Brian Fargo, Josh Sawyer and Gordon Walton Chat RPGs

Brian Fargo, Josh Sawyer and Gordon Walton have a lot in common: they all worked on role-playing games in various capacities for a very long time, and they're also all involved in recent crowdfunding projects. That certainly seems to be as good a reason as any to put them together in a room for an interview during GDC, which is exactly what the folks at PC Gamer have done.

During the interview, the developers talk at lengths about their experience with crowdfunding, worldbuilding, team management, audience expectations, the work of other developers, and the personal touches they've instilled in their recent projects.

This is one of the most dense and interesting interviews I've read in quite a while, so I highly suggest you read it in full. In the meantime, here's an excerpt:

Brian and Josh, you've recently made RPGs that hearken back very deliberately to an older game. That whole first wave of Kickstarter stuff was, '˜Remember the shit you really loved? No one's making it anymore. Let's do that again.' You're working on new games now. What are you trying to bring to a PC RPG in 2016? I know your games are still rooted in the past, but what can you do to push the genre forward on the PC this year, next year, the next couple of years, that you couldn't do before or weren't doing before?

JS: I'll say that for me, no matter what the platform is, I always want to push more reactivity in choice and consequence, because for me that's the heart of an RPG. In terms of moving genre conventions forward, I think that in the 2000s I'll blame this a little bit on consoles but the desire to reach a really big audience I think led some developers and publishers to believe that you can't have a challenging experience, it has to be super-duper accessible and has to be super-duper easy. And I think you have to consider a bigger audience, but I strongly believe, and I think that we're doing it with the games that we make, you can make things more accessible to people, easier we don't need to make UI like we did in the late '90s or in the '80s, we can improve the UI, we can make systems more transparent but still have really strategically and tactically challenging systems that people can really dig their teeth into.

People really want to crunch numbers in a really hardcore tactical challenge that also allows for people who are like, '˜Hey, I like fantasy games, I've never played an RPG before. If I put this on easy can I get through it and still have fun while engaging with the gameplay systems?' I think we can do a better job of that. It doesn't have to be super-duper simplified, and it doesn't have to be insanely complicated so only people who make their parents call them 'General' can get through this.

I don't even want to say there's a middle ground. We can design mechanics for a range of players to satisfy a lot of expectations, and that's what I want to do. I want the super hardcore people to really enjoy that experience but I also want people that are more middle of the road I hesitate to say '˜casual' because I think there's a certain amount of crunchiness to RPGs that is a little intimidating for people that really are casual, but I think there's a bigger range that we can reach out to and we can improve the experience for.

GW: I think also, the audience is so large that the trick is to not make a game that's for everyone. The trick is to make a really great game for some people that's a big enough audience to make it work financially. So as a player you don't fall into a giant bucket of a whole zillion people. You have aesthetics and needs that are narrower than that. A game that's really gonna make you excited is probably not gonna excite a whole bunch of other people.

So that's what's he's speaking to it's not that we don't want to be accessible to everyone. We know that everybody's different, and there are groups of people who want harder, more hardcore experiences, which is what we're building. We're going back down the evolutionary tree to some place that isn't growing anymore and saying, '˜Hey, let's try that. Let's try to do something hard and interesting for a subset of players who are really gonna dig it, rather than try to make a game that's for every single human in the world.'

JS: My first role-playing game was Bard's Tale [Ed. note: Fargo was a writer on Bard's Tale and founded its developer Interplay]. I was blown away. I saw it at a public library, I was playing it on a Commodore 64. I was like, '˜What in the world?' and I was amazed by it. But then I really dove very heavily into tabletop role playing and DMing and running games, and I think that's where a lot of my desire is. I would play with groups of people from hardcore, really experienced folks to guys that, you know, they read fantasy novels and they're kind of interested. And as a DM, trying to make the game fun for people I don't want to write dialogue for people that don't like dialogue. If you don't like reading, don't play Pillars of Eternity. If you don't like combat

BF: And do not play Torment.

JS: Yeah, don't play Torment. If you don't like this kind of tactical combat, even on the easiest setting, don't play this game. You're not gonna like it. But if you have a group of people that are like, '˜I love fantasy, I like these conventions, and I like number crunching and stuff like that,' you can target things for that. We don't have to try to make games for everyone, and I think that's one of the nice things about Kickstarter, that we know we're making games for a niche, and that's okay. That niche is probably larger than it used to be back in the day, but there's still a range of experiences that we can accommodate.

Personally, I also can't resist poking fun at this bit of scolding Sawyer received from CEO Feargus Urquhart concerning the nomenclature in Pillars of Eternity:

JS:There was an iteration of stuff that I screwed up on. This is all my fault, but I did constructed languages for Pillars of Eternity. So we have Glanfathan, Vailian, Aedyran, these made-up languages that are based on real-world languages, and originally Glanfathan was based on Irish, which is insane. Like, if you see written Irish and then hear it pronounced, it's ludicrous.

You mean like Gaelic Irish?

JS: Yes. And it's because they adopted the Latin alphabet in the 8th century when it didn't represent a bunch of sounds that needed to be in Irish. So people were constantly trying to pronounce and mispronouncing and saying, '˜Fuck, I hate this name,' and [Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart] finally was like, '˜Josh. The names of things.'

BF: '˜Stop.'

JS: And I'm like, '˜Okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, I'm gonna rename everything. I'm gonna use-,'

BF: Use good Scottish names like Urquhart.

JS: I used Cornish, which actually surprisingly was much more straightforward, and people were like, '˜Okay, I still have some problems here but this is much more straightforward.' But there was this huge set of names and naming conventions and everything that I had to throw out and redo because I overestimated people's willingness to steep themselves in weird spellings of shit.