Monday Dec 04, 2023

Feargus Urquhart is doing what he does greatest

Feargus Urquhart is doing what he does greatest

Few have left as heavy a mark on the world of role-playing video games (RPGs) as Feargus Urquhart. Throughout a decades-long profession as each developer and writer he’s labored on three Fallout video games, a lot of the good Dungeons & Dragons titles, and even an unexpectedly profitable RPG spin on South Park.

That monitor document makes it all of the stranger that the most recent two releases from Obsidian Leisure, the event studio he’s led since founding it in 2003, aren’t RPGs in any respect.

The Honey I Shrunk the Youngsters-inspired survival journey Grounded and medieval monastery homicide thriller Pentiment are hardly the video games most followers would count on from one of many trade’s most acclaimed – and iconic – RPG studios, however Urquhart sees a way to the insanity.

“I’m at all times serious about how we don’t want to only peg ourselves as ‘we make region-based, character-focused, party-based, first particular person RPGs that use our dialogue instrument set’,” he says of the transfer to a extra “eclectic” slate of video games.

That’s a fairly good description of a lot of the Obsidian canon, which incorporates video games like Fallout: New Vegas, Star Wars Knights of the Previous Republic II: The Sith Lords, and Pillars of Eternity. Virtually all see the participant main a celebration of characters by dense storylines and thoroughly constructed worlds, with fight typically taking a backseat to interpersonal dynamics and branching dialogue timber.

Feargus Urquhart is doing what he does greatest
Credit score: Ben Bentley for NME

You may see a few of Obsidian’s RPG pedigree within the “tremendous dialogue-focused” journey recreation Pentiment, which prioritises narrative and character improvement because the participant investigates a homicide in sixteenth Century Bavaria. The artwork group’s cautious recreation of illuminated manuscripts is extra of a departure. It’s much less clear how Grounded, a conventional action-survival recreation with a microscopic setting, connects to the corporate’s previous although.

To seek out that connection, it’s a must to look exterior the video games themselves. “The core there’s that these groups are led by individuals which were right here for a very long time,” Urquhart explains. “A lot a couple of recreation is the group,” he provides, arguing that on the core of each Grounded and Pentiment is “issues we all know learn how to do and issues the group is aware of learn how to do.”

“I don’t take a look at it as my job to be prescriptive in sure methods. My job is to say, ‘Hey, does it make sense to make this recreation? Are you guys actually into it? Is that this going to be significant to the participant and do we’ve the power to make this?’”

Which means some issues are off the desk. Urquhart is fast to rule out an Obsidian tackle sitting behind a steering wheel (“I really feel like it’s a must to have 15 years of expertise in racing video games to say you’re going to start out up a brand new racing recreation”), and admits that the studio as soon as shelved a Journey to the Centre of the Earth-inspired recreation that may have seen them competing in opposition to God of Battle.

That’s not even counting a string of pitches for licensed video games that by no means noticed the sunshine of day, from tantalising concepts together with a Strolling Lifeless RPG (with the group unable to get publishers ) or a Rick and Morty recreation (which petered out as a result of Microsoft acquisition) to downright eyebrow-raising potentialities like a recreation based mostly on the fact present Cops. “We pitched quite a lot of publishers and so they simply couldn’t get their head round it.” stated Urquhart of the latter. Go determine.

Importantly, though each Grounded and Pentiment are a divergence for the studio, Urquhart says the core of each video games had been constructed rapidly. “We had a factor up and operating that we may mess around with after which may department out from there,” which he argues saved them from one of many frequent pitfalls of studio experimentation.

“I feel what kills quite a lot of video games quite a lot of instances is when individuals go, ‘Oh, we need to attempt one thing fully completely different and so we’re simply going to go discover.’ After which they simply go round in circles for a extremely very long time.”

“We began off with 5 of us in my attic and two months later my daughter was born” – online game designer Feargus Urquhart on the early days of Obsidian Leisure

It most likely didn’t harm that each video games had been thought up years earlier by studio veterans, then left dormant till Obsidian had gaps in its schedule – and a want to make smaller video games that weren’t as costly to supply because the expansive RPGs on which it had made its title.

Grounded director Adam Brennecke joined the corporate in 2004, only a 12 months after it was based, whereas Pentiment’s Josh Sawyer arrived a 12 months later. Between them they labored throughout the studio’s greatest titles, together with the Kickstarter-funded throwback RPG Pillars of Eternity and sci-fi spin-off Fallout: New Vegas, which suffered from a combined reception at launch however is now commonly pegged as one of the best entry in a franchise that isn’t quick on masterpieces.

Actually, Sawyer and Urquhart return even additional – the pair labored collectively earlier than Obsidian at Black Isle Studios, a subsidiary of writer Interaction that Urquhart led from its inception in 1996.

Feargus Urqheart
Credit score: Ben Bentley for NME

Urquhart had labored at Interaction for a number of years earlier than Black Isle started, the place he began working as a playtester whereas nonetheless in school. It was the primary actual job he’d ever taken exterior of a stint at Domino’s Pizza (“I may make a big pepperoni pizza in 27 seconds,” he boasts – solely half joking), although it solely started as a summer season job throughout the bio-engineering diploma he’d ultimately give as much as tackle a full-time function.

It was there that he reduce his enamel on RPGs, engaged on the legendary first two Fallout video games (a collection he admits he “would like to work on once more”), serving to develop the Icewind Dale and Planescape collection, and reworking an early pitch from a small studio into what would change into the long-lasting RPG Baldur’s Gate.

Developer BioWare – now itself a titan of the RPG style, accountable in Mass Impact and Dragon Age for 2 of the most important fashionable roleplaying franchises – had already labored with Interaction on its debut recreation, the mech shooter Shattered Metal. The devs then pitched Urquhart their subsequent title: a real-time technique recreation referred to as Battleground: Infinity.

“I couldn’t get my head round why they thought it was going to be so superb,” Urquhart explains, admitting that he really rejected the primary pitch. It was solely after they got here again claiming to be about to signal with a rival writer (“I don’t know the way true that was”) that he took a re-assessment, and inspiration struck.

 “If somebody’s going to again up a dump truck with a bunch of gold bars, I might be really doing a disservice to myself, my companions, and everyone on the firm for not really taking that deal.”

“I checked out it [and said:] ‘I don’t know that that is the sport we’d wanna make. What about making it a D&D recreation?’”

On the time Interaction had an unique licence to make video games based mostly on tabletop roleplaying behemoth Dungeons & Dragons. Nonetheless, the thought wasn’t an instantaneous hit. The devs from BioWare had been on board, however Urquhart’s boss noticed it otherwise: “Yeah, that’s dumb. We’re not .” Thankfully for Baldur’s Gate followers, Urquhart wasn’t so simply deterred.

“I used to be like, okay, no, that is vital. I really went over to the vice chairman of selling and defined to her, after which she stated, ‘Effectively, this makes complete sense.’ After which she received [Interplay’s founder] Brian Fargo to come back over. He got here and he stated, ‘I’ll simply signal it up.’”

It was a choice that may show impactful for everybody concerned. Black Isle would go on to publish an extra three Baldur’s Gate video games, together with a sequel developed by BioWare, and one other three comparable RPGs based mostly on the D&D licence. BioWare itself revisited that world in Neverwinter Nights, working with one other writer, and by no means regarded again from its transfer from technique into role-playing.

As for Urquhart, he labored at Black Isle for seven years, and it’s clear he appears again on the times fondly.

“I received to each develop video games and handle improvement,” he says – two elements of the trade he continues to mix to today. “It was a crash course in doing all these issues,” he says, including “that Interaction was good sufficient to place a 26-year-old and not using a faculty diploma answerable for all that.”

Ultimately it was time to maneuver on although, and in 2003 he and 4 different studio veterans left to discovered Obsidian. Black Isle shut its doorways simply months later.

Obsidian’s early days weren’t fairly as glamorous as you may think. “We began off with 5 of us in my attic and two months later my daughter was born. And so we’ve a child screaming downstairs and 5 of us upstairs.”

What modified was signing a contract with LucasArts to make their first recreation: Star Wars Knights of the Previous Republic II. Coming full circle, this was to be a sequel to a recreation developed by none aside from BioWare, and it went nicely sufficient that they repeated the trick for his or her subsequent title, a follow-up to BioWare’s Neverwinter Nights. Extra importantly, signing Star Wars received them out of Urquhart’s attic and into an precise workplace.

“We’re nonetheless doing all of the loopy stuff we’ve at all times achieved,” on life at Obsidian for the reason that 2018 acquisition

Unsurprisingly, a lot has modified about Urquhart’s day-to-day since then, as Obsidian has grown from 5 to 260. He’s been CEO for a lot of the studio’s 19 years, although at the moment his official title is ‘Studio Head’, and it’s company admin that dominates his day – he spends extra time negotiating medical insurance coverage offers than getting hands-on with code. He hasn’t let go of the dev aspect fully although, and has a behavior of leaping in to take cost of particular options that take his fancy.

In one in every of Obsidian’s upcoming initiatives – a slate that consists of Pillars of Eternity spin-off Avowed and satirical sci-fi sequel The Outer Worlds 2 – he’s serving to to progress the cinematography of the dialog system, determining learn how to body characters and place digital gentle sources within the recreation’s dialogue scenes – a necessity of recent game-making that didn’t exist in any respect when Urquhart was beginning out.

Beforehand he’s taken level on person interface or on fight programs, and in Knights of the Previous Republic II he even took on the unenviable function of dealing with information entry for all of the artwork property. Different individuals made the artwork, whereas he crammed within the textual content recordsdata and spreadsheets to catalogue them within the recreation’s software program. You may’t accuse him of being afraid to get his fingers soiled.

That’s one factor he says hasn’t modified since Obsidian was acquired by Microsoft in late 2018, a part of a wave of studio acquisitions by the Redmond big that 12 months.

Feargus Urqheart
Credit score: Ben Bentley for NME

Urquhart is surprisingly blunt concerning the purpose for promoting: the cash.

“Look, if somebody’s going to again up a dump truck with a bunch of gold bars, I might be really doing a disservice to myself, my companions, and everyone on the firm for not really taking that deal.”

In equity, there’s slightly extra to it than that. The expansive RPGs that helped Obsidian make its title are costly to make, and as graphical calls for enhance, they’re not getting any cheaper.

Urquhart had managed to safe an “okay finances” for The Outer Worlds from writer Personal Division, however knew that if the corporate wished to maintain going, it could want more cash for larger video games. After spending the Digital Leisure Expo 2018 making an attempt – and struggling – to promote publishers on a title with a 50-60 million greenback finances, Urquhart realised one thing needed to give. “It doesn’t matter the scale of the writer… when it’s a must to promote one thing for $60 million, it’s a tough promote.

“That basically was the choice: may we really go and carry on promoting 60, then 80, then 100, then 120 million greenback RPGs? Or do we have to change our enterprise?

“We didn’t need to change our enterprise, we wished to make these issues,” Urquhart insists. So whereas the group plugged away at The Outer Worlds, he ready to make a drastic selection that may safe the corporate’s future as a premium RPG studio – whereas, maybe satirically, establishing Grounded and Pentiment as its subsequent two releases.

Enter Microsoft. The corporate was on a spending spree because it expanded the portfolio of what’s now referred to as Xbox Sport Studios, and Obsidian was one in every of six builders acquired by Xbox in 2018 alone.

“I feel we’re in a distinct place due to the Microsoft acquisition,” he explains, arguing that whereas the group would most likely have ended up engaged on The Outer Worlds 2 both means – the unique has to this point bought over 4 million copies – they seemingly wouldn’t even be creating Avowed concurrently, or have the additional 90 workers who’ve joined since Microsoft took over.

In what could possibly be an indication of the power of the connection, or a telling slip into company communicate, Urquhart repeatedly leans on his interior Vin Diesel when discussing Microsoft, returning repeatedly to 1 phrase: household.

“We’re the identical household,” he says when discussing the way it compares to the standard developer-publisher dynamic. As an alternative of merely fulfilling a contract, the query as a substitute is: “How can we deal with one another?”

Feargus Urqheart
Credit score: Ben Bentley for NME

But with Urquhart himself admitting that a part of the rationale for agreeing to the acquisition was to stay to big-budget roleplaying video games, do followers have Xbox to thank – or blame – for the 2 latest non-RPGs?

The easy reply is that each video games had been already within the works earlier than talks with Microsoft started, and Urquhart says Microsoft was “supportive” of each initiatives. Grounded had a small group in early manufacturing, whereas it had been agreed that Pentiment creator Sawyer was going to develop a brand new venture, they simply “didn’t know what that was but.”

It could assist that Obsidian is what Microsoft calls a ‘restricted integration studio’. Which means it’s nonetheless a separate firm, and Urquhart nonetheless runs it.

“We’re given a ton of freedom, we’re given a ton of religion, we’re given nice budgets, we’re given a ton of assist,” he says. His “one large job” is to handle that freedom well and spend Microsoft’s cash properly.

“I don’t really feel like I’m being restricted,” he insists. “We’re nonetheless doing all of the loopy stuff we’ve at all times achieved.”

Feargus Urqheart
Credit score: Ben Bentley for NME

That features Pentiment, in fact, however long-term followers could surprise if it would ever once more embrace video games just like the crowdfunded Pillars of Eternity collection, which in adopting an isometric, semi-2D aesthetic are a aware throwback to the group’s Black Isle heyday. Microsoft’s cash introduced concerning the shiny spin-off Avowed, however wouldn’t it throw actual cash behind a Pillars of Eternity III with an artwork fashion ripped out of the ‘90s?

If there’s hope, it’s in the truth that Urquhart insists that each he – and Microsoft – need the studio to stay “distinctly Obsidian.”

Their stage of independence – sorry, restricted integration – is why he doesn’t appear too involved about Obsidian shedding its identification within the sea of different Xbox studios. As an alternative he sees worth in Xbox Studios’ variety, with a portfolio that ranges from building basic Minecraft to sci-fi shooters like Halo or Gears of Battle.

“I might be actually stunned over the subsequent whereas in case you would begin seeing any homogenization between the studios. I imply, ‘trigger Minecraft is Minecraft. They’re not going to make a recreation that’s like Forza…And so we simply carry on doing what we do.”

Being acquired by Microsoft was a sufficiently big change in and of itself, however it additionally made Obsidian unusually susceptible to one of many trade’s different latest seismic shifts: streaming.

Microsoft has led the motion with Sport Move, its Netflix-style all-in videogame subscription service, which supplies followers low-cost entry to a whole bunch of video games directly – together with each new launch from Xbox Studios like Obsidian.

With cloud gaming taking off too – making it attainable to play high-end video games on low-cost {hardware} with out even putting in them – different corporations together with PlayStation and Nvidia are transferring to compete. Even Nintendo has its personal subscription service, although in basic style it’s arcane and antiquated by comparability.

However with over 25 million subscribers, Xbox Sport Move is the de facto default – and day-and-date launches for its Xbox Studios exclusives have been a significant driver of that success.

“We’ve not modified how we’ve approached our video games based mostly upon Sport Move,” Urquhart argues, however admits that they’ve modified how the group measures its successes.

“I can’t go off and spend a billion {dollars} and solely 1,000,000 hours get performed on Sport Move, ‘trigger individuals aren’t paying that a lot for his or her subscriptions. And so quite a lot of it’s actually form of wanting, ‘Okay, nicely what do we predict success is?’”

Feargus Urqheart
Credit score: Ben Bentley for NME

Loads of individuals nonetheless purchase video games outright for now, particularly on PC. However alongside gross sales estimates, video games are actually judged by what number of thousands and thousands of hours of gameplay they’ve pushed on Sport Move, with Microsoft eager to drive subscriptions and hold Sport Move gamers on the service for longer.

That’s a boon for builders of prolonged RPGs or on-line multiplayer video games that encourage repeat gamers, however doesn’t essentially assist shorter – or stranger experiences – like Pentiment, a recreation for which he admits there was “rather less of that algebra” to foretell if it could be successful, and slightly extra of a throw of the cube.

There are tensions to constructing video games with Sport Move in thoughts that Urquhart is clearly conscious of. He admits that it creates a drive to guarantee that each recreation “must be one thing for everyone,” whereas concurrently creating area for a assorted unfold of titles.

“For me personally, once I go up on Netflix if there isn’t sufficient Scandinavian detective dramas for me, then I’m upset in Netflix. However I don’t need solely Scandinavian detective dramas.”

Maybe, greater than Microsoft’s cash or the rise of streaming providers, that’s why Obsidian is at the moment a studio in flux. A person can’t reside on Nordic noir alone, and after a number of many years of constructing role-playing video games it’s simple to see the enchantment of a Honey I Shrunk the Youngsters! survival shooter or theological visible novel.

However Urquhart doesn’t appear prepared or keen to stray too removed from his roots. The goal all alongside has been to make the most important and greatest RPGs he can, whether or not that’s from an attic with a screaming toddler, crowdfunding to maintain the lights on, or letting Microsoft bankroll a blockbuster.

It’s the function he was born to play.


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