Q&A: Feargus Urquhart, Part One
The Obsidian Entertainment founder talks about Black Isle Studios' demise, the fate of Fallout 3, and the future of RPGs.
While many people were saddened by Interplay's closure of Black Isle Studios last month, the news hit particularly close to home for Feargus Urquhart. Having already made his bones on Fallout, among other role-playing games (including the Bard's Tale Construction Set in the early 1990s), the legendary developer headed BIS when it launched in 1998. During his tenure at the studio, Black Isle pumped out a steady stream of classic RPGs, including Planescape: Torment, Fallout 2, and numerous installments in the Icewind Dale and Baldur's Gate franchises.
Urquhart also led development on Torn, the LithTech engine-based fantasy title which Interplay canceled in July 2001. This was the first in a long streak of ominous developments at Black Isle, which culminated in the recent bloodbath. Urquhart himself left in spring 2003 to found his own development house, Obsidian Entertainment.
But just because he's moved on doesn't mean that Urquhart can't look back. In the first half of a two-part interview with GameSpot, the legendary developer reflects on his time at Black Isle, performs a postmortem on the studio's demise, and speculates on the future of its final project, Fallout 3, and RPGs in general.
GS: What do you think caused Interplay to lay off most of Black Isle's staff?
Feargus Urquhart: I can only speculate based upon what I have heard going around the Internet and third-hand. However, it sounds like Interplay has decided to put all of its remaining development effort behind Fallout Brotherhood of Steel and the Exalted license. Both of those are console titles, while Black Isle was making a PC product. Plus, I would assume that Interplay could make more money in the short term by selling Fallout to another publisher and letting the team go than finishing the product.
GS: Do you think the layoffs were a good decision, businesswise?
FU: That's very hard to answer. I have heard from many people that the team was very certain that they could get Fallout 3 done, and I think most people would consider that Black Isle was a marketable brand. I'm sure there are smarter people than me who could comment on whether shutting down a division in that position was a good idea or not.
GS: Did the news come as a shock to you or had it been in the works for a while?
FU: It may sound arrogant, but I assumed that after I left, Black Isle would be shut down after a period of time. Interplay has focused increasingly on console products, and Black Isle has made predominantly PC titles. Now while I was there we did produce the Snowblind-developed title Dark Alliance and had started working on Dark Alliance 2 internally, so it's probably up for debate how much of a PC or console division Black Isle was.
GS: It must have been sad for you, since you were the prime mover behind Black Isle's launch back in 1998.
FU: Yeah, it's sad to see it go. A bunch of us put a ton of energy and many 100-hour weeks into the games that the division produced and developed. But I wouldn't say that work was for nothing, since we have a lot of great games to show for it.
GS: Do you plan on bringing any of the laid-off employees on board at Obsidian?
FU: Unfortunately, we already have a full staff on our current project. However, 17 of the 20 employees did come from Black Isle over the course of the last six months.
GS: Several screenshots from Fallout 3 have emerged, as have some plot details. Looking at both of them, do you feel that BIS was taking the franchise in the right direction?
FU: Actually, one of the screenshots--the vault--was a test we did in 2002 while I was there. At least the background art [was]. The vault dwellers must have been added by the now-defunct Fallout team. I am very impressed with what the guys put together for the town level, and from the looks of that screenshot, they were on the track to come up with a great successor to the first two Fallouts.
GS: Given the uproar surrounding the cancellation of Fallout 3, Interplay is reportedly reevaluating its decision to stop development of the game. If they do decide to restart development on Fallout 3, how can they create a quality game, given that they have laid off almost all the people who worked on it?
FU: Anyone's guess in the industry is really as good as mine on this one.
GS: Would you rather a rushed Fallout 3 were released or that the title didn't come out at all?
FU: I would rather see a Fallout 3 that was made by people that were given the resources and support they needed to make a game that both old and new fans would enjoy.
GS: If Interplay doesn't decide to restart development on Fallout 3 now, will we ever see a completed version? Word was that it was already half-finished.
FU: I really don't have any idea, but I hope that the game gets done. Leaving Fallout  at Black Isle was one of the hardest things for me to do. The hope of making the next Fallout probably kept me at Black Isle longer than anything else, and while I'll probably never get to make another Fallout, I'd love to play one.
GS: Some rumors are saying that a group of former BIS developers are trying to buy the game from Interplay and finish it themselves. How likely do you think that is?
FU: Well, as can be read in many of Interplay's SEC filings, Interplay needs money. If a group of people could put together enough funding to interest Interplay, they could probably get the license.
GS: Does Obsidian have any desire to buy Fallout 3 from Interplay?
FU: We are a very new company and do not have the financial resources to buy a license like that. However, if a publisher were to be interested in us making the game after they acquired the license, we would be more than happy to talk to them. We have a number of people here at Obsidian who worked on Fallout and Fallout 2 including Brian Menze who perfected the PiP Boy look and Chris Avellone who many saw as Fallout until he left Interplay to found Obsidian as one of its owners.
GS: What is your opinion of the upcoming console version of Fallout, Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel?
FU: I haven't seen the game in quite a while, and I have never played it, so I don't really know how it turned out.
GS: Do you think the console Fallouts could ever compare to the PC editions of the game?
FU: They are very different games, so I don't think it makes sense to even try to compare them.
GS: You said that Obsidian's first project would be an RPG for both consoles and PCs. What do you say to those who say console RPGs can never have the same depth as PC RPGs?
FU: I would say that the depth is different. Many console RPGs focus more on story and less on side quests. The best way I could put it is that console RPGs have a much more developed central story with the rendered sequences and detail to reinforce it, while PC RPGs tend to be broader with a shallower central story. In other words, a console RPG is more like a movie, while a PC RPG is more like a playground.
GS: What about Knights of the Old Republic? It certainly had some of the depth of BioWare's older RPGs but played very well on a console.
FU: [With KOTOR] I think BioWare hit the sweet spot when it came to enough story depth and enough extra things to do to give most PC and console RPG players enough of what they like to see in the games that they play.
GS: Is Obsidian's upcoming collaboration with BioWare an entirely new RPG, or will it be a title we've never seen before?
FU: We continue to work closely with BioWare and our publisher on our current project. We also couldn't be happier with the support BioWare has given us on our current project and I hope that in the future we will be able to collaborate on other projects.
GS: In a 2001 interview with Gamasutra, you said, "The most important thing that I was taught is as a game developer or designer we are not creating games for ourselves. We are making them for the people who are going to play them." What new features do you think gamers want from RPGs?
FU: I think even the PC RPGers want to see that the games they play are easier to play. That may sound strange, but I liken it to the decision in the late '80s to include automaps in the RPGs of the time rather than force the player to map everything on graph paper. Manuals are becoming a thing of the past, and so even PC RPGs need to be made so that the player does not need to read 100 pages before they can even start playing.
GS: Titles like Morrowind and the upcoming Jade Empire are blurring the line between action and role-playing titles. Do you expect to see more and more action and shooter elements incorporated into RPGs?
FU: Yes and no. I think at some point the game becomes something else and is no longer an RPG. There is still a lot to be said for making RPGs that don't require the player to have reactions tuned by the latest FPS. In the end, RPGs are based off of character development systems that have a certain amount of numbers, and those numbers control the play of the game to a greater or lesser degree. When action is added then the numbers become less important, which means at some point the character development system becomes less important and the game starts feeling less like an RPG.
In part two of his interview with GameSpot, Feargus comments on the future of Obsidian, Interplay, and the role-playing genre in general.