Obsidian Entertainment Tyranny AMA Q&A

To promote their latest title, Tyranny, the folks at Obsidian Entertainment and Paradox Interactive engaged in an Ask Me Anything Q&A with the Reddit community yesterday. On Obsidian's part, the developers involved were CEO Feargus Urquhart, Tyranny game director Brian Heins, programmer and designer Tim Cain, and PR manager Mikey Dowling.

Predictably, many of the questions were not actually about Tyranny, with plenty of fans more interested in asking about the Fallout franchise, Alpha Protocol, Obsidian's future plans, and more.

I'm going to quote a few questions and answers, starting with the Tyranny-themed ones:

From what I understand Tyranny takes place in a era similar to the end of the Bronze Age and Pillars of Eternity was inspired by the Early Modern Period. And of course Tim worked on Arcanum back at Trokia which was inspired by the Industrial Revolution. So I'm wondering, what's it like to work on a fantasy RPG which isn't set in the Late Medieval Period like almost all fantasy RPGs tend to be? How does setting it in a different time period than RPGs typically are allow you to explore new things with stories, technology, culture, etc? Do any challenges arise from going outside familiar ground? Also is there any time period in history which is generally overlooked that you'd love to set a game in?

Brian Heins: I think the benefit of setting games in different eras is that it helps you think about stories and characters in different ways. When you think about medieval knights and maidens fair, there are certain stories that come to mind and certain ways that characters would relate to each other (nobles vs. peasants, etc.). There's also a lot of, for lack of a better term, baggage that comes from having read a ton of fantasy books, playing a ton of fantasy games that are set in that period. Taking a step back and choosing a different era lets you shake off some of the mental baggage, lets you look around and see what new ideas you can use for your stories.

There are ton of historical eras I'd love to make games in. I've mentioned in the past that I'd love to make a spy RPG in the Cold War period. I can also see interesting possibilities in the colonial American era.

Tim Cain: I loved working on a fantasy game that was not set in a medieval era. I like exploring events like the industrial revolution, the rise of capitalism, the introduction of wide spread travel, the melting pot of race and culture, and other things that are often not found in traditional fantasy.

I think a big hurdle is that most people EXPECT traditional fantasy, so you need to redirect their expectations so that they are not surprised by the new elements in your world. This can often be done with an opening cinematic to explain your world, or during character creation.

Hey guys, a question on story paths. I know there's been a large emphasis on reactivity in Tyranny. Without giving too much away, how much variance can we expect within the Disfavored/Scarlet Chorus/Rebels paths in the game? How much does siding with one or the other 'lock you in'?

Brian Heins: Each of the major quest paths through the game is a completely different set of quests. You'll travel to many of the same areas (with some unique locations), but the things you're doing there will be different based on the story path you're following. So - a lot of variance. :)

As for being 'locked in' - if you ultimately decide you don't want to work with the Disfavored, Chorus, or Rebels, you can always choose to betray your alliance and move forward as a truly independent agent. That's its own unique story path, as well.

In terms of game design, what were the biggest challenges when developing Tyranny?

Brian Heins: The biggest challenge has been our level of choice & reactivity in the game. We've mentioned before that there are 4 major quest paths through the game, which give you very different quests, NPCs you interact with, storylines, etc. Weaving all of those paths together through the various areas of the game has been a challenge.

It's taken a lot of dedicated work from our design, narrative, and QA teams to have this all come together in a way that we're proud of. It's been a lot of work, and I hope that everyone enjoys seeing the different stories as much as we've enjoyed creating them.

For Min/Max purpose, Can you Respec the Player Character & Companions ? If so, does it give us back the Points spent in Skill Trees only or Attribute Points are given back aswell ?

Brian Heins: We do not have a respec mechanic implemented for Tyranny. It's something we've discussed, but we had to focus on other features for release.

Coming from POE, what game mechanics have you decided to evolve with Tyranny to push the genre forwards? And what do you feel were POE`s biggest success?

Feargus Urquhart: The two areas that we are evolving, or just trying something different, is really with the conquest mode during character creation (you create the starting state of the world, not just your character), and Tyranny is not a class based system. That's not really an evolution for the RPG genre, but it is for Infinity Engine style games.

For PoE, I think our biggest success is that we did what we set out to do. Create a modern IE game with a great story, and whole new world. Having a model to create a game off of made this easier, but we still had to really sit down and think about what we needed to update, and what we needed to keep the same. I give Josh Sawyer, Bobby Null, Adam Brennecke, and the rest of the PoE team a huge amount of credit for walking that line really, really well.

Hi there! Tyranny's stylized artwork in its cutscenes (for instance, the map full of Kyros' banners at the start of the game) is really incredible. What decisions lead to this art style, and what aspects of the imagery did the artist(s) focus on to capture Tyranny's tone so well?

Brian Heins: Thank you so much! I just passed your comments along to the artists who worked on those. It will mean a lot to them. :)

This style evolved over the course of development. It started as we were working on implementing the Conquest (during character creation, you get to decide how your character was involved in Kyros conquest of the Tiers). We wanted some visual images that would represent the various conflicts that players could decide on.

Initially I was thinking this would be something like Pillars of Eternity's Scripted Interactions - line drawings. Brian Menze, our art lead, wanted to experiment with different styles. He had some of our concept artists work on ideas, and Lindsey Laney hit on this style that was phenomenal. We decided to create all of the Conquest imagery in that same style.

When we were looking at doing our 'story slides' - the slides you see before the game starts, at each of the Act breaks, and at the end of the game, we decided to use a very similar look to capture that same tone.

What aspect of Tyranny are you proudest of?

Feargus Urquhart: Personally, I really like the art style, and the concept that we talked about years ago with the conquest of character creation works great. That original concept was where we asked the question, "What if you didn't just create the starting point of your character, but the starting point of the world as well?"

Brian Heins: I agree with what Feargus said, and want to add the magic system. It's an idea I've had in my head for a while, and being able to see it come together in the game has been great. Watching the reactions of streamers and press as they've been exposed to the system has been fantastic.

Also, this may sound sappy, but I'm incredibly proud of all of the hard work that the developers have put into this game. The game has shaped up into something far more than I initially imagined it would be, and it's due to the team's effort and creativity.

I've heard some people being worried about the "timer" for the first act in Tyranny. Can you talk a bit about this? Is it a strict timer that will force you to quickly rush through content? Or will players still have enough time to take everything in?

Brian Heins: There is plenty of time to complete all of the content in Act 1 within the 8 day time limit of Kyros' Edict. We set the time after having our QA team members play through the game on the various difficulty modes and keeping track of how long it took them.

Whats up with that review embargo until tomorrow?

Paradox Interactive: Honestly? In this case we (Paradox) got review codes out late to journalists. This wasn't intentional, but sometimes stuff happens. And when you have an RPG, you really want people to be able to play it as much as possible before reviewing so they can gather their thought and impressions, rather than rushing it.

On the company and future plans. Note that I'm going to ignore questions where the answer doesn't really provide any information (like all the usual Fallout questions) and I have rearranged a few for the sake of a smoother reading experience:

Are you guys planning on doing more isometric, story-driven games like Tyranny? (say yes!).

Brian Heins: Yes!

In franchises like Star Wars and Fallout, where other devs focus on the gameplay and action, what drives your team to focus on the RPG element of a game and end up creating such thought provoking and narrative driven games?

Feargus Urquhart: It really comes down to our belief in player choice and agency. We want everyone who plays our games to play a role they want to play. If we could, we'd want everyone to think of some specific type of role or personality, and have our games support that play style. Ultimately, since we are focusing on what you want to do in our game, and reacting to what you have done, it makes us think a lot about the story, and how we can have the story tell, well, a story, :), but also tell your story.

Would you be interested in making an RPG with Paradox using any of the White Wolf IPs?

Feargus Urquhart: I love the World of Darkness IP, and, not to throw in any secrets, but we came pretty close to making one back in 2006 or 2007 (maybe 2008). The premise was to use the Neverwinter Nights 2 engine, but make it for World of Darkness. Everyone could then make their own stories, and even run their own mini-MMO servers. Not something that everyone knew that both Neverwinter 1 and 2 could do.

Brian Heins: I'm a huge fan of Mage. I would love to work in that world at some point. :)

Tim Cain: I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Vampire.

Mikey Dowling: A mix of Hunter and Vampire would be pretty damn fun.

I've read rumours of Obsidian possibly making a Pathfinder CRPG, and similar for a World of Darkness CRPG. Can you confirm or dispel either of these? 

Feargus Urquhart: When we first started talking with Paizo about Pathfinder, the idea was that our first game would be a CRPG. As things happen, which they seem to often to in the game industry, it started to make more sense for us to do the card game first. We then got very busy on other projects, so we didn't move the CRPG game forward at all.

As things come to a close on other projects we are developing, we are looking at what comes next. I can't say that is going to be Pathfinder, but it is one of the things we are talking about.

Pillars 2?

Feargus Urquhart: I might have said something here and there on that. :)

Was there anything you thought you didn't get right with Pillars and might work on if you do a sequel?

Feargus Urquhart: For me, I think the story lost momentum for a bit around the time you got to Defiance Bay. I'd like to make sure that everyone feels they have a good sense for the direction of the game at every point, but with the feeling that they can go off the path for a while.

I have a question regarding Forgotten Realm world, if you could get rights to that world would you make a sequel to Baldur's Gate or make an entirely new game in Faerun?

Feargus Urquhart: That's a tough one. I'd enjoy doing either. However, if there was one sequel I think it would be cool to do, it would be to revisit Undermountain, but with more of a Waterdeep. Maybe make it a more story driven dungeon crawl.

How big is Obsidian Entertainment (like over or under lets say 200 employees) and how many games are you working on right now besides Tyranny?

Feargus Urquhart: We are about 215 people right now, and we are working on five things - Armored Warfare, Tyranny, and Pathfinder Adventures. The other two include one that is pretty easy to guess, while the other is really cool, but nothing we have talked about yet.

With the loss of Chris Avellone, do you still have confidence that Obsidian will still be one of the top writers in the rpg genre? 

Mikey Dowling: Absolutely! We love Avellone and will miss his narrative touch, but we have a host of writers who have been working on our games for some time now that are all incredibly talented.Was there anything you thought you didn't get right with Pillars and might work on if you do a sequel? 

Hello Obsidian. In the recent years, lot of very talented people left Obsidian, including Chris Avellone, George Ziets and Eric Fenstermaker. And some of the new talents in the writing department have so far been less than stelar. Those people mentioned above were resposible for some of the greatest writing in video games ever and obviously they felt they weren't happy at obsidian. My question is, have you made any changes to your development process, that would prevent talented designers to feel alienated and like they are not listened to? How are you gonna make Obsidian great again when some of your best people are leaving? 

Feargus Urquhart: I thought about whether to answer question or not, but I think everyone out there has come to appreciate our honesty and being up front with everyone. I would never say that we have not had challenges, and I am always sad to see people leave Obsidian. However, some of us have been working together for between 10 and 20 years - not something you see in the games industry very often. And, that means life changes for people, and they want to try something different in a different city or a different company, or they want to let their wife go back to work, and they stay home with their child.

What doesn't get announced very often is the opposite of what you are talking about. I can't think of the number of people off the top of my head who have left and then come back, but it's not an insignificant number. For instance, Scott Everts, put together all the levels in the original Fallout, and in charge of the wasteland in Fallout: New Vegas left Obsidian, but then came back.

To answer the last part of your question more specifically, we look at our development process all of the time. And, we have been specifically been looking at writing as well. For one of the projects, we have been trying different ways for the writers to write. Instead of trying to get everything to final as quickly as possible, they are now doing a rougher first writing pass. That is easier to change as we find things we want to change in the game, and also means we can get that quest into the game more quickly to get a feel for how it fits.

Brian Heins: Just to chime in quickly on this, I'm one of the people who left Obsidian and then returned. I initially worked at Obsidian in 2004-2005, on a project that was cancelled, a little bit on NWN2, and in the early stages of pre-production on Alpha Protocol. I rejoined almost 5 years ago now, and have been very happy working on both South Park and now Tyranny.

On making games, especially isometric RPGs:

What's your favourite part of creating an 'old school' RPG like Pillars of Eternity or Tyranny?

Brian Heins: I didn't work on Pillars, so I can't speak to that experience. One of the best parts of making Tyranny for me was the fact that I got to create an experience like BG/IWD. I loved playing those games. I failed midterms because of those games. I love that I get to hopefully inspire the same joy and failure in others! ;)

Feargus Urquhart: Brian and the other guys should also answer, but for me there is some freedom from the huge expectations of a AAA console game like Fallout and Mass Effect. I totally want us to be making those games, but they are also one of the scariest roller coasters to get on. Because of the freedom, it feels like we can experiment a bit more in the games, and also come up with things like the Scripted Interaction in Pillars (the "choose your own adventures" with the line drawings) that probably wouldn't be received well in bigger budget games.

In terms of game design and development which do you prefer, isometric cRPGs like Pillars of Eternity, Planescape Torment, Tyranny or First/Third Person Shooter-esque like Fallout: New Vegas?

Brian Heins: They're exciting and challenging in different ways. I don't know that I could say I like one more than the other. Though, when you're in the middle of developing one type of game, dealing with its particular headaches and challenges, there's always a 'grass is greener' view that making another type of game would be so much better. :) Then, you make that type of game and think about how great it was to make the other type!

Feargus Urquhart: I have a lame answer and say that I like them all. I think most game makers like exploring games that are expressed in many different ways and in many different settings. I also think it becomes an interesting challenge to figure out how you can best use the style of gameplay that you've chosen. Things you can do in an iso game don't always work in a third person game, and vice versa. Thinking of those things and playing up that gameplay is fun challenge that also make the game better.

What's different about making games now vs. making games in the 90s? Do you miss anything about those heady days?

Feargus Urquhart: The teams are a lot bigger, and where artists were sometimes the smallest department on games - they are generally now the largest. That's changed a lot about how we spend our time, and figuring out how to best to spend each of our development bucks. I often say we get 100 poker chips to make a game, and need to figure out how best to spend them. So that might have sounded negative, but there are also some pretty cool things. Characters in games today just feel so much more alive, and that is not just because of the art. I think we have all gotten better at how to create, write, and voice believable, memorable characters.

I'm wondering if we're going to see a fully voice acted first or third person RPG from you in the future, like Dragon Age: Origins, like you did in Alpha Protocol or Kotor 2.

Feargus Urquhart: We've talked a lot about how fully voiced our games are since Eternity. It was great to have VO in Eternity, but having half voiced conversations was a little odd - even jarring. So, definitely something we are talking about and seeing what we can do.