There are certain video game studios each of us hold dear to our hearts and their games each of us compare the quality of similar titles with. I’ve been playing games for nearly 20 years and in that time, I’ve seen developers come and go. I’ve had my favorites and the ones I’ve come to loathe. There were studios I loved one day, but despised the next. But in that long list of developers, one name was always perpetual. The name might sound familiar, for it is none other than Obsidian Entertainment, the American developer formed from the ashes of the legendary Black Isle Studios. A company which has arguably put out some of the most divisible and polarizing rpgs ever. A developer which underwent countless catastrophes, yet stands tall smiling, ready to fight another day.
From Black Isle to Obsidian
As far as I can remember, I’ve been a huge fan of Black Isle Studios, a lsmall developer/publisher owned by Interplay Entertainment. Black Isle was the driving force behind the 90’s rpg classics such as Fallout 2, Planescape:Torment and Icewind Dale. Two of the aforementioned games has stood its grounds as my favorite two games ever since their inception. So it was no wonder that I was a hardcore fan of Black Isle. Interplay was in a large financial crisis back then due to some bad choices made in the past and the gaming scene, especially rpgs were moving towards the next generation of consoles. There was a lot of stress on Black Isle and they were forced to put out games within strict budget and time constraints. But nothing really helped. Black Isle was slowly dying. Some of the very talented people including Tim Cain who is credited with conceiving Fallout, Jason Anderson and Leonard Boyarski had left during the development of Fallout 2 to form their own studio ‘Troika‘, whom also made some of my absolute favorite rpgs. Doomsday clock was ticking for Black Isle as Torment and Icewind Dale 2 failed to bring in enough revenue to keep the company afloat. On December 8, 2003 Black Isle studios officially closed its doors to the public and along with it came the death of soon-to-be titles such as Fallout 3 (original build) and Baldur’s Gate III- The Black Hound.
Soon after leaving a bunch of unreleased codes and their dreams behind at Black Isle, former CEO Feargus Urquhart and Black Isle’s lead designers including Chris Avellone, Chris Parker, Darren Monahan, and Chris Jones founded Obsidian Entertainment. Located on the second floor of a modern building in Irvine, California is their sleek studio, full of board games, couches and old-school memorabilia. This comfy box of concrete and memories would soon go on to become one of the pillars for the recent modern crpg revival and renaissance.
Hallowed and Cursed – The Journey Forward
Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars, Fallout, South Park – Obsidian Entertainments resume is filled with popular mainstream franchises such as this. I mean how many developers have even got the chance to work on licensed properties like these back to back? Obsidian did, and did so while the studio was still in its infancy. I reckon many AAA studios would have liked to trade places with them while this was going on. The name and credibility of Black Isle was enough for license holders to put their faith in the small studio when they started out. But this blessing would not always turn out the way everyone expected it to and there lies the curse which had been plaguing Obsidian for a large part of their life.
Obsidian was not always the first choice for these publishers. They were known as the second go-to guys in the business. Such was the case with their first two games, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords (gee that’s a mouthful) and Neverwinter Nights 2. The first parts of KOTOR and NWN was developed by Bioware and would prove to be massive successes, both critically and commercially. Bioware was in the process of a makeover themselves and would soon be focused in the console market. Hence the publishers of KOTOR and NWN, LucasArts and Atari would approached Obsidian based on their legacy and recommendations from Biowre. At this point, everything sounded too good to be true. A start-up company like theirs was going to develop games for two massively popular and established franchises.
Compared to Bioware, Obsidian’s early projects began with only a few key people working on it. Since KOTOR and NWN were huge successes, both LucasArts and Atari wanted their sequels to attain the same level of success. But everything was not at all smooth at Obsidian. First of all the time allotted for Obsidian to develop these games was short compared to Bioware. This resulted in the small team rushing the projects to meet the deadlines. The budgets were also an issue. Then there was the meddling of the publishers in the development. KOTOR II was less fortunate in this case compared to NWN 2. There was a lot of pressure on Obsidian and their design methodology suffered. After various delays and problems, KOTOR II and NWN 2 was released in 2004 and 2006 respectively. While most of the reviews were positive and the sale figures were not bad, but it paled in comparison to their predecessors initially and mainstream players were quick to dismiss them due to the presence of numerous bugs and the lack of polish. Suffice to say that these titles attained a cult status and would enjoy the privilege of being considered better that their predecessors in the years to come. We will discuss as to why this happened in the next part.
The studio’s goal was always to be able develop multiple projects simultaneously, and the decision led the company to expand very quickly. They team expanded to more than 50 employees in the following years and they were able to push out two expansions for NWN; Mask of the Betrayer and Storm of Zehir, were released in 2007 and 2008. Mask of Betrayer was received with utmost praise. The storytelling and narrative especially was lauded as being one of the best at the time. Obsidian was back in a safe place. At this time, the company tried to pitch various sequels and new IPs to publishers like LucasArts, Activision, Sega, Atari and Disney to no avail. If they would have gone through, we’d have received games like KOTOR III, an rpg set in the world of Ridley Scott’s Aliens, Baldur’s Gate III, Wheel of Time etc.
Eventually Obsidian and Sega agreed on a deal to develop a new IP, an espionage rpg similar to Mass Effect, but taking inspirations from Ian Flemming’s James Bond, the tv series 24 and Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series. The game titled Alpha Protocol did not have a smooth development cycle. Lack of knowledge of unreal engine, clashing design vision between the publisher and the developer, numerous delays and identity crisis plagued Alpha Protocol. Sega wanted a realistic rpg experience while Obsidian favored a more Tarantino vibe. Their first original game, Alpha Protocol received mostly mixed reviews from critics at the time of release. The game was criticized for its technical issues, mediocre shooting and lack of polish. It was also a commercial failure for Sega, which led to their decision to put any plans for a sequel on hold and cut any ties they had with Obsidian. But just like their previous games, Alpha Protocol too gathered a cult status and is now considered to be a well written and enjoyable game even with the shoddy gunplay and technical issues, and this wasn’t the last time this trend would repeat itself.
At the same time that Alpha Protocol was in development, Obsidian was also working on Fallout: New Vegas, the next title in the Fallout franchise spearheaded by designer J.E Sawyer(Icewind Dale 2 fame) and Chris Avellone. Its ironic how Fallout came back and landed on the lap of the same people who pioneered its development in the late 90s. This was Obsidian’s first AAA title and was handed to them because Bethesda was busy making The Elder Scrolls V – Skyrim. For New Vegas, Obsidian took the ideas they originally had for their version of Fallout 3 and crafted arguably their best game to date. It was an improvement over Fallout 3 in almost every way. There were more rpg elements, the black humor and moral ambiguity of the first two games were kept intact, well crafted choices and consequences, a faction system, better writing etc. But just like all their other games, the game was plagued with technical issues. This was due to the fact that Obsidian was only given one year to develop the entire game. They were also forced to use the buggy Gamebryo engine and assets used in the making of Fallout 3. Despite these issues, New Vegas was a commercial and critical success. At the time of release, a large protion of the people thought it to be inferior to Fallout 3. But these days it’s widely regarded as the best 3D Fallout to date. Obsidian went on to develop four story add-ons for New Vegas which were well received and wrapped up the story debuted in New Vegas.
Obsidian had built a reputation for creating some amazing games with technical problems. Sadly the same could not be said for their next endeavor. The studio’s next project was Dungeon Siege III, a sequel to the Gas Powered Games-developed Dungeon Siege, published by Square Enix. There is nothing much to say about it other than the fact that it was really a mediocre title and disappointed a lot of Dungeon Siege fans worldwide. At this time, another team at the studio was busy working on a licensed game based on the popular TV show South Park. The said game also had a troubled development cycle mainly due to the death of its publisher THQ. With THQ unable to continue its publishing and funding roles, an auction was held for other publishers to acquire their titles. Obsidian was worried about that if the project were cancelled, they too would face severe financial difficulties. Eventually Ubisoft acquired the game and was released as South Park: The Stick of Truth in March 2014 to critical acclaim and is widely regarded as the best licensed South Park game to date.
By this time, despite their games enjoying a moderate amount of success, Obsidian was in deep financial trouble. The team lacked sufficient resources to keep the company’s operation running. The studio was on the verge of bankruptcy and would go under if they failed to pitch a project to a publisher. This time can be considered as a period of reckoning or rejuvenation for the company as the next step they took would soon be known as the best decision they have made in the company’s lifespan. Obsidian took a leap of faith on Kickstarter, then-upcoming crowdfunding platform in which studios such as Harebrained schemes and InXile found substantial success in. The result was astounding and resulted in Obsidian contributing heavily to the crpg renaissance which is soaring these days. How did they accomplish such a feat? Well that’s a story for the next part of this editorial. Join me next week as we shed some light on the crowdfunding success, design methodology and the cult status of Obsidian Entertainment.