When Obsidian Entertainment boss Feargus Urquhart told us before the Games Developer Conference that the big new game his studio was working on was "something very different", he really wasn't kidding.
Here's a studio known for Knights of the Old Republic 2, for Fallout: New Vegas and South Park: The Stick of Truth. Here's a studio that crowd-funded Pillars of Eternity to the tune of $4m, because if anyone could deliver on the promise of an Infinity Engine-style role-playing game, Obsidian could.
"Everybody who has tried to guess," Urquhart said, "and that's quite a few people - no one's even come close. I'm going to be very interested to see what people think of it!"
It turned out to be Armored Warfare, a free-to-play tank MMO.
And unlike Skyforge - the other My.com-funded MMO Obsidian is helping with - Armored Warfare has actually been built at Obsidian. Skyforge is made by Allods Team, and Obsidian is aiding Western localisation. Armored Warfare is Obsidian's baby, and what surprising offspring it is.
Senior producer Drew Bradford tackled the question of "why?" at GDC.
"Well, as you know, Obsidian is an RPG studio, well known for its RPGs," he said. "That doesn't mean everyone at the studio wants to work on RPGs all the time. We play a lot of games at the studio, and we have a lot of interests outside the studio. And we've hired some people that have brought a different knowledge base to the studio.
"When [Russian publisher] My.com came, we had already been thinking about doing something online, maybe with a free-to-play scheme. And it just kind of fit. They wanted something like this, we wanted to do something like this, we started talking about it and it turned into what you see today."
Do remember, too, that Obsidian is an independent studio that employs 140 people. It needs to work, needs to eat.
"We had already been thinking about doing something online, maybe with a free-to-play scheme"Drew Bradford
"It's indicative of what - I don't want to say what you have to do as an independent developer, but we have to change more quickly, move more quickly," Feargus Urquhart said before the announcement. "We can't stagnate like some of the bigger companies."
But isn't Armored Warfare simply a World of Tanks clone?
"Yeah, it's in the same genre," Drew Bradford admitted, "but only in the same way that first-person shooters are in the same genre. But we're going to bring a lot of elements - modern vehicles, modern gameplay, modern settings - as well as modern mechanics, where you have different weaponry, different armour systems.
"And the player's going to have to choose how they want to play, and how they want to improve their vehicles. Ideally, the players that are jumping into these tanks, and different types of anti-tank vehicles, they're going to feel a sense of ownership."
We saw extensive progress trees in the game and evidence of meaningful choice that Obsidian games are synonymous with.
"We're definitely going to bring a different spin on that," Bradford grinned. "I think players are going to be pleasantly surprised by the capabilities of really being able to differentiate yourself, starting with a fresh vehicle and putting different upgrades or customisation parts on this."
Armored Warfare's machines are more up-to-date than World of Tanks', and though the world may be grey and dreary, you can blow it all up, which makes everything OK. The game's due out later in 2014.
"It really is a shift for us, but it's not a permanent shift"Feargus Urquhart
The other important thing to know about Armored Warfare is that this isn't the end of Obsidian making the type of role-playing games you've come to expect.
"It really is a shift for us," acknowledged Feargus Urquhart, "but it's not a permanent shift - that's an important thing. We still are about our core thing of character story-driven role-playing games, and that's, with Pillars of Eternity, what we're doing. We're seeing what more we can do there.
"Ultimately what we really want to do is be a studio that is making those big role-playing games. We want to make the Fallout: New Vegas's, we want to make the Skyrims, we want to make the KOTORs, and we have to get there - we have to get there in a number of different ways, and in a way that works as an independent developer."
The studio is working on something else besides all of the above as well.
"We actually have a couple of other things starting up - we're trying some slightly smaller things," remarked Urquhart.
Those aren't "firmed up" enough to talk about in detail, but when we suggested one or both of them may be Kickstarter-sized projects, like Pillars of Eternity, Urquhart answered, "Well... yeah... one could say." Mind you, he has openly talked about wanting to do this before, and said, back then, that he may reveal what the game is around April-time, which is roughly now.
That's been pushed back.
"South Park consumed more time and so, while we've been working on what that's going to be, we just don't feel like we've gotten it to where we need it to be, so we're going to push that out," he said. "My hope really is to look at an early Fall Kickstarter. We like that as well because we'll be done with Eternity."
"I think we have a pretty cool idea for what that's going to be, but we want to vet it internally a little bit more. It gives us time, and then people don't think we're just going to use the money to finish Eternity."
What's the other smaller project? It's unclear. But it's not, it sounds like, anything Star Wars related, despite the pitch that was sent to Disney, despite Urquhart's invincible enthusiasm for the brand.
"It's in the same place," he said of the pitch. "It's the same answer: we'd love to make a Star Wars game - I love Star Wars."
But making games on that scale is "super scary" - hiring all those people, handling all that money and expectation. As an independent developer he questions taking on any project of that magnitude. But Star Wars? Star Wars he could bend the rules for.
"Star Wars is one of those games that makes me just throw the reasons, throw my right brain or left brain - I don't know which one it is - and say, 'Oh this is totally stupid to do, but, whatever!' It would be that game, and I hope some day we get to make another Star Wars game.
"I always thought - and everyone just looks at me strangely when I say this - it would be cool to do a Star Wars Pillars of Eternity-style game, where you had a little party, a droid and a... whatever. That would be super-cool. I'd buy it!
"But that's a hard [sell]... That's not SWTOR and that's not KOTOR and that's not Battlefront and that's not that. I don't know - I'm probably going to take a stab at that and see if anybody has any interest, but I don't know - we'll see."
"This is a message to a lot of independent developers: We have an opportunity right now..."Feargus Urquhart
Whether Armored Warfare will be a refreshing and successful experiment for Obsidian and its fans, it's unclear, but one thing is clear: things are looking up.
"Now we just have way more to f*** up," Urquhart laughed. "We are in a better place than we were in 2012 by leaps and bounds, and we're all much happier. You go through waves in any business, and particularly as you get into your 40s you're like 'where am I going? what am I doing? I'm going to buy a Porsche...'
"My main thing, and this is even a message to a lot of independent developers: We have an opportunity right now, in that a lot of the big publishers are having a challenge in that they can only make so many big games, they can only make so many new properties - and people want new things."
There are more ways to get games financed these days thanks to Steam's avenue to market and crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter. He's even burning a torch for a publisher "turnaround" towards relationships with independent devs (and Obsidian recently announced signing a Pillars of Eternity partnership deal with Paradox).
"So for me," he concluded, "I'm very hopeful.
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