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An Interview with JE Sawyer - game developer, biker, and cat lover

This edition of the Unmasking the Gamers series features a chat with Obsidian project director J.E. Sawyer about getting into the industry, linking in-game worlds with real life, religion, overcoming game cancellation disappointment...and cats =)

Will Ooi, Blogger

September 25, 2011

17 Min Read

This is the latest edition of an interview series, “Unmasking the Gamers,” humanising the people who play video games: the real character controlling that fictional character; the person behind that First Person game. 

Following the release of Fallout: New Vegas' final DLC, Lonesome Road, and with the upcoming Gun Runners Arsenal add-on approaching, this edition of the series features a chat with the Lead Project Designer Joshua E. Sawyer about getting into the industry, linking in-game worlds with real life considerations, religion, overcoming game cancellation disappointment...and cats =)

WO: Hi Josh, thank you for your time. Please tell us about yourself, your role at Obsidian, and what your interests are.

JS: Hi, Will. I'm glad to be a part of the series! I'm a project director at Obsidian and I've been in the game industry for about twelve years, most of that as a designer. Project directors are the "lead of leads", on the team, the individuals who define the high-level goals and scope of the project and help keep things focused on quality and consistency. Though technically part of the production staff, project directors have a somewhat adversarial relationship with the project's lead producer (in the case of Fallout: New Vegas, Larry Liberty). The project director defines the direction, but the lead producer tracks resources and effectively "writes the checks", serving as a voice of sanity for scope and scheduling.

My game development interests are primarily in finding ways to give the player more meaningful choices in how they build and use their characters and in how they can influence the story. I'm also a fervent, possibly fanatical, advocate of strong core mechanics. "Good for an RPG" is an insult, and no player or developer should settle for that level of quality. Outside of video games, my interests are varied but shallow. I enjoy bicycling, motorcycle touring, firearms, languages, music, history, and a bunch of other things I never feel I explore in enough depth.

WO: What are you up to at the moment, career-wise and outside of it?

JS: I'm working on a new game for Obsidian as a project director. It's a busy time, but every once in a while I get a few minutes to relax and I like where we're heading. Outside of work, I spend most of my time bicycling, reading, gaming, or spending time with my girlfriend and our cats.

JE Sawyer with his cats

WO: I recall a tweet from you once that stated, simply and rather elegantly, "CATS". How many of them do you have, what are their names, and what makes them special? But what about dogs?

JS: I have a cat, Sesame.  My girlfriend also has a cat, Suki.  Sesame was the kitten of a stray who wandered into my girlfriend's cousin's home and immediately gave birth.  She apparently likes really gross smells, and seems to relish burrowing into my sweaty jerseys like catnip.  Suki is an odd-eyed cat and probably the brattiest cat I have ever known.  When she is not being a brat, she is very sweet.

I like dogs, but I don't like the idea of owning a dog in the city.  They need more attention and interaction than I can afford given my work schedule.  I used to live in an apartment complex where many of the residents owned dogs, but most of them were cooped up all day long.  They howled almost incessantly and seemed miserable.  I don't want to put an animal through that.

WO: What is your girlfriend like? Does she get into the games you make, and do you spend nights together debating NCR vs Legion, Joshua Graham vs Daniel, etc.?

JS: She doesn't like video games, so we don't really discuss them.  In general, I don't talk about video games with people outside of the industry unless they approach me with questions.

WO: What are your tattoos of, and what do they mean to you?

JS: They're of a variety of things that are important to me.  It's pretty rare that I talk about them at all.  As soon as the temperature is cool enough, I usually keep them covered to avoid drawing attention to them.

WO: The information available about you on the net tells us that, having completed a history major and participating in theatre, you then became a game designer. How did this happen and how did you make the decision to pursue this career path? Who and what has influenced you?

JS: The transition from college to game development was stroke of luck. I was a bad student in college. I don't mean that in the "zany Val Kilmer Real Genius" way, but in the way that a lazy wastrel who plays video games and tabletop RPGs all day is a bad student. A friend of mine noticed that Interplay was hiring a web designer for an unannounced RPG. I had taught myself a bunch of web design (including Flash) and was a freelance web developer, so I fired over a resume. Apparently my absurdly long cover letter and knowledge of Flash were the keys to success. I was the second choice of about sixty applicants. The first pick decided to follow his girlfriend to Seattle.

As for how I became interested in game design, it probably started with my first introduction to CRPGs. At a public library, I saw an older kid playing the original Bard's Tale on a C=64. I was mesmerized. The older kid, Tony Unate, introduced me to a wide array of CRPGs as well as AD&D. I had already played Basic and Expert D&D, but AD&D is when the obsession truly took flight. Tony and I and our mutual friends debated a lot of the finer points of game design, both in CRPGs and in tabletop games. We sector edited games, modified board games, and altered RPG rules to suit our tastes and sensibilities.

When I got to college, I started playing a wider range of tabletop games with a diverse group of gamers of varying backgrounds. We did a lot of customization and system development along the way. That process of critical analysis and revision made me interested in game development, though I always envisioned myself getting into tabletop design.

The Icewind Dale games - JE Sawyer's first foray into design

WO: How did you make the transition from an Interplay web designer to game designer, and then a lead? What sort of work were you doing?

JS: When I was working on the Planescape: Torment website, I interacted a lot with the the development team.  I harassed Feargus and a bunch of the designers about being able to do some game design work.  Eventually, a position opened up on the Icewind Dale team.  I did area design and most of the unique weapon design.  I continued doing web work for a while, but I eventually transitioned over to game design full time.  The first game I was technically lead on was Project Jefferson aka The Black Hound (cancelled around 2003).  The first game I shipped as a lead was Icewind Dale II.

WO: Any words of advice for those at a crossroads and deciding what they want to do with their lives and talents?

JS: I think there's a big difference between pursuing something as a hobby and pursuing it as a profession. Before I became a game developer, I had focused heavily on being an illustrator, then on being a singer. It turned out that I wasn't really serious about being a professional illustrator or a professional musician. You have to embrace the whole job, and sometimes what the job entails is a lot more difficult and involves a lot more dedication than you may have thought. It's okay to change your mind, and it's even okay to pursue something past the point where it makes rational sense. It's your life, and life stretches out beyond the moment. Sometimes you have to change course, sometimes you have to see things through to the bitter end. There's nothing inherently wrong with either choice.

Sawyer's biggest influences: Darklands, Fallout, and Pool of Radiance

WO: What are some of your favourite gaming moments and memories? And what titles have influenced you?

JS: I'll never forget the duck dragons of Adventure on my Atari 2600, but there are a number of classic C=64/Apple ][e/PC memories seared into my head as well: four groups of 99 berserkers in Bard's Tale, J.R.R. Trollkin in Phantasie III, surviving a gauntlet of ancient dragons with the help of "Break Glass if in need of Hit Points" in Might & Magic II, my friend Ryan escaping Werdna's office with his previous (dead) Wizardry party by intentionally springing a teleport trap, marathon fights in Sokal Keep and the Old Rope Guild in Pool of Radiance, arguing with a demon on The Devil's Bridge in Darklands, and rigging the Cathedral to blow in Fallout.

The RPG titles that have influenced me most heavily have been Darklands (exploration and mechanics), Fallout (choice and consequence), and Pool of Radiance (party mechanics and tactical turn-based combat). More recently, I've really enjoyed Demon's Souls and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, especially the latter's integration of stealth mechanics into an RPG. Outside of the RPG genre, I'm a fan of the Castlevania series (though I just started playing Lords of Darkness), Ninja Gaiden, Devil May Cry, Animal Crossing, Pikmin, Assassin's Creed, and Katamari Damacy.

WO: Come to think of it, you remind me a bit of Keita Takashi. Do you hang out with other devs and talk about the games you guys have made?

JS: Though I don't know him personally, I admire what I know of Keita Takahashi, especially the breadth of his inspiration and the type of experiences he creates. I don't hang out with other game devs, typically.  I've never been the sort of person to go out of my way to be sociable or go to parties or events.  I don't mean to paint myself as a misanthrope; it's just not something I did growing up, so I still don't.

WO: If you weren't designing games, where else would you be?

JS: That's a good question. I don't really have any skills, so I'm not sure. If momentum had continued, I'd probably still be a web developer working in southern Wisconsin.

WO: What are your passions in life? 

JS: I don't really have any these days.

WO: Surely there must be something. You sound like the type of person with many intellectual passions. How about the motorbike riding across the country? 

JS: I have a lot of interests.  I just wouldn't describe them as passions.  To be passionate would require a higher level of focus and dedication than I am currently giving to anything in particular.

WO: At Black Isle Studios when you were appointed the lead designer of the later-cancelled Fallout 3/Van Buren project, what did you have in mind to bring to the series? We've seen many of those original concepts used in New Vegas - was it always a plan to delve into post-apocalyptic political/religious conflict?

JS: Van Buren was not as political as New Vegas, mostly because the political theatre was west of where the "Prisoner's" story was happening. The religious conflict in New Canaan was restricted to that area, and was mostly an internal conflict rather than one with external pressure.

As for what I wanted to bring to the series, personally, I was initially interested in adjusting mechanics, making gameplay more enjoyable, and making as many player builds viable and rewarding as was practical. At the beginning of the project, I was just the lead system designer. It was only later, after Chris Avellone left Black Isle, that I took over as the game's lead designer. The majority of the story content had already been developed by Chris. I was mostly re-arranging the content into something I thought our shrinking team could get done.

The Burned Man, cleansed by fire and born again

WO: The Fallout: New Vegas DLC Honest Hearts dealt with a rare topic in video games: real life religions. What were your aims with this add-on? Are you a religious person?

JS: I wanted to involve the player in a conflict between two well-meaning, genuinely religious characters. Religion is not dealt with much in video games, or designers deal with it as a joke or through proxies. That's fine if it's part of a broad spectrum of approaches, but the spectrum of religious portrayals in video games isn't that broad.

Religion in the wake of an apocalypse seemed like an under-explored topic, so I figured I'd make it more prominent in Honest Hearts. Religion is a way of understanding the universe and one's place in it. There are three major characters struggling for redemption in the story: Joshua Graham, Daniel, and The Survivalist (Salt-Upon-Wounds, also, but he's more of a minor figure). Each character has his own internal conflict and baggage to deal with and each character is looking for some sort of redemption for what they perceive as past failures. It is often their inability to recognize and accept their motivations that prevents them from making progress. Many players seem to empathize with one of the characters over the other two and derive their own way of dealing with the current problem based on that character's approach.

As for me, personally, I believe there are no gods and live my life accordingly.

WO: For someone who personally doesn't believe in the existence of any god, you certainly seem to approach religion with an open mind and an acceptance of other's faiths. Is there any particular reason behind your belief?

JS: There's no particular reason.  It's not an argument that hinges on a specific point.

WO: Based on the answers on your Formspring account and also New Vegas and the Honest Hearts DLC, you seem passionate on incorporating a balanced, worldly view into your games. Do you see the medium as possibly being a foundation for education?

JS: I think all methods of communication can be didactic, but I prefer provoking players to start an internal dialogue rather than presenting a "correct" world view or opinion. It's one of the reasons I think RPGs have the potential to be so compelling. When you read a book or watch a film -- or even when you play most games -- characters take action and make decisions within the context of a story and the singular narrative the creators have defined. You have the ability to judge those actions as a passive viewer, but that's much different from being asked to actually make the choice yourself.

Ultimately, I want people to be able to relate the problems they face and the choices they make in games to the real world. Some people view games as pure escapism. I am not interested in making games that promote the individual's retreat from the world. I want to make games that create worlds parallel to our own, that make players compare and contrast the things they experience in games with what is happening all around us every day.

Character designs and concept art on Aliens: Crucible and FO3/Van Buren, titles that never reached fruition

WO: Could you tell us some more about the cancelled Aliens RPG you were in charge of. It sounded promising and it seemed like a great idea to merge that franchise with the RPG genre. Are you able to share with us the reason(s) as to why it was cancelled?

JS: Unfortunately, I cannot. I enjoyed working on the project a great deal.

WO: It must've been disappointing to go through these game cancellations. How does the development team pick itself up from these moments? 

JS: Most people get over it relatively quickly. Not all game developers are equally invested in what they work on. Some developers are not gamers and they're never very passionate about what they're doing. Some become jaded and cynical, so they always expect bad things to happen. Some do take it hard and it takes them a long time to move on. I just try to use each project as a learning experience. If a project is cancelled and some ideas never saw the light of day, there may be an opportunity to try them again someday. If not, it's unfortunate, but that's how life goes sometimes.

WO: How do you think today's industry views the RPG genre, given the number of action-RPGs coming out. And for you, what are the essential elements that define them?

JS: It's a little strange, because I still see some older game developers talk about RPGs as a niche genre that "other" people play. I think this last decade of RPGs have shown that we can cover a large spectrum, from hardcore/niche to pretty mainstream. Certainly the best-sellers of the genre are not niche.

For me, RPGs will always be about player choice in the narrative. What type of person they are, how they interact with other characters, and how they can create change in the world. That doesn't mean I think that RPGs can't or shouldn't have things like character advancement systems, character customization, loot, etc., but I think that player choice in the narrative should still be the central focus of how we build worlds and stories.

WO: What have been some of your proudest moments as a game developer?

JS: I think the best moment is still when I got an e-mail from Feargus Urquhart (then head of Black Isle, now head of Obsidian) that Brian Fargo (then head of Interplay) had sent to him about Icewind Dale. He said he really enjoyed the game and he had played it from start to finish. Because Bard's Tale was my first CRPG, having that kind of reception from one of its developers really meant a lot to me.

The other moments aren't big, but they're about as important. Any time a person tells me that they had fun with one of the games I've made, from Icewind Dale to Fallout: New Vegas, that's great. That's the bottom line.

WO: To finish off, what are some of your future goals and life plans?

JS: I don't have any plans that extend more than six months into the future.  I'm going to ride a bicycle century next month and I'd like to build a workbench for my garage so I can finish restoring my two old Honda motorcycles (a '69 CL350 and '67 CL160) and a friend's Honda that I sold her (a '72 CB350).  I also need to finish reading a friend's book (There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya).  That's what's on my personal schedule. Work-wise, I will continue project directing until there ain't no more projects to direct.


*More of Josh's thoughts can regularly be found on his Twitter and Formspring pages, and a summary of his recent GDC Europe presentation, "Five Hard Lessons Of RPG Design" can be seen on Gamasutra.

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