E3 2010: Feargus Urquhart Interview

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Almost exactly twenty-four hours after I chatted with Chris Avellone at Bethesda's E3 booth, I had the opportunity to sit down with Feargus Urquhart in between demonstrations of Dungeon Siege III at the Square Enix booth. To my surprise, the Obsidian Entertainment CEO was willing to answer just about everything I asked about - including their post-release plans for Alpha Protocol, the project they're working on in addition to New Vegas and DS3, what they might end up doing with the Icewind Dale assets they purchased years ago, and much more. Enjoy:

GB: So yesterday I checked out Fallout: New Vegas. That was the first time I've had some hands-on time with it, so it was a great way to kick off the show.

Feargus: Yeah, it's looking good. I'm hopeful. We get all weird because we worry whether it is what it needs to be. Is it good? Is it this, is it that? I think what's really lucky with that is that we're pretty much just fixing things right now. Which means that the whole team is fixing and making the game better right now instead of still trying to get stuff in. Which should give us a good amount of time to really make it cool.

GB: So at this point you're content complete?

Feargus: Yeah, exactly. Well, the VO isn't in yet because it's still getting recorded. There's a ridiculous number - 63,000 lines of it, which I think is the current count.

GB: So how did the collaboration with you and Bethesda come about? Did you approach them, or did they approach you?

Feargus: We've been talking to them for probably about five years or so. I've known Todd Vaughn, who is the V.P. for development at Bethesda because he used to be the editor in chief for one of the gaming magazines back in the late '˜90s. And he called me probably in about 2004 about doing games for them, and nothing synced up from what they were looking for and when we had free teams. But good comes out of bad sometimes, which is what happened with Fallout New Vegas, and we had a team available since another product we were working on was cancelled.

So we had a team, and they were looking to do something with Fallout and so it all worked out.

GB: Did you ever try to convince them that you should do an isometric turn-based Fallout after Fallout 3?

Feargus: [laughter]

GB: Was there ever a point where you said, "Can we mix it up a little bit?" Or did they request that you keep things in first-person perspective and similar in vein to their Fallout 3?

Feargus: Right. I think in this case, it was about doing a Fallout game within their Fallout universe. And their Fallout universe is first-person or third-person if you're playing that way. And so there was never really any kind of talk about doing something different.

I'm always a big believer that you can create great sequels within a technology base or world base with a role-playing game. Because just like going from Baldur's Gate to Baldur's Gate II. It's a lot of the same assets, technology and design involved. What really matters is the story and the quests. And so it just seemed to make sense to do Fallout: New Vegas based on Fallout 3.

GB: So moving on to Alpha Protocol, what are your feelings on its reception? We really liked it at GameBanshee, thanks to its strong story, excellent dialogue system, reputation system, item upgrades and modifications, and the types of elements that we love about RPGs. Do you think that maybe the action-loving crowd sort of missed the point of the game, simply because they went into it thinking it was going to be "just another third-person shooter"?

Feargus: Yeah, Alpha Protocol delivered on the character story, and all the RPG stuff. And, everyone I've talked to and all the reviews that I've read, unless someone was being completely dismissive for whatever reason they felt that way. If they were being dismissive, then we've got the sense that it was just fun to write their review that way and make fun of the game. But, I'm not going to name names, but... [laughter] ultimately, I think we hit it on the RPG stuff. The action elements were always a concern to a point, because it's something we had not done as a studio before. And, It was really action-focused in most areas. I think in some ways we maybe got into a "no man's land". It was trying to be too much an action game or it was trying to be so much of an action game that we didn't hit all the features an action gamers' wants to see at the level they want to see them.

I'll use cover as an example. Let's say we didn't have cover. There probably would have been some reviews that remarked about us not having cover, but then we wouldn't have had a cover system that frustrated some people. You see what I mean? Maybe action gamers would have liked it less because there's no cover system, but then we wouldn't necessarily have been showing a flaw in the game if the cover system wasn't there.

In some ways we're pretty aware of what our game is good at, what it's bad at, and things like that. I think what we also feel is that there's more we could have done, but it just wasn't in the cards.

GB: It's frustrating for me to read some of what's said in the reviews because nobody talks about the brilliance that can be found in some of the Moscow missions, or the character interactions, or how every major character in the game can be spared or killed, or the depth of the perk system. It's frustrating to me - it's got to be doubly frustrating for you.

Feargus: I was talking to a reviewer that came up to me yesterday and he told me the same thing. He was saying, "I like the game. I really like the game." He acknowledged there are flaws and things like that, but he was saying to me without saying to me that a lot of the reviews he felt were too shallow. They didn't take into account what the game did well.

But what I thought was very interesting about the reviews is that one review will completely hammer us on something and then we have another review that loves that system. Like the mini-games. Every modern game has mini-games, you know. And what's cool about our mini-games is that you don't necessarily have to do them. There are ways to get past them.

And then the RPG system also lets you upgrade skills to make them easier. One reviewer will have totally got that and explained it, and even pointed out that you don't need to do them. And then another review basically said it was the dumbest thing ever. They hate them. They're stupid. Why would anyone even do them. It's lame. With no other context whatsoever.

GB: Yeah, at the very least you can use EMPs to bypass some of the tougher ones. Some reviewers didn't seem to even explore those mechanics.

Feargus: Which is so odd, because the tutorial explains that to you. But it's interesting. I've never had a game which has received a couple of nineties and then I have a twenty. It's so bizarre.

GB: So have you been talking with Sega about doing a patch? Is there a chance of that?

Feargus: Yes. We talked with them about doing patches, and it's sort of in their court right now about how they want to handle it. We wanted to release something fairly quickly, based upon feedback and stuff that we were getting. I think they want to take a different approach they wanted to gather more information over a longer period of time and provide a patch then. So that's kind of where we're figuring it out right now.

GB: How about DLC? Is that an option?

Feargus: I don't know if they're talking about that at all yet and we're not working on any right now. We'd love to, but we're not.
GB: I don't know if you can talk about Aliens: Crucible, and I assume "Crucible" was going to be the final subtitle... is there any chance of that project getting picked up again?

Feargus: It was the internal subtitle and I'm not sure if there was ever an official name for the game. I thought it was turning out really good, but I don't think we would make it at this point. I think the last milestone that we did was a great milestone and I think it was showing a lot of progress. But, we've moved on from that. What's great is that our internal engine, Onyx, is what we built for Aliens and it's now being used for Dungeon Siege III.

GB: So all that time and all of those resources weren't lost.

Feargus: Not at all, no. Not at all.

GB: So are you heading down the same path as the first two, where the world was loaded in on-the-fly?

Feargus: Yeah, yeah.

GB: What about a toolset? Dungeon Siege had a huge modding community.

Feargus: Yeah, there was I played a number of them. There was that ultimate total conversion, and then there was Lands of Hyperborea (I think that was the name) with a different set of rules that I really enjoyed playing.

GB: I don't think the community has died out completely yet, either. Some modifications have been in development for years.

Feargus: Yeah, I know. So for Dungeon Siege III, we're not looking at releasing the toolset. We do know that it's an important thing, but our toolset is very different. Still, it's something we're going to continue to consider. I'd like to for the future, because I love releasing tools for the modding community like we did with Neverwinter Nights 2.

GB: So how long has it been in development?

Feargus: Since early 2009. We've been working on it quite awhile now.

GB: At this point, how many separate teams do you have at Obsidian now?

Feargus: We really have about 2½ teams - how it worked is that in early 2009 we had to lay a number of people off from the Aliens team, but then a lot of the Aliens team went on to do Fallout. And so we shifted about forty people immediately onto that. At that same time, we were already starting to ramp down the Alpha Protocol team which was the impetus for the growth of the Dungeon Siege team. As we stopped working on Alpha Protocol in late summer of last year everybody transferred over either to a private internal product we're making right now - which I want to talk to you about soon - or they went to Dungeon Siege III.

GB: Looking forward to hearing what the internal project is all about. On a similar note, what's happening with The Wheel of Time?

Feargus: So the arrangement there, which is kind of explained in the press release, is that Red Eagle Games wants to do it. They have the license to do it, and we'll be the developer if it all comes about. What they're doing is they want to actually be the publisher of it, not just the guys holding the license.

So, what they're doing right now is, in essence, putting together a whole business around The Wheel of Time games. Not just one game, but multiple games. And they are talking to people about creative ways to fund all of these, and then distribute them through a publisher.

GB: So you haven't actually went into full scale development with anything yet?

Feargus: No, we haven't at all yet. What we're doing right now is just continuing to talk to them about the game and kind of figure out what we're going to do, and then as soon as they're able to get funding, we can start moving forward with development.

GB: Is the plan to make them an RPG series?

Feargus: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.

GB: I assume there will be an emphasis on adventure elements, too.

Feargus: Exactly. Obviously The Wheel of Time is a huge story. A giant world. Millions of characters and thousands of pages of history. That's why they're talking to us, because it's absolutely an RPG.
GB: Have you been having anymore discussions with Atari? I know at one time you mentioned to me off the record that maybe you were in negotiations about making a third installment to our favorite D&D game...

Feargus: Well you know, it's one of those things. I constantly call and contact everybody, we have what we think is an awesome pitch for Baldur's Gate III. We continue to talk to people and talk to Atari, and talk to Hasbro, and have been trying to figure it out. I would love to make it.

GB: It has to be difficult, because the Dungeons & Dragons license itself is kind of in limbo right now, isn't it?

Feargus: It is a little bit. There was some of that stuff that was announced a while ago about there being some back-and-forth between Atari and Hasbro. But other than that, I don't think we've gotten any more information.

GB: So where does that put us for a potential Neverwinter Nights 3? Any chance?

Feargus: I think it's about the same place. As far as I can tell, Atari and Hasbro have to figure it out.

GB: Have you ever thought about bypassing all of that and not even using a license? You know, just go with D20 or the OGL ruleset and just create your own RPG?

Feargus: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's funny you should mention that. We've been talking about that recently and I need to call them up to ask the question about whether D20 is encumbered by all of the stuff going on or not. But it would be a cool thing to use D20. I actually checked the other day whether the open gaming license covers 4th Edition D20 and it does.

GB: Are you familiar with Heroic Fantasy Games, the indie studio that created Knights of the Chalice? It's based on OGL. It's an amazing indie RPG, and it plays pretty much like a Dungeons & Dragons game.

Feargus: No, I should look at that.

GB: It's really impressive. We gave it our Independent RPG of the Year award last year.

Feargus: I must have downloaded it. Is it a download?

GB: Yeah. Well, it's like $20 or something.

Feargus: Oh, okay.

GB: But it goes to show you, there must be a way to do a D20 or OGL game without having to pay a bunch of licensing fees.

Feargus: Yeah, that's a good point. I did check because I wasn't sure what was going on. I know LucasArts was able to license it for KotOR and that was separate from all the D&D stuff. So I just wasn't sure where it stood.

GB: It'd be great to see you guys go and do your own thing. I mean, look at the success of the Infinity Engine. I'd like to see BioWare release it to the community or let you guys go crazy with it with a small team of five or six guys. You wouldn't have to sell millions of copies. Maybe just do a small project, because there's a lot of people out there who would just love to play a new Infinity Engine-style game again.

Feargus: I don't want to say it's a remark on our industry or anything like that, but I remember when we started up Obsidian and I was trying to talk about a lot of different kinds of games. And one of them was to go off and do something like that. Part of it at the time - I think it would maybe be a little bit different now - but part of it was just the PC was a persona non grata in the 2003-2004 timeframe.

Everybody just wanted console. Console this, console that. The publishers, they're seeing that GameStop doesn't carry much PC. It's not sexy anymore. WoW is taking all the money. I don't know, I think it might be easier now just because you have Steam, you have Direct2Drive, and all these other distribution methods to do something like that.

Have you played A Farewell to Dragons?

GB: It's part of my Steam collection, but I haven't tried it yet.

Feargus: Yeah. See, it's... it's not great. That's kind of the gist I got out of it. I tried because I was thinking it was going to be kind of a Baldur's Gate-style/Infinity Engine kind of game and it didn't turn out that way. There are elements that are good. It's just kind of rough. But for a couple million dollars, I know we could make a really good Infinity Engine game.

GB: Exactly. And depending on how you financed it, you probably wouldn't have to go through a publisher with a smaller project like that. You could work something out to get it onto Steam, maybe. And all of us starving for a new RPG on GameBanshee would probably buy it on day one, you know?

Feargus: [laughing] Right.
GB: Speaking of which, you guys bought a lot of the Icewind Dale assets didn't you?

Feargus: Yes.

GB: What's the chance you could do something with that, non-D&D related?

Feargus: The tough thing there is that the stuff was all pre-rendered with lots of touch-up. So it's hard to use the assets as is. The only way we could use the assets is... well, you could use the map but we can't use that because Wizards of the Coast owns that. So yeah, we have all those assets, it's too bad we haven't actually used them. It's one of those ideas that I had that didn't pan out exactly as I hoped. But yeah, I'd love to make another one.

GB: Couldn't you make Icewind Dale into a brand new series inspired by the original?

Feargus: We could. And actually, to tell you the truth, we could probably do it with a changed version of the Neverwinter engine. Looking back, we know how to make Neverwinter look better and play better and all that stuff. That's not a bad idea, actually [laughter].

GB: I'd love to see it. I'd buy it on day one. I don't really understand why there's been such a push for the zoomed-in, over-the-shoulder viewpoints with all of the modern RPGs. Even with the MMORPG space, I walk the show floor here, and I see that every single one of them looks exactly like World of Warcraft.

Feargus: Yeah.

GB: Why does nobody want to go for the zoomed-out perspective anymore, or even chase the original Ultima Online format in the MMO space? To me, that's what the industry needs. Going after the EverQuest/World of Warcraft format costs $150 million or whatever, but if it's something like Ultima Online with a modernized graphical engine, I'm betting that asset creation would be a lot cheaper.

Feargus: Absolutely. It's interesting, because even if you look at Dungeon Siege III, the reason we have a close-up camera, not the super close-up camera, but the more close-up camera is because people want a closer up view. And, when we started working on Dungeon Siege III it was a *huge* fight. Everyone wanted it far away, and were saying, "Why are we doing that?" And I'd say we're doing it because when we show the game it's going to look really cool in that mode And along with it looking good, it will play really well as well. Now it did take a while to have that actually happen, but it has and the game plays great with a closer view.

My main issue with that direction was that if we show a little character on the screen, it's going to look too much like a PC game and I'm not saying I hate PC games - but it's going to look too much like a last-gen game. And that means we're screwed. We're just screwed. With modern games, you have to have people say how pretty the game is and it is one a real expectation. That probably sounds bad to say, but it's what even most of us expect.

GB: See, as a PC gamer myself, a zoomed-out viewpoint is my first choice. The Infinity Engine had about the perfect perspective for me.

Feargus: Infinity Engine games, I love them. I didn't play as many hours as Ray did, but I put like 150 hours into Baldur's Gate II. I loved it. The games were awesome, and it's strange because it's not like the sales on them went like this [makes a downward slope with his hand]. We just stopped making them. It wasn't like, "Oh, no one's buying them anymore, let's stop making them." It wasn't that consumers weren't interested, it was the publishers that weren't interested.

GB: That's a shame, it really is.

Feargus: Yeah.

GB: The artwork in those games, to me, has stood the test of time because even a modern engine can't compete with something like Planescape: Torment. The painted backgrounds in high resolution look amazing. With Dungeon Siege III, I noticed you sort of have a similar look in the caverns with a three-dimensional foreground atop what looks like a far-off 2D background.

Feargus: Actually in the caverns, it's all 3D. That blurry background, that's actually just a depth of field. It's one big level. As you get closer to it, it becomes less blurry.

GB: Interesting, it looks really good. Also, in that cavernous area, there were two different character classes being shown. How many different classes are you going to have?

Feargus: More than two. A lot more than two. That's one thing I'm not allowed to talk about yet [laughter].

At this point, I notice the crowd that's gathered in the Square Enix booth waiting for Feargus to give the next Dungeon Siege III demonstration. Realizing I've chewed up way more of his time than I probably should have, I thank him for the interview and let him get back to showcasing his latest game.