Eleven years is a long time. As the last few months have proved, an awful lot can change in a short period, and that's doubly true when it comes to game development. Following over a decade of working on separate projects as different companies, you'd be forgiven for thinking that 'getting the band back together' for The Outer Worlds would come with certain challenges, or at least a lengthy adjustment period.
"It took very little time," writes Tim Cain, creator of the Fallout series and co-game director on Obsidian's 2019 action RPG which reunited him with fellow Fallout veteran and key designer Leonard Boyarsky for the first time in over a decade. "We still laugh about how quickly we picked up where we left off, almost as if the intervening 11 years had never happened. I say “almost”, because both of us had learned hard lessons by working at big companies on big games, so we had several new design techniques to avoid pitfalls and gotchas."
both of us had learned hard lessons by working at big companies on big games, so we had several new design techniques to avoid pitfalls and gotchas.
Following a delay from the end of March, The Outer Worlds can now be played on Nintendo's console. The game gave Cain and Boyarsky the opportunity to fashion a totally new IP, although one infused with the same spirit of their past games.
With so much shared history and a great working partnership, it didn't take long to get into the flow again. It was April 2016 when the game began development, and it shipped on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 three-and-a-half years later. Having been totally involved from the very beginning, we asked Cain about his favourite stage of the production process.
"That’s a tough question, because there are things I like at every stage, from “the sky's the limit” beginning to the “wow, look what we made” final stage. But I guess I like one of the stages in the middle, when you have the whole team hired and everyone is on the same page design-wise and understands what the game is going to be."
"That’s a great time because people are creating lots of things in parallel, and every day you see something new in the game. Maybe a new mechanic was added, or a new creature is available, or a new map is ready to explore. The game doesn’t look or play like the shipping version (the lighting usually isn’t in, there are placeholder creatures and quests, and lots of bugs and crashes), but I love it anyway. It’s when I feel the most creative and when everyone on the team is sharing the most with each other."
The pulp sci-fi themes of The Outer Worlds gives it a distinctive feel that comes from Cain's personal influences. "I grew up with the books of the Golden and New Wave ages of science fiction, from the 1950’s through the 1970’s, because that was what my local public library had to offer. Plus a few before and after. I’d say the writers who influenced me the most were Asimov, Banks, Clarke, Heinlein, Ellison, Herbert, Le Guin, Niven, Silverberg, Simak, Simmons, Stapledon, Vance, and Zelazny. Not in that order. In fact, I alphabetized them to hide the order I remembered them in."
Despite the pulpy space opera angle, the flavour and spirit of Fallout is readily felt in The Outer Worlds, from broad-stroke themes down to gameplay mechanics like Tactical Time Dilation, a combat system that enables the player to slow down time. For fans, it's a treat to see Cain and Boyarsky returning to this style of game, but we wondered if there was any concern about retreading familiar territory. Were they hesitant to revisit themes they'd explored in the past?
"After Fallout, Leon and I made Arcanum, which also had a strong Fallout vibe in look and feel, if not in setting. After that came out in 2001, you could say that post-apoc was out of our systems, and we made games that explored new territory for us, like Vampire Bloodlines and Temple of Elemental Evil. Then I worked on a sci-fi MMORPG and Leon worked on Diablo 3."
"So when we got back together in 2016, fifteen years had passed since we had done anything Fallout-like. We were given Fallout and Firefly as touchstones for our new game, and we felt ready to dive back in and see what new things we could bring to the table."
We were given Fallout and Firefly as touchstones for our new game, and we felt ready to dive back in
With such a rich back catalogue of titles, we asked if there were any ideas or elements they weren’t able to make work in the past that came to fruition in this game. "Sure!" he replies. "I had been trying to make a flaw-like game mechanic since the original Fallout." The Outer Worlds features a Flaws system - a selection of negative (and permanent) attributes that manifest as options if you die a number of times in the same manner. Choosing a Flaw rewards you with a perk point, so there is a benefit to accepting one.
It's a mechanic Cain had been wanting to implement for a long time and The Outer Worlds provided the perfect opportunity to realise a system that had never quite worked before. "It either never felt right or it was shot down by other developers. I’d like to say that they failed to see the magnificence of the design, but really, the mechanic just wasn’t ready yet, and for some of those games, it wasn’t a good fit."
Compared to some of their previous games, The Outer Worlds was a smaller project that ended up much grander than its modest resources might suggest, largely thanks to the skills of Obsidian’s veteran team. However, its reduced size meant it was necessary to scale back the scope and ambition of the team's vision.
"Because of relatively tight time and budget, compared to AAA games, we constantly had to scope down," says Cain. "That meant fewer characters and areas, less variety in creatures and armor and companion abilities, and an overall shorter game."
This reduced scope and shorter length didn't much harm the warm critical reception when it released in October 2019, though; the game was nominated for multiple awards that year in a variety of categories, with its writing highlighted for particular praise.
Naturally, Switch owners were excited to hear news of a port courtesy of Virtuos, the studio behind a variety of excellent Switch ports, including L.A. Noire, Dark Souls: Remastered and, more recently, XCOM 2 Collection and BioShock: The Collection. Speaking via email, the game's production director Eric DeMilt had nothing but good things to say about the company, and reiterates that it was Virtuos' proof-of-concept that persuaded them a Switch port could really work.
"The team at Virtuos have been great to work with," says DeMilt. "Their prototype was excellent and did convince us that they were the right developer to bring the game to the Switch. The partnership with Virtuos and Private Division has been, and continues to be, excellent throughout the process. From day one, all teams were in close contact, sharing information, asking and answering questions, playing and testing builds and iterating every step of the way."
The Outer Worlds was originally set to launch on Switch back in March, although the COVID-19 pandemic altered those plans, with Virtuos experiencing repercussions that people and companies all over the world have dealt with to a greater or lesser extent over the past months.
we had a preview into this new reality as we watched our partners go through things weeks before we did
"The COVID-19 pandemic has changed nearly everyone’s day-to-day life and work experience," DeMilt says. "Fortunately, we work in an industry that has been able to work-from-home globally and have been much less impacted than many. We got our first look at what a post-COVID world might look like through the Virtuos dev team. China went through the lockdown and recovery process much earlier than we did here in the US, so we had a preview into this new reality as we watched our partners go through things weeks before we did."
It seems that once the lockdown did eventually reach US soil, the company was better prepared than it might have been otherwise. "In addition to what we were learning from the Virtuous team, Obsidian leadership and the leadership team at Microsoft were paying close attention to public health officials and were preparing for what was to become our new reality. This, plus a ton of hard work by our IT team made the transition to work from home a relatively smooth one. I think it was ~48 hours, from the point at which Feargus [Urquhart, Obsidian Entertainment Studio Head] made the call to transition to work from home, to when we had 100% of the employee population off site and mostly up and running. It’s been a challenge, like learning new ways to meet and communicate, but so far it has been a success."
On the topic of Microsoft, Cain says that things changed very little for him and Obsidian following the company's 2018 acquisition. "Microsoft’s purchase of Obsidian had very little impact on our day-to-day work lives. We were already developing the game for Private Division, and they were the ones who judged the milestones and suggested changes. Other than once or twice in a group setting, I never even spoke to anyone from Microsoft while making The Outer Worlds."
With a decades-long career that began back at Interplay in the early 1990s, we wonder if there is any aspect of development from ‘the old days’ that Cain misses. After all, the tools and methods employed to make the original Fallout must have improved dramatically over the last quarter-century. What are the biggest improvements to the way he approaches making games nowadays?
"Aside from the fact that fully realized game engines are available, some tool chains are much more mature now than 25 years ago. Making complex conversations and tracking our hundreds of thousands of lines of text for localization is so much easier. Audio, from effects to music, is also easier for audio designers to add to the game, without taking down a programmer every time they wanted something new."
"The biggest development aspect I miss is the faster development cycles in older games. We could test out a new feature, from concept to implementation to testing, in a fraction of the time it takes now, and with far fewer people that the feature has to pass through. These fast cycles meant more ideas could be developed and make it into the final game in the same time period."
The biggest development aspect I miss is the faster development cycles in older games. We could test out a new feature, from concept to implementation to testing, in a fraction of the time it takes now
We ask if he has a personal favourite character build or playstyle in The Outer Worlds, or if after so many playtests he just goes with the flow. "I usually like dumb playthroughs and sniper playthroughs (and sometimes dumb snipers), but on this game, my favorite build was Dr. Leader, a low-dexterity, high-charisma character who tagged the Tech and Leadership skill categories. I specialized in finding all of the Science weapons, and myself and my crew were decked out in the highest tinkered weapons and armor in the game."
In the time since Switch launched back in 2017, the console has become an unlikely home to several excellent classic RPGs, including a brilliant port of Pillars of Eternity, another Obsidian joint. The sequel, Deadfire, is scheduled to arrive on Nintendo's hybrid later this year, and we wondered if Obsidian will continue to support the platform in the future. DeMilt says that it is down to the publishers to decide where the team's games end up.
"For us, as a developer, the decision of what platforms we support is pretty much out of our hands. The Outer Worlds is published by Private Division, they’ve been excellent partners and involve us in decisions like this, but at the end of the day it is their call."
However, DeMilt hints that should the Switch port sell well, Obsidian has ideas and the desire for more adventures in The Outer Worlds on Nintendo's platform. "I hope that both Private Division and Switch players want to see more Outer Worlds content on the Switch in the future."
Enthusiasm for the hardware amongst developers has been key to Switch's success, and that's certainly the case for both Cain and DeMilt. "The Switch is a great piece of hardware," says DeMilt. "It is really cool to see a full featured “Obsidian RPG” like The Outer Worlds running on a handheld, and to be able to take that experience with you wherever you want to play it."
"I have been playing Luigi’s Mansion 3," Cain tells us when asked what he's been playing in his free time. "And Skyrim on my Switch (I seem to return to Skyrim every couple of years, on different platforms and trying different builds). I’m also playing a lot of Minecraft. I find it very relaxing."
Looking ahead, the Pillars of Eternity sequel is already out on other consoles and Switch-bound. With more Outer Worlds content potentially in the works, it seems we haven't seen the last of Obsidian on Nintendo's console, but we wonder what the future holds for Tim Cain specifically.
"I hope a great deal of dark chocolate."
Our thanks to Tim and Eric for their time. The Outer Worlds is out now on Switch - find out the NL verdict on Virtuos' port in our review.