I have to hand it to Brian Fargo. Not only is his Wasteland 2 Kickstarter project filled with bullet points that you won't find in any modern publisher-backed title, but now he's hit us with the eye-opening announcement that he has reached an agreement with Obsidian Entertainment - particularly Chris Avellone - that would have them co-developing the game if it hits a $2.1 million milestone. That's prompted a huge influx of new funding, and as I type this the team only has a couple hundred thousand dollars to go (in 14 days) to make Obsidian's involvement a reality.
And so, with the assumption that the $2.1 million milestone would be reached and Chris would be bringing his design talents to the game, we fired off some questions to Mr. Avellone to find out more about the collaboration. Here we go:
GB: We've been following the tweets that you and Brian have posted over the last few weeks, but this announcement still comes as a surprise. How did this collaboration actually come about? Who approached who?
Chris: I think it’s a refreshing example of what happens when publishers aren’t involved. It’s something we couldn’t do without a lot of red tape in a publisher agreement (if at all), but when it’s just two developers chatting about something that would be cool... well, there you go. Brian asked, I wanted to do it, so we decided to make it happen.
I feel it's a sign of changing times, and this kind of flexibility is something Kickstarter allows for.
GB: Jason Anderson already spent a great deal of time working on Wasteland 2's storyline, and Brian Fargo has already made it pretty clear what the team's design goals are for the game. Assuming you'll reach the $2.1 million milestone, where does Obsidian Entertainment come in? Will you be tweaking existing story elements, adding more, or contributing in other areas?
Chris: It’s up to the design goals of the project. While Jason Anderson isn’t at inXile anymore, I have a lot of respect for Jason's story skills based on Fallout 1 and the story layouts for Fallout 2. I suspect I'd be doing area and narrative design, and fleshing out a piece of the wasteland, but we'll have to see what the needs of the project are.
Also, a game story is always a starting place - it provides an overarching vision for the game. If it’s anything like Obsidian’s narrative structure process, stories and areas get divided for individual designers to flesh out – it’s easy to say “Quartz is taken over by a gang that’s holding the mayor hostage,” or “New Reno is home to 4 mob bosses” but going from there is a long, fun design journey.
GB: What role will other team members at Obsidian play in Wasteland 2's development? Will Feargus, Tim Cain, J.E. Sawyer, and others be making contributions, as well? Would Obsidian's efforts go beyond story and design, in that you could potentially be contributing art assets and sound effects, or even helping with programming and bug fixing?
Chris: Currently, it’s just me, and I would potentially be assisting with narrative and area design, as well as conversation editor suggestions and structure. Ultimately, we won't know the final logistics for a short while longer, but we'll keep folks updated - right now, it's solely design content work, which is one of Obsidian's strengths.
GB: Could Obsidian's Onyx engine handle a top-down/isometric perspective and a turn-based combat system like inXile is shooting for with Wasteland 2? If so, have you talked to Brian about the possibility of licensing your Onyx engine, if only to make it easier for you and the rest of the team at Obsidian to contribute content at a faster pace?
Chris: Sure. To be clear, the Onyx engine isn't being used for Wasteland 2 - that said, there's information and structure components we can share based on how we've constructed RPG mechanics (notably conversation systems and editors, for example) that Brian has expressed interest in and we'd be happy to provide metrics and layout suggestions for. All of the programming and coding is in inXile's hands, however, as our programmers and tools programmers are focused on our other titles.
GB: You contributed heavily to Fallout: New Vegas and a majority of its DLC, worked as a designer on Fallout 2, and were in the lead designer position on the Black Isle iteration of Fallout 3, Van Buren. While Wasteland is undoubtedly a franchise that has much in common with the Fallout franchise, it also presents a slightly different take on the post-apocalyptic environment. Is there any worry on your part that content you contribute to Wasteland 2 might be considered too Fallout-like by fans who are familiar with both franchises?
Chris: Wasteland is far more freeing. There’s ideas and seeds that won’t work in the context of Fallout that will fit in the much wider umbrella of Wasteland, in a good way. There was a lot of variety in Wasteland 1 alone, and I’d like to see that upheld in WL2. Each location in WL1 had its own flavor, challenges, yet managed to keep a cohesive arc to draw the player in.
GB: You've hinted at the prospect that Obsidian Entertainment might pursue their own Kickstarter project in the near future. Does your collaboration on Wasteland 2 affect those plans at all? If not, when might we see a crowd-funded Obsidian project surface?
Chris: No, it won't affect our own Kickstarter projects. We do feel that there was a lot of benefit in learning from Brian's experience with Kickstarter, and I believe there's a lot of smart ways he engineered the process that I'd love to learn from, both in what's shown to the public and how he strategizes internally. Also, Brian's a good guy... I'm sure if we ever came out with a project and asked for help, he'd be willing to put in a good word with us with the community - just as he's already done extensive efforts to "Kicking it Forward" already.
Ultimately, I want to support this process. I want to support Double Fine. I want to support inXile. This style of funding feels more pure to me - it gets player interest first, and draws support from the people playing the title and are passionate about the title, not projections on who might play it and also not from publisher projections on the genre and interest.
There's challenges, but we're willing to meet those challenges head on and make this work.
GB: Despite the fact that Wasteland 2 would be co-developed by inXile and Obsidian, does Brian still have the final say over what the final product looks like? In other words, have you guys ironed out the details on what you'll do to resolve any disagreements in the game's design direction?
Chris: Brian and inXile are running the show. While I’m sure they’ll listen and take feedback into account, nothing can kill a project’s momentum than too many cooks with equal say - the only thing you're cooking up at that point is a recipe for disaster.
In short, Brian knows Wasteland better than I, he knows the tone he wants to set. Obsidian's job and my job is to provide knowledge from our experiences with RPGs and design, and help him realize his vision in a way that meets and surpasses player expectations (it’s the narrative/level designer creed and motto).
GB: As someone who has worked on previous titles with player-created parties (notably the Icewind Dale series and Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir), how do you approach narrative design in a party-based game (Wasteland 2) vs. a single protagonist game (Fallout: New Vegas)? What are the primary areas that you need to get right in order to make the experience as fulfilling as possible to both story-seeking and tactically-oriented player types?
Chris: It's a matter of how you design the conversation systems to allow for the inputs of individual characters and allow those individuals to make skill or experience-based contributions.
Equally important, you also want to allow for checks and conditionals where the person you're speaking with can react to the actions of any individual within the group where it makes sense (Ex: “Hey, you there – I see you got a sniper rifle... if you know how to use it, I have a job for you.”). This isn't as hard to do as it may seem, although it's a subject for larger discussion and often comes down to how you want to present that mechanic and reactivity to the player (I feel Storm of Zehir and Icewind Dale accomplished this, although Storm of Zehir felt more elegant to me - and to give thanks where thanks is due, we owe that to the design lead Tony Evans and the UI programmer at the time, Anthony Davis, who got that system in and working).
The short goal: As long as people feel that their individual party members matter, not just in the battlefield, but in other interactions as well, that's what you're shooting for.
GB: We know Obsidian is hard at work on South Park: The Game, but aside from the sad news that Project North Carolina had been cancelled, we're pretty much in the dark on what else the company is working on at the moment. Are there any projects currently in development at Obsidian that the Wasteland 2 partnership could impact?
Chris: We’re pitching a number of projects we had on hold during the NC process. Now that that’s not occupying time and resources, we’re free to re-investigate those options and resume talks with companies who had previously showed interest in our proposals and engine (we didn’t have the manpower to deliver a third product at the time of NC discussions, and we prefer only focusing on two projects at any one time).
GB: Finally, before we let you go, is there any new news to report on the XBLA game you were developing last year? How about the Wheel of Time project? And what's going on with Icewind Dale III and that amazing Avellone-created Defiance pitch Feargus talked to us about?
Chris: We’ll see what lies in store for the future - from where I’m sitting, we’ve got a lot of opportunities.