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Josh Sawyer on why modern Obsidian plays it safe

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https://jesawyer.tumblr.com/post/189270621926/its-become-a-bit-of-a-meme-lately-that-obsidian

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runthatbyme asked:

It's become a bit of a meme lately that "Obsidian plays it safe", much in the same way that "Bugsidian" was a meme in the past. Obs. was first accused of playing it safe with Dungeon Siege 3, though at the time people thought it was just a blip. But with every game Obs. has put out since then, it's becoming an increasingly mainstream view that the "new" Obs. is different from the "old" Obs. that put out ambitious but flawed games like Alpha Protocol and KotOR2. What are your thoughts on this?

I can understand where feeling comes from, and I think a lot of it has to do with the relative ages of people in leadership positions. Depending on the specific game we’re talking about, it’s a type of game that some of us have already iterated on 2, 3, or 4 times. And when it comes to things like dialogue structure and quest design, there’s even more structural commonality between our projects, regardless of the underlying genre or camera perspective.

I’ve been a game developer for 20 years now. Regardless of my intelligence or creativity compared to a junior designer, I have seen enough quests move from idea to document to alpha implementation to beta to launch to have a pretty good sense about how certain approaches are going to go. There are some quest concepts or details that are - and I stress that I do not mean this pejoratively - naïve. The quest designer does not, and could not, understand the technical implications of what they are trying to do.

When it comes to quest design (especially) a little bit of knowledge can be a very dangerous thing, because as with learning any discipline, it’s hard to comprehend how much you don’t know once you get the basics down.

One of my favorite bicycle frame builders is Richard Sachs. He’s been essentially building the same type of brazed steel frames for over 45 years. I have one of his 1978 frames and it looks very similar to the frames he builds now. He’s one of the higher-profile living frame builders and he’s vocal about his opinions. In an interview, he recounted interacting with a talented young frame builder who had been working for a few years, built several dozen frames, and concluded he had pretty much learned everything there was to it. Sachs’ reaction was, “You don’t even know how to make the right kind of mistakes,”

This is one thing for a craft like frame building, where it’s often (today) one person working alone as a hobbyist. It’s another thing in a big team environment like game development where 30-100 people are trying to work together on a big, interconnected project. More experienced leads tend to be more conservative and critical about design, not necessarily because of some ideological stance, but because we have seen things go very wrong and we want to prevent the kind of collateral damage we have seen play out in the past.

Players remember quests like Beyond the Beef, and rightly so, because it’s a very fun quest with a lot of interesting ways to approach and resolve it. What players don’t remember, because they weren’t there, is how long Beyond the Beef took to complete, and the impact it had on the designers’ schedule and the project as a whole. And players don’t remember the cut content, some of it the product of months of a designer’s time, because it was hopelessly broken or inherently not fun to play through. When I write this, it’s not to put blame at on the quest designers. It’s my responsibility to review their work and to approve or disapprove it.

On a game like F:NV, which was almost half-my-career-ago, I very often said, “I don’t think you should do that,” or “I wouldn’t do that,” with an explanation of why and some suggestions for alternative approaches. These days, I am more likely to say, “Don’t do that,” because I have seen 10 out of 12 soft warnings go ignored and yield some really tremendous headaches and heartaches.

In contrast, when I see young teams (and by this I mean inexperienced developers with inexperienced leads) working, I am often pleasantly reminded of what naïveté can produce - as long as you have the time and money to burn through your mistakes.

I talk with and visit a lot of teams at other companies, and there are some high profile developers I’ve visited where their design process is less of a process and more of an ad hoc “fling **** at the wall” experiment that goes on for 3-5 years. Sometimes the cost of this is just time, which is money. Sometimes the cost is polish. Sometimes the cost is burning out half a generation of young developers. Sometimes it’s all of these things.

If you’ve never been at the helm when your project goes so over-budget that the company is in serious peril, this might not seem like a big deal. If you’ve never been in charge when the game comes out and gets slammed for being sloppy, buggy, and messy - when a reviewer straight-up says the team that worked massive overtime to get the game out “phoned it in” - this might not seem like a big deal. And if you haven’t watched the people on your team, people for whom you were responsible, get burned-out or laid off because of crunch, or stress, or a project cancelation, it also might not seem like a big deal.

But if you have been in that position, it’s hard to see the consequences of inaction and not try to mitigate them, consciously or unconsciously, by pushing for more tried-and-true approaches to design. I’m not saying it’s an objectively good thing, but it is, I think, a natural reaction for leaders who see things go wrong over and over.

Personally, I do hope we take more chances at Obsidian in the future, whether it’s on big projects or small ones. Some of this will involve putting less experienced people in leadership roles. Limiting the project scope itself also helps. Small projects and DLCs are easier to experiment with in good conscience because the impact on the company will probably be low if it fails. But when it comes to our big projects, our more experienced leads will have to be more open-minded about letting certain things wander a little bit. There are additional layers of experience and perspective that I will (hopefully) gain if I remain in the industry another 5, 10, 15 years. Hopefully that will allow me and other people working in leadership positions at the company to let people take more risks in good conscience.

I want to help people make the right kinds of mistakes.

Edited by Infinitron
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2 hours ago, Infinitron said:

I talk with and visit a lot of teams at other companies, and there are some high profile developers I’ve visited where their design process is less of a process and more of an ad hoc “fling **** at the wall” experiment that goes on for 3-5 years. Sometimes the cost of this is just time, which is money. Sometimes the cost is polish. Sometimes the cost is burning out half a generation of young developers. Sometimes it’s all of these things.

Sounds kinda like more recent BioWare.

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Does Obsidian play it safe, though, outside perhaps Outer Worlds? I wouldn’t call PoEs safe.

Edited by Wormerine
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8 minutes ago, Wormerine said:

Does Obsidian play it safe, though, outside perhaps Outer Worlds? I wouldn’t call PoEs safe.

I like POE/deadfire, but they didn't really take any risks.  Though it's hard to take risks when you are one flop of a game away from bankruptcy. 

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2 hours ago, Theonlygarby said:

I like POE/deadfire, but they didn't really take any risks.  Though it's hard to take risks when you are one flop of a game away from bankruptcy. 

Depends on what you mean with "risk". If you're a flop away from bankruptcy, I'd definitely call banking your company's future on a Kickstarter-backed original-IP revival of a genre/game-style that was last relevant fifteen years ago quite the gamble. Also in terms of how these games compare to their predecessors there's certainly a lot of ways in which they refined and reinvigorated the formula, I think calling these mere clones or pastiches is selling them much too short. If we mean "risk" as in reinventing a genre and its associated systems and mechanics, then yeah, it played it pretty safely even if they were, again, a step forward.


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Currently playing: Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire

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3 hours ago, Humanoid said:

I question how developing a Star Wars game can be considered in any way unsafe.

Again, depends on what you mean with "risk". Developing a Star Wars game might not be much of a financial risk but Josh is clearly talking from a design perspective, and in that sense a lot of things could either go wrong or be underestimated due to an initial optimism going into the project. I'm not a dev myself but I've seen similar things all too often in film production, where certain time schedules were set under the assumption that the scenes or shots in question could be resolved in said time, which didn't account for many foreseeable obstacles and complications. I've ran into the situation of shoots that should've ended at 10pm extending all the way to 5am all too often, and often paired with a schedule that required us to be on a different set at 8am that very morning. As Josh alludes to, an overambitious schedule can lead to a failure in planning which in turn could lead to overtime, which means a *lot* more money when working with unionized workers, which could also lead to burnout, vice recividism and so on, so forth.

In a way, KOTOR 2's a pretty good example of this too, far as I know - Obsidian started with an ambitious plan which to my understanding got even more ambitious through production, but which eventually led to a lot of content scrapped because they ended up having to rush to meet deadlines and so on. The end result was a pretty broken, unfinished game that required fan patches and the likes to be the game we recall today. I reckon what Josh refers to as avoiding "risks" is to avoid situations in development that could threaten to become quicksand, the way naval combat in Deadfire became and so on. Though I could be incorrect.

That said I feel the question and answer have relatively different connotations of "risk" too. I might be mistaken though, as I've heard people complain that in terms of game mechanics and systems The Outer Worlds feels pretty safe as well, but still, I feel like the question and usual criticism stems a bit from the narrative elements not being risky, not involving unlikable or controversial characters or major narrative subversions or big genre reinventions or whatnot, and it's not really what Josh responded to. I can get that criticism even if I reckon Tyranny for example is a pretty subversive game all around.

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Currently playing: Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire

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4 hours ago, Theonlygarby said:

I like POE/deadfire, but they didn't really take any risks.  Though it's hard to take risks when you are one flop of a game away from bankruptcy. 

The only thing that separates you from closing up shop is the Kickstarter money you just brought in and you decide to make a game that takes on the "science vs religion" debate? Not risky you say?

Brass ****ing balls, my friend.

Edited by Achilles
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"Art and song are creations but so are weapons and lies"

"Our worst enemies are inventions of the mind. Pleasure. Fear. When we see them for what they are, we become unstoppable."

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11 hours ago, Achilles said:

The only thing that separates you from closing up shop is the Kickstarter money you just brought in and you decide to make a game that takes on the "science vs religion" debate? Not risky you say?

Brass ****ing balls, my friend.

Fair enough.  Though they tackle it in a fantasy setting, so doubt many would be offended.  Also they had backers, paying for that specific type of game.  Also they couldn't afford anything other than CRPG, so that part was a risk they had to take.

 

All that being said, I'm completely fine with RPGs playing it safe.  As long as the story/writing is good, I don't much care about being innovative.  Death stranding was a "risky" game... And I hate it.

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Pretty sure the "playing it safe" was more about the kind of quests and their complexity and not the games setting. And yeah, later Oblivion games don't feel as "free" anymore as before. Just check out all the permutations in Beyond the Beef, which Sawyer pointed out. This quest is BIG with lots of different options. I have yet to see anything like that in the Outer Worlds. It's exactly how he says... risky quest, very bug-prone, can cost you lots of (development) time. So instead you go with "the usual quest formula", which maybe has some choices and different consequences, but is never super complicated at its core.

Edited by Lexx
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55 minutes ago, Lexx said:

Pretty sure the "playing it safe" was more about the kind of quests and their complexity and not the games setting. 

kinda/mostly agree, but am thinking it is a mistake to equate chosen setting with complexity. is nothing 'bout doing a star wars game or even a dress-up barbie game which would preclude or limit complexity. setting and notions 'o type is not gonna handicap the degree o' depth possible in quest design. nevertheless, we agree with larger and more fundamental position that josh were talking o' design o' game, specific quest design, rather than larger and primogenial concerns. thus am of the mind to observe how the tendency in this thread to conjure up questions 'bout the riskiness o' a game based on setting or whatnot is misplaced.

oh, and complete aside, the riskiest move concerning kotor2 were not getting their release schedule extension from lucasarts in writing, although "risky" is not the word we would use. pejorative modifying an observation 'bout diminished capacity and/or intellect would be how we would describe the risk o' such an oversight.

HA! Good Fun!

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"If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."Justice Louis Brandeis, Concurring, Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927)

"Im indifferent to almost any murder as long as it doesn't affect me or mine."--Gfted1 (September 30, 2019)

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On a game like F:NV, which was almost half-my-career-ago, I very often said, “I don’t think you should do that,” or “I wouldn’t do that,” with an explanation of why and some suggestions for alternative approaches. These days, I am more likely to say, “Don’t do that,” because I have seen 10 out of 12 soft warnings go ignored and yield some really tremendous headaches and heartaches.

Sawyer now gets to command the younger developers.  See, it pays to take a beating early on then when the next generation pops up you can triumphantly say "Don't do that!"

20 hours ago, Wormerine said:

Does Obsidian play it safe, though, outside perhaps Outer Worlds? I wouldn’t call PoEs safe.

PoE was a Kickstarter title so it's risks are greatly diminished.  Every game that sells post release is more money than they had before.

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3 hours ago, Lexx said:

Pretty sure the "playing it safe" was more about the kind of quests and their complexity and not the games setting.

Sure. Though working hard to shake off Obsidian's notorious tag of releasing broken games is a sensible one. I enjoyed playing NV years after release, and with community patch, but I hear it wasn't all smooth sailing. 

I wouldn't discount such areas as PoEs dungeons though - Fort Deadlight, Roderick's Keep etc. Though, those are areas which are reactive to what wants to do, rather then our character builds, which is slightly less impressive. 

It might be that Robert Space Industries is sucking dry all the yearly quota of design irresponsibility. 

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On 11/25/2019 at 9:47 PM, Lexx said:

Pretty sure the "playing it safe" was more about the kind of quests and their complexity and not the games setting. And yeah, later Oblivion games don't feel as "free" anymore as before. Just check out all the permutations in Beyond the Beef, which Sawyer pointed out. This quest is BIG with lots of different options. I have yet to see anything like that in the Outer Worlds. It's exactly how he says... risky quest, very bug-prone, can cost you lots of (development) time. So instead you go with "the usual quest formula", which maybe has some choices and different consequences, but is never super complicated at its core.

How about the Roseway Covert Labs questline (including the various long-term consequences for Anton Crane).

Edited by Infinitron

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On 11/24/2019 at 4:37 PM, Theonlygarby said:

I like POE/deadfire, but they didn't really take any risks.  Though it's hard to take risks when you are one flop of a game away from bankruptcy. 

That's not true at all. The safe road was to churn out D&D clones in a standard fantasy setting, giving people another Baldur's Gate experience.

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6 hours ago, rjshae said:

That's not true at all. The safe road was to churn out D&D clones in a standard fantasy setting, giving people another Baldur's Gate experience.

Not really.  The "Safe Road" would be to follow in Outer Worlds footsteps, as TOW sold far more copies than any of these games combined.

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I don't think anyone has released TOW sales data yet. I'd be interested in it considering the Epic bribe so it hasn't released on Steam, and Microsoft's Game Pass. Private Division only said it "exceeded expectations", but considering no one buys games on Epic and a lot of people got the game on a subscription service, both of which meant Private Division got given money regardless of sales.

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I'd like to see a return to dark as hell quests in their games. Like back when you could gun down slavers who sold children as sex slaves to the Fiends in Fallout New Vegas, or cutting down pieces of **** who sacrifice other human beings to their gods like in PoE1. Go full dark again Obsidian, and throw in some dark humor similar to the stuff in Fallout 1 and 2.

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AFAIK the only real problem of SWKotoR2 was that Obsidian didnt get sufficient development time, so we got an unfinished game.

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On 2/4/2020 at 12:28 AM, Haljamar said:

I'd like to see a return to dark as hell quests in their games. Like back when you could gun down slavers who sold children as sex slaves to the Fiends in Fallout New Vegas, or cutting down pieces of **** who sacrifice other human beings to their gods like in PoE1. Go full dark again Obsidian, and throw in some dark humor similar to the stuff in Fallout 1 and 2.

Allow me to introduce you to the Board's Early Retirement Program.

Edited by Infinitron
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3 hours ago, Infinitron said:

Allow me to introduce you to the Board's Early Retirement Program.

Why on earth would they retire when they were perfectly fine with it before in their previous games? I'm sure plenty of people would enjoy a dark story since every other game is soft with their quests. I'd be more than happy for them to go Berserk or Goblin Slayer levels of dark.

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3 hours ago, Infinitron said:

Allow me to introduce you to the Board's Early Retirement Program.

I think TOW is definitely dark and brutal, it just fails to provoke that emotionally or in interesting ways. Also it seems to sanitize and under-cut the darkness with jokes that fall flat. It's just badly written, it's like a Bioware game or something.

 

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23 hours ago, Haljamar said:

Why on earth would they retire when they were perfectly fine with it before in their previous games? I'm sure plenty of people would enjoy a dark story since every other game is soft with their quests. I'd be more than happy for them to go Berserk or Goblin Slayer levels of dark.

whoosh

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23 hours ago, AwesomeOcelot said:

I think TOW is definitely dark and brutal, it just fails to provoke that emotionally or in interesting ways. Also it seems to sanitize and under-cut the darkness with jokes that fall flat. It's just badly written, it's like a Bioware game or something.

I absolutely disagree. I found the satire to be quite witty and poignant, and never intrusive when the story required to take itself seriously. I don't recall ever feeling the silliness took me out of the experience or undercut an otherwise grim and dramatic moment - heck, the tone was often outright sardonic. A lot of the humour had a very gallows quality to it - you laugh, but you can't help see how they so often mimick the increasingly absurd reality we live in. In comparison BioWare's never felt this brazenly political and declamatory.


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