Friday, October 5, 2012

Profile On: Games Writer Travis Stout  


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Profile: During this year’s PAX Prime, I attended a hands-on preview for State of Decay, a new open-world zombie title hitting XBLA early in 2013.  While there, I happened to randomly start up a conversation with one of the developers walking by. This person turned out to be Travis Stout, a writer and designer who’s done work on some of my favorite games of all time.

I could hardly believe the coincidence.

Since we’re both Seattle area residents living just a short distance apart, Travis was gracious enough to meet me for an in-depth chat over a burger and some fries downtown.

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Background Originally from Florida, Travis has always been a hard-core player of all kinds of games.


At the time he got serious professionally, he was 19 or 20, and going to school to become an animator. He was terrible. (His words, not mine.) Seeing that his future lay in a different direction, he wrote a letter to a small pen-and-paper RPG company which essentially said “I have no experience but I’m a good writer, please hire me.”

…And they did.

Keeping on in the same vein, he eventually approached White Wolf with a similar request that they hire him.

…And they did.

He kept on designing tabletop scenarios until one day when he went to the Obsidian website in search of a patch for Knights of the Old Republic 2.  While clicking through the site, he happened to notice a banner ad announcing that they were hiring.  He wrote yet another letter in an attempt to go from pen and paper to electronic. “I’ve written for tabletop, but have no videogame experience.  Please hire me.”

…And they did.

I was quite impressed with this do-it-yourself, can-do attitude, and clearly it worked wonders for him -- not only did he get work, he got great work.

Travis has been the author of a number of White Wolf and Dungeons & Dragons materials, and his videogame experience is even more impressive.  In one way or another, he’s been involved with Neverwinter Nights 2, Fallout: New Vegas, Dungeon Siege III, the upcoming South Park: The Stick of Truth, and one of my personal (cult) favorites, Alpha Protocol

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On Fallout: New Vegas Travis worked on a variety of things, but specifically the dialogue and quest design for the Great Khan faction, the companion characters Raul and Lily, all of the AI appliances as well as the player’s brain in the Old World Blues DLC, and the dialogue for EDI in the Lonesome Road DLC.

@ecavalli asked: Was there a firm directive to make the script more like the first two Fallouts than Fallout 3, or was that just a happy accident?

Travis: It was just a natural growth process based on the people who were there.  It was a fun company to work for and many of them had worked on the older games, so it just happened that way.  There was never any direct order from management, or anything like that.  Also, at some points the humor was meant as an acknowledgement to fans who were familiar with the older titles.

@GreatCharleston asked: What did you enjoy writing the most in New Vegas?

Travis: EDI’s dialogue in Lonesome Road, or Muggy the mini Securitron in Old World Blues – Muggy’s voice actor totally nailed the dialogue and fit the writing perfectly.

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On Alpha Protocol Travis did level design and dialogue in the Taipei section, and nearly all of the dialogue for fan-favorite character Steven Heck.

I asked if he had been responsible for some of the twists and turns that happen in that section.  His response was that Chris Avellone plotted out all of the intrigue, so he was the one who masterminded all of the double-crosses and secret agent activity.

@FinalMacstorm asked: What were the inspirations for the characters you worked on in New Vegas and Alpha Protocol?

Travis: It’s hard to answer that one, since I drew from a lot of sources.  However, the voice actors were cast before we were done writing, so their presence definitely influenced the scripts.  Having them around and hearing their deliveries had an effect on the writing, for sure.

My final question on the subject was whether or not Travis was disappointed about the critical reception and success of the game itself.

Travis: That’s hard to answer.  Honestly, I thought it turned out pretty well for a game that Obsidian built by themselves from the ground up, and it ended up selling all right.  There were some challenges there, though.

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On State of Decay Travis is the sole writer, and is handling all of the characterizations and dialogue for around 50 different personalities in the game.  He states that he works with a great team, and that he never feels alone in this task thanks to a lot of constant feedback and input from his coworkers at Undead Labs – he describes it as a community approach to his work. 

When asked about the size of his task, he stated that Decay (at the current time) has around 15,000 lines of dialogue.  By comparison, he estimates that New Vegas has somewhere in the neighborhood of 65,000 lines, or so.  

It’s also worth noting that because Decay is a different sort of game and not a traditional RPG, his focus as a writer has been making the characters in the game broadly appealing, but not as in-depth as a regular role-player…  He stated that although there won’t be a dialog wheel with an hour’s worth of conversation for each character, his goal is that players will be able to easily recall which character has which traits, and what quirks are in their personalities.

@lamournumerique asked: Is Class 4 still a thing, are you working on it, and is it coming to 360?

[For clarification, State of Decay was known as Class 3 during early development, and a larger, rumored-to-be MMO version of this property was dubbed Class 4.]

Travis: Yes, it’s still a thing, and I will be working on it.  Other than that, I can’t say much about it.

I asked what happened to the rumored multiplayer options in State of Decay, which is now a dedicated single player experience.  Also, if we can assume that Class 4 will be multiplayer-oriented, will it be coming to 360 as well as PC?

Travis: We had thought about having co-op in State of Decay, but it would have taken resources away from other aspects of the game that we wanted to nail, like the base-building and other stuff like that. We wanted to make sure that everything we delivered was the best. As far as whether or not Class 4 will be coming to 360, no comment.

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At this point, it was about time to wrap it up, but we had time for one last question. I was curious: what sort of game would Travis produce if he was calling the shots and had enough of the budget to make it happen?

At this, he shied away a bit. His reason being that he's got something very clearly in mind, but he doesn't want to talk about it, since he hopes to actually bring it to life one day. What he did say, however, was that this theoretical property would focus on playing with genre expectations and twist clich├ęs around... he's been interested in deconstructing things, and feels that current games don't do enough of it.

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After finishing the food and paying the tab, we shook hands and parted ways. It was a real pleasure to speak with someone who had been responsible for so many hours of gameplay that I had cherished over the last few years, and I definitely look forward to what he's going to do next.

Infinite thanks to Travis Stout, and to Sanya Weathers of Undead Labs for making this chat session happen. For more information on Travis’ work or State of Decay, please check out the official website and look out for it in early 2013 on XBLA.

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