J.E. Sawyer keeps on talking

Discussion in 'NMA News and Information' started by Tagaziel, Jan 5, 2013.

  1. Tagaziel

    Tagaziel Panzerkatze Staff Member Admin Orderite

    Dec 10, 2003
    J.E. Sawyer, currently busy with Project Eternity, still finds time to answer a couple of questions on his Formspring. While most questions refer to Obsidian's new game, there are still a few that relate to Fallout:<blockquote>Which of the games you've worked on -- completed or not -- do you feel you learned the most from? How do you feel Project Eternity is benefiting from that experience?

    I think I've learned a lot from every project I've been on, but I guess F:NV was the most illuminating. It had the longest development cycle of any game I've shipped and, by far, sold the most units on the most platforms. I think that wider-than-usual net helped show how much people "got" or didn't get certain types of gameplay mechanics, narrative structures, etc.

    I also had more freedom to mess with the rules on F:NV than I did on any of the D&D games I contributed to, and seeing how people responded to the minor and major shifts between F3 and F:NV was very informative.

    I think the biggest thing I took away, more definitively than ever, is that how things actually work matters more than how people react to the idea of how they will work. I.e., there are really two levels of response to something in the game: the idea of what it is (often interpreted outside of the game) and the reality of what it is. The idea is often more upsetting or disconcerting to people than the reality. But the bottom line is that the reality actually has to be enjoyable in the context of the game, regardless of where the idea started or what the intent was.

    When we eliminated Big Guns and spread the weapons around to other skills, there was a lot of head-shaking. After the game came out, not many people complained about or or really even seemed to care. That isn't to say that NO ONE cared -- some people cared, and still care, a lot about it. But the end result didn't generate a lot of negativity and most people responded positively to it or just didn't care.

    On the other hand, the way the map was illustrated was logical and map-like but confused people because they thought it was literally at the same scale as the F3 map. In F3, the map border *is* the border of the world. In F:NV, the map border is the extreme outer extent that encapsulates the irregular border of the world. Essentially it was like forcing Colorado and Nevada to be fit into an identical square frame map that's 10" by 10". Nevada is larger than Colorado in reality, but it is always going to take up less space if pushed to the edges of a 10" by 10" map because Colorado has a rectilinear shape and Nevada doesn't. Long story short: it makes sense, but it confused a huge number of people who thought that we were wasting portions of the map. We addressed this in Honest Hearts by using an irregular border instead of a square one.

    And speaking of Honest Hearts, I also learned that between the free-wheeling nature of F:NV's content implementation and the strict, low-risk implementation of Honest Hearts content, OEI content usually needs to fall somewhere in-between. A quest that is completely cut-and-dry bog-standard will usually come across that way even if it takes place in a new setting. A quest that is a tangled skein of nightmare scripting will probably ship as a broken mess of half-fulfilled dreams. So when it comes to working with designers, it's good to start with a really solid, stable core of gameplay but leave time for (and encourage) more risky secondary elements after the core has been developed.

    Having content that's just "in" and works isn't enough -- both for designers and for people who are playing an Obsidian RPG. People enjoy weird and wacky stuff in quests; it just has to work properly. Our concepting, design, and review processes need to account for the basics but also ensure there's time for the cool and unusual stuff.

    In older games don't you think the type of system used,chaotic systems,breakable systems with a sense of humor in mechanical design(think Fallouts) were part of the charm?In a more coherent and restrictive system don't you think something is missed?

    Not really. Are you suggesting that we should design an incoherent system? I don't think the sense of humor in Fallout was in the mechanical design, but in the content supporting the mechanical design. E.g. the area design and art, characters, animations, sounds, text descriptions, etc.

    If you took a Fallout crit shotgun blast and removed the sound effects, hand-touched sprite "blown out torso" animation/effects, and the text description accompanying it, there really wouldn't be anything humorous about it. It would just be a hit that did a lot of damage.

    Late game Fallout 2 is where the limits of the system really started to get pushed. Extended fights with Enclave troopers were typically slugfests where you and the enemies traded single-digit damage until someone (usually you) scored an armor-bypassing critical for triple-digit damage and annihilated the target.

    If it weren't for the continuous satisfaction that comes with massive overkill body-melting plasma criticals (which is due to the content supporting it, not the mechanic itself), the combat would have been much less enjoyable.</blockquote>A separate reply concerns his refreshingly old school design principle:<blockquote>Would you describe your design philosophy as "psychologically manipulating players into accepting fail states instead of reloading, by shifting the consequences into the longer term"?

    No. That's really narrow for an overall design philosophy. When it comes to mechanics, I believe we should design systems that work together to produce challenging gameplay content and a variety of tools players can use to overcome those challenges. If challenges can be easily circumvented by using one skeleton key tactic (whether it's reloading, a singularly overpowering item/ability, or something else), then the gameplay will get boring quickly.

    I think gameplay is most enjoyable when there's a balance of frustration and triumph. Without frustration, triumph becomes cheap. Continuous frustration with minimal/infrequent triumph often feels like it isn't worth the effort. Every player has a different balance point for what they enjoy, but if the systems have easy "outs", it can make the challenges trivial.</blockquote>
  2. Izual

    Izual Pipe rifle & chopsticks

    Sep 18, 2009
    J.E. Sawyer is truly a great game designer.

    BTW NMA, you failed the 2nd link inside the article (it overextends).
  3. Tagaziel

    Tagaziel Panzerkatze Staff Member Admin Orderite

    Dec 10, 2003
    Thanks, fixed.

    I like JES a great deal. Reactions to him sure came a long way since Van Buren (when people wanted to crucify him for changes to the SPECIAL dogma he wanted to introduce into the game) .
  4. C2B

    C2B Look, Ma! Two Heads!

    Aug 17, 2010
    You should read the reactions to his P:E design choices so far.

    Especially the codex is hilarious as suddenly the infinity engine games have become defined by their combat (and that combat has suddenly become the holy grail or something) and he dares to do things differently.

    Sawyer will always be polarizing, though I like him a lot and he has a clear vision in how to do things while filtiring out what stuff works and what doesn't.
  5. Tagaziel

    Tagaziel Panzerkatze Staff Member Admin Orderite

    Dec 10, 2003
    I like what he does. A great deal of my admiration and sympathy to JES comes from him actually taking time to explain to us, how and why he made such decisions.

    Being not particularly attached to Infinity engine combat (always struck me as chaotic), I'm intrigued by PE.
  6. Ilosar

    Ilosar Vault Fossil

    Apr 20, 2010
    It's not like the Codex bitching is anything new. They completely burned me out, yet I can stand the BSN and even the Something Awful forums.

    Anyhow, I also really like Sawyer. He seems to have a clear vision of how he does things, and takes the time to actually explain. For example, removing Big Guns was honestly a good move; no Fallout game managed to make the skill really meaningful.
  7. Surf Solar

    Surf Solar So Old I'm Losing Radiation Signs

    Aug 20, 2009
    Yes, instead of making something actually interesting, just remove it. Always the best way to deal with things, right?
  8. God is Dog backwards

    God is Dog backwards Mildly Dipped

    Jul 25, 2003
    I always remembered infinity-engine combat as being heavily criticised for not being turn based. Don't really recall anyone around here and Codex particularly liking it in the games.
  9. Walpknut

    Walpknut This ghoul has seen it all

    Dec 30, 2010
    They removed it and repurpoused another Skill and developed a better system.
  10. Surf Solar

    Surf Solar So Old I'm Losing Radiation Signs

    Aug 20, 2009
    How exactly was it better? It was so easy in this game to put your skillpoints into everything it hardly felt different than what we had in Fallout 3.
  11. Lexx

    Lexx Testament to the ghoul lifespan
    Moderator Modder

    Apr 24, 2005
    Sawyer at least can explain in a reasonable manner why he does something, unlike many other folks who just do what they do because it is cool or just "because".
  12. mobucks

    mobucks woof Orderite

    May 22, 2010
    This a thousand times this.
  13. Brother None

    Brother None This ghoul has seen it all
    Admin Orderite

    Apr 3, 2003
    It's not secret I have no particular love for JES' writing or design philosophy. His writing is overly pseudo-philosophical and explicit, like his hero Umberto Eco, but he knows it's not very good. His game design is too gamist, too academic, overwrought and oversimplified. His end-solution of simplifying and rationalizing to bits is pretty unwelcome in the hardcore RPG crowd for a reason. He's very smart and probably invests more thought and effort into systems than any other RPG designer, but he needs someone next or above him to check his worst excesses and allow things to actually be fun, rather than perfectly balanced and open to toy with. What he's revealed about Eternity certainly doesn't excite.

    And this is just kind of disingenuous. You rarely see protest for something that was already discussed to death, post-release. NMA didn't see a lot of griping about F:BoS post-release. Why not? Well, no one played it. But more than that, we'd already shat all over it. Sawyer seems to mean that somehow indicates we liked it. That's really being very intellectually dishonest.

    We don't suddenly like it, but we already expressed our concerns and they didn't change. This is a weak justification of his own mistakes.

    Tho honestly big guns wasn't a big deal. Especially since these modern Fallouts are FPSs.
  14. Tagaziel

    Tagaziel Panzerkatze Staff Member Admin Orderite

    Dec 10, 2003
    I find Sawyer's approach to design resulting in quite fun gameplay. Also, could you elaborate of what's "simplification"?
  15. Brother None

    Brother None This ghoul has seen it all
    Admin Orderite

    Apr 3, 2003
    In Sawyer's case, simplification is the process of parsing down design and systems into a level of unintuitive skill spread and balance. His priority is to ensure that all skills or attributes are useful and balanced, and all "classes" or builds are equal. That's an assbackwards approach to my mind. The first priority should be to allow the players the options and complexity to define the character down to minute details. This can be an at-character-creation process or a more intuitive iterative process, that doesn't matter (Fallout did this cleverly with perks and traits, which JES then sought to cut down on too, esp in Van Buren), but it should never be sacrificed to a gameist, designer-perspective pursuit of perfect balance. He's approaching the problem from the wrong end, in other words.

    Tied to that is a "don't allow players to fail" approach that has been seeping into RPG design. It's more explicit for some games where you can clearly never fail, but making a character system where there are no bad choices defeats the absolute requirement of RPGs to *always* offers players bad and good choices in all facets of gameplay. Again, this is a gameist approach, one that seeks to maximize ease and accessibility, an approach that pulled to its furthest conclusion got the RPG genre to where it is now.

    JE Sawyer's design philosophy works better when designing an action RPG like New Vegas. An actual, old-school, tactical and choice-based RPG tho? Well. He's got the opportunity to prove it now. But Van Buren certainly didn't look like it was improving under his guidance. I got a lot less excited about Eternity when I heard it's his baby. Still pledged though, and I'll give it its due chance to prove me wrong.
  16. WorstUsernameEver

    WorstUsernameEver But best title ever!

    May 28, 2010
    I'll readily admit that I'd prefer Sawyer to add instead of subtracting but "too gameist" and weird principles that RPG should apparently adhere to appearing out of nowhere? That's not a very good argument, imo.
  17. Brother None

    Brother None This ghoul has seen it all
    Admin Orderite

    Apr 3, 2003
    I'm not interested in widening the field and debating what makes an RPG an RPG. I think anti-"tyranny of choices" thinking has led to the RPG genre being where it is now. If you're fine with that, fine by me. I'm fine with them too, for a certain genre of RPGs. I'm not fine with them for RPGs of the Fallout mold.

    I'm not making an argument you should dislike Sawyer. If you enjoy these type of games, fine. It's not for me. That's also fine. I'm explaining my personal preference from a game design standpoint. Will his design work in an old-school mold? Well, that's being tested now, isn't it? Maybe it will. But I'm not too hopeful.
  18. Tagaziel

    Tagaziel Panzerkatze Staff Member Admin Orderite

    Dec 10, 2003
    I think you're misrepresenting Sawyer's position. It isn't about not allowing players to fail, it's about allowing them to make informed decisions and make more approaches viable. It's allowing players to fail, but not as a result of dumb luck (say, not being informed that certain skills are useless or gimp you due to a lack of usable weapons, vide Fallout/Fallout 2), failing to identify the one, master character build (Fallout/Fallout 2 diplosniper) or lack of information (not telling the player what all those attributes or skills are responsible for), but actual mistakes, such as making a certain character build and the using the wrong gear, or insisting on fighting fire mages with characters/weapons/summoned creatures susceptible to fire.

    The key is information. Going with your good/bad analogy, you're usually able to gain enough data about characters, factions and the setting to make informed choices; why should character generation be any different? And while we're at it, why should certain classes and playstyles be arbitrarily penalized?

    Furthermore, isn't the point of pen-and-paper RPGs the ability to use skills equally, by eg. applying them in unorthodox ways? Granted, infinite possibilities cannot be translated into a computer RPG, but making skills and various builds approximately similiar in usefulness would be a close second.
  19. WorstUsernameEver

    WorstUsernameEver But best title ever!

    May 28, 2010
    Guess I should explain why I think that anyway, and preface it by the fact that I think it's totally fine to dislike Sawyer's approach to design.

    First of all, I'm not a fan of "gamey" as a descriptor, because it implies the existence of another "simulationist" or "realistic" approach, that IMO doesn't really exist, rather than a set of different (and equally arbitrary) conventions. Admittedly, this is me being pedantic, but I prefer to simply work on another, clearer-defined divides, such as "micromanagement" vs. "few clear tradeoffs", "combat focused" (pretty much every RPG these days) vs "multiple approaches", etc.

    As for the second part, I was addressing Brother None, but it's also something of a widespread belief in the Codex and other places, that for an RPG to be good, there has to be a way to badly gimp your build. I simply don't really understand that attitude, and it's one I've never really met while playing tabletop.

    Which brings me to my final point: I suppose I'm fine with game design that moves away from tabletop because none of the game that simulate the "tabletop experience" I have played have really managed to do it well. So I'm okay with trying another approach and playing to the strengths of computer programming, whether it means more complex behind-the-scenes damage calculations, physics based range attacks or whatever.

    As for my personal preferences, I personally really don't like systems that seem to be obsessed with offering the appearance of depth when 3/4s of the skills are either useless or there for no reason whatsoever. Ideally, IMO, an RPG should offer a huge variety of builds, but they should be suboptimal (extremely so at most) but not completely useless or "wrong". Which *seems* to be the direction Sawyer is taking for P:E, despite some weird pet peeves like refusing to make skill costs different depending on their relative payoff and apparently removing misses (though he's backing down on that, luckily). And IMO, that stuff has less to do with his basic approach and more to do with the fact that he makes a lot of bad calls (which is something he has in common with most designers I know, to be fair).
  20. Brother None

    Brother None This ghoul has seen it all
    Admin Orderite

    Apr 3, 2003
    I'm not, but you are. The idealized explanation you're given has been offered before but it's not something Sawyer has made explicit in that way, as far as I know, and is in fact very much so not how he approached character creation in Van Buren, New Vegas or how we should expect him to approach things for Eternity. Did he explain, expand and improve viability of different builds in Van Buren? No, he slashed down skills, limiting choices until you could make no bad ones. Not once did he talk about better informing players, that I recall.

    He's improving, as anyone would, but your representation of his design philosophy does not seem accurate.

    There is nothing wrong with informing players. That is not really relevant to the point of "improving" a system by gutting it. Those are separate questions. If Sawyer wants to improve informing players and create clever staggered character creation (like perks), fine by me. That doesn't justify cutting out skills.

    They should not. Given that, we're left with two options, expanding ingame choices and making the game more complex until more playstyles become viable, or gutting the system until you can only pick viable playstyles. Guess which one Sawyer utilizes? Budget realities are what they are, and if you want to defend his approach as pragmatic that's very justifiable, in fact if I had to defend his approach that's exactly how I would defend it, but that doesn't mean it's an ideal or desirable approach an sich.

    Not in the slightest. I guess you don't play much P&P? Some pen and paper systems compensate skill usefulness with skill weight (like DSA) or skill groups (like MERP), but in many you just make the choice to invest in a skill like dancing or music and it'll feel great when you find a creative way to use it, but those points will never be the equal to investing in more commonly used skills. And that's fine. Sawyer doesn't believe it is fine, but it is. P&Ps have shown that people don't mentally extrapolate point values like that, that they don't feel gypped by limited usage of skills as long as it feels clever and worthwhile. According to Sawyer, they do, and limited usage is a skill. I find that a very limiting design philosophy, that necessarily cuts into the complexity of character systems.

    That's a misrepresentation. I mean, I'm sure that viewpoint exists to that extreme, but for most it's not about "badly gimping" your build, it's about not every choice having to be necessarily the best one, and allowing me to invest points to balance my character as I want to, and allowing me to mess up my build. If I want to attack the king and his guards even tho the game explicitly told me it's a bad idea, I should be allowed to. If I want to put all my skill points into herbology and poisons even tho that has very limited use, why shouldn't I be allowed to?

    What? Like Fallout?

    Anyway, I'm a very strong proponent of not sticking to P&P notions just for the sake of sticking to them. Tagaziel brought them up so I guess you're talking to him, as I haven't mentioned them until this post, and my argument isn't related to pen and paper notions, but to choice-related notions.

    That's not weird pet peeves at all, that's very typical of Sawyer, and just a logical extension of his core thinking. If you don't like that stuff, I'd start getting nervous about Eternity.