For more on Fallout: new Vegas, check out our preview.
Feargus Urquhart is many things, but angst-ridden is not one of them. In fact, he may be one of the most cheerful studio heads I’ve ever met, which is probably why his version of the Fallout 3 world promises to be a little less dark.
As the head of Black Isle studios, the visionary studio behind Fallout 2, Feargus was at the helm when the franchise was at its highest – and then had a ring-side view as it came crashing down in flames. As CEO and co-founder of Obsidian Entertainment, Urquhart is back in the saddle with the Fallout franchise, once again at the helm. This time with Fallout: New Vegas, the follow-up to Bethesda’s Fallout blockbuster reboot, Fallout 3.
I spent a few moments at Bethesda’s 2010 Gamer’s Day speaking to Urquhart about the experience of working with someone else’s vision of his baby, what players can expect this time around and how he genuinely feels to be back working on Fallout again, after the demise of the Van Buren version of Fallout 3. If, like me, you’re expecting him to be moody about the whole thing, get ready to be disappointed.
The Escapist: You said in the presentation yesterday that on some level you wished you had put together the third [Fallout game] yourself, on your team. Now you’re a part of it. Is that an emotional thing for you?
Feargus Urquhart: It’s funny. What’s interesting is that we were actually coming off of a project that got canceled and that’s always a big upheaval. Projects are strange. Even when you finish a project – I remember working on a game, which was back in Black Isle Studios, which was a D&D roleplaying game. It was a pretty hard push. Interplay wasn’t doing wonderfully and so it was a real hard push because we wanted to get it out. So we finished it and I remember – it’s one of those things you remember distinctly in your head – I remember we finished it, got it shipped off and approved, CD stamp was done, and it was going into manufacturing. I remember being at home, around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, because it was all done and they just sent everyone home – I’m sitting at home, turn on my TV and I’m like “What do I do now?” Cause you get this crazy thing – I don’t want to call it post partum depression – but you’re so focused on it and – it’s interesting, because the game got canceled – but we were really focused on it and it was looking really good.
It was tough, but what was awesome is that Fallout came along. It was like the right time, the right place sort of thing. The internal team at Bethesda is working on something else. People online were saying “Oh, are we going to have to wait 5 years for another Fallout?” and stuff like that. At the time it didn’t feel lucky, but then to be able to get to make Fallout, it all just synched up, which is great.
From a standpoint of making Fallout – it’s just fun because – I don’t want to say it makes itself, but it’s this weird thing – you just think of guys in leather in the desert and you just come up with all these crazy things and also, with Fallout, you’re allowed to do stuff that Senator Lieberman probably wouldn’t like us to do. It just gets to be fun.
That’s how all the emotions get wrapped up into it. Ultimately, we get to go back and make something that we loved, and on top of that it’s fun. You can see that in the team. The team has a blast.
TE: When Bethesda was doing its rounds with Fallout 3, they talked a lot about how they weren’t consulting with the original Black Isle team and how they wanted to make it their Fallout, and they weren’t too concerned with the past. How has that shifted now? You guys are essentially taking responsibility for the Vegas portion and extending the original Fallout 1 & 2 storylines. How has that integration worked out?
FU: It’s like thinking of a Star Wars game. We could run everything by Lucas, but there’s … all these things and – you just get to know it.
For Star Wars, that’s what Chris Avellone did, he’s the designer for Knights of the Old Republic 2. He literally just went and read everything. I mean everything – I mean really bad junior Jedi books. I’m like “Why are you reading that?” and he says “Well, there might be something in here.”
When it comes to Fallout, and what’s easy for the internal team, they have all of our design documents, they have all of our materials, they have the games, they had Chris’s Fallout bible, they had all this stuff. Would it have been helpful to ask five or six questions, but that would have probably been it. With us, in working on New Vegas, we just already know it, for a lot of us it was something that we created. We still go back, because it is Bethesda’s Fallout, it’s not Black Isle’s Fallout.
We all played Fallout 3 to death. One, because we wanted to, two, because we needed to really understand it. So we really wanted to understand what they were trying to accomplish and what their vision was. And then we followed up with questions. We haven’t asked a ton, but things get run by Todd Howard all the time. The amount of conflict that has existed – like “Why can’t we do this?” “Well you just can’t,” – it’s been like four things. A lot of it has to do with that they have ideas for the future and so they just don’t want us to go playing with where they see their future.
This is similar to what happened with the Star Wars stuff. One of the first things we wanted to do with KOTOR was we wanted to use Alderaan and LucasFilm came back with “No.” So it’s a collection of that, it’s the knowing and the asking of important questions and being upfront with them about everything we’re doing. We over-document everything. We’re like “Here.” And they’re like “Stop writing.”
TE: Can you give any examples of the four or so things you weren’t able to do?
FU: In some cases, it’s pretty minor stuff. For one of them, we were thinking of a certain city and they said “We want to reserve that for something we want to do.” It didn’t really hurt what we were doing at all.
We [also] talked a lot about when it should occur in the timeline. Originally, we thought that it didn’t take place after Fallout 3 and that it took place between Fallout 2 and Fallout 3. When Bethesda thinks about their worlds, they always want to be pressing forward. So every game just moves the timeline forward. That’s one of the things they said “No,” and that’s why it takes place years after Fallout 3.
TE: What kind of impact has that had on the design – the evolution of the chronology – is that something [the player is] going to be able to feel? Fallout 3 was a certain number of years after Fallout 2 …
FU: I want to say 70 [years]. It’s long enough that people that were in Fallout 2, if they were old, they’re dead now. If they were young, they’re old now. It’s not 100 years, and it’s not 20, it’s somewhere in the middle.
TE: So if you run into a recurring character, it’s an exceptional case.
FU: Yes. A lot of it is to sell the feeling of what is the West coast vs. the East coast. It was actually kind of interesting when we first started working on it, because we really looked at how they made the Washington D.C. area and they used a lot of walls, technically, to block how far you can see, so you don’t have to draw anything on the other side of that hill.
So we just used satellite data for the Vegas base and we put it in and … we’re on one side of the map, and we can see all the way to the other side! So some of that stuff we really had to figure out.
We had to change some of the feeling from Fallout 3 to what we’re doing. We had to accentuate all of the little bumps and hills. There’s a slightly different feeling. New Vegas is more spread out, where Fallout 3 was more centered. There was a lot of stuff, but there was a lot of concentration on the city, and here we have more stuff all over the place, with really key areas.
That’s one thing I thought the internal team did a really great job on – the landmarks. Wherever you were, you knew where DC was because there was the Washington Monument and Jefferson [Memorial] and there’s Tenpenny Tower over there. You could orient yourself without looking at your map. So we tried to do that with our own sense – like the dino (The Obsidian Entertainment team has imbued Fallout: New Vegas with the essence of some of the West Coast’s iconic, kitschy monuments, like, for example, Dinky the Dino, the giant Tyrannosaur gift shop. – Ed.) – like “Oh, Dinky’s over there, so I know where I am.”
TE: That ties into that sort of kitsch in this part of the world, too. What with the giant thermometer in Barstow, CA. So how does this change the way that you guys think and design for Fallout? The [Fallout] games you’ve worked on are isometric, top down, very zone oriented and now you’re in a broad world. Does that change anything fundamentally about the way you guys design it?
FU: It has to change some things. The biggest thing is the technical aspect. You have to worry about memory and draw distance and things like that. When you’re using isometric maps, we can do some balancing for stuff.
I remember when I was working on The Hub, which was a big area in Fallout 1 – you always went back to the Hub to gear up and there were some continuing quests. We had this problem where we wanted there to be really high powered gear in there. In all the Fallouts, you can just steal stuff, but we didn’t want that to happen early on, so we had to play this game of putting enough guards around that could see if you were stealing stuff, and then if you actually did it, they would converge. Technically, it was a problem because we needed a lot of them. We didn’t want to make just a few super-powered guys because we wanted, at some point, that a player could start taking them out. If you just put three super high level guys there, the player wouldn’t be able to do that, they wouldn’t be able to play this game of “ooh, can I get the guards?”
So, technically, we had to think about that stuff. That’s the Fallout: New Vegas way to think about it as well, and that’s the difference. What’s not different is how we approach an area. In a role-playing game – it’s different than making a first person shooter. In an FPS, you’re like “OK, I’m here. There’s the corridor. There’s some cool things.” But when we do it, we don’t start there. This has to be an area people will think is real. So we start with it being a town. And then we start thinking about putting people in it, what’s going on here, what’s the conflict, what’s this, what’s that. And that’s no different if we’re making an isometric game or making a first person role-player like Fallout.
It’s about creating the world. And that’s what is so different about role-playing games versus some other games. I think more games now are like that. It’s more interesting to create a world. And for us, it’s always been that way so it’s not so much of a jump.
TE: For people who know only Fallout 3, what would be the key difference that they would experience playing Fallout New Vegas?
FU: It’s just the vibe. Every studio has a different approach to things, a different vibe. When it comes to us, Fallout is always a little campy. We probably play that up a bit more – like with Dinky. Like you were saying, it’s the Vegas thing. People are going to take that away. They’re just going to have a different vibe playing it.
If you take someone who played New Vegas, and didn’t play Fallout 3, and someone who played Fallout 3 and didn’t play New Vegas, and they talked about the general feeling of playing it, they would say very different [things]. “Oh, it’s kind of a wasteland – it was very desaturated,” and then the New Vegas player would say “oh, no it was blue skies, and there’s a dinosaur,” and things like that.
TE: Obviously there was a plan for Fallout 3 back in the day (Black Isle Studios had been working on a third Fallout game, referred to as “Van Buren” before the studio was shuttered. That version of Fallout 3 never saw the light of day. – Ed.)
FU: There was a couple.
TE: There’s the one everyone likes to talk about, the one everyone thinks they know. How much of what you had planned for Fallout 3 were you able to bring back for New Vegas?
FU: I would say not really [any]. A lot of it is that it’s not the Black Isle team, it’s people from the Black Isle team working on it. It’s a different set, it’s a different group of designers.
I’ve learned a lot, Josh [Sawyer, Lead Designer] has learned a lot about making games since then. I think that it still is that thing of what we took from what we did in the past and compared it to what Bethesda did with Fallout 3. It’s OK, how do we give it its own life? How do we make it this unique experience [in] the West?
Back then, we were trying to steer away from something like Vegas. We just had Reno in Fallout 2. It’s something that would have been a difference if the other game had come to fruition.
TE: Are you ready for the inevitable mixed reaction from people expecting something they aren’t going to be getting?
FU: Yeah. There’s going to be a couple of fan sites that will vilify us, but that’s the way it is.
But Josh has done an amazing job – he’s broadly looked at everything. There’s going to be a lot of fun things for people to do that are distinctly different than Fallout 3. There’s always going to be “there’s too much this,” and “there’s too little this,” but in general, people are just going to have fun.
Interviewer, Russ Pitts, is the Editor-in-Chief of The Escapist and a die-hard Fallout fan, who has played and finished Fallout 1 & 2, more than once, and currently has 400+ hours into Bethesda’s Fallout 3. For more on Fallout: New Vegas check out our preview.