Josh Sawyer Interview and Podcast

If you ever wanted to know more about Obsidian Entertainment's Josh Sawyer and his career than some might consider reasonable, this USgamer feature should be right up your alley. It includes a 70 minute long podcast where the veteran RPG designer talks about Obsidian's upcoming CRPG and his current project, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, and a lengthy interview that will make your scroll wheel hate you.

If you have the time and are interested in Deadfire – you might want to check the podcast out, and then read the interview if you're also interested in the man himself. For example, did you know that Josh Sawyer was already a big fan of streamlining games and making them more balanced back when he was around ten years old, playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends? Well now you know, and if you read the rest of the interview you can learn much more about this RPG designer with a soft spot for historical settings. An excerpt:

Any particular hard lessons or things that you learned from Icewind Dale where you were like, "Oh, don't do that again?"

JS: Oh, there was tons of stuff that was not good. There was lots of stuff about level design. I started as an area designer even though I was doing a lot of system design as well. But things about level flow and layout, the fact that Dragon's Eye was five levels deep and had no backdoor to get out of so you had to march all the way back out to the top.

I did learn some good things, I think, in Dragon's Eye even though it didn't make necessarily great sense. There were some good things I wound up doing there in terms of varying the enemies that you fought so that as you go from level to level to level you feel like, "Oh wow." Not necessarily that each encounter is new, but that each level is certainly new.

There were certain other things that I did, like not randomizing unique items that people rely on for their build. Also making sure that everything that you can specialize in as a weapon is represented in the game by a unique item, so if someone says, "I'm going to be a short bow specialist," there should be a weapon that's better than +1 Short Bow in the game.

There's just a lot of things to think about, and a lot of this came out in the feedback where people were like, "What the hell, I made this character and I was hoping to get this mace, but that mace is randomized, so on my playthrough I never found it."

I thought it would be cool, sort of like tabletop. Like, sometimes you find the thing you want and sometimes you don't. When a person is investing that amount of time into a CRPG, though, they just get more aggravated.


What was the number one thing that you learned from working with Chris Avellone?

JS: I would say it's thinking about what the player wants to do. There's pictures of Chris around the office with a speech bubble that says, "Can I make a speech check here? Because I really want to make a speech check."

The idea is like if a NPC says something, imagine if you're sitting at a table. You have to write the possibilities of what the player can say. If an NPC is a jerk, think about, "Okay, well how is a player going to want to respond? How are different players going to want to respond? Is the player going to want to slap this character? Is the player going to want to take the high ground and be above it all? Are they going to be quiet and just accept it? Or are they going to want to do something else?" Also like, "Oh, if there's a quest that presents this thing, does that sort of beg, 'Oh, I'm a character with these skills and that makes me want to do these things?'"

He was always the guy who was pushing for us as designers to find ways to respond. Not only to give players opportunities to slap the guy who makes fun of you, but also saying, "Hey, if you have this skill in the game, if you have electronics in the game, you have to find ways to bring electronics to the surface and let a character who specializes in electronics feel like they are a cool character." He reinforced that a lot.

Sometimes when we would play through games, he would make a character with an odd build that would seem kind of unusual and he would say, "Why can't I use these things," which is a good point. Again, if you make a character that's built in a certain way, if the player doesn't have some opportunity to really shine and go, "Ah yes, finally, all those points I put into doctor make me feel like I'm really cool," then that sucks. It feels like a huge letdown.


The Aliens RPG was famously canceled. Can you open up about that at all?

JS: Cool. I thought it was going to be super cool. I want to say that it was Travis Stout who... he was a designer here for several years. He, I think, wrote up the initial pitch for it. So one of the things that I was most interested in exploring was the spacefarers who are now the engineers in the rebooted Aliens universe. That's what I wanted to explore and focus on. In terms of mechanical stuff, it was really focusing on a large group of companion characters who are working together to try to survive.

In my mind, the Alien setting is fantastic for a roleplaying game because I think about characters and character interactions. Especially the first two films, I think you can argue that all the films are about these relationships but Alien and Aliens at their core are about these human relationships and how people respond to stress and break down and help each other or turn on each other and all these things. That's what I think makes for great drama in a roleplaying game.

I liked the idea of coming into some environment where really it's not about, "Oh, I'm going to meet a world full of NPCs to talk to." I think that's what a lot of people think about when they think about roleplaying games, is like there's a big world and there's 200 NPCs and they all have dialogue. The way I thought about an Alien roleplaying game was that it's you and a small group of survivors and that is it, and it's about your relationships developing as you're like, "How do we survive? How do we get out of here? Who's on my side, who's turning against me," and all the dynamics of that.

People saw the leaked footage where it was about primarily, like a third-person, and obviously it was really rough but it was like a third-person exploration shooting mechanic. You had two companions with you at any given time and a handler. The handler would help sort of manage what was going on and call out things for you and your two support people would do various tasks like cutting through doors or setting up turrets or things like that or hacking. That was really the whole vibe of the game.