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

Crooked Bee

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

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 now, more than twenty years after Wasteland was released, on the way the possible sequel should be designed in this day and age? 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 answer our questions and to Brian Fargo for green-lighting the interview! Special thanks go to @MMXI for the splendid job he did in editing and refining the questions that I originally worded quite clunkily, and to @Monolith for troubling Brian Fargo with the whole thing.

I can't help but quote a good chunk of the interview for you:

- 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.

- 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.

- 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.

- 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.​

Michael also talks about how today's players see video games, Wasteland's character system, "depth and consequence" as that which Wasteland had and "a lot of RPGs lack today," and the importance of a voiced narrator and engaging text. I'm curious to hear what you all think about Michael's answers.

Meanwhile, be sure to read the interview in full: Wasteland 2 RPG Codex Interview - Part 2: Michael A. Stackpole
 

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Spectacle

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Nice informative inteview. Honestly, I'm not impressed by Michael. If not for the references to Wasteland it could have been Todd Howard or Peter Moulyneux saying most of this...
Also, I don't really think you need to be "extremely grateful" to him for letting you help promote his project at a critical time.
 

Baron

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Yes, thanks Crooked Bee. I agree with Spectacle in that you missed a good opportunity to tell a developer of a revered RPG to go fuck himself. With Codex interviews it's a scorpion and the frog thing... I'm not sure why.
 

Mozgoëbstvo

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These interviews... if they keep TB combat, they should have to try VERY hard *COUGH* xcom *COUGH* to fuck up.
But whot knows? Let's wait for the first gameplay video and see.
 

Mozgoëbstvo

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Yes, thanks Crooked Bee. I agree with Spectacle in that you missed a good opportunity to tell a developer of a revered RPG to go fuck himself. With Codex interviews it's a scorpion and the frog thing... I'm not sure why.

Developer: WHY DID YOU DO THAT?

Codexer: It's my nature. Also, dongs.
 

Shannow

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- 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.​
- 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.​
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.
I have gone completely flaccid.
 

groke

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Codex 2013 Codex 2014 PC RPG Website of the Year, 2015 Codex 2016 - The Age of Grimoire Serpent in the Staglands Divinity: Original Sin Torment: Tides of Numenera BattleTech I'm very into cock and ball torture
Codex has to be "extremely grateful" for whatever press Codex gets that isn't "those curmudgeonly basement-dwellers made fun of my dead Jew grandmother, their opinions are invalid".

Anyway: Fargo lies! Prepare for Wasteland 2: Fallout 4 Indie Edition!
 

Mrowak

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Didn't like what I read in this article. Dumboland - here we come!

Still, it's uplifting to see that the new wave of admins can conduct a proper, well-worded, polite, and above all professional interview. :salute:
 

Elwro

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Divinity: Original Sin Wasteland 2
Nah, I think the answers are really sensible. Following the answers which the h4rdc0r3 "bring back the 80s" audience would like would quickly drive the studio into the ground. The opposite attitude, unconditional "streamlining", would bring new players but lose almost all old players. What I'm seeing here is a very reasonable attitude to technological changes. God forbid having some voice-over in your game in the 2nd decade of the 21st century!
 

Monolith

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Nah, I think the answers are really sensible. Following the answers which the h4rdc0r3 "bring back the 80s" audience would like would quickly drive the studio into the ground. The opposite attitude, unconditional "streamlining", would bring new players but lose almost all old players. What I'm seeing here is a very reasonable attitude to technological changes. God forbid haveing some voice-over in your game in the 2nd decade of the 21st century!
On the one hand it seems risky with the budget they are aiming for. Additional costs für VO might limit the amount of dialogue so the fear is justified. On the other hand, though, you have Gothic, which wasn't a big budget title and where VO added a lot to the game and the dialogue was still top-notch.

What left me with a bitter taste was how he didn't go into what "the elements from other RPGs" are that could find their way into Wasteland 2. I understand that they probably don't know at moment. But the way it's now it could be QTE, persuation mini-game, BioWare style "nobody dies unless all die".

I like how he emphasized consequences and how past actions can influence dialogue. That part sounds great.
 

Volrath

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Voice over, quest markers, emotional engagement... What the fuck is this supposed to be? A Bioware game?
 
In My Safe Space
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Codex 2012
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.
:what:
 

torpid

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Engaged on an emotional level? Wasteland was a total lulzfest! I have hard time believing that. Like Spectator pointed out, he's recycling a lot of contemporary talking points and my body is now unready.
 

mbpopolano24

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You people must be on crack or something. Emotional involvement and full immersion in the world are key elements of ANY good games. It is not even open for discussion: if you don't feel anything, why the fuck are you even playing? The interview was more than OK, and if W2 turns out FO4 Indie that is going to be OK as well. Unless you rather spend more time with Mass Retarded 3 or those so cute wonderful ‘true’ indie RPGs like the last Mysterious Castle.
 

PorkaMorka

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The "Stackpole effect" is a slang term from Battletech. It refers to a mech with a damaged reactor exploding in a nuclear mushroom cloud, even though it is using a fusion reactor that shouldn't be able to explode in this way.

Anyway, this interview cored my central torso and my anticipation for Wasteland 2 just stackpoled. :(
 

nihil

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I didn't like this as much as the Brian Fargo part. If they're going to spend 1/4 of their budget on voice over, I'll get royally pissed.

However, he made a good point or two, and they are many designers on this (plus Fargo to steer things up?). I'm still excited for the game.
 

Crooked Bee

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Codex 2013 Codex 2014 PC RPG Website of the Year, 2015 Codex 2016 - The Age of Grimoire MCA Serpent in the Staglands Dead State Divinity: Original Sin Project: Eternity Torment: Tides of Numenera Wasteland 2 Shadorwun: Hong Kong Divinity: Original Sin 2 BattleTech Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire
Nah, I think the answers are really sensible. Following the answers which the h4rdc0r3 "bring back the 80s" audience would like would quickly drive the studio into the ground. The opposite attitude, unconditional "streamlining", would bring new players but lose almost all old players. What I'm seeing here is a very reasonable attitude to technological changes. God forbid having some voice-over in your game in the 2nd decade of the 21st century!

In short, I agree with this. I have my own concerns, of course (overemphasis on emotional engagement being one of them), and I'll post about them both here and on the official Wasteland forum. Still, as Michael put in in the interview, "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" -- "suicidal" being the key word. I'm pretty sure there have to be tradeoffs for this Kickstarter project to succeed (remember: there must be a LOT of supporters to gather $1 mil), and I don't think the interview is that concerning, in and for itself. Michael is just being realistic; and it looks to me like he's trying to find balance between old school and contemporary -- and whether or not he and the Wasteland 2 team actually manage to find it in the end, is another problem altogether.

Sure, it might go wrong, like literally any other project might, but there's no need to go 100% HARDCORE!! on this one. I just hope they aren't going to make too many trade-offs and pander too much to contemporary sensibilities, but we cannot really foresee that kind of thing at this stage.

One thing I particularly liked is the emphasis on the "reactive" character of the game, as well as that last bit of the interview, on individual input. Here's hoping they deliver on that, at least. And, um, balance be with them. :P

I didn't like this as much as the Brian Fargo part.

It's understandable that more people are going to dislike the interview that goes into and focuses on particulars, since it's particulars we always argue and disagree about. The devil is in the details, however, and therefore I'm really glad we did this second interview.
 

Kraszu

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You people must be on crack or something. Emotional involvement and full immersion in the world are key elements of ANY good games. It is not even open for discussion: if you don't feel anything, why the fuck are you even playing? The interview was more than OK, and if W2 turns out FO4 Indie that is going to be OK as well. Unless you rather spend more time with Mass Retarded 3 or those so cute wonderful ‘true’ indie RPGs like the last Mysterious Castle.

"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."

As long as it is done right this is much more important in a game then any emotionally engaging elements that should just be an addition to a game not the core of it. For example killing those Orcs should be something that you are able to do from start of the game but something that you had planned for some time now. Big fights that you had planned for some time, are pretty memorable, and sure nobody who did it will ask if he did it right, as he has perfect feedback on this already provided in the game.

Emotional involvement and full immersion in the world are key elements of ANY good games.

Space Rangers 2 great game with no emotional involvement. Civilization 2, and many other strategy games. Doom, Blood, Far Cry SP. FPS/RTS in MP. Fighting games.
 

Kraszu

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Nah, I think the answers are really sensible. Following the answers which the h4rdc0r3 "bring back the 80s" audience would like would quickly drive the studio into the ground. The opposite attitude, unconditional "streamlining", would bring new players but lose almost all old players. What I'm seeing here is a very reasonable attitude to technological changes. God forbid having some voice-over in your game in the 2nd decade of the 21st century!

In short, I agree with this. I have my own concerns, of course (overemphasis on emotional engagement being one of them), and I'll post about them both here and on the official Wasteland forum. Still, as Michael put in in the interview, "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" -- "suicidal" being the key word. I'm pretty sure there have to be tradeoffs for this Kickstarter project to succeed (remember: there must be a LOT of supporters to gather $1 mil), and I don't think the interview is that concerning, in and for itself. Michael is just being realistic; and it looks to me like he's trying to find balance between old school and contemporary -- and whether or not he and the Wasteland 2 team actually manage to find it in the end, is another problem altogether.

Balance like what? Quest compass on cool down? Why didn't you ask him for more detail I don't know what he means by that statement, what elements he thinks would be suicidal exactly? TB, and top down aren't already suicidal? Why would those "today's player" pledge anything on Wasteland 2? They have 20mln$+ games created for them.

1mln$ project doesn't need allot of supporters. Just 30k at ~34$.
 

Sitra Achara

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Codex 2012 Codex 2013 Codex 2014 PC RPG Website of the Year, 2015
I don't like his answers. -20dB will to donate.
 

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