The timing could hardly have been better when Obsidian announced The Outer Worlds late last year. Bethesda had just angered millions by releasing the unwanted and disappointing Fallout 76, so when Obsidian's promises of a focused single-player RPG built on player freedom and narrative choices with true consequences, many of the same fans rejoiced. As icing on the cake, the company also announced that the creators of the first two Fallout games - as well as Arcanum and in part the cult classic Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines - Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky, were directing together.
The time of promises and high expectations is almost up though, as The Outer Worlds hits store shelves in a matter of days, thereby exposing itself to the judgment of critics and players alike. The weeks leading up to a release are usually a stressful time for developers, who find themselves in limbo since content is locked but reactions are unknown. However, if Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky are working up a nervous sweat, they hid it well with their relaxed and vigorous attitude when we catch them through Skype.
Maybe it's because they seem very confident in the state of the game. The Outer Worlds has been in development since April 2016 and has been playable the last two years; Tim Cain is currently on his 16th playthrough and tells me things like major bugs and crashes haven't been an issue for a while. He is, in his own words, really happy about the state of the game.
Another reason could be the fact that Cain and Boyarsky know each other a lot better than most co-workers do. They made games together for more than a decade - first at Interplay and then at Troika Games, which they co-founded with Jason D. Anderson - before Troika's closure sent them on different paths. Boyarsky started working at Blizzard, Cain at Carbine Studios. Now, they have been reunited at Obsidian, with The Outer Worlds being their first project together since the Troika days. In spite of not having worked together for a decade, the duo quickly fell into their old (positive) habits, where they each have distinct roles, Boyarsky tells me. He focuses on narrative and art, while Cain is the systems guy and the more technically adept of the two. World design is handled by both of them.
All of this is talked about in the Q&A below, where you can find details on all of the above and more.
Have any aspects of development been particularly challenging or time-consuming?
LB: Well, making RPGs and games in general is difficult. I think for us the biggest thing has been learning how to make the game we wanted to make with the engine that we're using. Unreal engine is a great engine but you know it's a trade-off. We've made - Tim can speak more directly to this cause he actually did the making and I just watched him (laughs) - we've made our own engines in the past and when you make your own engine you get something that's totally built for what you want to do, but then you have to do things like build renders and handle all those technical things that other people might have more expertise in.
The flipside [of using Unreal] is that it is a general engine made for a varied type of games and when you're trying to make a hardcore, in-depth RPG there are certain challenges. The other thing is the length of time it takes to make the assets you need for a modern game in terms of all the materials and the way textures are done now. It's just a lot more of an in-depth process.
Tim, you mentioned that you've played through the game 15 times. How long is an average playthrough?
TC: It really depends on your playstyle, but I should tell you, I'm now on my 16th playthrough and I've just found a quest I didn't know existed. The game has so much reactivity and variability depending on what you do.
LB: We just wanted to focus on creating a tighter, more hand-crafted experience that's polished and really reacts to all the different ways you can play it, as opposed to having a giant 100 hours sprawling epic that was wonky and didn't really handle things the way we'd like it to.
Back when you guys made Fallout branching narratives wasn't as widespread in gaming as it is today. How do you view the evolution of narrative choice in games?
TC: I think it's great. When we made the original Fallout, just explaining to people on the team what we were trying to do could be difficult, and the same when it came to people playing the game. Now, everybody understands it and then we can explain how we're taking it to the next level.
I see. So your approach to branching narratives has become deeper and more intricate?
TC: I think it's become a little more realistic, actually. In Arcanum every time the player has a decision to make, you feel it go in a different direction, which gave us a sprawling game that was really almost impossible to polish and bug fix correctly because there were so many paths. We looked back on that and said ok, we spent a lot of time on certain paths that only very few people would ever see. So, without watering down the choices, without making it seem like an RPG-lite, we really wanted a game that focused on the story and you made your choices matter in a way that hopefully can make even players who aren't hardcore RPG players see what is great about an Obsidian-style RPG with a lot of reactivity. Again, with Arcanum we went so deep and so hardcore that it wasn't very accessible, and I think RPGs and branching narratives is a really wonderful game style that I would love for more people to experience and see what's so compelling about it.
LB: We have also tried to make sure that whenever this reactivity occurs, it is very explicitly explained to the player. You're always told whether your reputation with a faction has gone up or down and what they think of you, so that kind of feedback is something I think we have gotten a lot better at.
As Cain mentions, their target segment has changed somewhat over the years. Whereas they used to make games that primarily catered to a very hardcore audience, The Outer Worlds is designed to appeal to a wider audience without sacrificing player agency, depth, and narrative choice.
One of the ways they do that is by keeping more choices open throughout the game. Tim Cain mentions flaws as an example of character-defining traits that don't show until you've played the game for a while. Skills can also be improved as you go, and you don't get your spacecraft until the end of the first zone, after which the game opens up significantly. The goal is making sure new players aren't scared off, while still showing the more hardcore audience how many possibilities the game actually has.
The first-person perspective also plays a role in this, as it is a lot more familiar to many players than for instance Fallout's isometric perspective. The wish of reaching a more broad audience is also reflected in the game's four difficulty modes. Story mode is, of course, the easiest, while normal should cater to gamers who aren't super hardcore. Hard is for experienced RPG and/or FPS players while supernova is for the hardcore audience only. All four are available from the beginning, but if you switch to an easier setting from supernova, there's no going back. In spite of all this talk about accessibility, Cain and Boyarsky are quick to point out that The Outer Worlds is just as deep as their previous games.
One thing is a branching narrative with meaningful choices. A true RPG should also present the player with options on a gameplay level. For instance, Tim Cain once said about Fallout's main quest that it should always be possible to shoot, sneak, or talk your way through missions. Does that also hold true for The Outer Worlds?
TC: Yeah, and we added a fourth modifier - the leader character, which, depending on what companions you choose to bring with you, can change from being a very combat-oriented character to a very dialogue or stealth-oriented character. It's a really interesting way to play the game because the goal is to collect as many companions as possible and then you focus as much on them as you do on yourself.
Is a pacifist playthrough also possible?
TC: Yes, it's very very hard. And the reverse is also possible. You can kill everybody - we know it and it's not actually that hard (laughs). But just to be clear. We didn't make this way because we expect you to kill everyone. It's more we want you to be able to kill anyone. If there's an NPC that bothers you, you can just kill him.
LB: There are repercussions, of course. One guy from QA killed all the vendors, so he couldn't buy or sell items.
Can you even kill important NPCs?
TC: Yes, and Leonard can attest to how difficult it was to implement.
Is implementing these various outcomes among the biggest challenges development wise?
LB: It's really a frame of mind, if you're designing. Game designers love presenting a dramatic moment to the players and then dictating how it's gonna play out. When you're designing an RPG with a lot of reactivity, you can't decide for the player how that's going to play out. You have to give them the option to play it out several different ways and then the challenge is to make every single one of those ways compelling. So it's very difficult to frame your designs that way or just think that way. For some reason, Tim and I were very good at it almost from the beginning, on Fallout. But it's still difficult, even today. I can come up with a design and Tim will say "yeah, but what if you do it this way", and I'll say "argh, gotta redesign that one". So even after doing it for 20 years it's something we have to remind ourselves of.
"You have to give them the option to play it out several different ways and then the challenge is to make every single one of those ways compelling."
In addition to player agency in dialog and combat, one of the defining features of your games is stories with thematic depth. Fallout examined the human will to survive against all odds and the irony of us repeating the mistakes of the past all the same. The Outer Worlds seems to explore subjects such as extreme capitalism, corporatism, and consumerism. Why is it important for you guys to include real, societal issues in their games?
LB: I don't know, we just sort of lean that way. We always have. It just feels more interesting to deal with real subjects in a satirical way whereby we can get to the deeper truth without turning it into a slog through philosophy. In Arcanum we included themes of class and race, not because we necessarily had anything brand new to say about the subject but because we thought it was interesting to explore the ramifications of treating a fantasy setting like a realistic setting. It's the same thing with The Outer Worlds.
When we started, Tim really wanted to explore the corporate side - how silly we could make some of the branding and how obviously ridiculous some of the promises they made to consumers were. Then we started talking about things like mining towns at the turn of the century and how they controlled people's lives from beginning to end, and then we of course started talking about, well that hasn't changed all that much, it's just the narrative around it that has. I'd say any of our games you can boil down to the people who control the narrative; the people who are in power can basically control your life in ways you can't even realise. So we just like to pull back the curtain and show people what's underneath.
"We just like to pull back the curtain and show people what's underneath."
There's no doubt that Boyarsky in particular spends a lot of time thinking about themes and subject matter, and when asked about pop-cultural inspirations The Simpsons, Firefly, Rick & Morty, and Futurama are mentioned almost instantly. When it comes to philosophical inspirations they are more uncertain about what isms apply to The Outer Worlds, but after a healthy amount of consideration, existentialism is mentioned. As Boyarsky says with more than a hint of irony: "If we're being pretentious, we can probably trace it back to Sartre".
I'm told we have time for one more question and an old Leonard Boyarsky quote, in which he expresses disappointment that he and Cain never got the chance to make more Fallout games, comes to mind. Do you view The Outer Worlds as a new opportunity to create a big RPG franchise?
TC: Yeah, the main ideal was Leonard and I wanted to make one more big franchise. We've had a lot of people telling us it reminds them of Fallout, but I think a big chunk of that is we made Fallout so what you're seeing is us - what we would make if we got together to make a game. The humour, the look, the topics we like to touch on. That's just us.
LB: We just started making the game and we constantly ask ourselves "does this feel too much like Fallout" because once again, just like on Fallout we're following our guts and are doing what we want to do.
We will soon know whether The Outer Worlds has the makings of a big franchise for Obsidian when the game releases on October 25.