Few have left as heavy a mark on the world of role-playing games (RPGs) as Feargus Urquhart. Across a decades-long career as both developer and publisher he’s worked on three Fallout games, most of the good Dungeons & Dragons titles, and even an unexpectedly successful RPG spin on South Park.
That track record makes it all the stranger that the latest two releases from Obsidian Entertainment, the development studio he’s led since founding it in 2003, aren’t RPGs at all.
The Honey I Shrunk the Kids-inspired survival adventure Grounded and medieval monastery murder mystery Pentiment are hardly the games most fans would expect from one of the industry’s most acclaimed – and iconic – RPG studios, but Urquhart sees a method to the madness.
“I’m always thinking about how we don’t need to just peg ourselves as ‘we make region-based, character-focused, party-based, first person RPGs that use our dialogue tool set’,” he says of the move to a more “eclectic” slate of games.
That’s a pretty good description of most of the Obsidian canon, which includes games like Fallout: New Vegas, Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, and Pillars of Eternity. Almost all see the player leading a party of characters through dense storylines and carefully constructed worlds, with combat often taking a backseat to interpersonal dynamics and branching dialogue trees.
You can see some of Obsidian’s RPG pedigree in the “super dialogue-focused” adventure game Pentiment, which prioritises narrative and character development as the player investigates a murder in 16th Century Bavaria. The art team’s careful recreation of illuminated manuscripts is more of a departure. It’s less clear how Grounded, a traditional third-person action-survival game with a microscopic setting, connects to the company’s past though.
To find that connection, you have to look outside the games themselves. “The core there is that these teams are led by people that have been here for a long time,” Urquhart explains. “So much about a game is the team,” he adds, arguing that at the core of both Grounded and Pentiment is “things we know how to do and things the team knows how to do.”
“I don’t look at it as my job to be prescriptive in certain ways. My job is to say, ‘Hey, does it make sense to make this game? Are you guys really into it? Is this going to be meaningful to the player and do we have the ability to make this?’”
That means some things are off the table. Urquhart is quick to rule out an Obsidian take on sitting behind a steering wheel (“I feel like you have to have 15 years of experience in racing games to say you’re going to start up a new racing game”), and admits that the studio once shelved a Journey to the Centre of the Earth-inspired game that would have seen them competing against God of War.
That’s not even counting a string of pitches for licensed games that never saw the light of day, from tantalising ideas including a Walking Dead RPG (with the team unable to get publishers interested) or a Rick and Morty game (which petered out due to the Microsoft acquisition) to downright eyebrow-raising possibilities like a game based on the reality show Cops. “We pitched a lot of publishers and they just couldn’t get their head around it.” said Urquhart of the latter. Go figure.
Importantly, although both Grounded and Pentiment are a divergence for the studio, Urquhart says the core of both games were built quickly. “We had a thing up and running that we could play around with and then could branch out from there,” which he argues saved them from one of the common pitfalls of studio experimentation.
“I think what kills a lot of games a lot of times is when people go, ‘Oh, we want to try something completely different and so we’re just going to go explore.’ And then they just go around in circles for a really long time.”
“We started off with five of us in my attic and two months later my daughter was born” – video game designer Feargus Urquhart on the early days of Obsidian Entertainment
It probably didn’t hurt that both games had been thought up years earlier by studio veterans, then left dormant until Obsidian had gaps in its schedule – and a desire to make smaller games that weren’t as expensive to produce as the expansive RPGs on which it had made its name.
Grounded director Adam Brennecke joined the company in 2004, just a year after it was founded, while Pentiment’s Josh Sawyer arrived a year later. Between them they worked across the studio’s biggest titles, including the Kickstarter-funded throwback RPG Pillars of Eternity and sci-fi spin-off Fallout: New Vegas, which suffered from a mixed reception at launch but is now regularly pegged as the best entry in a franchise that isn’t short on masterpieces.
Urquhart had worked at Interplay for a few years before Black Isle began, where he started working as a playtester while still at college. It was the first real job he’d ever taken outside of a stint at Domino’s Pizza (“I could make a large pepperoni pizza in 27 seconds,” he boasts – only half joking), though it only began as a summer job during the bio-engineering degree he’d eventually give up to take on a full-time role.
It was there that he cut his teeth on RPGs, working on the legendary first two Fallout games (a series he admits he “would love to work on again”), helping develop the Icewind Dale and Planescape series, and transforming an early pitch from a small studio into what would become the iconic RPG Baldur’s Gate.
Developer BioWare – now itself a titan of the RPG genre, responsible in Mass Effect and Dragon Age for two of the biggest modern roleplaying franchises – had already worked with Interplay on its debut game, the mech shooter Shattered Steel. The devs then pitched Urquhart their next title: a real-time strategy game called Battleground: Infinity.
“I couldn’t get my head around why they thought it was going to be so amazing,” Urquhart explains, admitting that he actually rejected the first pitch. It was only when they came back claiming to be about to sign with a rival publisher (“I don’t know how true that was”) that he took a second look, and inspiration struck.
“If someone’s going to back up a dump truck with a bunch of gold bars, I would be actually doing a disservice to myself, my partners, and everybody at the company for not actually taking that deal.”
“I looked at it [and said:] ‘I don’t know that this is the game we’d wanna make. What about making it a D&D game?’”
At the time Interplay had an exclusive licence to make games based on tabletop roleplaying behemoth Dungeons & Dragons. Still, the idea wasn’t an immediate hit. The devs from BioWare were on board, but Urquhart’s boss saw it differently: “Yeah, that’s dumb. We’re not interested.” Fortunately for Baldur’s Gate fans, Urquhart wasn’t so easily deterred.
“I was like, okay, no, this is important. I actually went over to the vice president of marketing and explained to her, and then she said, ‘Well, this makes total sense.’ And then she got [Interplay’s founder] Brian Fargo to come over. He came and he said, ‘I’ll just sign it up.’”
It was a decision that would prove impactful for everyone involved. Black Isle would go on to publish a further three Baldur’s Gate games, including a sequel developed by BioWare, and another three similar RPGs based on the D&D licence. BioWare itself revisited that world in Neverwinter Nights, working with another publisher, and never looked back from its move from strategy into role-playing.
As for Urquhart, he worked at Black Isle for seven years, and it’s clear he looks back on the days fondly.
“I got to both develop games and manage development,” he says – two aspects of the industry he continues to combine to this day. “It was a crash course in doing all those things,” he says, adding “that Interplay was nice enough to put a 26-year-old without a college degree in charge of all that.”
Eventually it was time to move on though, and in 2003 he and four other studio veterans left to found Obsidian. Black Isle shut its doors just months later.
Obsidian’s early days weren’t quite as glamorous as you might imagine. “We started off with five of us in my attic and two months later my daughter was born. And so we have a baby screaming downstairs and five of us upstairs.”
What changed was signing a contract with LucasArts to make their first game: Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II. Coming full circle, this was to be a sequel to a game developed by none other than BioWare, and it went well enough that they repeated the trick for their next title, a follow-up to BioWare’s Neverwinter Nights. More importantly, signing Star Wars got them out of Urquhart’s attic and into an actual office.
“We’re still doing all the crazy stuff we’ve always done,” on life at Obsidian since the 2018 acquisition
Unsurprisingly, much has changed about Urquhart’s day-to-day since then, as Obsidian has grown from five to 260. He’s been CEO for most of the studio’s 19 years, though currently his official title is ‘Studio Head’, and it’s corporate admin that dominates his day – he spends more time negotiating medical insurance deals than getting hands-on with code. He hasn’t let go of the dev side entirely though, and has a habit of jumping in to take charge of specific features that take his fancy.
In one of Obsidian’s upcoming projects – a slate that consists of Pillars of Eternity spin-off Avowed and satirical sci-fi sequel The Outer Worlds 2 – he’s helping to progress the cinematography of the conversation system, figuring out how to frame characters and position virtual light sources in the game’s dialogue scenes – a necessity of modern game-making that didn’t exist at all when Urquhart was starting out.
Previously he’s taken point on user interface or on combat systems, and in Knights of the Old Republic II he even took on the unenviable role of handling data entry for all the art assets. Other people made the art, while he filled in the text files and spreadsheets to catalogue them in the game’s software. You can’t accuse him of being afraid to get his hands dirty.
That’s one thing he says hasn’t changed since Obsidian was acquired by Microsoft in late 2018, part of a wave of studio acquisitions by the Redmond giant that year.
Urquhart is surprisingly blunt about the reason for selling: the money.
“Look, if someone’s going to back up a dump truck with a bunch of gold bars, I would be actually doing a disservice to myself, my partners, and everybody at the company for not actually taking that deal.”
In fairness, there’s a little more to it than that. The expansive RPGs that helped Obsidian make its name are expensive to make, and as graphical demands increase, they’re not getting any cheaper.
Urquhart had managed to secure an “okay budget” for The Outer Worlds from publisher Private Division, but knew that if the company wanted to keep going, it would need more money for bigger games. After spending the Electronic Entertainment Expo 2018 trying – and struggling – to sell publishers on a title with a 50-60 million dollar budget, Urquhart realised something had to give. “It doesn’t matter the size of the publisher… when you have to sell something for $60 million, it’s a hard sell.
“That really was the decision: could we actually go and keep on selling 60, then 80, then 100, then 120 million dollar RPGs? Or do we need to change our business?
“We didn’t want to change our business, we wanted to make those things,” Urquhart insists. So while the team plugged away at The Outer Worlds, he prepared to make a drastic choice that would secure the company’s future as a premium RPG studio – while, perhaps ironically, setting up Grounded and Pentiment as its next two releases.
Enter Microsoft. The company was on a spending spree as it expanded the portfolio of what’s now known as Xbox Game Studios, and Obsidian was one of six developers acquired by Xbox in 2018 alone.
“I think we are in a different place because of the Microsoft acquisition,” he explains, arguing that while the team would probably have ended up working on The Outer Worlds 2 either way – the original has so far sold over four million copies – they likely wouldn’t also be developing Avowed simultaneously, or have the extra 90 staff who have joined since Microsoft took over.
In what could be a sign of the strength of the relationship, or a telling slip into corporate speak, Urquhart repeatedly leans on his inner Vin Diesel when discussing Microsoft, returning repeatedly to one word: family.
“We’re the same family,” he says when discussing how it compares to the traditional developer-publisher dynamic. Instead of simply fulfilling a contract, the question instead is: “How do we take care of each other?”
But with Urquhart himself admitting that part of the reason for agreeing to the acquisition was to stick to big-budget roleplaying games, do fans have Xbox to thank – or blame – for the two recent non-RPGs?
The simple answer is that both games were already in the works before talks with Microsoft began, and Urquhart says Microsoft was “supportive” of both projects. Grounded had a small team in early production, while it had been agreed that Pentiment creator Sawyer was going to develop a new project, they just “didn’t know what that was yet.”
It may help that Obsidian is what Microsoft calls a ‘limited integration studio’. That means it’s still a separate company, and Urquhart still runs it.
“We’re given a ton of freedom, we’re given a ton of faith, we’re given great budgets, we’re given a ton of support,” he says. His “one big job” is to manage that freedom smartly and spend Microsoft’s money wisely.
“I don’t feel like I’m being restricted,” he insists. “We’re still doing all the crazy stuff we’ve always done.”
That includes Pentiment, of course, but long-term fans may wonder if it will ever again include games like the crowdfunded Pillars of Eternity series, which in adopting an isometric, semi-2D aesthetic are a conscious throwback to the team’s Black Isle heyday. Microsoft’s money brought about the glossy spin-off Avowed, but would it throw real money behind a Pillars of Eternity III with an art style ripped out of the ‘90s?
If there’s hope, it’s in the fact that Urquhart insists that both he – and Microsoft – want the studio to remain “distinctly Obsidian.”
Their level of independence – sorry, limited integration – is why he doesn’t seem too concerned about Obsidian losing its identity in the sea of other Xbox studios. Instead he sees value in Xbox Studios’ diversity, with a portfolio that ranges from construction classic Minecraft to sci-fi shooters like Halo or Gears of War.
“I would be really surprised over the next while if you would start seeing any homogenization between the studios. I mean, ‘cause Minecraft is Minecraft. They’re not going to make a game that’s like Forza…And so we just keep on doing what we do.”
Being acquired by Microsoft was a big enough change in and of itself, but it also made Obsidian unusually vulnerable to one of the industry’s other recent seismic shifts: streaming.
Microsoft has led the movement with Game Pass, its Netflix-style all-in videogame subscription service, which gives fans cheap access to hundreds of games at once – including every new release from Xbox Studios like Obsidian.
With cloud gaming taking off too – making it possible to play high-end games on cheap hardware without even installing them – other companies including PlayStation and Nvidia are moving to compete. Even Nintendo has its own subscription service, though in classic fashion it’s arcane and antiquated by comparison.
But with over 25 million subscribers, Xbox Game Pass is the de facto default – and day-and-date launches for its Xbox Studios exclusives have been a major driver of that success.
“We’ve not changed how we’ve approached our games based upon Game Pass,” Urquhart argues, but admits that they have changed how the team measures its successes.
“I can’t go off and spend a billion dollars and only a million hours get played on Game Pass, ‘cause people aren’t paying that much for their subscriptions. And so a lot of it is really kind of looking, ‘Okay, well what do we think success is?’”
Plenty of people still buy games outright for now, especially on PC. But alongside sales estimates, games are now judged by how many millions of hours of gameplay they’ve driven on Game Pass, with Microsoft keen to drive subscriptions and keep Game Pass players on the service for longer.
That’s a boon for developers of lengthy RPGs or online multiplayer games that encourage repeat players, but doesn’t necessarily help shorter – or stranger experiences – like Pentiment, a game for which he admits there was “a little less of that algebra” to predict if it would be a hit, and a little more of a throw of the dice.
There are tensions to building games with Game Pass in mind that Urquhart is clearly aware of. He admits that it creates a drive to make sure that every game “needs to be something for everybody,” while simultaneously creating space for a varied spread of titles.
“For me personally, when I go up on Netflix if there isn’t enough Scandinavian detective dramas for me, then I’m disappointed in Netflix. But I don’t want only Scandinavian detective dramas.”
Perhaps, more than Microsoft’s money or the rise of streaming services, that’s why Obsidian is currently a studio in flux. A man can’t live on Nordic noir alone, and after a few decades of making role-playing games it’s easy to see the appeal of a Honey I Shrunk the Kids! survival shooter or theological visual novel.
But Urquhart doesn’t seem ready or willing to stray too far from his roots. The aim all along has been to make the biggest and best RPGs he can, whether that’s from an attic with a screaming infant, crowdfunding to keep the lights on, or letting Microsoft bankroll a blockbuster.
It’s the role he was born to play.