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?
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.”
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.
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.”
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.