Leonard Boyarsky Interview - Vampire, Diablo, and What's Next for Obsidian

Leonard Boyarsky, the veteran RPG developer who started at Interplay, co-founded Troika Games, spent a decade at Blizzard Entertainment, and is now working at Obsidian on a mystery-shrouded RPG Project Indiana took some time to talk to PCGamesN about his game making career. From Troika's struggles to land a stable publisher, to the inherent difficulty of creating a story-driven hack 'n' slash RPG with Diablo III as an example, and to going back to his roots and rejoining his old colleagues at Obsidian - the interview has it all. An extremely engaging, if a bit lengthy read. An excerpt:

PCGamesN: Let’s kick it all the way back to Troika in 1998. What was it like starting a company and having to go through all the businessy bits?

Leonard Boyarsky: It was different. We kind of knew what to expect but going through it is definitely different than just knowing what you're going to have to do theoretically. We were relatively young and we had had such a great experience on Fallout. We were all fairly optimistic even though it took us five or six months to get a contract, which I found out later was actually fairly quick, but for us it felt like it was taking forever.

We always had the optimism that it was gonna happen. For the longest time it was me, Tim [Cain, creator of Fallout] and Jason [Anderson, artist on Fallout], we'd meet in [one of our] houses and just started writing up the design for Arcanum. A lot of it pretty much ended up in the game that shipped. After we got money to make a prototype we hired a couple of other people, among them [programmer] Chris Jones, who is now one of the owners here at Obsidian. He worked with us back when we were four or five people making our greenlight demo so we could get full funding for the game.

It was an interesting time because Scott Lynch, who is now over at Valve, had, I think, recently basically taken over running Sierra Studios, or at least that division of Sierra. He was the guy who signed Gabe [Newell] and Half-Life when no-one knew what that was.

Pretty decent decision there.

Yeah, and we just had a design doc. He talked about how much he loved Fallout and he liked talking to us and we liked talking to him. So we signed with him and it was really great, but then there were issues [with] the company that owned Sierra. They were sold and then there were management changes. It was all pretty good throughout the development of Arcanum but it would have really been interesting if we had been able to go through the whole process with Scott Lynch running that division.

Overall it was great. It was really tough. We made the ridiculous decision to try and keep the team at 12 people. We hired all leads so we wouldn't have to have any producers or managers, we all kinda managed ourselves and did all the scheduling, all that stuff. But then, y'know, me and Tim and Jason also had to run the business. Which we knew we'd have to do, but our goal was, very naively, that we would hook up with someone like Sierra, and this was their plan when they first signed us: we would be basically their RPG maker. We would just continuously make either Arcanums for them or do another one, we were gonna basically make that style of RPG for them for a while, for the foreseeable future beyond Arcanum.

That kind of fell through and then we were working on an unannounced game for a month or two for Sierra. Then I got called to go out there, took a plane up to Seattle [and] right before I went into this meeting to discuss this project - which was a big license I don't know if we've ever talked about it or if we're even allowed to, a bunch of other companies were also working on projects dealing with this license - right before I go into this giant meeting, the producer at the time calls me into his office and he's like 'yeah I'm pretty sure they're shutting this whole thing down, they're shutting Sierra Online down’.

Oh, great.

So I go into this meeting, I immediately run out once it's done and I call Tim and Jason I'm like 'oh my god, we're not going to have a contract, we have two weeks to make payroll’. I called Scott Lynch and, y’know, thank God, they were talking to Activision about possibly publishing Valve games and they hooked us up with Activision [who] wanted us to make the sequel to Vampire. They were fired up about using the Source engine, so that's how that whole thing came about.

That was when Temple of Elemental Evil came in. Atari approached us to do games based on their modules which, once again, was supposed to be the start of a huge series. We were going to build this engine and continually make versions of it, kind of like the old Gold Box series - which, of course, didn't happen either.

That's kind of it in a nutshell. We've talked at length of the difficulties with Vampire and the Source engine. Overall, I'm really glad I did it. I think I would be dead now, or at least my health severely compromised, if not physical then mental, if we had continued on. When we were ending it was right around when everyone wanted to make an MMO. We were interested in possibly trying to do that which most likely would have been a disaster. I don't know if that would have been good for our company.

I have no regrets, but I definitely wouldn't want to do it again. I'll leave running companies to other people, we really wanted to make games, that's all we wanted to do. The only reason we wanted to run our own company is so we could make the games we wanted to make. But then you have to run a company and not make the games...