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.