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RPG Codex Interview: Feargus Urquhart at Digital Dragons 2016

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RPG Codex Interview: Feargus Urquhart at Digital Dragons 2016

Codex Interview - posted by Crooked Bee on Tue 24 May 2016, 22:13:20

Tags: Dwarfs; Feargus Urquhart; Hidden; Leonard Boyarsky; Obsidian Entertainment; Tyranny

[Interview by Jedi Master Radek]

"Are there any Codex representatives at the Digital Dragons conference in Cracow?" That was the question I asked Infinitron a week before the conference, hoping I could see some of my beloved game developers on the stage. Surprisingly, it turned out, there were none, so I volunteered to go. After having the accreditation documents submitted and promptly approved by the organizers, I was informed by Crooked Bee that she is working from the shadows to get me interviews with Obsidian's CEO Feargus Urquhart and ex-Obsidian Chris Avellone. Feargus Urquhart and Chris Avellone are the names I cherished for many years, so I was stunned with excitement.

When, a few days later, I arrived in Cracow and found my way to the conference, I got the press ID with a big "RPG Codex" written on it. My first appointment was with Feargus, right after the talk he gave on May 16. I was there for the talk, too, sitting in the front row. Behind me, I heard a clueless visitor say, “I don't know who he is,” to which another replied: “I only know he made that South Park game.”

I approached Feargus after the lecture and started by thanking him for the opportunity. He reacted to me with that “There are at least three hundred people here. Is everyone going to thank me now?” look of a person used to meeting his fans. Then I touched my ID. I was not going for any dramatic reveal, but he noticed it and exclaimed, “Oh, that's you!,” laughing out loudly.

Shortly thereafter, we met nearby for the interview proper. Feargus kindly gave me the promised half an hour of his time - and here's what we talked about.

Jedi Master Radek: If you ever get a chance to develop a game in the World of Darkness setting, what qualities should this potential game possess? What should a great World of Darkness game be like?

Feargus Urquhart: Gotcha! That's... that's a lot of... so, what's interesting about World of Darkness is, we were talking to, we were talking to White Wolf, geez, in 2007? 2008? Well, maybe 2006, 2007. I was... we were talking about doing a World of Darkness game and so I think a World of Darkness game can be done in lots of different ways. But I think like, Bloodlines is a great example of one way, and I think that, that one way if we were ever to make a World of Darkness game, I would want to, I think Bloodlines is a good direction. I think that the other direction, what we had been talking back then, is because we were working on Neverwinter Nights 2 and we thought wouldn't be it cool to take Neverwinter Nights 2 and do a World of Darkness version of Neverwinter Nights. I mean not Dungeons and Dragons, but you know, and then it would not only would it give people, we could make that story and character-based RPG, but what we could also do is then give everybody the tools to go build their own World of Darkness, which is you know, ehm, the Storyteller. The Storyteller? [short pause] I forgot what's the name of the RPG system. I can't believe I just blanked on it. The RPG system is very much about telling stories, not so much about stats. And so if we could create that thing, where people could now create their own worlds and run their own little servers and everything. I thought that would be, that would be a really cool way to make a World of Darkness game.

JMR: One of Obsidian's canceled project we know the least about is Dwarfs.

FU: [enthusiastically] Mmm hmm, mmm hmm?

JMR: Could you tell us something more about it...

FU: Right.

JMR: ...and if we'll ever get a chance to see those Brian Menze concepts...

FU: [laughs]

JMR: ...Kevin Saunders praised so much?

FU: [laughs] Yeah, I don't... so, so, you know. If there is... I would love to share those concepts, and I should ask at some point, I should ask to see if, if Disney would be okay. I have a feeling they would say no, and that's not because they're bad people, but I think that that would be, but I should ask, and so...but particularly, you know, working with a company like Disney, we always, we have to ask to share things. But I will try to share stuff about the game, you know. It was, so it was a third person, it had a party of the dwarfs... so it was you as the prince and then you had dwarfs, and it was third person so you were kinda running, and it had this kind of interesting where as you...you had a conversation system as you were moving with your companions, so it was running from place to place. I can press A, B or, or I could talk with my companions, but I didn't have to stop and talk to them. You could have bigger conversations outside that, but I thought that was interesting. I thought the fight system was pretty cool. From the standpoint of it... it sorta was this fight system which it had these kind of concentric rings of like...and things could be in the different rings, and so it felt really good to do it. It was... we were really proud of like the vertical slice we ended up doing. It had... it was very sort of streamed in open world. So there was no... you just went from place to place and you did stuff there and you did stuff there and that was on a very early version of Unreal 3. And it just had all these qualities, the art was fun, the prince, it felt like, it felt like, I don't want to say a youthful fable. But it just... it was, it had more like... it was just more cartoony but, it was just more fun and like, youthful. And it was too bad that one didn't move forward. I think we... there's still people at Obsidian today that are, that still ask me about doing it. You know and I'm like, particularly now with the announcement stuff from Disney. Yeah, it's too bad that that one didn't keep on going.

JMR: Did it go past the vertical slice, or not much more?

FU: We were at vertical slice, so basically it was at vertical slice where it was canceled.

JMR: Okay. After you announced Tyranny, are there any unannounced secret projects...

FU: [laughs like after hearing a joke]

JMR: ...Obsidian is working on left? I don't want details...

FU: Right, yeah, yeah.

JMR: ...I just want to know if there are any.

FU: So. What was found out, I don't know how it was found out, but, so we hired Leonard Boyarsky, from Blizzard, and Leonard...[searches for good words] was one of the co-founders... was one of the co-creators of Fallout, and one of the co-founders of Troika. So we hired Leonard and Tim Cain works for us, and Tim Cain and Leonard are not working on Tyranny or Eternity or Armored Warfare, so we might be working on something and they might be the guys that are looking into what we're doing.

JMR: They are not working on Eternity? [I didn't hear Eternity in the previous sentence]

FU: Nope.

JMR: They are working together?

FU: They are working together, yeah.

JMR: Thank you, the Codex will love it. I can just imagine this [sound like an over-excited 8 year old girl]

FU: [laughs]

JMR: Was it you who approached Paradox about making Tyranny? Or was it the other way around?

FU: [intrigued] That's a good question! So we were talking... so we were negotiating about Eternity. And, so about how would they publish Eternity, and distribute it for us and as a part of that, we started... they were asking what was the other stuff we're doing, and we were like, we do have this other thing, but we're not sure yet if we're gonna, like how we're gonna fund it. And they were like, well, why you don't present it to us. And so we presented it to them. We'd been working on it probably for about four or five months before Paradox saw it, and it was about a year after we were working on it that Paradox... we signed up with Paradox. And so... I don't know, it was more of a... it was... it sorta happened, as a part of working together, and then like we presented it, they loved the idea and... and... and then we were as they say, off to the races. I don't know if that translates, but we were ready to move forward.

JMR: Divinity: Original Sin and the new X-COM proved that turn based combat can be popular and profitable. Would you consider making a turn-based game?

FU: [laughs] So Tim Cain and Josh Sawyer and I don't know... probably... I don't know, how many... a lot of other people at Obsidian would love to make a turn-based game. [declarative] So I'm not against it. What's... sometimes people think I'm against it, but sometimes it's just the opportunity. So, with Eternity, because we were doing Infinity Engine...Infinity Engine's not turn based. And so that was our promise to people. I'm not against it, you know it's funny... Josh would really like to make either a sort of a... a very low magic medieval game. So there's almost or is not any magic, turn-based medieval game. Or a sort of a medieval [sic!] American Civil War RPG, again, with turn-based. So I think if there's any time we'd ever do it is... I even told Josh this, at some point in the future, I don't know, it could be 2 years, it could be 10 years. I want to give Josh that opportunity to go make a turn-based game.

JMR: When Pillars of Eternity was still in development, you were talking about launching a new Kickstarter. It was going to be launched in September 2013 or 2014.

FU: [laughs] Yeah, yeah.

JMR: Was this game Tyranny? Is this game still in production or was it shelved? Was Chris Avellone involved?

FU: So, I'm trying to think about it. When we were talking about it... so, we were going to do another Kickstarter. I think a couple of things happened. We were... we talked internally, so there's two things happened, we talked internally and we really felt that we needed to finish, be more done with Eternity 1 before doing another Kickstarter. We thought that was, we were fulfilling our, we were doing our... we were meeting people's expectations, we had a responsibility to people. They've given us a lot of money, let's... and we'd seen a lot of people try to like, not really be done with something and then launch another one and we just didn't want, we didn't want to do that. So that was one of the complexities. I think the other thing that happened was... we were having a hard time figuring out what it is that we wanted to do, whether we wanted to do Eternity 2 as the next crowdfunding, if we had some other idea. And, and, we just... in the end, which is, sounds like very poor business, we got really busy, and it just, it became lesser priority, partly because we felt we wanted Eternity to be further along before we did it. Whether it was going to be an MCA game? Most likely it was going to be, that wasn't a definite, but I would say that that was, that was the goal, was to be something that Chris, you know, himself really wanted to make.

JMR: What setting, apart from traditional fantasy and post-apocalyptic, would you love to work on?

FU: [laughs] So it's what I would like to work on, which is maybe different than a lot of Obsidian, but so I... I like... like, and I don't mean Shadowrun in particular, I like sort of that modern fantasy, I like... it's the... ehm... [Feargus snaps his fingers] I can't think, my brain is really slow today... there's the wizard in Chicago, what's his name... the name of the novel's Storm Front, I can't remember the name of it right now, it's not in my head. But it's that idea, it's a modern setting with sort of that magic, and it was interesting, we had a proposal, that we were working on for a while and it was... Chris did most of the work on it, which was called “Hidden” and it was that idea of having... of that nursery rhymes like, the Old Woman in the Shoe or Old Mother Hubbard and the... all these, the Big Bad Wolf and all these things, they were real. They weren't like, around, like you would just see the Big Bad Wolf right there. They were more, you know, they were more in the shadows? And that was the idea of Hidden, so it was always there, like this world existed and you just didn't see it, sort of like Neil Gaiman's... Otherworld? Underworld? No... Neil Gaiman's... ehm... he has a book. I am really being bad with names right now. Neil Gaiman has a book about like, this world that exists like in London and the tubes and it's separate and it's kinda like this idea. And there's another series of books called the Darkside, anyway so there's this idea of sort of this modern fantasy and I always think that would be cool. It's not like, sparkly vampires, you know, like that, but it really is this idea of just sort of like, doing it in such a way, that is, that feels like it fits. I always thought that would be fun to do.

JMR: That game you mentioned, did it ever get out of pre-production?

FU: Which one?

JMR: Hell... something? [Yeah, I didn't get the name when we talked, but my mishearing still got us an informative answer]

FU: Uhmm... [silence for a second or two] there's not really anything that we've not talked about. There's no game that we've really ever talked about that's not... I have no other game that's been... that's not gotten out of preproduction that people don't know about. So the game I'm talking about, what I'm talking about is just something I'd like to do, it's nothing we've ever done.

JMR: Who is the lead writer for Tyranny?

FU: Who is the lead writer? So that is Matt MacLean. So Matt was actually here last year, and he was also the lead designer on... he was the lead designer on South Park: The Stick of Truth.

JMR: How many writers does Obsidian employ on Tyranny?

FU: [laughs]

JMR: How does Obsidian plan to organize the writing on such a choice-heavy game?

FU: So... on Tyranny there are currently... four? It's Paul, Megan... that's Paul, Megan, Matt, Robert, and then... [Go go, Duraframe!] So basically there's four full-time writers, and then there's some other people that are helping out, which actually is quite a lot for us. We usually don't have that many writers on a project all at once. We've had, because... sorry, people that are only writing, like we have a lot of writing in our games, but that's done by people that were both doing area design and writing at the same time, and then there's often like a couple of other writers like, that were more full time, but not with like four full-time writers, that's a lot. So how we organize it? A lot of it is just, ehm, a little bit like I was talking about in my talk, it's separating it all out, it's giving each of the writers their own thing to be in charge of. Whether it's like.. take like, Caesar's Legion in New Vegas, right, so we would want a writer to kinda do all the Caesar's Legion stuff, so that they had the voice for that and they could do it. We try to have a writer only do a writer-focused... not have multiple writers write a companion. So... and then dealing with a choice. So that is really where the level designers and the writers are working together, because the level designers are often doing, like coming up with a lot of what the quest stuff is, that's less of the critical story quests, and then they work with the writers, and then on top of that we have all these kinda... we call them requirements, but we have all this like, in a dialogue node you must have X, you must check one attribute, you must check one skill, you must, you know, and then we have the other requirement of reactivity. In an area there has to be, the game has to react to this story point and this story point and this story point and this story point. So a certain amount for the writers, it's just a lot of planning and requirements.

JMR: What do you think of RPG Codex? Are you a lurker?

FU: [laughs] So I do go up on RPG Codex from time to time. And what do I think? So RPG Codex... I do find, like, you know...I do like what... [struggles for quite a moment, searching for good words] So the group of people there, they feel very strongly, right? And that's great. Like I feel really strongly about certain things, like you can hear me go off on a lot of stuff, right? And I think that's great. I think that sometimes I don't know what to do with the things that is brought up, like I don't know if there is an expectation. You know, it's sorta like that, because I go up to there to see: Okay, what's the RPG Codex saying about this thing and you know, like, wow! That's a lot about that thing! And so for me it's hard sometimes to go up there and to know what is... [thinks] Yeah, that's the way to say this. I don't know how to go up there sometimes and do with the information that's up there. [laughs]

JMR: Sometimes it's contradictional!

FU: [laughs] Yes.

JMR: Tyranny is said to be, relatively to other RPGs, short and heavy on choices. Do you think this is a direction RPGs should go? Or is it just a specific design choice fit for Tyranny?

FU: I think it's an absolutely just choice for Tyranny. Because... I know this won't be on your recording, but... it's this idea of like, so let's say I have a hundred points of resources. Right, so you know, depending upon a game's... can cost two billion dollars to make. Well, certain games could, but let's say something like Tyranny can be two billion. So then I have like a hundred points of resources. So I can spend those resources to have a fair number of sort of choices, right? But then have a much longer game. Or I can spend those resources widely and provide all these super crazy different options, but that of course limits how long I can make the game. That's really what it is. So with Tyranny what we said is like, we wanna make this game where you... it truly... you have an incredible number of choices and when you choose a path in the game, you really... that path is very different and it feels very different and the game reacts like all over the place to that difference, more so than even our previous games. So that's really what it is, it's sorta making that choice of do we go wide with choice and short with length? Or do we go shallower with choice and longer with length.

JMR: Age of Decadence made the same choice and it became popular, so it may be a very good choice. [And that is how I wasted the opportunity to ask if he played it]

FU: Yeah.

JMR: You lent inXile the Pillars of Eternity engine for Torment.

FY: Yeah.

JMR: Are the two companies working separately on the engine? Or are you exchanging technical updates and/or feedback?

FU: So how it works is... so we're not an engine support...we're not an engine development company, right? So part of it is that when inXile... the idea was that, you know like, we will help you as much as we can but you're kinda taking the engine and you'll get our updates and things like that. And we get some things back from them. But also, they own what they've done, so they made a change to the engine. You know, it's basically like... we try to do that, like... when we do technical work on our games, even if it's on the Star Wars game we try to own whatever we can. So it's the same, because we want them to feel ownership over their game and how they keep on making it. And so there is some conversation, but I would probably say... there probably could be more? You know, I would say like neither... we have not made it a priority to kind of make that happen, everyone's busy. [laughs]. So I could probably say that's the thing. If I had to say about it I would say, yeah, I would say that I think it's... we probably should have made more of an effort to work together, but we still...the teams chat about things, and when they need some help, they ask and we give it to them, you know. Like for instance, we wanted their implementation of WWise which is an audio engine and they sent it over to us, so there is still passing back and forth but it could probably be more.

JMR: Yeah, you may be both fighting against the same bug.

FU: [laughs]

JMR: You said during the conference you are now innovating tools for Pillars of Eternity 2. What kinds of functionalities...

FU: [laughs]

JMR: ...will this introduce to the sequel?

FU: That's a very good question and I'm sure we'll be talking about it soon.

JMR: Okay.

FU: [laughs]


JMR: So what Obsidian games did you not finish?

FU: What Obsidian games did we not finish...

JMR: You did not finish. Didn't play to the end, you personally.

FU: Oh! What did I not... what have I not played it to the end. So, I have not... I put a good number of hours into Fallout: New Vegas but I did not finish it. I ehm... [to himself] I finished that... I finished that... I got like... Neverwinter 2, I have like a lot of hours, like fifty, sixty. I guess what happens sometimes is that I will get like fifty, sixty hours into the game and because... the way I play games is I do everything, that's just my style. And so sometimes it's just super hard to finish everything. So I finished KotOR, I finished... I finished South Park... I finished... ehm [thinks for a while] What else? I finished... I have not finished Eternity, but again it's like I have sixty hours into it, but I haven't finished it. And then... I said New Vegas. I finished Alpha Protocol... what else? Dungeon Siege... I didn't finish Dungeon Siege. Dungeon Siege I played a lot, but I did that thing where I start again, play thirty hours, start again, play... not thirty hours... start again play fifteen or twenty hours, start again fifteen, twenty hours and that kind of thing. That's the thing that sucks about... okay, it's good, but it sucks about our games is there's so much content, but trying to finish... and because sometimes I want to try different paths for me to feel. Like in Dungeon Siege I wanted to try different characters, so it was very hard before the game was finished to play thirty... like twenty-thirty hours, you know with four different characters and so. That's what happens. So I try to play long enough to get that feeling.

JMR: But you know how they finish?

FU: Oh. Yes, yes, yes. Of course. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

JMR: Obsidian is known to be a harbor for many talented people. Most of them are industry veterans. But to be competitive in a new cRPG-filled landscape, Obsidian needs the most talented people it can hire. Is there any strategy for finding those gifted professionals and amateurs and bringing them to your company?

FU: Do you mean... so, like... so we find RPG industry veterans, but we need sort of new people as well?

JMR: Yes.

FU: Oh, okay. So I guess the thing is... that's a very quick, easy answer. Like, we are always hiring... like, we look to hire young people. We look to hire... we wanna hire more women, we wanna hire.... so it's this active thing of... that we're just... like I said, we're always looking for people. And we'll try to do internships, we try to do junior positions, we want people there that are excited about working on RPGs. And the other thing that we do is that, like, it is important that we're always gonna take care of people that work for us for a long time, but there is a point at which they're not excited and they have not been excited for working on a game for let's say like, two years. Like it's been there. At some point we have to have the conversation, and say: Are you excited about being here anymore? Like I know, you could stay here and get a check and all that kind of stuff, but are you excited? So we're trying to bring in new people, we're trying to make sure that our veterans are happy, and if they're not happy, talk to them about... is there solutions to them being happy? Because if we have both, if we have the veterans that are still engaged and we have new people that are super-excited, that just creates great games.

JMR: A question you'll like - what does Obsidian think of romances?

FU: [laughs] So I... this is such a weird thing. I play romances in video games. I'm probably getting in trouble for saying this... I play the romances because it gets me experience and I get perks or I get things for doing them, right? So I don't gravitate to doing them. I know that's me personally. And I know, like... because I read a lot of fantasy books and to be honest, I... there's the romance part in the fantasy books and I like that part. Not too much, right? But I like that aspect of fantasy books. I don't read romance, like full romance, but I like that part. So it's interesting, I like it as the part of the book, but I just don't gravitate towards it in a game. But I reckon it is that people really enjoy them, and also what romances are, it's like when we don't talk about them, it's like we're ignoring this whole part of sort of, you know, the human experience. Like people are, people will go out and you know. So it seems like, you know... I think if we were to do them, like I want them to not feel forced. Like I think there's a number of games out there, which I'm not gonna name, that the romances feel forced. It just feels like I'm going through the motions. I feel like I'm just clicking the dialogue. Now I think some people really enjoy them, but still that's what I wouldn't wanna do. If we do them I want them to feel real. I don't know... I can't tell you if that means there needs to be full, you know, CGI sex scenes or not full CGI... I don't even know how would we do it. But apart from... you know, the goal is to have them feel natural.

JMR: How is Leonard Boyarsky doing? Is he working on-site?

FU: [laughs] Yes. So, yeah. Leonard's doing good. It's been interesting... it's funny to... you know, we worked so much together in '96 and '97 and we then... of course, Leonard left and I've talked to him a number of times, but not a ton since they left, I mean because when they left Black Isle, it was... it was complicated, you know. There was... I was... I would say, I was angry to an extent, because it was frustrating. I now had to go make a game, you know, suddenly and Interplay needed the revenue, so I had to get a game done fairly quickly and that was frustrating to me. And while this was all going on they were hiring people away from us... so I was sure some of it with Leonard was that I... I certainly didn't reach out, but you know, we've talked a number of times, you know, since Obsidian started and you know, it was interesting... he actually reached out to Chris Jones, who is one of the founders of Obsidian, who also worked, he worked at Troika and it was about like: Hey, you know what about and he's just really interested in doing single player RPGs again. And hey, we're the spot for single player RPGs. And so it's been easy in a lot of ways because it's like going back to someone you know, like, you worked with so much, so we kinda know each other even though twenty years have gone by. [laughs] You know, and I think it's worked out and I think Leonard's learned an amazing amount of stuff from having to run a company and then working at a big developer like Blizzard and so I think that... no, it's been good. I'm very hopeful that we'll come up with something cool.

We also interviewed ex-Obsidian Chris Avellone at Digital Dragons, so stay tuned for that next.

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