By Nathan Grayson on December 14th, 2013 at 4:00 pm.
Have you read our recent mega-blowouts of Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity? Then congratulations: you know everything about Pillars of Eternity except what the pillars of eternity actually are. But Obsidian’s not planning to dip a furtive pinky toe into classic CRPG waters and then leave its legacy behind again. This time, it’s in control of its own destiny, and no one knows that better than CEO Feargus Urquhart. He wants to push the classic Black Isle mold further than it’s ever gone before, into worlds so immense that the classic Infinity Engine never would’ve been able to handle them. But that was then, and this is now. His company has new-old tech and new-old ideas. Hear all about Urquhart’s grandest plans below.
At this point, I think it would be fair to say that Obsidian would be kind of silly to not do another Kickstarter. I know it, you know it, and – heck – Obsidian definitely knows it. Pillars of Eternity isn’t the sort of thing you just toss out of the nest and abandon to the ravenous fangs of time. Not if you can avoid it. Kickstarter let Obsidian don its old Black Isle duds and relive its heyday. That was never supposed to happen. Old-school PC RPGs were dead. Dead like punk rock, dead like face-to-face communication, dead like, well, PC gaming.
How could we make something more like a Skyrim for PC with the engine we made for Eternity?
But some things don’t actually die. They just go dormant, and then they evolve. And once you’ve kicked off an evolutionary growth spurt, the next big question is obvious: how do you keep it going? That’s where Obsidian’s at these days. It can make games like it used to again, but with the aid of shiny new tech, lower costs, and viewers like you. In some ways, it’s uncharted territory, but in others, the blueprint’s been around for ages – devoured by dust after years of disuse. Step one, then, is figuring out how to get rid of all that dust. Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart isn’t positive about anything yet, but he’s definitely got a few ideas kicking around.
“What’s cool about Eternity and then, well, I’d be really surprised if we didn’t make an Eternity II, is having something else we can then use that tech for,” he explains. “I mean, not exactly, because then it would just be a reskinned Eternity. But I always look at the example of what we did back at Black Isle with Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale. And then Torment on top of that. Those games used the exact same engine, but they all felt very distinct. That’s what we want to do now too, and I think that’s just gonna help us make each of those games better and better.”
What, then, will be the Icewind Dale or Torment to Pillars of Eternity’s Baldur? Whether devs are chatting fireside, around the ol’ watering hole, or near something that actually exists in a game development studio, that question is the talk of Obsidian. A few standout ideas top the list, but Urquhart has one of his own that he’s especially fond of. And yeah, it sounds exciting. Really exciting.
“What I’m trying to figure out is, how could we make something that is more like a Skyrim for PC – forget console for now – with the engine we made in Unity for Eternity? Where we are with our conversation, quest, data editors, and all of that. If we were careful about scope and let Chris Avellone go wild with creating a new world, more of an open world, what could we do?”
“How much would it cost? Would it make sense for it to be episodic? Because going out there and saying, ‘We’re gonna make 100 hours of gameplay,’ everyone goes, ‘Oh my god, how could it not cost millions?’ But could we create ten hours and have people pay ten bucks? And generally when we say ten hours, it’s usually 15. But if we go with five episodes, then people get between 50 and 75 hours.”
It’s certainly an intriguing thought, practically a missing link in the RPG food chain. What would’ve happened if CRPGs stayed in the Infinity Engine mold, but pumped resources into size, scope, ambition, and sandboxy-ness instead of graphical fidelity and cinematics? What would the genre have become? Now, finally, we might be able to find out.
But it’s not just about playing to nostalgia. This is actually a very practical consideration on Urquhart’s (urqu)part, as he doesn’t really see any other way to do a game this huge while maintaining full creative control.
“What could we do that would be interesting enough and at the right quality level?” he ponders aloud. “Because the one worry we have about moving away from pre-rendered stuff, is that as soon as we get into first-person or third-person or something like that, the expectation of triple-A-level console graphics comes in. So what can we do for a lower budget but let people still say, ‘Whoa, that’s crazy’?”
That’s hardly Obsidian’s only offshoot idea, though – just Urquhart’s favorite. In many ways, Eternity’s imbued the entire company with a renewed sense of possibility, so it’s leaving no stone un-turned, no plane un-scaped.
“We have other ideas too,” he enthuses. “Like Eternity has a big party size, but what happens if we render in close and have a smaller party? Make it more about the characters and less about the tactics? There’s a lot of ideas, and we want to see what [game engine] Unity can do as well.”
Despite a plan to develop them with a small team, these ideas might not even make it to Kickstarter, either. In fact, it sounds like Obsidian’s already narrowed down its direction for a second Kickstarter quite a lot. During our chat, Urquhart only offers sly hints, just as one might expect from a man who once oversaw the most silver-tongued of espionage RPGs and yeah, no, it’s not going to be Alpha Protocol. Damn it.
“There’s something we’re talking about that I think would be really cool, but it’s not an original property,” he says. “It’s a licensed property. But it’s not Alpha Protocol! It’s something we can still do a ton of creative stuff with, though. And then the other thing is an original property. Also, there’s a third thing that somebody approached us with, but I really don’t think that’s going to work out.”
Regardless, a second Kickstarter is pretty much a lock. That’s really not much of a surprise after Eternity vacuumed up dollars like a vending machine on the verge of starvation. Still though, it’s a bit surprising to hear out loud, given that Pillars of Eternity is still fairly early. That, according to Urquhart is why you’re only hearing at this point, and not seeing, touching, or, er, tasting (which, to be fair, isn’t entirely outside the realm of possibility). You paid for a game, not the opportunity to fund another game. Obsidian is well aware of that.
“We’re very grateful for what people have given us, and I don’t want to go back to the well before we’ve proven anything,” Urquhart confesses. “That would be really lame of us. But I think we have a good idea and we’ve kind of proven things with Eternity to a point. Obviously we have a larger studio, so we actually have people to work on stuff [beforehand]. But I don’t want people to feel like we’re taking advantage of them.”
“I’m happy to make Eternity, and the hope is to come up with another Kickstarter that people would be interested in. My hope is that by March or April of next year, we’ll have something we can kind of start talking to people about.”
Ideally, he adds, he’d like to employ a setup not unlike inXile’s with Wasteland 2 and Torment. In other words, run a second Kickstarter when the first game is nearly finished so that the Eternity team can seamlessly transition over. For now, though, it’s all Pillars of Eternity, er, most of the time. Urquhart’s simply laying the tracks for his company’s next excursion into not-entirely-uncharted (but also kinda uncharted) territory, preparing for the future. And for the first time in a long time, he’s getting to do it his way.
“What’s interesting is, right now, between Steam and Kickstarter, developers are creating the brands,” he observes. “Not publishers. It hasn’t been this way since the ’90s. I’m not sure what it means yet, but it’s exciting.”
History, they say, is doomed to repeat itself. But if you ask Obsidian, they’ll probably tell you that’s a-okay.