The Outer Worlds at E3 2019: Interview with Game Director Leonard Boyarsky
It's been about half a year since Obsidian Entertainment first unveiled The Outer Worlds on The Game Awards stage. We were lucky enough to be able to get a live preview of the game late last year as well as talk to Narrative Designer Megan Starks about some of the game's philosophies about companions and choice. Half a year later, and Obsidian led off Microsoft's E3 2019 presser with a new trailer and a release date.
Afterwards, we were able to see about 30 minutes of new footage from the game taking place on the inhospitable Monarch (the footage was also shared on the E3 Colisseum webcast.) After the demonstration, we were able to sit down to chat with Game Director Leonard Boyarsky to talk about the identity of The Outer Worlds, comparisons to Fallout (Both Obsidian's New Vegas and the Interplay original), level scaling, the possibility of an eventual sequel, and more.
After graduating Cal State Fullerton and the Art Center College of Design with not one but two degrees in illustration, Leonard Boyarsky started working in the game industry as a freelance artist in 1992. After completing various art tasks on Unnatural Selection (eventually published by Maxis), Leonard became a full-time employee of Interplay Entertainment, as one of the lead artists on Stonekeep. After completing work on Stonekeep, Leonard became the Art Director and designer on the title he is best known for, Fallout, where he created the iconic '50's look, the Vault Boy character, and the intro and outro for the game among many other things. After completing the design for Fallout 2, Leonard became one of the co-founders of Troika Games in 1998, where he fulfilled a multitude of roles, including CEO, art director, concept artist, animator, modeler, designer, and writer on the classic games Arcanum (2001) and Vampire: Bloodlines (2004). From 2006 - 2016 Leonard worked at Blizzard Entertainment on Diablo 3 (2012) and its expansion, Reaper of Souls (2014) as the World Designer, conceiving and writing many of the new areas of the world and backstories for the new classes. In 2016 Leonard left Blizzard to become the co-Game Director on The Outer Worlds.
RPG Site: So what's it like to have your game lead off the Microsoft E3 Press Conference this year, is that something you ever thought would happen?
Leonard Boyarsky: Nope, it was quite a very nice surprise.
RPG Site: What's it like to be able to leverage that kind of opportunity?
Leonard Boyarsky: With the exception of my time at Blizzard, everything I've gotten to work on has been relatively obscure things without a high profile -- back when I worked on the original Fallout even, no one knew what it was or cared.
RPG Site: So what is your specific role or title for this game? You and Tim Cain are often paired up, both acting as co-Directors, but what's been your focus specifically when it comes to The Outer Worlds?
Leonard Boyarsky: Well we both make sure to have a hand in the world building -- we create the world together, but I'm in charge of the writing, story, and art, while Tim focuses on more systems design and gameplay. But yes, we both do act as co-Directors.
RPG Site: People are often very quick to make comparisons to game's like Bioshock and especially Fallout: New Vegas, what do you feel when you see those comparisons made? Do you ever worry people are going to expect the game to be something different than what it is?
Leonard Boyarsky: Well, I think it's unavoidable that those comparisons are made, especially regarding Fallout. and I thought Bioshock did a fantastic job of world-building as well; the games we've been compared to are generally considered top tier, fantastic games so when the comparisons are made favorably, that really excites us. It's really funny, because we when made [the original] Fallout, it was something no one had really seen before. It was kinda steam-punk as it was at that time -- we didn't have all these other punks like diesel-punk, cyber-punk, so now there's this wider genre already out there. So we still wanted to make The Outer Worlds something people haven't really seen before.
RPG Site: So what sets The Outer Worlds apart?
Leonard Boyarsky: I think it's the tone and feel of the world, and the fact that it really reacts to your choices. There are a lot of games that do that now, at least more than there used to be, but I feel that we take it further than other games. That was one of the reasons that we didn't want a voiced protagonist. Because you know, once you do that you set the personality of the player at least partially in stone.
RPG Site: Speaking about Fallout, there's a sort of relevant tangent there as voice acting was added and it's not always seen as the best change the series has undertaken.
Leonard Boyarsky: Yea, I can't speak as to why Fallout went that direction, but for us it wasn't even a discussion to voice the player-character. It was always assumed from minute one that we would not. There's two aspects to it -- no matter what voice you 'pick', someone is going to feel that who they hear isn't who their character is. On the other side of that, if you're recording player voices you have to restrict what you write. If you come up with five more ideas or choices, but there's no opportunity to record new lines, then you can't really go further with ideas and you can't easily go back to add choices that weren't there before. So it gives us a lot more freedom, and it allows the player to completely imagine who they are in our world without anything in their way.
RPG Site: So about the characters that are voiced, the companions -- last year I got to talk about them a little bit with the game's first showing, but a couple of things were kept under wraps. We only knew of Felix and Ellie and since then Parvati. Is Nyoka (a companion showcased during the E3 demo) new?
Leonard Boyarsky: We didn't make a big deal about the reveal, but she was in our PAX demo a couple of months ago. So those are the four companions that we've talked about, and we aren't sharing yet the ultimate number or who the others might be. As always, we want the companions to be very integral to the game world. For instance, Nyoka is from Monarch, so when the player is running around this area, other characters will recognize her and have that history with her. She'll probably help call out a few people that are actually full of shit and trying to mislead you.
RPG Site: Seems like something she'd say.
Leonard Boyarsky: Exactly, and not only that but we tried to emphasize the Leadership characteristics in our demo, where companions are buffed to be even more important, and they'll even give part of their skills back to the player, so we don't just have companions as sounding boards, they'll have that gameplay role as well.
RPG Site: In some games with a system of companions, sometimes there are cases where two companions will never see eye-to-eye and you have to pick and choose. Is that the case in The Outer Worlds?
Leonard Boyarsky: No, in our mind, we wanted to make a rich group of characters that will effectively become your crew. Now, these characters all have deep ties to different parts of the world, but we didn't want to lock off characters behind allying with different factions or something like that. We didn't want to tell players "Oh, if you side with the Board, this is what companion we allow to side with you". We really wanted to allow players to build their crew as a group of smugglers or however they wanted to play it, and having this choice was always a conscious goal of ours.
RPG Site: Can you explicitly turn down a character from joining you, or lock yourself out of recruiting one?
Leonard Boyarsky: You can't lock yourself out of a companion, don't worry. You can send them away, however, and there are a few places where you'll specifically get chances to do that if you wish. It's all story-based though, there isn't a system like morale or influence, nothing like that. So having companions join up will never be a surprise, but there will be cases where they might want to leave if you keep going against them, but even then if you have a high Leadership you might be able to convince them to stay anyways.
RPG Site: Last year, I asked Megan if it was possible to kill any character in the game, and the answer was yes. I just want to make sure: is that true and still the case?
Leonard Boyarsky: [After a pause] There is one character that you can't kill until the end of the game. But every character in The Outer Worlds can be killed.
RPG Site: It's a pretty stark design decision to declare that you're going to allow that sort of freedom.
Leonard Boyarsky: It's always a goal of ours, I think - I can't remember if this is true - but even in the very first Fallout, that was a goal on our part, with the exception of one person that couldn't die because they were a ghost, so that's not cheating. Somewhat of another exception here are companion characters.
RPG Site: Oh?
Leonard Boyarsky: What I mean is, you can kill them before they become allied with you, but once they are, you don't have friendly fire options to be able to past that point. You can send them away and they'll disappear from the game, but as companion characters, they do work slightly differently. So I guess that's technically a caveat. Tim just did a playthrough where he killed almost everyone he came across, so he finished the game fairly quickly because he couldn't do most of the side quests. But he was able to complete the main story no problem.
RPG Site: It must be difficult to plan for that, to be able to allow the player to keep progressing despite playing like a lunatic murderer, I wouldn't want to play that way, but if you have even one person who does..
Leonard Boyarsky: It again wraps back to that degree of freedom that we want players to have, and to say some players not able to roleplay that way because they are in a safe place or because certain characters are invulnerable just takes away the immersion and makes it feel less genuine.
RPG Site: The ship that is showcased in a couple of the trailers, you've mentioned in the past it acts as a hub of sorts and it's where companions will hang out. I know this game isn't a space-sim, but I'm wondering if you'll be able to customize it or fly it?
Leonard Boyarsky: We did, early on, talk about being able to modify the ship, and as you complete quests and go throughout the game, it will change in some small ways, but it's not like you'll be able to change out the engines or upgrade parts of it or things like that. It was considered, but as a new IP with a smaller budget, we wanted to focus on character choices and things like that.
RPG Site: Another cool part of the game are the Science Weapons you've shown off, both the shrink ray and the face rearranging weapon, are there any others you're showing off at the moment?
Leonard Boyarsky: No, those are the only two we've shown off. We have kind of an internal logic behind the weapons, our world is very pulpy and Sci-Fi and we think those two are really emblematic of the tone which is why they've been kind of at the front.
RPG Site: In the demo we saw today, you showed off the disguise system in your game, I was wondering if there was also any system like Fallout: New Vegas, where certain gear could act as a disguise for entering places owned by different factions?
Leonard Boyarsky: The way the Holographic Shroud works is that once you get an ID cartridge for a certain faction, you can plug it into this device in order to mask your identity temporarily by creating this sort of 3D hologram around you. It works as a sort of timed meter which will slowly drain, but the disguise is lost faster if you run, or shoot at people, things like that. It plays also into the dialogue system as well, you'll have checks you'll need to pass one someone spots you once the meter is out, and I think on the final check you have to actually have two different buffed up dialogue skills in order to maintain the disguise.
RPG Site: So is having that item or ability available to everyone? Or is it like a quest reward or how does that work?
Leonard Boyarsky: Every player will always have it, but the challenge is being able to find the ID cartridges that will work for it, and then of course players with specific builds will be able to make better use of it once they have it. If you enter an area without it, you'll get a notification showing that it's restricted.
RPG Site: And then the player will have to think about where or what quest line might lead to getting an ID card for that area.
Leonard Boyarsky: Exactly.
RPG Site: You've mentioned previously that the level cap is 30. How high is that relative to the scope of the game? If I was being thorough and completing all the quests I see, how quickly would I hit it?
Leonard Boyarsky: We're balancing it right now, actually. We've had problems before where you'd reach max level too soon, so we're expanding that. We really don't want players to hit level 30 too far before the end, because then you've hit the ceiling, so to speak. So if you're just powering through, we have to figure out where players should be ability wise, and also the same for players that do every little quest.
RPG Site: How does level scaling work? Are a certain group of enemies in a location always going to be, say, level 12, and another region always something different?
Leonard Boyarsky: We're changing stuff like this every day, so this might still be tweaked, but what we have right now is limited level scaling. So if you go to a place early on that you're allowed to be, enemies might scale a little bit lower compared to if you return to that area later. Everything is sort of bracketed. Half the fun of an RPG is being able to overcome something that kicked your ass earlier and then coming back and effortlessly laying them out, and we wanted to preserve a part of that. But because this is a game that is story driven, there are a few places that will be locked off for story reasons that should feel valid and shouldn't come across as arbitrary at all -- we want to make sure things never feel too easy or have players feel unfairly penalized for exploring out from the story path.
RPG Site: Does The Outer Worlds have any sort of optional area whose difficulty supersedes the main questline? One cool part I look forward to in RPGs is the big optional area, the tough superdungeon, or something like that. Anything like that here, like maybe a big secret forest on Monarch?
Leonard Boyarsky: Well, if you stay on the main story path, things are going to stay a little bit easier relative to some other stuff near the end of the game, where if you go away from that road you're taking more chances. In the demo you saw the Mantiqueen, which is definitely a tough (optional) challenge. There's also something called 'mega', where monsters can be buffed even stronger.
RPG Site: If I were able to take on the Mega Mantiqueen and defeat it, how does loot work? Am I hoping for some percentage drop of gear from it, or maybe some rare material?
Leonard Boyarsky: Again, these things are constantly changing at the moment, but there's a certain amount of randomness, but we also have specific loot tables. You're never gonna loot a Mantiqueen and find...well, actually I think they can eat people and they can drop armor - I think. So it is random, but we try not to have it where a monster will drop a gun when it doesn't make sense.
RPG Site: Outer Worlds was announced for Game Pass for both Xbox and PC, if I wasn't subscribed to Game Pass, but did want to buy it this year on PC on Microsoft's store, I can do that this year?
Leonard Boyarsky: Yes.
RPG Site: We just learned that Witcher 3 is coming to Nintendo Switch. Is there any chance for The Outer Worlds? I know it seems like a crazy question, but so did the idea of Witcher 3.
(Director of Communications Mikey Dowling steps in to answer)
Mikey Dowling: We'll have to see, right now we're just focused on our current announced platforms of PC, Xbox, and PlayStation.
RPG Site: Let's say that The Outer Worlds is a hit..
Leonard Boyarsky: Let's say that! Let's say that a lot.
RPG Site: (laughs) But if it's a hit, and the opportunity to follow up with a sequel or DLC or something is announced. Whose decision would that be? Obsidian's, Microsoft's, or Private Division?
Mikey Dowling: It would be Microsoft, if a sequel would happen.
RPG Site: Thank you for your time!