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Our Feargus Urquhart interview

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Our Feargus Urquhart interview

Interview - posted by Role-Player on Mon 26 March 2007, 04:10:11

Tags: Feargus Urquhart; Obsidian Entertainment

Today we chat with Feargus Urquhart, CEO and one of the founders of Obsidian Entertainment. Created in 2003 by former members of Black Isle Studios - which was responsible for cult classics such as the Fallout series and Planescape: Torment – after Interplay’s less than stable management decisions drove it to the ground, the development house quickly managed to find a place for itself in the CRPG arena. Their first title was a sequel to Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic. Titled “The Sith Lords”, it was generally well received despite some issues and gave them the leverage they needed to develop and relase another high-profile title: Neverwinter Nights 2. We talk to the company’s self-proclaimed Big Cheese some time after the announcement that the company will be working on a role-playing game based on the Aliens franchise.

1) From the fall of the house of Interplay to the rise of Obsidian, you went through some considerably hectic management situations. Team lay offs, cancelled games... Looking back, what do you think were some of the lessons you've learned during that period? In hindsight, would you have done anything differently?

There are a million things that I would have done differently over the period of time from around 1999 to 2003 when I left Interplay. I don't think any of them would have necessarily changed the course of events, but we could have probably made better games and TORN might not have been cancelled. Of the million things that I could have done, the one thing I know I should have done is to have figured out how to spread my focus more equally on the projects that we were doing and supported my Producers and Leads better. I don't know how possible that would have actually been to do, but I had a habit (and still do to a point) of jumping in on a project and then jumping out. Consistency is better and it makes the people that work for you have to guess less about what you want. At Obsidian, we now have another level of management that manage the managers of the products.

2) How were those in-between moments? It must not have been easy to see your former colleagues lose their jobs and seeing the RPG division you created disappear, but still having to put it all behind and trying to get back up.

I was angry at Interplay at many points, but I guess I expected it to all fall apart. Some of that expectation was because I wasn't there anymore. I don't mean that arrogantly. I was the person who often protected Black Isle from Interplay and without someone who cared about Black Isle the way I did in that position, I think what happened was inevitable. The other reason why I expected it was the reason for why I left. I just didn't think that Interplay was going to pull out of the nose dive that it was in and I didn't think it was fair to the fifty or sixty people in Black Isle to continue to give them the hope that it would come out of it.

3) Then along came LucasArts and Knights of the Old Republic 2. How did you handle the pressure of your first project being a Star Wars title, a sequel to a Bioware game and a cross-platform release – and still providing a deeper role-playing experience than the original?

We just didn't think about it. :) As they say, sometimes ignorance is bliss. Weirdly, I can say that about a lot of the games that we created – when we were making Fallout we didn't think about what we were creating. We were just creating something that was cool. When Bioware was making Baldur's Gate and we were working with them on some of the broader design decisions, we didn't think about the fact that we were making THE Baldur's Gate. I think it was the same with KotOR2, we wanted to make the best game we could with the time, people and money that we had at our disposal. That probably sounds really "unsexy", but it's how I've approached a lot of things in my working life. Having said that, we knew that we had to make KotOR2 more than KotOR1, so we had to pick our battles very carefully. We probably had about a tenth of the art resources that Bioware had over the course of KotOR2, so we had to take that into account when we looked at what levels, creatures and effects we could create. Now because the game was heavily story and script driven, we knew we had to have a high powered design and design staff and having Chris Avellone on any project pretty much insures a certain quality (and quantity) of design material.

As for being cross-platform, there is really one person that deserves all that credit and that is another of Obsidian's owners – Chris Jones. When we got the code for the PC version of KotOR1 we found out that they had split from the Xbox product months before the Xbox version of KotOR1 came out. That meant two things, they didn't use the same resource database and a certain amount of the code was different. So Chris took it upon himself to figure out how to make the PC and Xbox versions use the same code base and resource database. We didn't really have an option besides doing this because it would have meant taking a different programmer off of the creation of game features and putting them on just supporting one version or the other. After two months, Chris was able to join the two versions and every night the two versions were built at the same time using the same resources. That's not to say the actual built versions used the exact same art assets, since a part of our build process made it possible to have different resolutions of textures for the Xbox version vs. the PC version based upon the same source piece of art.

4) The Sith Lords had a considerable amount of cut content, which caused much discussion in the community and the creation of fan projects with the intent of restoring the game. While the publisher had its share of blame, do you feel part of the issue may have been a lack of management focus?

I'm pretty good and taking the responsibility for things that happen on our games and I could, of course, say that there were things that we could have done to get more content in the game. But, that's always the case. Every game I have ever made has had content cut during its production. This happens for a ton of reasons. Often it is because we just planned for too much up front, which is partly what happened with KotOR2 and we had to ship before we were able to really polish the end of the game. I am still very proud of what we did with KotOR2 and I feel the excitement over the end of the game being "castrated", as I've heard people say, is a little harsh and melodramatic. Particularly when that is followed with comments about the second and third time that person played through the game. Having said that, I'm not excusing anything or sweeping anything under the rug. I want more for every game we make, and I feel we can always do better job at it.

5) Which leads us to working on Neverwinter Nights 2. How was it? What experiences from the high-profile Dungeons and Dragons titles you were involved with during your time in Black Isle Studios did you draw from when creating the game?

Getting to make NWN2 was a great opportunity and was something we were really glad to be able to do. I'm finally getting able to finish playing the game now and I'm having a lot of fun. There are things I wished we would have done differently, but like I said above – that is how I always feel about every game we make. I guess I'm never really happy with anything – which kind of pisses some people off. :)

As for what we drew from the other D&D games we had made, hmmm…. I would say a healthy respect for the magnitude and complexity of bringing D&D to the computers. While we did start with the NWN1 codebase for rules, we had to adapt a lot rules to the 3.5 version of the D&D d20 rules and adding things is never as easy as editing a few 2DAs (text files).

6) What would you say were the major highlights and challenges of developing Neverwinter Nights 2? Were there any particular achievements or frustrations during its development cycle you'd like to share with us?

The biggest challenge for us was the problem that we often have in making games – we just bite off more than we can chew. From the perspective of NWN2, we wanted to change as much as we could about the graphics of the game. This meant in the end that we changed a number of core systems – the editor, animation, rendering and pathfinding. By changing all of those core systems we were putting a huge burden on ourselves to get all of those things up and running as quickly as possible again so that we wouldn't delay the designers too long from their area implementations. Of course, we did delay too long and the designers had to play catch up. The programming team worked their asses off and put an immense amount of extra hours in on the project to keep up. As we saw things still not getting done quickly enough, we hired more programmers to help things get done. However, I don't think we reacted quick enough – partly because there was some difficulty in deciding how those programmers were going to get paid.

In the end the team was often playing catch up on the project – but I am very proud of the programmers who worked on the game and the effort they put into the project.

7) Were you happy with the reception that Neverwinter Nights 2 got? Despite generally good reviews there were some technical problems that did not sit well with many gamers, such as the DirectX API and the DM Client. Once again, do you feel these issues could have been handled better?

Any issue can always be handled better. :) While I'm disappointed about how some people felt about the game when it came out, we have been working very hard out of our own pocket to enhance things in the game after it came out. There are two issues that I can say blindsided me when the game came out. We knew the DM Client was important, but I guess I didn't know how important it was. At one point in development, I had to make the call of putting more resources into the DM Client versus other things. I made the call to put those resources into something else. We were already running in the red on the project and there was just no more money we could spend on things. I don't say that so people feel sorry for us, but to at least understand that I did make the decision to put off the DM Client until after launch.

The second issue that really caught me by surprise was the fact that we didn't have Auto-Pause in the game. Why this surprised me and other people at Obsidian was because there is no Auto-Pause in the first Neverwinter. It also never rose to the top whenever we talked with people about what they wished the first Neverwinter had. But, after the game came out, a couple journalists and some of the community have really taken us to task for not having it.

8) It was recently announced that Obsidian would be developing a role-playing game based on the Aliens movie franchise. Can you tell us how you acquired the license? Did Obsidian considered working with this license at some point or was it an opportunity that you decided to take?

We are developing the game for Sega and they are the ones that acquired the license. To be honest, it probably would never have occurred to me to go out and get the license, but when Sega approached us about doing it, we jumped at the chance. Both Sega and Fox have been very supportive already and the project has already been a lot of fun to work on.

9) What can we expect from your take on the Aliens license? Will we see a traditional Obsidian role-playing game or are you looking at other development possibilities, such as firstperson or emergent gameplay found in titles like Deux Ex or the upcoming Bioshock by Irrational Games?

I wish I could talk more about it right now, but I can say that Aliens is definitely a RPG. That's not to say that it's definitely like or not like any of our other RPGs, but we are thinking about RPG players as we figure out what to put in it. What we want to get out of the game more than anything is to really make you, the player, feel like you are in the Aliens "world". So, we are looking at everything Aliens is from the standpoint of the people, places and emotions brought on by the movies, books and graphic novels.

10) You've managed several licensed projects in the past. Could you tell what are the motions behind acquiring licenses? How did it go for your past projects? Also, which license did you enjoy working on the most?

This is going to sound like a lame and careful response, but I have really liked working with each of the licenses we've made games out of. I would say that D&D is a harder license to work with than Star Wars, but that is because it is more of all encompassing license. With Star Wars it's pretty much about the world of the license, while with D&D it's not just about the world and its inhabitants but the rules as well. We have to be careful that we are not just making sure that Gnolls look like Gnolls, but that Barbarians get the right bonuses for Rage at the right points in time.

As for why we work on licensed projects – a lot of the time it's because we've wanted to work on them. Why would anyone growing up in the 1980's playing D&D not want to work on D&D or Star Wars games. I would think there were something wrong with them if they didn't. :) Now from a business standpoint, licenses can be great if the games sell well. However, after you've finished a licensed game you don't own anything, so you have to be cognoscente of that and plan accordingly.

11) I think we can all see the benefits of working on a licensed product but I believe many fans are asking themselves when will Obsidian work on a new intellectual property. You have two unannounced titles: Project New Jersey and Project Georgia, the latter of which will be based on a new IP. Anything you can tell us about those?

Sorry, but other than the fact that we are working on Sega with it, there is not much we can talk about yet.

12) Still speaking about licenses, this might be a good time to remind our readers you also have the Icewind Dale license. How do you feel about returning to it? Would the core aspects of the game remain the same, or would some changes be made to appeal to a larger crowd?

Actually, we don't have the Icewind Dale license. Icewind Dale is part of the D&D license that Atari currently has from Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast. As for doing another Icewind Dale, it's funny you mention that because we've been chatting about that lately at Obsidian. That's not to say that anything will come out of that chatting, but I think it would be cool to make another Icewind Dale. And if we did, I think we would hold to what Icewind Dale was all about – dungeon crawling with a healthy amount of tactics thrown in. I would of course want it to appeal to as large of a crowd as possible, but I wouldn't want to do so at the expense of what it's all about.

13) When looking at the current crop of games in the market, is there any game that catches your attention? Do you look at any recent release, CRPG or otherwise, and feel that Obsidian should try doing something like it?

I'm really looking forward to playing STALKER – I should just fire up that Direct2Drive download. I've also really enjoyed Gothic 3 and Oblivion lately. So, I think if there is a type of game that I'd like to look at doing, it would be something similar to those games.

14) For better or worse, Oblivion seems to have set the bar for modern computer role-playing games. Meanwhile, others see Neverwinter Nights 2 a throwback to an older era of CRPGs which they believe developers should move away from. What are your feelings on this?

That's a tough call. I think they both have their places. With NWN2 we could have done a better job making the game more accessible to people that aren't already familiar with that "older era" of CRPGs.

15) Let's talk plans for the future. You founded Obsidian because Interplay wasn't into PC RPGs anymore but you still wanted to continue making them. Has that mindset changed? KoTOR 2 was a cross-plaform release and Project Georgia is slated to be released on PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360. Is Obsidian considering other types of games or platforms?

I don't think our mindset has changed about making the games we want to make, however we do have to be realistic about what kind of games publishers will give us money to make. In all our contracts, we have been the ones to push to do PC versions and we plan to keep on pushing with every new game that we make. Plus, I am not against making PC only games and I'm hoping that we can come up with compelling ideas that will help sell the idea of a PC only game to the publishers – the people that have the money.

16) Our final question: having been previously connected to the development of the Fallout series, what do you feel about Bethesda acquiring the license – and the fanbase? Were you disappointed or relieved that you didn't get the license? After all, you can be quoted as once having said that that "Fallout fans are the worst".

They are the worst! :) However, I am disappointed that we won't be able to make anymore Fallouts. While there has always been arguments about who was really responsible for Fallout and I've always said that Tim, Leonard and Jason are principally responsible for a lot of what the original Fallout was about, I also know the amount of creativity, time, energy and love that I put into both Fallouts. I hold Fallout really close to my heart and if there was a chance at some point to make another one, I would jump at it.

We'd like to thank Feargus for spending some time chatting with us. We wish him and everyone else at Obsidian success with your upcoming Aliens game and any other future projects.

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