Inside the Vault: Obsidian’s Josh Sawyer

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Let’s meet another member of Obsidian’s team — currently hard at work on Fallout: New Vegas. Today we’ve got Josh Sawyer, the game’s Project Director. Learn about his responsibilities on the project (they’re pretty important), highlights of his career, and and some of his passions outside of the office.

What’s your job at Obsidian?
I’m the project director and lead designer on Fallout: New Vegas. I am responsible for the overall vision of the game, high-level content design, and all of the system design. I help coordinate the production and lead team and generally just help people stay on track with the project as a whole.

What games have you worked on?
I started off in the industry working on the Icewind Dale series. I also worked on Neverwinter Nights 2 and contributed a bit to the upcoming Alpha Protocol.

What is the best part about your job? The worst part?
I really enjoy seeing people create great things. Few things make me happier than going around and showing people a cool new feature, critter, animation, icon, loading screen, or effect in the game. The worst part is definitely dealing with project cancellations.

Any fun facts you’d like to share about Obsidian?
In December, 2008, we moved from Santa Ana to Irvine.  The owners put a huge amount of time and effort into coordinating the development of a new studio, and it’s fantastic. It’s a very open office environment and it looks great.

How did you get into the industry? Do you have any tips for breaking in?
In college, I taught myself HTML and Flash. I did a bit of contract web development work but never thought it would get me into the game industry. A friend of mine told me that Black Isle Studios was hiring a web developer for an unannounced project. I applied and wrote a rambling cover letter that, in retrospect, I’m surprised made it past the first round. Luckily I was one of three out of 59 applicants who knew Flash. The project turned out to be Planescape: Torment and I got the job. I eventually became the webmaster for all Black Isle sites. After pestering Feargus for a while, he let me come on as a junior designer on the original Icewind Dale.

As far as breaking in, I always tell people to do two things: make mods and apply for QA (Quality Assurance). Making mods helps you understand how games work under the hood and it shows that you are willing to put in the time to get something done. You don’t have to make a big mod. Almost any mod will do if it’s an interesting concept and well-executed. QA makes you an integral part of the development process, refines your critical thinking skills, and puts you in contact with the developers.

Thus far, what’s been the highlight of your career?
Growing up, Brian Fargo was one of my heroes. Working for Black Isle was amazing for me because Interplay made Bard’s Tale, the first CRPG I ever played. After Icewind Dale shipped, Brian sent an e-mail to Feargus telling him he played through the whole game and really enjoyed it. So even though the highlight came only a year into my development career, I think it will be hard to top that.

What would you say is your personal favorite game of all time?
I have three all-time favorites: the original Pool of Radiance, Darklands, and the original Fallout. All have their own flaws and idiosyncrasies, but those are the three that have drawn me in more than any others. They’re also the ones that I can go back to without feeling like they’ve aged badly.

What games are you looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to Alpha Protocol finally being released and I really want to play Splinter Cell: Conviction. I’m also looking forward to Brink because I’ve been a huge fan of Splash Damage ever since Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, my favorite team-based multiplayer FPS. I probably won’t be able to play them for a while because I’ve got a backlog of about twelve games from 2009 and early 2010 I still need to get through.

What makes you get out of bed in the morning?
It changes over time, but ever since I got into the game industry, I’ve wanted to work on a Fallout game. It’s only taken eleven years, but better late than never.

Worst job you’ve ever had?
In college I worked a temp job for a single night at an onion ring factory. It was terrible. I sweated onion juice for a month after that single night of work.

As a Wisconsin native, how do you feel about Brett Favre?
I’m a Packers fan even though I don’t watch football and will instinctively swear at people who defame the Pack (such as Frank Kowalkowski, F:NV’s lead programmer). That said, other than my general shock that Favre would go to the Vikings, I don’t have a strong opinion. But hey, at least he didn’t go to the Bears.

Any other hobbies and interests? What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I enjoy learning about things, but don’t spend a lot of time on any given hobby. I like restoring older (60s and 70s) motorcycles, going on motorcycle trips, and generally just leaving the city whenever I get a few days off.

Reader Comments

  1. I just discovered the ICEWIND DALE series this past month and was amazed to see it had real time combat just like DRAGON AGE ORIGINS. BARDS TALE was amazing along with a similar spin off called DRAGON WARS i picked up at an old Commodore Amiga convention.

    Thanks for the great read on a master of many varied talents.

  2. Dorkiest photo ever ? :D Joss is awesome, he had some bad luck with cancellations but I am really effin glad Bethesda did this and gave Obsidian a chance, I believe New Vegas will be amazing Fallout game, just like Fallout 1, 2 and three.

  3. Hellbishop: In fact, the first game I can think of that has party-based real-time with pause combat was actually 1992’s Darklands. It pioneered it for all of the others that came after.

  4. [Hellbishop: In fact, the first game I can think of that has party-based real-time with pause combat was actually 1992’s Darklands. It pioneered it for all of the others that came after.

    Left by JESawyer on May 6th, 2010 ]

    I remember reading reviews on Darklands but i was never sure if it was like a late 1980s pc wargame with x’s and lines for visuals since they only showed like one or two screenshots :D and i was already spoiled by the likes of Dungeon Master which had come out in 1987 eventhough it didnt have the pause combat.

    It was also for some very bizzare reason just about impossible to find any top view D+D rpgs in my area. It was all mainly first person except for the TSR rpgs like Death Knights Of Krynn with the huge battles thick with armies of warriors, mages and monsters. So Darklands eluded me but now i hear a siren call from afar in this time where all knowledge is within a key strokes reach..

    Which reminds me i did catch a glimpse of Darklands on YouTube and the way aging of the character was done caught my eye. Ah the days when stats were like mental stimulants to the imagination :)

    Thanks for the reply JESawyer. Its like talking to a movie star or a Bethesda Dev ha ha :D

  5. A very interesting interview.Josh, thank you for sharing your experiences with us.I’m very excited you are the project director for Fallout:New Vegas!

    Thank you very much!

  6. speaking of old pc games, kyrandia = woo woo. But we all know TIE FIGHTER was and still is the greatest game ever made. EVER. oh ya and this will smoke the very excellent fallout 3, think fallout 3 with more character, not as soul-less and stale, more flavor. lol sounds like a beer ad. work harder october is far away and borderlands sux

  7. I do have a suggestion for the upcoming follout game if you will take the advice. I do like the addition with the hardcore mode but something I could never get into in rpgs is the enemey health increase when raisng the difficulty. I personally like being able to die faster it makes the experience more fun and it challenges me. It just makes me frustrated when i have to put extreme effeort into ONE enemy just to kill it. So one peice of advice i will give is giving the option to, when increasing the difficulty, either eincrease enemy health, decrease yours, or both.

  8. Sondheim huh? Fantastic! Best composer of musical theater to date, and excellent inspiration for a series as full of pathos, as Fallout. Fallout Vegas is a masterpiece! Congratulations on a job extremely well done. I wanted one of the Ranger Sequoias but couldn’t find it in me to let the Ranger shoot himself after listening to his stories, though I did hear the speech you wrote which he gives.

    I must say, I wish you were steadily with Bethesda, though I’m not a steady gamer, after Fallout Vegas, I feel if someone is going to make the Citizen Kane of video games, it will be them. Make something that makes Rupert Murdoch want to destroy you and I’ll never forget you!