Fallout: New Vegas lead Josh Sawyer has answered a few more questions about RPGs and game development via his Formspring page. Have a read:
Q: Are gameplay and the ability to express your character's personality in meaningful ways in the game world two different components for you, or is the latter a possible component of the former? I'm not quite sure what you think from reading your answers.
A: The latter is part of the former. It's essentially (at its best) a form of strategic game play.
Q: When designers talk about introducing less granularity, what do they mean?
A: Granularity is a way of describing subdivision of units on a given scale. If something has fine granularity, the units on the game's scale are small compared to the whole. E.g. one point on a one hundred point scale. Assuming a linear scale, a one point increment would be virtually impossible to notice.
Coarse granularity might be something like a four point scale with one point increments. Each increment is 25%, so it's easy to notice changes even if you can't see the numbers.
Fine granularity allows for a smoother transition and it can make point investment more flexible (e.g. 100 unit skills), but it's practically impossible for players to notice changes without having the numbers right in front of them. In many cases, small changes on a fine scale do not actually impact game play in any practical way.
Q: You've answered a lot of questions about RPGs, but what do you think makes a game an "adventure" game? Insofar as I can tell it just seems to refer to any game that doesn't easily fit into another genre.
A: Answer the following questions:
* Does the game allow you to develop and use tactics?
* Does the game allow you to develop and deploy a strategy?
* Does the game allow you to resolve conflicts in multiple ways?
If you answered "no" to all of the above, you're playing a "pure" adventure/puzzle game. If you answered "yes" to one or more of the above, it may be another sort of game, one that is still currently made.
Q: How do publishers and developers interact in the world of game design? Is it usual for publishing companies to get residuals, or are they usually just funded and compensated for development?
A: Publishers take the majority of profits. Developers are paid on a milestone basis with some bonuses or royalties (usually) negotiated into the contract, but said bonuses/royalties are usually contingent on some strict criteria (shipped on time, 85%+ rated, X million units sold, etc.).
In the 11 years I've been in the industry, I've received one royalty check for one game: Icewind Dale. Some very successful companies have a lot of bonuses and royalties flying around, but they are the exception.
Q: As a "hardcore" RPG developer, Obsidian could make a mint releasing budget hardcore RPGs on Steam that focus more on story than graphics and take less development time or resources. Does this interest you at all?
A: Story vs. graphics isn't actually an antagonistic relationship in my opinion. I don't think I've ever had an experience during development where I've thought, "If only this game could get by with lower fidelity graphics, then I could tell the story I really want to tell."
What lower budget titles offer to developers and publishers is lower loss potential. If a project "only" costs $1-3 million to make, even if it sells zero copies, the publisher is only out $1-3 million. Compared to the operating project budget of most publishers, that's relatively minor.
Lower loss potential can possibly be negotiated into "wacky game idea time". So if you want to make a game that has really niche or experimental game play, a non-traditional setting/set of characters, etc., a lower budget game is probably the place you're going to do it -- if anywhere.
As a side note, I am not primarily interested in telling stories. I am a game designer and my primary interest is in making games. I always want the stories in the games I work on to be good, but that is secondary to ensuring that the game play is enjoyable. If I were fundamentally concerned with telling stories, I would become a writer.
Q: So you've made it pretty clear that you're more interested in developing games than writing the stories in those games, despite your company's reputation. Do you at all resent that so many people keep focusing on Obsidian's writing?
A: Not at all, but I think people should have higher standards for game play. Slapping "RPG" on a game should not give it a free pass for clumsy or poorly balanced mechanics. Additionally, I believe that an RPG with a "great story" that does not mechanically work well with player choice might as well not be an RPG.
A lot of RPG designers fixate on telling the player a story instead of giving players tools to make *their* stories unique and reactive.
Q: When defining an RPG, what about abstracted mechanics? IMO, a greater degree of abstraction that explicitly expresses or rewards a player's choices should be part of the definition, would you agree or disagree?
A: Agree, and I think it can apply to any/all aspects of game play: conversation choices, skill choices, weapon choices, etc.
If have two weapons available to me, make them tactically different, then present me with situations where their tactical differences matter. If I make a strategic decision to invest in one skill/faction/"alignment" over another, be sure to reward me for my choice and also remind me what I am missing out on because of that same choice.
Go and ask Josh a question yourself by clicking here.