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Obsidian's Urquhart On The Future Of RPGs

Rolling The Dice, Pt 1

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Obsidian’s a company that’s always stricken me as bizarrely restless. Despite its near-legendary Black Isle legacy, the Project Eternity and South Park developer’s rarely had an easy time finding a comfortable place in the industry. But then, when you think about it, that’s not entirely surprising. Both RPGs and storytelling in games – Obsidian’s wheelhouses – have spent countless years in constant flux. And though recent times and a massively successful Kickstarter have given the developer some solid ground to stand on, the eager hands of change are once again threatening to yank the rug out from under it. Uncertainty’s permeated the entire industry as of late, but Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart has no intention of blindly following the future. His plan? To redefine the whole RPG genre. During the recent DICE Summit in Las Vegas, he and I chatted about that.

RPS: The recent industry “transition” has taken a ridiculous toll. It feels like it’s been layoffs every other week – which is weird, since it’s basically been every week. It’s been hard to watch, to say the least. Obviously, you guys temporarily lost a publisher, but are you chaffing elsewhere? After all, your biggest project [South Park] is slated to come out sometime this year. What happens after that? Are you worried about securing more work?

Feargus Urquhart: If you asked me that question eight weeks ago, I would have said yes. Luckily we signed another contract in December. I can’t go into any details about it, but it’s a game that will employ at least the same number of people that are working on South Park right now. And of course, our hope is that there will be more South Park work. It would be awesome to keep on working with Matt and Trey and the group.

For us, we’re doing pretty good right now. I can’t rest on my laurels, as they say. And this is where I say “I” and not “we” because this is the “me” part of Obsidian. Now I have a year, probably about a year, to get a publisher interested in a game so that then we can go through the six-or-nine-month period of getting that thing signed up. It’s nice. I have about 18 months right now to get that next big thing signed up. It’s giving us a good amount of time to get all our ideas together. Having Chris Avellone as one of my partners is awesome, because he’s a fountain of ideas. Along with Josh [Sawyer], and now having Tim Caine at the company. This is going to give us the time to sit down and say, “What is this game we want to make?”

So, I think the big thing for us right now is, what is going on with RPGs right now? Obviously Skyrim was successful, and Fallout was successful. Mass Effect is still successful, even with all the hoopla. Dragon Age is a little rocky.

RPS: BioWare is still pushing Dragon Age III really hard, though.

Feargus Urquhart: Yep. Pushing Mark Darrah. He was lead programmer on Baldur’s Gate II. Mark’s awesome. Then you have Diablo, which… It’s a great game, but still a little rocky.

RPS: Agreed. That didn’t stop it from selling several trillion more units than there are people on the planet, though. I guess the burgeoning anthill demographic really ate it up or something.

Feargus Urquhart: It sold ridiculously well.

RPS: There’s The Witcher, also.

Feargus Urquhart: Yep, The Witcher too. But you’ve got all this stuff. What’s going on, though? You take something like Arkham City. It’s sort of like a fighting game, a third-person fighting game. Five years ago they wouldn’t have made that like Arkham City. You look at what Skyrim does well, what’s really fun about Skyrim. So that’s the kind of thing where… I think there’s this desire to say, “First-person sword fighting isn’t always the best entertainment.” But hey, the fighting in Arkham City is awesome.

So where do RPGs need to go from that? Do they need to get more like Devil May Cry? Do they need to get more like this or like that? And we’re looking at who plays role-playing games. I’m distinctly a role-playing game player. I play a ton of games, because I’m in the industry. I play Ninja Gaiden. I can respect Ninja Gaiden. But I would not play a ton of Ninja Gaiden. It’s just not my thing. All of their focus is on that system. When you’re making a role-playing game, your system is broader, much broader. That’s what we’re trying to say. What is combat? A lot of the other systems in role-playing games, they all work awesome and people love them. They still need to evolve and move forward a little bit, but what should combat be in that next big role-playing game? That’s one of the things we’re trying to zero in on.

RPS: Your reference points on that front sound pretty console-driven. Speaking of, where is PC relative to consoles at this point, in Obsidian’s eyes? I mean, PC has obviously come into its own in recent years. A lot of that on its own strengths as a platform, but some thanks to consoles being on a downslope because this generation is so old. Do you think PC will continue to thrive because it’s a more unique platform now, or does it take a bit of a backseat soon for larger developers like yourself?

Feargus Urquhart: PC development has gotten easier. Console development has gotten easier, but not by a large margin. You still need these console development kits and you still need to go through all these processes. Any developer can go release a mobile, tablet, PC game, but they can’t do a console game. Yes, there’s XBLA and PSN and stuff like that, but those are hard markets. I think those are really hard markets. Steam just doesn’t seem to be as hard of a market for independent games.

There are publishers that… I have no idea what the numbers are, but I’ll bet you that Bethesda is perfectly happy with the PC sales of Skyrim. EA, I know, though they won’t announce it to the world, they sell a lot of PC product. Additionally, they’ve always traditionally sold a lot of PC product. This was a number of years ago. Maybe it was four or five years ago. I’m pretty sure it was still like 40 percent of their sales were coming from PC product. They were just quietly going along, not announcing it.

But I think PC absolutely has a place, because it’s easier than console. Again, more people making those games have more control over their destiny. In a lot of ways there are better tools. It’s easier now than ever for a small team to get a pretty cool game out. Ten years ago it was a lot harder.

RPS: For Obsidian, what are the core tenets of role-playing games? You could say something like The Walking Dead is a role-playing game, if you choose to zero in on choice and story as key elements of role-playing games. For you personally, is it that fusion, that sort of midpoint between choice and story and combat and character growth?

Feargus Urquhart: It is combat, toys, and story. Sorry, it’s combat, characters, toys, and story. Why I’m separating characters and story is because when you’re playing a great role-playing game, you have relationships with NPCs. They aren’t really the story. To me, and Obsidian, a story is something that I can… I know where to go in the story, but I’m choosing I want to have the story play out. Which you see in a lot of our games.

Sometimes it’s what gets us in trouble. We want and feel that what an RPG is about is the ramifications of my actions in the world. Not just system-wise – I rip this guy off and so this stuff happens. I don’t mean that. It’s, “I chose to do this.” Usually consciously, occasionally unconsciously. Then this is the ramification of that. Bundled, of course, with fun combat and character development. I’m a min-maxer so there’s my love of figuring out the exact character build. But that’s it.

I guess if you need to boil it all down… I’m not to say “more than other game developers,” but I don’t think that’s the case. Maybe we talk about it a little bit more. But it’s the choice aspect of RPGs. RPGs are so much about choice and the ramifications of those choices. This is something that Chris Avellone hit upon that really is a tenet of what we do now. In Alpha Protocol, he really pushed this idea forward that there is no [good or evil]. Morally there may be a good or a bad choice, but there is no bad choice for the player. Even if it’s “evil,” you’re rewarded.

And not just with cash. A lot of RPGs in the past, the way they handle good and evil, if you did good you got a pat on the back and everyone was nice to you, and if you were bad you got money. In Alpha Protocol it was about making the choices a bit more gray. The problem with gray choices, of course, is that it’s hard for the player to… They don’t just see it as being evil or being good. You then have to explain it more. The gray choices then come with, “No, this is what’s gonna happen.” There’s a near-term, medium-term, and long-term reaction, if we can do it that way, to all of these choices that you make. That web is what makes the game feel like it’s my game.

RPS: That sort of takes us back into Walking Dead’s territory, given that it stripped away pretty much everything else and narrowed the focus to pure choice.

Feargus Urquhart: And they had our Alpha Protocol timer [laughs].

RPS: Yes! You really should’ve trademarked that. The concept of time, I mean. But anyway, do you look at something like Walking Dead and think, “Well, if we really want to focus on the choices, let’s strip out the combat and just make a story”?

Feargus Urquhart: That’s hard. I don’t want to say I’m a traditionalist, but my upbringing is Dungeons and Dragons. There was the lecture by Heavy Rain creator David Cage about violent video games and all that stuff and why we have such a focus on combat and stuff like that. I was thinking a lot about it as he was talking about that. Interestingly enough, a lot of how we look at combat is that it’s more of a… How would I put it? It was like playing paintball. When people are playing paintball, somehow paintball never gets brought up as something evil in our society.

RPS: It’s too colorful. It can’t be evil.

Feargus Urquhart: [laughs] Right. So that’s not evil. So why is that not evil, but video games are evil? Well, you have the blood and all that other stuff. Because again, as gamers, we just don’t view combat in video games the way non-gamers view it. It’s just a contest. That’s all it is. We could be throwing paintballs. It’s just not as fun as watching the bodies explode. It’s like the reason people watch horror movies and slasher movies and stuff like that.

As it relates to something like taking the combat out, this is where there’s probably better game designers and smarter people than me who could come up with an incredible system for that. But you know what? I personally enjoy that aspect. I like running around Skyrim and going into dungeons and killing skeletons. It makes me feel like this fantasy character. I don’t know that it would feel the same way. Maybe the answer there is that there are genres where it makes sense that combat is being put in, but combat exists particularly in fantasy role-playing games because that’s kind of where it came from. It was a tactical game. It’s more of an ingrained part of why that experience ever was there. But I think for other things it can absolutely get taken out, simplified. But it has to be replaced with something.

RPS: While we’re on the subject, what about episodic gaming? I think a lot of people look at RPGs, at least the more traditional ones, and they see stories that are 60 hours long. They’re like, “I don’t have time for that anymore. I’d love to play it, but it’s huge.” Is that something you’d ever be interested in doing? Saying, “Here’s this experience that we’d normally make gigantic, but now you can digest it in chunks”?

Feargus Urquhart: Walking Dead has been super-successful, and critically as well. It’s a different approach. It’s an approach that’s different from how we do it. We put something into the world and have them get on the story, get off the story, this kind of stuff. It’s less chapter-based. There are chapters, but it’s more fluid.

It’s something we’ve talked about, but it’s not something that we’ve done. I think the story and the characters and all that stuff is totally our forte. But the part that’s hard is the… I guess in the end it feels like… You sell that first chapter and if it doesn’t go well, you’ve had to build all this stuff to just be able to do that chapter. Now you’ve gotten $5 for chapter one.

It sounds like planning for failure, but I guess that’s a thing that’s been kind of scary for us, looking at that model. It sounds stupid to say that I’d rather make a $30 dollar game that they don’t like, but that’s not it. It’s just trepidation. So I don’t know. It’s something we talk about, but I don’t know if it’s something we’d pursue.

RPS: Conversely, going back to your redefinition of RPGs, I think a lot of people are defining them as “big.” They’re almost pushing that as a selling point. That’s what The Witcher is doing now, and Dragon Age III. Obviously Skyrim. Skyrim is what I think made both of those want to do that. For Obsidian, will that be one of your future tenets? Going huge and making this really big world that people walk around in and live in?

Feargus Urquhart: I would say that’s maybe one of the types of RPGs that we would make. I think there’s still a place for the KOTOR, Mass Effect style – I really do – in which there’s this universe for players to play around in and they’re going from planet to planet to planet. But it’s a different experience from this big open world. It’s a little bit more story-driven. It’s a little bit more linear and things like that. But it’s not like that’s a bad thing. All RPGs don’t need to become more focused on scope as their feature. It doesn’t just need to be that way.

Check back tomorrow for Urquhart’s perspective on Kickstarter, Project Eternity’s progress, and whether or not crowdfunding is The Next Big Thing for Obsidian. Also, in case your excitement glands already somehow returned to normal size, here’s a friendly reminder that Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic III and Fallout: New Vegas 2 have a pretty good chance at becoming actual things that exist.

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