As part of their ongoing "Knights of the Roleplaying Table" interview series, the folks at GameStar.ru have asked some general RPG design-related questions to Obsidian's J.E. Sawyer, whose notable work includes Icewind Dale II, Neverwinter Nights 2 and Fallout: New Vegas. Here's a couple of excerpts:
What biggest failure in RPG genre could you recollect?
In general, I think the biggest failure with RPGs is a tendency for designers to not think about player experience. They fixate on ideas or concepts instead of how a player is going to interact with content. In other genres, player experience is often all the game is. Ultimately, that's all RPG players have, too, but designers can often get lost in systems and spreadsheets instead of focusing on what the player is going to do in the game from moment to moment. It's important to start with a good idea, but if the good idea doesn't produce a good experience, it's a failure.
What in your opinion are the key moments in RPG genre that defined the direction all the games made after?
Without a doubt, the existence of tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons defined the paradigm for what RPGs were in the early days. For me, Bard's Tale, Wizardry, and Ultima were the "big ones" that shaped my experiences. The "Gold Box" games (Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, et al.) were the next wave. In the years that followed, the new real-time games like Darklands, Eye of the Beholder, Ultima Underworld, and TES: Arena really expanded what RPGs could be.
After that, I think Fallout and Baldur's Gate marked the renaissance of RPGs in the late 90s. I feel that Fallout and Planescape: Torment established a great standard for player reactivity. That's the environment I came into when I started at Black Isle.
First RPG's made used board games as a prototype, where numbers and a talented storyteller mattered the most. Nowadays, have the story and action-packed gameplay become keystones in making a successful game, or do people still want hardcore games, only maybe changed a little? If they do, what are the changes needed?
One of the things that I think is great about the growth of digital distribution, whether it's via Steam on Windows PCs and Macs or through Apple's app store and Google Play, is that development costs can potentially go down for a lot of people. Additionally, Kickstarter campaigns like Brian Fargo's for Wasteland 2 show that there are plenty of gamers out there willing to pay good money for a "classic"-styled RPG.
To me, RPGs are fundamentally about choice and consequence. I think we can do that in big, high-action games and in small, slower-paced games. I'm glad there's room for a lot more developers and game styles.