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RPGs, Moving Forward: An Interview With Feargus Urquhart
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RPGs, Moving Forward: An Interview With Feargus Urquhart

June 5, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

The Western RPG is in a renaissance of popularity and creative richness right now, thanks to titles like BioWare's Mass Effect and Bethesda's Fallout 3. But what of the man who lead the design of the last mainline Fallout game, Fallout 2?

Well, Feargus Urquhart is currently leading development at Obsidian Entertainment, currently working on the spy-themed action-RPG blend Alpha Protocol for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Windows PC, to be published by Sega in October, as well as the next Fallout game, Fallout: New Vegas, which is due from Bethesda in 2010 (and was formally announced just after this interview was conducted.)

How does this born-and-bred RPG man -- who is best known for his work heading Interplay's Black Isle Studios through the aforementioned Fallout 2, as well as Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment, see the industry in 2009?

In this wide-ranging conversation, the beginnings of the genre are tackled -- Dungeons & Dragons, of course -- as well as Urquhart's days at the ill-fated Interplay, and the current state of the genre. With discussions about the pros and cons of running an independent developer in these uncertain times, the interview takes in the landscape of a multifaceted career.

We definitely wanted to talk to people like yourself about what you learned over the years. I'm actually kind of going back to your background, and obviously, at Black Isle. Do you look back at the stuff you were doing with Dungeons & Dragons, and see that as being influential or having an interesting impact throughout the game industry now?

FU: There's an aspect in role playing games and how you design games that you see more and more in every other kind of game. So, for instance, what's a big part of role playing games -- because you can look at D&D, and you go, "Well what really started role playing games originally?" Well, it was pen and paper, and that was Dungeons & Dragons.

And then what was the kind of grand daddy license to get in role playing games, which Interplay, which is a company I used to work at, picked up, and then we made a number of them at Black Isle Studios.

You had a character, and this kind of drove things. Well, it's your character. It's not the character the game designer made for you. Having to do that has made us like, "Okay, so then we need to allow them to pick their race, allow them to pick their class, allow them to pick a head, hair, coloration, all this other kind of stuff."

So, we were doing that 10-12 years ago. Now you look at things like Saints Row 2, Fight Night, and all this other kind of stuff. Well, what do you get to do? You have to make your fighter.

Sega/Obsidian Entertainment's Alpha Protocol

Or Rock Band. That's not an RPG at all, and you're still designing your character.

FU: Right. Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Exactly. So, I think they started the whole movement towards character customization from the standpoint of "Wouldn't it be cool if I am playing my own player, to do that stuff?" I think the other thing is that they kind of used like a persistent persona. I think that was the other thing that RPGs really did.

Other than points in Defender, you're the ship the whole game. But you look in RPGs, and it was like, "No, I'm getting my experience points, I'm getting new weapons, I'm doing this, I'm moving, and I'm making choices."

I think that if you look at a lot of those things and you extrapolate that to games nowadays, you look at a lot of different games, and they have a lot of more persistence. You know, I was just playing Dawn of War II last night... Well, RTSes used to be "Get to the new map, build everything, destroy everything..."

Yeah, start again.

FU: "Start again," right. So now, in Dawn of War II, I finished the first level, and then I go to my map screen. So, not only can I see where I'm going to go and where I make choices; now, I even have characters, and I can go in and equip them with items and I can upgrade their stats and all that kind of stuff. I think a lot of that all came from D&D and role playing games.

Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

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Colm McAndrews
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This stuff is unreadable.

And it's a huge pile of crap.

raigan burns
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What?! I thought this was a great interview!

Owain abArawn
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Not enough explosions, I guess...

Joseph Young
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Trolls live everywhere I suppose...

Robert Rhine
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Nice interview. Especially the parts regarding indie developers and a sense of how the market feels from an insiders perspective.

Don Langosta
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FU has gotten a lot better over time I think, but to me, he'll always be the guy who took Tim Cain's masterpiece and made a sequel full of poop jokes.

Vincent Morrison
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I still have nothing but respect for Feargus and the crew at Obsidian. I know a fair number of people and companies who were spun out from Interplay and out of all of them, Obsidian has really fought hard to keep itself true to what it believes makes a good game, character driven storylines and meaningful content. They keep alive the dream for all of us Indie game developers that they can make it if they keep pushing hard enough and put in that extra effort. Go! Fight! Win!

John Ingrams
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"There's a range of different RPGs. You go from the Diablos to the Torments, almost. Planescape: Torment is all kinds of talking, and Diablo is just all action. I think that within those bounds, you can create a lot of different things. And I guess there's even another axis now, which is Mass Effect, Alpha Protocol, and Fallout 3, which is more of this first-person, even action-based, skill-based shooting mechanic."

Why is it that the RPG can be raped liked this? What other genre have the media allowed to be 'any damn thing you want it to be'?! How can RPG be a genre when so many other genres can be fit into it and it's still called an RPG?

Let's get things straight: Diablo is a hack'n'slash RPG, Planescape Torment is an RPG, Fallout 3 is an RPG, but Jade Empire, Mass Effect and Alpha Protocol are NOT RPG's - they are 'action-adventures'!!!!

What makes an RPG is character stats. Are you able to choose stats for the character you are going to play,and then have game options that take that character into account? Planescape and Fallout 3 are the only titles that fall into that category.

If having a inventory for weapons and armour and a conversation system means it's an RPG, then Crysis and STALKER and Far Cry 2 are all RPG's! In fact every 'shooter' released in the future will be able to be called an RPG!

It's funny how, when you look at what developers were saying about their RPG's like KOTOR and Baldur's Gate, they were pointing out that same things as I have above, to show their titles were proper RPG's!

Your final paragraph therefore, is a total cop-out, and will, just like Flight Sims and Adventures before will help kill the hardcore RPG market.

Gamers want REAL RPG's. It's why Oblivion and Fallout 3 have sold in the numbers they have, it's why the Fallout compilation of Fallout 1,2 and Tactics re-appeared in the charts last month, it's why The Witcher has sold twice as many copies as Mass Effect on PC!

Alpha Protocol is a game with all genre for all gamers, but it's stats are based around NPC attitudes and weapon and tech stats. There will be little in the way of character stats or gameplay that takes account of that, it will go the way of most 'games written for all genres', in that it will appeal to no gamers and sell very few copies.

There's no dispute that Mass Effect sold well, especially on console. But a conversation engine tied to a third person linear tactical shooter engine does not make an RPG. AN RPG has you able to create a character through stats and then have a gameworld that reacts to those stats. Ie., as a strong fighter you have a front door with guards to go through, as a stealthy type character there is a back door to sneak into. In Mass Effect everything led to that linear third person shooter quest. That is not an RPG, lite or otherwise.

Jhypsy Shah
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