"It’s still fun" – Feargus Urquhart on game development, Pillars of Eternity II and the future of Obsidian

FeatureMay 19, 2016 at 3:08a PSTby Michal Manka

"It’s still fun" – Feargus Urquhart on game development, Pillars of Eternity II and the future of Obsidian

During the Digital Dragons conference, we interviewed Feargus Urquhart , the CEO of Obsidian Entertainment. He revealed that the company is working on Pillars of Eternity II and an unannounced game on Unreal Engine with Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky.

Michal Manka: It seemed that your next project after Pillars of Eternity might be crowdfunded. However, you announced Tyranny, a game that will be published by Paradox.

Feargus Urquhart: Not really. We thought about it, but we just don’t want to keep resorting to crowdfunding and abuse this privilege. So we were going back and forth with it, and then we said: “You know what? Let’s not do that with Tyranny”. But we’ll look at this option for future projects.

So you’re not dismissing the whole idea of crowdfunding just yet?

No, no, absolutely not. Obviously, as you’ve probably guessed, we’re starting to move forward on Eternity II. That is probably something that we want to look at. I think people felt like we delivered on our promise, and then that felt like we could go with Eternity II and people would support us again, because they trust us. And that would probably work out OK.

We had a chance to talk to Feargus Urquhuart during the Digital Dragons 2016 conference in Kraków. - 2016-05-19
We had a chance to talk to Feargus Urquhuart during the Digital Dragons 2016 conference in Kraków.

But I guess you would stick to Kickstarter and not, for example, Fig.co?

Well, we’re involved with Fig, I’m one of the advisors at Fig. Fig is a great platform and I think they’re being successful: Consortium was successful, Psychonauts 2 was successful. It’s great to see that stuff. The idea with Fig is to see if – as independent developers – we can get even larger funding. Let me give you an example here, but I want to stress that we’re not working on this and we’re not going to crowdfund this. So if you make a game the size of Fallout: New Vegas, let’s say that Fallout: New Vegas 2 is our example, it would be awesome to be able to do crowdfunding in that case. If people fund it, then the publisher has less impact on what a big game like that is going to be. And it’s hard, especially with bigger games – publishers have more impact.

You had some tough times with publishers – Sega and Aliens: Crucible, Microsoft and Stormlands. What was the most difficult thing about this? Why did you get so dismissive of publishers, at least for some time?

I’m not dismissive of publishers, but it’s a good way to look at it. It has to do more with the way I think – that doing big games with publishers as an independent developer is really challenging. We want to make the games that we want to make, and you have to acknowledge that. And if I’m to work with a publisher, it’s all about figuring out how to have that relationship in a way that allows us to make our game, but allows them to be involved, because they’re going to be paying, right? So how do you do that? And with the BIG games, when they have a budget of 20–30–40–50–60 million dollar, it’s hard, because the money is so big that people get worried.

So what I haven’t figured out necessarily is how do we deal with that worry of a publisher. Because the minute something goes wrong, they get very worried – which I can understand – but things going wrong… well, they go wrong all the time, you know? And how do we solve that problem? If there’s one thing I have a problem with when it comes to publishers is that we’ve been making games for a really long time and we want to own our IP. When we make something, we want to own it.

I totally understand the risk – publishers give me a lot of money, and they want to make a lot of money back. But I can put a team together that in total has like 500 years of game development experience – how do you value that? It has to be valued more than just by a small royalty stream when the game is super successful. Not just successful, but super successful. So that’s my other thing. And I do think that publishers are getting into a place where they are okay with that now. They’re getting into a place where there can be more conversations about us continuing to own the IP, which is great.

How do you think, what makes the publishers change their attitude? Is it because independent studios have much more to say these days?

Well, there’s not a lot of us. There’s like 10 of us, those bigger independent studios of 200–300 people. I actually don’t know how many exactly, but let’s say there’s 10. And if we’re all saying “no” and they need games, then it’s just market. If you want to make a big role-playing game right now, there’s not many people to go to. What we say nowadays is: “We’re going to make a game with this IP”. We would love to make a Fallout: New Vegas-style game or something like Dragon Age, Mass Effect, or The Witcher; we’d love to make a game like that. But if we can’t own the IP, we will make it Eternity-style, because we can usually find the money for that. And we’re not mean about it, we’re not discrespectful. If we’re going to go through the pain of making a huge game, then there has to be a reward for it.

I’ve read that Tyranny came out of the idea of Stormlands. What’s the actual origin story of Tyranny?

It goes WAY back. So we had a game idea that was pitched, it was called Defiance and it was around 2008, maybe 2007. It started with that idea: “What if evil won?”. So we were pitching Defiance about the same time we were doing Dungeon Siege III. There was this idea for it and it morphed into Stormlands. So it was not Stormlands itself, but ideas taken from it. And there’s also an idea from Defiance that was not in Stormlands. When Josh Sawyer took over Stormlands, he said something like: “Now, let’s really flesh it out”, and lots of things changed about it. Then Tyranny came about, and it was really about ideas from Stormlands and ideas from Defiance, all mushed together under the umbrella of that concept of what it would feel like to have adventures in a world where evil had already won. That, I guess, is the origin story – lots of things getting mushed together. But there are ideas of characters that are in Tyranny that are from Defiance and that were not in Stormlands.

Tyranny is the upcoming RPG set in a fantasy world where evil won, and we’ll get a chance to play it this year. This project will be of smaller scale than Pillars of Eternity. - 2016-05-19
Tyranny is the upcoming RPG set in a fantasy world where evil won, and we’ll get a chance to play it this year. This project will be of smaller scale than Pillars of Eternity.

You could consider Tyranny a slightly smaller project than, for example, Pillars of Eternity. Is there something big that you’re working on at the same time?

Everything we’re working on right now is announced, except for one thing…Well, Eternity II is not announced, but it seems silly for me not to acknowledge it, though. If someone asks: “Are you working on it?”, I respond: “Well, wouldn’t you work on it?”. So then they say: “So you must be working on it”, and then I’m like: “Well, yeah”. How do you even get around that? It’s tough. So we have Eternity, Tyranny, the Pathfinder Adventures card game, and then there’s Armored Warfare. And that sucks up all but a few people. We’re looking at what the next thing will be that we’re going to make. We have Tim Cain working for us and Leonard Boyarsky has come to work for us recently. So I let people put two and two together.

That sounds interesting! Does this have anything to do with the Unreal Engine-based prototype that you mentioned during your podcast with Game Informer?

It’s funny, even our artists wanted to get good at Unreal Engine 4. But no, it is NOT a Star Wars game. What our artists did is that they created Mos Eisley in Unreal Engine 4. We think that the whole reason for it is that one of our artists, Jason Lewis, who’s working on Armored Warfare and worked on Call of Duty and Medal of Honor beforehand, really wanted to create a one-million polygon Millenium Falcon. Then he just convinced a bunch of artists to build Mos Eisley around it. But there was a purpose to it, which was to learn everything about the Unreal Engine so that we could use it.

White Wolf Publishing registered Vampire Bloodlines. Would you like to work on that?

I think Vampire would be really cool, but that’s the tough bit – there are so many cool things, there are so many awesome things out there. I know Tim and Leonard both loved working on it. We flirted with White Wolf long ago, right before CCP actually bought White Wolf. Mike Tinney was the president of White Wolf, and we got to know each other. What we were trying to figure out back then was whether we could take the Neverwinter 2 engine and do a Vampire or a World of Darkness game. It would be cool, not only as just a game, but also from the standpoint of people who love World of Darkness, who would then be able to go and make more World of Darkness modules and things like that. It would be cool, I’ve always loved Vampire, I read the books, read the novels, all kinds of that stuff.

Leonard Boyarsky and Tim Cain worked on Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. Now they’re working in Obsidian on an unannounced project. Paradox now has the rights to Vampire Bloodlines and Obsidion is working with them… is this the putting two and two together that Feargus had in mind? - 2016-05-19
Leonard Boyarsky and Tim Cain worked on Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. Now they’re working in Obsidian on an unannounced project. Paradox now has the rights to Vampire Bloodlines and Obsidion is working with them… is this the putting two and two together that Feargus had in mind?

Now Paradox owns that universe, right?

Yes, Paradox, as I understand it. I don’t really know much more than anybody else does, but yeah, they own World of Darkness.

During your lecture [at the Digital Dragons conference] you were talking about constant improvement. I guess that you learned a lot when making Pillars of Eternity. What lessons were the most significant and are now worth applying in Tyranny, both in terms of gameplay and business?

What we learned… well, some of this is boring developer stuff. It’s been a while since we had to create an entire… well, South Park had a fair amount of UI, all the different screens that an RPG has. But it’s been a while since we really had to create all of them. This stuff has an impact, we know that these things have to be good. We’re wondering: “How are we going to present this information to the players in a cool way?”, and I think we’re doing a better job with that in Tyranny. Also, Eternity is a very level-based, class-based system. With Tyranny it’s more of a use-based system. You use things, you get better at them. Eternity is very much like, you do a quest, and it’s all part of the story. Tyranny is a lot more about looking overall at what you’re doing to move the story forward. So what we wanted to do is to present a different play experience. So, you loved Eternity and you’re going to play it like Eternity, but so many things are going to be different that you’re really going to enjoy it. So we learned a lot of stuff, but now we want to apply it differently.

You’ve made a lot of great games. Is there anything specific that you would like to make a sequel of? You, personally, regardless of how crazy that possibility might be.

I’d love to make a sequel of Alpha Protocol. It’s a great game; that’s a game that was hugely inspired in some parts, and kind of mediocre in other parts. And I think that getting to do that again… well, no one else has really done it, maybe Deus Ex kind of, I guess… but no-one’s really done that modern spy RPG, partly because it was really hard, and I think other people figured that out. It’s too bad because we were kind of getting there with Alpha Protocol, and if we just got a chance to do it again, I think Alpha Protocol 2 would be amazing.

It doesn’t seem that we’ll get a chance to play Alpha Protocol 2 anytime soon. - 2016-05-19
It doesn’t seem that we’ll get a chance to play Alpha Protocol 2 anytime soon.

You mentioned that the team now consists of over 220 employees. How is the entire team divided between all the projects?

The majority of people works on Armored Warfare, then the tablet game is a small team, then Tyranny takes the next chunk and then the stuff we look into with Eternity II takes another chunk. And there’s also a few people working on ideas for our next thing.

What I’ve noticed is that contrary to other developers, you talk quite openly about any issues you have. How come that happens?

I don’t know, I think it’s our style. I’m all about acknowledging mistakes and moving on from them. I think that sometimes we maybe share too much. Some people have come to me and said: “Well, you’re making a lot of excuses for everything” and I’m like: “What do you mean? I don’t make excuses. I screwed this up, I screwed that up, we screwed up a lot of stuff”. But they say that it sounds like we’re excusing it all, like we did all of these mistakes but we don’t care. No, that’s not our intention, that’s not what we mean. So sometimes I wonder if maybe we share a little too much. I see other studios making a really good job of just not sharing anything, and sometimes I think that helps them… so I don’t know. But I prefer it that we acknowledge these things and move on from them. And if there are things I can share that will prevent people from making the same mistake, then it’s cool too.

With all the experience you’ve gathered throughout these years, do you think there’s still a lot to do before you feel that you’ve learned it all?

Well, in your 20s you’re always moving, in your 30s you’re getting a little tired but you say to yourself: “I’ll get there”, and then in your 40s you figure out that you’re never going to get there. What I know now is that it’s never going to be easy, because if it’s easy, we’ll make it hard. If it gets too easy, we go: “So let’s put 17 more things in there! Oh, it’s hard now… why did we do that?”, but we’ll do it again the next time too. So I don’t think I’ll ever learn everything, I think it will always be hard, but that’s okay. It’s tiring sometimes, knowing that it’s always going to be hard, but it’s more of a reward if it’s hard.

But it’s still fun, right?

Yeah, it’s still fun. There are days when it is really hard, but yeah, it’s still fun.