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RPG Codex Retrospective Interview: Tim Cain on Fallout, Troika and RPG Design
Interview - posted by Crooked Bee on Tue 4 September 2012, 17:22:43Tags: Arcanum: of Steamworks and Magick Obscura; Fallout; Interplay; Journey to the Center of Arcanum; Obsidian Entertainment; Retrospective Interview; Temple of Elemental Evil; Tim Cain; Troika Games
RPG Codex Retrospective Interviews is a series that grew out of our fascination with the rich history of computer role-playing games. It focuses on developers and individual titles that made a unique or significant contribution to the genre, aiming to cover a developer's career and approach to RPG design or, respectively, the most relevant aspects of the game in question and the design philosophy behind it.
In this entry in the RPG Codex retrospective interview series, we are happy to offer you an interview with Timothy Cain. At Interplay and then at Troika Games, Tim Cain designed some of the RPG Codex' all-time favorite CRPGs: Fallout, Arcanum, and Temple of Elemental Evil. After Troika closed its doors in 2005 due to financial problems, Tim joined Carbine Studios as the programming director to work on an MMO, until in 2011 he went on to become senior programmer at Obsidian Entertainment, where he is now working on South Park: The Stick of Truth.
The interview deals with Interplay and Troika, Fallout, Arcanum and Temple of Elemental Evil, as well as Tim's thoughts on RPG design. We are grateful to Tim for taking time to answer our questions in detail.
To begin with, can you tell us how you got involved with video game design in the first place and how you found yourself at Interplay in particular?
The company was having trouble creating art assets for the game. There were specific rules about color and layout that the hardware required, and it was hard to find artists who would understand and follow these rules and still make good art. They wanted to make a tool to help the artists, something like Paint that would restrict the artists to following the rules automatically so they could just concentrate on the art. Neither the PC nor the Apple II could display the resolution or color space needed by this tool, but the Atari 800 could, and I had [been] programming that hardware for a couple of years when my friend who worked there called me and asked me to apply for the contracting position to make the tool. I interviewed and the company liked me, but I was only 15 years old so they couldn't hire me. I was surprised when, a few months later when I had my birthday, they called me and asked if I was still interested. In that time, they had not found another Atari graphics programmer, so I said yes and found myself employed in the game industry.
I worked at that company for the next five years. I graduated from high school and went to college, but I would come back and work there during the summers. They changed their name to Cybron when another company in Virginia named Pegasus claimed earlier ownership of the name, and they landed a deal with Electronic Arts to make Grand Slam Bridge. I worked on the bidding, playing and deck maintenance code for that game, but I graduated from college and moved to California for graduate school before it shipped. I found out years later that they didn't put my name in the credits. While this disappointed me, I hadn't really planned to go into the game industry as a career. I was working on my Ph.D. in Computer Science, and I planned to become a professor and work in academia.
Well, that didn't happen. After I got my Master's Degree, I was disillusioned with academic life, so I sent my resume out to several game companies, including Interplay. They responded the fastest and they were the closest, and between my previous experience, my programming skills, and my pencil and paper RPG knowledge, I landed a contractor position making Bard's Tale Construction Set.
What were the pen and paper RPGs that influenced you the most as a systems designer, and in what ways?
GURPS was another huge influence on me. With its generic system that allowed any setting to be used, I could finally make up any adventure story and it would work. Science fiction stories set in space, super hero adventures, a psionic system that was balanced... GURPS opened my eyes to the world of adventure beyond the realm of fantasy. And I liked the idea of learning one system as a the core, and then you simply added new skills and advantages based on whatever genre you were playing. I thought it was brilliant.
There were other RPG's that influenced me too. TORG introduced a cinematic feeling to play, by allowing re-rolls that added to the first roll, letting the players perform crazy, over-the-top actions which really made them feel like heroes. Amber taught me that dice were not needed to play an RPG, and Gamma World presented the first post-apocalyptic setting that I had seen.
How would you describe the atmosphere and company culture at Interplay when you worked there, and how did it develop into the situation that prompted you to leave the company?
When I left Interplay in 1998, the company had over 600 employees, spread over multiple buildings and several countries. Games would ship that you never even knew were in development, and licenses were purchased and developed in secret. Lots of development was outsourced to outside development studios, so Interplay felt more like a factory than a family.
I left when I felt like I had lost control of Fallout. So many people took over after Fallout 1, when they changed their minds about the IP and suddenly it was a AAA game. Before Fallout 1 shipped, we had been overshadowed by D&D and Star Trek, so we were left alone to develop it our way. After it shipped, people were suddenly dictating content, box art, advertisement assets and everything else, so I walked away from it. I was proud of the game and happy that people were so passionate about it, but I realized it wasn't mine anymore and never would be.
In an earlier interview, you admitted Fallout's AI was "very simple," but you also said it was the best you could do because you "ran into all the problems rules-based systems have." Can you talk a bit about what those problems are?
Given that you left Interplay midway through Fallout 2's development, how did the resulting game differ from the original design you had in mind for it?
You claimed to enjoy Fallout 3, and I'm going to assume you also enjoyed Fallout: New Vegas. From a design standpoint, how would you compare Fallout 3 and New Vegas? What did New Vegas do differently from Fallout 3, in your view?
If I were to compare the two games, I would say that Fallout New Vegas felt like it captured the humor and style of the Fallout universe better than Fallout 3, but I have to hand it to the FO3 designers for developing VATS, a cool twist on called shots for a real-time game. I also loved the set decoration FO3. There was so much destruction, yet obviously everything had been meticulously hand-placed. So much story was told entirely through art. I ended up naming these little art vignettes and creating side stories in my head about what had happened. There was "The Suicide", a dead guy in a bathtub with a shotgun, and I figured he just couldn't handle life after the bombs. There was "Eternal Love", a couple of skeletons in a bed in a hotel room, forever embracing each other. There was "My Last Mistake", the corpse in the temporary one-man fallout shelter which obviously didn't do its job of keeping out the heat and radiation. My favorite was "Desperate Gamble", where I found a feral ghoul in an underground shelter filled with lab supplies and lots of drugs... except for Rad-X. I imagined that a scientist found himself irradiated and desperately tried to synthesize some Rad-X to cure himself before he succumbed, but he was too slow. I did notice that whatever was left of his mind sure did seem to enjoy toilet plungers.
If I had to pick something I didn't like about FO3, I would pick its ending. I hated the ending. There, I said it. I didn't like the sudden problem with the purifier, and I especially didn't like the lack of real, meaningful multiple endings beyond what I chose in the final few minutes (FEV or not, me or Lyons, and that was it?). But the worst thing about the ending was there was no mention of the fate of places I had visited. In my head I had already imagined slides for Megaton, the Citadel, Rivet City, Underworld, GNR, the Enclave or the mysterious Commonwealth. But I got... pretty much nothing.
I liked FONV's ending much better. It had a nice set of slides at the end of the game. They covered everything I was wondering about. I went with Mr. House at the end... and that seemed a worse choice after the slides, but still OK. It led to a law-abiding but somewhat impersonal Vegas. I wish I didn't have to kill the BoS, but I want House to control the future, so I had to do it. It was a great morally ambiguous choice, and the decision made me pause. That's a sign of good design, right there.
Troika's games, while arguably among the genre's most outstanding achievements, were notoriously rough at the time of release, often criticized for bugs and unfinished content. In retrospect, how do you explain this? Do you feel this kind of criticism can sometimes get unfair?
Second, we kept our team sizes small, both for budget and for management purposes. This meant we had less total man-hours to work with, and all of the late nights and weekends couldn't make up for the fact that we only had about a dozen people working on the Arcanum and Temple projects. Looking back, I am amazed our games were as feature-rich as they were, but I am not surprised they were as buggy as they were. We should have made some serious feature cuts early in their development.
Troika got characterized as “always blaming the publisher” when something was wrong and I think this was unfair. We would always own up to the parts of the development process in which we had made mistakes, but it seemed that if we ever said “we messed up this, and our publisher messed up that”, some people just heard the latter part of the comment and would start screaming “Troika is blaming the publishers again!”. It got frustrating after a while, especially when I saw people at Troika quoted out of context. But I did gain quite an insight into the American political system, which seems to deal with the same kind of illogical, sound bite oriented system of criticism of its political candidates. People hear what they want to hear, and often make up their minds before seeing, or even in spite of, any evidence to the contrary.
As Leonard Boyarsky put it in a past interview, "being original is risky." Do you believe originality, and the fact it did not sell, was one of the reasons Troika was not able to survive? If you had to list the most serious problems that haunted Troika and eventually led to its demise, what would they be?
So then the question is, why didn't we get any offers we liked? Especially since all of our games turned a profit? From the publishers point of view, our previous games had sold to a niche audience, so they were unwilling to fund us to make either a new IP or a large mainstream game based on a licensed IP because their numbers showed that the profit was too small. In other words, they could spend that money at other developers where their rate of return was much higher. It makes total sense from a business point of view, but it's still sad for Troika and its employees.
For Arcanum, Troika designed a complex character system that did not rely on an existing P&P ruleset. How did you approach the task of designing such a system, and what were the main influences on it and challenges involved?
Using that as our basis, we developed our stats and skills and spells and tech disciplines. It's hard to pin down our influences, since between us, we had played a lot of games. But I think it's safe to say that GURPS was a big influence, with its ideas of no classes, advancement thru skill points, and the concept of advantages and disadvantages (which we combined into backgrounds). Other games influenced us too, and I think we picked and chose elements that we liked, such as spell categories, crafting from schematics, and weapon and armor types from several different games. It was very challenging to balance all of these characteristics, and I am sure you will find no shortage of individuals who will claim that we did not.
The game's sheer scope, mutually exclusive choices, optional content and mastery quests for each skill make Arcanum an extraordinarily replayable CRPG. Why did you decide to focus so much on choices and non-linearity, and what motivated you to take a large-scale approach as opposed to making the game more compact?
What locations and quests did you personally design for Arcanum, and which one(s) are you most proud of?
I did suggest the idea of master quests for skills, and I designed most of the ones that went into the game. I also made a list of one hundred random “places of interest” that people could add to the game when they had free time. If anyone did add one, they simply crossed it off the list so no one else would add the same place twice. Many of the non-storyline locations in the world came from that list.
It is known that Arcanum’s sequel, Journey to the Center of Arcanum, was supposed to be a first person game using the Source engine and eventually led to Bloodlines. Can you tell us more about the plans Troika had for the project? Are there any details you can share about the setting, story or gameplay you wanted the sequel to have?
What were the guidelines you had in mind when adapting the 3.5 D&D rules for Temple of Elemental Evil? In particular, some believe that ToEE was perhaps too rigid in its implementation of the original module. Would you agree with that kind of assessment?
One event that I have rarely talked about is that during the 20 month development of Temple, I started feeling very sick, and it turned out I had a kidney stone that was failing to pass. I spent four months on pain killers while the stone worked its way out, and they certainly affected my work output. I am not putting it forth as an excuse for the problems with the game, but as more of an explanation that while Temple's schedule was very aggressive. I was not up to the task. I should have asked for more time to complete the game.
ToEE seems to be a very polarizing game. Some claim it has the best and most faithful implementation of turn- and party-based combat in a CRPG, while others harshly criticize the game’s content and encounter design. What were your goals with ToEE, and to what extent do you feel you succeeded in them? Is there a design decision implemented in the game that you could call your least favorite one?
Speaking of the criticism directed at ToEE, Hommlet seems to be one of the most widely criticized "hubs" in a CRPG. What were the main principles behind Hommlet's design, and how do you feel about it today?
Temple of Elemental Evil featured what is to this day the best translation of D&D to the PC. Sadly, there only was one game using that engine. Were there any plans to keep using it for other games, or perhaps license it to other developers, in a manner similar to the Infinity and Gold Box engines?
After Troika closed its doors, you worked on an MMO at Carbine Studios. Do you still feel the same way about MMOs considering the state of the economy and the failure of Bioware's high-budget Star Wars: The Old Republic?
Given that you are currently working on Obsidian’s South Park RPG, does the "casual" nature of the title influence the way you approach it? Generally, how do you think one should approach designing a more "casual" kind of CRPG?
As for casual RPG's, if I were to make one, I would lean towards making it simpler, both in character systems and in the UI, so that players who are not interested in stat juggling and character design could enjoy the game too. I'd like to think that someone who played and liked a casual RPG would use it as a stepping stone to richer and more complex RPG's, but for many people, you have to make that leap as easy as possible.
In a 2009 interview given to The MMO Gamer, you said "if you're not trying to make a work of art that is fun, and accessible, I don't think you should try." What is accessibility to you? After all, there is a significant difference in that regard between a Temple of Elemental Evil and a South Park RPG.
I care more about a game being fun than being beautiful, because no matter how good you look, people will move on to the next pretty thing and forget about you. If you make a fun game, people will remember that. And a fun game needs to be accessible, by which I mean that game had to present its rules clearly and then follow them. Don't give me a gun and then force me into dialogs. Don't let me stealth and then put in a boss who can see hiding creatures 100% of the time. Don't give me the power of flight and then force me into an underground dungeon. To me, a fun and accessible game teaches the player how to play it, lets them choose their own way through it, and then reward them for it.
In that sense, Temple and South Park are very similar. They both have classes with clearly defined abilities, a variety of weapons and armor and consumables, and a world that lets the player choose how to go through it. South Park has a more linear story line than Temple, but it's trying to tell a stronger story, with a definite start, middle and end, just like the TV show. Temple had less of a story and more of a goal, to deal with the evil inside this dungeon, and you could do it in a variety of ways, including joining the side of evil. That was more in keeping with its nature as a D&D module.
I would also like to ask you about introducing political issues to video games. You have done it a few times, in Fallout and Arcanum in particular. You seem fine with that, but do you have limits? Have you ever encountered a case where it was done over the top?
Arcanum was interesting to us as a setting because it took a standard medieval world and added an industrial revolution. That event would certainly have effects on the different races and governments, so the exploration of the social and political upheaval in that setting again felt like something we had to do. Otherwise the world would have felt static and not dynamic, even though we were telling the player that the world of Arcanum was in the midst of drastic change. We had to show that, not just say it.
For turn-based CRPGs, do you prefer ToEE's full party control or Fallout's single controllable character with followers? What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of the two models?
There are other considerations too. In turn-based games, character parties with full player control allow for more tactical combat, while single-character games allows for more personalized dialog and a stronger storyline.
In your experience, what are the common mistakes people make when designing a role-playing system for a CRPG, or adapting a licensed one? What questions would you recommend they pose to themselves and the system they are developing?
Similarly for games based on movies and books, developers often try too hard to make the player perform certain actions or play a certain way, because that's the way the characters in the movie or book would behave. I've played games that are mostly cut scenes interspersed with some activity, and I always thought to myself, if I wanted to watch a movie, I would have watched movie. Games are interactive at their core, in a way that books and movies are not.
The best question a developer can ask when making a new system or adapting an existing one is this: what is feeling I want this game to evoke. Should the player feel tense, or scared, or excited, or heroic? And then tailor your game's setting and mechanics to evoke those feelings. Harry Potter does not spend most of his time in the movies in wizard battles, so I wouldn't spend 90% of my budget on a Harry Potter game on combat assets. Instead, I would make an interactive world containing clever dialogs and puzzles that the player could explore to advance a storyline, and periodically there would be a wizard battle or a game of Quidditch to emphasize an important plot point.
What do you think about the current state of the CRPG industry? Are there certain trends that are worrisome to you or, on the contrary, that you especially appreciate?
Also, I'm really happy to see retro gaming revive interest in older games. There are some great older games out there, and it's nice to see younger players discover some of the old classics.
In his speech at the 2012 Unite Conference, Brian Fargo claimed the industry has "come full circle" since 1980s, shifting away from the console model dominant since the late 1990s and back towards "2 and 3 man teams" empowered by new tools, crowdfunding, and new distribution methods. Do you agree with this kind of picture? How would you describe the way the industry changed over the years that you have been active in it?
I am concerned about the mid-tier developer being crowded out of the market by these new methods. It seems that we are increasingly seeing two types of games, ones made by small independent developers and ones made by huge, publisher-owned teams. The mid-tier developer, which have teams of 30-60 people, are shrinking, and small teams of less than 10 people and large teams of over 100 people are becoming the norm. I am worried what this means for the types of games that will be available over the next few years. Will they be either small casual games that you play for a few hours and then move on, or gigantic behemoths that you devote months of gaming time to, possibly investing in DLC to stretch the gap between sequels? It's as if books are disappearing, to be replaced with short story collections and lengthy book series, or movies are being replaced with TV shows and movie franchises. Is there no middle ground any more? I don't know, and that worries me because some of the best games have come from such development, and it would be a shame if it was lost.
Thank you for your time.
I would also like to thank MMXI for his detailed feedback on the first version of the questions, as well as everyone who submitted their questions for this interview. We even used some of them.