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Eric Fenstermaker Narrative Interview at RPG Codex


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#1
Infinitron

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http://www.rpgcodex....nt.php?id=10231

 

(spoiler warning)


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#2
Leferd

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Lol at Anthony Davis in the comments section.

 

 

 

I'm the one who reviewed that mod and recommended hiring Fenster. I remember it like it was yesterday.

Frank, my boss at the time, dropped it on my desk and said, "Review this - let me know what you think."

I loaded it up and played it and was blown away by the work and creativity he had poured into it. I went to Frank and said, "Hire him, immediately."

He was hired as a Junior Programmer - like he said, working as a scripter, because he has a CS degree and he had applied for a programming position.

 

 

He later betrayed us all by switching over to be a designer.

 

I guess it worked out ok.



#3
RingMachine

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You were employed as Writing Lead on South Park: The Stick of Truth during much of Pillars of Eternity's development. While that sort of multitasking worked well for Chris Avellone in the late 90s when he did Fallout 2 and Planescape: Torment simultaneously, one can't help but feel that it was a bit frivolous of Obsidian to divide the attention their inaugural Kickstarter title's lead narrative designer in such a way.

 

I still don't fully get this. Why couldn't they get Avellone to do the writing on South Park or something? Is it possible he was asked to but refused? I'm pretty sure he also didn't want to be the lead on an Obsidian-developed Torment successor back when they were deciding on what Kickstarter to do.



#4
mychal26

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As a gamer, I'm getting old. I'm short on time. I'd rather spend $60 on a 12-hour experience that makes me laugh my ass off than on a 100-hour experience that routinely wastes my time. If any of you are in agreement, be vocal about it, because I think the dollars/hour guys are usually louder. Come to our forums and ask for a shorter, more polished game. If you don't feel that way, shhh, you, shhh.


Sorry, I don't agree at all. In fact, one of the first things I look at when deciding to purchase a game is how long it is. Since I only play RPGs, really anything less than 30 hours kills my excitement, and less than 20 hours is almost a guaranteed no buy. The reason is simple: to me the purpose of an RPG is to build and roleplay a character, and to interact and investigate the lore of the world - something that is difficult to do in a short period of time. I'm looking for something similar to a novel, but with gameplay. It's the same reason I don't read short stories - not enough meat on the bones. That said, I don't like 150 hour + adventures since it's guaranteed you'll burn out, but I want an epic adventure that feels like the characters have been though a lot.
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#5
Teioh_White

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Good interview, confirmed a lot of the reasons I thought portions of the game underwhelmed. Also gives me hope that PoE was them testing the waters, and the sequel will be something special, like BG1->2 or SRR->DF.



#6
Infinitron

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You were employed as Writing Lead on South Park: The Stick of Truth during much of Pillars of Eternity's development. While that sort of multitasking worked well for Chris Avellone in the late 90s when he did Fallout 2 and Planescape: Torment simultaneously, one can't help but feel that it was a bit frivolous of Obsidian to divide the attention their inaugural Kickstarter title's lead narrative designer in such a way.

 

I still don't fully get this. Why couldn't they get Avellone to do the writing on South Park or something? Is it possible he was asked to but refused? I'm pretty sure he also didn't want to be the lead on an Obsidian-developed Torment successor back when they were deciding on what Kickstarter to do.

 

 

Everything about Avellone and why he decided to transform himself from a creator of games into a dilettante is a bit of a mystery



#7
MonkeyLungs

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As a gamer, I'm getting old. I'm short on time. I'd rather spend $60 on a 12-hour experience that makes me laugh my ass off than on a 100-hour experience that routinely wastes my time. If any of you are in agreement, be vocal about it, because I think the dollars/hour guys are usually louder. Come to our forums and ask for a shorter, more polished game. If you don't feel that way, shhh, you, shhh.


Sorry, I don't agree at all. In fact, one of the first things I look at when deciding to purchase a game is how long it is. Since I only play RPGs, really anything less than 30 hours kills my excitement, and less than 20 hours is almost a guaranteed no buy. The reason is simple: to me the purpose of an RPG is to build and roleplay a character, and to interact and investigate the lore of the world - something that is difficult to do in a short period of time. I'm looking for something similar to a novel, but with gameplay. It's the same reason I don't read short stories - not enough meat on the bones. That said, I don't like 150 hour + adventures since it's guaranteed you'll burn out, but I want an epic adventure that feels like the characters have been though a lot.

 

 

 

I would rather have a 20 hour main quest with lots of reactivity and multiple paths through it with lots of roleplaying opportunities than an 80 hour game with only one path through the main quest.


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#8
mychal26

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As a gamer, I'm getting old. I'm short on time. I'd rather spend $60 on a 12-hour experience that makes me laugh my ass off than on a 100-hour experience that routinely wastes my time. If any of you are in agreement, be vocal about it, because I think the dollars/hour guys are usually louder. Come to our forums and ask for a shorter, more polished game. If you don't feel that way, shhh, you, shhh.


Sorry, I don't agree at all. In fact, one of the first things I look at when deciding to purchase a game is how long it is. Since I only play RPGs, really anything less than 30 hours kills my excitement, and less than 20 hours is almost a guaranteed no buy. The reason is simple: to me the purpose of an RPG is to build and roleplay a character, and to interact and investigate the lore of the world - something that is difficult to do in a short period of time. I'm looking for something similar to a novel, but with gameplay. It's the same reason I don't read short stories - not enough meat on the bones. That said, I don't like 150 hour + adventures since it's guaranteed you'll burn out, but I want an epic adventure that feels like the characters have been though a lot.

 

 

 

I would rather have a 20 hour main quest with lots of reactivity and multiple paths through it with lots of roleplaying opportunities than an 80 hour game with only one path through the main quest.

 

 

I disagree. While multiple paths are nice, I prefer a longer and much more in-depth game that has a single, but well carved out main quest to a game that is a fifth the size, half the lore, and has a multitude of options. Of course, I do like roleplaying options that can change the outcome of quests, local and global reputations, and so on. It's just that I prefer an adventure that feels ... like an adventure! There needs to be a balance between roleplaying options and story structure - all story and you'll have a jRPG, which I do enjoy occasionally, but are fixed on rails or all options in which case you have a Choose Your Own Adventure which can be fun for a short while, but almost always lack any sort of empathetic connection between the player and characters. It's why I think BG II was so much better than BG I, it had a much better balance between options and story, and it was amazing as a result.



#9
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Sorry, I don't agree at all. In fact, one of the first things I look at when deciding to purchase a game is how long it is. Since I only play RPGs, really anything less than 30 hours kills my excitement, and less than 20 hours is almost a guaranteed no buy. The reason is simple: to me the purpose of an RPG is to build and roleplay a character, and to interact and investigate the lore of the world - something that is difficult to do in a short period of time. I'm looking for something similar to a novel, but with gameplay. It's the same reason I don't read short stories - not enough meat on the bones. That said, I don't like 150 hour + adventures since it's guaranteed you'll burn out, but I want an epic adventure that feels like the characters have been though a lot.

 

I completely agree with Fentermaker on this. Here's the full paragraph, btw:

 

Personally, I would like to see us make shorter games (e.g. 30-40 hours instead of 60-80) where we cut the worst of our content and spend time iterating on the best. But there is pressure from the market itself (or at least perceived pressure) to make longer games so as to justify the game's sticker price with its "value" as measured in dollars spent per hour of gameplay. And I'm not sure if people understand that when you're on a budget, there's a zero-sum tradeoff between gameplay length and gameplay polish. There was some backlash for Stick of Truth, for example, for being "too short" at 12-20 hours. But that was a game where we cut the bad stuff and spent extra time on the good stuff, and I prefer that model. As a gamer, I'm getting old. I'm short on time. I'd rather spend $60 on a 12-hour experience that makes me laugh my ass off than on a 100-hour experience that routinely wastes my time. If any of you are in agreement, be vocal about it, because I think the dollars/hour guys are usually louder. Come to our forums and ask for a shorter, more polished game. If you don't feel that way, shhh, you, shhh.

 

Shorter games where the crap and filler (my words) is cut out, but the quality of the remainder is much improved? Yes, please. Shorter doesn't mean you can't build and roleplay your character effectively. I completely disagree with you on that. A well crafted and edited short story can have just as much meat as an average and relatively poorly edited novel.


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#10
Baron Pampa

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I too have a preference for shorter, but more polished stories, so you can focus on pure awesomeness of what you do and see;>


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#11
RingMachine

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I too have a preference for shorter, but more polished stories, so you can focus on pure awesomeness of what you do and see;>

 

Mask of the Betrayer is a great example of this.


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#12
Zenbane

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Sorry, I don't agree at all. In fact, one of the first things I look at when deciding to purchase a game is how long it is. Since I only play RPGs, really anything less than 30 hours kills my excitement, and less than 20 hours is almost a guaranteed no buy. The reason is simple: to me the purpose of an RPG is to build and roleplay a character, and to interact and investigate the lore of the world - something that is difficult to do in a short period of time. I'm looking for something similar to a novel, but with gameplay. It's the same reason I don't read short stories - not enough meat on the bones. That said, I don't like 150 hour + adventures since it's guaranteed you'll burn out, but I want an epic adventure that feels like the characters have been though a lot.

 

I completely agree with Fentermaker on this. Here's the full paragraph, btw:

 

Personally, I would like to see us make shorter games (e.g. 30-40 hours instead of 60-80) where we cut the worst of our content and spend time iterating on the best. But there is pressure from the market itself (or at least perceived pressure) to make longer games so as to justify the game's sticker price with its "value" as measured in dollars spent per hour of gameplay. And I'm not sure if people understand that when you're on a budget, there's a zero-sum tradeoff between gameplay length and gameplay polish. There was some backlash for Stick of Truth, for example, for being "too short" at 12-20 hours. But that was a game where we cut the bad stuff and spent extra time on the good stuff, and I prefer that model. As a gamer, I'm getting old. I'm short on time. I'd rather spend $60 on a 12-hour experience that makes me laugh my ass off than on a 100-hour experience that routinely wastes my time. If any of you are in agreement, be vocal about it, because I think the dollars/hour guys are usually louder. Come to our forums and ask for a shorter, more polished game. If you don't feel that way, shhh, you, shhh.

 

Shorter games where the crap and filler (my words) is cut out, but the quality of the remainder is much improved? Yes, please. Shorter doesn't mean you can't build and roleplay your character effectively. I completely disagree with you on that. A well crafted and edited short story can have just as much meat as an average and relatively poorly edited novel.

 

 

The only problem I see is that there is an assumption that 30+ hours automatically equates to garbage. I don't agree with that at all. That's great the designers can cut out the bad stuff, but if you cut out the bad stuff and realize you have 50% of the total product left, then that's a problem with the product, not the philosophy. In the Stick of Truth example, after trimming the gameplay down to 20 hours, they should have analyzed the difference in the "bad" vs "good" and then focused on another 10 hours of more good. Is it impossible to take 20 hours of bad and refactor the content in to 10 hours of good? Stopping after trimming the fat defeats the purpose of iterative development, and is kinda lazy.

 

It's entirely possible to have a 30, 40, or 60+ hour gameplay experience that is mostly good. It just take a ton of time, and following quality assurance processes like the CMM or IDEAL (SEI).


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#13
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The only problem I see is that there is an assumption that 30+ hours automatically equates to garbage. I don't agree with that at all. That's great the designers can cut out the bad stuff, but if you cut out the bad stuff and realize you have 50% of the total product left, then that's a problem with the product, not the philosophy. In the Stick of Truth example, after trimming the gameplay down to 20 hours, they should have analyzed the difference in the "bad" vs "good" and then focused on another 10 hours of more good. Is it impossible to take 20 hours of bad and refactor the content in to 10 hours of good? Stopping after trimming the fat defeats the purpose of iterative development, and is kinda lazy.

 

It's entirely possible to have a 30, 40, or 60+ hour gameplay experience that is mostly good. It just take a ton of time, and following quality assurance processes like the CMM or IDEAL (SEI).

 

I don't think there's any assumption that 30+ hours automatically means a garbage game. I think what he's saying is that lengthier games tend to have a lot of time wasters and filler.

 

As to your latter comments, I hardly think it equates to 'laziness'. You said it yourself in the last line: 'It just takes a ton of time'. And Fenstermaker noted several times in the interview that game-making is a zero sum game. You just don't have that extra time or resources.


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#14
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am glad eric is more patient than Gromnir.  typical questions from the interview is loaded or skewed or misleading, and how many questions ask eric to comment on josh, adam or chrisA comments?  after the third such question, we would sent the list o' interrogatories back to the "interviewer."

 

"Josh Sawyer has been the public face of Pillars of Eternity, on Internet forums, social media and in interviews. As such, in-depth public discussion has tended to focus on the game's system design and its setting - the things Josh was responsible for."

 

terrible starting point.  during development josh and other developers obvious weren't gonna answer specific story questions, and when they did, it typical caused more problems.  limited attempts by developers pre-release to explain animancy in the poe world were comical bad, regardless if josh or other developers offered incites.  after game release, most questions directed at josh has been mechanical, but he has also answered more than a few o' the broad stroke narrative queries.  folks at sa ask josh what were durance and grieving mother s'posed to be and why were chrisA run outta town rather than letting him do gm and durance as intended? gosh.  am wondering why questions like that didn't get answered, eh?

 

on a side note, am wishing that developers would have the following epiphany much earlier:

 

"The bigger thing we did to help develop an emotional core to the story, which I felt was more successful, was in working the themes into the designs of the companion arcs and quests. The degree of success varied from character to character, but when I did a full play-through of the game late in development, I found myself enjoying the game's story most when I was seeing the deeper layers of these characters exposed, and their worldviews challenged. Sagani's finale might be my favorite - I found that scene to be very moving."

 

the protagonist o' a crpg is a terrible focus for a story.  the more control you give the player over his own character, the more difficult you make it to tell the crpg protagonist story.  try and write a compelling and evocative story in which the main character is male or female and race is unfixed.  the protagonist o' the hypothetical story can be good or bad or serious or snarky and he/she has the capacity to change aspects o' character in different parts o' the story?  who the heck is Gromnir writing 'bout? the protagonist is too vague to be the foundation o' a decent crpg story.  

 

the joinable companions should be the focus o' developing the story o' a crpg. the companions can grow, and player choices can change the ways in which they grow, but the motivations and personality o' the joinables is not so dynamic as to hinder quality writing.  the essential qualities o' the companions (and major npcs such as the game's Ultimate Bad Guy) is known qualities that a writer can use as a foundation for story development.  

 

http://forums.obsidi...ions/?p=1705421

 

eventual the developers o' crpgs is gonna realize that the protagonist is ill-suited to driving crpg story.  

 

am also gonna note that we often disagree with what the interviewer considers "recurring criticisms" and "well-regarded" content o' poe.  

 

again, am pleased that eric were more patient than Gromnir.

 

HA! Good Fun!


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#15
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I like long RPGs. I like good RPGs even better. It is exhaustively documented, across dozens of games, that genre expectations about length and size often force developers to scope too much relative to their budget. 

 

Some people ignore the facts and say 'oh dumb/lazy/crap devs' as if time was free. It is... for Blizzard. As Fenstermaker says, it's often a zero sum game.


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#16
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I like long RPGs. I like good RPGs even better. It is exhaustively documented, across dozens of games, that genre expectations about length and size often force developers to scope too much relative to their budget. 

 

Some people ignore the facts and say 'oh dumb/lazy/crap devs' as if time was free. It is... for Blizzard. As Fenstermaker says, it's often a zero sum game.

am gonna need save the link to this post.  do you know how many times Gromnir has observed that player needs must be considered in light o' the fact that game development is zero sum?  people rare consider what they needs must surrender to get their needs fulfilled?  

 

HA! Good Fun!


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#17
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There are lots of things about the gaming industry that are exhaustively documented, and usually when people make generalized comments like "as if time was free" they are ignoring the entire economic expectations of anyone entering the gaming market. If someone is making a game purely for the $$$, then that's probably a game I would never want to play. The "zero sum game" theory is just an excuse, in my opinion, since even in a 12-20 hour game it can easily apply, and a loss is still suffered; yet the game was made anyway. Minimizing loss is good, but loss is almost always guaranteed in gaming unless there is a monetary offset via pay-to-play scenario's, like Subscription services or in-App purchases.

 

Some of the best gaming experiences come from Mod's, which historically have entailed amazing work from people that received 0 dollars. Like the top Mod for Skyrim which lead to a job at Bungie for the creator; or the Mod(s) that saved NWN 2 from being a total flop.

 

I prefer quality over quantity as well, but that doesn't mean that quality can only be achieved in small quantities. Again referring to the Stick of Truth example, the developers had already invested time in the 'bad' areas that ended up being cut out. The work was put in to making the bad parts, then work was put in to analyzing and cutting them out. Adding more work to refactor them for a few more hours of quality is completely feasible; and using the "zero sum" theory is really just an excuse in these situations. If someone is really building a business and design strategy around the zero sum game theory, then the design architecture during the projects conception should have excluded time investment in to what was eventually labeled "bad" to begin with. Thus reducing how much needs to be "cut out" in the end.



#18
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There are lots of things about the gaming industry that are exhaustively documented, and usually when people make generalized comments like "as if time was free" they are ignoring the entire economic expectations of anyone entering the gaming market. If someone is making a game purely for the $$$, then that's probably a game I would never want to play. The "zero sum game" theory is just an excuse, in my opinion, since even in a 12-20 hour game it can easily apply, and a loss is still suffered; yet the game was made anyway. Minimizing loss is good, but loss is almost always guaranteed in gaming unless there is a monetary offset via pay-to-play scenario's, like Subscription services or in-App purchases.

 

Some of the best gaming experiences come from Mod's, which historically have entailed amazing work from people that received 0 dollars. Like the top Mod for Skyrim which lead to a job at Bungie for the creator; or the Mod(s) that saved NWN 2 from being a total flop.

 

I prefer quality over quantity as well, but that doesn't mean that quality can only be achieved in small quantities. Again referring to the Stick of Truth example, the developers had already invested time in the 'bad' areas that ended up being cut out. The work was put in to making the bad parts, then work was put in to analyzing and cutting them out. Adding more work to refactor them for a few more hours of quality is completely feasible; and using the "zero sum" theory is really just an excuse in these situations. If someone is really building a business and design strategy around the zero sum game theory, then the design architecture during the projects conception should have excluded time investment in to what was eventually labeled "bad" to begin with. Thus reducing how much needs to be "cut out" in the end.

But it is a zero sum situation, whether you want to believe it or not. There are only finite resources and only a finite amount of time in which to utilize those resources. Dedicating time/resources to one area necessarily means you can't dedicate them to another. What it seems you're overlooking (forgive me if I'm wrong; this is just what your posts seem to convey) in the Stick of Truth example is that the cut content meant that time and resources that would have been spent to make it better (note: not great, but likely only mediocre, is the feeling I get from Fenstermaker's comments on it) would mean this time and those resources could not be spent improving the quality of what was kept to make it the best they could.

 

And I doubt it's as easy as it seems to know what will and will not work when the project is in the conception stage.


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#19
Nonek

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Fantastic interview, nice to see the usual screed of marketing dispensed with and actual relevant opinions met and answered, as usual I remain impressed by the Codex' content in this department.



#20
Zenbane

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But it is a zero sum situation, whether you want to believe it or not. There are only finite resources and only a finite amount of time in which to utilize those resources. Dedicating time/resources to one area necessarily means you can't dedicate them to another. What it seems you're overlooking (forgive me if I'm wrong; this is just what your posts seem to convey) in the Stick of Truth example is that the cut content meant that time and resources that would have been spent to make it better (note: not great, but likely only mediocre, is the feeling I get from Fenstermaker's comments on it) would mean this time and those resources could not be spent improving the quality of what was kept to make it the best they could.

 

And I doubt it's as easy as it seems to know what will and will not work when the project is in the conception stage.

 

Well I am not denying that it is a zero sum situation. What I'm stating is that just about all technology falls in to that situation; especially software development. Therefore, using it as a scapegoat to excuse a product that provides less than 20 hours of quality in a genre that has a baseline of 30-40 hours is very much a lazy excuse. It was a zero sum situation after the first hour.

 

You are applying principles that I can agree with to a metric that I do not: 12-20 hours of gameplay as a final product. I've played RPG demo's that lasted that long. As for the thing you seem to think I'm overlooking in the Stick of Truth example, I'm fairly certain that it is just another assumption you are making in order to defend the ideal. All you did was describe one of many iterations that could have resulted in a final product with a minimum of 30 hours of quality. The fact that it didn't isn't justified by the zero sum theory, because it was a zero sum situation after the first hour.

 

Just look at how much time OBS has spent with each patch and expansion in PoE 2. Then look at the number of sales, they have hardly doubled. Clearly, if a developer/designer takes pride in their work then they are able to push beyond whatever scapegoat theories we can come up with. PoE can easily take over 30-40 hours of time investment (some people have boasted of 100's or even 1,000's lol), so I'm starting to think that we're just splitting hairs here.

 

In that interview, one of the things Eric says in response to name dropping the zero-sum tradeoff is, and I quote, "As a gamer, I'm getting old. I'm short on time." That's the real culprit. He then tries to distract the reader by making a generalized argument of, "I'd rather spend $60 on a 12-hour experience that makes me laugh my ass off than on a 100-hour experience that routinely wastes my time." But that is a red herring. As I said before, it is a false assumption that anything providing over 60 hours of gameplay is automatically a waste of time; which is what his argument suggests.

 

Some people are old, and so they wanna play as many different games as possible. Good for them. The gaming market shouldn't have to change entirely just because someone got old.






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