Obsidian Entertainment was born in 2003 out of the ashes of legendary RPG developer Black Isle Entertainment, of Fallout and Planescape: Torment fame. Continuing Black Isle's long-running Baldur's Gate partnerships with BioWare, Obsidian's shipped games to date have all been sequels to BioWare titles.
Now, the company is hard at work on its first entirely Obsidian-created property, a modern-day spy thriller action-oriented RPG called Alpha Protocol being published by Sega.
Members of the team, including executive producer Chris Parker, senior producer Ryan Rucinski, and art producer Abia Roberts, held a press conference call to discuss the title's influences and development, and why Parker has no patience for games stingy with their Xbox 360 achievement points.
Staying On Point
Asked for examples of particularly interesting Xbox 360 achievements (or PlayStation 3 trophies, for that matter), Parker dodged the question, but took the opportunity to voice strong opinions about achievement allocation generally.
"I am a die-hard believer that if you finish a single-player game on Xbox 360, on normal settings, you should get something like 600 achievement points," he said. "It irritates me to death when I get 120 points after finishing a 20-hour game on normal because I didn't headshot 250 people through the eye."
Finding New Platforms
For Obsidian's first three-platform title - Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords shipped on Xbox and PC, while Alpha Protocol is in development for PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 - the studio has licensed the ever-popular Unreal Engine 3.
According to Parker, the Unreal tech has made multiplatform development considerably more manageable. "It's a multiplatform engine out of the box," he said. "While it doesn't make developing a game simple, it does help a lot, and it does a lot of heavy lifting for us on the platform-specific stuff."
He noted that while certain processes must be redeveloped across various versions, such as rewriting shaders, optimizing texture resolution for different hardware, allowing for both controller- and keyboard-based control, and so on, the experience has been fairly straightforward.
Though often cited as a thornier development platform, Parker had nothing but praise for the PlayStation 3. "I'm personally really excited about working on PS3," he said. "I didn't actually get to make a game on PS2 - my last Sony game was on PlayStation 1. I'm a big fan. I love the PlayStation - pretty much everybody here does. It's an awesome system."
The Shadow of BioWare
When presented with the theory that Obsidian (and its staff) has spent so long working on BioWare co-development projects and sequels that the studio may have difficulty carving out its own identity, Parker was unconcerned. While he readily admitted the two companies' shared past, he doesn't see the relationship as having been a one-way street.
"We go way back with BioWare," he recalled. "The owners of Obsidian all come from Black Isle Studios. Feargus Urquhart, our CEO, was actually the producer on BioWare's first title, Shattered Steel."
"I personally produced the whole Baldur's Gate series for BioWare when I was at Black Isle Studios. Strangely enough, we left Black Isle Studios and then [BioWare was] able to help get us hooked up for our first titles, which turned the whole tables around - and then we ended up making the sequels for their games."
Parker then addressed the question more directly. "You know, it has to be out in the court of public opinion whether people can really separate us from them, but I think that at this point, we're starting to work on our own titles that are really our own," he answered.
"We made Neverwinter 2 and KOTOR 2 our own, and Alpha Protocol is us stepping away from that, and moving back to our roots of making a really cool, different RPG - and in this case a very actiony roleplaying game."
The Real World
A common theme in questioning regarded the choice of a modern-day setting - unusual for video games of all stripes, but particularly so for the RPG genre, which nearly always relies on fantasy or science fiction settings.
Parker admitted that the change from Obsidian's usual fare has been a challenge. "It's been pretty tough for us. Making fantasy games or sci-fi games, you can kind of make whatever you want, and people just buy it, as long as it looks cool. They don't have to be as convincing," he said.
He went on, "When we started making a bunch of realistic stuff, we quickly found out that making realistic stuff is not nearly as easy as making fantasy stuff. And then when you go really, really realistic, people think it's kind of boring. We veered away from that over time - our characters got a little more over the top, to make them more exciting."
"We use a lot of full-screen effects, a lot of post-processing, we use a lot of shaders we've created, but we have it rooted in realism so people have something to lock onto."
Rucinski added some comments about the concept behind the game's gadget design, which ended up less exaggerated than some of the characters and abilities. "We're definitely making [gadgets] more realistic. We were looking at the James Bond fantastic types of gadgets, and we love the movies, but they're most of the time just used once," he explained.
"For us to come up with situations where it's just a one-off, we didn't think it would be that rewarding for the player. Instead, we focused on making more realistic gadgets that have more universal worth throughout the game."
When looking at ways to bring more action elements into the RPG genre, Roberts cited a number of games spanning a decade of gaming and several genres, and in particular noted that BioWare's recent Mass Effect served as something of a reassurance.
"Deus Ex is definitely something we've looked at, as something that just shows great action RPG gameplay," he said. "Recently, Mass Effect provides some great groundwork for some things we were already thinking about when that game came out. It was great to look at; they kind of confirmed where we were going. Early on, we looked at Resident Evil 4. Half-Life 2 was a game that we looked at.
"We're using the Unreal Engine, so a lot of Unreal games we looked at on the technical side. Gears of War was one game we looked at for a while. Recently, I know our animation team loves Uncharted; it's just a great, incredible game, and a great example of third-person action gameplay."
Parker was sure to note that the team is looking to innovation from a practical standpoint, not for its own sake. Obsidian is hoping to bring in shooter fans as well as its traditional RPG base.
"There's a lot to be said for the idea that making something different doesn't necessarily make something good," he pointed out. "We're not just trying to make something different."
"The plot and story are going to be really different for the FPS players we can pull, the ability for them to really make decisions about what's going on and really feel involved. We're trying to evolve our genre, we're trying to make a different kind of roleplaying game."