There may not be a more 'cult' cult game than Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, at least on PC. The very definition of a flawed gem, it launched unfinished but with its brightest moments still shining through. A couple of official patches later and it was abandoned as the developers, Troika, shut down.
Now, 13 years on, Leonard Boyarsky - one of the founders at Troika - now works at Obsidian, directly with his old cohorts from Vampire. Yesterday they announced Take Two will be publishing the game he is co-directing, which is otherwise a complete mystery. Between Troika and Obsidian, Boyarsky spent ten years at Blizzard helping with Diablo 3, its expansions and patches.
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That's quite the journey, so we asked him about it. See below for all the gossip on the game Vampire could have been, what might have been next for Troika, the original plan for Diablo 3 and why it didn't work, plus what it's like to be back home, working on a traditional RPG. Here's some quick links to the different sections:
- Troika, Vampire, and taking a year out
- Blizzard, Diablo 3, and the plan that didn't work
- Obsidian, going home, and the next game
PCGamesN: Let’s kick it all the way back to Troika in 1998. What was it like starting a company and having to go through all the businessy bits?
Leonard Boyarsky: It was different. We kind of knew what to expect but going through it is definitely different than just knowing what you're going to have to do theoretically. We were relatively young and we had had such a great experience on Fallout. We were all fairly optimistic even though it took us five or six months to get a contract, which I found out later was actually fairly quick, but for us it felt like it was taking forever.
We always had the optimism that it was gonna happen. For the longest time it was me, Tim [Cain, creator of Fallout] and Jason [Anderson, artist on Fallout], we'd meet in [one of our] houses and just started writing up the design for Arcanum. A lot of it pretty much ended up in the game that shipped. After we got money to make a prototype we hired a couple of other people, among them [programmer] Chris Jones, who is now one of the owners here at Obsidian. He worked with us back when we were four or five people making our greenlight demo so we could get full funding for the game.
It was an interesting time because Scott Lynch, who is now over at Valve, had, I think, recently basically taken over running Sierra Studios, or at least that division of Sierra. He was the guy who signed Gabe [Newell] and Half-Life when no-one knew what that was.
Pretty decent decision there.
Yeah, and we just had a design doc. He talked about how much he loved Fallout and he liked talking to us and we liked talking to him. So we signed with him and it was really great, but then there were issues [with] the company that owned Sierra. They were sold and then there were management changes. It was all pretty good throughout the development of Arcanum but it would have really been interesting if we had been able to go through the whole process with Scott Lynch running that division.
Overall it was great. It was really tough. We made the ridiculous decision to try and keep the team at 12 people. We hired all leads so we wouldn't have to have any producers or managers, we all kinda managed ourselves and did all the scheduling, all that stuff. But then, y'know, me and Tim and Jason also had to run the business. Which we knew we'd have to do, but our goal was, very naively, that we would hook up with someone like Sierra, and this was their plan when they first signed us: we would be basically their RPG maker. We would just continuously make either Arcanums for them or do another one, we were gonna basically make that style of RPG for them for a while, for the foreseeable future beyond Arcanum.
That kind of fell through and then we were working on an unannounced game for a month or two for Sierra. Then I got called to go out there, took a plane up to Seattle [and] right before I went into this meeting to discuss this project - which was a big license I don't know if we've ever talked about it or if we're even allowed to, a bunch of other companies were also working on projects dealing with this license - right before I go into this giant meeting, the producer at the time calls me into his office and he's like 'yeah I'm pretty sure they're shutting this whole thing down, they're shutting Sierra Online down’.
So I go into this meeting, I immediately run out once it's done and I call Tim and Jason I'm like 'oh my god, we're not going to have a contract, we have two weeks to make payroll’. I called Scott Lynch and, y’know, thank God, they were talking to Activision about possibly publishing Valve games and they hooked us up with Activision [who] wanted us to make the sequel to Vampire. They were fired up about using the Source engine, so that's how that whole thing came about.
That was when Temple of Elemental Evil came in. Atari approached us to do games based on their modules which, once again, was supposed to be the start of a huge series. We were going to build this engine and continually make versions of it, kind of like the old Gold Box series - which, of course, didn't happen either.
That's kind of it in a nutshell. We've talked at length of the difficulties with Vampire and the Source engine. Overall, I'm really glad I did it. I think I would be dead now, or at least my health severely compromised, if not physical then mental, if we had continued on. When we were ending it was right around when everyone wanted to make an MMO. We were interested in possibly trying to do that which most likely would have been a disaster. I don't know if that would have been good for our company.
I have no regrets, but I definitely wouldn't want to do it again. I'll leave running companies to other people, we really wanted to make games, that's all we wanted to do. The only reason we wanted to run our own company is so we could make the games we wanted to make. But then you have to run a company and not make the games...
And, of course, you were making nice and simple games, nothing too big, nothing too ambitious...
Yeah, we didn't do things where you could do anything you could ever possibly imagine, that was probably not in the timeframe of any realistic budget or anything [laughs]. Even though I feel like we could have got a lot more QA for all three of our games, especially Arcanum. I think [that] was a game where I'm not sure any reasonable person would have put in the amount of money and time needed to successfully test that game with all the permutations we put in there.
We virtually let you do anything. If you're a Dwarf, you immediately get penalised if you try to use magic, vice versa with Elves and technology. Which made [it possible to make] non-viable characters, but we were like 'oh it's so cool, people will love playing this!'. If we went back and did it now, we [could] say it was a racial thing [where] Dwarves are not able to use magic [and] cut out some of those things that were not viable builds, save ourselves a lot of headaches and still pretty much have the same game. Just things you realise in hindsight.
You think you could have found a spot along the curve where you weren't sacrificing too much, but you have a game that's a lot easier to make and test?
I think in a lot of ways it would still seem like the same game. I don't think you'd know we made that [other] version if you didn't know it existed. I don't think people would think it was any less reactive than it ended up being. You can present it in such a way that, of course, they can't do this, y'know? For both Arcanum and Temple we were just the victims of our own ambition, optimism, and enthusiasm. Tim has talked about it at length. I wasn't really involved beyond the contract phase of Temple, but 3.5 came out halfway through development, and Atari's like 'well why don't you put 3.5 in?'. We're like, 'well, can we have extra time?', and they're like 'no’.
Why don't you just... change everything?
Yeah, I think we ended up getting another month or two but it definitely wasn't as much time as we needed or asked for. Instead of us going 'welp, then you can't have it', we're like 'we can do it!'. Which was our failing every time, we want to do something extremely difficult that's gonna take extra time, we'll do it, we can do it, we'll stay extra. I mean I spent most of Troika's existence at work. Night time, weekends, I was there pretty much all the time. There were times we weren't but especially when we got into Vampire it was just crazy. It was crunch for something like two-and-a-half years, some insane amount of time.
You hear those stories from companies like Blizzard, saying they were at work in the mid-'90s all the time, and then the end of that is, ‘yeah we made StarCraft: Brood War’ or ‘we made World of Warcraft’. Whereas for Troika the games were successful but it's not like you made billions upon billions of dollars and the company still exists.
Yeah, at the end of the day... You don't really think about those things. We had faith in ourselves and in the games we were making. [Despite] evidence to the contrary that even if we did really successful games they probably weren't going to sell millions upon millions of units because they were fairly hardcore when it came to the roleplaying elements. I think no-one had really... Morrowind had been out, but no-one had really tried to do what we were doing with Vampire at the time - that was before first-person Fallout, it was before Deus Ex, or right around the same time.
But taking our style of game or a Black Isle style of game, or now an Obsidian style of game with talking to NPCs, getting all the choices, that kind of game - even in Deus Ex you played a specific guy - that whole thing was unheard of at the time. Who knows, if we had more time or had been more successful in finishing Vampire, whether it would have been more successful or if it still would have been a niche product. It might have been too early for people to appreciate it, but we'll never know.
People are still playing it and people are still modding it, so I guess that says something.
Do you follow what's still going on with the unofficial patches and what do you think about that legacy, 13 years later?
I think it's great. I don't follow them too closely. I've watched some videos of people playing with different mods and different patches, but I think it's great that people do it. That they've found the stuff that we hoped people would find about the game, in terms of the different paths you can take and how it played differently for every class. I feel we were very successful in capturing the mood of the World of Darkness, the whole Vampire thing. Just like I feel like Temple was probably, for better or worse, one of the most [true] to being a D&D game, pretty much a 1:1 translation of the rules. They tried to make it, Tim and his team, very strict about the rules [and] how we used [them]. Obviously there were ones we couldn't put in there but we wanted this to be a D&D game, and everything that meant, for better or worse.
So the fact that people still play Vampire and are modding it, or people are still making editions of Arcanum - granted it would have been nice if they were successful at the time - but it makes it feel like it was more worthwhile. You were saying we didn't make millions of dollars on these games, but at least they had some value. If they had dropped and everybody had just ignored them, and they were just forgotten now, it would have felt a lot more disappointing. I don't know about a waste of time, like I said I'm glad we did it, but maybe disheartening. I don't know, it's just great, every once in a while you read a retrospective of one of them, even though they talk about their faults as well as the good things about it, it's just really nice that people care so much about the stuff that we made.
You mentioned Vampire coming out too early - are there still days where you're like 'man, if only we'd just put this in or done this', or do you think it really was a project where it needed another two years of work rather than individual elements?
I think that if we had had another three to six months we would have caught a lot of the bugs. I don't know if we could have fixed things - I feel the second half of the game isn't as good as the first. I feel like we devolved into relying too much on combat at the end.
The unofficial patch is up to 9.9 and the sewers bit still sucks.
Yeaaah, the sewers, we know. Here's a great example: we knew we needed to change the sewers, we didn't like them, but we just didn't have the time, y'know?
So whether it would have become this classic game that sold a lot or whether we could have fixed some basic problems with it, I'm not sure. We could have made it a lot better, let's say that. We could have polished what we had and fixed a lot of bugs, made it smoother and made the experience more fun. I doubt we would have gone in and recorded more dialogue or things like that, that probably would have been too far.
I feel like, within reason, for not too much money we could have really shipped a better game. Whether it would have fixed those problems, like I said I don't know, there was a lot of structural problems, a lot of problems under the hood I think that probably couldn't have been fixed. I feel like we could have done a really good job if we'd had that extra couple of months.
The most depressing thing I think about it was that for the three, four years we worked on it, I'd say for a good 75%-80% of that time it wasn't a game, it didn't really come together, you couldn't really play it. It was almost like as soon as we had a game and it started coming together, it was starting to be fun, we saw what we had and we saw the light at the end of the tunnel - it was like we have to shut down now and get this thing out the door as soon as possible. That was fairly disappointing.
In Activision's defence, they had spent a lot of money on it already. We were late. Whether it was our fault or the fault of the engine or whatever, we were way over budget. So, y'know, from their end it probably did not make sense for them to continue, if they could get a shippable game out of us they should probably just put it in a box and get it out the door and get what they could out of it.
There have been some rumblings of a game after Vampire being developed at Troika, is there anything you can talk about on that? Is it even true?
We did a bunch of pitch documents. We did a demo for what was a post-apocalyptic game, but all we had was some concept art and the engine demo. We had not really put a lot of design into it, we were just hoping that we could shop that around and people could see the promise there. We were fairly early in the development, that eventually leaked, but still no-one was interested in it. We weren't too upset it was out there.
We did actually make, I forget how far we got, we made I believe a workable prototype of one small little area that was like a Werewolf version [of Vampire]. We made a game where you could turn into a Werewolf or you could be a Werewolf, but it was only one small area using a lot of the assets if not all the assets from Vampire.
A lot of conversations with publishers, a lot of pitch documents. The one people ask about mostly is the post-apocalyptic one - what you see in those videos out there is what it was. There was no grand... I did a concept piece and I think we had a very, very basic pitch that's in a box somewhere at my house. I believe me and Tim and Jason all have copies of it, I could dig it up but I do not remember virtually anything about it. It was almost Thundarr the Barbarian-esque. Magic came into the world after the apocalypse - it was one of those things. It was like Conan with dark magic as you're running around giant ruined freeways and buildings.
Every game I've worked on in my entire career you start with a design and the game changes a lot from your original vision as you're making it. That happened even with Fallout, Arcanum had a bit of that [too]. So even though we had an original pitch for that post-apocalyptic game, I feel like it was barely the kernel of an idea. We would have taken a very specific direction, we liked to have a very tangible vibe and direction for the game, and I feel like that was very very early - we hadn't really solidified what that was going to be.
So you come to the end of Troika and you took a year out, suffering a lot of burn out?
Yeah I sold my house in order to finance. Thank God the bubble [bursting] didn't happen until a year or two later. I had financial stuff left over from the company I had to deal with so I was going to sell my house anyways, and just after I sold it, because the housing market was inflated at the time we got a decent amount of money for it, and we'd bought it before the bubble so it enabled me to [do that]. It wasn't like I had a lot of money squirreled away from Troika that I could live on for a year, it was only because I sold my house that I could do that.
Thank God because I really needed it. I was not in a good mental space at that point.
Then you end up at Blizzard, how did that come about?
Well Rob Pardo used to work at Interplay, as did a lot of people who worked at Blizzard - Blizzard started out as a developer for Interplay. Sharon Shellman [cutscene animator on Fallout], Jason Anderson's girlfriend at the time, wife now, worked at Blizzard when it was a very small company. She was there when they were making Brood War, back when it was a one-project company, or at least one game at a time.
So she was on good terms with Mike Morhaime, and I'd had some back and forth with him over email about [us] trying to talk to Vivendi, who held the rights to Arcanum, when we were still trying to get a contract at the end of Troika. So I'd reached out to him because I couldn't get these people to even respond to my email, so I emailed Mike Morhaime because we knew him a little and Sharon was friends with him. It's strange, when Mike Morhaime calls somebody up - I couldn't get these people to talk to me [and] I get a call, ten minutes after Mike Morhaime writes me back, saying he'll try to get them in touch with [me]. They called us immediately. Nothing came of it unfortunately, [but] at least we were able to talk to them.
There weren't really any job postings or anything, that they were looking for at the time, so I sent Mike and Rob Pardo my resumé. I think about six, eight months later I heard back from them and I went out to lunch with Rob, then I met with Chris Metzen. They'd basically just rebooted or restarted the process for Diablo 3 because they'd been churning on it for a while but didn't like the direction it was going. They brought it in-house in Irvine and had just hired the guy who was gonna run the whole project a month before.
So I started on Diablo 3 a month into its development.
I pitched the game director and Chris Metzen on the idea of adding corruption into it, about having multiple paths, having the game react to you with more of a story, a deeper story, more of an RPG-type story with that kind of depth. They really liked that direction, they thought it was a great idea. So they hired me, they actually created a position for me called world designer, which was not a position that existed at the time. It was kind of a cross between someone who did lore and design and some of the story stuff, and I was also involved in some of the art early on.
So that was what I was hired to do. We spent obviously way too long making that game, it was six years from beginning to end.
As it seems to be with a lot of these projects.
Yeah, well, y'know if you have the time and money to do it. I still think, and I've said it before, that there was no real reason we couldn't have shipped that game in four years or even three. I know Blizzard likes to take their time and obviously their success speaks for itself, but could have probably gotten it out a little sooner.
What was it like working on a game like Diablo that allows story to be put to the side more if the player prefers, as opposed to your previous games that had a balance between story and action both as intrinsic parts of the experience? Was it quite freeing or just really, really weird?
More really, really weird. What they'd hired me to do was to make it more story focused. I thought that was a great idea at the time, and obviously they did, too - but it's not a great idea. It is a bad idea to try to make Diablo [that]. What people want from Diablo is an action game, they don't want to stop and listen to NPCs talk about a deep story. There are some people who like the story and they like the elements of the story, but you really need a light touch.
(Diablo 3's first gameplay trailer, which shows the heavier story focus)
I've also said this before: we did not revamp the story we were trying to tell enough after we decided to just totally drop all of that other stuff. We should have used a much lighter touch in a lot of areas, we should have looked at how they did it in Diablo 2 a little bit more, where it was really, really opt-in. We tried to force a lot of the story beats on the player as opposed to letting them opt in or out. I just feel like it was kind of a misguided attempt based on [laughs] my idea to integrate a deeper story into it.
Obviously, I prefer working on games that are really about the story and are about the character you make. There was a lot of great people at Blizzard who I met and I'm still friends with, I loved working [there], but overall... I probably would have enjoyed it more - well, early on it was actually really fun when we were making that game and we were doing a lot of the exploration for those ideas. I think maybe I would have caused myself less stress and been able to enjoy the process more if we had made the decision to completely just leave up to the player how much of the story they consumed and how much they didn't, [like Adventure Mode].
It was really hard and [the game was] unsuccessful when it forced the players to play through the story, at least in my opinion. I feel like it would have been easier, it would have been more fun [laughs], it would have been a lot less stress if we had moved to a less rigid approach. We started down that road with Reaper [of Souls, Diablo 3’s first and only expansion] but because of some of the stuff we'd established in Diablo 3 we couldn't go too farwith it.
I started really pushing on the idea of non-linear storytelling in Reaper. You can't really do any kind of deep non-linear storytelling because a story by definition has a beginning, middle, and an end, but we would do things where you could find different lore books or have conversations with people, and get a different feel for what was going on depending on the order you did them in. Or, in other words, each one was part of a mystery so you had to see them all to get what the story was, so it didn't matter which way you picked the pieces of information up.
That was really fun, we explored that even more in the two patches we did while I was still there. [Working on] those were the most fun I had at Blizzard. We were a small team making those patches. We all had the same goal in mind, we had really figured out what we should do with the gameplay in terms of how do you put a story in there and make it engaging, but at the same time let people run around and do whatever they want. At least, that was my take on it. We got a lot of good feedback on those patches so I guess a lot of people liked that approach too.
I like what we did. I like Reaper more than vanilla, and I like what we did after that even more. So looking back on it I wish we had had that realisation a year or two into Diablo 3, it would have made all of our lives a lot easier [laughs]. And it would have been more fun.
I'd say that a lot of games that are really fun, Fallout, some of the early Blizzard games, even World of Warcraft, I feel like you can feel the joy and excitement that people making those games had for them. There are obviously exceptions to this, where people were on a neverending grind - Vampire comes to mind, where people enjoy the game even though the making of it wasn't the best time. I know there are companies that make game after game with the same team or even different, changing teams, and it's a little bit more of an assembly line process, so I don't think there's the same enthusiasm there. They're all great, and sell a lot, and people have a great time playing them - but to me I feel like you can tell when you're [playing] a game that was made by a dedicated group of people that were really, really enthused about it. Plus, it's more enriching to work on those games that you have that passion for, regardless of what the style of game is.
Was it a shame to leave when you did then? It sounds like you weren't enjoying yourself massively for the middle part of your stint at Blizzard but by the end you had found your groove - and then headed off to Obsidian. Was it a difficult decision?
No, it wasn't a difficult decision at all [laughs]. It had nothing to do with Blizzard. When I started talking to Chris Jones and Fergus [Urquhart, co-owner at Obsidian] and Tim [Cain, now co-Game Director at Obsidian] about doing this it was basically like 'hey, come make another game that you create from scratch, a hardcore RPG in the Obsidian/Troika style’. How can you pass that up? It wasn't really even a question.
We had a few different conversations talking about the possibility of it. I think you'd have to ask Fergus and Chris, but I feel like they had decided it was going to happen before I even realised the decision had been made. We slowly drifted into talking about when I was gonna come over and it's almost like the decision was never actually made between us. I started talking to them and it was like 'oh yeah, this is gonna happen’.
They're like 'Leonard's a sure thing, we'll plan on him being here, we'll work everything else out and then we'll go talk to him’.
Kind of, and the thing about Blizzard, as much fun as I was having doing that stuff, I had been working on Diablo for ten years. I think I worked there ten years and two months. I just don't know I could have done any more Diablo, as much fun as I was having. Another two, three years on a project based around Diablo - if we had been able to take it a completely different direction, possibly.
But then it isn't Diablo, right?
That's not Diablo. That's in the column of ideas that goes right next to 'let's make Diablo more of a hardcore RPG’ [laughs]. There's a lot of great stuff about that game that people love and you don't mess with that, you find ways to make that better. But if you look at the other games I've made in my career, it's pretty obvious I'm insane and dedicated to making very, very difficult games that have a lot of choice and consequence.
What's it like being back at Obsidian, is it everything you'd hoped for in that manner, and are you enjoying whatever it is that you're working on now?
Yeah, very much so. There are basic similarities anywhere you go when you're making games but everybody has their own little quirks and ways of doing things. The day I started and began talking to Tim about this, it was like this is my style of game making, this is how I learned how to make games. Because literally it's like we made games a certain way at Interplay, we brought that over to Troika, Obsidian did the same thing after Black Isle, they had the same practices and same mindset about the games they were making. So to go from some place that was completely different back to a place where it's exactly how I remember doing these things, it was really refreshing and it was like coming home in a lot of ways.
It's been great. I love what we're working on, I'm really happy about it, I'm really glad I got this opportunity to do this one more time.
You're at Obsidian but you're also back with the people you worked with before - but there was a ten year gap in there. Was it like going back to the way things used to be or is there stuff that has changed for the better?
Yeah. Obsidian has this fantastic dialogue writing tool that is just great. We were writing dialogues in Excel, literally, on Arcanum and Vampire. They have processes that have been in place for years and years and years that we never got a chance to do at Troika. It's not to say that I didn't learn a lot of valuable stuff at Blizzard. Working with a whole different set of people.
At Troika, and when we were working on Fallout at Interplay, and probably at the beginning of Obsidian, they would have said the same thing, we were maybe a bit myopically focused on hardcore RPGs. Over the course of the past ten years or so, working with other people and talking with people who are passionate about games but maybe not the same games that I'm passionate about, really gives you a different insight into things and you learn different ways of looking at games, and different ways to accomplish the same goals.
Some things you look at you're like 'yeah, I wouldn't do it that way' and some things you're like 'I never would have thought of that, that's a really good idea’. So, in a way, when I say it's like coming home it's not like nothing has changed, but the big thing is working on another game that's really, really focused on the story and the way you play the story. [That's] the thing I love and the thing that felt like coming home more than anything.
(Take-Two's Private Division label will be publishing Boyarsky's Obsidian game)
Finally - does Divinity: Original Sin 2 terrify you?
In what way?
That it's what you're competing with now and how far the genre has come while you were working on other things.
I haven't played the second one, I played the first one a little bit, I didn't get too far into it. I've talked to people who've played it and I've read up on it, I will play it one of these days when I get a chance.
When you get the spare 300 hours or whatever it is.
Yeaaah, I tend to like to work. Even if I'm not here, I'm doing research or thinking about the game we're working on.
I wouldn't say it terrifies me, I think it's great that they're doing it. When we were working on Arcanum, Planescape came out. In a way we were just like 'oh, we better up our game now’. That's obviously a new benchmark.
I think it's more like if people are doing this kind of game it pushes you to try to make yours better, in a healthy way. I'm glad there are people out there making this style of game still, because even before we made Fallout people were trying to say that style of game is dead. So the more people that make it the better.
RPGs are kind of a unique animal in the industry. First-person shooters, massively multiplayer games, people tend to gravitate their favourite. This is my game, I play it every time it comes out, I don't want to play any other shooter. This is my MMO, I'm not going to play any other MMOs - which is understandable since that's basically a full-time job.
I feel like RPG fans just want to play great RPGs. Obviously there are people who just love the different series and would love to see more of those specific series. But I feel like if you come up with a great RPG, the RPG people are gonna play it. That's been my experience my whole career. I feel like it's all based around the core of what an RPG is, if you can evoke that.
If there were a hundred games coming out a year that had that, like [there is] for shooters or games that [have] light RPG elements, it might be a different story if the field was really crowded. But maybe five, if even, that's a big number for games of this nature that come out on a yearly basis. Or you might have a year like this one where a couple come out, then you might have two or three years where no games that are in what I would consider that genre come out.
I feel like at least right now there's enough room in the marketplace for all the games. We definitely would look at a game like that and go we have to make a game that's at least as good or better than that. That to me isn't terrifying, it makes me more passionate in a way. It's something to aspire to, there's a new bar being set - same thing on Arcanum with Planescape, 'we better make sure that our stuff is gonna compare favourably to this’.
I'm not sure it did, but it made us try.