By Nathan Grayson on February 16th, 2013 at 6:00 pm.
Kickstarter has been quite kind to Obsidian. Once upon a time, “Let’s make a spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment, but with no recognizable license and a truckload of old-school trappings” would’ve only gotten them as far as the giant-red-button activated trap door I imagine every major publisher secretly has in their meeting room. But now the band of Black Isle castaways is back on the map after some nasty post-Fallout layoffs and sailing quite smoothly. In recent times, however, Kickstarter’s started to get a bit cranky. High-profile washouts are piling up – Wildman the most visible among them – and the gold in them thar hills seems to be losing its sheen. So then, is it time to book it back to publishers? For his part, Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart thinks it’s all about balance. “These are enjoyable games to make,” he told RPS. “I think it would be great to keep on making them. It helps us build a brand. So that’s where it’s transformative. It’s going to change our business, absolutely. Is it going to change the entirety of our business? No.” Tons more on that, Project Eternity, and a possible South Park delay after the break.
RPS: How is development on Project Eternity going? Have you found yourself deviating from the original Kickstarter pitch at all? Are there any ideas that sounded great on paper, but just don’t work in practice?
Feargus Urquhart: You know, I don’t think so. I think what’s maybe different for us, compared to some Kickstarters – not all of them, I would say – we’ve defined what it is that we’re looking out to do. The gameplay of it is pretty defined. There’s going to be things that we’re going to want to change once we get up there. How exactly do we want the inventory to work? How is this going to work? How is that?
But generally, it’s well-defined. This is how you control the party. This is how area transitions work. How we’re rendering all that. Some stuff on the technology side is different, but it’s better. All the basic gameplay, we pretty much get it. Where we’re going to see differences, it’s in how we want to do dialogue. How do we want to present it? Infinity Engine games presented it this way. Other games have presented it this way. I guess in the end what it will be is there’s going to be a certain number of interface things we’ll iterate on a lot. They might be different from what we’re thinking right now. But general gameplay… It’s worked out. We had a very specific, “This is what we’re going to do.”
RPS: But, hypothetically, if you ever ended up in a situation where it came down to what you promised backers versus what was really right for the game, what would you do?
Feargus Urquhart: It would really depend. We’re all gamers. Everyone who makes games is. There are things I like about a game that other people don’t. There are things they like that I don’t. There’s always going to be different opinions, even personally, as to what works and what doesn’t work in a game.
If we came to a block, if we came to something that we promised, but in looking at it or trying it it just didn’t work out, we would just be really up front. We’d say, “Hey, we tried this. It didn’t work out. The direction we’re going is this.” Now, if the internet falls on us… [laughs] …and says, “How dare you go off on some different direction?” maybe there’s a conversation online about it. Then maybe we wouldn’t go with our gut.
But I think that’s it. The first thing is to say that there’s a problem. Generally, because we play the games that we make, we’re kind of our own target market in a lot of ways. I think a lot of times our gut is correct. But that’s how we’d handle it. I think you’ve probably seen that we’re pretty open about all the stuff we’re doing. We’re doing lots of updates. We were really worried about releasing temp art stuff. People would then think that it’s final even though it looks like crap. Our art director stamped all this funny stuff on the art so that people would recognize, “No, it’s not final at all, remotely, we just wanted to show you guys progress.”
But that’s how we would handle it. We’d do an update. Josh would probably get on a video and say, “This is what it is. This is why we’re changing this. See this on the whiteboard.” As an example, Josh has changed the armor system in the game in the last three or four weeks. He’s changed it three times. Some of that is based on conversations he’s had with people online, friends of his in the industry, or internally. That’s the other cool thing about the Kickstarter. We get to change stuff ourselves. That’s fun.
RPS: Plus, you’re not beholden to a publisher on this one, so you don’t have to deal with milestones and all that stuff. And, I mean, some of Obsidian’s previous efforts have been super glitchy, which suggests a breakdown in the release process for you. A goal publishers demanded that just didn’t mesh with your way of doing things.
Feargus Urquhart: Yeah. But I certainly don’t want to throw publishers under the bus. It’s a two-way street.
It’s tough. It’s a tough thing. You have to know enough to get to the nitty gritty of game development. But it’s a tough thing. You’re working on this game. Some things don’t go right. The budget you pitched two years ago is not working out. There are challenges in working with a publisher, to say that you need to keep more people on it for another month. They don’t want to spend any more money because we said it was going to cost this much. That doesn’t take into account external forces and other kinds of stuff. That’s the only unfortunate thing, I’d say.
It’s sometimes hard to have unemotional conversations, very matter-of-fact conversations about budgets and timelines and stuff like that. The example I use a lot of times is, if I were to hire a guy to come put in a pool. If the guy’s going to come put in a pool, he’s not going to hire some weird ground-scanner to say exactly what type of soil is there. They bid and then they come back and start digging the hole. Whoops, half the pool is on bedrock. We’re going to have to chisel that crap out. I can get mad at him, but it’s life. I think that’s the challenge a lot of times. Things come up in games and it’s hard sometimes to get through that stuff as planned.
But some of that’s stuff on us. So we’ve changed a little bit when we’re working with external [publishers]. We put a lot more buffer in now than we used to. We do that purposefully, because then we have that to draw upon when we can. If there’s a problem then the budget is already there to deal with it. You can skip the emotional part of it.
RPS: For comparison’s sake, what’s the actual scale of Project Eternity in terms of the number of people working on it right now?
Feargus Urquhart: It’s about… 12 or 13 people?
RPS: That’s what I was figuring. Somewhere around there. So I imagine it’s a lot easier to be connected in terms of goals and whatnot, when you have so many fewer people and no publisher whatsoever. What’s it been like going back to that smaller structure?
Feargus Urquhart: It’s interesting, because some of the things we’re now so used to doing, we just don’t do. It’s going to sound silly and probably scary to some people, but for instance, when we have a bigger project, we have a whole group of producers that are managing this huge schedule. Huge tasks and all that stuff. With Project Eternity, a lot of the guys on the game have done this stuff before. Steve Weatherly is the main gameplay programmer. He just implemented doors last week. We don’t need to have a meeting about doors.
To be honest, there’s like a… I’m not going to call it a game design document. It’s more like a bullet list, just so we don’t forget the things that need to be in it. But Steve’s implemented doors probably four other times in RPGs. He knows all the stuff. We’re using Unity, so the backend of putting something in the game is already all there. Steve goes around and talks to everybody. He says, “I’m thinking this, because we’ve done this in other games. Maybe we need these new things.” They all agree to it, get a quick writeup, and go.
RPS: So all this is going very much in your favor, but Kickstarter’s evolved into a far more demanding beast since wallets the world over ran away together with Project Eternity and got married. Do you think that’s a good thing, that consumers are getting more wary towards what they give their money to?
Feargus Urquhart: Yes? Yeah… Maybe coming at it the other way. It’s people that put projects up. I think that if you look at any digital cycle, you see the early adopters. Then you see the gold rush. Then you see the consumers being a little frustrated. Then you see the upturn in people that are focusing on quality. You can see it in almost any platform.
RPS: It all normalizes.
Feargus Urquhart: It all normalizes. But it normalizes where someone putting something up with two paragraphs and one screenshot, and that could make a lot of money however long ago [becomes the lowest common denominator]. When you get to this third phase, that’s not the reality of it anymore. I think the moral of it is that people who want to have something bigger funded need to go at it from [the perspective of] not just getting money.
It’s not that there are people out here who just want to give you money, and it’s your right to take that money. You need to be very responsible. It is their money. It’s a privilege that they’re giving it to you. You have to come at it from that viewpoint. I think maybe that’s what people are getting more savvy about.
People maybe are starting to see that some projects are just, to use a term, cash grabs. “I’ll put something up and say it’s wonderful and get some money.” It may be that right now that’s a really good weeding process, an inevitable weeding process. Having a ton of stuff go up there and having a ton of it not be successful… Right now, unfortunately, is not a great time to launch anything big. I know Chris Taylor’s tried and that’s not going the way he had hoped. But that’s how I would look at it.
RPS: Chris Taylor’s situation was interesting, too, because a lot of people who have past notoriety have leveraged it a whole lot. Even you guys. Project Eternity was very much rooted in a similar mentality to Baldur’s Gate and Planescape and stuff like that. But tried a new world and a new-ish approach to the genre. Would you, speaking personally, be more hesitant to launch something risky on Kickstarter like that?
Feargus Urquhart: Would I put something risky on Kickstarter? I wouldn’t put something risky up on Kickstarter and try to get $2 million dollars for it. I would try something risky, but I would have to have very reasonable expectations.
The other thing is, it goes hand in hand. In general, games with big, big budgets are risky because they have big, big budgets. They’re not risky necessarily because the ideas are very new. That leads to a thing where, when you’re making something smaller, the risk can’t be the money. In some ways then the risk is that it’s new and different. That’s why you see a lot of new and risky things from indies and on the downloadable platforms and things like that.
I personally would not try to come up with some entirely new thing [for Kickstarter]. You’ve set yourself up. You’re trying to solve two problems at once. You first need to spend a ton of time explaining to them what it is, so that they can then hopefully desire it. Then hopefully that desire turns into backing. In essence, you’re adding a whole stage to your pitch. I think that’s a challenge. You look at the lady who got $130,000 dollars for marshmallows. The pictures of her marshmallows… Wow. Those looked really good [laughs]. And she had the whole spiel on there about why her marshmallows were awesome. But we’re all candy-ingesting gamers, right? “Ooh, marshmallows!” There’s nothing selling them other than the fact that they look pretty.
RPS: At that point, what does Kickstarter become for companies in your position, then? Is it just some kind of nostalgia farm? The biggest successes have definitely hinged on nostalgia, but I think for a while a lot of people looked at it and said, “Maybe this is a truly viable alternative form of funding that could get more innovation into the industry.” Now it’s shifted back towards, “Well, it’s difficult to get real innovation going now unless your budget is $20,000 dollars.”
Feargus Urquhart: Yeah, definitely. It goes back to what we were talking about before. First of all, there’s this haze of just the gold rush. There’s a lot of chaff. It has to resolve itself. Once it resolves itself, Kickstarter will be there to fund things that people want to back. It’s stupid, right? You can look today at what people look to back.
You can look at the card and board game industry. If you have something of a track record and you put a good Kickstarter on, you put up a $15,000, $20,000, $25,000 dollar goal, you’ve done some stuff with Board Game Geek, you have your rules to read, you look like you have it, it’s an interesting board game, and there’s not 30 of them up at the time, you’ll probably be successful. I don’t think that will change meaningfully. It may never change. This may be the way that a lot of board games get funded now. But now, look at more indie games. Indie games in the $50,000 to $200,000 dollar level, they can be innovative. You don’t need all the backers in the world. I think Kickstarter could be a good platform for that.
Things like what we did with Eternity, those might go away. Or maybe they don’t go away, but only so many can be done. A few a year. Four or five a year can get funded that way. But for the other things, we could see a ton of them. At that point, when your goal is down to a certain point, it’s more about people. One, they feel the goal is achievable. Think about it this way: When you have a goal of $2 million dollars, my $10 dollars moves it this much. When I have a goal of $20,000 dollars, my $10 dollars moves it this much. It’s not just that I’m getting something. It’s my feeling that I’m helping out. I’m giving to the industry. I’m letting someone do it. When it feels like my impact on that is meaningful, rather than $10 dollars moving it .00001 percent towards the goal, that’s what helps.
RPS: So where does that leave crowdfunding for Obsidian as a company? Is it ultimately more of a sidestep – after which you’ll go back to publishing more traditionally for your projects? Or has it been a transformative experience for all of you?
Feargus Urquhart: These are enjoyable games to make. I think it would be great to keep on making them. It helps us build a brand. So that’s where it’s transformative. It’s going to change our business, absolutely. Is it going to change the entirety of our business? No. I would still love to make Fallout: New Vegas 2, or whatever. Or even take Eternity at some point and have Eternity the [Infinity Engine] games and then Eternity the big open-world CRPG. I think that would be really cool.
Nothing stops us from being able to do those two different things. It’s going to make us look at Eternity as a brand. What else can we do with it? I want to hook up with the Pathfinder guys and see about doing a Pathfinder Eternity world book thing. It sounds a little weird, but… A card game. A board game. I’ve already been chatting with Cryptozoic Entertainment. We have nothing going on specifically, but they have a lot of experience in board games and card games. That’s what’s going to be transformative.
But overall, we still love making those big games. I don’t think we have to say we have to do one or the other.
RPS: On the other side of that, you’ve got South Park going. THQ’s down for the count, so now Ubisoft’s publishing. Beyond that, is everything proceeding apace? Has anything changed aside from a name on the cover?
Feargus Urquhart: No, it’s going great. Matt and Trey are totally engaged right now. They’re doing great work. They happened to be in London this week, but our writer is out there working with them on stuff at their request. We meet with them all the time. It’s great.
It’s going to be the most horrible game I ship in my career [laughs]. If there were anything that could get me on the watch list of the religious right, it’s going to be the South Park game.
RPS: Truly, the sort of thing we can all aspire to. Has it been delayed, though? It certainly seemed that way in Ubisoft’s initial announcement.
Feargus Urquhart: Ubi hasn’t really gone into the release date stuff. It’s so new to them, from the standpoint of moving it over. It’s still something getting worked out as to when it’s going to ship.
RPS: But is it fairly close to being done overall?
Feargus Urquhart: There’s a lot of it, the game. It’s going to be a pretty big game. We’ve done a huge amount of art on it and things like that. It’s definitely coming along. That’s the developer “I can’t answer the question” answer [laughs].
RPS: I’m somewhat familiar with those.
Feargus Urquhart: But we still have to act like we answered you [laughs].
RPS: Ooo, I’ve always wanted to end an interview with a self-aware critique of Everything That’s Wrong With Games Journalism! Thank you for your time.
You can read part one of this monstrous interview here.