J.E. Sawyer Interview

After chatting with a number of developers for his "Unmasking the Gamers" features, including Chris Avellone, also from Obsidian Entertainment, Will Ooi turns his attention to J.E. Sawyer, lead on Fallout: New Vegas and the cancelled Aliens RPG among other things. The interview deals with subjects such as his work on the cancelled 'Van Buren' Fallout 3 version at Interplay, how he started his design career, his favorite moments in gaming and, uh, cats, and is available both on his blog and on Gamasutra. Here's a sampling:
WO: What are some of your favourite gaming moments and memories? And what titles have influenced you?

JS: I'll never forget the duck dragons of Adventure on my Atari 2600, but there are a number of classic C=64/Apple ][e/PC memories seared into my head as well: four groups of 99 berserkers in Bard's Tale, J.R.R. Trollkin in Phantasie III, surviving a gauntlet of ancient dragons with the help of "Break Glass if in need of Hit Points" in Might & Magic II, my friend Ryan escaping Werdna's office with his previous (dead) Wizardry party by intentionally springing a teleport trap, marathon fights in Sokal Keep and the Old Rope Guild in Pool of Radiance, arguing with a demon on The Devil's Bridge in Darklands, and rigging the Cathedral to blow in Fallout.

The RPG titles that have influenced me most heavily have been Darklands (exploration and mechanics), Fallout (choice and consequence), and Pool of Radiance (party mechanics and tactical turn-based combat). More recently, I've really enjoyed Demon's Souls and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, especially the latter's integration of stealth mechanics into an RPG. Outside of the RPG genre, I'm a fan of the Castlevania series (though I just started playing Lords of Darkness), Ninja Gaiden, Devil May Cry, Animal Crossing, Pikmin, Assassin's Creed, and Katamari Damacy.


WO: How do you think today's industry views the RPG genre, given the number of action-RPGs coming out. And for you, what are the essential elements that define them?

JS: It's a little strange, because I still see some older game developers talk about RPGs as a niche genre that "other" people play. I think this last decade of RPGs have shown that we can cover a large spectrum, from hardcore/niche to pretty mainstream. Certainly the best-sellers of the genre are not niche.

For me, RPGs will always be about player choice in the narrative. What type of person they are, how they interact with other characters, and how they can create change in the world. That doesn't mean I think that RPGs can't or shouldn't have things like character advancement systems, character customization, loot, etc., but I think that player choice in the narrative should still be the central focus of how we build worlds and stories.

WO: What have been some of your proudest moments as a game developer?

JS: I think the best moment is still when I got an e-mail from Feargus Urquhart (then head of Black Isle, now head of Obsidian) that Brian Fargo (then head of Interplay) had sent to him about Icewind Dale. He said he really enjoyed the game and he had played it from start to finish. Because Bard's Tale was my first CRPG, having that kind of reception from one of its developers really meant a lot to me.

The other moments aren't big, but they're about as important. Any time a person tells me that they had fun with one of the games I've made, from Icewind Dale to Fallout: New Vegas, that's great.
That's the bottom line.