Last spring, Feargus Urquhart left Black Isle Studios, the internal studio at Interplay he founded in 1998. At the time, his departure looked like an ignominious end to a storied career. While at Interplay, Urquhart helped craft some of the most acclaimed role-playing series of the late 1990s, including Fallout, Baldur's Gate, and Icewind Dale.
Shortly after he exited Interplay, Urquhart founded an independent studio, Obsidian Entertainment, with veteran developers--Chris Parker, Darren Monahan, Chris Avellone, and Chris Jones. Back then, the move seemed risky. Many small-time development shops were closing their doors, while others were being swallowed up by big-time publishers on buying binges.
Just over a year later, Obsidian is one of the fastest-rising indie developers in the US. A week before this year's E3, the company announced it would develop Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, the sequel to BioWare's acclaimed sci-fi RPG. Last week, it announced it was taking over another of Bioware's banner franchises, Neverwinter Nights, and will have a new installment ready in 2006.
While landing NWN and KOTOR is a coup, the deals raise some questions about Obsidian's future. Namely, what's in store for the two beloved series? And does the company plan on making any games not based on BioWare properties? Urquhart graciously answered these queries, as well as a few more about the fate of the Fallout franchise and PC versus console RPGs.
BIOWARE & OBSIDIAN
GameSpot: Obsidian has already landed two of the biggest RPG franchises in the industry. When you left Black Isle last year, did you think you would have come so far, so fast?
Feargus Urquhart: Not at all. I was just hoping that we would be able to land some project, do a great job, and then leverage that into a bigger project. Luckily I knew Simon Jeffrey, former president of LucasArts, and Ray and Greg from BioWare, and we were offered Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. I had also met John Hight a couple of years ago from Atari. He ended up being in charge of all the D&D products, including Neverwinter Nights 2.
GS: Did your history with BioWare play a role in landing the licenses?
FU: I think it was that and the fact that we have made great games in the past. Ray and Greg may have loved me like a brother, but if we didn't have the ability to make great games, then they wouldn't have told LucasArts or Atari that we could do the projects.
GS: How much has your staff expanded since you landed the KOTOR franchise?
FU: After we left Black Isle, Obsidian was seven of us working in my attic--amazingly we only blew a fuse twice. After we signed the deal to do KOTOR II, we were able to bring on six more people right away. By the end of 2003 the team had grown to 20, and as of last month, we had about 27 people working on the game.
GS: I know you're hiring for a few positions right now for "upcoming RPG products," =cough=NWN2=cough=. How big do you plan on getting?
FU: Obsidian will get to about 42 or 43 people once NWN2 is fully staffed. However, not everyone will be working on NWN2. The core team from KOTOR2 will be moving on to another project. I am still working on figuring out what that is going to be...
GS: Besides the founding members, have any other Black Isle or Interplay alumni joined Obsidian?
FU: I must have been at least an OK boss, or it was just Interplay almost going out of business, but of the 36 people working here at Obsidian, 18 of them are from Black Isle. We also have a few people new to the industry and the rest have worked at such companies as Blizzard, Electronic Arts, Taldren, Totally Games, Treyarch, and Troika.
GS: After Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment, KOTOR is the third time you've built a game on a BioWare engine. NWN2 will be the fourth. You and several other Obsidian founders also worked with BioWare while at Black Isle on the Baldur's Gate series. What lessons have you learned from your long-standing collaboration?
FU: Well, I think that I learned to remember that your way is not necessarily the only right way. While we and BioWare do things similarly, we also do some of the same things very differently. There is nothing wrong with that. That may sound like it has more to do with philosophy than game development, but when you are running a studio and managing 50 or 60 people, a lot of your job becomes about management and philosophy.
GS: The NWN2 announcement said BioWare will "lend creative input and oversight to the development process." What does that mean, exactly?
FU: We are still working that one out a bit. At the very least, it will mean they will review a number of our milestones and let us know what we are doing right and wrong.
NEVERWINTER NIGHTS 2
GS: In what direction do you plan on taking NWN2, story- and gameplay-wise?
FU: It's hard to say exactly at this point, since we still need to get our story approved by Wizards of the Coast. What I can say is that we are focusing a great deal on Neverwinter. We want the city to be a place that you really "play" around in and return to for almost the whole game. To do that we need to have it feel like the city evolves and that the people you meet in it are interesting and remain interesting.
GS: What elements of the first Neverwinter Nights are you retaining?
FU: The best way I can say this is that we are keeping the spirit of the game. The focus of Neverwinter was to provide a single-player experience, a great multiplayer experience, and a toolset that allowed people to make D&D modules themselves. We want to keep all of those goals as priorities as we make the sequel.
GS: What were your favorite aspects of the original NWN?
FU: I really enjoyed the fact that the toolset opened up the making of professional-looking RPGs to everyone. While it wasn't officially endorsed, I think it was really cool that people could go back and re-create the old D&D modules like Keep on the Borderlands in the engine.
GS: You mentioned NWN2 will have "a massive single-player campaign." How massive are we talking?
FU: We haven't really set on how "massive" the single-player campaign is going to be, but it will definitely keep people busy for a while. If I had to pick a goal at this point, I would say that the campaign should take between 40 and 60 hours; 40 hours if the player is just trying to crush their way through it, and more than 60 if they are stopping to smell the flowers. We have a lot of experience here at Obsidian at making rich single-player RPGs, and we are going to apply every ounce of that to NWN2.
GS: The official release date for NWN2 is 2006--why the long wait? Is it just because you're too busy with KOTOR II?
FU: Actually, there is an entirely different team at Obsidian working on NWN2 right now. It probably wouldn't help to add more people to that team; they are still figuring out what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. The long wait is because we really want to take the time to do this project right and upgrade as much of the engine as possible.
GS: You mentioned that you are planning to make "many new upgrades and enhancements" to the BioWare-developed NWN engine and the Aurora Toolset. I assume that means NWN will run on the same engine--is that true?
FU: Actually, no. We are going to be changing a lot of how the art assets work in the engine, so this will break the usage of the original NWN's art assets. However, we are going to be retaining a lot of how other things work, so things like scripts and dialogs (and many other types of content) will most likely run in the engine after an import process in the toolset.
GS: What upgrades and enhancements are you planning?
FU: A lot. We are going over almost every inch of the engine to add new features and refine things that are going to stay the same. From a graphics standpoint, we are updating most of the graphics engine to support new graphical features like normal mapping.
PC VS. CONSOLE RPGs
GS: Though NWN2 is currently in development for PC only, the Atari representative I spoke with wouldn't rule out a version for next-generation consoles. Do you see that as a possibility?
FU: Anything is possible. However, our focus is the PC game. We aren't going to "nerf" the PC version so that we can make a console edition possible.
GS: There's a great debate raging about whether or not RPGs on consoles can be as complex as those for the PC. Given that you're working on the sequel to KOTOR--one of the most successful RPGs to be released for a console and PC--you must have a unique perspective on the debate. What is it?
FU: It's my belief that there are aspects of PC RPGs that work on consoles and there are others that don't. The dialogue and quests in KOTOR must have worked pretty well, since people like them and they were approaching PC complexity. I think that if the rules system in KOTOR had been more complex, it wouldn't have worked as well for the console market.
GS: Did you ever feel you had to compromise the PC version of KOTOR II to accommodate the Xbox version?
FU: Not at all, partially because the focus of KOTOR and KOTOR II has been the Xbox versions. The other reason is that the focus of the KOTOR games is all about making the player feel like they are in the world of Star Wars. That's the important thing and that doesn't really have anything to do with the differences between the PC and the console.
GS: Given the power next-generation consoles will have, do you see the line between PC and console RPGs disappearing?
FU: Actually I don't see the line disappearing in the next generation. A big part of this is because of how games are controlled. I'll use the real-time strategy genre as an example. On the current and next-generation consoles, it would be very difficult to create an RTS that is as fun and immersive to play as it is on a PC with a mouse and keyboard.
GS: What was your reaction to hearing that the Fallout license was picked up by Bethesda?
FU: Good Luck! That's probably somewhat horrible to say, but I think the team at Bethesda has their work cut out for them. This is mostly because there is almost nothing that they can do that will make the Fallout fans happy.
GS: What direction do you think they will take it in? Some people have expressed concerns that it will be "Morrowind with mutants."
FU: Not having talked with anyone from Bethesda, that would be my assumption. I actually think playing a game like that in the Fallout world would be fun. Would it be Fallout 3? No. But that doesn't mean it couldn't be a viable game.
GS: Did you wish that it had ended up with some of the original Fallout team? Word is Troika made a bid for it.
FU: I think it would be fun to play an actual Fallout 3 that is in the same vein as the first two games. It's possible that only members from the original team would make that kind of game.
GS: Did Obsidian ever express any interest in acquiring the license?
FU: We never made a bid. The only thing we did was to tell publishers who asked if we were interested that we would do the game if the deal made sense.
GS: Do you think the half-complete "Van Buren" game that was to be FO3 will ever see the light of day?
FU: I don't think so. The technology is lying stagnant and the people who know how it worked are spread across a lot of different companies now.
GS: While KOTOR II and NWN are top-of-the-line franchises, does it bother you that Obsidian isn't developing an original intellectual property like Fallout?
FU: I hate to answer a question with another "Yes and No," but I will anyway. We are very happy to have both KOTOR II and NWN in the studio, because they will help us get on solid footing as a company. Just as importantly, they are games that we want to make. As for a new IP, we are working on a lot of ideas right now and I really hope that we can get one going by our third or fourth project. It's a tough road, though. A lot of publishers out there really want to see the new IP in action before they sign you up, and we have had to put almost all of our energy into KOTOR II.
GS: Can we expect an original IP after NWN 2 is completed?
FU: Definitely. By the time NWN2 comes out in 2006, we will have had the time to put together our own technology and IP. Hopefully, we will have impressed one of the publishers enough to pick the product up.