It’s been a busy few years for Obsidian Entertainment. Originally founded in 2003 by a slew of industry vets, Obsidian spent its early years working mostly on licensed content, like the fan-favorite “Fallout” spinoff “New Vegas,” released in 2010. After a spat of financial troubles, the studio launched a 2012 crowd-funding campaign for an original IP: an isometric RPG inspired by old-school role-playing games. The Kickstarter for “Pillars of Eternity” was a massive success, blowing past its $1.1m goal in a day and becoming the highest-earning video game on the platform at that time.
“Pillars of Eternity” was the start of a new chapter for Obsidian: the 2015 game was followed by a 2018 sequel, and the studio was acquired by Microsoft. Shortly after the acquisition, Obsidian announced its next IP: the ambitious open-world first-person RPG “The Outer Worlds.” With the creative minds behind games like the original “Fallout” and the resources of a mega-publisher behind it, Obsidian is poised to deliver another memorable role-playing experience. On Saturday, a group of “Outer Worlds” devs took to the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center’s Albatross Theatre stage at PAX East to discuss how their past experiences in the gaming industry are influencing their work on their next project.
Past, present, and future
Moderated by Obsidian Director of Communications Mikey Dowling, “The Outer Worlds: Obsidian Looks to the Future By Visiting the Past” featured co-directors Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky, Senior Narrative Designer Megan Starks, and Lead Designer Charles Staples. The panel began with its members discussing their own histories within the game industry. Cain and Boyarsky, of course, go way back, having both joined Interplay in the early 1990s. Cain recalled trying to get his coworkers together to play games by tempting them with pizza in a conference room; Boyarsky was one of the ones who showed up. That group eventually became the core development team for the original “Fallout,” released in 1997.
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Cain and Boyarsky eventually left Interplay to form Troika Games, where they worked on the cult classic “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines,” which is now getting a sequel some 15 years later. The pair eventually headed in different directions, meeting new talent along the way; Starks started at Carbine just as Cain was leaving, and eventually joined him at Obsidian. Boyarsky, too, left behind a job at Blizzard Entertainment to work with Cain again. In 2016, a year after shipping “Pillars of Eternity,” work on “The Outer Worlds” began.
Cain has often said that there’s a lot of him in “Fallout” and “Arcanum,” and according to him, “there’s a lot of me in ‘The Outer Worlds’” as well. Despite his years in the industry, it was his first time working on a console game, but he had a solid team to rely on–Cain guessed that about a third of its developers were people he knew from prior projects and studios.
Exuding wordless fury
The group next treated the audience to a live “Outer Worlds” alpha gameplay demo. The game is obviously still in development, but this slice we saw was looking pretty good. Taking place in the elitist, wealthy city of Byzantium and played by Staples, the “Fallout” influence on the first-person RPG is clear. The art deco architecture, which looked pristine from afar but grimy up close, also gave off a “BioShock Infinite” vibe, with time-manipulating and science-based powers that could be straight out of “Prey.” “The Outer Worlds,” naturally, takes inspiration from other modern games in the genre, but didn’t feel derivative.
The game’s dialogue options allow players to explore the world in their own way, which in Staples’ case meant rude and violent. Speaking with a clueless actor at a movie studio, Staples (often at Starks’ suggestion) eschewed actual responses in favor of increasingly passive-aggressive silence; one such option was “exude wordless fury.” Eventually, Staples and his sidekicks killed the actor, along with just about everyone else in town, guards and civilians alike. The dialogue and the action had the audience cracking up for the entire demo. There are a variety of weapons, from guns that are more “Call of Duty” than “Fallout” to one-handed melee weapons with special effects like rearranging victims’ body parts. Less violent players might instead try to use their skills to talk or bribe their way out of tricky situations instead.
As Cain put it, “The Outer Wilds” is always watching what you’re doing and reacting accordingly. For example, if you’re mauled too many times by canids, you might wind up with a “flaw” in which you take more damage from them. Flaws have negative effects, but they grant perk points–a fair trade-off.
“There’s a lot of stuff in this game”
The Q&A session allowed the audience to approach panel members directly and ask them questions, resulting in even more shared insight about “The Outer Worlds.” It became clear that for Cain and Boyarsky, beginning work on this game was almost serendipitous. “We have very similar senses of humor and rarely argue,” Boyarsky said. “We have a lot of respect for each other’s opinions.”
“So many elements of this game are coming out of design notebooks I had 20, 30 years ago,” Cain shared. According to him, the things he’s not good at are things Boyarsky is good at, which is part of what makes them such a great team. Within two or three months after brainstorming began in earnest, they were already pitching “The Outer Worlds” to publishers. “The basic kernel of what it was was established quickly,” Boyarsky elaborated.
As far as the protagonist, “The Outer Worlds” allows players to “find their character from the ground up.” On top of the initial character creation, there are other aspects that dictate how you–and the people around you–react. One example given is a career aptitude test that can be taken at the beginning of the game. “The Outer Worlds” isn’t going to make you live out that career, but that background may determine some of the actions you take in the future.
Being that this was at a video game convention, naturally, the subject of cosplay was raised. The panel was asked if reference materials would be made available for cosplayers’ use, and Mikey responded, “My friend, we have you covered.” The team has been working on detailed, downloadable character art, with party member Felix (in his ridiculous moon helmet) planned next. Cain and Boyarsky pointed out the many blue-and-yellow-swathed “Fallout” cosplayers they’d seen over the weekend, calling some of the design choices they made for the post-apocalyptic classic among some of their most influential.
Obsidian is also hard at work ensuring that “The Outer Worlds” is accessible to gamers with disabilities, an issue that more and more developers are finally addressing. Cain, who is full-spectrum colorblind, made sure that the entire game was playable in grayscale. “There’s no information in this game solely through a color channel,” he promised. On top of that, a variety of control inputs for PC will allow gamers to use accessible controllers or map keyboard commands to suit their needs.
Other things you can expect to find: skills used in dialogue, Supernova difficulty, modifiable weapons, and addictions–but no gambling a la “Fallout New Vegas.” “You can gamble with your life,” Staples joked. Ultimately, “The Outer Worlds” allows you to find your own path through this futuristic, sci-fi world, and Obsidian is betting that gamers will love the final result, no matter how they choose to play.
“The Outer Worlds” will be available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC later this year.