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Exclusive Interview: Obsidian Entertainment's Feargus Urquhart

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Posted March 12, 2009 - By Stephen Johnson

Feargus Urguhart

In spite of his terror-inspiring, Viking-style name, RPG developer Feargus Urquhart is a super nice guy. He worked at Interplay during that company's heyday, helping create legendary titles Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment, Castles 2: Siege and Conquest, and Fallout 2. Currently, Urquhart heads Obsidian studios. It's projects include spy role-playing game Alpha Protocol and, for now, an RPG based on the Aliens movies.

Urquhart and I talked shop about Alpha Protocol, the challenges of putting Fireball spells into a real-world context, and why Fallout fans are both the best and worst fans on earth.

G4: I have to start with the big question that everyone is asking: Is the Aliens’ RPG cancelled?

Feargus Urquhart: Ah, I can’t comment about the Aliens' RPG.

G4: I thought you’d say that!  How’s Alpha Protocol coming along?

FU: Alpha Protocol is doing really well. It’s great to be able to make a game like that. In my past, I’ve done D&D, done Fallout, I’ve done a bunch of different stuff, but something I hadn’t really had a chance to do is something more modern day. There’s been Deus Ex and things like that, but not many people have really tried to take RPG and put it in modern day, so it’s been interesting. It’s been challenging, but in a good way. Trying to figure out how to make “fireball” work, in a spy game,  with Jason Bourne. That’s been an interesting part of it. It’s a big project and that’s great for the studio, because we learn how to manage these big projects, and getting to use Unreal 3 has been good, so it’s going really well.

G4: How are the mechanics in comparison to a traditional elves and wizards RPG?

FU: It’s interesting. We really had to learn a lot about player movement and AI. If you look at a lot of our previous games, like the stuff we did at Black Isle studios, it was much more strategic -- in the sense that, “I have a group of monsters, I select them with my mouse, and I set them off and the ‘rules’ determine everything."  But in a third person action-shooting game, it’s Gears of War. It’s Call of Duty. It’s all about how the AI works; how they dodge and get in cover. So that’s been the big thing for us to get a handle on. That’s been the big difference for us. So while we still come up with rules, there’s no “fireball,” but we have abilities that are extraordinary for the character. On top of that, it’s executing on all these combat things you see in big 3rd person and 1st person shooters.

Alpha Protocol

G4: Are you planning on making any new Neverwinter Nights expansions?

FU: We were talking to Atari about one. The last one sold okay, but not wonderfully. I think it was a really crowded Christmas season. The game industry did really well last year, but I think a lot of dollars went to fewer things. Like Wii Fit and things like that. So Atari will make money on it, but it’s one of those things where I think Atari is trying to figure out where they want to go with D&D. So right now we’re not working on one. We keep talking to them about it. It’s certainly fun. I wouldn’t call it our bread and butter, but doing things like that -- making RPGs like that -- it’s what I’ve been doing for years. And it’s really fun in terms of putting the player on an adventure. And that’s what we do. We look at our games in terms of putting people in this world, putting them on an adventure and giving them a lot of the tools and choices to attack it themselves.

I worked on the original Neverwinter Nights, too. I was at Black Isle studios and we were working with Bioware to try and figure out what their next project was going to be. They were actually working on a game called Shattered Steel 2.

I was the producer on Shattered Steel. It came out and Interplay shipped it the same week that Mech Warrior 2: Mercenaries was shipped. So we had this small game, not a ton of marketing, and a big brand was shipped the same week. But it did well and it actually was profitable. But it didn’t sell enough units to make them want to keep going with it. So they started work on Shattered Steel 2 and thought, “Well, what do we want to do? We’re doing Baldur’s Gate and but we don’t want to just make another Baldur’s Gate with a different skin.” It was when the Quake 2 was big and Neverwinter Nights was born.  

G4: How is it working on original property as opposed to someone else’s licensed property?

FU: It’s interesting. There are almost three different forms of property, really. There’s original IP, and there’s licensing and there’s -- I don’t want to call them strict licenses, but an example of the third category is a movie license.  From the standpoint of a movie license, the characters have to look like the characters in the movie, the story has to follow the movies’ story. I’ve never made one of those, but it’s kind of a different beast. Then there’s the licensed stuff that we’ve done, which is more like: “Here’s D&D. Go off and make your own story.” Or “Here’s Star Wars. Go off do your own thing.” So that’s a license, but you still have a lot of freedom to do what you want.

Original property is great because you have ultimate freedom. And it’s horrible because you have ultimate freedom. There’s no box, so when there are questions, when you’re like “What do we do?” You have to come up with that source book. But when it comes down to say, D&D, you can say, “Okay, here’s the Forgotten Realms book. What does it say about Baldur’s Gate? No, it doesn’t say it’s an oasis city in the middle of the desert.”

Feaurgus UruhartIt’s great that you get to be open and creative, but the challenge is you can start going down bad paths. The team can start splitting as they say “It’s this kind of story!” “No, it’s that kind of story!” “No, he’s this kind of character!” “No he’s that kind of character!” So the challenge with an original property is pulling everyone together and almost making it its own license so that everyone understands the rules.

G4: I asked the readers of our site to come up with a couple questions for you. They want me to ask: What is the worst RPG that you’ve ever played?

FU: Ha ha! So I have to pick a publisher I’ve never worked with! Okay, I played this game called Clans. It was from a long time ago, I want to say maybe eight or 10 years ago. It was supposed to be a Diablo-like game, and it was just really bad. The rules system was not interesting. Combat just didn’t work really well. The way you moved around the world was hard. All the things you want to be good about an RPG, it just didn’t do well.

I don’t think the developer or the publisher was bad. It would be like if I launched off and said, “I’m going to make Battlefield 3!” Now, I’m a smart guy and I’ve been making games for a long time and we have smart people who have been making games for a long time, but you know what? We just don’t know what those guys know about making Battlefield 3. We can make a lot of guesses. But it’s like looking at it through a window. We can’t touch it, but we can see it, but they’ve touched it. So that’s what I think happened to the people who made that game. It was people who had seen RPGs and played RPGs, but hadn’t made an RPG. It’s like how you see so many Diablo clones. But why are they not as fun as Diablo? I think that’s the thing. There are things Blizzard knows that other don’t.

It’s the same thing with us: There are things we know about writing stories that other developers don’t know. So why is it compelling to play our games and our stories? It’s because we thought about it for... it’s not that we’re smarter than everyone else, it’s just that we’ve been doing it for a long time and it’s our focus. And it’s what we thought about. When I look at a game like Clans, I think they mimicked, and mimicry without understanding, I think, leads to failure.

G4: Here’s another question from our readers…What’s the worst game you ever made? Wow, our readers are negative people!

Descent to UndermountainFU: Hey, I’ve dealt with Fallout fans for years and they’re the worst! They are the most into-it fan-group. I was talking to the guys at Bethesda and others in the industry and trying to figure out who is the worst fan-group, and its Fallout fans. They’re horrible! But they care! It’s a double-edged sword. I love them and hate them at the same time. I love that that they care so much, but the way they express their love…

But for the worst game, if it’s a game that came out, the worst was probably Descent to Undermountain.  I didn’t start the project and I didn’t work on the project for 2/3 of its development, but I was responsible for finishing it and getting it shipped. That was the worst game I ever made. But we felt bad and it got better. I was able to convince Interplay to keep a small staff devoted to making the game better, so it got better and better.

As for why it was bad: It was in the early days of 3D, so what we now know about 3D we didn’t know then, or we didn’t think clearly about. It was “Descent” to Under mountain was because it used the Descent engine, and so everyone thought, “Oh, we’ll use the Descent engine to make this thing!” Now, the Descent engine was really cool, but it was about ships going through caverns. So we thought, well, we have caverns… but it had no concept of “How does a creature walk on the ground?”  Nothing walked on the ground in the Descent engine. So it was from the get-go a challenged project.

My failure in that game was one of two things. First: I couldn’t get it canceled. Secondly, I didn’t understand the problems enough to help put the right resources on it to make it the best it could be. We had great guys working on it, that wasn’t the problem. Looking back, if I had just one more programmer focus entirely on the concept of walking on the ground, would we have been better off? It sounds like such a simple thing, but it’s possible that the game could have been better.

G4: Thanks for your time!

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Exclusive Interview: Obsidian Entertainment's Feargus Urquhart
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