Brian Mitsoda – DoubleBear
Brian Mitsoda has an extremely strong role-playing game pedigree. He began his career at Interplay in 1999 doing quality assurance work. Five years later he was the head writer on Troika’s classic Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, a title that still receives tremendous praise for its unique role-playing mechanics and mature tone. Following Troika’s collapse, Mr. Mitsoda spent three years at Obsidian Entertainment before leaving to found DoubleBear Productions. Currently Mr. Mitsoda is the creative lead on DoubleBear’s first title, an independent role-playing game called Dead State. After a very successful kickstarter campaign, Dead State is deep in production and slated for a December 2013 release. Despite being inundated with work, Mr. Mitsoda took the time to answer our questions about his unique and successful career in game development.
This interview was orignally published on 9/10/2012
Author’s Note: I made a couple errors in my research which lead to some confusion in the interview. Most notably I claimed that Mr. Mitsoda spent three months at Obsidian when it was actually three years. I apologize for these errors!
Before Doublebear, you had never held a lead creative role on a game. There’s no one above you on the creative side with Dead State. Has this been a difficult adjustment? Do you ever wish there was someone else to defer to?
To clarify, I was the Creative Lead on Alpha Protocol during my time on it, and I was the primary writer for Bloodlines as well as one other canceled project at Obsidian. Even when you’re in a lead position, you’ve got members of the team and other designers that you (should) bounce ideas off of or incorporate feedback from. This is no different for Dead State – Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda has helped shape most of the game’s characters and design, and my Lead Artist Oscar Velzi gives a lot of design feedback. I have also asked other designers I am friends with to check my math on the design side. It’s absolutely critical to solicit feedback on design and dialogue if you want to build a stronger story and game. We’ve even turned to the community a few times for feedback. Even when I’m “in charge”, I never work in a vacuum.
A great deal of the work you’ve done in the game industry has never seen the light of day. Some of this is just the nature of the business – projects get cancelled, the goals of a project shift, and your work gets left behind. But it seems as though you’ve had some especially bad luck with this. Do you harbor resentment about the work you’ve done that never shipped? Which cut project hurt the most, and what did you take away from it?
Yes, some of that resentment is responsible for me starting DoubleBear. Because really, who likes getting years of work thrown out? This was mostly painful for one particular canceled project at Obsidian, which I think most of the team was really excited about. Although, I was pretty upset when the first project I worked on professionally was canceled too. The thing you really take away from it is that unless you are in charge of the project 100%, it’s completely out of your hands whether the project gets torpedoed. The team could think it’s the best game they’ve ever created, but the business side of things changes all the time and it’s one bad quarter or new CEO away from being sunk. The money is good (sometimes) in triple-A development to make up for the inherent unpredictability, but I (and others) can’t really live with years of good work never seeing the light of day.
Troika is a pretty legendary studio. People like Tim Cain, Jason Anderson, and Leonard Boyarsky are still doing amazing things in games. Talk a little bit about Troika and what made it a special company. What were Troika’s greatest strengths and what were its most debilitating weaknesses?
Troika was an RPG company for people who loved RPGs and storytelling, but more than that, it was a tiny studio with a lot of passionate people working at one of the last of the “garage developer” type studios. It really wasn’t that rigid of a command structure and devs took a lot of the responsibility on themselves to get things done. A lot of people had come over from Interplay which had become more corporate with lots of levels of management, while at Troika, the bosses were working on the game alongside everyone else. The real problem at Troika was a lack of a dedicated business person/executive producer type that could handle securing new projects and sources of income – a lot of that fell to the founders who were already busy developing the game, leaving them little time to find a follow-up project. I’ve said it before, but if Kickstarter had been around back then, Troika would probably have been able to stay in business. PC RPGs became a hard sell, and Troika couldn’t keep us around very long after Bloodlines shipped. Had Troika been able to own their licenses and profit from their games indefinitely, they would have been in a much better position.
You worked at Obsidian for all of three months. If you don’t mind me asking, why was your stay there so short? It seems as though Obsidian’s fervor for narrative-heavy RPGs would have made them a good fit for you. How did the final narrative design of Alpha Protocol differ from your conception of it while you were at Obsidian?
Actually, I worked for Obsidian from 2005 to 2008. There were a lot of talented people working on our projects and I’m still in contact with a lot of my old teammates. I don’t think I was a good fit for Obsidian, mostly because they’re a very production-oriented studio and I’m more in favor of smaller teams with more personal responsibility like at Troika. With five owners and multiple project leads and producers, there are many steps in the approval process there, just as there are in many larger development teams. Additionally, it seemed at the time that a lot of Obsidian’s contracts were getting canceled and many of the offers being pursued were for licenses, where I think a lot of people wanted to work on original concepts or more hardcore RPGs and those pitches weren’t getting attention.
As for Alpha Protocol, the original narrative was focused on real world intelligence and the military industrial complex. The main character was a rookie going from low-level “money trail” desk espionage to suddenly finding himself in the middle of something much bigger and dangerous and having to quickly develop the skills to stay alive. In a sense, the character grew into a more dangerous protagonist over time rather than starting out a “badass”. The problem with the “spy” genre is that it means so many things to so many people – some people think James Bond and Jack Bauer, some think S.H.I.E.L.D. and Metal Gear, and some are thinking C.I.A. It was a tough project to work on and while I was very excited by the possibilities, I don’t think anyone got what they hoped for from that project.
After starting your own studio and producing a game on your terms, how do you feel about jumping back into a big studio setting? How has the experience of creating Dead State changed your view of AAA game production?
It completely depends on the project management. I would happily work on many AAA projects that I think are making smart decisions about production and personnel. As long as it was a project I had some interest in doing and I was working with great people, I would definitely work on a big title again. But constant crunch and new mandates every week sorts of projects, definitely not. Fortunately, I’m quite happy working on Dead State at the moment and will hopefully make enough to keep working on indie projects with a great team.
You’ve mentioned that when you started DoubleBear you were disillusioned with the standard studio/publisher development model. How do you feel about that model now? Is it fundamentally flawed? What do you think needs to happen to make the developer/publisher relationship work more effectively to everyone’s benefit?
What it comes down to in the big publisher model is money. And the larger the publisher and various layers of middle-management that need to be paid, and the newer the tech, the more expensive games are going to get. Middle-tier developers aren’t going to be able to compete against a team of hundreds with $100 million budgets and marketing muscle. They’re already chasing a very limited amount of money. Everyone’s making a free-to-play shooter or a Facebook game and the market is collapsing from “me-toos”. As long as publishers aren’t willing to trust experienced developers to produce quality games and then figure out how to market them, there’s going to be a lot of sequels and clones and blaming the development teams for failure. Meanwhile, the indies are working in their own sphere and coming up with something different and pretty much acting as the breeding grounds for popular new ideas that will be copied and given a AAA facelift. Publishers have a bunch of the same smart developers on retainer that could be fashioning the next big thing for them, they just need to set some money aside and start their own skunkwork projects. It’s not really just a game development issue – big picture research and development just can’t be justified on quarterly financials.
You’re a writer who has done a variety of traditional fiction, screenwriting, and also game writing. What is unique and special about interactive fiction? What sort of emotional responses is it better at eliciting in its audience, and what are its shortcomings?
It’s a pain in the ass. In a good way, an exciting way – a way that allows someone to experience the many outcomes of a “what-if” scenario that we don’t get to do in life. But, it takes so much more planning and writing than a screenplay. In a screenplay, you need one good line, one good scene to write, while for games you need to write that scene and that dialogue multiple times and still make it compelling. Sometimes it’s no problem, sometimes it’s very frustrating. You always have to think of the consequences and branches you create and also manage your outcomes so that you don’t produce too complicated of a scenario while still giving the player enough satisfying reactivity to feel like their choices matter.
Emotional reaction is built right into the choices – all I have to do is track them and guess what you’re going for. I will build in outcomes that I feel sum up the choices provided. If someone has been friendly, I will reinforce that here and there and add reactivity like a line of surprise if you screw them over. For some players, they want to feel like they’re in control, so you can provide lines that make a character cater to their power trip. There are a lot of ways to provoke emotional attachment, but the easiest way to deal with it from a writing standpoint is figure out what outcomes are most likely from a character’s arc and wrap the player’s experience around those pre-determined reactivity beats. A few people may not feel like they got the conclusion or options they wanted, but it’s impossible to script for every single possible outcome, so it’s best to anticipate and pick the most interesting or likely paths for each character you write.
Your own estimations have put a playthrough of Dead state at “50+ hours.” There must be a lot of dialogue and written descriptions. Tell me about the process of writing Dead State. What were you going for with this games story, and how hard has it been to achieve it? How does the writing in Dead State compare to the writing you’ve done for other games?
The process started with Annie and I figuring out the location, what would be possible mechanically, and the scope. With the limits defined, we started thinking inside that box and coming up with characters that would provide interesting reasons to keep them around and story hooks that would work alone or on top of other possible characters. Most of the writing was laid out before we started with the expectation that when you’re writing you’re going to improve, expand, or get rid of some of the pre-production outlines or come up with new and interesting story ideas for the characters. While we have a few similar scenarios for each character – like a random event where allies get sick – many of the situations for the allies are planned out depending on when they become available, who they know at the shelter, who they like/hate, and how much they respect the player. It’s some of the most complex dialogue I’ve ever written for a game, on par with the largest characters I’ve written in other games, but when the game is mostly about the characters, it’s necessary. I think we provide a lot of the story and emotional investment hooks, but it’s the player that will ultimately connect them and write their own story in the game.
Modern AAA experiences require such giant budgets that branching the dialogue or gameplay into multiple paths represents a huge cost. Do you feel that RPG design has suffered as game budgets have expanded?
It’s definitely harder to pitch an RPG when engines are made for action games and RPGs require so many more systems and more content than other games. On a budget sheet, if one shooter can be made for less and has more potential players than the RPG being pitched, they’re going to make the cheaper game. Factor in sequels being needed every year after, well, a content-heavy game with tons of writing, recording, and testing isn’t going to be an easy sell unless you can guarantee Skyrim numbers. Trying to do anything not fantasy is an even tougher struggle. RPGs may not be very popular for publishers, but fortunately some RPG concepts like character customization, skill trees, and story choices are sneaking in, and hopefully that means we’ll see more traditional RPG features and reactivity in other types of games.
Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines has an extremely devoted fan base. Modders have been patching the game and adding content since it was released in 2004. Does the game’s cult classic status surprise you? How did you think the game would be received while it was in development?
The cult classic status doesn’t surprise me anymore – there are some players always looking for new RPGs and not many are being made anymore. Bloodlines is a pretty unique setting with mature subject matter and there’s still not much competition to what we offered. The facial animation and gesturing still beats a lot of other dialogue-heavy games and the VO cast is hard to top. I still see it recommended quite heavily, especially when it’s on sale.
We all were proud of what we were making – I think we all hoped we’d have a game that was initially more popular, but Troika and Black Isle had a lot of cult games, so I think we knew there would be a built-in audience. Mostly, I think we all just wanted the game to go out a lot more complete than it was. It would have probably been a lot more popular if it had been given a few more months and had not been released at the same time as so many heavily-anticipated sequels. It wasn’t so much finished as stopped, and in the weeks before lockdown, everyone was putting in ridiculous hours because we cared so much about the game.
What are some common mistakes you see in the narrative design and writing of video games? How do you think writing in games will evolve in the next 10 years?
There are so many. Hyping your story too much and then delivering the same old good and evil, hero’s journey bullshit as every other game and then pulling out some homage to literature excuse to justify the fact that your story is a retread. Not having internal consistency is another – like when a realistic game brings in some fantastic tech like magical bullet-deflecting swords. Unnatural spoken dialogue is a big problem I see – if dialogue goes on for paragraphs and the VO actor sounds like they’re having a hard time with it, it’s probably being written to be read, not acted. Can I say good and evil again? I’m so tired of good/evil meters and good/evil choices – I’m really looking forward to games with more complex character motivations and reactivity.
We’re still kind of in the age of early talkies – the writers don’t really have the experience or tools to truly do amazing stories and characters, and in many games this isn’t a problem as long as the game is fun. When people start playing games that have incorporated gameplay and GUI so tightly that players are concentrating on the story and outcomes of their experience, that’s when story will make or break a game. For games that focus on a story-based experience and detailed characters, I would like to see games truly tell a tale that people remember vividly – one that doesn’t just feel like your favorite action movie was redone in game levels, but that feels like an experience that cannot be replicated in any other format. Just like films went from Flash Gordon to 2001, it’s going to take time, experience, creative people, and tech to allow us to understand what is fully possible in game storytelling.