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Wasteland 2 RPG Codex Interview - Part 2: Michael A. Stackpole

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Wasteland 2 RPG Codex Interview - Part 2: Michael A. Stackpole

Interview - posted by Crooked Bee on Tue 6 March 2012, 08:27:11

Tags: Kickstarter; Michael A. Stackpole; Wasteland; Wasteland 2

(Be sure to read Part 1: Interview with Brian Fargo first if you still haven't!)

When we at RPGCodex learned about Michael A. Stackpole, a key original Wasteland designer, joining Brian Fargo's new team, we had this pretty great idea: why don't we interview him as well and hear his thoughts, more than twenty years later, on the way the possible sequel should be designed? There were a few things we were really curious about, and luckily, Michael was up for it, so here we have the result.

We are extremely grateful to Michael A. Stackpole for taking his time to do this interview for us, and to Brian Fargo for making this happen in the first place!


- Wasteland was an entirely new kind of computer role-playing game when it came out, both in terms of setting and design. This was an integral part of both the game's immediate appeal and the cult status is has since enjoyed. Do you feel that Wasteland 2 could also bring something new to the table, or should it attempt to bring back something that has since vanished from the genre?

Michael A. Stackpole: To be a successful game, I think it needs to do both. We will be faithful to the original spirit and play of Wasteland, but we have to take a look at elements in other rpgs and see if they have a place in our project. Since other RPGs and MMORPGs have determined how a lot of today's players see games, and have set a bar for what they expect, to pretend they don't exist would be suicidal. We just have to find ways to make those bits and pieces fit in Wasteland, and the design will be flexible enough to do just that.

- One of Wasteland's defining elements was its character system. The direct use of attributes and skills on the environment was unusual yet highly impressive for the time. A quarter of a century later, would you change anything about the original system? Would you expand on it, refine it, or perhaps even scrap it altogether for something completely different?

MS: To preserve what players loved about Wasteland, the only real choice will be to build upon the original style of system and expand it. We did a lot with very few resources back then. I can't tell you the number of times Alan and I would be talking on the phone with tons of great ideas, but knew we were limited to a tiny number of them because of the limitations of computers and memory back then. As it was, Alan did a stunning job incorporating so much in the game, so we really made full use of everything we could do. We're already discussing new elements to add and systems that will make things seamless for the players.

- Like many of the classics, Wasteland's rule system and design borrowed heavily from pen and paper RPGs. Given that current cRPGs seem to be influenced more by other video games instead, should Wasteland 2 be as firmly rooted in P&P as its predecessor?

MS: The fact that Wasteland was and will be a turn-based system means that P&P style rules and systems can work very well. We start from that basis and build a killer engine. That the designers with system design can do fairly easily, especially working from what we already have. After that, we have scenario designers who use those tools to create the adventures. What Wasteland had that a lot of RPGs lack today is depth and consequence. I firmly believe that's something that can be taught to designers, and encouraged in the development phases by editors. In short, designers will pick up the skills to create a game worthy of the Wasteland legacy.

- Wasteland built upon the ideas present in older cRPGs. Similarly, Fallout was constructed on Wasteland's foundations. Do you think that it is important to build upon the style of more recent games? If so, which modern games do you think come closest to sharing Wasteland's design goals? Do you feel that there are elements that were introduced in Interplay's Fallout games that could make their way back into Wasteland?

MS: As I noted above, we have to take into account more recent developments in games. In that sense, everything is on the table. We can pick elements that work very well in games and figure out a way to make them work in our game. We can also look at elements that never reached their full potential which we can spin up into something really exciting. Plus, we now have a chance to address after the holocaust gaming in depth and length and breadth in ways we couldn't before. That's the part I'm most looking forward to.

- An extremely important part of Wasteland was its puzzles. Today, however, it seems that elaborate puzzles have no place in cRPGs. Why do you think this is? Do you consider them a viable element in modern game design? If not, what could be a contemporary replacement and would it be possible to create something as memorable as, say, Finster's Brain without them?

MS: The things that players tend to remember the most about Wasteland adventures were not the puzzles per se, but the moral choices players had to make. When I do book signings, now 24 years after Wasteland came out, I still get folks wanting to know what the "correct" solution was to dealing with the rabid dog. Why? Because they felt like hell killing the dog. The dog puzzle, if you will, engaged players on an emotional level. That's not something that happens when you're killing ten orcs to get a key to unlock a chest which contains a scroll which will let you find a treasure which is the sword that lets you kill a monster. Why designers haven't stepped up to engage players emotionally is beyond me; though it may have to do with the difference between making puzzles and creating stories. Ultimately, creating stories is what we did with Wasteland, and what we'll do with the new Wasteland.


- Wasteland represented conversations through a hybrid system of keyword typing and multiple choice selection, separating knowledge acquisition and quest progression. However, over the 15 years, full-blown dialogue trees have taken over the genre, with games such as Wizardry 8 and Morrowind being the last ones to experiment. Do you see any merit in alternative dialogue systems today? How would you approach conversations in Wasteland 2?

MS: The idea of handling conversations isn't as exciting for me as handling consequences of how the conversations conclude. I'd rather get into the meat of how you know someone is telling the truth, and what you do when you find out they've lied. It's possible to design an interface that not only takes into account player choices in a dialogue tree, but selects responses based on factors which the players might not even know about. Their actions in killing everything that moved in the last town might have a serious effect on how folks deal with them in this town. Ditto an action they take immediately, or even the folks they have in their party. I do a lot of dialogue in my day job. What is said isn't as important as how it makes folks feel. That's for the player. Determining how the NPCs feel and how that tempers their responses is just one more fun part of the design.

- Wasteland made heavy use of text descriptions to convey the game's atmosphere. Nowadays, as graphics and sound quality has improved substantially since then, almost all cRPGs let the graphics and sound do the talking. Do you feel that text descriptions are adequate these days? Would a voiced narrator colouring your every move be a contemporary alternative?

MS: Brian's already noted that audio is going to be a component we'll be exploiting, and I agree strongly with that. Having an actor read text can put so much more nuance into things that it really enriches the experience. I think having text available as a back-up, or as the primary source of information in places where a voice would not be appropriate (like reading a message scratched on a jail cell wall), is a good way to go. We'd also be foolish if we didn't recognize that any clues and code words aren't going to be backstopped by web pages and YouTube walkthroughs. The trick with text is going to be to make it engaging enough that folks will want to read it.

- Today's role-playing video games tend to be developed with maximum accessibility in mind. A lot of developers seem to discourage experimentation and exploration by introducing features such as quest markers to guide the players. Wasteland, however, didn't hold your hand at all, and it was therefore extremely easy to miss out on large chunks of content. What is your stance on this today?

MS: A hunk of the appeal of rpgs is the element of discovery. My preference would be to keep everything in world, but quest markers and other visual clues on a mini-map might be something which is useful. Then again, with a top down view, getting and using clear and concise directions is a lot easier than in many a FPS or MMORPG. For my tastes, it would be fun to have a mode in which folks could get that hint information. Maybe a GPS device that functions off and on, so you use it sparingly. Ultimately, of course, we want the game experience to be fun, not frustrating. If navigation becomes a problem in that regard, finding a simple and elegant solution will move up in the list of design elements to be included.

- An impression one gets from reading old interviews is that the Wasteland developers, regardless of discipline, were able to make their mark on the actual game world. As you once put it in an interview, "Everyone wanted to have his own map". Do you envisage this kind of collaborative design for Wasteland 2? How delicate is the balance between cohesiveness and variety in terms of locales?

MS: In the past quarter century (it hurts me to say that), I've spent a lot of time coordinating the development of some large worlds, like FASA's BattleTech Universe. I've worked with other authors, like Timothy Zahn, Kevin J. Anderson and Aaron Allston on coordinating elements for Star Wars® books. What I've learned through all those experiences is how to coordinate individual efforts and their contributions into the overall project. Short form, if the overall project has enough flexibility, you can allow designers to go nuts with their maps and not have it ruin the overall design. As long as what they do, and the best case scenario of how a player can come out of their map doesn't upset the balance, and as long as they include any specific design element to speed the overall story, you're good to go. So, we have the systems and room for folks to come in, and I'm really looking forward to their contributions.

Thanks to MMXI for editing the questions!

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