An Interview with Josh Sawyer

J.E. Sawyer started out at Black Isle Studios, and worked on games such as the Icewind Dale series and Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance.  After the crumbling of Interplay, he eventually ended up at Obsidian where many of the Black Isle Studios employees also worked.  He was part of Neverwinter Nights 2 and Alpha Protocol, as well as serving as Project Director and Lead Designer for Fallout: New Vegas.

Now he’s part of Obsidian’s new enterprise, the Kickstarter campaign Project Eternity, where he serves as the project lead.  Josh was kind enough to take a moment from his hectic schedule of making Kickstarter campaign videos to answer a few questions for In Genre…

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In Genre – A fellow Wisconsinite – greetings! Do you happen to know Tim Seeley (Hack / Slash) or Patrick Rothfuss (The Name of the Wind)? They’re more central Wisconsin than you were, but you never know who’ll you meet, right?

Josh Sawyer – Hail!  Unfortunately, I do not know those (presumably fine) gentlemen.  However, we are all united by The Cheese.

IG – Project Eternity is Obsidian’s first Kickstarter. I’ve read that Kickstarter was more of a last resort than a wanted option, sort of the same way it was for Brian Fargo and inXile for Wasteland 2. What are you thoughts on the process overall, and do you think that there could be future Kickstarter projects for you and / or Obsidian?

JE – The process is strange.  It’s hard to comment on it as though there’s a “typical way” through it.  A lot of people have their own recipes by how they (and, according to them, you) should run a Kickstarter campaign.  I think it depends tremendously on what you’re trying to do, who you are, who your audience is, and a lot of other factors.  I think there could be more Kickstarter projects in our future, but ideally I think we would like to be able to self-fund projects of this sort.

IG – By most accounts you were all very surprised at the support you received, including how fast your reached your initial funding goals. Had there been any talk on stretch goals and what you’d do if you raised Shadowrun Returns amounts (which you passed in just a little over one week) or, shoot the moon, more than Double Fine Adventures?

JE – We had already talked about stretch goals loosely but the rapid acceleration of our funding caught us off guard.  I think the goals really have to be fluid at this stage.  We’re only a little over a week in and we still have a lot of time left.  People are letting us know what they’d like to see and that’s a good thing.  When we put up stretch goals, we want them to be things that will draw in more players and make our current backers consider increasing their pledges.

IG – Of all the games you’ve worked on in the past, from Black Isle to Obsidian, which ones are you most proud of and why?

JE – This might sound strange, but I don’t really take pride in games as a whole.  I’m glad when people enjoy certain aspects of games I’ve worked on (for example, the reputation system in Fallout: New Vegas, the UI in Icewind Dale II, or the hand-to-hand combat system in Alpha Protocol), but once I get the vibe that something’s worked, I file it away and focus on the things that didn’t work.  I hope I never reach the point where I’m proud of the work I’ve done.  I think that if I reach that point, I’ll stop pushing.

IG – What are some of your favorite games that helped influence your style?

JE – For RPGs, Darklands, Pool of Radiance, and Fallout are the big ones.  For Project Eternity, there might be a few Darklands-inspired ideas or mechanics that creep their way in when appropriate.  I loved the sense of exploration and strong tactical combat in Pool of Radiance.  I credit Fallout for influencing how I view player agency and how to give the player options that span a broad spectrum.

IG – In a similar frame, what are some other media that you really liked, such as novels or movies, that helped influence your style?

JE – I don’t read a lot of fiction, but I really enjoy Umberto Eco’s stories for how they handle language and unravel the idea of recorded history as truth, how easily that information gets distorted or slips away.  The final line of The Name of the Rose is, “Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.” “Yesterday’s rose remains in name, we hold empty names.”  Put more bluntly, history is gone.  We weren’t there to experience the beauty and horror of the world before us.  All we have are the indelible marks they have left on the world and the often unreliable accounts that have been passed to us by previous authors.  It’s depressing if you think about how easy it is to manipulate that information.  I love films, particularly those of the Coen Brothers.  I really appreciate how they handle dialogue, character development, and pacing.  Other favorites are Brazil, The Mission, and Lawrence of Arabia.

IG – Other than video games, what genre entertainment do you normally enjoy?

JE – I like reading history books and watching all sorts of movies.  I can’t stand to read a bad book, but I’ll watch terrible movies without much complaint.  I also enjoy skimming language books, though I never manage to get around actually learning anything from them.

IG – Many of the games you worked on used versions of the Dungeons & Dragons rules. What is your opinion on how that translated into video games and what experiences from that do you feel are affecting the systems being designed for Project Eternity?

JE – Translating a turn-based game into real-time is a challenge, but I’m glad we didn’t have to do it in reverse!  A lot of rules slide over without much difficulty, but others get complicated (e.g. Attacks of Opportunity).  And because you’re simulating virtual rounds, the pacing can feel really awkward in real-time.  For Project Eternity, I’d like to keep the overall feeling of pacing and management, but we don’t need to be bound by rounds or the timing rules of the AD&D games.  This should allow the characters to feel more responsive to commands and to have more flexible timing windows for the use of abilities.

IG – Icewind Dale is one of my favorite games ever, and you were a lead on it’s sequel. Do you think there’s any place for games where you make instead of recruit your party anymore? I know it’s a mechanic I miss dearly. Is it a relic of the past or, like isometric and real time with pause, is it still viable today?

JE – I recognize that a lot of people like being able to make their own parties, but we found on the Icewind Dale games that a ton of people really hated not having companions available, mostly because having them present opens up so much commentary on the world and your actions in it.  The party becomes very quiet when they’re all player-made.

IG – Obsidian has already stated they are looking to create a new IP that they want to do more than just one game with… but how much more are your hopes, overall? Looking to the future, as best you can at this early point, do you see Project Eternity being an episodic series with a continuing hero transferred from game to game, or one with fresh protagonists for each installation? Expansions or sequels? Obviously nothing is set in stone – the first game needs to be made, and (fingers crossed) sell successfully for you to be able to greenlight future endeavors, but in an ideal world… what’s the feeling right now?

JE – I think we’d like to be able to continue a storyline and continue to develop the world around how the story unfolds.  Right now we’re focusing on how to make a great game and world that stand alone and have potential for more development in the future.

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Thanks to Josh, and best of luck to everyone at Obsidian!

You can check out the game’s Kickstarter here – http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/obsidian/project-eternity
And the game’s official website is here – http://eternity.obsidian.net/
While Josh’s personal Obsidian blog is here – http://forums.obsidian.net/blog/3-joshin-around/

Also – check back about 6 months ago when the current Kickstarter games craze started and I made some predictions – http://ingenre.com/2012/02/a-look-at-kickstarter-is-it-too-early-to-say-revolution/, http://ingenre.com/2012/03/a-look-at-fully-funded-whats-next-for-wasteland-2-and-games-in-general/.

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About the Author

Jim Yoho is the owner of In Genre, Wausau Comics, and JAY Entertainment and he maintains the site as well as adding the occasional article or review of his own. He often goes by Merin online, from way back in the BBS days of dial-up modems even. Having enjoyed writing reviews and postings for other sites he decided to start his own where he combined his creative urges to write and create web comics (such as Episode Fun and Alistair & Arthur) with his long-held desire to bring together and organize talented people for joint projects. The end result is that you get the Wausau Comics site - articles and reviews of genre entertainment at In Genre plus some web comics and links to the works of other Contributors, too!