The Outer Worlds Interview — Developer Talks Role Playing, Exploration, and Quests

Obsidian's Carrie Patel spoke with us about how storytelling and gameplay come together to create a better role-playing experience in The Outer Worlds.

I got to play a bit of The Outer Worlds at a hands-on event a few weeks back. I’m pretty content with what I saw overall because there seemed to be a solid understanding of how fresh and familiar this game should be. I also got to speak with Obsidian’s Senior Narrative Designer Carrie Patel. We broached a few topics: how similar this game really is to Fallout, making a classic single-player RPG modern, politics, flaws, exploration, and botching quests.

Brandon Doerrer: The first thing I actually noticed while I was playing the game was the botched quests. You mentioned, “have I killed anyone I wasn’t supposed to yet?” How easy is it to damage a quest beyond repair where you just have to leave it behind?

Carrie Patel: We try to make it as hard as possible within reason. In a lot of cases killing a quest giver or the person you have to turn a quest into may end up botching a quest. There may not be any other way reasonably to turn it in and complete it. There are a lot of cases where with an NPC or particular person in the middle of a quest, there may be multiple routes to get what they would give you. And so, whenever possible, we try to include some kind of fallback or fall through, so that not only players who might be more aggressive with NPCs but players who also maybe don’t have the dialogue skills or something have an avenue to complete their content.

B: I also noticed pretty early on that this is a diverse game. It took maybe one or two characters before I started seeing women of color. Was that something you really wanted to go for from the beginning? How early on did you decide that this was important enough for you to make it prevalent?

CP: There’s definitely a lot of interest on the team to make sure that we’re representing our players and representing humanity broadly. This is supposed to be a colony in the future that’s pulled from the various peoples of Earth. We want to be representative of that and we want to include everybody in our game.

B: It’s something I’ve noticed in previous games like Fallout: New Vegas. The queer representation in that game–I think like half of the companions in that game, my favorite ones, are queer characters.

CP: Yeah, Veronica and Arcade.

B: Yeah, some of my favorite characters! The Outer Worlds is clearly a spiritual successor of sorts to New Vegas. This is filling a void that we haven’t had filled in a while, but you seem like you’re accepting that and stepping into that role.

CP: People will definitely see the DNA of a game like New Vegas in this. We have a lot of developers on our team who worked on New Vegas previously. Obviously, Tim and Leonard worked on the original Fallout games. The semi-open worlds, the open approach to completing and achieving quests, the flexible and player-driven storyline, that’s all stuff that you can see in our DNA that also exists in games like New Vegas. But in terms of the IP, we’re definitely creating something new and I think players will recognize The Outer Worlds as something pretty distinct.

B: How do you decide what the appropriate balance of that Fallout DNA to brand new things is? What aspects of Fallout do you want to make sure you include in this game and what do you want to make sure you avoid putting in to make it too similar?

CP: The general approach to having multiple paths and multiple solutions through content–to accommodating various playstyles, whether it’s accommodating players who build very strong dialogue characters or very stealthy characters, someone who’s very strong in combat–some of that is maybe the inevitable result of having a game with those sort of playstyles enabled. In our case, this isn’t an open world in the same style as Fallout, but a semi-open world, first-person RPG with strong FPS elements. It’s easy to see those similarities but the things we’ve wanted to apply, which are things we’ve practiced at the studio on a number of our games, are accommodating a variety of player builds, giving the player a sort of blank slate for role-playing so that they can really create the character that they want to experience the world with, and putting them in a position to drive the story and to play the game they’d like to.

B: Would you say this game is more designed to play a specialized character or is it equally as encouraged to be a kind of jack-of-all-trades sort of character?

CP: You really can do either. It’s certainly important to us that players have fun and can succeed with any kind of character they build. All of our crit-path content has dialogue solutions, stealth solutions, and combat solutions. Players should feel empowered with any of those. We also have a leadership build which is where you focus more of your points into leadership skills. Then your companions become a lot more formidable in combat. I don’t know if you’ve experimented with their special attacks at all?

B: I haven’t yet, actually.

CP: Well, you might have something to look forward to then.

B: I will definitely do that, then. [laughs] In the same vein, how do you feel like you’ve managed to create a modern game while still relying on some mechanics and formulas that have existed for decades now, with the original Fallout games? What sort of changes do you have to keep in mind knowing that you want to make this modern?

CP: For one thing, we’ve definitely tried to hone our combat to make the shooting elements feel a lot stronger. We want to make sure players who’re accustomed to FPS games and are coming at this with that background rather than the RPG background will find gameplay that they can enjoy. Smoothing and honing all the basic elements of our design, obviously. Taking a fresh IP and building a new world around it. In this case, taking this satirical look at corporate culture, at consumer culture, propaganda, and overdrive–that’s something that’s very resonant with people in modern audiences.

B: There seems to be a lot of pride that this is a return to a single-player RPG, no microtransactions, no multiplayer. It seems like that’s something that you’re really proud of, right? What does it feel like to be working on this game in light of Fallout 76 coming out recently–a Fallout game with a battle royale mode? How does it feel to be working on a purer single-player RPG in this time?

CP: Single-player RPGs have always been the thing we specialize in as a studio. I haven’t personally played 76, but I know a lot of us have really enjoyed many of the installments in the Fallout series. For us, this is just us doing some of the things we do best and really having fun with it. Especially since we’re getting to explore them in a new IP, in a new world, and get to redefine a lot of elements.

B: You mentioned the satirical look at corporate culture, which I encountered pretty quickly right away playing [The Outer Worlds]. I know that there’s been a bit of talk about how this game doesn’t want to lecture players when it comes to politics and their political views, but there are obviously politics in this game. How do you feel like you’re presenting political themes without lecturing players on it? For instance, in the E3 demo, there were pigs who were given tumors. How do you present something like that without it feeling like you’re lecturing someone?

CP: The thing is, as you’ve noticed, these elements about corporate culture, about satire, they’re very present in the game. For players that are interested in digging into those ideas and those themes, they’re there, you’re going to find them. At the same time, for players who want to experience humor and action, those elements are there, too. It really just comes back to recognizing that different players are going to come to a game like this looking for different things and handing it over to the player to engage with the elements that interest them most.

B: This game touches upon how people who are in power can control narratives. Obviously, you’re portraying a system that has allowed those types of people to come to power to control narratives. How do you feel like you’re portraying that system without criticizing it too heavily? How do you think players are going to be able to see that system and not see it as criticism to the point of lecturing perhaps?

CP: Well, I will say you’ve played this game already. I don’t think anyone would look at this system and say this is a system that works, that this is the world at its finest. I don’t really think anyone’s going to say that this is a healthy, well-functioning society. I do think balancing that with humor, with absurdity, should hopefully still make this a fun experience for players, rather than something that they’re just going come away from depressed.

B: I wanted to touch on the flaw system a little bit because I just got my first flaw, which I, of course, accepted.

CP: Brave man. [laughs]

B: Thank you, thank you. Why did you think it was important to implement that system in the first place?

CP: There’s the mechanical element and then there’s the narrative player-story element. On the mechanical side, it’s an opportunity for players to accept some additional challenge but at the same time also take an additional perk. It’s another way that players can customize their specific character based on the unique experience that they’re having with the game. But at the same time, it’s a way for the player to build their story with the character. This is something that your character has experienced. Taking that flaw is building the story of your character around their mechanics if that makes sense. I’ve struggled with this as a player and as a character and now it’s built into the fabric of my character.

B: It’s a gameplay mechanic that affects how it’s played but it’s also reflected in role-playing. That was one of my favorite things about New Vegas–picking these weird perks then, when I create a backstory for my character, asking ‘does this perk fit?’ Obviously, it changes the gameplay, but does it fit this character from a role-playing perspective?

CP: Right, and it means something in your mind. There’s a story you’re telling yourself about why you picked that perk.

B: So far I’ve seen that a lot of the flaws are centered around fear. If you take enough damage from a thing you have a fear of this thing. That’s a pretty simple one, but how did you decide what flaws to include in this game?

CP: Some of it was thinking about ‘what are the different situations the player can find themselves in? What can they take damage from? What are players going to encounter over and over again that would make this a flaw that they could find and a flaw that could affect their gameplay going forward?’ And like a lot of elements in this game, there’s an element of humor and whimsy in it, too. We try to have fun with all of these elements and we want players to see these things and be amused, too. Robophobia–the idea that you’re fighting all these robots and now suddenly you’re very scared of them.

B: It’s pretty funny. Is there any worry that giving an explicitly negative connotation to one of these traits, some players might find that upsetting or problematic? Is there any worry saying ‘this is a negative thing, do you want to take it?’

CP: I don’t think so. Most of the flaws that I can think of off the top of my head are pretty unique to elements in our game. There’s not really any negative consequences to the player for taking them other than the debuff that they’re going to get in those situations.

B: Shifting a little bit, how encouraged is it to explore different parts of the map? To just go completely off the beaten path? One of my favorite things about New Vegas was that it felt like no matter where I went on the map, no matter how remote or unmarked–there wasn’t even a texture on the map for it, it never felt like a waste of time to go explore those things. Is this game constructed with a similar mindset? How much emphasis is placed on areas where it seems unlikely a player might even go there?

CP: We definitely try to include content in those areas. At the same time, if a player just wants to follow the crit path, we don’t want them to be confused in trying to figure out where to go next. As you saw, [players] have quests in their journals that are marked for them by quest markers that they can follow in the world and on the map. Players will hopefully not feel lost. But for players who do enjoy exploring at their own pace, they’re going to discover side quests, they’re going to discover loot, they’re going to discover additional groups of enemies, and in some cases secret routes to places they may need to get to either at that point or later in the game. There are definitely rewards for exploring. As you probably noticed, this isn’t open in the sense of Fallout: New Vegas where you can walk from one end of the map to the other. [The Outer Worlds] is constructed of several different settings, a couple of planets and other locations as well that in and of themselves are open as Monarch was, as you were playing.

B: Player choice seems pretty important to you. We’ve spoken a lot about how everything in this game is constructed around the idea that you want players to be able to do what they want. Why is that so important in constructing this game?

CP: It’s certainly part of the DNA of a lot of games we make. Internally at the studio, there’s this idea of a classic Obsidian RPG. Choice, player-driven story–that includes letting the player role-play in their conversations. It includes letting the player build a character in a way that is interesting and fun for them. These things have always been very important to us and the RPGs we created. In a game like this, part of the fun is just dropping the player into this world and letting them decide what they’re going to do in it. That includes mechanical things like what kind of character you’re going to build and how you’re going to solve challenges–and also role-playing, how you’re going to conduct yourself with other NPCs.

B: How do you avoid the illusion of choice? How do you make sure your choices feel meaningful and it’s not just some facade that players are working their way through?

CP: Consequences. That’s a very simple answer but interesting consequences can take a lot of different forms. Sometimes, depending on what the choice is, it’s seeing a change in your companion. Maybe it’s not necessarily a better or worse thing it’s just you see this person who’s been going on a journey with you and you reach the end of an arc with them and help them reach a conclusion or understand what their journey means. You see that change play out in the way they relate to you and the way they relate to content. That’s a meaningful consequence for players who are really invested in their companions. There are also choices that you may make in the more classic sense of choice and consequence early in the game about how to resolve certain key conflicts and the consequences of those choices. What the people you supported or hurt did after you left may come up later in the game.

The Outer Worlds is scheduled to release for the PS4, Xbox One, and PC on October 25, 2019. A Nintendo Switch version is also in the works but doesn’t have a release date yet.

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Brandon Doerrer

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