SINFO is a well known event among computer engineering and computer science students in Portugal. The 24th edition took place at Técnico Lisboa (Alameda campus) between the 20th and the 24th of February, and gathered, beside the obvious target audience (students and technology enthusiasts), interesting and influential people and employers. For us, the people we have to pretend we are most excited about every year are the people that are somehow involved with the videogame industry: previous editions brought people from Naughty Dog, EA Games, Bioware, Blizzard and much more. As for this year, we got Leonard Boyarsky from Obsidian and Mike Ambinder from Valve.
Leonard Boyarsky has a pretty unique legacy in the videogame industry: he has been an artist, art director, designer, project lead and even CEO, and he was also part of the teams responsible for a lot of creative decisions on projects such as Fallout, Fallout 2, Diablo III, Arcanum, Vampire the Masquerade – Bloodlines and is currently working at Obsidian on a new project (that is not Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire). It’s a sunny but windy day, 11AM, temperature is close to 16ºC (more or less 60ºF) and after the staff invited me to their coffee-break a ton of times, I got the chance to interview Leonard.
Rubber Chicken: Is this your first time in Portugal? Are you enjoying your stay? What do you think of our country?
Leonard Boyarsky: I love it. We were really tired Sunday, we’ve spent a lot of the time downtown, went to the castle, yesterday we went to Belém. It was really nice, we’ve walked around quite a bit. It’s wonderful, we didn’t know much about Portugal other than what I’d learned in school when I was 18 years old, 17 years old, so, you know, it’s been a while, but it’s very beautiful and I like it a lot!
RC: SINFO is an event that allows attendants to interact and be closer to influential, important and interesting people or companies in the fields of information technology and computer science. What are your thoughts on this initiative and what do you think you can add with this interaction with general attendance and students?
LB: I think this is really great. It feels very professional, it feels like everything has been taken care of, there’s been no hiccups and no problems, so the fact that this is all run by the students with no advisors and no outside help has really impressed us. I think it’s great to have this kind of things for different industries. As far as what I can bring: I’ve thought a lot about it because this is a very tech heavy event and I’m much more on the artistic/writing side, and I think the main point that I can help them understand and give them information about how it is to work with someone who has a more artistic, less technical view, and the way someone like me thinks about things. I also talk about how I’ve interacted with programmers over time, and offer advice on how programmers should interact with us less technical types, cause even if you’re not in games, in any kind of industry you’ll have to deal with the less technical people, trying to get what they need from whatever program you’re doing. And hopefully it will be fun to hear me talk about my career in general as well.
RC: Can you give some insight about your work? What do you enjoy most doing on a project?
LB: The thing I enjoy most is creating worlds from scratch, creating my own worlds, I really like starting with nothing and coming out with what our world will all be about. I’ve done that on Fallout, I didn’t do it myself, I did with a team, but we did it on Fallout, we did it on Arcanum, we are doing it on a new project we’re working on now at Obsidian. Even on Diablo III, when I came on, one of the things we did was to start to make the world bigger, to add new areas, new civilizations, so I did a lot of work on that. It’s very interesting, when you’re scripting (that’s a junior form of programming) it’s almost like, figuring out a puzzle. To me, when you’re there and making the game, it’s actually a game itself, and it’s the most challenging game because there’s no rules, and you need to decide what winning conditions are every time you do it. Unless you’re working on sequels, which I have never really done, except when we did the expansion for Diablo III and I started work on Fallout 2. So every time you start from scratch again, start to figure what kind of problems there are gonna be and tackle them along the way, because you always know: at a certain point, during development, no matter what game I’ve worked on, or people on other teams I’ve talked to, there’s always a point when everything’s gone to hell, nothing’s gonna work, you’re doomed. So in reality, to me, it’s more fun than any game other people can make for you to play because it’s kind of this free form thing. And your livelihood depends on it, so the stakes are much higher.
RC: Do you feel that this new project you’re working at Obsidian is like your little baby and putting a lot of creative effort on it?
LB: Yeah, you know, in a lot of ways it feels like going home, because a lot of people at Obsidian used to work at Troika, Interplay or both, so I’m working with a lot of people I’ve worked before, returning to the same kind of thing I’ve done before. It’s very creative, that’s the part that I love about it. But in videogames, you know, even though Blizzard is a huge company, in each of the teams has a ‘small team’ feel to it. I don’t know how it is on World Of Warcraft, that’s obviously gigantic, but speaking for the Diablo team, it still felt like a small team even though we were part of a big company. So everybody had a bunch of creative input into the process. At some of the other larger companies, which I’ve not worked at, there are positions that all you do its texture map, or just model. You know, they give you a drawing and they say “model this!”, and that’s your job, and that to me is, you know, it’s a great job in and of itself, but to me that wouldn’t be as fun as to have some creative input. So, hopefully, what we would like to do is give our whole team is the chance to create this thing from the ground up.
RC: What influence do you think pen-and-paper RPGs have on the RPG genre?
LB: I think there are great things about being influenced by pen-and-paper RPGs, but there’s things that we really need to let go of because we are now so far removed from that. Obviously, being able to look up all the hit tables instantly, and roll all these dice instantly felt really good, and it was a really great version of that originally. But, because of the fact that you don’t have a bunch of friends playing with you and you’re playing with a computer, you need to make certain changes. For instance, when we first started Fallout it was supposed to be GURPS (Generic Universal RolePlaying System), and we were extremely faithful to the rules, and it was actually very fortunate that we broke away from that because we would have been a very faithful adaptation of that, but I don’t know how fun that would have been as a computer game. When you look at the pen and paper rules, there all these little rules to do every little thing, where you don’t need most of those rules in a computer game. So, it’s weird, and you know, the thing they’re trying to do at Pillars of Eternity, if I can speak from them, is to kind of get away from all the stuff that is a holdover from the old days, but keep the stuff that is the heart of those kind of games that people really enjoyed, to somehow recreate that.
RC: So, during development of Fallout 2 at Interplay, you left to found Troika Games. How does it feel to leave a project that was important to you in other people’s hands?
LB: On one hand it was very difficult, on the other hand it wasn’t difficult at all, because, when we made Fallout we were sitting over in a corner doing our own thing, no one was paying attention to us. They originally did not have the Dungeons and Dragons license, so that’s why we were making a GURPS game in the first place. Once they got the Dungeons and Dragons license they were like “well, let’s just put everybody on that”, but then they looked at what we’ve already done, and the progress we’d made, and they said “Well, this looks okay, so we’ll just let you keep going”. But all their focus was on the Dungeons and Dragons games, so we were literally just left alone to do whatever we wanted.
But at the end of Fallout, when it looked like Fallout could actually be something, especially at the beginning of Fallout 2, all of a sudden all these people: marketing people, owners and executives started looked at what we’re doing and started making very strong suggestions about things we needed to do. Fallout had been such a wonderful, great experience and we were starting to feel like Fallout 2 was not gonna be fun – “Fallout 2 will be stressful, it’s gonna be something where we would have to defend our decisions constantly”- which may or may not be true, but it was something that we definitely felt at the time. So it was difficult to walk away, because I felt a lot of pride for what we’d made, and I would have loved to continue to work on the Fallout franchise, but at the same time, we didn’t want to leave with a bad memory of Fallout. We were leaving with this fantastic thing we accomplished, let’s get out before it turns sour in our minds. And we did the design work for Fallout 2, we planned what the main story arc was gonna be, we planned a lot of sidequests. I mean – they even put sidequests in Fallout 2 that were just notes on a scrap of paper which was very nice, it felt to me like they really wanted to continue in the spirit we had started. We also did things like change what the vaults were. They originally were supposed to be just what they were, fallout shelters, but we came up with the idea that the vaults were actually these experiments, and I like how that evolved the setting.
So in a lot of ways, and I’m not taking anything away from the people who implemented it, because it’s easy to came up with ideas, the hard part is actually to do the work on the game, but I feel it really reflects what we wanted to do with it. Got a little bit sillier than we probably would have, but hm… yeah, I don’t really think it hit me until later, when Bethesda bought it. As long it was Interplay I felt it was fine, because we walked away from it, it was a choice we’d made. But when it got sold to a third party, then it was kinda of weird to us. If it was going to somebody else we should have had the chance to bid on it, but obviously we didn’t had the kind of money that Bethesda had.
RC: Do you have any advice to someone trying to enter the videogame industry?
LB: It really depends on what you’re trying to do. If you want to work on triple A titles and just want to be an artist, and you don’t care about being part of the creative process of creating a world, for instance, then just be really good at your craft, and work at it. But if you want to do something more like what I’ve done, which is, you know, the whole entire process, and have a good feel for the entirety of making a game, then I would suggest doing an independent game, or even just for fun with your friends, or in a college course, or going to work at a small startup. It’s a really great way – it might not be a good financial decision – but in terms of learning how to make a game, it’s great.
Because, I mean, while Fallout was fully funded by Interplay and we didn’t have to worry about the financial part of it, for all intents and purposes it kinda ran like a little independent game. I did a lot of the animation, I did a bit of every type of art there was, I wrote, I did design, the only thing was I didn’t do was scripting, I didn’t do that until later, I didn’t do any programming but I think I touched every other thing in that game. And Jason (our technical art lead, one of the other guys I started Troika Games with) did that as well. And we only had a couple of other artists. There were some people that were specialised, but I think most people on the project did multiple different things. But today if I want to go work at a giant company and I’m a writer they go: “Here’s all our missions, write dialog for it” or “Here’s a character, texture map this guy”. So as far as that goes it’s all I know how to do, but if I work at a small independent company where I have to wear a lot of different hats, I’m gonna be able to kinda see how the whole process works. And then you know, maybe later you say “I just want a secure job, I like working in the videogame industry but I don’t want the stress that comes with that”. Cause it is a lot less stressful just to be given a drawing and be told “here, model this”, “this is how many polygons you have”, “Give it to me in two weeks”. That’s a very defined problem, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Where as you know, the kinda stuff we do, it’s like walking on a tightrope a lot of times, there’s a lot of chances for failure. So it really depends on what you want to do, but I think for anybody who wants to get in the industry it’s really a good thing, if you’re young and don’t have a lot of financial responsibilities, to make a small game with a small group of people so as a group you figure out the problems together. Cause that puts you in a better position to understand the kind of challenges you’re gonna be facing on the games you’re making in the future.
RC: Do you think that making a game with a small team is more rewarding, then?
LB: I think so… The problem that I have is that I love to make really in depth role playing games and you can’t do that with a small group of people anymore. You couldn’t really ever, I mean, even Fallout had 30+ people and on Arcanum we went kinda insane and did it with 12 people. That was unheard of, and probably not a good idea, but, in today’s day and age, if we want to be competing in the marketplace, you need a certain amount of money to make it, cause it has to be competitive, which means you gonna have to have some 50 ~ 70 people. I would love to make a game with 10 ~ 15 people again, but you can’t make a roleplaying game like that anymore. So, it’s a hard thing. It would be really nice to do it with a few people and have everybody so involved in the process, because, no matter how much you try, if you have a team with 50~60 people there are gonna be people who are gonna feel like they are not part of the process no matter how much you try to include everybody.
RC: I think this covers it all, thank you so much for your time!
LB: Thank you, it was my pleasure. I hope I didn’t ramble on too much for you.