An Obsidian vet reminds RPG devs: give players opportunities to shine

"If you make a character that's built in a certain way, if the player doesn't have some opportunity to really shine...then that sucks," Josh Sawyer tells USGamer. "It feels like a huge letdown."
"If you make a character that's built in a certain way, if the player doesn't have some opportunity to really shine and go, 'Ah yes, finally, all those points I put into doctor make me feel like I'm really cool,' then that sucks. It feels like a huge letdown."

- Veteran game dev Josh Sawyer, speaking to USGamer about the importance of leaving room in a game's design for players to express themselves.

Indie dev Obsidian Entertainment has earned a reputation as a storehouse of role-playing game design talent, much of which can be traced back to the now-defunct Black Isle Studios (Baldur's GatePlanescape: TormentIcewind Dale). 

PIllars of Eternity II: Deadfire game director Josh Sawyer is one of those longtime Obsidian devs who spent time at Black Isle, and in a recent chat with USGamer he opened up a bit about some of the key lessons he's learned about good RPG design.

It's an interesting read if you're interested in RPG design, though one of the most notable takeaways is actually something now-departed Obsidian cofounder Chris Avellone drilled into fellow devs: always be thinking about what a player might want to do, and how you can accommodate that.

"There's pictures of Chris around the office with a speech bubble that says, 'Can I make a speech check here? Because I really want to make a speech check,'" Sawyer said.

"He was always the guy who was pushing for us as designers to find ways to respond. Not only to give players opportunities to slap the guy who makes fun of you, but also saying, 'Hey, if you have this skill in the game, if you have electronics in the game, you have to find ways to bring electronics to the surface and let a character who specializes in electronics feel like they are a cool character.'"

Later in the interview Sawyer acknowledges that his perception of what an RPG "is" and whether or not there's one true way to design them has loosened a great deal in the past decade or two, but that one principle has remained true: players should have room to express themselves and their version of a story.

"I think that I still found that the greatest value in RPGs came from finding ways to let players be part of the story," said Sawyer, comparing his understanding of RPG design now to when he entered the industry.

"I think in RPGs you can get lost in the technical aspects of the systems and things like that, but really even those systems are about giving the players a feeling at various points. Like, 'How do I feel about the game? What is this making me experience emotionally?' That can come from mechanical things, it can come from story things. I think over time, I've stopped really thinking that there is a single way to really design anything."

The rest of his chat with USGamer, which touches on everything from his experiences at different studios (Black Isle, Midway, and Obsidian) to what he learned from playing Dungeons & Dragons, can (and should) be read over on the USGamer website.

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