Obsidian Entertainment: Playing in other people's worlds

Obsidian Entertainment
Obsidian Entertainment has no shortage of street cred -- its founders originally created Interplay's Black Isle Studios, and put together some of the most classic PC RPGs around, including the original Fallout, Planescape: Torment, and the Icewind Dale series. But since forming Obsidian in 2003 (and making Knights of the Old Republic 2, Fallout: New Vegas, and most recently, Dungeon Siege 3), Feargus Urquhart and his crew have created another reputation: That of building sequels for properties created by other studios. "Correct," he tells Joystiq in a recent interview, as if fessing up to being called a "sequel house."

If there's a connotation associated with that term, Urquhart doesn't really care. "What I grew up on was obviously roleplaying games that had the fifth and the sixth and the eight and the twelfth," he says. "So I think in general, RPGs have a lot of sequels, because you can keep on adding on to the world, you can keep on coming up with new stories. I think from that perspective, it's great to be able to make these, even if they're sequels, because you get to go play in someone else's world."

We have a whole big cool world idea that we can hopefully talk about soon. That is a whole new world, a whole new thing.- Feargus Urquhart

Even though Obsidian spends much of its time making games in other studios' worlds, Urquhart says there's lots of opportunities for their own creations. "You can take Fallout: New Vegas as an example. While we did reuse some art from the previous game, so much of the content is new. A lot of times, even a sequel to a roleplaying game, it's amazing how much new you have to put in it," Urquhart says. "And so from a challenge perspective, even doing a sequel is a lot of work and fun."

It doesn't hurt that Obsidian, because of its background, has a lot of free reign to play in these universes. When the team was making Knights of the Old Republic 2, Urquhart says, Lucasfilm got final say on just what official content from Star Wars looked like, and in all of Obsidian's work, only three changes were made. "They told us, 'Don't use Alderran,'" he laughs. "We had the horns tilted the wrong way on the race that Darth Maul is, I forget what it's called, and then there was one other thing. So what I mean by that is that we're generally pretty good about it."

The ultimate goal for a lot of studios making sequels is to finally jump off and work on their own original IP. Does Obsidian ever want to take that jump? "Absolutely," confirms Urquhart, before going on to say that Obsidian already has an original IP title underway. "We have a whole big cool world idea that we can hopefully talk about soon. That is a whole new world, a whole new thing. It's being put together by Josh Sawyer, who was the project director on Fallout New Vegas, and Chris Avellone is involved."

I think our challenge with Alpha Protocol is that we tried to do too much, and maybe tried to do too much in areas that were new to us.- Feargus Urquhart

The biggest challenge to creating a new world isn't always the writing or design. "It's challenging to convince publishers [to support it]. And I'm not trying to be mean to publishers by any means, because they invest a ton of money in a game, and it's like, when you're looking at your portfolio, and your 401k and your stock, are you going to invest in a big upside with an equal chance for a lot of downside?"

Speaking of downside, Obsidian already did try to go original once, with Alpha Protocol, a title that suffered in sales as much as it suffered on Metacritic. "I think our challenge with Alpha Protocol is that we tried to do too much, and maybe tried to do too much in areas that were new to us," says Urquhart, who agrees that the reception probably hurt the studios' chances to come back and try another original IP sooner rather than later. "Just to be honest. I think anytime a developer comes out with a game, and it doesn't hit the 80 mark, it's a challenge for us. There could always be a billion reasons why that's the case. And there's a lot of other reasons to do with Alpha Protocol, but yeah, I think that it probably set us back a little bit in taking that next step as a developer."

Before Obsidian begins on its own work, Urquhart says there are a few other projects in the pipeline, and one is an unannounced title we'll be hearing about soon. "There is a property that we are working on, that we can't talk about yet," he teases. "It's something we've been working on since the middle of last year, just with a small team, it's only been five or ten people. It's a license that you would go, well you gotta do it. It's not a license where it's, 'Ok, we'll take that and we can do something with it.' It's more like, well that's once in a lifetime." (Presumably, this is the Wheel of Time game, but Urquhart didn't say more on the subject.)

Obsidian is also pushing on updating a former Black Isle property: Icewind Dale 3. "I was talking to Atari last week," he confides, "and said why don't we do this?" The old series, he says, didn't end because of low sales. "They stopped being made because of licensing issues, and Interplay going out of business, and BioWare moving on to console, and a whole lot of things. So a part of it is, why not go make Icewind Dale 3? You can't spend $20 million on it, but why not go make it?"

And if Obsidian had their pick of any property to update and make their own? "I'd like to do Ultima," says Urquhart. " I think doing an Ultima would be awesome. I think it's been long enough since Ultima 9. Those Ultima games that Garriot did were cool, and I think doing an Ultima would be awesome."

So a part of it is, why not go make Icewind Dale 3? You can't spend $20 million on it, but why not go make it?- Feargus Urquhart

There's one concern with all of this, and it's something critics of Obsidian's games have brought up in the past. Do these old classics really need Obsidian's stamp? Dungeon Siege 3, for example, seems fun, but it doesn't play much like the old Chris Taylor series. Does it hurt these old games to be remade in Obisidan's image, even if the company does it well?

Urquhart's quick with an answer for that, too. "It's like Fallout," he says -- which Black Isle created and Obisidian returned to after Bethesda picked it up from Interplay. "You could say, was Fallout killed by becoming Fallout 3? And it wasn't, because Fallout is about getting to be in that world."

"I got asked that question four billion times," Urquhart shrugs, "and then of course the Fallout fans would all yell at me. But if I want to play a Fallout game, it's because I want to play in that world." And what he says next could be about all of the various properties that Obsidian has put its own stamp on over the years: "The more RPG it is, the better, but most of all, it's about that world."

This article was originally published on Joystiq.