J.E. Sawyer Social Interview, Continued

J.E. Sawyer's social interview on Formspring continues. It has derailed a bit as of late, with Sawyer replying to a few commenters that can only be called "trolls", as well as getting into one of those protracted nitpicking on terminology debates I usually don't find too riveting a read. Plenty of other stuff in there too, though:
Where are the isometric party RPGs with tactical combat? There's a starving market for them and they are (by my guess) cheaper to make than most modern games?

It is hard for me to penetrate the inscrutable minds of publishers, but I'll give it a shot. Many publishers are publicly traded. They are primarily interested in two categories of games, both of which generate a large return on investment (ROI): big budget/big sellers and shovelware. ROI is what matters, because ultimately they answer to a sea of faceless, uncaring investors who want their $4/share investment to turn into $100/share in two quarters. Absolutely everything else is subordinate to that. Everything.

The "lovingly-crafted mid-budget niche game" doesn't fit into most publisher strategies. For the same reasons that they are considered niche games, they must be marketed in a different way, pitched to retailers in a different way, and most publishers don't want to deal with it.

The exceptions to this trend may include digital distribution only, since retailers/cost of goods are out of the picture, and platforms where the hardware is relatively low tech (cell phones/Nintendo DS/Sony PSP, etc.).

Most skill-based rpgs I've played put every ability on the same scale of importance when it comes to leveling, yet it's pretty clear that combat is the core gameplay mechanics and that a character without a combat skill is simply 'wrong'.

There isn't a question here, but I think I understand where you're going with this.

It can be hard for designers to consistently support non-combat paths for game play -- whether that's an actual path through a level/quest or simply a level of support in an area. Once combat mechanics are in place, it's relatively easy to throw hostiles in an area as obstacles and call it a day. If, to that, you have to look at lighting for stealth, conversation options for speech-y characters, etc., well, eventually all designers run out of time. In the best of all possible worlds, designers allocate their time well and dedicate equal time to all potential ways of approaching a level.

In cases where the content does not support the system, a designer can do one of two things: change the content or change the system. Changing the content means that you go back to all of those "run out of time" levels and put more effort into the non-combat routes. On projects with a lot of content, I like to keep people moving relatively briskly from area to area, establishing an alpha level of quality early and returning to it later (in a dedicated alpha stage) for revisions. Working in this fashion allows the designer to survey all of his or her work over the course of a project and bolster the things that really need help -- as opposed to carrying an area's work from milestone to milestone and pushing the schedule out.

Some character advancement systems deal with the combat vs. non-combat problem by having a separate point pool for combat skills. I.e., all characters gain a certain number of points (or ranks, or whatever you want to call it) per level that can only be spent in combat skills. This ensures that all characters have some combat capability of one type or another. This really only makes sense in games where characters are guaranteed to be in combat regularly.

What's your opinion on full voice-over for games, especially, you know, role playing games? Do you think they're a necessity? Do they hinder development in your opinion (you know, like 'I can't write a dialogue so long because the budget doesn't let us!')

It's expensive and can be hard to coordinate. It doesn't really have much of any impact on how we write, though.

In eleven years of making CRPGs, full voice over/lack of full voice over has honestly never factored into how I have written dialogue, structured a quest, etc. I have also never had someone come to me with a writing problem involving full voice over or lack thereof.

You always talk a lot about role playing video games, which is normal, really, working on them it's your job, but what about tabletop? Do you like them? Any favorite ruleset? Some memorable moments you'd like to share?

I'm currently in a 4th Edition D&D campaign. I've been playing D&D in one form or another since about 5th grade, starting with the red book Basic Set. Of the D&D editions, I like 4th the best so far, but I haven't done any high level play.

Generally speaking, I think most tabletop RPG systems are crummy. It's very telling that the latest edition of D&D in many ways resembles an MMO rule set more than a traditional tabletop RPG rule set. By their very nature, games on a computer can be systemically tested much more quickly than they could be by hand (or on tabletop). This process tends to separate the wheat from the chaff at a rapid pace.

When I play in a tabletop game, it's usually because I like the setting/GM/players. When I GM, I adapt or modify the existing rule set or create my own. Setting-wise, my favorite is probably Delta Green. I also really like Al Amarja (Over the Edge), Mythic Europe (Ars Magica), Dark Sun, and Cadwallon.

How come so many RPGs lately have minigames in place of simple skill checks? Do they really add anything worthwhile to the game?

They add player challenge. Whether or not you consider that to be worthwhile depends on your point of view (and probably the quality of the mini game). Simple skill checks only reward (or punish) your strategic choices. Outside of manipulating the character's skill rating, there is nothing the player can do to influence the outcome.

Alpha Protocol has mouse smoothing on PC even though PC gamers hate mouse smoothing. Games still use escort missions even though people hate escort missions. Can you comment on why developers use things they know most gamers dislike?

Sometimes they think that games don't really (in any significant volume) dislike that thing. Other times they believe that gamers only dislike that thing because it hasn't been done "right".

On occasion, they are correct. Usually they are dead wrong.

How do you feel about gamers' tendency to give all credit for a game's success to one designer instead of the whole design team (e.g. MCA for Planescape: Torment, Warren Spector for Deus Ex, etc)?

It's bad/almost assuredly factually incorrect. In some cases the game being lauded may have turned out well in spite of the worst efforts of the most high-profile person associated with it.

Any idea why game companies seem to dislike hiring writers?

Many professional writers approach games as though they are films. The limitations that apply to films do not apply to games and vice versa. Writing for games requires a level of vocational knowledge that many professional writers (in my experience) are not willing to develop. There are exceptions, of course (e.g. Rhianna Pratchett).
Even some vaguely Fallout-related questions.
Where can I get the NCR T-shirt you wore at E3?

Putting this on FB and Twitter since so many people are asking me: unfortunately, I don't know. The shirts were provided by Bethesda.

You once said you were interested in a Fallout spin-off based during the resource wars. Does this idea still interest you? Because it sounds like it would be awesome.

Yeah, I think it could be really cool, especially if the focus was on the European/Middle Eastern conflicts. Maybe that's just me, though.

How come you and the guys at Obsidian never bother to correct all these journalists who keep crediting Obsidian designers as the "creators of Fallout". None of the creators work there, you guys shouldn't steal their credit. They usually don't say "the creators of Fallout" but something like "some of the creators of the original games", which is true for Feargus, Avellone, Menze, ScottE, Aaron Brown, and Chris Jones.