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Posted by Brother None

In celebration of Fallout's 10th anniversary, NMA gathered a number of former leads that guided the series during its evolution at Interplay and Black Isle Studios. They answered us 10 questions looking back to the game, its influence on them and its fans, with one bonus question for two of them.

The leads are:
  • Leonard Boyarsky Fallout 1 lead artist and original game design
  • Chris Taylor Fallout 1 lead designer and original game design, Fallout Tactics senior designer
  • Feargus Urquhart Fallout 1 division director of Interplay TSR, Fallout 2 producer and lead designer
  • Chris Avellone Fallout 2 designer, author of the Fallout Bibles and lead designer of Van Buren (BIS' Fallout 3) until he left for Obsidian
  • J.E. Sawyer Van Buren lead technical designer and lead designer until he left a few months before BIS closed its doors
Note: when someone refers to Fallout 3 in this interview, he is referring to BIS' Fallout 3, better known under its code name: Van Buren.

1. Define Fallout in one sentence.

Leonard Boyarsky
Itís fun-tastic RPG goodness.

Chris Taylor
The spiritual sequel to Wasteland.

Feargus Urquhart
A post apocalyptic wild west adventure where you have a real impact on the world around you and the people within it.

Chris Avellone
A post-apocalyptic role-playing game set in a future envisioned by someone in the 1950s.

J.E. Sawyer
Fallout is a mature-themed post-apocalyptic RPG setting with a Raygun Gothic art style.

2. Name one thing you can't remove from Fallout without it ceasing to be Fallout.

Leonard Boyarsky
Radioactive decay. And the darkly ironic setting. Or perhaps radioactively decaying dark irony in a fifties post apocalyptic future setting...

Chris Taylor
The Vault Boy graphics are purely Fallout and add a good chunk of the humor. I'm convinced that Fallout would not be Fallout without the Vault Boy.

Feargus Urquhart
There are so many things that come together to make Fallout what it is that it's hard to pick one that would destroy the overall feeling of the game and the world. However, I think that if you removed the idea of the Vaults then that would really change Fallout - they are the tie to the previous "world" and Vault 13 was the home and safety that you were trying to return to in the end. I'm going to cheat and actually pick another key element that would really change how Fallout feels and that's the Vault Boy. It's probably an easy answer, but the Vault Boy turned out to not just explain attributes, feats and skills, but a way to really give that retro happy 50's feel to things.

Chris Avellone
The name.

And maybe Power Armor.

And the rabid fanbase.

J.E. Sawyer
The art style. It permeates all aspects of the game, from the interface to how characters, weapons, and vehicles are designed. It's the one thing you can look at and immediately say, "That's Fallout." Music and audio are very close behind art style.

3. What bit of your work on Fallout were you most proud of?

Leonard Boyarsky
Thatís a hard one, as Iím proud of so much of what I contributed to Fallout. If I had to pick one thing, it would be the mood/tone/50ís thing, because I can cheat and include things like the SkillDex (vault)guy and the intro and ending under that heading.

Chris Taylor
I'm most proud of the SPECIAL system, not because of how it finally turned out (there are bugs in the system and certainly, with some time, we could have improved it), but because we had a very limited amount of time to work on it and it was at a critical time in the development of Fallout. SPECIAL turned out pretty darn well for having been written in just a few weeks. The manual takes the runner up prize.

Feargus Urquhart
On the original Fallout, I was happiest with what I did with the Hub. Some of my work was taking a really complicated design that wasn't really working and making it work. But, I also added the quest for the Blade Runner pistol that Jason was nice enough to make for me, even though I think he thought I was being silly. And, I also spent a ton of time balancing where the guards were and how they were equipped to make it really, really hard to steal stuff early in the game but just a hard fight later in the game.

I was also happy with what I did with the Boneyard and Adytum, which was again to take a broken design and make it work. I was happy that was able to add the Hardened Power Armor and Turbo Plasma Rifle pretty much at the last minute of the game. Of course, I'm still pretty embarrassed that I screwed up the balance of the later part of the game by reducing the AP requirements on the Turbo Plasma Rifle.

And lastly, I stopped Fallout from Gold Mastering for an extra day because I felt the Barter equation was broken and need to be fixed. It wasn't a very popular decision on the team or with management, but it was the right one and Bartering worked out much better because of that.

Chris Avellone
All the pre-production work on Fallout 3, and the theme that was planned for Fallout 3. Following that, I was proud of the area design for New Reno along with the multiple branching and reactivity, and finishing up the quests and characters in Vault City, including all the little bonus reactivity events in Vault City (the singing caretaker, the broken auto-doc, yanking all the ammo out of Marcus, Vic and Valerie's sequence, the Captain of Vault City, and some of the fetch quests).

J.E. Sawyer
Revising SPECIAL for Van Buren. In retrospect, I may have made a few choices differently, but overall I think the system needed an overhaul for clarity and balance reasons.

I also really enjoyed working on the "Poseidon-tier" technologies for Van Buren. They were a bunch of unfinished projects that science-oriented characters could complete to gain goodies like the ARTEMIS Light Rail Gun and HERAKLES Power Fist. The story behind the projects helped tie the Enclave to Poseidon, which was fun.

4. Your favourite Fallout NPC?

Leonard Boyarsky
Dogmeat seems the obvious choice, but I love how you can get Ian to start killing everyone in Shady Sands minutes after he would have gladly died to protect them. That and the fact that he looks snazzy in his leather jacket.

Chris Taylor
Dogmeat, without a doubt. I never expected people to be able to keep him alive through the military base. It helped that he was good at biting people in the groin.

Feargus Urquhart
That's a tough one. I think it's the Overseer, just because of what he does at the end of the game.

Chris Avellone
All of them were in the pre-production design for Fallout 3. A prototype of ZAX in Fallout 3, a police administrator Mr. Handy robot CNPC called Job, and the main adversary for Fallout 3 that never saw the light of day, unfortunately.

From Fallout 2, I liked Sulik, and from Fallout 1, I thought the Lieutenant was an excellent character and his vocabulary was a nice twist on super mutants. Set had great ghoul lingo as well. (Generally, almost any character Mark O'Green wrote was excellent.)

J.E. Sawyer
Cassidy. He was a curmudgeonly old dude, but he was a hell of a lot more appealing than Vic or (ugh) Myron. I once accidentally started combat with the Wright family and lost track of Cassidy. About six rounds in, I scrolled over and saw him standing in the midst of a pile of dead Wright children with a combat shotgun in his hands. Good ol' reliable Cassidy.

5. Give us an idea of the creative process involved in converting the game from pen and paper to a computer game.

Leonard Boyarsky
That was easy for me. I let other people do it.

Chris Taylor
The paper and pencil gaming was something we tried to emulate. I'd use the GURPS library as a reference. We were working on the Brahmin (two-headed cows) and Tim was wondering about rules for two-headed creatures. I referenced the GURPS Bestiary for the two-headed rules there to give us an idea on how to implement anything special for them. Mostly, I treated the design process as if I were going to be running a paper and pencil game for the rest of the team. I laid down the maps and keyed them to encounters that I then typed up. The second pass added the dialogue trees to the design docs and that was very computer-y and not so paper and pencil-y.

Feargus Urquhart
There are a lot of different things that you need to take into account and a book could probably be written on it, but there are probably two big considerations. The first is deciding how faithfully you want to follow the rules when it comes to the flow of combat and dice roll resolution - this is a part of the turn based vs. real-time combat decision. If you want to exactly represent GURPs, D&D or most other PnP RPGs then you have to go turn based, which was the decision for Fallout when it was GURPs. For Baldur's Gate, the decision was to goto real-time, but to still have a character follow its own round. The second is what you want to do with all the other aspects of the RPG system, which usually mean the non-combat skills, attributes and abilities. It's out of these that come the use of skills and attributes in parts of the game like Dialog (Charisma, IQ, Speech, etc..). I think it's really important to focus on both those elements of an RPG system or you'll miss the flavor of the system and how it is tied into the world of the game.

Chris Avellone
We ran two simultaneous sessions at Black Isle, trying out character development and advancement, letting 10-12 players (divided into two parties) stomp up and down on an area design, revise the area, and then build an area design document based on that. In addition, because they were adventuring in the same world, it was cool to see how events from one party caused ripples for the other party (which was intended to be part of the theme/goal in Fallout 3).

The multiple players also proved valuable because they provided obvious hooks based on character race, perks, and skills - and we tried to make sure each character had a chance to "shine" in each area. We ended up getting through Leavenworth, Circle Junction, Denver (a LOT of Denver), Boulder, a few special encounters, and some documentation and layouts for the Big Empty (Big Mt - army boot camp) and Fort Abandon (Fort Aradesh).

J.E. Sawyer
For me, anything we transferred from tabletop passed through two filters: 1) is this fun even in tabletop, or are we simply observing some sort of archaic pen-and-paper tradition with what we are doing? 2) would this be fun/ideal in a computer environment?

The latter question was usually the more difficult one to answer. When we were playing our Van Buren tabletop game, it was easy to make a lot of knowledge-based skills work. Any aggressive tabletop RPGer knows how to turn a Knowledge: Architecture skill into something tremendously advantageous with a creative GM. You can spontaneously start climbing through ducts or planting explosives on weak pillars to collapse a building, etc. And of course, GMs can always tailor adventures to the skills of the characters, week to week. It's typically a lot harder to seed CRPG areas with enough opportunities to make varied skills advantageous. I really didn't want a repeat of Fallout's dearth of Science applications, so we eventually kept the skill list relatively compact to ensure they would get robust usage from area to area.

Another big issue was paralyzing fear. You can't reload in the tabletop game, and there's no resurrection in the Fallout setting. Our characters were often overwhelmed by the threat of death and seemingly hopeless odds. "Hmm, we could let the life-support systems shut down in the Boulder Dome, killing everyone... or we could let Diana the supercomputer get taken over by ODYSSEUS the mega-super-duper computer, killing everyone... or we could go back to Denver and get eaten by hundreds of wild dogs who will then be subsequently blown up by the office building-sized robot with missile racks on its back..."

In reality, the threats weren't quite that dire, but they seemed very powerful in that tabletop environment.

6. Any idea why there were almost no more turn-based cRPGs after Fallout?

Leonard Boyarsky
Iím sure people were intimidated by its enormous financial success. Seriously, though - marketing, PR and even execs in the game industry are convinced that you canít make big money with a turn based game, so no one tries. Now, I donít know whether you could actually go huge with a turn based game (on the PC) anymore, but, unless someone actually puts out a good one with proper marketing and PR support weíll never know, will we?

Chris Taylor
I think most of them became strategy RPGs on the Gameboy. The obvious answer is that turn-based CRPGs didn't sell as well as real-time games, so the market followed the money. I suspect it's because CRPGs take a long time to play and having to walk your boss through a game in turn-based mode was just too slow. All the executives probably demanded real-time games because RTS' were selling well.

Feargus Urquhart
Gamers' tastes change and for the larger game systems - PC and TV based consoles, I think that the average gamer began desiring a more and more real-time and actiony game experience. Of course, the Final Fantasy's remained fairly turn based until FF12 - but that's still turn in certain ways still. Not to get too sociological, but I also wonder if the populace as a whole has moved towards more intense, shorter experiences - which would tend to move games from the 30 minute combats to the quick explosions and bodies flying everywhere.

Chris Avellone
There were plenty - just rarely on the PC. On the PC, it's probably because immediate gratification and instantly reactive combat gives people a bigger rush, but that's just a guess.

J.E. Sawyer
I think a lot of it has to do with the perceived acceptability of certain play modes among PC gamers and retailers. Games like Darklands showed that real-time with pause RPGs could be pretty fun. The Baldur's Gate series was such a huge financial success that it must have seemed like real-time with pause was the inescapable evolution of RPG combat.

I think ToEE was the last strong showing of any turn-based PC CRPG, but it was plagued by two problems: it was pretty buggy, and low-level D&D combat in a CRPG is incredibly dull. After patching, learning the D&D rules, and getting to about 4th level, it was great fun. Still, I doubt it made a lot of random shmoe gamers jump up and declare that turn-based combat was the most rad thing they had ever experienced.

To be honest, I don't think most gamers actually care a whole lot about whether combat in a CRPG is turn-based or real-time. They just want it to be fun and interesting. I think that convincing retailers that you can have fun and interesting turn-based combat is more difficult than convincing the mythical average gamer. Retailers and publishers get locked in cycles of self-fulfilling prophecies about the viability of certain game elements.

7. How did Fallout's development and design influence your later games?

Leonard Boyarsky
Actually, Fallout set me up to learn some hard lessons, as it seemed to be a charmed project somehow. Iím not saying it wasnít hard and there werenít tough choices and compromises, but we ended up making a lot of quick choices that turned out to be the right ones, so I thought that was the way you made games. I didnít realize that iteration and rethinking your basic assumptions is more common in game design. I mean, Tim and Chris replaced our whole system in only two weeks and that turned out great, so, obviously, you can do things like that all the time, right?

Chris Taylor
I learned a lot about proper documentation and playtesting during the documentation stage. One of the first areas that I designed that reached an actual playable state was the Fallout demo. There was a manhole cover there that if your character critically failed a strength test would be dropped on your foot and you would take a small amount of damage. It ended up that during our first major demo, the player (someone not from the team) ended up killing themselves on this manhole cover. It had just a small chance of occurring, but it happened the first time someone important played the game and it just wasn't fun. I also referenced Fallout in my later games for player decisions. I probably added more choices to games because of the freedom of Fallout.

Feargus Urquhart
To this day, I still think about how we addressed problems in Fallout and use them as examples of how to do things. Josh Sawyer was just talking about how the story and quest structure of Fallout worked and how we should apply that to the Aliens RPG that we are making. What is also a great influence on me is the desire to do what we did in Fallout again, we really were able to make a world that fit with the game and the RPG system. It just all worked well together and answers to problems often just represented themselves.

Chris Avellone
The stat-influencing branching for dialogue and quest structure had a big impact on future role-playing game designs at Black Isle.

J.E. Sawyer
Playing and working on Fallout made me appreciate how one should develop and promote player choice in games. It's hard to explain succinctly, but the best way to support non-linear gaming with meaningful gameplay choices is to "let go" in a lot of ways. I think game developers tend to want to tell a specific story to players, and that very often conflicts with a desire for open exploration or other forms of player freedom. If you break down Fallout and Fallout 2, there are essentially three or four plot-critical elements in the whole game. Everything else can technically be skipped. But the method of Fallout's presentation allows the story to be revealed in a logical progression without binding the player's hands.

8. Is there any basic aspect of the game you'd have wanted to do differently given access to the gaming technology of today?

Leonard Boyarsky
It would have been great to have the detail level you can get in 3d now Ė I would have loved to have been able to zoom in on your character to see much more detail (outside of combat, of course).

Chris Taylor
You mean besides turning it into a real-time FPS? (Just kidding!)
Fallout is a game of its time. I can't think of anything critical that I would want to change. Except maybe the talking heads Ė it might have been easier to do them today in 3D and make them even more lifelike. It would have been nice to have shadows _and_ multiple levels in the environment.

Feargus Urquhart
I always wanted to see if we could have created some hybrid turn-based / real-time combat system in a 3D engine where you had your companions and were able to issue limited orders. I guess that's not particularly based upon modern technology, because that's pretty much just super fancy graphics. Having said that, I do think modern graphics would have let us make the Fallout world look super fancy.

Chris Avellone
A movable camera and even more interaction animations in dialogues. Although, honestly, I don't know if you can improve Fallout through technology.

J.E. Sawyer
There are certain design decisions I might make differently, but the only thing I might do different due to technology developments would be a more dynamic camera system and more dynamic props/terrain. When we were building Van Buren, we had to be pretty careful about the camera angle to prevent serious framerate hits. Also, all of our levels were heavily pre-processed. It was a pain for us and I'm sure it would have been a pain for endusers if we ever did anything like release the editor.

9. In retrospect, how do you feel about the Fallout fanbase?

Leonard Boyarsky
Itís very gratifying and even flattering (to be completely honest), that there are people out there who are so passionate about something that was such a labor of love for us. I donít know why theyíve been singled out as particularly intense or rabid, I see the same thing with a lot of different fan bases who care about the game/characters/book/movie etc they love so much.

Chris Taylor
I think they are truly fanatic, in the nicest sense of the word. If I could, I would invite 95% of them over for some meat on a stick and a beer. I'm pretty sure I would need restraining orders for the other 5%.

Feargus Urquhart
Love and Hate? It is truthfully a little bit of both. How can I completely hate a bunch of people that love something that I love? But, some of the hate thrown our way over the years has gotten old. And, I guess I appreciate them in other ways as well, because I recognize that I do look for the "slam-dunk" from time to time, or all the time based upon your perspective. I know the fanbase is out there and if it's always a "slam-dunk" then they aren't wrong for saying what they say.

Chris Avellone
They're passionate. And impossible to please. ;)

I do wish they had done more with the Fallout editor once it was released, though, especially the more vocal members of the community

J.E. Sawyer
I think it's actually a broad fanbase in terms of attitude and preferences. There's never really been a unifying list of things that pulled us all together. Obviously we all like the series, but people vary a lot on what (if anything) they would like to see changed in other Fallout games.

10. What advice would you have for someone making another Fallout game?

Leonard Boyarsky
Thatís tough. I wouldnít even know where to start, as Fallout was really a reflection of us and our personalities at that time, and we had nothing to live up to. We were just fired up about making our little game and we poured ourselves into it.

The only advice that comes to mind is to realize that its humor comes from a juxtaposition of the powers that be in the Fallout universe trying to put forth a silly Ďeverythingís great!í attitude and the stark reality that actually exists in the world. And even though there were some silly things in it, like the crashed flying saucer, overall it was more dark humor than silly humor.

Chris Taylor
No advice, but I wish them the best. I'm a fan myself and I look forward to FO3.

Feargus Urquhart
In the end the specific aspects of the rules system, the game perspective, the locations, all of those don't matter when it comes to making a Fallout game. It is the feeling of Fallout. It's the Overseer kicking you out, it's getting to kill both Killian and Gizmo, getting to play at being Mad Max, having Dogmeat around and winning the game the way you want to win it.

Chris Avellone
Don't do one. Do something better and raise the bar even higher.

J.E. Sawyer
Establish a vision and go with it. The Fallout games are great, but to progress the series, you need to separate the wheat from the chaff and build on top of that. Refine the strengths of the Fallout games and add new innovations. There's a lot of dissonant noise from fans about what those strengths really are. And that's fine. It's not their job to make the game. They aren't a team. But you have to be able to get to the heart of what's really important.

There are probably a lot of decisions that you will make that infuriate a lot of people. If you feel those decisions need to be made, do not half-ass them. The people still will be infuriated, and what you are making will suffer overall because of those compromises. A compromise made for reasons of scope or quality -- that might be a good compromise. Compromises made to quasi-please the average audience member aren't a good thing, especially not with a concept as strongly expressed as "Fallout".

And whatever you do, make sure you nail the art, the music, and the sound. That's the stuff that transcends rules and combat systems and dialogue trees.

42. How important is the darkly ironic feeling to Fallout and name your favourite example of it from the original games?

Leonard Boyarsky
As per my answer above, the dark irony (coupled with the setting) is for me what makes it the Fallout universe. I donít think it would feel like Fallout without that tone to it.

I would have to say that my favorite example of it is getting kicked out of the vault after spending the whole game saving it. I donít think anyone saw that coming, and it really made the end of the original Fallout have an intense emotional impact.

Chris Taylor
I liked the fact that being stupid let you bypass a mental trap in the Master's Vault and that you could take drugs to dumb you down to get past it. The best example of the Fallout "feeling" is the player being kicked out of the Vault at the end of the game. That was Leonard's idea, IIRC, and it was certainly a very, very good one.

We thank our old friends for their time, not to mention the great work they did on a set of masterful games, and hope to hear from them again in the future. Perhaps in 10 years time?

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