Inside Obsidian: How RPG's greatest survivors kept the lights on

"They say the path to Hell is paved with good intentions."

By Robert Purchese. Published 15 September 2017

Over the years, I've come to know what to expect from Obsidian, or so I thought. Obsidian makes RPGs, beautiful, intriguing, sometimes slightly shonky RPGs with great writing and vivid characters and just a lingering trace of thriftiness. They make games where the concepts, where the soul, trumps the budget.

And then they made Armored Warfare.

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I've been worried about Obsidian, since then. Worried about a studio that can seem like a double-A developer in a triple-A world. Why was it making a free-to-play World of Tanks game when anyone who knew the studio would much rather a new Fallout: New Vegas, Alpha Protocol or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic instead? Were publishers not interested in Obsidian any more? Over the last few months I worried that Obsidian was drifting away. And then this August I visit the studio and it starts to make more sense.

I learn what Armored Warfare, the studio's longest-running and most lucrative partnership, was really all about. (It is hard to know what tense to use when talking about Armored Warfare, to be honest: the game is out, but Obsidian's work on the project is over, and the studio has handed control over to Mail.ru.) Why tanks? Why Obsidian? Sure there was some desire to make a World of Tanks-inspired game, but more importantly this was an attempt to retain a size and level of craft that prospective publishers would be impressed by.

"What publishers look at a lot is whether you still have the ability to make triple-A assets," Feargus Urquhart, studio co-owner and CEO, tells me. "Can you work on these new consoles?" He can say Obsidian can, "but it's just words". "I can't show a pretty level working on Xbox One.

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"One of the things we recognised with Armored Warfare - because the goal of Mail.ru at the time was to make a triple-A game that could transition to console - was this would let us make triple-A-looking tanks and triple-A-looking levels, and we would keep and potentially even grow that competency at the studio.

"Let's say Bethesda called and said, 'Hey we want you to make Fallout: New Vegas 2,' then we would still have the people here who can make these big open-world things."

He thinks for a moment. "I still want to make big RPGs," he says.

"Most of the gaming I do on my PlayStation 4 tends to be the big releases," co-owner Chris Parker adds. We are sat in Urquart's office - surprisingly small and unspectacular considering he is the boss. And a little bit messy. (Maybe that's the point.) "Those are the games that I play, those are the games that I love, those are the games that I want to make and compete with. Given a choice I want to go spend all the money on a big budget title and make something that's unbelievable."

Armored Warfare paid off. Now the contract is over - "very much a joint decision desired by both parties" according to Urquhart - publishers are interested in Obsidian as a result. Those tanks did their job. "Some publishers like Sega are getting back into looking at doing games, and Microsoft is looking - they've had to do some restructuring and they're starting to look again at doing it. It's cyclical, we just hit a long down-cycle.

"I just got off the phone with a publisher who wants us to do something," he adds, meaning that morning before I arrived. "But this one was just a not good timing, not good things that they want us to do and it doesn't fit very well."

Obsidian had a different surprise offer back in March that nearly went all the way. "We went to a meeting with this group and they presented us with this idea and we were like, 'Whoa, okay...' They said, 'We want to move this along pretty quickly.'" Obsidian worked up a pitch and the conversation turned to budget and then bam, all of a sudden the deal fell through. "Something happened and the timing for them was now bad," Urquhart shrugs. But he's used to it, it happens all the time.

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Nevertheless Obsidian is working on something. Something big - something to keep the bulk of the 175-person studio busy. "There's a new project," Urquhart says cagily. "Yes" it has a publisher but he won't tell me who it is, nor if Obsidian has worked with the publisher before. "That's too easy!" he says. Then after careful consideration he continues: "We're making a big RPG - and it's not Fallout!" Whether or not it's a new IP we'll apparently see.

Over the course of a four-hour interview I realise I had Obsidian wrong. I expected a company where imagination ruled the roost over getting things done on time - dream big! finish the game later. But what I discover is a surprisingly pragmatic company run and founded largely by producers - people who bring projects back down to earth.

"Our intention is always it's less that is better," Chris Parker tells me. "What we would like to do is make a very minimal amount of stuff and make it really really good and add to that later. That is a much smarter choice than it wind up being scrappy at the end."

Wait what? Isn't that exactly what Obsidian games have been accused of in the past - of being scrappy? Feargus Urquhart shrugs: "They say the path to Hell is paved with good intentions."

Maybe some of it is down to genre. "What we've had to learn - we're better at it but we're still learning - is it's really easy to make RPGs big. It's like, 'Oh just one more quest,' 'Oh just one more class,' 'Oh just one more monster.' Every game is like that but RPGs just seem to grow and grow and grow, and we have, traditionally, done a poor job understanding that scope and managing it well."

As an independent, it's also been harder for Obsidian to get extensions than it generally is for internal studios at publishers. "We sign a contract and we must hit that number and it is the end of the earth if we [don't]," says Urquhart. "We've had to sign away royalties, we've had to sign away ownership of IPs…" He pauses again. "Whereas internal studios, it's just another month - they're already paying the people, it's already in the budget these people are going to be paid."

That said, Obsidian has had offers of acquisition from publishers - "a lot", according to Urquhart. "It's not like we're 'indie for life'," he says, "not like we bleed indie blood. We were an internal studio [Black Isle] for a publisher for a long time and we were successful."

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"If the right opportunity came up," adds Parker, "it's certainly something that we would do."

It would certainly be an easier life with malleable deadlines and someone else absorbing responsibility for people's livelihoods. Plus, Urquhart wouldn't have to go out on the road all the time and do "his little horse and pony show" as Chris Parker so brilliantly puts it. But the deals have never been right. "We just didn't think the offers were commensurate to what we're worth and then what we would get to do," Urquhart says.

"The great thing about being independent is we can work on Star Wars and South Park at the same time, where an internal studio couldn't. I can wake up in the morning and say, 'Hey we're going to try and pitch Star Wars for the ninth time.'

And there's something deeper, too. "The industry needs independent studios like us," he adds, "because we're going to make games differently. It's like the ecology of game development: there needs to be triple-A indie developers who can be looking at things the big publishers don't look at at."

14 years on, Obsidian is still here. Through thick and thin, cancellations and layoffs - even talks of possible closure - Obsidian has survived. They may not look it but the two people before me, for all their fluffy and casual demeanour, are battle-hardened veterans, although Feargus Urquhart wheeling out another quote - "If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it" - from women's baseball team film A League of Their Own, ruins the image somewhat.

There's no reason why if Obsidian has weathered the storm for so long it cannot now hope to enjoy some sunshine. Whether it will beam from the big new RPG I do not know but I'm happy to wait and see. Because whatever comes will be nothing less than interesting. Obsidian games always are.

Disclaimer: Travel and accommodation for this trip was provided by Paradox Interactive.

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