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By now you've probably noticed the recent surge in Obsidian-related articles across the Gamer Network websites that include USgamer, Eurogamer, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and VG247. We've already had the chance to check out the Obsidian offices, and read about their design philosophies and their lack of enthusiasm for a Game of Thrones RPG. And with even more coverage on the way, now's the time for us to look back at the final days of Black Isle Studios, where many of the Obsidian developers have began their careers. An excerpt:
Not long after, Sawyer joined the newly-formed Black Isle, which was tasked with making Fallout's sequel. The team he joined was extremely young, he remembers, which gave it a particular energy. Many were just getting started in the games industry and had big ideas about what they wanted to create. Both Sawyer and Chris Avellone got their start at Black Isle, and the small size of the studio meant that they were quickly given a lot of responsibility.
From the start, the culture was chaotic and often disorganized. The studio frequently had to rely on tech from other studios, most notably BioWare's Infinity Engine. The Icewind Dale team was composed almost entirely of junior designers.
But youth and ambition translated into energy. Practically everyone at Black Isle was a workaholic. "I remember people loved working on games. Maybe not every single person but overall the feeling was that people wanted to work hard," Sawyer says. "We never had required overtime but people were there all the time. Not that everyone was exactly like me, but we all really just wanted to make cool games, and we were in our 20s."
"It was a little more stressful than Obsidian in a lot of ways. There were more personality problems to manage, I think in part because there were so many us who were very young and inexperienced and we were just brats and professionalism was not a thing that we really understood," he continues. "If we got into arguments, they could just be big, stupid arguments. For the most part, though, we got along on stuff."
Avellone, now working on Divinity Original Sin 2, remembers too. "It was disorganized, and often had to rely on other companies’ tech–notably BioWare’s Infinity Engine, which arguably kept the majority of our projects running, since Black Isle couldn’t seem to build an engine of its own," says Avellone. "We also had to keep producing Infinity Engine games like Icewind Dale that could be done faster and with less RPG content again and again with increasingly short time frames."
Fargo agrees, "I think their biggest accomplishment was producing some of the finest RPGs of the 90's under difficult conditions. We were never financed like the big boys at Interplay and we were forced to be scrappy and produce games with far less resources than most."
It's easy to fool yourself when your company is crumbling all around you, especially when you're young. You see the signs–the resignations, the reduced budgets, the empty offices–but you want to believe that everything will be alright. It's what keeps people coming back until they're either laid off or show up to find themselves locked out.
The dream of Fallout: Van Buren (also known as what would have been Fallout 3) kept much of the staff onboard through the turbulent 2000s. Urquhart was among those who knew the end was near, but nevertheless wanted to see the project through. It was a passion project for the studio: ask any Black Isle alum what their legacy is, and they'll always point to Fallout. Avellone had spent years developing its design, which he imagined as an interesting take on the Prisoner's dilemma. Black Isle had gone as far as designing its own 3D engine for the project. It was to be their magnum opus.
As usual though, events leading up to Van Buren's development were chaotic. Sawyer was working on Baldur's Gate III: The Black Hound, which he had to pause to work on another game that had to come out in a relatively short timeframe. Then Interplay lost the D&D license and the Black Hound was canceled. The studio shifted gears to Van Buren; but by then, Black Isle was hemorrhaging too much talent. As conditions worsened, the talent most closely associated with Black Isle began to drift away.
Brian Fargo resigned from Interplay in early 2002. Urquhart followed in early 2003, and Avellone joined him a couple months later. For Avellone, the final straw was the cancellation of The Black Hound. "When Baldur's Gate III: The Black Hound got canceled [in 2003], I realized we probably wouldn't have many more games left in the studio," says Avellone. "So even though I loved Fallout: Van Buren and had worked on it for years, I knew it would likely follow the same fate as BG3, so I ended up resigning. It was a difficult choice, but it was really the only choice to be made."
That summer, Avellone teamed up with Urquhart and Interplay alums Chris Parker, Darren Monahan, and Chris Jones to found Obsidian–the team considered by many to be the spiritial successor to Black Isle.