George Ziets Interview

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Back in 2019, during a Matt Chat episode, George Ziets told the world about Digimancy Entertainment, his new studio dedicated to developing RPGs and RPG hybrids. And while the studio is yet to release its debut project, it now employs a number of Obsidian and inXile veterans, as well as some promising fresh faces from the team behind Disco Elysium.

With that in mind, we figured it was past time for us to reach out to George, who you probably know as the creative lead on the Mask of the Betrayer expansion for Neverwinter Nights 2 and a contributor to many an Obsidian and inXile RPG over the years, and ask him a few questions about Digimancy Entertainment, his previous projects, and game design and development in general.

So, without further ado, here's our interview with George Ziets:

GameBanshee: Let's start with the basics. Please tell us a bit about yourself, your notable projects, and your current endeavors. Basically, give us an elevator pitch for George Ziets.

George Ziets: I’m a narrative designer at heart who has worn a lot of hats. And I love RPGs – both playing them and making them. My current hat is CEO of Digimancy Entertainment, but I spent most of my career as a writer and designer at InXile and Obsidian Entertainment.

I got into the industry at the tail end of the Infinity Engine era, dreaming of making more of those games (just as they were going out of style), but I did get to work on Neverwinter Nights 2, and I was creative lead on its expansion, Mask of the Betrayer. Since then, I’ve been a designer and writer on all manner of RPGs of varying quality and infamy, from Fallout: New Vegas to Wasteland 3 to Torment: Tides of Numenera.

More recently, I co-founded Digimancy Entertainment with two other RPG veterans – Steve Dobos and Kevin Saunders. Our mission is to make narrative-driven RPGs, create new worlds, and work with like-minded devs from all over the world. We have one self-funded, internal project in development, but we’re also collaborating with other studios on RPGs and adjacent games and developing original pitches for publisher-funded RPGs.

GB: Prior to founding Digimancy Entertainment, you worked at a number of studios, from Westwood to inXile. Tell us a bit about how you got the idea to start your own studio and what, if anything, have you learned about running it over the course of your illustrious career.

GZ: Starting an RPG studio was in the back of my mind for a long time, but it wasn’t something I would have attempted until I’d been in the industry for a while and met a core group of co-founders I could trust, both practically and creatively. That didn’t happen until Kevin, Steve, and I all came together.

Fundamentally, I’ve always wanted to build a team of people who genuinely love RPGs and who care deeply about creating strong stories and characters and hand-crafting new worlds with care and attention to detail. I’m also interested in finding ways to build RPGs with innovative mechanics – many RPGs are made with the assumption that certain mechanics always need to appear, but I’d rather start with a narrative experience as my goal and then develop mechanics that can best express it.

Also, all three of Digimancy’s founders wanted to work with people who were passionate about RPGs, no matter where they live, so we established the studio as remote only (even before Covid), allowing us to recruit our team from almost anywhere in the world.

Learning to run a studio has been a huge challenge. On-the-ground game development, even as a department lead, doesn’t particularly prepare one to operate a business. It’s been a lot of learning by doing and making mistakes along the way. Probably our most significant assets are the friends and connections we’ve made over the years – mentors we can turn to for help in areas where we have limited experience as well as friends and former colleagues who want to join our team or connect us with potential collaborators.

GB: What can you tell us about running a remote only studio? Now that people have had the taste of remote work, do you think this is the way forward or more of a small-scale experiment?

GZ: It has its pluses and minuses. Maybe the biggest plus for a small studio is that it avoids the need for overhead expenses of renting and running an office, which is huge. And of course being able to recruit from anywhere – we can work with people who live In other parts of the world and wouldn’t be willing or able to relocate. For some (including me), it’s also easier to focus on work and be productive when you’re not in a shared space.

Of course, there are negatives too. Communication is often slower – it’s much faster and easier to pop into someone’s office and discuss something in person than it is to IM or video call. (Huddles in Slack are remarkably fast and efficient, though… I’m liking and using those more and more.) It’s hard to build the same camaraderie on a team when everyone is hundreds or thousands of miles apart. Also, in contrast to people like me, some gain energy from working in a shared space or have trouble focusing on work if they’re alone in a room. So not everyone is necessarily a fit for a remote team.

I'm not convinced that remote work will remain as widespread as it was in 2021… I think it’ll be a more acceptable model than it used to be, especially for smaller studios, but most larger studios will almost certainly want all the benefits of onsite work. We may see a two-tier system develop at some studios, where people who want to become leads and execs need to work onsite, while those who are content to remain worker bees or principals can work offsite.

Digimancy is committed to remote work, though… it won’t go away for us.

GB: Most of our readers are probably familiar with your contributions to Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, Dungeon Siege III, Fallout: New Vegas, Pillars of Eternity, and Torment: Tides of Numenera. But you also worked on a few MMORPGs like The Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons & Dragons Online, and The Elder Scrolls Online. What are the major differences between writing for an MMO and a single-player game, and do you think having experience with one makes you better at the other?

GZ: I found them to be enormously different, or at least they were when I was writing for MMOs in the 2000s. (My last MMO experience was in 2008 with Elder Scrolls Online. I can’t speak to the state of MMOs nowadays, and I don’t really play them anymore.)

Classic MMOs focused on group activities and player vs. player conflict – not story or narrative choice. Some people played solo, but in my experience, MMO development teams always wanted to drive players toward grouping with other players because that, in turn, drove player retention. (Players who made friends and joined guilds had more incentive to stay with the game.)

Sophisticated dialogue and talktrees don’t push players toward action and group activity, and they are usually frustrating for players who just want to get back to adventuring with their friends, so our mandate was to keep dialogue short, focused, and simple. Bonus points if it could be humorous, especially to a mass audience. Also, reading dialogue is not a team sport. I recall playing the original Guild Wars with some random groupmates who got rather irritated when I didn’t instantly skip past all the dialogues.

Single-player RPGs are completely different. Many players want to lose themselves in the fictional world, and branching dialogue is part of the fun, as long as it’s sharp and well-written. It’s a striking contrast to a traditional MMO, where the writing is secondary or tertiary, existing primarily to push the player toward the next activity. (There are exceptions that attempt to blur the lines, of course.)

I didn’t find MMO writing in the 2000s to be particularly transferrable to Obsidian and InXile RPGs. Writing and structuring a branching RPG dialogue is a very specific skillset that needs to be learned and practiced. Before joining Obsidian, I learned that skill mainly by using the original Neverwinter Nights toolset to make modules in my spare time.

GB: I don't think it would be unfair to describe Mask of the Betrayer as your magnum opus. Despite being a mere expansion, plenty of people consider it a worthy successor to Planescape: Torment. Can you tell us a bit about working on that project? Did you know right away that you had something great on your hands there?

GZ: I loved Mask because it was the first time I was permitted to be creative without any significant constraints (besides budget). I also had a lead, Kevin Saunders, who trusted the instincts of his team and saw his job as empowering them, not telling them what to do or meddling in their creative process.

I’ve mentioned this in other interviews, but one benefit of making an expansion was that we were able to focus entirely on building great content, rather than trying to develop the engine and the gameplay at the same time. Additionally, our team had already made the main game together, we had strong working relationships, we knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and we trusted each other.

None of that meant it was easy. We only had about 9 months to make Mask, and our design was ambitious. There were a lot of crunch hours, tons of writing, art, and level design to be done, and revisions upon revisions during preproduction as I kept trying to improve the quality of the story. I didn’t think about much of anything else during those 9 months, whether at work or at home. It was the most intense creative experience I’d ever had (and entirely self-imposed).

Until the first reviews started coming in, I absolutely didn’t know we’d made something people would like. To his credit, I think Kevin knew, but I tend to be harsh on my own work, so I had no idea how it would be received.

GB: I remember Mask of the Betrayer's Spirit Meter feature (it limits how often you can rest and ties into the overarching narrative in a variety of ways) being somewhat controversial back in the day. But having played through the game with it, and while using a mod that removes it entirely, I have to say that as far as I'm concerned, having that meter constantly pushing you forward and changing your character as you go really elevates the overall experience. But considering the aforementioned pushback, do you think you'll include something like that in any of your future games? And if not, what would you consider an appropriate substitute?

GZ: For a long time after Mask, I would have answered “no” to that question. The reason is that most RPG players want the freedom to explore at their own pace, discover and pursue side quests, and enjoy the story without a countdown clock hanging over their heads. I consider myself one of those players.

My answer is a little more nuanced nowadays – it depends upon the kind of experience you’re trying to create. If you want to build an open-ended RPG with lots of side quests for the player to explore at their own pace, adding a “timer” mechanic is not the best idea. But you could easily build an RPG with a time pressure where choosing which side quests to pursue is a core part of the choices and consequences in the game. If the player knows they only have time to complete some of the available side quests in one part of the game, and there will be narrative and systemic consequences to that choice, choosing between them could be interesting rather than frustrating.

In the best RPGs, mechanics like the spirit meter should support both the gameplay and the narrative. They should be motivated by the narrative (as the spirit meter was) but also encourage the intended gameplay and create a better overall experience for the target audience (which the spirit meter didn’t, at least for most players).

GB: You've mentioned in the past that you're not a huge fan of traditional fantasy settings and instead prefer to explore unique and never before seen worlds. But do you think settings like this are worth it when weighed against the necessity of introducing players to a bunch of unfamiliar concepts and then somehow making them care about those?

GZ: In the best cases, I think a setting should have a balance of familiar and unfamiliar elements. A world where everything is totally unfamiliar is probably doomed to commercial failure, or at best might become a cult hit, but a world composed of nothing but familiar tropes isn’t particularly interesting either. The latter might have more success with a mass audience than the former, simply because most players aren’t as immersed in imaginary worlds as game devs are, but I don’t think such a world can be as memorable as settings that strike the right balance.

My favorite settings are ones like Planescape, Glorantha, and the world of Disco Elysium, where the setting is built on a recognizable foundation but is nevertheless full of surprising twists and interesting mysteries to explore. As a player, I’m not only engaged by the main storyline, but also by the wonders of the setting itself.

It’s important, though, that writers don’t fall prey to the exposition trap in innovative settings. A good narrative designer needs to trust their audience. It’s not necessary to explain every detail of a world to players. Let players piece things together gradually through context. Hinting at elements of the world outside the scope of the game can create the sense of a larger world and inspire players to speculate about them, plus give you fodder for future games. The original Star Wars movies from the 70s and 80s are a pretty good example of this. The Spice Mines of Kessel? The Clone Wars? Back in the 80s, those were intriguing and unfamiliar ideas, and passing references to them helped get fans excited about the possibilities of the larger setting.

Personally, I don’t even like in-game encyclopedias very much – the Mass Effect codex comes immediately to mind. I feel obliged to read the long lore entries, and when I’m done, the world loses its mystery.

Making players care is a separate challenge. You can employ a setting that is extremely familiar – even the real world – and still fail to make players care about your story or characters. If you appeal to identifiable human emotions and create believable, realistic characters, players can care about stories set in very unfamiliar worlds.

GB: There was a time when moral greyness was considered a sign of a mature narrative. But do you think that perhaps the industry has now dipped way too far into that territory, and we could really use some more clear-cut heroes and villains in our stories?

GZ: You *can* have too much of a good thing, yep. Especially if it’s not done particularly well.

I’m a fan of moral greyness, and that’s where my mind instinctively goes when I tell stories. But morally gray storytelling needs to be implemented thoughtfully and skillfully, and that doesn’t always happen in games (or other media). If you’re excited about telling a particular kind of story, and it requires moral greyness to make it work… cool. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with a story about clear-cut heroes and villains. Write what comes naturally to you and what you’re most excited about.

A lot of games in my childhood featured villains who wanted to conquer the world or destroy the town just because they were evil. Probably much of that was down to limitations of technology and a lack of writing experience (or… writers at all) in the industry. Around the time I entered the industry, we were already reacting against the early trends and made a lot of morally gray games.

In the future, I hope we’ll see more of a mix, which will mean some games with clear-cut heroes, some with moral grayness, and everything in between. In my opinion, that’s a sign of a healthy story-telling medium.

GB: Speaking of writing experience, do you think the industry should be moving in the direction of hiring professional writers specifically for that job? In your opinion, is there a lot of overlap between general creative writing and video game writing?

GZ: We definitely want writers who are serious about game writing as a discipline... which doesn’t necessarily mean they need a background as a professional writer. What matters more, at least for RPGs, is that writers understand how to construct stories that react meaningfully to player choice and how to use all the tools at their disposal to create the right atmosphere and build a world.

In games, we can’t control the player’s attention like a book or a film does, so a game writer’s task is actually quite different from an author’s or a screenwriter’s. It relies on the same underlying set of basic skills (e.g., mastery of language, story structure and flow), but they’re used in a different way.

Sometimes a prose writer or screenwriter can make the jump to games. However, they need to be genuinely open to learning a new way of storytelling, and they need to realize that game writing is more about helping the player tell their own story, not forcing the writer’s story upon them. Not all writers from other genres are willing or able to make that shift.

For the kinds of RPGs I’ve made throughout my career, one of the most important skills is writing branching dialogue. It’s surprisingly difficult to learn and master. You can become proficient without any formal training in writing (as I did), but having some sort of background in writing and/or literature can improve the quality of your work. It's easier and faster to become a great game writer if you've been exposed to great literature and writing traditions in school and can draw upon that experience to enrich games as a creative endeavor.

Many of the best RPG writers I’ve known in the industry have a combination of tabletop game-master experience (understanding how to craft a story on the fly for a group of players) or similar experience in another medium like improv acting, plus an educational background in writing, literature, or some other discipline that gave them lots of practice using language and thinking critically. But it’s entirely possible to become a game writer just by practicing a lot, and in the hiring process, all we really care about is that a writer can produce great results.

GB: Now, moving on to your current projects, Digimancy Entertainment opened its doors back in 2019 as an RPG-focused studio. With your background, that last part is in no way surprising. But still, could you tell us what draws you towards role-playing games in particular?

GZ: I’ve always been most interested in games as a narrative and storytelling medium. Even when I was playing tabletop as a teenager, the stories and characters were my focus as a GM. I loved the back-and-forth, collaborative storytelling between GM and players, and CRPGs are one of the best ways to achieve that feeling in a video game format.

RPGs also have the capability of immersing players in a world - all elements of the game working together to transport players into another reality. Most RPGs don’t achieve that, but a few come close, and that’s the experience I’m striving for.

GB: These days it feels like a lot of games feature at least some RPG elements. How deep and complex do you think they have to be before a game can be considered an RPG?

GZ: For me personally, player choice is critical in RPGs. The more the player can decide how to develop and customize their character / party, and the more their choices affect both narrative and gameplay, the more RPG-ish a game becomes.

As an example - an RPG needs to have some form of player-controlled improvement (“leveling up”) and customization over the course of the game. It’s not enough for the player-character to just acquire a new weapon or capability at various points– they need to be able to choose *how* to improve their character. That could happen in a very simplistic way – e.g., the player could just be given a choice to improve one of three skills at every level-up. That isn’t very interesting or RPG-ish, but if the game also had a highly reactive branching storyline and a very open-ended structure that provided strong consequences to the ways in which the player pursues their goals, I might still classify the game as an RPG.

On the other hand, if a game has a highly sophisticated and versatile system of level-up and character customization with tons of skills, feats, abilities, weapons, etc., in addition to a branching story and open-ended structure, that game is very clearly an RPG to me.

Beyond that, my definition of an RPG is broad. I don’t think RPGs need any specific game system or setting. An RPG doesn’t even need combat if it has other systems to replace it, but it’s critical that those systems be at least as interesting and fun. As a genre, I think the subject matter of RPGs is going to broaden considerably in coming years – combat-driven RPGs will remain with us, but they’ll be joined by RPGs that rely on other fun mechanics too.

GB: You personally worked on the official spiritual sequel to Planescape: Torment - Torment: Tides of Numenera - and an unofficial one - Mask of the Betrayer. And now, you're employing some of the people behind Disco Elysium, another game that was widely compared to Black Isle Studios' masterpiece. Any chance that whatever you still have cooking will continue this trend of heady narrative-driven RPGs?

GZ: Yes! That’s our goal, especially for our internally-driven projects.

Our current internal project is very much part of that tradition, and it takes place in our own unique setting. Steve and I created a prototype back in 2019, and development was delayed by our other (now cancelled) project, but we’re back to working on it with a small team now, including some former Disco folks.

GB: Your studio's mission mentions exploring "the intersection between RPGs and other genres." Which other genres would that be, and what makes them interesting to you?

GZ: The genre I personally find most interesting in this context is strategy. I love strategy games like Total War, Crusader Kings, and King of Dragon Pass, the latter of which is an excellent example of how strong narrative elements can be integrated into a strategy game.

This gets back to what I mentioned earlier about choosing a narrative experience you want to portray in your game and then designing mechanics around it. Sometimes strategy elements might be the best way to do this. As an example - imagine a game where the player takes the role of an agent provocateur in a 19th or early 20th century world, sent to infiltrate and stir up trouble in an enemy city. Such a game might need a combination of some traditional RPG interactions with strategy elements like directing the activities of workers during labor strikes and assigning your minions to tasks like fomenting unrest in poor districts, organizing rallies and riots, and infiltrating government offices.

GB: Anything else you can tell us about your ongoing projects?

GZ: Hmm… only that our internal project is inspired by a combination of real-world history, an ancient philosophical tradition, and one of my all-time favorite fantasy settings (among other things).

GB: Thank you for your time, and we wish you the best of luck in the success of your studio!