Following the recent trend of Fallout-related interviews in the Unmasking the Gamers series, this edition features a discussion with Bethesda's Jason Bergman, Producer for Fallout: New Vegas.
WillOoi: Hi Jason, thank you very much for agreeing to take part in this interview. Please tell us about yourself, and how you ended up at Bethesda?
Jason Bergman: Gosh, that’s a long story. I’ll do my best to summarize my career, since it’s a long and probably not very interesting story. I started writing about games while I was a college student in the mid-90s for various online and print publications. When I graduated, did that full-time, and during that period I met some of the guys here at Bethesda (most notably Todd Howard).
Unfortunately the bottom fell out of the online advertising market and I was forced to get a day job to supplant my income as a journalist. That wasn’t much fun, so I looked around for a full-time job in games, which led to my joining Take-Two as a PR manager. I worked out of the Rockstar Games office on the non-Rockstar titles, and that team eventually formed what’s now the 2K Games label.
I enjoyed PR, but I really wanted to get more involved in games production, and in time they made me a producer. At 2K I was able to work on some pretty amazing projects, like the Civilization series, Sid Meier’s Pirates! and Bioshock.
In 2007, 2K Games merged their offices with the 2K Sports division out in California, which meant moving to the west coast. I stuck it out for a couple of years, but as a life-long New Yorker, I really, really missed the east coast.
So I contacted some people at Bethesda to see if there was an opportunity for me here, and sure enough there was, in the form of Fallout: New Vegas. The rest is some kind of history.
WillOoi: Please describe your role at Bethesda, and what your day to day work activities involve?
Jason Bergman: I’m a producer, which means I do a lot of stuff, and it changes a lot on a daily basis. My one-line summary of my job is that it’s my job to make sure a game comes out on time and doesn’t suck.
As for day-to-day, I work with Obsidian on concepts and general direction for the game and/or DLC and then make sure they stay on-track over time. I manage all the submissions to Microsoft, Sony and Valve (for 360, PS3 and PC respectively), I act as the go-between for our internal development team and Obsidian, I pay the bills, I manage the VO recording, I schedule all the patches and DLC releases, I work closely with our QA department…I could go on and on. The nice thing about being a producer is that days are rarely boring.
WillOoi: Fallout fans would recognise you from when you were out doing the rounds in promoting New Vegas in the lead up to its release last year. What is that experience like; going out there to face the lights and cameras and the often unattainable fan expectations? Do you ever get nervous?
Jason Bergman: My experience is somewhat different from a lot of developers, since I worked in PR earlier in my career and was a journalist before that. I remember vividly what it was like to be on the other side of the microphone, and that certainly helps. I also remember at the start of my PR days having to promote games that were…let’s just say not so great. But it was my job to go out there and sell them, and sell them I did, despite a sometimes very hostile audience. By contrast, being asked to talk about a game like Fallout: New Vegas is an absolute joy, so no, I don’t really get nervous.
When you have a game like New Vegas, which built upon the goodwill from Fallout 3, you can just show the game, or tell people the details they want to know and they’ll be happy. I didn’t find myself having to really push very, very hard to sell the game to people. And it was great dealing with fans.
WillOoi: Are you able to give us some insight into how Bethesda and Obsidian got together to discuss the making of New Vegas?
Jason Bergman: I started here at Bethesda after the game was already signed and just getting off the ground, but my understanding is that we had been friendly with Feargus Urquhart and his team at Obsidian, and were really just looking for the right project to work on together. With the team at Bethesda Game Studios working on Skyrim after Fallout 3, this just made sense as the right project at the right time. It sort of fell into place as a natural thing.
WillOoi: What was this experience of being go-between for Obsidian and Bethesda like for you?
Jason Bergman: It’s been great. Very early on the internal team established some basic ground rules for what Obsidian would be allowed to do within the Fallout canon, and they were pretty generous. Fallout: New Vegas is a very different game from Fallout 3, and it really branches out in several new directions both geographically and thematically. There was a careful balancing act with respect to lore and what has been done, or may be done in the future. It was challenging at times, but it was always fun to navigate those waters.
WillOoi: What are the likes of Todd Howard, JE Sawyer, Chris Avellone, et al like in person?
Jason Bergman: They’re all great, in their own unique ways, and all extremely talented. Todd has a very unique ability to get to the core of what makes a game fun and excise out the fat that bogs down a lot of games (particularly RPGs). Josh is particularly skilled at the fine art of weapon balancing. He’s also worldly and well educated, and you can see some of that come through in the New Vegas characters he took charge of (like Arcade and Chief Hanlon). I know he hates it when I point this out, but Chris is the greatest writer the gaming industry has ever known. Bar none.
In person they are men of various heights.
WillOoi: I really want one of those NCR t-shirts, or any Fallout merchandise at all to be honest. Real life snowglobes, for instance, would go down really well =) Are there any plans for an online store, maybe?
Jason Bergman: I don’t think we have any such plans, but we do regularly make shirts and swag to give away at the conventions Bethesda attends, like QuakeCon, PAX, E3, etc. If you want one, that’s your best bet.
WillOoi: You designed the Meat of Champions perk, which was a nice little secret touch within the game. What other content did you contribute in F:NV? And have you left any other personal touches or Easter Eggs in the titles you've worked on?
Jason Bergman: To be clear, I’m the producer. So while Meat of Champions was my idea, the scripting and implementation was done by Josh Sawyer.
I do leave my own marks on every title I work on, but they’re usually pretty boring, like things in the interface, or tutorial text or something you wouldn’t immediately notice (but totally stands out to me as having made the game a million times better). I’ve also done super exciting work like code PC installers. Again, not something most people care about, but important to the final product nonetheless.
On Civilization Revolution I wrote all of the achievement names, which was fun, since I made them all quotes and obscure references. Actually, that’s not true. I wrote the majority of them. My wife wrote one (“Have Fun Storming the Castle” was hers) and one or two of the others came from people around the 2K office. But of 50, I wrote probably 47 of them. And that was a lot of fun. Some really obscure quotes in there, and lots of fun historical references.
But getting back to New Vegas, Meat of Champions came about because one of my favorite character builds in the game is an evil cannibal melee guy, and I really wanted to make that style of gameplay as much fun as possible. In New Vegas you can kill (and eat!) every single NPC (excepting Yes-Man, of course), so this was obviously important. So we lowered the barrier to getting the Cannibal perk (down to level 4 from 12 in Fallout 3) and added more advanced perks like Dine & Dash, Ghastly Scavenger and Meat of Champions to really take it to the next level.
Having said that, there’s a challenge in an upcoming DLC release that Josh put in for me that I think might be even better. It’s a reference to a game I worked on earlier in my career, and just thinking about it makes me giggle. Hopefully someone will encounter it by accident, and not just by peeking through the GECK. It’s not quite as elaborate as Meat of Champions, but it makes me laugh.
JB: Releasing DLC is a somewhat complicated process, in which the publisher, developer and first parties (Microsoft, Sony or Valve, depending on the platform) all have to work together. I can’t really go into detail on what happened to Lonesome Road, but as I said, it had nothing to do with the game itself.
It was really unfortunate that we had to delay Lonesome Road’s release. And it was personally painful, because I had been so adamant on the forums that it was going to come out in August. And even worse, my post about how it was coming out in August was picked up as a news item on some fan sites just days before we had to delay it (even though I had actually posted it weeks prior to that). So to someone reading those sites, one day I’m assuring the fans, then later in the same week I’m out there saying it’s not happening. Some of the comments about me weren’t very nice after that, and I don’t blame those fans who want to pin it on me personally. But it happens, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
After that bit of hubris, I absolutely refuse to even remotely suggest the month, week or year that Lonesome Road will be coming out. Our marketing team will announce the release date, but I won’t even hint at when that announcement, a trailer or our other FNV-related bits of news will be coming. It just seems like tempting fate.
The goal with the DLC was to create four totally unique expanded experiences for the game, and in that regard I think they’ve all been really successful. One of the big complaints people have with expansions is that they’re too similar to the base game, so it’s really to Obsidian’s credit that they have created such interesting and different add-ons. I also find it interesting to read which ones are people’s favorites, because they are all so different from each other, from a gameplay and storytelling standpoint.
Personally, I enjoy them all. I think Honest Hearts has the best environment, Lonesome Road the best weapons, Dead Money the most intense gameplay, and Old World Blues the best characters. And the perks and weapons all carry over to the main game (not to mention the increased level cap), which is cool. Also, there’s a decision in Lonesome Road that affects part of the Mojave wasteland when you’re done with the quest. That’s really fun to play with.
WillOoi: What are your favourite games and the moments within them that have stood out for you?
Jason Bergman: That’s a pretty hard question, but I’ll call out two moments in particular, both of which are probably minor spoilers.
The first would be Chris Avellone’s Planescape: Torment, which is my favorite RPG of all time (well, one of three, the other two being the original Fallout and Morrowind). The scene at the end, where you finally get an answer to the question, “what can change the nature of a man?” to me, that’s the single greatest scene in any RPG, ever. Ever. I have never been more tied to my keyboard, reading line after line of dialog (and to be clear, there’s a ton of freaking dialog in that game). After all I had been through with the Nameless One, I just found that scene to be riveting, profound and just mind-blowing.
Like I said before, Chris Avellone is a genius. He’s a snappy dresser, too.
My single favorite quest in any RPG would be the end of the Thieves Guild quest line in Oblivion. That final quest where you have to sneak in and steal an Elder Scroll was just the coolest thing ever. The mechanics of it weren’t revolutionary, but as a huge fan of the series, I remember being utterly amazed that I was actually doing it. It just oozed creativity, with the blind monks, jumping through the fireplace and all of that. Great stuff.
WillOoi: What are your favourite movies and books, and what sort of music are you into?
Jason Bergman: I’m a nerd. I like a lot of sci-fi and stuff. I’m also a film and literature buff.
Some of my favorite movies: Blade Runner, Casablanca, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Third Man, Fantasia, Tron, The Godfather, The Graduate, Alien, Aliens, Days of Heaven, Superman…I could go on and on.
Some of my favorite books: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, An Unlikely Prophet, A Scanner Darkly, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Stars My Destination, Harlot’s Ghost, and so on.
As for music, I’m terrible in that regard. I haven’t made much of an effort to expose myself to new music since I was in high school, so I still listen to the same albums I always did. Dark Side of the Moon is one of a handful of albums that’s always on my iPhone. I also like opera and classical music, although again, my tastes haven’t changed much in 20 years.
WO: Please describe your family - I understand that you have a young daughter =) How does family life interact with your gaming and work responsibilities?
JB: I do have a daughter! And she was born during crunch time for Civilization Revolution, or as some people remember it, she was born on Super Tuesday 2008. So she’s three and a half now, and gets more fun every day.
Having a child obviously has cut down (significantly) on my gaming time, but I still find the time, either on my lunch hour or on the weekends. And as she gets older I’m slowly introducing her to games. She’s still a little young but we’ve played a Dora game on Wii together and she got a kick out of Kinectimals. I’m looking forward to Double Fine’s Once Upon a Monster, as that’s just the perfect game for us.
The hardest time was last year during crunch on New Vegas, where I was at the office 13 hours a day, seven days a week. But again, we survived. There were some days where I left the office, had dinner with my family and then came back to work, and there was one day where they came here to have dinner with me at the office. That was nice. But we got through it, and crunch time fortunately only comes around every couple of years, so it’s just something we live with.
WO: Got any husband/dad tips for gamers contemplating marriage and/or offspring?
JB: I don’t think I’m qualified to really give advice, but since you put this nice handy soapbox here (*pauses to adjust podium and clears throat*) I might as well say something. The only real advice I have is to read to your child every single day, from the moment your kid is born until they’re old enough to want you to stop. And don’t just read boring stuff…read cool books! Find out what your child is interested in, and go read those. Read books that you want to read! Go hang out at the library! Read comics! Comics are cool! My wife is an English teacher, so we’re naturally big on reading, but every kid in the world should learn early in life how wonderful books are. I used to hang out in my local library as a kid, and that’s probably why I’m such a big nerd.
I also should say that the GeekDad column at Wired is great, and a worthwhile read for any nerdy father. My wife got me one of the GeekDad books for Father’s Day, and I’m really impressed with the suggestions in there. Good stuff all around.
WO: You're clearly quite a big Superman fan. How did this all come about, and what makes Superman so appealing to you?
JB: I’ve been a Superman fan for literally as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of the original Christopher Reeve Superman movie. He made me believe a man could fly.
As I grew older, I stopped reading Superman for a while, and drifted off into Marvel fandom, which was followed by a few years of being super hardcore into underground and independent comics, but I eventually made my way back to Superman.
Superman is the modern incarnation of the classical Hero story. Superman and Mickey Mouse are the two most identifiable fictional characters on the planet, which is pretty mind-boggling.
But beyond that, I also have something of a spiritual connection to Superman that’s slightly harder to describe. For me, he represents a moral compass, an example of doing what’s right not because it’s easy, but because it’s simply the right thing to do. He’s an ideal for humanity, made all the more so because he’s actually an alien, living among humans by circumstance and choice.
I love the character, the history, and all the various incarnations. He means much more to me than just a character in a comic book.
WO: Why do you think that it's been so hard for developers to come up with a decent Superman video game? Or even a movie, really, given the number of attempts since the Christopher Reeve versions.
JB: This is actually a favorite topic of mine, so I’m glad you asked!
If you think about it, Superman as a concept is fundamentally at odds with what makes a game fun, because there’s no challenge there.
Batman: Arkham Asylum was a great adaptation of the rules of Batman to a video game (he’s mortal, he exists in the darkness, criminals are afraid of him, he’s much smarter than they are, and so on). But if you adapted the rules of Superman to a game, you’d be in god mode the entire time. So what has been done in the past is to either come up with a flimsy reason why Superman can be injured (see: “kryptonite fog” in Superman 64) or to make everyone in the world except Superman take damage (see EA’s Superman Returns or Atari’s Man of Steel), thus turning the game into a giant escort mission.
Of course, this is the same challenge that exists in any Superman story, but on paper, it’s a lot easier to just have a singular, very powerful enemy that Superman has to defeat. In a game, you can’t get away with that. You need lots of enemies, all of which have to present a satisfying challenge to the player.
It’s a problem, and one that isn’t easily overcome through rational means. The only possible solution (in my mind) is to circumvent the rules and make a great game first, and never bother explaining why Superman can take damage. The catch all answer being it’s a game. He takes damage. Do that and you can concentrate on making a great game. The problem of course and what usually happens with licensed titles, is that the rights holder won’t want you to take those kinds of liberties. And that’s understandable…if you have a $200 million movie coming out staring a guy who deflects bullets without breaking a sweat, you probably won’t want a game coming out where he can be killed by a single shotgun blast to the chest.
For the record, I did thoroughly enjoy Justice League: Heroes (in which Superman can take damage, and it’s never explained) and DC Universe Online (in which you can fight alongside Superman, and have some of the same powers, but never actually be Superman). But neither is really a complete Superman game in the same way Arkham Asylum was a perfect Batman game.
Someday we’ll get a great Superman game. And I’ll be first in line to buy it. But then, I’m usually first in line to buy any game with Superman in it, good or bad.
As for why it’s hard to get a Superman movie…that’s a bit more complicated. I actually enjoyed Superman Returns, but felt it made some mistakes in how closely it tried to be a sequel to Superman II. The details that leaked online for what Bryan Singer had planned for his sequel are pretty amazing…it’s too bad that movie never got made. I have high hopes for The Man of Steel. My fingers are very much crossed. Nothing would make me happier than a great Superman movie.
JB: Well, we’re just starting to wind down New Vegas (not quite there yet, still some stuff left to do), but I have started very early work on my next project, which is very different and very exciting. It will be a long time before you hear anything about that.
My formal PR days are done, and in general, I think people would rather hear from artists and designers than publishing producers, so I really only step in for this stuff when developers are otherwise occupied. With New Vegas, the schedule was insane, so I did wind up getting out there a bit. But really, it’s not a major part of my job. I’m happy to do it though, and I love talking about a project I’m passionate about, so I’m sure you’ll see my ugly mug again. As for my family, we just added a dog to our house (bringing the total to two parents, one 3 ½ year old, one cat and one dog), so I think we’re good for the foreseeable future. I’ve never owned a dog before, and that’s surprisingly like having another child in the house. Kinda crazy, that.