Josh Sawyer: Chapter II

Let’s move on to the projects that didn’t make it. To begin with, could you shed some light on the ill-fated story of Baldur’s Gate III?

So, it’s a little weird. I was working on a game that was code-named Jefferson, before Van Buren. Jefferson was going to be Forgotten Realms game, but it wasn’t going to have anything to do with Baldur’s Gate—there was really no continuity between them. There were actually going to be a couple of characters from Icewind Dale II that were present in Jeffersonwe were actually starting to call it The Black Hound. Feargus never liked that name, but that was what I was calling it. Then Interplay ran into some problems with the licensing, so they had to call it a Baldur’s Gate namethey were going to call it Baldur’s Gate III: The Black Hound.

So what went wrong? 

Interplay lost the license entirely—they lost the Baldur’s Gate license. They could make Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance games on consoles, but they couldn’t make any Baldur’s Gate PC games, and the game had even less to do with Icewind Dale. It really wasn’t like it in any way; it was a new engine and it was set in Dalelands, which is a completely different part of the world. So they canceled it and we started on Van Buren right after.

Once Feargus left, they didn’t have to pay attention to Black Isle

Can you tell me a bit about Van Buren’s tragic tale?

Sure. Chris Avellone had compiled an enormous amount of reference material—story ideas, tons of characters he had to run, tabletop games for us to test—and he used some of that stuff as inspiration for new ideas. We used the technology from Jefferson for Van Buren, except we learned a lot of lessons, so we were able to block out levels much faster. Scott Everts, who’s still at Obsidian, he was doing a ton of cool work with a new tile system.

Snippet from Van Buren’s tech demo (2007)

Which was already being developed by Obsidian?

By Black Isle. But that was also around the time that Black Isle and Interplay were falling apart. Chris Avellone, Feargus Urquhart, Chris Parker, Chris Jones and Darren Monahan left to form Obsidian, and there just weren’t enough people left at the [Black Isle] studio to keep it going. Also, Interplay development wasn’t really interested in supporting the project, which was very frustrating.

What do you think led them to this conclusion?

I could speculate, but I think that Black Isle got the attention it did from Interplay because of Feargus. Once Feargus left, they didn’t have to pay attention to Black Isle. There were other projects going on at Interplay, so those were the things that got the attention from development.

Well that’s interesting. You could say that that franchise was one of their flagships.

I know. I thought it was very strange too.

Do you think you’ll ever go back to the original Van Buren concept?

Not really. The things that I thought were most interesting about it, I took and repurposed with the team for Fallout: New Vegas—Ceaser’s legion, and various characters and locations. Some of them were repurposed; they weren’t exactly the same as they were in the tabletop stuff, or in our plans for Van Buren, but we took those elements and we reused them. Personally, I don’t have any strong desire to go back to the Van Buren stuff.

Bethesda was very helpful for that, getting us up and running, and we just went from there

What’s the story behind the New Vegas development? How did you get your hands on the project?

Chris Avellone and the owners—I don’t know about the entire process but—they had talked about making a Fallout game with Bethesda. Feargus, I think, was talking to Todd Vaughn, who is the VP of development at Bethesda. They had an opening in their line-up because they had made Fallout 3, and they were working on Skyrim, and they knew it was going to be a long time before Fallout 4 would come out, so they didn’t want there to be a huge gap. So, we talked about making a game and we talked about setting it on the west coast. I believe Chris Avellone wrote up the idea of the sort of stranger who gets shot in the head and dropped in a shallow grave in the desert, with Vegas off in the distance—that was just the hook for it. Then Bethesda signed us up for the development process and we formed the team. John Gonzalez joined us as a creative lead—he was with us working on Aliens. He worked on developing the major factions, and all of the minor factions and major characters, and then we just moved on from there.

That’s great. But didn’t you feel a bit like a bunch of hired modders?

It was a little weird at first. It took a while for us to get def kits and source code, so for a while we really were just working with the tools—just like a modder would. But they’re really powerful those tools—I mean, you’ve seen the mods that people make. The difference between us and modders is that we can actually talk directly to the development team [laughing]. We call them and ask questions like, ‘How do we build the overall world map?’ ‘What are the best practices for this stuff?’ ‘How do we use the painting tool?’ ‘How do we integrate?—I think we were using Perforce at the time?’ ‘How do we do source control?’ and all that stuff.

Bethesda was very helpful for that, getting us up and running, and we just went from there. But, yeah, we had to be very limited in scope because we only had a year and a half to work on the game; we knew we couldn’t be too ambitious. We couldn’t rewrite the renderer, or rebuild a bunch of assets. There was a lot of stuff we had to bring over from Fallout 3.

About the same time, Obsidian worked on Alpha Protocol, right? Did you also have a role in that?

Yeah, I wasn’t working on itI mean, I worked a little bit on Alpha Protocol [laughing], just on the close-quarters combat system. But there was another big team working on Alpha Protocol at the same time.

Alright, so there are independent teams within the studio?

Yes. We usually have two or three teams working concurrently.

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