Interview: Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart

By Jeff Mattas, Feb 24, 2011 12:00pm PST

Obsidian Entertainment, located in Irvine, California, is a developer best known for making a stable of high-quality sequels for successful role-playing franchises. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2, Neverwinter Nights 2, and Fallout: New Vegas, have been largely regarded as worthy sequels, due in no small part to Obsidian's respect for the established worlds and characters pioneered in their precursors. Dungeon Siege 3, based on the series created by Chris Taylor and Gas Powered Games, is Obsidian's latest endeavor.

Last week at the Dungeon Siege 3 hands-on preview event held at Obsidian's offices, I had a chance to sit down with CEO Feargus Urquheart and pick his brain about how Dungeon Siege 3 came to be, the key considerations when rebooting a well-liked franchise, and the challenges of adapting the series' gameplay for consoles.

Shacknews: Would you mind talking a bit about Obsidian's relationship with Square Enix, and how Dungeon Siege 3 came to be?

Feargus Urquhart: There was no one person that said, 'Hey, let's do Dungeon Siege 3 together.'

David Hoffman (Director of Business Development at Square Enix) approached us, because Square had made it known that they really wanted to do a western RPG, and team up with western developers. And we started talking because they're pretty close - they're in El Segundo, right by LAX.

And so me and David had met for lunch a number of times, and we were trying to come up with a game to work on. And we actually pitched them an original IP, which was a game called Defiance. (I would love to be able to make it at some point.) The idea behind Defiance was that we kind of took the alternate [route] that intead of like, "happy Lord of the Rings land" in which the evil people get killed and the ring gets thrown into the volcano - what happens if Sauron won? So, [it was the idea of] making a whole fantasy world based off of: "What does Sauron become, and what does the world become, if Sauron won?" We had been talking about that, but it was a big-budget project. And so at that point, as we start to get into late 2008 and 2009, the "badness" occurs with the economy.

But Square was smart, and they didn't want to kind of slow down, and things like that. What was happening on another side is that they'd been working with Chris Taylor at Gas Powered [Games] on Supreme Commander 2. And so, of course, [Chris] had Dungeon Siege, but didn't have another team to work on it. I don't remember how it happened. I don't know if it was John Yamamoto who was running Square U.S. at the time, but they were like, "Well, we're talking to Obsidian about [Defiance] - and we'd really like to do it, but it's a little scary right now because of the economy and all that kind of stuff. And now we have this IP [Dungeon Siege], and Chris. And Chris can't do it, but it would still be cool to be able to do it." And so, that all got put together, and I got the phone call one day about, "Well, what about doing Dungeon Siege 3?" And I'm like, "That'd be cool! I love action role-playing games." (I was glad to be able to do them back [when I was working] at Black Isle.)

There wasn't really a long conversation about it. It wasn't me getting all of the Obsidian owners together and going "So, what are the plusses and minuses." We were just like, "Yeah! Absolutely!"

Shacknews: What are some of the core considerations when rebooting a well-liked franchise that's been out of the gaming landscape for a while?

Feargus Urquhart: We've worked on a lot of licensed products, and a lot of sequels, and things like that. And I think that when we approach one of those things, there are two factors we take into account. The first is: "This license, or this world, or whatever it is - someone cares about it. And it's survived because people like it." For instance, we could have made another Dungeon Siege that wasn't set in Ehb. Ehb is just part of the continent - it's not even the whole world. But even in that decision, of saying "No. Most of the Dungeon Siege products have been about Ehb," - not all, but most of them - I think that what most people associate with Dungeon Siege is Ehb. So, we should set it in Ehb."

And then it becomes a question of what places are on the map that people are familiar with, and can we build a story around those [locations]. So, in essence, what we do is create a bit that's new, and we take a little bit from what's already there. Now that, of course, is how we look at the lore and license and stuff like that. But the thing is the gameplay.

Shacknews: How did you approach the issue of gameplay mechanics, given the decision to bring the game to consoles as well as PC?

Feargus Urquhart: The gameplay was a big thing of course. This is going to be a console game. So, some people said, "Why is it a console game? Why couldn't it be a PC game?" That's more of a business kind of thing. I mean, if you want to make a big game right now, it's going to be a console game. It's not going to be a PC game unless it's free-to-play or an MMO.

So, now that we're on the consoles, we need to figure out "What's the gameplay?"

The gameplay needs to be a little bit more action[-oriented]. It needs to be a little bit more: "I'm button punching." A little bit more: "I can evade. I can block. I can do all these things."

So, literally, you take those two things: The world is Dungeon Siege 3 [and] the 'play' has to be console. And that's kind of how we put it all together.

Shacknews: What was the lead development platform for Dungeon Siege 3?

Feargus Urquhart: Every night, we get all three builds [PC, 360, PS3]. The challenge with a role-playing game a lot of the time is that we don't control everything that the player can do or want to do at a certain point in time. We don't know all the abilities that the player is going to choose. We know what they could choose, but we don't know [what they will choose]. We don't know what the combination of what's going on with their friends and their abilities. So, we do have to focus a little bit on: "How do we make this all run on a console?"

If there was a lead, I'd say - not from the standpoint of having the experience be fun or not - but we did have to focus on how do we make this all work in 512 megs of RAM. I would say that console [sic] has been the lead. We don't start with the PC, and then make it work on the console.

Shacknews: With Torchlight coming to consoles soon as well, what would you say to gamers who are considering one or the other? What sets Dungeon Siege 3 apart?

Feargus Urquhart: I think they're both great games that do something a little bit differently. Torchlight is more of a traditional hack-and-slash action-RPG. What we've done that's a little bit different [with Dungeon Siege 3] is that we have characters and story we bring to it that Torchlight doesn't have (and frankly, doesn't need). That's not what it's all about. In essense, what we've provided is we have more of a world that you go out and adventure in, and more of a story, and more decisions. You actually make decisions at points in the story. Which again, that's not what Torchlight was built to do. Torchlight is, you pick it up, and you go hack-and-slash monsters for a little while. And it's an awesome experience. But [Dungeon Siege 3] is an action-RPG that's going off in a slightly different direction.

You can look at our [character] classes. Our classes are very unique. Not that the classes are not different in Torchlight, but they're a little bit more "I can equip whatever I want to equip." That's kind of the differentiation. We went with more unique classes, and went a little more character and story-based.

Shacknews: Of the two characters in Dungeon Siege 3 that have been revealed so far (Lucas and Anjali), which is your personal favorite to play?

Feargus Urquhart: I always play melee characters. I always have. Even back in my D&D pen-and-paper playing days, I played as either a fighter, a paladin, or a monk. That's generally all that I ever played. I don't know why. It's just my style. (Pause.) And generally, a dwarf - dwarven fighter, dwarven paladin. So [in DS3] I often play as Lucas.

The game I'm playing through right now is with one of the other classes, because I want to see those mechanics. It's sort of what I do with every role-playing game. I will play through with the class I prefer, and then I'll play certian percentage of it with one or more of the other classes, just so I get a sense for it. Like, in World of WarCraft, I started up a Troll Priest because I had not played a troll before, and I've never played a priest. And I do that because I want to know how all these different character classes work.

Shacknews: What was the inspiration for Dungeon Siege 3's drop-in, drop-out co-operative multiplayer?

Feargus Urquhart: It's really the LEGO games. I've always been really impressed with the LEGO games. Some people kind of knock them a little bit, but what they've done is pretty amazing. Like how my son got addicted to LEGO Indiana Jones when he was 4, and I'm like, "They created a game that I can enjoy, that I can play with my four-year-old son." That's pretty impressive actually, that they were able to do that. And I looked at it from the standpoint of how their multiplayer worked. Because, again, I can just pick up the controller and press "Go," and I'm playing.

What is the barrier for a lot of people to get into multiplayer? It can be like this arcane summoning type thing to get into multiplayer. And so, that's really how we modeled it: We're making a game for friends to play together, y'know. This is not for people to get on servers and grief each other. It's for friends to play together because I think that's what role-playing is all about.

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