair, looking at the same monitor I watched Escape from New York on. The opening credits began. The same director, producer, and star returned for the sequel. Shirley Walker, the composer for Batman the Animated Series and my personal favorite TV composer ever was involved with the score.

Sure, co-writer Nick Castle left, but surely that’s not reason enough to worry. And yeah, the script for the movie was commissioned in 1985, with the final product released in 1996, but that surely means it was just given more love and attention. Kurt Russel produced the movie, but it’s not like a star being involved in the production has ever been associated with poor quality. Yes, someone warned me away from the movie, but I came in wanting to give it a fair shake. I was untainted by nostalgia. I was ready. My mind was open.

That’s a mistake I won’t be making again.
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An Interview with Jason DeMarco

I’ve been watching Toonami since 1998, and to this day, I marvel at what it’s accomplished. The Cartoon Network, now Adult Swim, animation programming block played a large part in bringing anime to the United States, was the Western progenitor of microseries with programming like The Intruder, IGPX, and Star Wars Clone Wars, and was responsible for airing some of the finest programming of its time.

Toonami’s reputation as an outstanding cartoon block has as much to do with the packaging surrounding it as it does the programming itself. No other block would take commercial time to speak to the viewers like an individual about topics like anger, experience, courage, or discuss the fear that comes with following your dreams.

A great deal of the tone, style, and quality of Toonami’s programming and packaging can be traced back to Toonami co-creator Jason DeMarco, who currently holds the position of Vice President, Creative Director, Adult Swim On-Air.

When you first think of marketing, certain stereotypes can easily come to mind – the used car salesman trying to pass off junk as gold, or someone who treats their audience like sheep. It might surprise you to know, then, that Jason DeMarco is one of the most sincere people I’ve ever met. I personally believe his work on the Adult Swim Singles Program, an annual release of free music singles from various acts, is as much a matter of promotion as it is a chance for him to share the music he’s passionate about.

Toonami, I think, is no different: each week is an opportunity to help bring what he loves to millions of people. There is no irony to his love of animation, television, and the work he does each week: the six hour weekly block remains an unpaid side project in addition to his day job.

I was fortunate enough to conduct an email interview with Mr. DeMarco, where we discussed the return of Toonami after its cancellation in 2008, his role at Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, and the future of the better cartoon show.

(Note: I’ve inserted relevant video links after the answers. All parentheticals after Mr. DeMarco’s answers were added after the fact)

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First Time at the Movies – Escape from New York

Escape From New York (1981) Original v2

Escape From New York was probably just the right thing for me to start this series with. It’s an action movie by a well known writer/director, so the story is elegantly streamlined in a way that is perfectly suited for the big screen.
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Intro – First Time at the Movies

I don’t watch many movies.

I’ve never been sure why, really. I hear people talk about their favorite movies, how they have movie nights, how much a certain work influenced them. But it was never like that for me. I grew up with television, and prefer that medium above all others. There are so many facets to the way one can tell stories with television, so much investment in the characters on screen. Never have I experienced a story the way I did with the DC Animated Universe, which lasted from 1992-2006, across seven television series and four movies.

I’m not averse to other kinds of stories. Books, comics, video games are all things I will happily indulge. But I shied away from movies, seeing them only rarely after the age of ten. Even now I only go to the theater a few times a year, with the caveat that I always see two movies at a time – to double the chances of enjoying myself.

“If only it were ten, twenty minutes longer,” my friends would hear when I came back and engaged in the obligatory post-game discussion/argument. When I first watched The Breakfast Club just a few months ago, I found myself baffled by the movie’s editing. A scene would stop, and I would wonder where the ending had gone. Hints and buildup would permeate scenes, hooks I was sure would be followed up on – but the payoff never came. It was as though the script had been gutted. Sure enough, the original cut was 150 minutes long, trimmed to 97 minutes for its theatrical and DVD release.

I wish I could watch that cut.

My goal in life is to work in television as a writer, and eventually, a showrunner. I have no interest in writing for films. Anywhere from one to three years working on a script over which I have zero ownership or creative control? I cannot imagine a more nightmarish existence. But the more I talk with and learn about people who tell stories, the more I see how much movies mean to them, and the more I find myself frustrated that they don’t mean that much to me.

But as I said, I rarely watch movies. It was only this year, after much prodding and a bit of yelling (“You’ve never seen Raiders!?” was a phrase uttered with the same intonation as “How can you not know what indoor plumbing is!?”), that I saw the Indiana Jones trilogy. Further interrogation of my viewing habits by friends and family led me to realize one thing:

I’ve never given any real attention to movies. I’ve taken general education film courses in college, but they focused more on the history and technical aspects of film, and I was using them largely as an avenue to better understand television. My actual experience as a film-goer is almost nonexistent, and as such I have managed to deny myself an entire medium of storytelling.

To rectify that, Review or Die will have a new feature – First Time at the Movies. The column will run every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, starting tomorrow.

The rules are simple:

If I haven’t seen it as an adult, it’s fair game.

Nothing I write will be spoiler free.

I’m not an objective reviewer, I’m a viewer with an opinion (to ape SF Debris), so don’t look at this as an attempt to declare what is empirically good or bad. This is all a learning experience on my part.

If I have different cuts to choose from, I will stick with what people would consider the truest viewing experience, such as the Final Cut of Blade Runner and the theatrical release of Alien.

I’ll be focusing on movies that have proven influential in some way, be it through cultural osmosis or sheer quality, which means older films are the primary focus for now. Suggestions are welcome, and I hope you enjoy the show.

Next time: Escape from New York

I Dig Giant Robots: An Interview with George Krstic

Everybody’s got a Firefly. That show that just gelled perfectly with your sensibilities, that you would follow to any timeslot, and was cancelled without sense or ceremony.

Megas XLR

My Firefly is Megas XLR.

I saw the original pilot in 2002 at a friend’s house. It was eight minutes long, aired as part of an event to determine what should be picked up as a full series. I barely remember what aired alongside it, but Lowbrow, the pilot that would eventually become Megas XLR, had me hooked.

The show was a mishmash of giant robot anime, gaming, science fiction, comedy, rock, with an animation style and quality that blew its contemporaries out of the water. It felt like the show was the answer to a question I’d never even realized I was asking. When Lowbrow premiered as Megas XLR in 2004, I was there like a midnight showing for a new Batman movie. And for the entirety of Megas’ time on the air, I would catch every episode, new or rerun, that crossed my path.

Two seasons of 13 episodes apiece just wasn’t enough.

It turns out that I’m not the only one that thought so: After information was brought to light that the rights to Megas XLR may no longer be in Cartoon Networks’ hands, the fans made their voices heard. Chris Prynoski (supervising director for Megas) had his animation company, Titmouse, immediately figure out if there was a way to get the rights to the series back.

Cartoon Network does own the rights, but had ‘written off’ the series (you can find out the technicalities behind that here). Titmouse is currently in talks with about purchasing or licensing the rights to the IP. While talks are ongoing, I had the opportunity to speak with George Krstic, co-creator of Megas XLR and current Titmouse employee, about Megas and its role in things to come.

This interview was conducted via Skype on 12/16/12, and transcribed (with minor edits for the sake of readability) due to problems with the original audio.

Hi! This is so cool to have you here, it really is.

Thank you for having me, this is cool for me as well. As we were chatting before, it’s always cool to connect with fans, and have someone out there who remembers our show, so this is awesome.

I’d like to know a little bit about you and your background, so where did you grow up?

I kinda grew up all over the place, mainly in a really small town in Ohio, but I had a lot of family in Europe, so we would spend a lot of time, you know, traveling around Europe. And, you know, went to college in New York, at a small art school called SVA (Editor’s Note: School of Visual Arts), though I think it’s gotten bigger since then, and I met a bunch of wacky animators and crazy film-makers, and those are the guys I’ve been working with ever since. It’s the same team of people behind Titmouse, and we did Downtown together, and then we did Megas, and most recently we were working on Motorcity. And the interesting thing that all three of those shows have in common, as I’m sure you know, is that they got canned pretty early on. In fact, Megas was our longest running show, oddly enough, we got two seasons on that. But yeah, that’s kinda me in a nutshell.

I read that Chris Prynoski, and I apologize if I’m mispronouncing that…

You got it, got it in one.

That he kind of dragooned you out of live action, in to animation.

(laughs) That’s a very interesting phrasing, you’re absolutely right. Basically, after college I went in to live action and I was working on a bunch of really crappy TV shows, but I was learning the trade as it were. And Chris called me and he said “Hey man, I actually sold a show to MTV, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, will you come and be the story editor on the show?” And I asked what a story editor does, and he was honest and said “I don’t know.” So I was like sure, that sounds great. So we kind of figured out everything on the fly, kind of like what we were talking about earlier, we got to learn the job on Downtown. But I thought it came out pretty well, we got an Emmy nomination. We only got one season, but I don’t see that as our fault, just kind of the network was going through some changes at the time. But yeah, Chris kind of sucked me back in to animation and I’ve been here ever since.

With all the references going on in Megas I’m kind of surprised that animation wasn’t your goal from the beginning. What made you start with the ‘crappy TV shows’ that were live action?

That was basically the first job that was offered to me, and as we spoke earlier, the dirty secret is that I can’t draw to save my life. So those two things added up to me going in to live action. I teamed up with Chris, and I also teamed up with Jody, who are artists and directors, so that way we could balance each other out where I would take point on story usually, and they would obviously take point on the visuals.

Very cool. You know, I’m a little unclear as to what exactly Chris Prynoski’s role on the show was, because it looks like animation works a little differently in terms of a showrunner’s role in live action. Can you clarify that for me?

Well, each show is different, each genre is different. For Megas, Chris was our supervising director, so he would set the directing tone, and we had a number of other directors who worked under him, our episodic directors. And Jody was the art director, he set up the visual look and feel of things, and Chris would work on timing and action and things like that.

That is an excellent triangle right there.

Yeah, the Triad of Evil.

So, Downtown, at this point has been cancelled: And you’re sitting there waiting to write/draw/direct something. How did you get the opportunity to make the Megas pilot, Lowbrow?

It’s a bit of a long story, but if you’ll bear with me…

We were still working on Downtown at the time, and I think one of the weekends Jody and I were hanging out, and we were watching one of those robot fighting shows, Robot Wars or something along those lines, and we were watching Macross, and we were playing videogames. And literally we said “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could create a show that had all three?” And that was the inspiration, and from there, we put together a little trailer, outputted it to video, and shoved that videotape in an executive’s hands at ComiCon that summer. And we thought we’d never hear back from her, but three months later she called us and said, “Hey, I’m interested in this thing, whatever it is.”

And that’s how the process began. We did that small pilot, called Lowbrow, and it was part of a voting program called, I think, “What a Cartoon”, and we actually got voted by the public to a series. And that is the winding story.

Cool. Does that original pre-pilot pilot still exist?

It exists and I think someone’s actually posted it to youtube.

Okay, well I’m definitely going to have to look that up. I’m gonna come back to the way the pilot developed in to a series in a little bit, but I wanted to talk about the cast for a bit.


So, in any other show, Kiva would be the hero, Gorrath would be the villain, and it’d be a tense dramatic battle across space and time for the future of humanity… and instead we have Coop and Jamie, who are a well-meaning slacker, and just a slacker. What was the idea behind that dynamic in the cast?

Well, as with everything on the show, we wanted to take the archetype, where there was an archetypical story or character, and kind of flip it on its ear. As you pointed out, in those shows – usually it’d be the shounen shows – which would be the pretty boy who would drive the robot and be all angsty. So we were like, “Hey, let’s have a big guy who’s happy and just wants to have fun: He’s gonna be the hero.”

That was kind of our ongoing theme, “Let’s take what’s expected and make fun of it.”

That certainly explains casting Peter Cullen as the villain.

Of course! You have to make Optimus Prime the villain once in awhile.



I’ll admit, I am a big huge TV junkie and I was just shocked when his character just sliced that robot in two.

(laughs) That’s right, we also had Megatron in there as well. I think – didn’t Megatron play a good guy?

Yup, yeah he did. It was a remarkable set of bait and switches. I love that episode.

I heard part of it was the cast of Cowboy Bebop that went in to picking the main cast, is that true?

Yup, absolutely. I think that was it, there wasn’t anything else. We were huge Bebop fans, and we thought Spike and Faye were amazing voices, and were like “Wouldn’t it be great to work with them?” And then obviously the secondary cast, where people that were in franchises or films that we really loved as kids. We had Michael Dorn from Next Generation, we had Bruce Campbell from the Evil Dead movies, and we had Clancy Brown from so many movies. So we were just nerding out.

I looked up David DeLuise’s past record and I was trying to find out how many voiceover roles he had, but how did you go from – and I say this with all the respect in the world because I love his voice work – but how did you go from Cowboy Bebop to David DeLuise?

We wanted to take that expectation, in most shows that hero would be all angsty, and he’d have a certain kind of voice, but Coop isn’t that guy. We wanted kind of that big, full-bodied guy who loves life, and that was David DeLuise.

Huh. And see, I always thought he had a great traditional hero voice, but it really shows what that combination of art and voice work can do. I love animation… if I dork out just a little bit over the process in this, I’m sorry.


So once the pilot was selected, what was the process that went in to making it a full series?

With any series you have to, obviously, you start with the scripts and – but once we had most of the first season down, we went to storyboards, design, layout, and then we would send a lot of the animation and the coloring overseas, we’d get that back, we’d do retakes… which, if you didn’t get what you wanted, you send it back. Then we start cutting it in, laying down color, laying in all the sound effects, etc. Obviously here in the US, we record the voices, and in Japan they record them last, so we recorded voices in there as well.

And then the train was a-rollin’, at any one point in the series you might have seven shows that you’re working on at the same time. And yeah, that’s super-simplifying the process, but that’s basically how it went.

How long did production on Megas actually go for, from Episode 1 to Episode 26?

I think we were in full production for, I think, two years, something like that. Because we did not have a hiatus, we just ran, we got greenlit for a second season while we were still finishing the first, if I’m remembering that correctly. If we did have a hiatus it wasn’t too long, but I do remember the same crew working throughout both seasons.

What was a typical day going to make some giant robots like for you, personally?

It would really vary depending on what the schedule called for. When you’re in an executive producer or creator position, you’re kind of asked to oversee a lot of aspects. So one day you might sit in a script meeting, you might give notes on an animatic, you might go to a voice record, you might go to a board pitch, you might meet with voice actors, so it really, really varies. It’s not kind of, like, set in stone, it’s very loose and very flexible.

Were your days twelve hours then? I hear that 12-16 is, for the EP jobs…

Those days were eighteen hours, definitely, if not more.

Wow… that’s incredible. When you sat down in a room to write episodes, did you write them for specific actors, because the idea that you can decide to have a villain voiced by Bruce Campbell who’s just a giant chin, and write it, is so fascinating.




I’m curious if that’s the way that worked.

I mean, what would happen is when we created that character, Magnanimous, we used Bruce Campbell as an inspiration. And obviously we wanted to use him as a voice, but sometimes those things don’t work out. Luckily we were able to get Bruce, he was very excited about the project, he was very cool. Sometimes it didn’t work out: We wanted to get General Zod from the old Superman films, but it didn’t happen. I forget what reason it was, but he was the inspiration for a character. But we tweaked things, we work around those things.

Were there any episodes that you had in mind where you just couldn’t get them to work, no matter how hard you tried?

Not really. I mean, we never killed an episode. I see that as kind of like giving up. I hear that that happens on other series, not necessarily always on animation, but… so I’d say no. I’m really happy with all the episodes. Each have their strengths and weaknesses, but we had a lot of fun making both seasons and I think that each episode has a lot to like.

And what was your favorite episode that… well, I know you had a hand in all of them, but what was one, or a couple of, your favorites?

I really like “Bad Guy”. I think that was my all time favorite. And a close second would be the series finale two-parter. That was also solid, I thought.

That was one thing that really struck me, looking at it as a fourteen year old and looking at it now: It was the only two-parter you guys had, and it didn’t feel like a different show, but it had a very different tone compared to the rest of the show. At least, it felt like it to me. What was your thinking making that different kind of story?

That was a good observation. We got cancelled in the middle of the second season, we knew we were done. So we wanted to go out with a bang, sorta wrap things up, so we went a little darker, and then we felt because we went darker, the comedy would play a little better. So that’s why, yeah, you’re absolutely right, we did alter the tone a little bit.

I guess there’s no delicate way to put this: But what was it like to be cancelled on Megas?

I mean, obviously it’s not great to get any project cancelled, but that’s part of the business. And we got cancelled on Downtown, and we recently got cancelled on Motorcity. Every show gets cancelled, it’s not as heartbreaking as one might think, it’s just part of how things work, unfortunately. Maybe one day we’ll get to a point where we can make a show as long as we want, but we haven’t found that balance yet.

How much of you would you say is really in Megas?

Well Coop is based on a good pal of ours, who still lives in Jersey City, and Goat is actually based on a pal of ours who lives in Jersey City named Goat. So we took inspiration from a lot of people who we know, and a lot of pals, and a lot of experiences, so there’s a lot of us in there, and there’s also, you know, there’s our specific things that we’re really in to, that we’d work in visually. We had a great group of designers, and you can tell the things that they were in to. Whether it was Star Blazers Yamato, Gatchaman, G-Force, etc., everybody on the show put some of themselves in to the show. And that’s what I like about it.

And now the “Bring Back Megas” movement…


To be perfectly candid, this is odd.


From the outside looking in, you see this kind of thing going on with Firefly, sending nuts in to save Jericho, but this is very different in that Titmouse is actually trying to purchase or license the property. But I only have an outsider’s perspective on it. I’m curious what it’s like for you, to see all the support going on.

It’s wonderful to see all the support, and part of the reason we’re doing this is because of all of the fans kind of rallying behind it. We’re still in the early stages of talking to Cartoon Network about exactly what we could do, whether it’s getting the rights back, or actually purchasing a license to our own show, or trying to get it resurrected somewhere else. There’s a thousand different things that we’re talking to them about, seeing what’s realistic, but yeah, we kept getting emails, we kept getting, any time we went to a convention… people are actually calling up Titmouse and asking about Megas. So it’s been long enough that it’s been dark: Megas is playing everywhere in the world, except for the United States, which we thought was odd. We want to do anything we can to bring it back.

The Nielsens are such an odd system.

(chuckles) It’s a very outdated system, and it’s, I’d say it’s catastrophically wrong, many times. I think that in five years, no one will be using Nielsens.


I think so, I think things are changing, I think TV is changing, I think the way we access entertainment is changing. So I think that the days of sitting at home, making an appointment and watching the big box, I think those will come to an end in five to ten years.

Television is such a very odd… When I look at Megas, I swear this is what came to mind when I saw the Bring Back Megas movement, is Baywatch. In the first season, the ratings were junk. But David Hasselhoff, for whatever reason, managed to figure out that this was probably the most genius idea that had ever happened in terms of making him money.


So he actually bought the rights to the show, and put it in syndication.

I didn’t know that, that’s awesome.

So I guess my question to you, at least the first one is: Is Megas the next Baywatch?

Well… (laughs) It’s apples and oranges, obviously I’d love to see Megas… if nothing else, I’d love to see it get in to the hands of people who care about it. Even if it is a DVD box set. I’d just love to give the fans something other than watch the cut-up episodes on youtube, and if we can do better than that, absolutely. I mean sure, let’s do fifteen more seasons, I don’t know how long Baywatch ran. But there was a very specific reason that Baywatch was successful…


Our show doesn’t have those things, we’ve got other things. We’ve got giant robots.

Well… it had two giant reasons it was successful, I suppose, but…

Yeah, the acting and the writing, right?

Oh yeah, absolutely. Just gorgeous cinematography.


Television is may be the, and I apologize if I’m editorializing a little bit here, but I’m really curious to hear what you think about it since you work in this business. Television is unique in that there hasn’t been really, creator-owned content, and really can’t be the way that television has traditionally has been delivered. It’s been produced by soap companies, networks, and government subsidies for PBS… and now with what Titmouse is doing, and the work I’m being seen done with Arrested Development coming back on Netflix for a fourth season, it makes me curious what you think is changing in television.

Well I think again, it’s the aspect of distribution. As before, it was very traditional, and there were a lot of gatekeepers, and now with the broadband aspect, and the fact that you can access entertainment on a cell phone, or through a browser, I think that’s changing. The playing field is being broken up now, and the blockers are being lifted. It’s gonna be a new world out there soon.

Do you think Megas could be one of the pioneers in that new world?

Well that’s what we’re trying to do, that’s why we’re talking to everyone and anyone… we’re talking to video game companies, we’re talking to, you know, online distribution. We’re trying to find a way to… all we are is just, we’re just a bunch of storytellers. We just wanna tell stories. We’re not in this to make money, we’re not in this to create empires. It’s just the people who own the distribution are very specific about how they control things. If you don’t get the ratings, if you don’t sell the ads, if you don’t sell the toys, etc. They cut off distribution. So we have to find a way to get these stories out there, and to fund these stories.

But looking at this, it’s kind of a brave new world out there,so that’s why we’re exploring all these other options. That’s why Titmouse and I are talking to everyone and anyone, trying to figure out what this new model is.

Assuming that you removed the BS&P, the restrictions so that you weren’t worrying advertisers… without those restrictions, in this hypothetical place where you can create Megas for the first time again, in this new distribution model, what do you think you might have done differently with the show?

Honestly, I really feel we made the show we wanted to. The creative executives were awesome, they really supported us. And the comedy was the kind of comedy we wanted to explore. So if we could do it again, obviously we’d probably try to redefine the designs, and some of the storytelling, but I feel pretty good about what we did, and if we can capture that tone again? I think that’d be a big win.

It’s unusual and very gratifying to hear a creator to say of a cancelled work that they’re happy with the result.

Absolutely. All of our shows we’re very happy with, because they’re all passion projects. They were shows that we came up with that our team, that have been working together for years, put their heart and soul in to it. So we’re very proud of each of our shows. And we’re proud of the next shows that we’re working on, we have a lot of stuff in development that we’re very proud of, so hopefully one or two of those things will go as well. But yeah, absolutely, each show that I’ve worked on I’m very proud of.

I think you have good reason to be with how much fan support you’ve been getting for bringing back Motorcity and Megas… I told some people that I was going to have the chance to talk to you, and they didn’t know what they wanted to ask about Downtown, but they at least wanted to say that they loved it.

Well we appreciate that, I’ll definitely let Chris know.

I’ve heard you talk about you wanting to have some toys for Megas.

Yes, absolutely.

Now what kind of toys, in particular, would you really most want to see?

Something that I’ve been talking to people on twitter about is we’re seeing what the reality is of putting out die-cast toys for Megas. Because that’s something that I know personally, die-cast robots. And I think there’s a market for it. But we’re trying to figure out what the reality is. Some of the things we’d like to do is, you know, die-cast magnetic Megas so you could take the car off. Obviously his chest would open up, and different weapons would come out, and things like that. But this is all still in very early brainstorming stages.

Sure. I can’t imagine how complex the rights issues must be.

Yeah, they’re kind of a mess, but hopefully we’ll work through that.

I can tell… I actually looked up the tax-write off that Cartoon Network did.

Oh wow.

Yeah. I had a lawyer look at it, and he was still a little baffled, and he explained it to me. I kind of understand what happened, but just looking at it, it really does surprise to me to think that quality is not banked on first and foremost as the cash-making method for television. And I’m not trying to dismiss Disney or Cartoon Network or anything like that. Oftentimes, we just end up seeing these shows we love getting cancelled, and we end up wondering why.

Yeah. But then again, quality and also, what’s interesting to one person is not to another. It’s all very subjective. And as I mentioned earlier, the networks are also using an outdated system of gathering information on what’s popular and what’s not. So I have a feeling that sometimes they’re right. Sometimes we didn’t make a connection. Other times, they’re probably horribly, horribly wrong. And in the three shows that we’ve gotten cancelled, probably somewhere in there they’ve been horribly wrong. I’m not sure if each time they’ve been wrong, but they probably did not get each one right.

Yeah. Because the second that word got out that Megas was in any way open, the floodgates really just opened. The internet gave a voice to the people who didn’t have access to those Nielsen boxes.

You’re absolutely right. The thing is, those voices were always there, they just didn’t come together until recently. I’ve been getting emails since we were cancelled, consistently, people asking “Where can I find it”, are there any merchandise, what’s going on, and Titmouse as well. We’ve been hearing you, and we’re gonna try to do something about it.

I’d like to talk a little bit about what’s also going on in the future, because I’ve heard some stuff from you. Something about some stuff on SyFy, something at Nickelodeon… what can you tell us?

I can’t really say much because we’re in very early development, but I have a series, a live action series at SyFy that’s in development. Hopefully we’ll find out if it’s going next year. And I also have an animated series at Nickelodeon in development. In addition to that, Titmouse has just… like fleets of shows in development, which I’m very excited about. So I’d say in the next year or so, my hope would be that we get at least one show picked up. But you never know: We might get everything shot down. That’s part of the biz.

I don’t think I’ve spoken to anybody who worked with you who was not just elated to hear that the show might be coming back, and that you guys are doing as well as you are. And that these opportunities for new shows, and the goals for Motorcity and Megas are happening.

That’s very cool to hear. And that kind of stuff gives us the energy to keep moving forward, because at the end of the day we’re fans, just as much as fans of our shows are. So we are the nerds who go to the conventions, and we geek out on the same stuff, so it’s really awesome to hear that kind of thing.

You’re the first generation of what they call the ‘remix culture’, I think.

Is that what they call it?

Yup. Taking the things that are old, making them new. Homages, parodies, all those things just coalescing as things are made new. You are, I think, leading, along with Titmouse, a very unique charge to change television.

We’re trying, we’re trying and we’ll see what happens. I’m sure we’re gonna fail you in some way, but that’s how… I don’t mind failure, because obviously we learn from failure, we make the next thing and it’s better for it. I’m happy to keep trying, as long as you guys will come along for the ride and watch this crazy stuff we’re making, I’m happy to keep beating my head against those walls.

Of the shows that you’ve worked on, what do you think is maybe your favorite story to tell about the production?

You know what, I would have to say that there’s a lot of great stories with Megas, because that was a show that I had a hand in creating. There’s all kinds of great stories, there’s all kinds of painful stories too, but I’ll give you one story to kind of close things out which was pretty awesome, going back to Bruce Campbell.

We wrote Magnanimous with him in mind, and we reached out through official channels to his managers and agents, and we’re like “Hey, we’ve got this crazy MODOK character that we want Bruce to voice, and we kind of based it on him.” And we got stonewalled. We couldn’t get through, couldn’t get anything. So then Chris Prynoski went to, I think it was a screening of Evil Dead 2 or 3, I couldn’t go, and Bruce was appearing and there was a Q&A. And Chris actually brought the script with him, and at the end of the Q&A, as Bruce was kind of being shoved away, Chris broke through all the bodyguards and was like, “Mr. Campbell, please read our script, we have a show!”

And Bruce was cool enough to say like, “Hey, let the kid through.” And he took the script, and he actually read it, and was like, “I love this show, I wanna be part of it.” I think that story kind of sums up how people reacted to what we were doing, and also how crazy we were. That one of us basically attacked a celebrity to make him part of our show.

Wow. Same strategy that got the show started to begin with, I guess, huh?

Yeah, that’s true, I wasn’t even thinking about that. I mean, that’s what I’d say to your listeners and yourself and anyone else: If you wanna make something, just do it man, find a way. Don’t do anything that will get you in jail, don’t attack anyone physically, even though we did. Just do what you gotta do to get your stories told.

I think listening to this that a lot of people that watched your show, and the shows that you and Titmouse are going to affect are going to do just that.

I wanna watch your guys’ shows. I’m just as big a nerd as anyone on the con floor, so I can’t wait to see that stuff.

Well thank you very much for talking with me. Is there anything you’d like to say that I just should have asked, shouldn’t have missed, or you just wanna say?

No man, I think you did it all. Thank you again for the opportunity to listen, well, not to listen, but to speak to your listeners. And yeah… it was very cool. Thank you for having me.

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.”

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.

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.

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.”

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