The Big Story: obs id­ian & in­x­ile

Mi­crosoft adds vet­eran RPG de­vel­op­ers Ob­sid­ian and in­X­ile to its grow­ing stable of stu­dios – but what will they be work­ing on?

XBox: The Official Magazine - - START -

At this year’s E3, Mi­crosoft used its press con­fer­ence as a state­ment of in­tent. An­nounc­ing four de­vel­oper ac­qui­si­tions (Play­ground Games, Ninja The­ory, Com­pul­sion Games and Un­dead Labs) and the for­ma­tion of new stu­dio The Ini­tia­tive, it made its mes­sage clear: the fu­ture is bright, green, and full of Xbox ex­clu­sives.

And it looks like that was just the be­gin­ning. At the X018 event in Novem­ber, two more de­vel­op­ers of­fi­cially joined Mi­crosoft – Ob­sid­ian and in­X­ile – bring­ing the to­tal num­ber of in­ter­nal stu­dios to an im­pres­sive 13. Con­sid­er­ing that less than a year ago there were only five, it rep­re­sents a se­ri­ous shift in pri­or­i­ties, es­pe­cially com­ing in the wake of high-pro­file can­cel­la­tions such as Scale­bound and Fable Le­gends.

A big part of the im­pe­tus is Xbox Game Pass. The ser­vice has been front-and-cen­tre in all of Mi­crosoft Stu­dios’ mes­sag­ing this year, set­ting it up to be the fu­ture of the Xbox ecosys­tem – and the more ex­clu­sives it can boast, the more tempt­ing a sub­scrip­tion will be. But whether you sign up for Game Pass or not, this ramp­ing up of first-party de­vel­op­ment can only be a good thing, de­liv­er­ing more great AAA games than ever to the best con­sole around.

Speak­ing at X018 about the fu­ture of Xbox, head of Mi­crosoft Stu­dios Matt Booty is as op­ti­mistic as you’d ex­pect: “I am just tremen­dously ex­cited and priv­i­leged. It’s a great hon­our to be able to work with such cre­ative teams,” he says. “We feel re­ally set up to give our fans new, ex­clu­sive games for Xbox, and a great pipe­line of things go­ing into Game Pass.”

In­ter-con­nected

But what do Ob­sid­ian and in­X­ile in par­tic­u­lar bring to the equa­tion? Well, they’re both RPG spe­cial­ists – though that’s per­haps an un­der­state­ment…

They each trace their lin­eage back to a true giant of the genre: In­ter­play. Founded in 1983, as a pub­lisher and de­vel­oper it es­sen­tially de­fined the RPG as we now know it. It funded and shep­herded to re­lease some of Bl­iz­zard and BioWare’s ear­li­est games, set­ting them on the path to be­come the pow­er­houses they are to­day; it put out iconic ti­tles such as Bal­dur’s Gate,

Icewind Dale and Planescape: Tor­ment; and it cre­ated the Fall­out se­ries, now one of the big­gest game fran­chises in the world.

In­ter­play’s reign was ul­ti­mately brought to an end by fi­nan­cial trou­bles be­gin­ning in the late ’90s, and by 2003 much of its de­vel­oper tal­ent had left to strike out on their own. Brian Fargo, the com­pany’s orig­i­nal founder, de­parted to form in­X­ile En­ter­tain­ment; not long af­ter, key mem­bers of the in­ter­nal Black Isle Stu­dios team, who’d worked on many of In­ter­play’s great­est hits in­clud­ing Fall­out, also left to form Ob­sid­ian En­ter­tain­ment.

“It al­lows us to tap into the in­cred­i­ble Mi­crosoft ecosys­tem”

In the years fol­low­ing, Ob­sid­ian found it­self an un­usual but com­mend­able niche: cre­at­ing crit­i­cally beloved se­quels to games made by other stu­dios. Knights Of The Old Repub­lic II brought a sub­tle moral com­plex­ity to the usu­ally black-and­white world of Star Wars, Nev­er­win­ter Nights 2 and its sub­stan­tial ex­pan­sions told a truly epic tale in

the world of Dun­geons & Dragons’

For­got­ten Realms, and Fall­out: New Ve­gas proved a tri­umphant re­turn to the set­ting for the team, an RPG so over­flow­ing with de­tail and player choice that many still hail it as the best en­try in the se­ries.

More re­cently, the stu­dio turned its hand to com­edy with the ac­claimed

South Park: The Stick Of Truth, and ush­ered in a crowd­funded re­vival of the old-school iso­met­ric RPG genre they helped cre­ate in the ’90s, rais­ing nearly $4 mil­lion to cre­ate Pil­lars

Of Eter­nity (at the time the most highly-funded Kick­starter ever for a videogame project) and even more for se­quel Pil­lars Of Eter­nity II: Dead­fire.

Bard times

For its first decade, in­X­ile’s his­tory was less pres­ti­gious – though its first ti­tle was a charm­ing re­boot of In­ter­play’s ground-break­ing The Bard’s Tale, af­ter that it fo­cused on mo­bile puz­zle games, and ques­tion­able fan­tasy ac­tion game Hunted: The De­mon’s

Forge. In 2012, how­ever, it too used crowd­fund­ing to bring the past back into the present, suc­cess­fully res­ur­rect­ing the Waste­land se­ries (In­ter­play’s post-apoc­a­lyp­tic fore­run­ner to Fall­out) and cre­at­ing a spir­i­tual suc­ces­sor to Planescape: Tor­ment with Tor­ment: Tides Of

Numen­era – games that proved that they’ve still got RPG ex­per­tise to spare.

Nei­ther stu­dio has had it easy in re­cent years, how­ever. In a video an­nounc­ing in­X­ile’s ac­qui­si­tion, founder Brian Fargo talks about “the ten­u­ous na­ture of sur­vival for mid-size games com­pa­nies such as our­selves”; Chris Parker, COO of Ob­sid­ian, re­veals in an­other video that “it’s be­com­ing harder and harder for us to make the games that we want to make”.

For both stu­dios, join­ing Mi­crosoft means ac­cess to greater re­sources and sup­port, and more se­cu­rity in their place in the in­dus­try. Parker goes so far as to say that, “Find­ing a part­ner like Mi­crosoft … is ab­so­lutely crit­i­cal for us right now if we want to con­tinue do­ing what we want to do.”

And the re­sult should be big­ger and bet­ter games. “It al­lows us to tap

into the in­cred­i­ble Mi­crosoft ecosys­tem, that is sec­ond-to-none in the de­vel­op­ment world, with help in ar­eas like QA, lo­cal­i­sa­tion, new tech­nol­ogy and ded­i­cated fo­cus groups,” ex­plains Fargo. “The bot­tom line is that we’re go­ing to be able to make games that we would have never been able to make oth­er­wise.”

Cul­ture shock

It’s nat­u­ral, though, for ded­i­cated fans to worry that, in join­ing a larger whole, these stu­dios will lose some­thing of their iden­tity and niche ap­peal. Ev­ery­one in­volved is more than keen to dis­pel these wor­ries, how­ever.

“We re­ally want to stress we’re go­ing to keep them unique and pre­serve the cul­ture that they’ve got,” says Booty; Fargo too ex­plains: “Mi­crosoft wants to work with us be­cause of who we are. They want us to keep do­ing what we’re do­ing.” And Parker con­firms the same for Ob­sid­ian: “We ab­so­lutely have to keep things as they are, and that’s al­ways been some­thing that Mi­crosoft has been 100% sup­port­ive of.”

How­ever – we must ad­mit to find­ing it un­likely that Mi­crosoft bought up these teams be­cause it wants to get more iso­met­ric RPGs on Xbox. More plau­si­ble, we reckon, is that it’s think­ing a lit­tle big­ger and more for­ward-look­ing. Role-play­ing me­chan­ics are more main­stream than ever – just look at the As­sas­sin’s

Creed se­ries’ tran­si­tion from pure ac­tion to a world of stats, lev­els and de­ci­sion-mak­ing – and we wouldn’t be sur­prised to see ei­ther or both of these newly-ac­quired stu­dios put to work on a AAA open-world role­play­ing game.

Ob­sid­ian es­pe­cially seems more than ready to take on such a task – in fact, Mi­crosoft con­tracted them to do al­most ex­actly that in the run up to the Xbox One’s launch, fund­ing pro­duc­tion of a huge mul­ti­player RPG called Storm­lands that un­for­tu­nately proved too am­bi­tious to be com­pleted. Could a sim­i­lar (but hope­fully more suc­cess­ful) project be on the books?

What­ever the out­come, we pre­dict only good news for Xbox own­ers. Ex­pect rich sto­ries, me­morable char­ac­ters, and deep set­tings from some of the best de­vel­op­ers in the busi­ness, all ex­clu­sively on your con­sole.

Above Ob­sid­ian’sTyranny is an in­trigu­ing ad­ven­ture in a world where the evil over­lord has al­ready won.

right in­X­ile’s most re­cent re­lease is The Bard’s Tale IV: Bar­rows Deep, a se­quel to the orig­i­nal games, un­con­nected to the 2004 re­boot.

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