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Unmasking the Gamers: Tim Cain – Industry Veteran, Programmer, and Original Creator of Fallout

Unmasking the Gamers: An interview with Tim Cain on the evolution of the game industry over his three decades of experience, his thoughts on setting up the now-defunct Troika Games studio, career highlights, and a bit more about the man himself.

Will Ooi

October 26, 2011

16 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. 

To continue the recent trend of this series and having spoken previously with Obsidian and Bethesda team members about Fallout: New Vegas, in this edition of Unmasking the Gamers I had the privilege of chatting with one of the key members and creators of the franchise itself, Mr Timothy Cain.

Having had a hand in titles such as Fallout, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, and Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines in a career spanning three decades, we discussed the evolution of the gaming industry, his experience in setting up the now-defunct Troika Games studio, some of his career highlights, and a bit more about the man himself.

Tim Cain

Will Ooi: Hi Mr Cain, thank you very much for taking part in this interview series, and first of all congratulations on securing a role at Obsidian. How do you feel about this move, and what does it mean for your and Obsidian's future plans?

Tim Cain: I really enjoy working at Obsidian. I know many of the people there from our time at Interplay or Troika, and I have played all of Obsidian's games, so in many ways this new job was the smoothest transition I have ever made. Everyone there has been very friendly and welcoming, and I am excited to be back in the RPG game space.

But I should explain that I am a temporary contracted employee at Obsidian. I am considering joining another company in the spring of 2012 and have been talking with them since August, so in the meantime I am working at Obsidian on one of their games as a senior programmer. My contract extends thru March of 2012, at which time all parties (myself, Obsidian and the other company) can decide what the next step should be.

Will Ooi: Could you give us some more information about what your title of Senior Programmer will involve, and how you'll fit in to the company's hierarchy?

Tim Cain: As a senior programmer, I have been assigned to work for Dan Spitzley on their New York project. I am working on various coding tasks concerning combat and general gameplay. The group is very open to design suggestions from all of its members, and they hold weekly meetings where the game is played and anyone can suggest changes to gameplay, anything from new abilities to UI to voice over. Everyone at Obsidian is very passionate about their games, and it shows in their development process.

Wildstar, Carbine Studio's upcoming MMO

Will Ooi: Are you able to share anything about your time at Carbine Studios, and the Wildstar MMO title you were working on?

Tim Cain: I enjoyed working at Carbine, first as the Programming Director and then shifting to the Design Director role. These roles gave me the opportunity to work on an MMO's development from different perspectives, and I thought Wildstar was shaping up to be a world-class MMO. I loved the demo they presented at GamesCom in Germany in August. The game looks awesome.

As for my leaving, that had nothing to do with the quality of the game. I had joined the team in 2005 expecting a five year development cycle. After six years, it became obvious that the game would be in development for several additional years, and that was longer than I was willing to commit to the title.

Will Ooi: What are your views on the MMO market in general?

Tim Cain: It's a crowded space, and there was some really big publishers moving into it with games that have tremendously large budgets. There are some MMO studios whose monthly studio budget is larger than the entire development cost of one of Troika's games. While I think this will result in some amazing games, it will inevitably lead to some spectacular failures as well. As to which games are which, that is anyone's guess.

Will Ooi: Having started out at Interplay in the early 90s, then setting up Troika, joining Carbine Studios, and now with current employers Obsidian, what are your views on how the industry has changed over the last couple of decades? And how do you see the future panning out?

Tim Cain: Actually, I started in the game industry in 1981, while I was still in high school. I made an editor for a local company making games played on cable boxes, and that turned into a full-time programming job on Grand Slam Bridge, released by Electronic Arts in 1986. So this year marks my 30th anniversary in the industry. And I still have no idea where we are headed.

The rise of smartphones and social media has introduced a whole new group of people to playing games. These casual games are driving the industry as much as the hardcore segment, so my best guess is that over the next few years we will see the industry schism into two big development types, small developers who make several small games a year on tiny budgets and big developers who take years to make a game with budgets of 50 or 100 million dollars. The big question is what will happen to mid-tier developers, the ones who used to make all of the games we grew up on. Can they compete with the other groups or will they morph into being one or the other? Only time will tell.

WO: Is there anything you miss from those Interplay days that are no longer possible today? And how about vice versa: what is better now than before?

TC: With the exception of small casual games, the days of making a full game by yourself are long gone. In a way, I miss the ability to make a full-sized game from scratch by myself, but at the same time, I like working with a team, and I love the scope and depth of modern games. Roger Ebert is wrong. Games are art, and the games of today can compete with movies, books and any other form of entertainment available to consumers.

WO: For you, how do games become art - what are the requirements? 

TC: That question can't really be answered. It's like what Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography: "I know it when I see it".

The custom-built Fallout engine, and the Source-powered Bloodlines

WO: You've worked with a lot of different engines ranging from those custom-built for Fallout and Arcanum through to being one of the first to program on Source. What has the experience been like using all these different tools?

TC: I must admit that I really enjoy making my own engine for a game. You can get the features and customization that you want, and you don't have to worry about any of the constraints that the third-party engine developer may have accepted as part of its design. Don't get me wrong, though, because working with Source was an amazing experience. I remember getting flying creatures working in a single afternoon, because most of the support was already there. But if I had to choose (and lots of time and money), I would make my own engine for a game.

WO: Any crazy bugs or glitches you've come across that you'd like to share? =)

TC: All of my games have had crazy bugs in them. A few even shipped with them (oops!). Fallout had several funny bugs, including doors that opened and then ran off the screen, and a rocket launcher that shot out a dog instead of a missile the first time we tested it.

WO: For you, what are the essential criteria in what really makes an RPG an RPG? What are your thoughts on the real time, action-RPG titles that are becoming more and more popular these days?

TC: I think an RPG should be about creating and playing a "role". First, an RPG should always include some kind of character creation system, to let the player choose what kind of character to play, and I prefer that the game let me name my character, although I can see why some games don't allow that so that they can include voice overs that talk about the character.

Second, I think RPG's should be about choice, and that choice should matter in some way. The player should be able to decide how to play their character and the game should react to that choice in some way. NPC's should change their behavior, or vendors should change their prices, or the storyline should change and the game should offer a different ending.

I play a large variety of games, not just RPG's, so I enjoy many of the action titles that are released. I think that including RPG-like systems improves many of these games, but there will always be a soft spot in my heart for true RPG's.

WO: Is there still a place for turn-based and/or isometric RPGs these days?

TC: I think so. I am still seeing games of both types being made. Magicka is an isometric RPG, as is Titan Quest, and I am enjoying playing both of them immensely. Diablo 3 is isometric as well. And you can find lots of turn-based games on STEAM and the iPhone app store, so there is obviously still a strong demand for them.

The Troika leads (from L-R): Anderson, Cain, and Boyarsky

WO: Do you still see or hear from the old Interplay/Troika team members, Jason Anderson, Leonard Boyarsky, etc. even though everyone has moved on to other companies?

TC: We have lunch occasionally. Jason wasn't local for a few years after Troika closed, but he is back in SoCal again. And I have worked with ex-Troika people at Carbine, and now at Obsidian.

WO: Even though the studio was relatively short-lived, Troika produced some really memorable titles. When I was playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution recently, the city hubs and side-quest designs reminded me a lot of Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. What are your views on the legacies of these games you and your team created?

TC: I think it's wonderful if our games inspired anyone working on other games. However, many times those similarities are just examples of parallel evolution in action. Two different groups sometimes arrive at the same solution.

WO: What are the challenges or pitfalls one faces when running their own game development studio?

TC: For me personally, the challenge was learning how to run a business and to negotiate contracts with publishers, which are skills that have nothing to do with making good games. But if you make mistakes in those areas, your games will suffer. I would recommend keeping them separate. In other words, I should have hired a biz guy. :)

Troika's legacy: Arcanum, TOEE, Vampire: Bloodlines

WO: What are some of your favourite moments in your career - for instance the games you've contributed to, characters you've created, quests/choices you've designed?

TC: Big moments in my career include (1) arriving at my first game job at age 16, with no preconceptions of what the game industry or its developers would be like. I miss that feeling of wonderful mystery. (2) shipping Fallout and realizing I didn't have to come to work that weekend, for the first time in months. (3) starting Troika and signing our partnership papers on April Fool's Day in 1998. (4) going to my high school reunion and telling people that yes, I did move to California and was making video games.

WO: Have you been playing anything at the moment, and have there been any standout games you've enjoyed recently?

TC: I just finished Dead Island, and I loved that game. It has a great atmosphere, and playing co-op with friends was a lot of fun. It was probably the most fun I have had in co-op since Borderlands, and I am anxiously awaiting the sequels to both of those games. I am currently playing Rage, to see iD's take on a post-apocalyptic world, and Magicka, because it is a fun little adventure romp.

WO: Any chance of there being an Arcanum sequel at Obsidian?

TC: Anything is possible.

Cain's Bento creation

WO: Outside of work, what have you been up to for the last couple of years?

TC: In the last two years, I have accomplished the three big M's in life: I got married, I paid off my mortgage, and I mastered the art of bento box preparation. And really...what else is there in life but that?

WO: The public knows a lot about the Tim Cain that helped create great RPG titles, but what about the 'real' you...what are your interests and hobbies, favourite things, etc? 

TC: I really enjoy cooking. I tend to make Chinese and Japanese food the most. My favorite two dishes to make are garlic chicken fried rice and chicken karaage. I also like desserts way too much. I used to make them at home, mostly chocolate ones, but lately I have enjoyed dining out and sampling things I could never make at home.

WO: Got any pets?

TC: My twenty-year old dog Cooter, who I picked up at a shelter when he was nine, passed away a few months ago. He was very well-behaved and was at Troika for the development and shipping of all three of our games. He will be missed. I have a cat, a tabby named Bonkers. I treat her like a dog and taught her to fetch and to come when I call her. She tolerates me.

WO: Could you tell us about what it was like growing up in Virginia and then moving over to the West Coast? Do you head back often, and travel around the country?

TC: I grew up just outside Washington D.C. in a suburb of Alexandria. It wasn't quite city or country living; it was the best of both worlds. I had just about every pet you can think of (dogs, cats, rabbits, chickens, ducks, a horse, a skunk, an alligator), had nearby woods to explore, and yet I could take a subway ride into the city and spend an afternoon at the Smithsonian. I make it back to Virginia once a year, either for Christmas, birthdays, or a big family vacation at the beach. I try to vary the reason and the season every year, so I can see the east coast at various times of the year.

WO: Have any of your own real-life experiences made it into your games to any extent? Who or what are your greatest influences?

TC: I don't think any of my life experiences are in my games, but lots of board games, PnP games, video games, card games, books and films are reflected in my games. I have played a LOT of games, and they have all influenced my designs to some extent. I am not above seeing a great idea in a game and thinking "I want that in my game too". Imitation and flattery and all that...

Lately, my loss of color vision has driven a lot of game choices I am making. In my family, people lose their color vision over time. I started losing mine when I was twenty years old, and now I can see less than half the spectrum of colors. I am surprised at how many games give information solely with color variation, and I cannot play those games. It's not difficult to include a number or symbol or word in addition to a color change, but some games don't do that, in the name of minimizing UI. Come on, fellow designers, give me an interface option for color blindness.

New Vegas

WO: You've joined Obsidian right after they've completed Fallout: New Vegas - what did you think of the game? And what are your views on how the franchise has progressed from your original vision?

TC: I really liked Fallout: New Vegas. I thought it was the most Fallout-y of the post-original games, especially humor-wise, and I think the designers at Obsidian really understand and respect the franchise. And I do like how the game has been extended in many ways, into 3D play, into real-time combat, and into new areas of the world. These extensions enrich the IP and bring it to a new audience of gamers.

WO: With New Vegas examining humanity in a post-post-apocalyptic world, what are your opinions of what the series should strive for in the long run? And is there perhaps a risk that, the further into the future that it takes place, the less Fallout-like it will be?

TC: I think there are lots of areas in the Fallout IP that are ripe for exploring. And I don't think that people should be afraid that such exploration will make for a lesser Fallout. Expanding the IP is always a good thing, as long as its nature stays true to the original. That nature consists of exploration (both of the exterior world and one's inner self), of examining gray areas (because what important ideas are truly black and white), and of finding humor in the darkest situations.

I mentioned in a recent interview that I am for the repealing of copyright extensions. I feel that 28 years is more than enough time for a creator to make money off of his creation. After that, I want people to be encouraged to explore the works of other artists and to try to extend them in ways their original creator never imagined. There is a risk that horrible products will be generated, but that's a risk we should take to allow the occasional diamond in the rough to shine through.

WO: Fans of the series might be allowing themselves to get a bit excited over the prospect of Cain-Sawyer-Avellone contributing to a future Fallout title, even though its early days and, of course, provided Bethesda outsources another future game to Obsidian. Fingers crossed? 

TC: As I said above, anything is possible.

Also posted on personal blog


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