Since the days of tabletop gaming, the appeal of role-playing games has long been tied to the opportunity to…well…play a role. Specifically, the earliest RPGs distinguished themselves by allowing you to not only play a role but help a character to grow and eventually make them your own.
Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds embraces that classic concept of letting you play a role and build a character, but it evolves the ideas of the earliest RPG experiences in some exciting ways. Not only does it allow you to play various roles and build vastly different characters within its world, but it goes so far as to let you drastically alter the path of your character as you play based on the knowledge you gain from your experiences.
So how does The Outer Worlds development team balance and account for so many possibilities?
“Well, it’s pretty hard,” says Charles Staples, lead designer for The Outer Worlds.
In a recent interview with Den of Geek, Staples walked us through parts of the intimidating process of creating a game where player agency rules the day. As it turns out, there are few shortcuts available for a task of that size.
“When developing our main quests, we tried to make sure that they all support things like ‘How does the combat player get through this?’ ‘How does a dialogue player get through this?’ ‘How the stealth fighter gets through this,’” Staples says. “For instance, we had one of our own people go and play the game and not fire a gun…For the majority of our main quests, we made sure a player can get through it with any of the main play styles.”
As many fans of RPGs like The Outer Worlds know, main quests are only part of the experience. More often than not, the real fun lies in discovering the wonderful stories and characters available through side quests. So far as those go, the team afforded themselves some additional leeway.
“For the side quests, we were less rigid with those,” Staples says. “[We’d say] ‘Here’s a side quest specifically focused on this person who wants you to go clear out a whole bunch of monsters from this area.’ There is really not going to be a dialogue way out of there, because you can’t talk to the monsters. In certain circumstances, it’s based on the narrative of the quest we’re doing. We sort of pulled back on the number of options there.”
So does that mean that players who choose a particular playstyle in The Outer Worlds will have more side quests designed to cater to them?
“With every quest, we would take a step back and do some data analysis to look over the entire game and see how many times we were using the engineering skill, how many times we are using lie or persuasive skills, etc,” Staples says. “[From there}, we would say ‘We’re not using enough of this. Are there more places we can put this?’ So it’s a constant balancing act over the course of production.”
Mechanical balancing is one thing, but what about fun? Obsidian can balance the number of options that appeal to popular build possibilities in terms of viability, but how does the team make sure that all paths of play are equally enjoyable? It seemingly starts with finding a nice average.
“We tried to make sure that the middle ground was good enough for everybody,” Staples says. “However, since there are so many different builds and types of play, there are areas where some things will be harder because of the way you build your character and the skills you decide to focus on.”
To give an example of how the team helped work around that design inevitability, Staples explained how The Outer Worlds rewards you for focusing on a character that is skilled with gun combat but doesn’t outright punish those who choose not to focus on that element of the game.
“We wanted to be pretty careful with that example specifically because of previous projects we had, like Alpha Protocol, where some of our gameplay was controlled a lot more by the RPG aspects of the game and just didn’t feel as good,” Staples says. “We wanted to make sure that our gunfights felt good by default. We focused a lot on making sure the spread, the recoil, and the feel of a shooting a gun felt good, and then we tried to find ways to layer the RPG aspects on top of it.”
What happens, though, if you aren’t quite sure what you want to be in The Outer Worlds? Well, not only does the game give you the option to respec your character’s abilities at some point, but the team designed a skill system that gives you the chance to learn exactly what you want to play before you have to fully commit.
“We designed our skills to start with general categories which then turn into specific skills at around a level 50,” Staples says. “So early on you might be putting points into a general category like ranged weapons, but once you get to 50, you can start specializing in things…This allows [players] to try those things out and sort of see what they like before specializing.”
While there is no such thing as a perfectly balanced game of this scope, even Staples was surprised by how many styles of play the team managed to create content for.
“My last playthrough [of The Outer Worlds] was as a below-average intelligence science leader,” Staples says. ”I was surprised to find a few things from our team where they accounted for what would happen if you had a high science skill but below-average intelligence. There are actually dialogue options for that combination. You’re not smart, but you’re good at science. So you may say something really dumb but also smart.”