Obsidian Entertainment’s CEO is arguably RPG royalty.
With Pillars of Eternity finally arriving on console, Obsidian Entertainment continue to solidify their already rock-solid reputation as one of the most important creators of role playing games around today. Unlike many RPG studios, they’ve done it all: big budget, open games like Fallout: New Vegas, licensed adventures such as South Park: The Stick of Truth, plus smaller-scale revivals of classic isometric RPGs.
The choice to bring Pillars of Eternity to console is a brave one, dragging a format of RPG rarely seen on console to a new audience after some solid PC success. To celebrate the launch, we had a lengthy chat with Obsidian CEO and hardcore RPG nerd Feargus Urquhart about the genre at large, Obsidian’s future and the art of storytelling in RPGs. He’s really one of the best people you could speak to on this topic, having worked on scores of classic RPGs including the original Fallout titles, Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate and others.
This is a long, long chat – so strap yourselves in for a big one. Thanks to Feargus for nerding out about RPGs with us for so long.
VG247: So, the genesis of this chat was because of course Pillars of Eternity is coming to console. Why is now the right type for this really traditional type of RPG on console?
Feargus Urquhart: I think that… y’know, I think people have some very distinct games that they really love to play. There’s the people who love… they’re only going to play World of Tanks, or they’re only going to play League of Legends, or they’re only going to play Candy Crush… that’s a bad example, but y’know. There’s people that – they’re just going to play a certain style of game.
But I’m a big believer that more and more there’s definitely a lot of us out there, gamers, who are happy to play and try lots of different things. Y’know, I’ll play Undertale, then I’ll play Skyrim, then I’ll play Horizon. I’m often a bad example ‘cos that’s what I do for a living, but on the flip side I still play games when I’m home, so… that’s our idea. That people are increasingly interested in trying out lots of different stuff. I just see this stuff that my son plays – he’s 12, and, I mean, all the crazy stuff he plays… he’s not allowed to play New Vegas yet, but other than that… And somehow I feel like he’s probably played it anyway. [laughs]
But even… it’s interesting, even when I’ll go speak at junior highs – kids that are sort of somewhere between ten and fourteen – I was amazed a couple of years ago after South Park came out because they shouldn’t be playing South Park… but I was talking about the games I worked on – I worked on Star Wars, I worked on Fallout, blah blah blah, and oh we just came out with South Park… and they all start saying, ‘Oh, South Park is amazing!’ and I’m like… Ummmmm! How are you guys playing this game?! They all just smile.
So, I guess that’s what it is with Pillars on console. I think that there’s a lot of gamers out there that are willing to give different games a try, and I think it’ll be really cool to see its reception. Some of it is that – it’s like, let’s see. Way back when, Interplay was going to put the original Baldur’s Gate on PSX. Back then I think the technology and stuff meant that trying to put a game like Baldur’s Gate on the PSX was going to be a little hard, but I think now the technology is there, it can handle the graphics… Which sounds silly since it’s just a 2D, but the backgrounds are huge and immense, so…
It’ll be interesting, but yeah, I think that’s what it is – players now play a lot of different stuff, and I think they’ll be receptive.
What do you think has changed in the console RPG space, and how do you feel about where the genre is right now? I feel like it’s been a really interesting period since around the original Xbox – Japan struggling and now seeming to find their feet again, Western RPGs really figuring out what they need to be on console, all that.
It’s interesting that you mention the original Xbox… when I think of the original Xbox of course I think, for me, it’s Fable and Knights of the Old Republic – I think of those two. It’s interesting because I’m more of a proponent of Fable than I think most people are… I really enjoy Fable 3. I don’t know what happened there and why people were so negative.
I think ultimately, when I think about where RPGs are now… I think, y’know, part of it is I guess I have some criticism? I think that… I like the kind of RPGs we make. Of course I’m very biased because it’s what we do, but I really enjoy those type of games and I think that there’s been some push lately to make action as an absolute part of RPGs.
What I really see about RPGs and what I want to see us all be doing is creating these immersive worlds. Now, yes, immersive is a huge buzzy word, but I think that’s what they are to me. It is making games that I feel like I’m in this world, I have choice, I have agency, and those choices actually have a reaction in the world.
I think games like Uncharted – Uncharted is awesome. I’m actively engaged in the action, but I’m playing a story. I think that’s awesome, and I think those are like I love going to the movies, I love watching TV shows, I love games like that – but I think what’s awesome about RPGs is embracing this aspect of… we have this opportunity to kind of take people out of their real world, where sometimes… the real world sucks. Sometimes you don’t have power, and you don’t have choice – you just have… I have to go into the office and deal with the TPS reports and things like that.
I think that as a genre when we embrace the fact that we can truly take players somewhere else – and I’m not talking in VR, I’m talking mentally – we can take someone somewhere else and make them feel that they can be the character, the player, the persona that they want to be in that world, and the world reacts to that… and it’s telling them a story and putting them through scenes that are interesting at the same time… I think that’s when we are at our best. I would love to see us, all of us doing RPGs, doing that as much as possible.
Regarding that push towards action games, do you think that sometimes those two things can be at odds – the action and role playing? Bethesda’s experimented with that for instance, but hardcore RPG fans criticized Fallout 4 a lot for ‘not’ being a ‘proper’ RPG and such.
Yeah, I mean… I think it depends on what sort of action you want. Do you want Dark Souls like action where the focus is the action? Dark Souls is funny because I think sometimes there’s discussion about if Dark Souls is an RPG or not an RPG, and very much I feel it is an RPG – particularly as they went up from Demon Souls up to Dark Souls 3. I think that as game makers, we just have to look at… what does the action component of this game mean? What do we want out of it?
It was interesting – when we were making South Park, there was a lot of talk about making an action-like combat system. At one point we even had a couple of prototypes of people running around… it was this sort of weird active-turn-based system within that. But the action had to be zoomed out, and it couldn’t be… it was hard to have all these crazy big unicorns running around and Jesus coming down and all that. You couldn’t focus much on the personality of the characters and the things you could do with them. So that led to… well, let’s look at this turn-based and let’s just do everything we can with this turn-based thing because it fits more within the game itself.
In other words, I guess what I’m trying to say is… whenever we’re looking at games we shouldn’t just do action just for action’s sake. Action can absolutely fit, but it should be a part of the experience and fit in with the experience. It shouldn’t be like let’s make sure there’s a ton of action combat that requires a lot of skill because some RPG players aren’t as skillful action players, and we should take that into account depending on the type of game that we’re making.
Part of what makes Obsidian’s work stand out so much is your approach to storytelling and in particular branching stories and player choices. What’s the anatomy of a good Obsidian player choice?
With player choice, it can be often too easy to make it about good and evil, right? So player choice needs to be legitimate and it needs to be about the player and not the designer. I think that’s the biggest important thing. We’re at our best when we’re thinking about – okay, where is the player in the game? What do we feel that they’re thinking, what are they enjoying, and what are the type of players that they’re trying to be?
When we do that and give players choice based upon that… of course we can’t say you can be any type of player. You can’t be a serial killer and you can’t be a nun! [laughs] We still have to start with some sort of ground rules as far as what choices we’re giving the player to do… but it’s important to make those choices really make sense contextually within the quest and within the area of the game – it can’t just be do you shoot grandma or do you help her across the street. Now, fifteen, twenty years ago we were doing a lot more of that, but I think as time has gone on we’re understanding that better.
I think the other thing with choice is… hard choices are good, but they’re tiring. I think this is the other thing – so if you give players a hard choice that’s hard for anybody unless you’re a complete nun or a complete psychopath… those are great to have but they have to be used sparingly. This is because the player comes out of it kind of emotionally drained and if you do that too much… it’s like playing Doom 3! [laughs] It just ends up like, oh my god, stop. I think that’s an important part of it, and I think that’s what we focus on.
The last… the last really key thing about choice is consequence, right? The other thing we used to do and I think what we try to do better and better now is… consequence has a negative connotation. There’s this idea of… so, well, a consequence must be bad. No. What we mean is a reaction to what you did based upon how you did it. The player should always be ‘rewarded’ – in quotation marks – it’s not just that if you help this person you get 10 gold because you’re a good person but if you slit their throat you get all 1000 gold pieces on them.
It’s not that – it’s more what we really started doing in Alpha Protocol. So there’s an arms dealer, right – if you’re nice to him and you work with him then it means these kind of things will unfold across the rest of the game. Punch him in the face and slam his face into the bar and then another type of consequences and reactivity will happen. In a lot of ways it can all be rewards – it’s just different types of rewards, with the key reward being that what you get is tuned to how you as a player chose to go through that. That goes back to that immersion – it makes you feel like you’re in that game. If you slam his head in and he’s like ‘Alright dude!’ and then he reacts to that throughout the rest of the game and now he’s scared of you, the rewards in the game down the road are based on him being scared of you. I think that’s how we’ve tried to make choice as relevant and as impactful as possible.
Do you think tone can impact that? I felt like Mass Effect Andromeda suffered because they tried to remove that focus on black and white, being a saint or a dick. That sounded smart to me in theory, but when I played the game I felt like that pulpy sci-fi universe needed that black and white duality more than something like New Vegas. Does tone impact your approach to choices?
We have these conversations all the time here – I’m the Paladin character. I want to be the hero. We always talk about that in our games. Because sometimes we can get very wrapped up in… this is a tortured anti-hero and this, that and the other thing… but then I’m like – I want to go home, sit down and I want to be a good guy. Not like 100% lawful good, I don’t like being this shining pillar of the world or whatever. I can still be a tortured character, but within that let me be my hero. So whatever tone you have – be it dark or light or weird, I think you still kind of need to give players this opportunity to be the player that they want to be. We try to understand those things.
It’s tough. There is this modern… in our world today, not to make this about politics or anything like that, but there’s this idea of making everything so broad and so inclusive and all this and all that. That’s awesome, but I think that sometimes if we try to do that in a game it can risk flattening everything. In some ways we need to embrace the fact that ultimately we’re telling a story, and it’s fiction, and we’re trying to tell things that have themes, and we’re exploring those themes and those themes will require choices… and some of those choices in modern life you would never do. Some you’d go to jail for doing! That’s the difference between games and real life – it’s not meant to mimic real life, it’s meant for us to put players in these worlds and have them experience things that will be broader than real life.
Now Pillars of Eternity is very much done and dusted and the sequel is underway, what would you say you’ve learned about the old isometric Computer RPG genre?
The odd thing was how it’s still relevant. It learned that it’s still relevant. I still find it strange that the RTS isn’t a relevant genre… but they’re not made. I dunno – that’s a tangeant right there…
No, I’m with you. Any EA executive I meet I ask about Command & Conquer. [laughs]
Yeah. But the tough thing is there – and this totally makes sense for Activision and EA and Ubisoft… it’s tough to look at something, like, can we make a billion dollars out of it? A lot of people will go… well that’s silly, but it’s a hard thing when you have these really large companies for them to say let’s not make a billion dollar game, let’s make a 20 million dollar game. Let’s say that 20 million dollar game we triple our money on it… compared to the money made on something like Assassin’s Creed, why distract ourselves? So they’re not evil and they’re not wrong, but it’s… yeah, it’s an interesting thing.
Anyway, sorry… I think what we learned a lot is… When I look back at something like Icewind Dale and Baldur’s Gate… I think Baldur’s Gate was always more approachable than Icewind Dale in certain ways. Icewind Dale was more action just being in it, and when someone lives in Icewind Dale I think they really enjoyed their time… but Icewind Dale asked the player, with no tutorial, to create six Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition characters. Just go do it, then play the game! Nowadays we look back at that like… what the hell were we thinking?!
There was just… we made these assumptions about players. On the flip side I think that in the early 2000s there was a reaction to that – even we were doing that a little bit – treating our players like they were dumb. It just needs to all be about getting players into playing it, and then it can get complicated.
I’m not going to say that we’ve been wonderful about that with eternity, but we make it easier. What the genre has learned is that it needs to be easier to get into the game than it was back in Icewind Dale.
The other thing is that we want as many people as possible to play this, and so the game needs to communciate what’s going on. We did that a lot in Eternity 1, and the console version of Eternity is built off the latest version which does a lot more communcation with the player. Where is this spell going to go? How’s it going to explode? Is it going to be successful or not successful? Basically, helping people to understand the system with some numbers but also with graphics and icons and things like that rather than just going ‘hey, good luck’!
If there’s anything, I think that’s what the genre had to learn – this is not meant to be the most archaic football manager that’s basically just a spreadsheet RPG. It needs to be something where I’m led into it, I’m given information… and then I can enjoy. Some people may play it, directly control a character and just want to rush off and hack at things with a sword – and that’s awesome! But I think for people that could like this type of game where we’ve been pushing it to help them understand what’s been going on… that’s good.
This isn’t in the console version, but a thing we’ve put in Eternity 2 is this idea that you can throw a fireball out there and as the caster is casting the fireball you can pause, click on the area of effect of the fireball and move it. Things like that – helping the player to manage visually and with UI and stuff like that.
As a studio, you dabbled into other things with Armored Warfare – but have you come back around following the Pillars success to saying – hey, we’re an RPG studio, and this is it. This is what we do?
Absolutely. Armored Warfare was great for us and we’re absolutely proud of what we did – really proud, actually. I mean, going from a non-MMO studio at the end of 2012, early 2013 and by October 2015 basically… two and a half, two and three quarter years later, we’d built an entire MMO. Everything! The back-end, the front-end, the client – all that kind of stuff. So I’m really proud of that and I’m very proud of the team.
I think though that our knowledge, our experience and the thing that we love doing is making RPGs. So whenever we can do that, that’s what we want to do. It’s interesting – as I was telling you before we started, I was editing a pitch I’m sending off… it was supposed to be sent two hours ago, but that’s okay! [laughs] One of the things… we wrote up this thing probably three or four months ago that says when we’re evaluating a game – there’s usually four sections. Financial, who’s the player, but one of the big sections is ‘Why is this an Obsidian game?’ The counter to that is that we’re an independent studio. I’m not saying we want to whore ourselves out or anything like that, but there’s decisions we need to make sometimes because I want to keep on making games – sometimes that means making a game that’s a little shifted in one direction or another.
You’re never going to see us make a racing game, but I think that particularly with Armored Warfare… there were a couple of things going on. It was not a great year for independent studios. It was incredibly hard to sign anything in sort of the 2011 to 2013 time frame – it was just real bad. Then Armored Warfare came along and one of the key things it had was that there was a group of ten or fifteen people in the studio that loved World of Tanks and they wanted to make a game like that. If that didn’t exist, we would never have done Armored Warfare. I can’t make people love a genre, and if you don’t love a genre… you can be a professional and you can competently make a game, but you’ve got to love it to make it into something we all love.
It did other things for the studio. It got us making really big environments. Big surprise – we want to make RPGs with big environments, so it kept us in that game. There were lots of benefits to it.
Ultimately to answer your question though, it really is increasingly important to us that any game we do really is an Obsidian game.
You’ve obviously had a lot of success with Fig and Kickstarter now, getting smaller-scale projects off the ground – but you are still fishing about and looking for large-scale projects?
Yep! We’re a pretty big studio and it’s not a big surprise but Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky [Alumni of Fallout, Vampire: The Masquerade, Arcanum and others] work for us – that’s pretty public, and they’re not working on Eternity. [laughs] So it’s pretty much a two and two thing that people can put together.
But you’re right – I’ve talked to people publicly before about… my brain is this weird half-and-half of the business and the game. A lot of times that’s what I’m looking at, the business. I think I even said publicly at one point, y’know – doing two Eternity games makes us more money than doing a big game. Someone asked me recently… so then why do the big game? And I said… ‘cos we’re stupid. [laughs] No, it’s because that’s what we all got in here to do. We want to do the big RPG, and that’s… when I go home, that’s what I want to play, so that’s what we want to make for people.
You guys have played in the worlds of others a fair amount – is that something you’re still particularly keen to explore, even as you build your own?
When we look at other worlds – Star Wars, D&D, South Park, things like that – we like doing those things. That’s for a lot of different reasons. Making a new IP is hard, and stressful, and tiring. I don’t want to say working in somebody else’s world is a break because it’s not in the long term, but it’s a change. You get to shift your brain and go exist in someone else’s world. Since we started working on D&D games back at Black Isle in the 90s it’s always been our feeling that D&D is not ours. We love it, but it’s not ours – and so we need to be good shepherds. That’s the most important thing.
The IP, the brand, the world – that is what’s important. Then let’s go tell a really cool story within that which fits it. I think when you take it that way and you always protect that… a lot of IPs, after we’d been working with it for a while we get very little brand feedback because we’re protecting it as much because it’s important to us. When we protect it and tell our story within it, maybe that’s what makes it resonate with people – because our story isn’t fighting the brand.
It’s maybe a different feeling of story or a different story, but the story is still reinforcing the brand rather than just telling a story while the brand is just there. Maybe that’s why what we do resonates? I don’t know. It’s funny, we don’t really think about this… we just do it. I know some people think we just sit in rooms with our big brains… and we do that about some things, but not everything. Sometimes we can’t tell you why something was as successful as it was – we just know that it was.
Let’s talk about Pillars of Eternity 2. At a high level, what’s your vision and aim for the sequel?
We learned a lot making Pillars. We built a whole engine, we had to do the kickstarter thing – and that was all great. The thing about Pillars is we wanted to make it… we used the example and I almost hate to say it… but we always try to use the example of Baldur’s Gate 1 to Baldur’s Gate 2. That’s sort of like – BG1 was building the engine and figuring out how to make role playing games, and BG2 was okay, we’ve figured this all out and we’re going to use our engine again and make this incredible sequel – and that turned out amazing.
Now size-wise we can’t mimic BG2 just because making a 200-hour game is just insane. But what we did learn is what we can do to… how to say – how to flesh it out and make everything feel like more. From the standpoint of things like one of our big criticisms was that the characters were okay, but they weren’t great. They look really, really good now and everything is unique. We’ve put more animators on it. Y’know, people can sit down now! [laughs] And they can even get back up!
The world too – because we’ve moved to this Caribbean setting there’s winds and we wanted trees to move and so we came up with a way to have moving trees within our 2D backgrounds. We wanted effects and fireballs to just have way more parts and pieces and so we worked on that. We created the world map, so you can take your ship and go around where ever you want – so it’s more open. We just wanted it to feel more open and dynamic.
Pillars is awesome and it’s still a great game, but it wasn’t as open and as dynamic as Eternity 2 is gonna be. That’s what it is – it feels like it’s now more of… In Pillars 1 you were in an area. In Pillars 2 you have a whole part of the world to explore.
To close off I want to ask some of the obvious, wishy-washy, pie in the sky questions. If you were going to revisit something from your past, what would it be? Another Fallout? Alpha Protocol? Star Wars? Something from the Black Isle days?
Y’know, that’s interesting! I would… what would I want to do…? Um… A part of me I would say… I’d love to do another Fallout, but I kind of want to come up with a better answer than that. I love Star Wars.
We talked a lot before InExile did Torment about if we wanted to do another Torment. Another Torment is interesting to me because I love the ending of Torment. It’s almost like the character walking away from the vault in the original Fallout. If we wanted to return to Planescape and Torment at some point, I don’t know what you’d do, I don’t have a good answer for that. We never did.
I would… I think it’s Alpha Protocol. I would want to go back from everything that we learned and do that because I think there’s a lot that can be done. We had some really cool ideas for Alpha Protocol 2. That would be it. I think I’d want to do Alpha Protocol 2, particularly now that it’s almost like the game has sort of… I don’t want to say aged, because I mean it in a positive sense. It’s found what people love about it and what we love about it, and now I think we could express it differently fixing a lot of the things that weren’t maybe what they should’ve been.
No, yeah. It’d be Alpha Protocol.
And – don’t kill me for asking this one – if you had a blank check and you were going to pick somebody else’s playground to play in… what would you do?
Hm! It’s interesting. What comes to mind is… and it’s hard, because I’m a product of the 70s. I was born in 1970 and so when I was 7… Star Wars came out. I think if I had a blank cheque and I was going for somebody else’s IP that’s what I would do. Partly because Star Wars is just such an interesting thing – I mean, it’s hard to do Jedi in RPGs because they’re supposed to be these all-powerful fighter magic users, but you can get around that.
I think that it’s just… it’s a sci-fi fantasy. It’s not just sci-fi, it’s like D&D in space. It sounds odd because I’m looking at it that way, but it just opens up… there’s all these different worlds, there’s enemies that people just understand and get. You have all these different races too, and it’s just something that people – myself included – it just makes us happy. Star Wars just makes me happy. I almost wish I had a better answer, but that’s the real answer. [laughs]
I also think it’d be interesting to do Harry Potter. I think that world where it’s the real world and the magic world mixed together… I think there’s something there as well. There’s like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere which is cool. Simon Greene has done this series of novels about the Dark Side – both of them are places that you get to from London, I don’t know why… I think there’s something else there, but it’s nothing like Star Wars.