From Shadow to Fire – 15 Years of Obsidian Entertainment

Published: June 25, 2018 1:00 PM /


Obsidian Entertainment Logo

Black Isle Studios floundered and submerged as great game development studios often do, in quiet helplessness as painstakingly crafted projects were consigned to oblivion—Fallout 3, codename Van Buren; Fallout Online, codename Project V13; Baldur’s Gate III: The Black Hound, codenames FR6 or Jefferson. Interplay Entertainment, the parent company, had already been struggling with bankruptcy for years when Hervé Caen, the new CEO after the takeover by French company Titus Software, sold several game properties and shut down Black Isle Studios on December 8, 2003. One of the best profiles of the studio at its heyday was published by Gamespy in the beginning of 2001, shortly before the release of Icewind Dale expansion Heart of Winter, "We are not BioWare."

A studio isn’t just the sum of its games and projects. It is, above all, the people who develop the games. And people move on and live on long after the studios they worked in are gone. Even before Black Isle was officially gone, Obsidian Entertainment was founded on June 12, 2003 by CEO Feargus Urquhart, CIO Darren Monahan, CTO Chris Jones, CDO Chris Parker, and CCO Chris Avellone, all of them Black Isle veterans. In a February 2004 Q&A with Gamespot (Part 1 & Part 2), Feargus Urquhart talked about the demise of Black Isle Studios and its most hyped to-be-canceled game, Fallout 3, as well as Obsidian’s first game, at the time still under wraps.

One of the reasons why Feargus left Black Isle to found Obsidian was, in his own words, that “Interplay wants to focus on console titles and I don't think that the future of gaming is entirely on the console. I enjoy developing games for both the console and the PC and abandoning one completely for the other is not a direction that I would like my career to go.” In retrospect, a very smart move, considering that Interplay’s forays into exclusive console games pretty much ended with the infamous Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel in 2004.

Black Isle Studios Cinematic Intro
Black Isle Studios cinematic intro screen.

As an independent studio struggling to survive as much as to assert its identity, Obsidian had to, once again, live in the shadow of BioWare, just as Black Isle Studios had struggled to distinguish itself from the influential Canadian studio. While at first there were attempts to develop their own original IPs, such as Futureblight, which would have been a Fallout-style game using the Neverwinter Nights Aurora engine, it never progressed beyond the pitch phase. And so when LucasArts approached them, offering the opportunity to develop a sequel to BioWare’s Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), they accepted.

The Sith Lords was Obsidian’s first official game and also their first in a series of sequels that tried to live up to the original games while being plagued by bugs and a general lack of technical polish at launch, due to time constraints in development. BioWare’s KOTOR was a critical and commercial success on PC and Xbox, becoming a role model for PC RPGs to thrive in a console-centric market while retaining their roots, which was also in line with the founding philosophy that Feargus talked about in the Gamespot Q&A. Yet with concomitant PC-console development came new development issues that Obsidian was inexperienced with, and it showed in the launch of The Sith Lords.

In August 2004 there was another Gamespot Q&A where Feargus talked about the rapid growth Obsidian experienced in less than a year, snatching not only the KOTOR II deal, but also their second game, Neverwinter Nights 2, another sequel to a BioWare game. “While we and BioWare do things similarly, we also do some of the same things very differently. There is nothing wrong with that.” What those things were and how differently Obsidian does them wasn’t quite touched on in that Q&A. From the player perspective, the very beginning of The Sith Lords instills a sense of a deeper commitment to the setting. Chris Avellone, the lead designer, was also the lead designer of Planescape: Torment, which in many ways was a groundbreaking approach to how an established setting could be explored in a computer game. In a similar way, the Star Wars setting, its morality system, and its characters fit each other organically in The Sith Lords. Once its bugs and glitches had been ironed out, it was praised as a deep and morally complex RPG with higher consistency in its plot and writing. What it lacked in technical innovation and polish it made up for with sheer creative flair.

Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords
Promo poster of the dark side of the Force.

That creative flair would be the animating spirit of Obsidian’s games for a long time. Treading the familiar and battered ground of settings and franchises they did not own to build something lasting but also revealing a kind of depth and humanity that most games lack. The Sith Lords paved the way for this design philosophy that was still in its infancy and would take more baby steps with Neverwinter Nights 2. BioWare’s original game had a rather weak single-player campaign, while at the same time offering probably the best multiplayer support a RPG has ever had, which resulted in a thriving and persisting multiplayer and modding community, offering hundreds of fan-made modules.

Neverwinter Nights 2 did offer multiplayer support as well, but the single-player campaign was more focused than its predecessor’s original campaign. It was, in many ways, a harking back to classic isometric RPGs and an open attempt to emulate what Baldur’s Gate II was to Baldur’s Gate, though it didn't quite reach that lofty goal. Obsidian updated the Aurora engine considerably and endowed its roleplaying systems with depth and distinguishing features. While the camera perspective was and remains a problem, and the game did suffer from several other issues at release, much like KOTOR II it was considered successful and critically acclaimed in spite of all that.

The 2006 release was followed by a long development limbo where Obsidian only released two expansions in the following two years. One of them was Mask of the Betrayer for Neverwinter Nights 2. It was, in many ways, far superior in terms of story and writing to both original campaigns combined. To this day it is remembered and referred to with devotion, and it remains an unquestionable example of what constitutes a great story and setting in a classic fantasy RPG. One of the reasons behind this unique expansion was the circumstances in which the creative lead, George Ziets, found himself, as he told us.

Neverwinter Nights 2 - Mask of the Betrayer
The unforgotten realm of a unique fantasy setting.

Mask of the Betrayer was a very unusual situation. Financial expectations were low, and it had a fairly low budget. As a result, the project flew under most people’s radar, which meant little or no involvement from publishers or executives. (One notable exception was Chris Avellone, who was very supportive of what we were doing and ended up writing two of our companions.) It felt like [producer] Kevin [Saunders] and I were able to do whatever we wanted, as long as we stayed under budget. I didn’t realize at the time how rare that was, and although my design for the narrative was ambitious, and it led me to put in a lot of very long hours, taking advantage of that opportunity was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I’m proud of what we accomplished.
I would argue that this was the first spark of what could bring Obsidian out from under BioWare’s shadow, starting their own fire. A rare case where creatives were given free rein to pursue their instincts, and even with a low budget it paid off. While the expansion’s sales may not have exceeded expectations, it did show a lot of promise as something that raised the bar and stood out from the pack, particularly in a genre so infested by the generic.

This struggle to stand out from the pack would be one of the many reasons why Obsidian wouldn’t release any of their own games until 2010. The period is somewhat underreported, given the complicated relationships between the studio and the publishers they worked with. Jason Schreier from Kotaku wrote two articles, “The Knights of New Vegas” and “Baldur's Gate 3 Was Almost Made Four Years Ago,” both from 2012, where he goes into great detail about the many trials, tribulations, and travails of that period, as Obsidian attempted to strike deals to continue following the shadow of BioWare with Baldur’s Gate III, but also to blaze their own trails with original ideas, such as the canceled Aliens RPG and their next game.

Alpha Protocol
The spy who bugged me.

Obsidian first pitched Alpha Protocol to Sega in 2005 as Neverwinter Nights 2 approached the final development stages. According to Feargus, “[Sega] loved it. They said, ‘Hey, this is different. It's not dragons, it's not phasers.’ You don't see a lot of spy RPGs. Sometimes we go: maybe there's a reason for that!” Apart from being a niche title, the game’s development was thoroughly complicated by several factors. According to a source, up until 2008 the project was still suffering from a general lack of direction with no clear structure or hierarchy. Among the designers, the most prominent was Brian Mitsoda, who had worked on Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines. He left Obsidian in 2008, and later announced that none of his work would be used in the game, but his name was still credited in the final product.

The final product, once it had been salvaged and released by 2010, was rather underwhelming and overshadowed by BioWare’s Mass Effect franchise, which had a similar dialogue wheel system—at the time a novel design. Apart from that, it was lacking in terms of gameplay, graphics, and AI, all the while suffering from all the usual problems that Obsidian’s games had suffered at launch. The writing and its handling of choices and consequences was very original and the game achieved a certain cult status mostly because of it, but that wasn’t enough for Sega, who announced there would be no sequel.

While Alpha Protocol had been in development since 2006, Obsidian had struggled to secure other deals amid failed pitches and canceled projects (including a Snow White game commissioned by Disney). It was around this time that they were approached by Bethesda Softworks, who had acquired the rights to the Fallout franchise from Interplay a few years earlier. Bethesda Game Studios had released their own Fallout 3 in 2008 to great commercial success. Seeing the opportunity to publish a spin-off game made by some of the Black Isle veterans of Fallout and Fallout 2, they asked for a pitch and approved it.

Fallout New Vegas Collector's Edition
The Courier's stash.

Fallout: New Vegas was the quintessential diamond in the rough. Technically speaking, it was seriously flawed and it remains riddled with bugs and glitches. It is perhaps Obsidian’s most technically unstable game, with the Gamebryo engine pushed to every limit. And yet it was and remains the best non-isometric Fallout game; perhaps even the best Fallout game, period. Everything from the gameplay, the story, the voice acting, the level design, quest design, companion design … it took everything that made Fallout great in the original games, and it took everything that made Fallout 3 atmospheric and fun to play, meshing the best of both worlds into a deep, sprawling game that remains compelling to this day, with some of the best mods ever made.

With New Vegas, Obsidian seemed to say: We are not BioWare and we are not Bethesda, but this is what we can do with a setting that should be ours by right. In every sense it was the proper sequel to the original games, much more than Fallout 3 could ever hope to be. Fallout belonged with Obsidian, and it’s almost tragic that they might never have the chance to make another Fallout game, though Feargus said they would love to do it.

As flawed as it was great, New Vegas managed to put Obsidian back on the map after what looked like a long and unproductive hiatus between Neverwinter Nights 2 in 2006 and Alpha Protocol in 2010, though there were plenty of projects under wraps that never came to light. It was around this time that the studio started to struggle financially and was forced to accept certain contracts that didn’t fit their profile. Among those was Dungeon Siege III, which was heavily supervised by Square Enix, meaning very little creative freedom. It was supposed to be a “mass market fantasy action-RPG with an Obsidian-style story,” but the developers found this combination to be incompatible, and it showed in the final release.

Dungeon Siege III
You will never be as cool as this promo art.

In 2009 they had been approached by South Park Digital Studios to develop a South Park game. Apart from issues with the publisher THQ (which went bankrupt in 2011), it wasn’t a game that would involve much creative freedom, with most of the story and the dialogues written by the show’s creators themselves. While South Park: The Stick of Truth was a fun game with a funny story, playing like a long interactive episode of the show, it wasn’t a proper showcase of Obsidian’s talents. It’s not surprising that they had nothing to do with the 2017 sequel, The Fractured But Whole, developed by an Ubisoft studio.

The story of Obsidian’s major financial troubles was chronicled in the first (and perhaps best) chapter of Jason Schreier’s excellent book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels. Between 2010-12, the best deal the studio had managed to get was a contract with Microsoft to develop an open world action-RPG for the yet-unreleased Xbox One, called Stormlands. On March 2012, Microsoft decided to cancel it, and Obsidian was forced to lay off 50 employees. Even then, they would keep struggling, at one point not being able to make payroll.

Apart from another contract to keep the lights on, Armored Warfare, which had nothing to do with their RPG specialty, Obsidian had little to go on at the time. The studio’s reputation of less-than-optimal launches was probably affecting their dealings with publishers. As the creatives kept pitching and being turned down, there was something else happening: crowdfunding. When the studio Double Fine Productions succeeded in having their project Double Fine Adventure not only funded in their $400,000 Kickstarter goal, but exceeded beyond their wildest expectations with the final sum of $3,336,371, some of Obsidian’s developers took notice and suggested that they start their own crowdfunding campaign to develop an old-school RPG like the classic Baldur’s Gate.

Pillars of Eternity
Punch a zombie, save the soulless babies. Then hunt a god, save your soul.

Project Eternity achieved $3,986,929 of the $1,100,000 goal on Kickstarter in 2012. On March 2015, Pillars of Eternity was released to critical acclaim and commercial success. As Obsidian’s first self-owned IP, it was as original and fresh as it could be as an isometric RPG designed to appeal to nostalgic fans of Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, and Icewind Dale. In some ways, it was even somewhat better than those games, but, in other ways, it was rather too conservative and literal a reinterpretation. Even with their own original IP, Obsidian was still living under the shadow of Black Isle and BioWare.

Pillars was definitely successful enough to give Obsidian the breathing room they needed to gather their creative strength and channel it into something even greater. Tyranny was a mix of ideas from a game first conceived of in 2006, which would eventually become Stormlands. With that game canceled by Microsoft and the isometric RPG becoming a tangible market once again, Tyranny would be published under Paradox Interactive. With a highly original and unique premise, it was a promising RPG that received a rather lukewarm reception at launch, both in terms of sales and critical reception.

Last month Obsidian released Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire. The reception has been very positive, very similar to the first game’s reception. My own first impressions were also very positive. My full review was recently published, which goes into greater detail. Both as a fan and as a critic, I believe that Obsidian can still grow and keep nurturing their creative fire. Pillars II does represent a turning point where the classic isometric RPG is evolving towards something grander and fiercer that remains untapped by the AAA industry. Obsidian is at the vanguard of this evolution, alongside InXile Entertainment and Larian Studios.

Obsidian Entertainment Team
The keepers of the fire.

While there has been a recent controversy surrounding Chris Avellone’s departure from Obsidian in 2015, the future of Obsidian is in the hands of its creatives and developers. Few studios can claim to have overcome so many difficult odds while remaining independent and willing to take risks with games that may not find a mass audience. The fifteen year struggle to distinguish itself from BioWare while enjoying a close relationship with that studio has, in many ways, become meaningless as BioWare retained very little of its former self. Judging from its latest releases and its current project, the Canadian studio no longer casts the shadow it once did. Obsidian can now step into the vacuum, showing that all the failures and adversities they went through only managed to fan the flames.

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Richard Costa
| Staff Writer

Hack for hire, indentured egghead, maverick thoughtcriminal. Mainly interested in Western RPGs, first-person immersion, turn-based tactics, point-and-… More about Richard