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Whatever the Fallout TV show does with New Vegas lore, Josh Sawyer doesn’t care: “It was never mine”

The Obsidian design director on Pillars of Eternity II burnout and living with dead projects

What’s it like to watch a smash hit TV show set in the backyard of a game you’ve made? It’s a question which Fallout: New Vegas project director Josh Sawyer is uniquely qualified to answer.

“The show really does capture the aesthetic of Fallout 4 and 76, while also feeling like it is set on the West Coast,” he says. “If you’re a fan, then you can see where the plot elements have been pulled from in previous entries. And if you’re new to it, thankfully, those plot elements are fairly straightforward. So I think it’s a good show for fans and a good show if you’re new to it, even though there’s a lot of stuff going on. I’m certainly interested to see where they’re going in the second season.”

The LA setting of the Fallout TV show has seen its writers play with many of the same toys Sawyer did in New Vegas - namely, the New California Republic and the Mojave desert. In fact, some fans were vocally concerned that events in the Amazon adaptation had written their beloved game out of canon, prompting public reassurances from series custodian Bethesda. “Everything that happened in the previous games, including New Vegas, happened,” Todd Howard told IGN. “We’re very careful about that.”

By the time we speak, Sawyer has seen the finale of the Fallout show. But for three days prior, he was “inundated with the discourse”, as fans tweeted their worries and outrage directly to his account. “I understood why there was maybe some confusion or ambiguity,” he says. “I don’t think I necessarily would have jumped to the conclusions that other people did. But I could see why some people might be aggravated or annoyed.”

Sawyer himself, by contrast, is philosophical about the impact the TV show or any future Fallout entry might have on New Vegas. “This might sound weird, but whatever happens with it, I don’t care,” he says. “My attitude towards properties that I work on, and even characters that I create, is that I don’t own any of this stuff. It was never mine. And the thing that I made is what I made.”

Sawyer remains very proud of the New Vegas team’s work and believes the game stands on its own. “If later on other people working in the space do new things with it and change it, I’ll maybe have opinions on it, but I don’t get attached to things in that way,” he says. “I don’t feel like it’s healthy for me to be really invested in something I have no control over, frankly.

“There are things that I might watch and say, ‘I don’t think I would have taken this that way’, and then there are other things that I think are really cool. But it’s not my space, it was never my thing. I was a guest working in it. So I try to keep a level of distance between myself and the setting.”

Fallout: New Vegas was not, in fact, the first time Sawyer was invited to be a guest in the Fallout universe. In the dying days of legendary RPG studio Black Isle, he was made project lead of the game originally intended to be Fallout 3. Codenamed Van Buren, it was an isometric RPG that closely resembled the earliest games in the series, rather than the first-person Bethesda sequels that came later.

Post-apocalyptic poses in the Fallout show.
Image credit: Amazon

For Sawyer, a longtime admirer of the original Fallout’s open-ended design, it was an extraordinary opportunity. But the development of Van Buren became apocalyptic in itself, as Black Isle owner Interplay slowly disintegrated. Sawyer resigned, believing he’d lost his one shot to work on a Fallout game. “It was a dream of mine,” he says. “Losing that hurt.”

This organisational dysfunction was typical of the environment in which Sawyer began his career. He spent years conceiving a sprawling Dungeons & Dragons RPG dubbed The Black Hound, only for Interplay to lose the rights to make it. He led the making of Icewind Dale II over a truncated period of just ten months - so that his bosses could cover the sudden gap left by the cancellation of another Black Isle RPG, named Torn.

Even after Sawyer landed at Obsidian, the cancellations kept on coming. While Obsidian is now part of Microsoft, it used to be a contractor - constantly vulnerable to the changing whims of the publishers it worked with. Sawyer devoted huge chunks of his career to promising games that were abruptly shut down, like an Aliens RPG. He lost 40 colleagues to the “very, very awful” layoffs in the wake of the doomed Xbox One exclusive Stormlands.

Although Sawyer doesn’t play down the impact of all this devastation, he’s capable of speaking about it with well-developed detachment. “I do have to maintain some emotional distance, because sometimes these things are completely out of my control,” he says. “And I need to be able to move on with my life and my career, frankly, when things go wrong. So I can’t really despair. I have to look at it and try to understand how things happened the way they did, what role I played in them, and how I can improve or protect against those things in the future.”

As a result of all this pain and upheaval, Sawyer has embraced a utilitarian attitude to his craft. “The successful early projects of my career were almost all content sequels or spin-offs of existing tech bases,” Sawyer says. “And it focused my mind very heavily on the production process. Very quickly I adapted to, ‘How can we make something fresh in a very short period of time, using what we have?’ It was a very lean and bang-for-buck approach to development.”

A screenshot of Fallout New Vegas showing the player taking aim at some enemies.
Image credit: Bethesda Softworks

That thinking served Sawyer well when Obsidian was given 18 months to make Fallout: New Vegas. “We took a shipped game and made a spin-off without really changing the underlying tech very much,” he says. “So we focused almost entirely on content. When it came out, it was criticised for playing very, very similarly to Fallout 3.”

Over time, however, fans have come to appreciate where Obsidian did put its time and energy. “Our team had the luxury of focusing on conversations and quests, and really making those as robust and dynamic as we could,” Sawyer says. “A lot of the philosophy that I approached New Vegas with was the philosophy of Fallout 1, or how I interpreted it. Fallout 1 was foundational for me in understanding how role-playing games should be made.”

While Sawyer notes that a lot of the quests in New Vegas are fairly straightforward - “not that fancy” - he says that players tend to celebrate the choice-driven standouts. “And they remember how the factions work and how flexible that is,” he says. “There was a lot of effort put into making sure you can twist and turn through the different factions and resolve those things how you want.” Players felt empowered by the fact that you didn’t have to kill anybody in New Vegas - yet you could kill anyone (“except for kids”).

“I think that’s what has lasted,” Sawyer says. “The initial impact where people said the gameplay feels very close to Fallout 3 is totally fair. But then as time stretches on, and people play them side by side, the fact that we had so much of our time to focus on the content, I think that’s what people were excited about.”

It’s very rare that a big-budget game is made in 18 months these days. In fact, many take half a decade. That shift has led to a rise in developer burnout - a risk which occupies Sawyer’s thoughts often in his current role as Obsidian’s studio design director. “Because these projects are so long, if they go wrong and you're stuck in them for a long time, it can be extremely draining,” he says. “I have to be responsible with people’s time.”

Several warriors do battle in a crypt in Pillars Of Eternity II: Deadfire
Image credit: Obsidian Entertainment/Versus Evil

Recently, Sawyer tweeted that burnout had replaced crunch as the primary hazard of the game industry. “Even though some studios have very strict no-crunch policies, people are still being asked to do either impossible things, or things that they don’t really believe are for the good of the project,” he says. “And you eventually just start to tune out and feel very demoralised.” Burned out developers not only feel awful, Sawyer says, but do bad work and make irrational decisions. He speaks from personal experience.

“With Pillars Of Eternity II, we were in a position where we knew that we did not have enough time, nine months before we hit that wall,” Sawyer says. “We raised concerns to management, and the options were either to invest more time in it, or to cut scope and staff. And they didn’t want to do that.”

The problems were compounded when Sawyer was blocked from cutting a major feature - and when, midway through development, Obsidian committed to voicing every character in the game. “It was that feeling of accelerating towards a brick wall,” Sawyer says. “We knew that it was happening, and the closer we got to it, the more stressful it became. I and a lot of other people on the team became really harsh, and were snapping at people. I didn’t really recognise myself at a certain point because I had very little tolerance for time being wasted and questions and things like that. I was pushing people in a way I had never done on a game before.”

Eventually, Sawyer went home and sent a letter to Obsidian’s owners - to say that he wouldn’t return to work until the schedule was extended. “Every day I come in, I leave feeling worse than before,” he wrote. “I feel like I’m making the game worse every day. I just can’t do it.” The studio owners relented, and when Pillars Of Eternity II released, it reviewed well. “But it didn’t sell well, and that was very demoralising,” Sawyer says. “I was like, ‘Damn, I was this huge, awful asshole to this team’. And it felt like a big waste.” It took him a year afterwards to recover.

Andreas talking to his landlady in Pentiment
Image credit: Xbox Game Studios

When Microsoft bought Obsidian, Sawyer went to CEO Feargus Urquhart - and said that if he was going to stay at the company, he would need to work on a much smaller project. That turned out to be Pentiment, a narrative-driven murder mystery set in the Holy Roman Empire. It gave Sawyer a chance to heal. “Pentiment was a really great experience, the exact opposite,” he says. “A lot of people don’t come out of burnout, they have to limp through a lot more development. I’m in a very privileged position.”

From his first days at Black Isle, Sawyer had three dream projects: a D&D adaptation, a Fallout sequel, and a historical game. Now that he’s managed the hattrick, his goals are less specific, and more reflective of the lessons he’s strived to learn.

“There are a lot of games that sound like they’d be fun to make,” he says. “And I don’t have one idea I’ve got to make before I kick it, or feel like I need more success than I’ve had. I just want to make good things, and treat people well on those teams. And for them to feel like they grow and come out better than they went in.”

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