Inside the Vault: Obsidian’s Jorge Salgado

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What’s your job at Obsidian?

Since joining Obsidian in November 09, I’ve worked on Fallout: New Vegas as an Area Designer.

Area Design involves all sorts of responsibilities, but you can boil it all down to the act of creating a game space, giving it form (geometry, ambiance, lighting, etc), adding its interactive elements (NPCs/Creatures, loot, doors, traps, furniture, etc.), designing its expected gameplay (quests, combat, stealth, dialogue, etc), and then implementing it all in a way that emphasizes consistency, and coherency – areas must belong within the entire game world.

Each of those aspects contains many elements, which are also made from smaller ones. For example, creating NPCs involves giving them their AI characteristics, their equipment, their appearance, and their behaviors — to name a few.

Other responsibilities I’ve tackled had to do with game-wide feature implementation. I was really fortunate in implementing much of the Mojave Wasteland’s NPC/ Creature population, behaviors, balance, and scripted encounters. This took place, mostly, in the game space between what we can call Primary Game Locations – which also have lots of encounters, and NPCs, created by the Area Designers responsible for them.

Whenever possible, I’d help with the scripting of AI behaviors, in-game scripted-scenes, performance-optimization, ambiance lighting, and any other task onto which I could get my hands. A project like New Vegas allowed individual expression to flourish, provided it had what it takes to achieve great results — one’s tasks suited one’s skills.

Within the Bethesda community, you’re known for your work on Oscuro’s Oblivion Overhaul. How did that come to be?

Although I started releasing mods back in the days of Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight, this time it all got rolling with a mod I made for myself, just a week after the release of TES IV: Oblivion. I’m a great admirer of Bethesda’s games. Naturally, I was itching to get into the next Elder Scrolls’ world, after having played TES III: Morrowind for more hours than I can remember.

Oblivion was vast, beautiful, and engrossing. While this is a matter of opinion, and Oblivion stood by itself as an undisputed GOTY, I think that its “Level Scaling” design didn’t captivate the hardcore RPG crowd.

I’m pretty hardcore when it comes down to RPGs, so I decided to mod Oblivion to transform its “Level Scaling” features into “Semi-Static Scaling.” I enjoy the thrill of discovering, and defeating, areas that are much harder than what’s suitable to my character’s “level.” Yeah, I’ll reload a zillion times until I manage to overcome great odds — or I’m happy to just let go, keep adventuring in such immersive worlds, and then come back for a well-deserved revenge once my character is up to the task.

That’s how Oscuro’s Oblivion Overhaul was born — just for my own use (I had done something similar for Morrowind, but never “officially” released that to the public). Pretty soon, though, the mod caught a lot of momentum. So, I started to work on more releases. These included all sorts of extra features like complete item, combat, and systems rebalance, new armor sets, new weapons, new creatures, new AI behaviors, new quests, new books, new scripted features, etc, etc.

With a lot of help and cooperation from the Oblivion community, OOO grew to a massive size (1.4+ GBs of stuff). I didn’t create all the new art assets for it, but worked alongside the community to include high-quality works into the overall structure I had laid for OOO.

Still today, in great part thanks to the efforts of Dev_Akm, Madcat221, Wrye, MiSP, and a host of other Oblivion modders. My personal favorite mod these days is FCOM. It managed to merge four massive mods into a coherent whole (Francesco’s + Warcry + Oscuro’s + Martigen’s).

Do you still participate in the modding community?

I only participate as a spectator, and contributor, to Bethesda’s official Oblivion boards. Although it has been quite some time since I was able to pass by. Work on Fallout: New Vegas has taken precedence over anything else related to mods, as it’s natural.

With that said, I have a lot of respect for modders — people that create out of love, drive, and dedication. My e-mail has always been open to them, and I try to catch up on replies that offer help to the community.

Post-release, do you think you’ll do some tinkering with the G.E.C.K. for New Vegas?

While it’s conceivable, I have no current plans to do so.

If that were to happen, any such mods would probably be small in size, and scope — just playing around a little. It’s hard to let go, so to speak, after working on something for so long, with so much dedication.

Let me put it differently: being “done” is not easily felt. There’s always more stuff that can be made even better. But at some point, you just have to stop, look at your creation, and see it for what it is, reminding yourself that “yeah, I could add this, and trim that, but right now it’s awesome!”

Aside from modding, any tips for breaking in?

I can’t stress enough how relevant modding can be in the eyes of a professional developer, but other things are really important too. Like anything in life, it all depends on each person’s situation. But, generally, here’s my advice…

Develop a passion for learning. Making games demands a constant growth in skills. You’ll have to learn new engines, new tools, and new systems of knowledge, all the time. For example, if your next project deals with 3D-isometric, real-time strategy systems, and set in ancient Ethiopia — then you’re going to have to do some serious learning.

Develop self-respect and self-reliability. You’re going to face new tasks, and new problems to solve, almost on an everyday basis. If you’re unsure of your potential then you won’t have the drive to tackle new challenges all the time. Also, being confident in yourself shows through. People immediately notice those that feel at “home” with themselves — a sign that you can be trusted to take things seriously, and to carry them through to the end. Finally, being confident means that you can admit your mistakes, your shortcomings, and you’ve got what it takes to rectify them.

Develop analytic skills. This is quite a “buzzword,” thrown around for good measure, but it’s often misunderstood. It means that you can break down a complex thing (idea, event, system, argument etc), into its simplest components. It means that you can reach an understanding of the interaction of these components – what glues them together, how they interact, what their possible combinations are, and how they can be manipulated to achieve desired results. Seriously, at least as a game designer, I spend 20% of the time “dreaming of cool stuff,” and 80% of the time actually figuring out how to make it work in the most efficient way.

Develop social skills. This is really important. Unlike modding, professional game development requires this 99% of the time – you have a lot of social interaction among the members of the team. You’re going to be working with these people for a long time, on the same thing, solving problems (often of your own making), and the end result needs to be greater than the sum of its individual parts. Drama, and unprofessional attitude, will be a bigger problem than in other biz, because of what I said above, and because this is a “small” industry – you’d be surprised to find out how quickly it’s expected for “word” to go around.

Make a website, and post your best stuff in it. Make sure you’ve got a good presentation that clearly emphasizes your areas of interest, and your skills. Nowadays, you’ve got to use the web – milk it for all it’s worth. First impressions are gold, and a good website is a great way to make that first contact.

There’s much more to be said, especially as it relates to each particular discipline within game development, but what I wrote applies to everyone. All of that will help in being at your best when the opportunity finally arises.

What’s your favorite part of working at Obsidian?

It’s difficult to single out a favorite part. There’s a lot to be said for the level of talent, dedication, and camaraderie within Obsidian – making games here is a dream come true.

Still, if I had to choose one thing, I’d say it’s the opportunity to learn from some of the best RPG developers in the world. Not a single day passes by where I don’t learn a new thing about making better games, especially RPGs.

RPGs are, in my opinion, among the most complex, and complete, game experiences out there. Not only do they rely on combat, stealth, and dialogue, mechanics, but also demand sub-textual depth, solid characters, quality writing, breathing worlds, and vast design systems. It’s the type of experience that most resembles stepping into an alternate digital reality, where you’re free to do things of which you can almost only dream to do in the everyday. RPGs are, to me, the closest thing to the “ultimate” game-experience.

What’s your all-time favorite game?

It’s just as difficult to answer this one. At the risk of being greedy, I’ll throw in two games.

My favorite game of all time is Planescape: Torment – it just blew my cookies back when I played it. I had never seen something so different, so engrossing, so mysterious, and yet so familiar. The creativity and sub-text threading of that game sets it apart from anything else I’ve played. It was the game that most captivated my imagination — pulling me into its complex, evolving, story in a way that has marked me ever since.

The next one is also a classic: System Shock 2. It’s one of those rare instances where a FPS game manages to include story, RPG elements, and ambiance to equal greatness – definitely a game that’s bigger than the sum of its parts. It handled suspense, and the evoking of fear, in a way that has not yet been surpassed, in my opinion.

What games are you looking forward to?

I can’t wait to get my hands on The Witcher 2. When I played the first one, I enjoyed the quality of its story, its subtle moral ambiguity, and its beautifully crafted scenarios. Also, I really liked how it doesn’t shy away from dealing with mature themes. It’s a shame that to many, games are still seen as being toys for children. Movies, and theater, have a much wider range of themes with which to deal.

Other games that have my attention are Batman: Arkham City and Mirror’s Edge 2… lots of second parts here. Batman: Arkham Asylum was much better than I first anticipated — it was tight, gorgeous, had a superb combat system, and it didn’t lack in its story elements. Mirror’s Edge also managed to strike a chord. It’s a game that broke molds with innovating 3D mechanics.

Worst job you’ve ever had?

I can usually see the good in everything, and all jobs I’ve done had it in them.

One of the least glamorous had to do with cleaning barns after instructing in horseback riding. You can imagine the rest of that chore.

In any case, as a good friend of mine put it recently, having a career is not quite the same as having a job. And having a career in something one deeply appreciates is even better. In that sense, all my previous occupations pale in comparison with my current one.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time? Got any big plans post release?

I’m a big fan of the outdoors. Give me a water-bottle, a wooden stick, and a knife, and I’ll disappear into the woods in the blink of an eye. Reading quality writing, whether it’s fiction or not, is something I love doing too — just as I enjoy good theater, and movies.

I also enjoy socializing — throw a party and I’ll be there shortly. If there’s cooking involved, so much the better. Few things beat making a good dinner for the family, and friends.

Music, and traveling, and driving for hours so that I can mix those two — can’t get enough of that either.

But, above all, what I most like to do when I have free time is to spend it with my children – discovering the wonders of the world, sharing all the things I’ve learned before them, and learning all the things they’ve figured out before me.

So, naturally, my big plans post release are all about adventuring about with them, the rest of the family, and good friends.

Oh… and, somewhere in the middle of all of that, I get to play games. ;)

Anything else you’d like to share?

Yeah, keep rocking it!

The Bethesda community – its modders, and fans — are among the most civil, involved, and driven out there. I can’t wait to see what you guys do with Fallout: New Vegas.

Also, I’d like to say thanks for the opportunity of having me here. It’s been a pleasure.

Reader Comments

  1. “One of the least glamorous had to do with cleaning barns after instructing in horseback riding.”

    New Perk: Expert Excrement Expeditor
    +5 Speech

  2. Well, this is probably my favourite Inside ever – Jorge sounds like an amazing guy with the best taste in games ever : ))
    I was so happy when I heard he got hired by Obsidian – loved his work on Oblivion and prospect of him working on new Fallout? So. Good.
    Plenty of great stuff in this interview, I cannot wait what has Obsidian in store next. I would wish for Fallout 4 to be honest !

  3. thank you for the interview! yours sounds like one of the coolest jobs in game development: the real meat-and-potatoes of the world. also perhaps one of the most demanding jobs for the flexibility and detail it demands.

    and, damn, joined in Nov 09? development must have been in full swing, then! bet you had to hit the ground running.

    “go make mods” is a common theme for coders wanting to enter the game industry. however, that seems like a good path for coders. what if someone is instead interested in the higher-level development: writing characters and plot? large game/mod development – at least for good mods/games – demands a dedicated set of writers and designers. but many small mod devs get in to it because they just want to make the things they write themselves, and there are only so many larger mod projects to get involved with. how do you construct a portfolio for that?

  4. Jorge, Sotobrastos, Oscuro, my friend,

    Always such a pleasure to read your words again. Brings back the crazy days we had debugging that huge mess of deadly goodness that was, and is, OOO. Those days were some of the best ever, man.

    Now, you keep rockin it, too. I can’t wait to see what you do next!

  5. My dear friend,

    Impressive speech about concepts and “trics” that can by applied not only in making games but much much more as you have already said. I’m a big fan of intertextuality because it offers easy-core dynamic solutions where problems are ahead instead of a rigid “endogamic clan” thinking. Sounds that you’re mastering that and makes me happy that it seems it’s working great.

    Your maturity inspires: Thanks for share it!

    Love and hugs, your friend J.

  6. Been looking forward to this interview for quite sometime now. Only it didn’t occur to me that it’d fall under the ‘Inside the Vault’ category :)

    An excellent and inspiring read – My best wishes for your future endeavors!

  7. Jorge is about the coolest dude in the world!!
    Eternal Thanks for giving us OOO for Oblivion!! And that you stay in the industry so we can enjoy more of your fine work.