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Taking Back Fallout

Obsidian Entertainment CEO Feargus Urquhart discusses design opportunities that have arisen developing Fallout: New Vegas, and how being one of the series original creators' affected his reaction to both Bethesda's game and this new endeavor.

Obsidian Entertainment's appointment as the developer of the next Fallout game under Bethesda's stewardship has particular resonance for longtime fans of the series. The Southern California developer is a direct descendent of Black Isle Studios, the former internal Interplay team responsible for Fallout and Fallout 2.

With Fallout: New Vegas, Obsidian is inheriting the basic design framework Bethesda Game Studios established with its acclaimed sequel Fallout 3, and applying to it an intense familiarity with the roots of the post-nuclear role playing game series. And even more than Fallout 3, New Vegas' retro-future Las Vegas harkens back to the kitschy 1950s aesthetic of its forbears.

Since last year, a 50-person Obsidian team has been hard at work on the game, going so far as to take inspiration from the PC mod community's tweaks to Fallout 3 in the development of new systems for New Vegas.

Gamasutra sat down with Feargus Urquhart, CEO of Obsidian -- and a key team member on Fallout and Fallout 2 -- to discuss his company's approach to New Vegas, the game's spotlight on 1950s excess, and his own thoughts on Fallout 3.

It's frequently observed that a number of you at Obsidian worked on the original Fallout games. What's it like working with the new gatekeeper of the series? How did you get together with Bethesda?

Feargus Urquhart: Ever since we left Black Isle and started Obsidian Entertainment, we still make role playing games. It's what we love to do. It's just what we do. Bethesda is a publisher of role playing games. They have their big internal team.

I think a lot of times, and you saw this sometimes with fans talking about Fallout 3 in particular, people say things like, "Oh, are we going to have to wait another five years to see another Fallout?" Well, Bethesda knew that we make role playing games, and the industry is not that gigantic -- I mean, Bethesda's VP of development is Todd Vaughn, and he used to be an editor of PC Gamer magazine.

Todd and I had talked together for a really long time, and we just kept in touch and talked about things. It all really seemed to fit well. We had a team available, and they really wanted to get another Fallout made. In some ways, it was an easy thing.

A lot of times, when you're trying to get a game gig and a publisher is looking for a developer, it's really complicated. You're worried about risk and how this is going to work and how this is going to mess up. In this case, we're really good at using other people's technology to make games. We know Fallout. So it just all clicked.

What did you personally think of Fallout 3?

FU: I don't want to just say that I really enjoyed it, because that feels like I'm just kissing ass: "It was a wonderful experience!" But I am not a guy who was caught up in the notion that Fallout had to be an isometric, turn-based experience. To me, Fallout was always just the feeling of the world.

Maybe that's the difference between someone who makes a Fallout and someone who plays a Fallout. Whenever we think about Fallout, it's about the areas you put in there. Whether those areas are isometric or in 3D first-person, you do a lot of the same stuff.

For me, Fallout was always the world. In playing Fallout 3, it just felt like being in that world. That was what was great for me. I really appreciated that. I like playing FPSes -- not so much on my console, though; I'm a PC FPS guy.

The VATS system really melded everything together for me -- I get to be in the world looking out my own eyes, and I don't have to fight every fight in an actual physical skill-based way. I can use my stats and ammo and all that kind of stuff and see people's heads getting blasted off in Technicolor, which was awesome. [laughs]

I think you take that. You take the feeling of being there. I really enjoyed it. I don't get to finish a ton of games, because -- I'm sure, like you -- there's usually a stack. I don't have to review them, so I don't finish everything. But I made a point of making sure that... No, you know what? I didn't have to make a point of it. I just finished it because I was having fun.

I remember back when Fallout 3 was in development, I was talking to [Bethesda Game Studios game director] Todd Howard and he said, "We're all fans of Fallout; we all played those games," but he said they made a decision that, between Fallout 1 and 2, they were going to follow up on Fallout 1, and not so much on 2. What is the significance of that decision to you?

FU: Right. You know, it's funny, because I remember that as well. There are some distinct opinions that people have about Fallout 1 versus Fallout 2. My role on the project was a little bit different.

One of the reasons I ask is because I generally associate Obsidian more with the Fallout 2 team.

FU: Yes. Well, really, most of the people, if they worked on Fallout 2 they worked on Fallout 1. Most of us actually kind of worked on both. For example, Scott Everts is actually working on Fallout: New Vegas and laying a lot of the areas. He laid out every single level in Fallout and probably 50 or 60 percent of them in Fallout 2.

It's true that when I think back, a lot of people will characterize Fallout 1 and Fallout 2 as being so different in a lot of ways. We made some decisions to have them be different, but to us they weren't as different as a lot of people make them out. We had some technical problems when Fallout 2 released, and that clouded a lot of things.

But it's interesting. I don't know if it's 50/50 or what, but I get very distinct people who come up and say they like one more than the other. From a vibe perspective, Fallout 1 was more directed. It was nonlinear, but you had more of a straight shot. It wasn't as big or as complicated as Fallout 2. I haven't actually ever talked to Todd Howard about it, but I wonder if that's more what they were trying to go with.


I think what some people mean is that Fallout 2 pushed the tongue-in-cheek material more.

FU: Too much, actually. [laughs] In my mind, it did. I don't want to make excuses, but we were working pretty fast.

Ultimately, we had to restart the game twice because we had started it before Fallout was done. Then, when it was done, [original Fallout leads] Tim [Cain], Leonard [Boyarsky], and Jason [Anderson] originally didn't want to go off and make Fallout 2.

But after things got a little more positive, and we weren't crunching anymore, they said, "No, we want to do Fallout 2." Then they decided, "No, let's go start our own company," and they started [now-defunct RPG studio] Troika.

Then we really had to restart it again, and so we only had about eight months to make Fallout 2, which is not a long time to make a big role playing game. We divided the work a lot -- one of our mistakes.

I was the lead designer and running [Black Isle] at the time, and I made the mistake of not looking enough at what each of the designers was deciding to do. So they each thought, "Well, I'm putting some slapstick stuff in my area, but not everybody else is." Before you know it, everybody is.

In my demonstration of Fallout: New Vegas, it looks like you took a lot more influence from 1950s sci-fi, which I associate with the older Fallout games. The gecko lizard monster and Rusty the Robot looks very vintage, more so than Fallout 3, I would say. Were you really trying to home in on that?

FU: Exactly. Whenever I used to sell Fallout in the years of bygone, the idea was that it had sustained the 1950s for a hundred years. That's how we always looked at it. What Bethesda did is still the '50s; it's still that vibe, but I think actually where you see the difference is that we're doing it with Las Vegas. Vegas is supposed to be more... I don't want to say "campy", but it's supposed to be more "surface". You've just got to keep pushing it.

Well, there's a bit of camp, right? When the gecko is standing up, it looks like a cheesy swamp monster out of an Ed Wood movie or something. That was great!

FU: It does, yeah. Exactly! [laughs] It's just that overall vibe of taking the setting from Washington, DC to Las Vegas, in lots of ways. One thing the [Bethesda] internal team did, which I think was an awesome thing, was to use the Washington Monument as a way to remind you, "I'm in the world! Oh, that's where DC is." You can always orient yourself by these landmarks. But they were all serious things. That's not any sort of criticism, because that's DC; that's the vibe.

Well, instead, we can use Dinky the Dinosaur as one of those things. That's how we've taken what they did, and still made it of the '50s. We've added more of that feeling that people get when they look back and think of Leave It to Beaver, and stuff like that.

Did you ever play Sam & Max Hit the Road? LucasArts developed it in 1993.

FU: I did not.

The reason I ask is because its structure was a big road trip through chintzy, forgotten Americana. Very few games are directly influenced by those weird, backwoods American roadside attractions. Sam & Max Hit the Road was all about that, and Fallout: New Vegas is one of the only other games I've seen that also has that vibe.

FU: Yeah, exactly. It's funny that you should say that, because one of the things that we really did early on was make sure we were thinking about things like how people got around the world in DC versus how they got around the world in Vegas. DC has lots of highways, but it's more compact. It's got a lot of little two-lane highways. It was more about just going across the wasteland to get from place to place.

When we were looking for the Vegas wasteland, we were thinking, "Okay. We need to look at it from the standpoint of these really big freeways." And that's how we ended up structuring it.


The other big influence that shone through is the idea of the Western. You've got a ghost town, you've got a showdown, and so on. What led to that that?

FU: Well, I don't want to just say that sometimes this stuff writes itself, but if you're in the West, people expect the West. You don't want to just make it not the West. Again, it's fun. I guess that's what's great about making a Fallout; it's just fun. You get to do things like that.

But, more importantly -- and this obviously was not the only goal of doing that stuff -- it's another way to ensure that if you go into one of these Western ghost towns, it does not feel like a DC wasteland at all.

By doing that, now I really feel like I'm in this new place, not just somewhere where everything is churned out again, and it's just the DC wasteland but in Chicago.

Did you research actual ghost towns and surrounding environments?

FU: Absolutely, yeah. Josh [Sawyer] went off on this big road trip in which he basically took his motorcycle -- we're weird about motorcycles -- he took his motorcycle and just drove around the Southwest.

He camped out there and he took pictures all over the place. It really helped us get more of that vibe. It's interesting, I think, because often what people think of as the desert is not what the desert looks like out there.

Can you give me an example?

FU: A lot of it is that, often, when people think of the desert, they think more of the Mojave, which is sand dunes and cactuses. A lot of this desert is really scrub, where it's a lot of reddish rock and not just sand. The great thing about that is, again, that it makes it feel different; it doesn't make it feel like the grassy wasteland of DC.

I noticed you guys have a blue sky. How did you come to that decision?

FU: It's interesting that you bring that up! One of the first things we did was to say, "Okay. That first time that you're outside and you look around -- how do we make that feel different?" A lot of it is, well, let's have it more saturated. Let's go with the blue sky.

It's that Technicolor mentality.

FU: It makes it just, "Oh, this is different!" Immediately, you notice, "Oh, there's a tumbleweed, and a Joshua tree." I think it helps the immersion. You're not where you were before. Now you're in this new place, and the game can move forward from there.

You were saying earlier that you looked to a lot of what the PC modding community has done to Fallout 3, and you're taking some of the more interesting tweaks and putting them right in the game, like a hardcore mode and weapons modification. How did you approach that?

FU: It's great whenever you're working with an engine or tools that have actually been released to the community. It's the hacker analogy. It's like five programmers trying to stop a thousand hackers from doing something. It's the same thing here: you have all of these guys out there who are figuring out ways to use this technology and engine in ways no one originally intended.

And that happens internally as well, with our own internal engine, or when the guys are using the Bethesda stuff. You're just thinking, "What happens if I do this?" And you're like, "Wow! How did you make that?" You suddenly get these really cool things out of playing within this box. And that's what the modders do, because they can't recode everything. They don't have access to that, so they just start pushing and pulling.

You get some really interesting things out of it. It was a good place for us to start, to look at all of the strange things they've been doing, even just to help us learn this engine and see what it can do.

You're put into an interesting place, because you have all of this established design and technical framework already there, so you can drill down into the stuff that you find most important.

FU: Yes. Absolutely.

Is it mainly the ammo system and hardcore mode that you drew from the mods?

FU: Yeah. A lot of it was the hardcore stuff. And with the ammo, people were just making tons of guns, so it must be that people like guns. And, of course, everybody has to be naked. But the guns were a big part of it.

Then there was this feeling, with the hardcore mode, that some people wanted to be in the wasteland from the standpoint of: "I've got to worry about ammo weight and dehydration, and my stimpacks don't just heal me instantly. I can't pile them on top of each other."

What's great is that we can put that in as something that people can turn on, and now they get to have the game that they want. Everybody else who loved Fallout 3 can still play it the way they want.

From my perspective, there's a bit of a narrative here, where you guys made the original super-hardcore Fallout games -- those were not forgiving games. Then Bethesda gets the series, and people on the hardcore fan sites like No Mutants Allowed complain about it. Then you guys get it again, and you're saying things like, "We're putting in a hardcore mode!"

FU: Right. Yes. There were discussions early on, like, "Do we make stimpacks outside of hardcore mode?" That is, even when you're just playing on normal mode, maybe that's the one big change we make: stimpacks actually do take time to apply, no matter what. No more instant stimpack. There was a lot of talk about that, but in the end -- it's funny that it comes down to this one little thing -- it would just be too different.

I think with a change like that, people would get it and think, "What's going on?" They would charge into battle and get their ass killed, going, "Wait! No! Argh!" The [separate hardcore mode] is better for those people, and it's also a great thing for someone who wants to play through the game again. They can play through the game, or a good portion of the game, and decide, "Okay. Now I want this to be a real challenge." Because it can really change how you play.

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