As you might have noticed by now, Obsidian's The Outer Worlds is not Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky's first role-playing game rodeo. The pair have been working in video games since the days of Interplay Entertainment, and now as co-directors of The Outer Worlds, they've teamed up once again to tackle the challenges of creating a unique RPG system for a brand new setting.
A few weeks ago on the GDC Twitch channel, Cain and Boyarsky dropped by to share some of the lessons they learned working on The Outer Worlds, tackling subjects like RPG design processes and methodologies for making interesting choices.
For your convenience, we've pulled some particularly salient highlights about the making of The Outer Worlds below!
Making RPGs in 2019
When Cain and Boyarsky first began working on The Outer Worlds, it occurred to them that the world of game design had dramatically changed since they last worked together on the Vampire: The Masquerade series at Troika Entertainment.
Boyarsky noted that while the RPG genre has gotten more financially viable, it's also twisted and morphed into other genres as well. "There’s always the people who loved RPGs but the mainstream of games seemed to move away from that."
"I thought what they did with Mass Effect was really cool, I think The Witcher is really cool, but we just felt there was a lack of games where you have a blank slate character that was really generated by scratch from the player."
Cain jumped in to point out that when he and Boyarsky first got started in the genre, most RPG designers were working off systems inspired by tabletop design, for taletop players. "I think too is that RPGs used to be heavily influenced by tabletop, and I think computer RPGs are finally becoming their own thing. You don’t have to be a D&D RPG to get a lot of people interested in your game."
With that in mind, Cain said that one of the goals for The Outer Worlds was to design it to be more accessible than some of Obsidian's previous titles. "One of our early pillars that we decided on was that we wanted this game to be easy to get into," he explained. "A lot of RPGs—and a lot of our RPGs had this. The very first thing you were hit with were a ton of numbers, a ton of stuff you had to read in order to get into the game, and for this one said ‘let’s try to move as much character creation out of character creation.’"
"Let them spend skill points later. Let perks come later, let the flaws and stuff come later. Just do some quick character creation."
This is why, when you boot up The Outer Worlds, your character creation is first primarily oriented around appearance, then a base set of traits and "occupation" to help orient your playstyle. Leveling up skill points is then relegated to a sort of batch-upgrade process, where you level up a category, but then after a certain point you're allowed to level up individual skills to receive more fine-tuned benefits.
This runs counter to the older RPGs Cain and Boyarsky worked on, where character creation might involve players putting points into skills they couldn't use until several hours later.
"I think that gets more casual players but I think still appeals to hardcore players," Boyarsky added. "They have their depth, it just comes later."
These design decisions deliberately run counter to some of the RPG mainstays that Cain and Boyarsky relied on for years. But as the pair explained, just because it worked in their old games didn't mean it was right for a game trying to be more accessible.
"That’s why I like having worked with Leonard for so long because we could literally have a conversation and say ‘hey you know that stupid thing we did in one of our games? Let’s not do it in this game,'" said Cain.
"That was on our to-do list," Boyarsky deadpanned. "Don’t do our stupid things we had done before."
Designing the first few hours of The Outer Worlds
When digging into that unique leveling system, Cain credited creative director Josh Sawyer with creating the grouped attributes, instead of having players pick specific skills at the start of the game. "Josh Sawyer said ‘Hey that’s gotta make people really want to specialize. It’s kind of penalizing to generalists,’" Cain explained. "And so I redesigned it so that the points you put into the categories spread out to all the skills in that category in the beginning."
"And suddenly what we had was a game where I didn’t have to think about anything other than I like using guns. It doesn’t matter whether I like using handguns or rifles or heavy weapons. I just like guns. That’s all you have to think about from anywhere between five to ten levels."
Boyarsky also credited Sawyer with one key design decision that helped Obsidian test how players were acclimating to their game. "In the very first area of the game there were a lot of skill checks all over the place. hHe was mentioning that to us and like you know that’s a really good thing to keep in mind."
"We really just wanted to give players a lot feedback early on that all of their choices were mattering."
Those skill checks proved to be part of a bigger design decision for Cain and Boyarsky as well. The Outer Worlds, unlike many of its predecessors, has manged to ship without a wide array of complaints about bugs. Cain says this was a result of a deliberate process. "One thing I tried to do as early as I could as I wrote up all the playthrough paths I wanted supported," he said.
"On a game like this I didn’t try to do every single one cause that was hard, but I tried to do major ones like make a character who fights mainly with guns do one with melee. Make a character who uses science weapons, make a character who tinkers everything. One of them was a dumb character, one of them I said make a character who kills everybody---everybody. Run across and kill them before they even talk to you."
"I’m sure QA had a lot of fun with that one but that actually tested a lot of things in the game about can quests continue without a quest giver? What happens when people tinker their weapons way outside the level range we’re expecting? What happens when people go in with wildly different skill sets? We got a lot of feedback from QA that helped us fix a lot of quests and other content in the game to make it viable for every kind of character."
Boyarsky added that The Outer Worlds' design process was much more content-locked early in development as opposed to later in development. "That means you’re developing the game way further into the beta than you should be," he explained. "You know, you shouldn’t be developing very seriously past alpha. You know we always end up pushing that, you know but you want a really good beta period where the game is playable from start to end, all the contents in there."
"A lot of times we were just so passionate about what we were doing in that past that we wouldn’t make those cuts and this time we forced ourselves to make those tough choices earlier before, and that enabled Tim to play the game 17 times [to find bugs] instead of developing the game."
Making "choice" decisions
Of course, Cain and Boyarsky's games have long been praised for the way their philosophy on role-playing also plays out in narrative choices. Rarely do dialogue trees contain "good/evil/neutral," rather they tend to explore conflicting factional motivations and help players figure their own way through the moral muck.
This was something of a bugbear for Boyarsky, who went hard in the paint for the notion that choice shouldn't be good or bad. "It should always feel like you’re making a difficult choice...maybe on the surface it seems very simple but as soon as you dig into it at all it gets a lot more complex," he explained.
Part of the goal for Boyarsky and Cain was to drive choices around different expected player archetypes. These informed the prescribed routes for testers that Cain mentioned before, and are informed by the kinds of design work the pair have been doing since the days of Fallout. "The choices we came up with way back with Fallout is still at the heart of everything. You need to be able to talk your way by, fight your way or stealth your way through the game," said Cain.
"But really when we’re developing these kinds of things it really does come down to how can we emphasize the players choice? One of the things I like to do with the writers you know using [the town of] Edgewater as an example, at the surface it might seem very very simple. Here’s the group of people that are kind of bad, people who are very poor, people who are kind of good, so I always want the writers to add depth to the characters, and having the character that might on the surface seem like an evil choice or the bad choice is actually a very noble character who might be completely misguided but is doing this for the right reasons."
Cain and Boyarsky have been particularly chuffed watching streamers play The Outer Worlds and responding to their tough choices. The pair noted that streaming has also afforded them opportunities to see content they didn't even know was in the game.
Streaming has also helped them learn from the choices players are making--and turned out to be a surprising new vector for analyzing player behavior. "So you can see what people do—which sometimes isn’t what they report.
For more insights on the making of The Outer Worlds, you can watch the full chat with Cain and Boyarsky below: