Obsidian Entertainment Interview

Feargus Urquhart is one of the most prominent figures in the role-playing video game business, having spent the last 18 years of his life contributing to it.  We’ve chatted with many of Feargus’ colleagues over the years, but never to the man himself, so we made a point of catching up with him before the team went into crunch mode for Alpha Protocol.  Read on to learn more about Feargus and what the team at Obsidian has in store for us next:

GB: To start things off, tell us how you originally started your career in video game development. What inspired you to move into this field in the first place, and what games have you directly contributed to over the years?

Feargus: I originally started as a playtester back in 1991 at Interplay Entertainment. Other than being a summer job that I could get that would let me play games and hang out with my friends, making games was something I was always interested in doing. I made a few text games on my Commodore 64 and also ran a bulletin board (BBS) for about five years – this was in the time before fire, or the web/internet – your choice. J But what really inspired me was that I just loved playing games, particularly RPGs. I spent hours playing the Ultima series, particularly Ultima 4, and other RPG series like Bard’s Tale, Wizardry, Might and Magic, Phantasy and even some early MUDs even though I didn’t know what that term really meant back then. With that background and pretty much falling into a job at Interplay, I was incredibly lucky.

As for the games that I directly contributed to – that’s a pretty long list, but I’ll give it a shot. Castles 2 (PC), Rock N Roll Racing (Genesis), Blackthorne (32X), Bard’s Tale Construction Set (PC), Star Trek: 25th Anniversary (PC), RPM Racing (SNES), Solitaire Deluxe for Windows (PC), Lost Vikings 1 (SNES), Lost Vikings 2 (SNES), Shattered Steel (PC), Descent to Undermountain (PC), Dragondice (PC), Blood & Magic (PC), Fallout 1 (PC), Fallout 2 (PC), Baldur’s Gate 1 (PC), Baldur’s Gate 2 (PC), Planescape: Torment (PC), Icewind Dale 1 (PC), Icewind Dale 2 (PC), Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance 1 (PS2, Xbox), Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance 2 (PS2, Xbox), Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic 2 (Xbox, PC) and Neverwinter Nights 2 and expansions (PC).

GB: What roles did you serve throughout your career at Interplay? What was day-to-day business like at Interplay, as opposed to Obsidian Entertainment?

Feargus: At Interplay, I started as a play tester (QA) and then was hired on full time as an assistant producer in 1993. From Assistant Producer, I was promoted to Associate Producer in 1994, Producer in 1995 and then Division Director in 1996. My title was then changed in 1998 (or there abouts) to President of Black Isle Studios. While it was a great new title, it was pretty much just the same job I had already been doing for a couple of years.

As for my day to day job, it’s really not a lot different other than I need to deal with company related stuff that I didn’t at Interplay. Things like what medical insurance should we have for the company, should we get our own exterminator because the landlord can’t seem to get rid of the ants and spending more time on overall budgeting. Oh, and I do a lot more business meetings with publishers to get new projects signed up.

GB: Tell us a bit about your decision to leave Interplay and form Obsidian Entertainment. What actually prompted you to make the transition, and how difficult of a decision was it for you at the time? Were there any other options that you were considering?

Feargus: It was a really hard decision. I loved working with Interplay and I was really attached to both the people and the work we had done at Interplay. I had worked there for 12 years and anywhere you have worked or lived for that amount of time is hard to leave. As for the reasons, in a lot of ways it was just time. Interplay started to focus more and more on console games and while Black Isle shipped one of Interplay’s most successful console titles (Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance), Interplay did not see Black Isle as a console developer and so we received increasingly less in the way of support. I’m not suggesting that it was a good or a bad business decision, just that it was the decision that was made. So, we decided that it was time to take off and go make games outside of that sort of environment.

GB: It’s a well-known fact that quite a bit of content was cut from your first project, Star Wars: KotOR II, prior to its release. Can you give us a little insight into the decisions you had to make during the game’s development, as well as what correspondence took place between LucasArts and Obsidian Entertainment as the release date drew nearer?

Feargus: This is a real tough thing to answer, because the real answer is really long and complicated. So, what I’ll say is that all games have content cut from them during development. Unfortunately, two things happened with KotOR 2. First, we did not strip it completely out and people were able to find it. Not that I’m trying to sweep it under the rug, but if we hadn’t left the stuff in there then the fact that it was missing would never have clouded anything. The second is that we did run out of time to adequately polish the final area.

GB: With BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic MMORPG on the horizon, do you personally think there will ever be a “true” Star Wars: KotOR III? Why or why not?

Feargus: I don’t really know. A part of me hopes that there will be, because I think we can do things in the more single player story based RPGs that you just can’t do in an MMORPG. Like I said, I really hope that there is one, with BioWare busy on the MMO; I hope LucasArts gives us a shot at making KotOR III.

GB: The second title you released under Obsidian Entertainment was Neverwinter Nights 2. Can you give us a brief overview of how you secured the rights to work on the game, and what challenges you faced during its development?

Feargus: Securing the rights to create it is probably more than what we really did. Atari was looking to have NWN2 made and Bioware wasn’t in the position to make it at the time. So, we talked to Atari about doing it and due to our relationship with Bioware, knowledge of their technology ,tools and our familiarity with D&D and Neverwinter itself (I worked on the cored game idea with Ray, Greg and Trent when we were first thinking of the title) it just made sense for Atari to go with us.

The challenges that we had while working on the game were a number of things and many of them come down to next-gen games and us growing our studio. The first of those – “next-gen games”, caused a lot of issues. When we started working on it 2004, there were already amazing screen shots of what every next-gen game was going to look like. Originally, NWN2 was going to be on both the PC and Xbox360. So, we moved forward on creating a next-gen game, however the budget was higher than what our publisher was used to at the time and so we were both making mistakes. To reduce risk, they asked us to put a prototype together very quickly so, we hacked something together. Unfortunately, it was so much of a hack that it really didn’t help us get ready for production. We were still trying to put our tools together and un-hack everything while we were supposed to be making final levels. The responsibility for that all happening really lies on both Obsidian and Atari. Atari shouldn’t have pushed us to create a prototype so quickly and we shouldn’t have agreed to do it. I put it that way, because I think it’s important that developers take responsibility for things that happen in our industry and that it’s not just the “big bad” publishers that have done everything wrong. What is also important is to look at this as mistakes that were made not that people were dumb or evil. Both Atari and Obsidian were figuring out, like everyone else in the industry, how to make big next-gen games and mistakes were inevitable.

GB: Do you think we’ll ever see a third PC-only, non-MMO Neverwinter Nights? Why or why not? Would Obsidian be interested in tackling another sequel?

Feargus: We’d be jazzed about tackling a sequel. We learned so much from making NWN2 and would love to make another one. As for there actually being another one, personally, I would be surprised. If there was, there would be a lot of brand confusion between what Cryptic is doing and what we are doing. What we’d love to do instead is tackle something like Baldur’s Gate 3 or create our own new fantasy world – or have we already been doing that? 🙂

GB: As someone who has been directly involved with the Fallout franchise over the years, what is your honest opinion of Bethesda’s version of Fallout 3? Given the game’s design and the success it has enjoyed, do you think it will affect the way your team approaches Fallout: New Vegas?

Feargus: My honest opinion is that they chose the right direction. I could nitpick some of the game systems and how they did certain things, but they would really be nitpicks – and you would probably get a very similar list out of Todd Howard. I can say that I’ve really enjoyed playing Fallout 3 and the thing they absolutely NAILED was the feeling of actually being in the Wasteland. Ultimately, that is what Fallout is all about; it’s about being in that world and running around in it and that’s what Bethesda did with Fallout 3.

GB: Aside from the Aliens RPG, Alpha Protocol, and Fallout: New Vegas, do you have any other unannounced titles in development? If so, how long have you been actively developing the title(s)?

Feargus: We have been working on another title for the last four months that we can’t talk about yet. It’s going really well though and the team is really excited. It’s using our own internal engine so we are really able to do things our way based upon everything we’ve learned about making RPGs in the past ten to fifteen years. Don’t take that as a silent slam on Unreal – it’s not. Our engine, like Unreal, is a tool and different jobs can be done better with tools that are made for them. There are things that our engine may never do as well as Unreal, but likewise there are things that our engine will do that will be better than Unreal.

GB: Of all the role-playing games you’ve worked on at Interplay and Obsidian, which would you say that you’re most proud of being involved with and why?

Feargus: Ultimately, I think it really is Fallout, but for different reasons than may seem obvious. It was incredible to work on Fallout and I’m really proud of what we were able to do – and for the things that I personally did right (get the Hub working and the .223 pistol quest) and the things that I did wrong but learned from (the Turbo Plasma Rifle). What I’m really proud of is that Fallout seemed to really pave the way for all of the other RPGs that came out in the next four or five years. It seemed to set the stage and wet people’s appetite for Baldur’s Gates, Arcanum, Neverwinter Nights and Planescape: Torment.

GB: On the other hand, are there any game choices or design decisions you’ve come to regret over the course of your career?

Feargus: Oh, come on, I’ve never been wrong. Just ask everyone that’s worked with me. 🙂 If there is any mistake that I think I’ve made, it is that I’ve pushed teams too hard and just hoped that things would work out. In the past, that worked because I could even pitch in and work like a mad man to help us catch up. However, with games and teams getting larger no one person or small group of people can dig a game out of a hole. So, I’ve needed to really figure out how to approach development, scheduling and making games in such a way that we can get them done and get them done at a quality level we are all proud of in the end.

As for specific design elements that I wince at now, I would say that they are both in Fallout 2. The first is that we just went too crazy with inside jokes and references to real world things like South Park. What really makes me bow my head is the talking Death Claw. I have no idea why I thought it was cool at the time – momentary insanity?

GB: Give us your personal take on the current state of PC gaming and non-MMO role-playing games. As a long-time PC developer, what is your opinion on the shift to consoles, whether or not single player RPGs are being overlooked due to the growth of the MMO industry, and what role piracy plays in both of these cases?

Feargus: I think that it’s a tough time for large budget PC development. There just isn’t money out there for it and it’s hard to justify spending your own money as a developer when you aren’t sure if you are going to make all that money back. Having said that, my hope is that with something like our engine we can make PC games much more quickly and easily and try to release smaller games that people can buy through download sites. We can then offer extensions (downloadable content) for those games and then build them up to larger games for the people that want that experience.

Ultimately, I think that the PC is still a great gaming platform and I’m hoping that in the next few years, how games get distributed and how we can all at least earn back what is spent to make a game can be figured out. I do think that we are definitely on that course with Steam, since I know a lot of developers are making money and bypassing the normal retail route. But, as I said above, it’s still scary to look at spending $3M or $7M of your own money to make something and then wonder if you are going to get it all back.

Until next time, Feargus!

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