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Interview with Tim Cain

Copyright PC Gamer Online

Fallout creator Tim Cain discusses RPGs, future plans.

In a relatively rare moment of unanimity, most of the computer gaming press named Fallout as the best roleplaying game of 1997.

Not bad for a debut; Fallout was essentially Tim Cain's first step into the genre, and it was largely his project. The manual credits him as producer, lead programmer, and as a contributor to the original game design -- though he is the first to point out that Fallout, like most projects in this industry, was a team effort. (And truthfully, Fallout's credits list dozens upon dozens of people.)

But where did Tim Cain come from? He seems to have popped out of nowhere with this game. What were his RPG influences and what does he think makes for a good roleplaying game? And now that he's left Interplay, what's he going to do next? We spoke with Cain to find out.

First of all, nothing comes easy. Cain spent years studying computer programming before spending several more years as a junior programmer at Interplay, before getting his chance to create his first roleplaying game.

Prior to working at Interplay, Cain earned his master's degree in computer science from the University of California, Irvine. He was working on his Ph.D., but gave up on it when someone at a different school innocently published a thesis similar to the one he was working on.

The topic? "It was in an area of artificial intelligence called Machine Learning," Cain says. "I was trying to make a program that could learn by doing things."

Does that make Cain an expert in artificial intelligence? "Well, you can't really tell that from the AI in Fallout," he jokes. "The AI in Fallout was very simple and it was the best that we could do. One of my problems was that I tried to approach it too academically. I ran into all the problems rules-based systems have."

So, giving up on his artificial intelligence thesis, he went into computer games instead, leaving school around 1992 and starting work right away.

"I did a business sim for Interplay called Rags to Riches in 1993, and was a contract employee on Bard's Tale Construction Set, around 1992," he says, "just when interest in that kind of RPG went away." After these projects he did bits and pieces on Star Trek 25th Anniversary Game, Stonekeep, and other miscellaneous stuff, all before he approached Brian Fargo with his own idea for a roleplaying game -- Fallout.

The rest we know -- Fallout was released to great critical acclaim and embraced by hardcore roleplayers, if not by the mass market. And then Cain left Interplay, citing creative differences, and is now a free agent, a masterless samurai, looking for his next opportunity to create a game.

Cain's interest in roleplaying games had an unusual genesis -- mom.

"It was my mother who got me into AD&D when I was 14," Cain told us. "She knew some people in her office who played, and she thought I might be interested. So I began playing in a group of people who were all over 30 years old, and they emphasized the role-playing over the combat aspects of the game. This is probably why I like RPGs more than shooters, even today."

It was an interest that never died; Cain has remained a fan of paper-based roleplaying games to this day, playing everything from AD&D to GURPS, still actively gaming in paper RPGs.

"You never forget your first RPG," he says. "AD&D kept me enthralled for years. I especially liked the old Judge's Guild modules. In fact, I have a collection of their City State modules, and I still run an AD&D campaign set in this world. Someday, I'd like to make an CRPG set in that world."

He's even interested in working with some of the Judges Guild writers, if he know how to contact them. "I don't know what happened to all their designers," says Cain. "There was a guy Edward R.G. Mortimer, his stuff was just incredible. He was a great designer; I'd love to hire him. His ideas were just incredible."

This background in paper RPGs definitely gave Cain some very definite ideas on how a computer roleplaying game should be handled. For starters, to him a true computer roleplaying game is one that is based on one player, one character, but that character should not be pre-generated, but customizable. Very customizable.

"I think the hallmark of a true RPG is the ability to make a wide variety of characters within its system, and that these characters are different," he says. "They should play differently, advance in skill and ability differently, and force the player to make decisions that affect the outcome of the game. In essence, the player should have a different experience in the game with each character."

He cites as one example the different experiences two characters with varying intelligence will have in Fallout, one character with an intelligence score of one, the other with a ten.

"The former character can barely utter complete sentences in dialog, cannot get anyone to follow him (except a stray dog), and cannot complete many of the quests for the lack of ability to even understand what is being asked of him," says Cain. "The latter character gains massive amounts of skill points every level and has a large variety of dialog options, so he can get followers and quest leads more easily." Both characters can finish the game, he says, but each will have very different experiences.

He also feels that playing as one character at a time forces the player to concentrate on roleplaying, while party-based RPGs end up as more strategic games, with the player trying to mix and match characters to form the optimal combat party.

"When you play with one character, you must accept the strengths and weaknesses of that character," he says. "You must make decisions based on them, and the game can reward the player for role-playing that character.

"Say you can take a smart, lucky guy. You'd better avoid combat, but the game can have several adventures that can be finished in some ways only by an intelligent character. And those solutions can reward the character as much as a combat solution."

And with only one character, the player is more attached to the character and more motivated to play well, since if the character dies, the game is over.

In contrast, party-based games tend to be more oriented towards strategy.

"When you play with a party, you don't have to live with these weaknesses. You can have a charismatic person who does all of the talking, a combat tank to do the fighting, and a medic for healing," he says. "They tend to have more combat because there is less reason to avoid it. Some people like this kind of game. I don't."

Cain also believes that a strong, flexible storyline, balanced by numerous optional sub-plots, is preferable to direction-less games.

"I like open-endedness, but not if it makes the game seem purposeless or without direction," he says. "I prefer an RPG where the main story line and its subplots are fairly linear (perhaps some subplots can be done out of order), but each subplot has multiple solutions that affect the character later on. The player should reap what he sows.

"RPGs should have lots of non-essential subplots that have nothing to do with the main story line. The player is free to solve these subplots or ignore them," he says. "However, he may have to do some of them in order to gain experience or generic items that he will need later in a main story subplot."

Besides AD&D, the early computer roleplaying games were another influence on Fallout, as was another paper RPG system, Steve Jackson's GURPS.

"I played pretty much the whole Ultima series," says Cain. "Ultima III was my absolute favorite. Those were probably the biggest influence in my head as to what a CRPG should be."

Cain is also a fan of the GURPS system -- the Generic Universal Roleplaying System created by Steve Jackson Games.

"I first tried GURPS about eight years ago, and I was hooked on the system very soon after that," Cain says. "I really liked being able to dabble in different genres without having to learn new rules. I immediately began a variety of campaigns - a high tech level space campaign, a Hyborian Conan campaign, and even one of my most infamous campaigns, GURPS Everything, where I tried to make a campaign that used every GURPS source book I owned," he says. He describes it as a mixture of magic, space, horror, time travel, psionics, and even Conan. "What surprised me most was that it worked, and it was good fun."

It was this interest in GURPS that eventually led to the ill-fated deal between Interplay and Steve Jackson Games to use the GURPS license in Fallout. To make a long story short, Cain was looking to license the GURPS roleplaying system -- the different rules that govern character generation, combat, and the like -- without seeking creative input on the actual game world from Steve Jackson Games. Some may recall that Mythos' X-COM games had a similar arrangement, licensing some tactical combat rules from the creators of the paper roleplaying game Traveller -- but that was the extent of the deal.

However, the contract Interplay signed with Steve Jackson gave him some control over the environment in which the license could be used, according to comments Interplay subsequently made (PC Gamer, April 98, pg. 188). Jackson did not like some of the art and design decisions in the game, Interplay's Feargus Urquhart told us then, and in the end, it was easier for Interplay to drop the license than to continue fighting over the game's content.

"That's essentially what happened," Cain told us. "My attraction to GURPS was my love of the rules and the fact that I could make my own world, rather than use an existing one, as with the AD&D license."

As for the Fallout over Fallout -- the reasons for his departure -- Cain is currently not commenting on questions about his prior tenure at Interplay.

What's Next? As he is still talking to prospective publishers, what kind of game he will be working on next is hardly set in stone, though almost certainly he will do another roleplaying game.

Most likely he'll program the game and create the storyline himself, too, as he's "a little license shy" right now. "I don't want anybody else to lay claim it," he says.

But no matter where he ends up, fans of Fallout should keep an eye out for Cain and his team.

-- Jason Bates