An Interview with Obsidian Head Feargus Urquhart

After our hands-on preview of Dungeon Siege 3, Game Revolution got a chance to speak with Obsidian Entertainment CEO Feargus Urquhart. He’s the man steering the studio whose most recent release was Fallout: New Vegas, maybe you’ve heard of that?

Game Revolution (GR): I saw over by the Fallout offices that on the coffee table was a stack of DVDs and on top of that was a copy of The Road, so my question about Dungeon Siege 3 is what kind of other media influences are we seeing in the game?

Feargus Urquhart (FU): Well that’s a good question, jeez, I think a lot of it, I don’t think it’s a lot of other media with us, most of the time it’s like the media that we’ve all already come accustom to. With the post-nuclear stuff it’s not like anyone will say “I really need to watch The Road tonight.” When you have more fantasy based stuff like Lord of the Rings it’s something we’ve all seen. A lot of times fantasy is easier for people to get into because of that, because there’s more of an understanding among game developers about what you’re trying to accomplish.

I think more of what we probably just looked at was a lot different action role playing games and action games in general and tried to figure out what makes the most sense for Dungeon Siege and also what games use good leveling and stat systems. Dungeon Siege has become an amalgam of what Dungeon Siege was with a light version of how WoW does abilities and stats and items along with how Dark Alliance was fun as a two player hack and slash and a little bit of Diablo thrown in there as well. So Dungeon Siege has been more influenced by games than other media.

GR: I have to admit I’ve never played a Dungeon Siege game, but this one seems like it’s doing a lot of things to encourage new players, one of which being the focus on consoles. I’m wondering what other things you’re doing to encourage people to pick up the game.

FU: So I think a lot of it is just accessibility, so I think one of the questions we get asked is “why isn’t there character creation, why do I just pick a class?” So I kind of throw the question back “why do you have to create a class, why do you have to create a character?” In Dungeon Siege you get an idea for who those characters are, what they are, melee, ranged, as you go up levels and get items you specialize your character in that direction and I think that’s much more accessible to people and something where now it almost feels more like your character.

A lot of times when you get in an RPG and you role your character up first you don’t even know what you’re expected of in the game. A lot of hardcore role playing gamers will play like five hours and say “OK now I get it and now I’m going to go back and restart and make the character that I think I want to be,” but that’s not accessible to someone who just wants to have fun in the game.

GR: One thing I noticed while playing the game was that the physics engine allows for plenty of exaggeration, hitting guys and they’re flying. Are those obvious decisions that your making during development?

FU: That really comes down to a tuning thing so you want things to react so that players know that they’re happening. In an early prototype we did you went into this area with a long circular staircase, and you could knock skeletons into a pit and people could just do that for hours. People like seeing bodies go through all these things and see this exaggerated stuff

There’s kind of a gameplay element to it where you know you’re done with that enemy when you see that and you’re immediately “oh he’s tumbling” and now you’re onto the next thing. the other thing is that, maybe I’m a sadist, but it’s kind of fun to watch.

GR: Definitely, when you have an enemy who’s doing a leaping attack and you kill them mid jump and they just go flying, that’s great to see.

How many other prototypes have you gone through that you’ve learned from?

FU: We had been working on the game for three or four months and we had the first prototype which was the first basic boss fight plus a few other hallways and room to see if the camera felt good or the fighting felt good and we expanded on it to add more hallways and more rooms and that was a few more months and another three or four months from that we added a whole town and the wilderness outside of it. We probably did too much in that iteration.

The very first thing we did was create tiles with gray textures on them and we were playing with sizes and shapes to figure out how wide a hallway needed to be to feel good to move around in it versus a long room. How do ramps and stairs feel? Basically we got it to where you could run around in a hallway and into a room and it felt good and then multiple rooms and hallways and a boss fight. We did a two hour vertical slice and we kind of went overboard. We certainly learned a lot by doing it but we could have been better focused.

GR: In addition to what’s a comfortable space for a player to move around in, how important was making the controllable camera comfortable, viewing action and doing action?

FU: We did a lot with the camera, how high things could be, how high things need to be so the camera can go under them, obviously there’s still the situation if you sit back up against a wall and spin the camera you’ll get zoomed in.

But if you look at the hallways and things like that, the hallways kind of go like this so there’s space between you and the wall which again helps the camera not have to jump in so close. Even things about how we built parts of the world and the art pieces that make up the levels, we’re taking the camera into account.

GR: Even in the hallways where it kind of bowls in, a lot of that is created by things you have along the walls that make the world look more vibrant

FU: Yes, exactly, so that you don’t feel like you’re just being stopped from going next to the walls.

GR: Another question I had on the subject of camera was do you think Dungeon Siege 3 might have been as successful if had an isometric view?

FU: I’ll let you in on a secret. Originally, DS3 was going to have a camera that didn’t spin. it was even more top down. What we started playing with was a camera that would be closer and to the character and further away. People want to see their character a lot, like when people are playing the game they’ll switch into the flatter camera in town and switch to the higher camera when they’re in combat. They do it on their own and kind of without thinking.

GR: I was wondering, speaking of towns and adventure mode, how important are dialog choices in the full game?

FU: There are key parts in the game, obviously, NPCs are going to react to things you say and ask and the quests you do and don’t do, but there are a number of key things that occur in the story where you can choose things that are very different. You can decide between life and death and the game reacts to what you’ve decided and so that’s kind of how we’ve chosen to do choice because we didn’t want to have constant little choices which is great for a hardcore RPG player but one of the things we’ve tried to be careful about is not having dialog every seventeen feet.

An action role player wants a story, they just don’t want to have dialog forced on them all the time so we tried to work on a pretty good blend and the lines of dialog are nowhere near what Fallout: New Vegas was. There’s choice in very specific times but because there’s a certain number of times in the game they can have very different effects.

GR: Well when I think about Obsidian and the legacy behind your studio I always think about the writing. Even in games that may have not scored very highly people still say “oh but the story was great.” I’m wondering about how you’re encouraging players to take in all the extra dialog in DS3? You go into the chapter house in what we played and every book case has a piece of text to read.

FU: When players find lore, it’s counted. We just understand that there are players who just don’t want to read. If we were standing next to them and said “here’s a dollar for every time you read” then they’d be encouraged to do so. A lot of it was just having the initial back and forth being interesting and giving the player the option to get out as soon as they want to. If a player wants to listen or read they can, if they want to get out they can.

GR: I wanted to ask you about working with Square Enix.


GR: What do you think about Capcom developing Dead Rising in Japan and Dead Rising 2 being developed in Canada? I’m wondering if there are any Square Enix franchises from Japan that you’d like to develop in your studio?

FU: Of course, it would be no surprise that we’ve asked questions about some of their core games. Some of the games that I’ve loved like Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger are games that would be cool to develop but that’s their thing and it would be a privilege to work on that stuff, but it’s not an expectation. There’s no entitlement. If it happens it happens, but it would be just as good to be working on an original game and we’d love to do it with Square.

GR: Do you see another sequel, licensed game, or an original title coming out of Obsidian after DS3?

FU: There’s nothing that’s been moved forward, but we’d love to develop Dungeon Siege 4. On the flip side I think as a studio we have some original ideas and stories to tell. We have a great idea for a new world we’ve just started pitching to publishers and we have an older pitch that we really like called “Defiance” which is about a fantasy world where, basically, Sauron won. Everything isn’t happy in The Shire, they didn’t get the ring in the fire and the hobbits are all dead. We think that’s a cool pitch and we hope to have a publisher pick that up at some point.

We’re also working on an original IP XBLA game. so that hopefully will be out first quarter next year.

GR: I deal with so many of those, so I love seeing bigger developers explore that space.

FU: It’ll be an action RPG that’s focused on fun, not Dungeon Siege, it’s quite a bit different in a different genre with a different camera.

We also might throw our hat in the whole free-to-play thing. In the game industry there’s a lot of different opportunities for all different kinds of products.

GR: It’s great that you can take an IP that’s not original but you can do something completely different and fresh and new.

FU: There actually is another game that I can’t talk about at all.

GR: Are you sure?

FU: No, I’ll get killed, but it’s a licensed product but it’s a licensed product that when people hear about it they’re going to be “well you had to do that. there’s no option, if I was a developer and I was offered that I would just do it.”

I’m hoping that’ll be announced around E3.

GR: Well, I can’t believe how bad I’d like to finish up the quest lines we started in DS3 today, thank you very much for the opportunity

FU: You’re very welcome.