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RPGs, Moving Forward: An Interview With Feargus Urquhart

Gamasutra sits down with Obsidian Entertainment's Feargus Urquhart to discuss the RPG genre, the pros and cons of running an independent developer in these uncertain times, and the industry in 2009.

June 5, 2009

27 Min Read

Author: by Ben Fritz

The Western RPG is in a renaissance of popularity and creative richness right now, thanks to titles like BioWare's Mass Effect and Bethesda's Fallout 3. But what of the man who lead the design of the last mainline Fallout game, Fallout 2?

Well, Feargus Urquhart is currently leading development at Obsidian Entertainment, currently working on the spy-themed action-RPG blend Alpha Protocol for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Windows PC, to be published by Sega in October, as well as the next Fallout game, Fallout: New Vegas, which is due from Bethesda in 2010 (and was formally announced just after this interview was conducted.)

How does this born-and-bred RPG man -- who is best known for his work heading Interplay's Black Isle Studios through the aforementioned Fallout 2, as well as Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment, see the industry in 2009?

In this wide-ranging conversation, the beginnings of the genre are tackled -- Dungeons & Dragons, of course -- as well as Urquhart's days at the ill-fated Interplay, and the current state of the genre. With discussions about the pros and cons of running an independent developer in these uncertain times, the interview takes in the landscape of a multifaceted career.

We definitely wanted to talk to people like yourself about what you learned over the years. I'm actually kind of going back to your background, and obviously, at Black Isle. Do you look back at the stuff you were doing with Dungeons & Dragons, and see that as being influential or having an interesting impact throughout the game industry now?

FU: There's an aspect in role playing games and how you design games that you see more and more in every other kind of game. So, for instance, what's a big part of role playing games -- because you can look at D&D, and you go, "Well what really started role playing games originally?" Well, it was pen and paper, and that was Dungeons & Dragons.

And then what was the kind of grand daddy license to get in role playing games, which Interplay, which is a company I used to work at, picked up, and then we made a number of them at Black Isle Studios.

You had a character, and this kind of drove things. Well, it's your character. It's not the character the game designer made for you. Having to do that has made us like, "Okay, so then we need to allow them to pick their race, allow them to pick their class, allow them to pick a head, hair, coloration, all this other kind of stuff."

So, we were doing that 10-12 years ago. Now you look at things like Saints Row 2, Fight Night, and all this other kind of stuff. Well, what do you get to do? You have to make your fighter.

Sega/Obsidian Entertainment's Alpha Protocol

Or Rock Band. That's not an RPG at all, and you're still designing your character.

FU: Right. Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Exactly. So, I think they started the whole movement towards character customization from the standpoint of "Wouldn't it be cool if I am playing my own player, to do that stuff?" I think the other thing is that they kind of used like a persistent persona. I think that was the other thing that RPGs really did.

Other than points in Defender, you're the ship the whole game. But you look in RPGs, and it was like, "No, I'm getting my experience points, I'm getting new weapons, I'm doing this, I'm moving, and I'm making choices."

I think that if you look at a lot of those things and you extrapolate that to games nowadays, you look at a lot of different games, and they have a lot of more persistence. You know, I was just playing Dawn of War II last night... Well, RTSes used to be "Get to the new map, build everything, destroy everything..."

Yeah, start again.

FU: "Start again," right. So now, in Dawn of War II, I finished the first level, and then I go to my map screen. So, not only can I see where I'm going to go and where I make choices; now, I even have characters, and I can go in and equip them with items and I can upgrade their stats and all that kind of stuff. I think a lot of that all came from D&D and role playing games.

On one hand, obviously, a lot of lessons from RPGs are spreading out. Do you see hard core RPGs as a lot more mainstream as they used to be? Do you think, to a certain extent, it is and always will be more of a niche than some other game genres?

FU: That's a tough call. It's sure your choice in what kind of game you want to make. As a game maker, do you want to go make something that five to 10 million people are going to buy, or are you okay with two to five million people buying it? I think that one of the things is that if you get to where you want to sell five to 10 million units of every game, you have to start making a lot of decisions... In essence, you're trying to make a game that's going to appeal to everybody, right?

So, it's sort of like the difference between... I'll use stupid examples, but there's Ivory Soap. "This is for everybody. It's not special. It's not anything, but it's soap, and it's cheap and for everybody." And then you have something like Dove, which is much more expensive and it smells funny, but it's made for a particular kind of person. I think what happens, though, and maybe the analogy is that Ivory is very generic, Dove is not.

And so, I think a lot of thing is that -- and not that you can say Gears of War, Call of Duty, or any of those things are generic. They're great games and a great experience, but they've been funneled down a line of "How do we sell as many units as possible?", you know what I mean?

And which is the right line? I mean, this is a business. If you're going to spend 30, 40 million dollars on a game, well then you gotta get that many people to buy it. It just makes sense. There's no reason to make a movie, a very niche-y indie movie, and spend a hundred million dollars on it. You can still make money.

It's like the difference between Fox Searchlight and Fox.

FU: Yes, absolutely. When it comes to niche-ness, RPGs, and stuff like that, it depends on what you want to do. You look at Mass Effect and... I mean, Fallout has been very successful, and a lot of people think it's very niche. Mass Effect, again, has been successful, but niche. Though niche might be the wrong word.

In other words, what they've done, they've pulled more players in by making it on console, making the numbers less in your face. And I think that's attracted people. This is a conversation we have at Obsidian all the time, but you have to be careful about receding the numbers too far into the background because now you might lose your RPG players.

Microsoft/Lionhead Studios' Fable II

I had a debate I did with this freelance writer, which was like Fable people versus Fallout people. Like, I love Fable, and I don't like Fallout, and the reason is the numbers, to me, are too much. But for him, he finds Fable boring because they're so in the background that you don't get to design it yourself.

FU: But there are numbers even in Fable. You have to choose a weapon.

Yes, you have to do that.

FU: Right, and how you tell the difference whether the weapon is good or not is a number. You can buy property. So, there's a certain amount of numbers there.

I realized that I don't like Fallout. And then all the criticisms that I could come up with, I was like, "Anybody can say that about Fable."

FU: (laughs)

Then I was like, "I have no good reason anymore. It just somehow appeals to me. I can't come up with a good reason."

FU: Right, right.

So, that's kind of an interesting question then. If you look at the sort of pretty mainstream success of Fallout 3, do you think that they found a way to make a hardcore RPG much more mainstream than has been done in the past? Or when you look at how Fallout 3 is suceeding compared to what you've done on Fallout 2 or other RPGs that you've done...

FU: I think Bethesda did two things, and I'll start with that sort of thing. Any great game, it's beyond how exactly you play it. It's how you play it, and a specific "Are there numbers? and "Are there not numbers?" and all that kind of stuff. It's more of a feeling.

What really was great about the original Fallout, Fallout 1 and Fallout 2, was the feeling of being in this world. And that was attractive. Well, attractive is maybe the wrong word. It was compelling. (laughs) That's a better word.

I think what Bethesda did an incredible job at is making you feel like you are in this Fallout world. And that's what we did back at Black Isle, to make you really feel like you were in this Fallout world. The whole thing -- from the loading screens to the main menu to the Pip-Boy to all that kind of stuff -- it really felt like it was a whole cohesive unit of feeling like you're in this world. And they did that.

When you do that, it is instantly more compelling to any kind of gamer. As long as they feel like they're not being hindered by something or that something is annoying in the game, then they're probably going to enjoy it. And I guess part of that is also taking it, obviously, from a turn-based PC game to using the Oblivion engine and learning how to use their Oblivion engine and make it Fallout. And that's not to say that it's just Oblivion: Fallout.

I think the second thing that Bethesda did an incredible job at -- and this is what they do really well -- is they are just behind their games. I think a lot of the success of Fallout 3 in particular -- because there are people probably at Bethesda that Fallout 3 is not the kind of game that they play -- but they jumped in with both feet, like, "This is the game. We believe in this game." And I think that is why you see a success, too. It's almost catching.

In other words, you have a publisher who's like, "Well, we have these seven games. What do you think?" Bethesda is, "No, you're buying this damn game." So, I think that the success was from both ways. They were able to get the feeling of Fallout, and they really believed in their game. And that belief in the game came through in how they were talking to everybody and pimping it and all that kind of stuff.

In starting Obsidian -- I don't know the exact process -- was it more a circumstance thing where you were like, "I guess I need to start my own company because that's the position I'm in," or was it like, "I've been working in this industry for years, and I'm ready to do my own thing"?

FU: I think any kind of those decisions are a collection of a bunch of things. I was 33, and I think one of the owners is a year older than me, and the youngest owner is like three years younger than me. So, I think we were literally like 30, 31, 33 -- 32, 33, 34, something like that.

We were like, "This is the time to do it." If you kind of think about it, when we're 40 and we have kids that are now getting [older]... In one case, owner's in high school, or my kids at that point would have been in grade school. You have less of a chance that you're gonna go take a chance like that.

So, that was part of it. I think the second thing is we had been working for Interplay for a long time, and we worked really hard, and we made a lot of great games, both internally and externally. And Interplay just wasn't going anywhere. And that was really sad because we would work really hard, and then the money we would make would go fill a hole somewhere else.

Yeah, somebody's debt.

FU: Yeah, exactly. If you do that a few times, you're just done. And on top of that, because the money was so tough, it just got harder and harder to make games. I think the one thing that I've often told people is that the straw that broke the camel's back for me was that it took me three months to get $20,000 worth of computer purchases approved because it got approved and unapproved four times.

And then finally after three months, I'd heard it got ordered and everything, and then I got an email how that now, "Well, we weren't really sure that you needed them, so it's been turned over to the tech director for the company to decide whether you really need them or not." And I'm like...

Just trying to design some games.

FU: My guys, now, literally... The computers were like six months too old when i started this process, you know what I mean? And not that I walked out that day. It's just, you know, this and this and this. And it just seemed like a good time, and there should be opportunities and things like that. It wasn't so much like, "We're going to go off, and Interplay are retards." Because a lot of it is we modeled a lot of what we did off of Interplay, both the good and the bad.

In some cases, we said, "Interplay didn't do that well -- why did we not like that? Let's not just react to it, let's figure it out." Because in a lot of ways, Interplay was a great company. At times. Even at the end, there were so many great things about it.

I've talked to Mike Morhaime a lot. I mean, Blizzard was initially modeled after Interplay. So, it wasn't a bad company. So, in essence, we had no reaction to that other than the situation that it was in at that point that really made it hard to make games.

What's your sense of what it's like in the market now, not only for being an independent developer, which I know can be challenging, but also one that's pretty focused on one genre of games?

FU: Well, I think the thing is focusing on a genre is a good thing, because I think it's a problem if you're a generic game developer. Like, you're on no one's list. If you're on someone's list, at least, like, "Hey, we want to make an RPG. Who are we going to call?"

Yeah, you know you're on that list.

FU: I know I'm on that list. And so, I think that aspect makes it better. I think the other aspect of it, and I think you even wrote some of our troubles... (laughs)

I think the hard thing is that when a company externally gives another company 15 to 20 million dollars to make a game, the risk is so large that I think everyone has a hard time keeping their wits about them.

I am the person who will never blame publishers for everything. I think it's a joint thing. It's so easy to lose a lot of money just by blinking, when you have 60 to 70 people working on a team. I think that aspect of game development, for an independent game developer, when you tie that to the economy and when you tie that to publishers being scared -- and I'm not saying "risk-averse" -- about these investments...

A lot of relationship and communication and a lot of stuff that the industry has never had to deal with have really become big challenges. And I think my reaction to that in a lot of ways is that -- and this going to sound... not bad, but I don't mean it as horrible as it's going to sound -- to look at it as if we're contractors.

It doesn't mean that we're not creative, and it's not that we're not amazing at what we do, it's that at the end of the day, we're a contractor, and so we have to run our businesses that way. And we have to run our businesses in a way that, "Yes, we have a relationship with our publishers. But at the end of the day, we have to protect our business." I want to keep on making games. I don't want to close the doors tomorrow.


You want to make Sega happy, for instance, at the moment, but ultimately, your job is making Obsidian work.

FU: Right. If I make Sega happy, or whatever publisher happy at the expense of my company, well great, they're happy, and then I go out of business. What's that good for anybody? And that's a hypothetical, of course.

But that's a great way to look at it. And I think that before these budgets got to the 10, 15, 20 million dollar range, mistakes could get swallowed up easier. Like, "Ah, throw another million dollars at the game, whatever," You know what I mean? The accountants don't even care.

But throw another six million dollars at the game? Well, how many units do we have to recoup? What do we all feel about this? It was like easy three, five, six years ago when publishers came in and would say, "You know, we don't like that interface. We'd like you to change it." Well, we could almost absorb that within what was going on, and we wouldn't have to do anything.

My mistake, as the guy running a business, has been that the publisher will come in -- the interface is perfectly fine. Yeah, we can talk about little tweaks and all that kind of stuff. And now we get into these kind of complicated, subjective things. "Okay, you want to change it entirely. Well, we've already made one. If you'd like another one, well that's going to be $300,000."

The problem is that the industry hasn't gone through that process before in which, "It's not my job to absorb it. This is a work for hire. I'm the guy putting in your pool." That sounds like I don't care about games -- I love making games.

No, it seems like you care, but you care about your budget; you care about your company.

FU: Right, because I don't want to go out of business. And that's really where independent developers have to go. Independent developers have to go to the point where, either you're making games that have no risk -- there are games out there like that --

Like a movie license, maybe?

FU: A movie license, or a sequel where you're reusing the technology, like KOTOR II for us. Not a lot of risk because we get in and we did well at it.

But when there are these projects that have risk, you have to manage it like a business.

When you talk about the challenges of a bigger budget, which are inevitable, does that make it more and more difficult to be independent? Does that make the logic of being owned by the publisher or the publisher wanting to work with somebody internal so much more compelling each year? Does it point to a world where there's like Valve, and id, and everybody else has to be owned by a publisher?

FU: You're going to see this. There'll be days where there's a lot of independent developers and days when there's not a lot. And of course, our goal is to still be who we are.

I'll be honest. I could probably call up a publisher tomorrow and say, "I'm sick of this damn payroll crap." Like, "I don't want anything from my company, just take it over. I just want to sign an employment agreement." Believe me, weight off my shoulders. What I am doing later today is doing budgets and all that kind of stuff to figure stuff out.

But I think in some ways, I get to sign this five-year... Let's just pretend, you know, I can sign this thing. And there are ways that publishers can get out of that. But for me, they probably wouldn't get out of it, or there would be things about it. Other than security for me, security for my people... I mean, look at all the studios that publishers have shut down, EA laying off a thousand people.

And it's like EA has problems that have nothing to do with this studio.

FU: Right, but they're gone.

And then that studio has to bear the punishment, right?

FU: Yes, right. Exactly. So, I don't want to say we control our destiny, but we do a little bit more, because if we are executing and we're making our milestones, and we're getting the game done... I mean, there are other things that can cause problems. (laughs) I don't know the ratio.

Do we have a better chance of finishing that project versus an in-house studio? See, an in-house studio has all this overhead and all this kind of stuff. The accountants kind of look at it, "Well, this is a carrying cost for the next... forever. If we get rid of this, that's a great story." Independent developer, "Well, we're just paying them for another nine months."

Right, if you cancel, you're just saving however many million dollars...

FU: In the nine months. You're not saving forever, it's not something you can shut down, it's not all these liabilities and all this other kind of stuff.

There's no severance.

FU: There's no severance, right. I think that it's hard to say what's more secure. I've talked to a lot of people about it. Some people are much more secure as part of a publisher. I think that, of course, there are bad times with running a developer. And some people do say that they think running an independent developer is a business that can never make money, but I think it's how you manage that business.


Right. Well, I guess one thing people say is that it seems like it would be a really crazy time to start a AAA developer.

FU: Oh, yes.

Like if you're starting a developer, you'd be like, "I'll do iPhones and I'll do downloadable." You wouldn't start a AAA developer at this time probably.

FU: No, there would be a reason why you would do it in that if you had right now, and a publisher needs something, maybe it's something for Christmas next year, and it was a product that made sense, and you had technology and all that kind of stuff; I think it would be a good time to start a developer if you had an opportunity like that.

There's not been a lot games actually in production over the last 18 months. Not a lot of deals have been signed. There's been slow closures of studios, then lots of closures of studios.

I think there's going to be a fair amount of games for this Christmas, but then looking at Christmas of 2010, if no deals are being signed for 18 months, all these studios are being closed, what are we looking at for the stuff coming for Christmas 2010?

And so, it could be right now, that it might not be very bad, in that specific [circumstance]. And maybe that's the way to always look at any industry or the game industry. There are these spots where you could be successful even in this crisis.

People always say that in a recession, the bottom point is the best point to start a company, right?

FU: If you're successful. (laughs)

Are you guys working on the Aliens RPG at all?

FU: (laughs) No comment. And it's for the reason of, obviously, Sega announced that we were doing their game. It's their game. We have confidential agreements with them, and so really -- whatever might be or might not be going on with that game -- they're the ones that would have to say something...

But you're working on Alpha Protocol.

FU: Oh absolutely, yeah. So, we continue to work on Alpha Protocol, and it's actually going great. I'm actually pretty excited from the standpoint of, you know, we hit content complete, so we shoved all the -- I'm not going to call it crap -- we got everything in the game, and now we're just working towards alpha.

In essence, we get to polish a number of months before alpha, and then a number of months to beta, so it's looking really positive. We've been able to fix a lot of things. As a developer, there were a lot of things we had to learn with Alpha Protocol, things we didn't have to do in our previous games. And so, we've been really hitting those things.

Well, you were talking a little about taking RPG elements and broadening that out a little bit. This is what Alpha Protocol seems to be, right?

FU: Yes.

There are a lot of action elements that I assume you guys haven't done before.

FU: Right, it's pulling things we haven't done and pulling them into RPGs. There's kind of a couple things for me as a game maker that I've not had to really think and focus on before. This is going to sound really strange but I've never really had to think about player control. Because other than just making sure running around feels okay.

Because obviously all my previous games that I've made, they've usually been point and click, or with KOTOR II, you're just kind of running around. I mean, it has to feel good but not amazing. Combat was all choreographed, so there's no cover, there's no this, there's no that. So, really with Alpha Protocol, we really had to learn to come up with... I mean, Unreal has stuff in there, but you have to expand on it, basically.

And so, really focusing on movement, cover, how the AI reacts, and AI and cover. AI, cover, movement, and animation quality, that is the lesson that we've had to learn for Alpha Protocol. We can take all the stuff we know about RPGs and get it in there, but then there was this large -- I would say "large" -- group of things that we then had also to learn how to do and get better at it.

And do you do that by bringing in people who have worked on those kinds of games?

FU: Yeah. I think it's both. One, it's a good education. It's good for us. With me, that's the next thing that I look at, now that there are a couple games that we're looking at starting right now. If you asked me five years ago what are the big things that we have to get right...

Well, we have to get area building right because RPGs are all about areas. I guess all games are about areas, but RPGs are kind of, "We have to figure out how to make towns," and things like that which are these persistent things which the player runs around in.

You always know where they're going to go.

FU: Yes, exactly. And so, it's areas, it's creature creation. And from a standpoint, how do we create characters when we're dealing with seven races, two sexes, body morphing, and all this other kind of stuff and all these things?

But what wouldn't have been on there are these things about, "Well, how are we going to do cover? How are we having the AI react to cover? How do we give the player in a third-person over-the-shoulder camera an understanding that if they throw a grenade, where it's going to go." In our games, it's always been like, you targeted something. In Fable II, right, you target something, you don't target the world.

Right, that sort of thing. And that's an artistic choice.

FU: Yes.

And when working on an original property like that, do you have any sort of ownership of Alpha Protocol? You're doing it for Sega, but is it also an investment for Obsidian for the long term? Or is this something that's work for hire, and you see it the same way as doing Aliens or some license?

FU: Obviously, our success come in games selling well, right? So, if you get too far down the line of, "Well, the brand of Alpha Protocol is more important than the game," you start to get all schizophrenically weird. For us, Alpha Protocol being successful is good for us. We look at the game, and the brand is important because if we make the brand feel good, then the game will be successful.

In a world where games often materialize in other media, I'm interested when developers try to own IPs themselves. So, is that the case with Alpha Protocol?

FU: Oh no, it's Sega's property. We've created it, but it's their property.

If it's successful, with you talking about being on the list, do you feel like that if this game works, suddenly you could be on more lists? Do you sort of think like that? Do you still feel like you're the same company you were?

FU: No, I would still want to make RPGs. It's what we think about. It's like how you think about asking questions.

And so, that's how we looked at it. There's a range of different RPGs. You go from the Diablos to the Torments, almost. Planescape: Torment is all kinds of talking, and Diablo is just all action. I think that within those bounds, you can create a lot of different things. And I guess there's even another axis now, which is Mass Effect, Alpha Protocol, and Fallout 3, which is more of this first-person, even action-based, skill-based shooting mechanic.

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