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Obsidian: base building in Aliens: Crucible, canned games and publishers now open to Kickstarter-sized projects

"We would like to do a real-world-style RPG."

The Aliens: Crucible RPG that Obsidian was building for Sega was a kind of survival game that allowed you to build a base and improve it over time.

"It was third-person, obviously over-the-shoulder [perspective], you create your own avatar in the Aliens universe, you guide a squad of - it's not like a Marine squad, it's a whole mix of different individuals who happen to be in this one location at this one time, which allows for a lot more variety," explained Chris Avellone, Obsidian's creative director, speaking to me at Rezzed 2013.

"If you're dealing with a ship repair mechanic who may have no combat experience whatsoever, that obviously would serve a vital function in surviving in this predicament. So it's more of a third-person, two companions with you survival game, but it had a lot of the RPG trappings in terms of you could set up your own stronghold and base and build that up over time, explore more of the environment, figure out how you get all of the resources and stuff to survive."

Chris Avellone reckoned it was "shaping up to be pretty strong", but Sega pulled the plug in 2009, three years after it was first announced.

Obsidian boss Feargus Urquhart mentioned a couple of years ago that Aliens: Crucible "looked and felt like it was ready to ship". That must have been a comment praising the quality of the game's vertical slice build, because to hear Chris Avellone talk, the game wasn't ready to ship at all.

"No, I don't believe that was the case," he said. "It was mostly just focused on the vertical slice of gameplay that was solid.

"There was a lot of game design being done: obviously the narrative was down, the systems were down for what we wanted to do, all the companions had all the breakdowns for all of their narrative arcs, the concept art followed that. "

A a 13-minute gameplay video of Aliens: Crucible appeared on the internet earlier this year and showed a game that, at a glance, could have been the finished article. But in reality it was a brushed up portion of the game not representative of, but a kind of target for, the whole.

AC by u64backup

It may not have been the most up to date video of Aliens: Crucible, either. "There was a vertical slice of it and I don't know if the video that was released was the actual vertical slice that we had," he said. "One of our designers mentioned that it was actually a milestone build from like a month or two before the actual vertical slice.

"There was a lot done with it," Chris Avellone rued, "and man I'm really sorry that I didn't get a chance to do it, but things just didn't work out."

Sega said at the time that it need to "take a step back and carefully consider the type of game we want to release". Years later, Aliens: Colonial Marines emerged, a fact I'm sure Sega won't want reminding about.

The game's cancellation was an obvious blow to Obsidian Entertainment, which had its work amount to nothing and had to find another project to work on.

"The consequences are a little bit more severe than that," Avellone corrected me. "Usually publishers will cancel quite suddenly, there's little or no warning, and that causes a lot of problems at this studio in terms of well, now we have to get another project signed.

"Sometimes it results in lay-offs, which are really painful because it's nothing the developers have done and it's not that the developers were doing a bad job - they're skilled people - but at the same time you can't keep them because you can't afford them, and those are the worst conversations in the world."

But in the case of Aliens: Crucible there was a silver lining: "Sega was paying us to develop our own tech," he explained, "so we're like OK, we walked away with an engine. That's totally great."

"There were a lot of mechanics we were designing for Alpha Protocol 2 that could find their way into either another espionage game or another role-playing game..."

Chris Avellone

But Aliens: Crucible isn't the only project Obsidian has had canned. Back around the time of Neverwinter Nights 2 (2006), Disney approached the studio about making a Snow White RPG.

"We were like, 'A Snow White RPG? What are you talking about?' But then we saw the concepts for what they wanted to do with that and OK, that sounds really interesting actually."

It was tentatively called Dwarves and was to be a third-person action game prequel to the famous Snow White story, for PS3 and Xbox 360. The plot would culminate in you banishing the villain to Snow White's magical mirror, Feargus Urquhart told Kotaku. But Disney changed CEO and Disney changed its outlook and Disney canned the game.

Obsidian had another project cancelled much more recently, when the final pieces of Fallout: New Vegas DLC came out (late 2011). Feargus Urquhart has already revealed that the game was signed to a publisher, and it was rumoured to be an Xbox One-exclusive called North Carolina.

Whatever it was, Chris Avellone told me it's no more. "It is off the table for good," he said. "Although, like with Alpha Protocol 2, there are systems and learning experiences that we took from that game that would be applicable to just about any other role-playing game, because they're not intimately tied with that title, so there's opportunity to see elements like that in the future."

Alpha Protocol 2, incidentally, can't happen until IP holder Sega says so. "That is a question for Sega to answer," said Avellone. "They've come out on record as saying that they will never do a sequel, or that they weren't planning to do a sequel for Alpha Protocol, and because they own the IP that's probably the last that will be said on that.

"However, there were a lot of mechanics we were designing for Alpha Protocol 2 that could find their way into either another espionage game or another role-playing game, whether it's espionage or not, so we're kind of excited about that.

"We would like to do a real-world-style RPG," he revealed, "because that would be really interesting for us. Usually there's some minor spin on it, a minor sci-fi spin on it, and sometimes it diverts into superhero territory, but the idea of doing role-playing and design in a real-world environment is actually pretty interesting to us."

Chronologically, the cancelled games were the Snow White RPG, Aliens: Crucible then the third, secret project, which may or may not have been called North Carolina. But as much as game cancellations are an inevitability of the industry - "If you work in game development for any period of time, eventually a project you have is going to get cancelled" - it sounds like pre-Project Eternity, Obsidian was having a particularly hard time.

"It was, before Kickstarter, in my opinion, yeah. The Kickstarter was a huge morale boost to us as a company because after getting punched a few times..." he trailed off. "And again, the cancellation was pretty sudden. Then you have the conversations when you lay people off..."

"We've been contacted by more than one publisher about doing that [Project Eternity] style of game..."

Cover image for YouTube videoProject Eternity Update #49: Water, Trees, Day/Night, Lighting... All That Jazz

Project Eternity, though relatively small in terms of project scope (around 15 people and a budget of $4 million), put Obsidian firmly back on the map, with tens of thousands of people throwing money at the idea. In the background, the promising South Park RPG wobbled as publisher THQ sunk, but was thrown a lifeline by Ubisoft and is now on track for release later this year.

Now, Obsidian seems to be OK, and due to the popularity of Project Eternity and other Kickstarter RPGs - Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera - that Chris Avellone and Obsidian are linked with, the future's bright. Avellone said publishers are even beginning to look at the smaller budget games being funded on Kickstarter as possible avenues for the future.

"We've been contacted by more than one publisher about doing that style of game because financially it makes sense for them and they realise the interest level from backers and players also works for them," he said. "I couldn't comment on the specific publishers, but it was just gratifying to see that they actually were interested in that style of game, when previously I thought it wouldn't be a good fit for any publisher.

"But that sort of model did seem interesting to them and it seemed like it would work for them. What's even more gratifying is the publishers we've talked to are ones that aren't afraid of having a very reactive storyline or a deep storyline, or really deep mechanics.

"They're not interested so much in accessibility because they recognise the people [who] support these games like those kind of mechanics and depth, and like worlds set up like that - that's the market that we would like to cater to. And I think that's admirable and that's awesome."

To be clear, publishers haven't been in touch about publishing Project: Eternity specifically. Avellone couldn't categorically rule out the possibility of that ever happening - it's more a call for Feargus Urquhart than him - but he would be "really surprised" if that was ever the case.

Today, Obsidian has four projects in development: Project Eternity, South Park, the Westernisation of Russian MMO Skyforge (more on that in a separate article) and the secret new game.

All we really know about the new game is that it's a next-gen RPG with action, oh, and it's "already looking great".