IGDA Does Obsidian: An Evening With Feargus Urquhart

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It seems I joined IGDA — the International Game Developer’s Association — at an absolutely amazing time.

If you’re unfamiliar with the organization, it’s a worldwide group that allows students, professionals, and newcomers to the gaming industry to network and get their voices heard.  Each chapter hosts its own meetings and events that can be anything from a deliciously nerdy social event to the sharing of invaluable information and advice.

On the evening of July 23rd, Feargus Urquhart, CEO of Obsidian Entertainment with over twenty years of experience in the industry, gave a very special presentation for IGDA members where he discussed the ins and outs of project management as it relates to making good games.  You know Obsidian if you’ve played Fallout: New Vegas, Neverwinter Nights 2, or KotOR II.  Though these games are not without their flaws (a fact which Urquhart admitted in a very tongue-in-cheek manner during his presentation, something that gave an immediate +10 to respect for him on my stat sheet), they make it readily apparent that Obsidian and its myriad teams have a good grasp on how to build a game with a solid core.

I heard about the presentation through the IGDA Orange County Facebook group and arrived at Obsidian Entertainment’s headquarters in Irvine, alone and extremely nervous.  I’ve had a few encounters with other members of the game industry, and while many of them were incredibly positive and enjoyable, I’ve also found a lot of resistance and coldness towards newbies like myself who are trying to get their career started.  If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been told that my dream of getting into game design and story development is stupid and that I’d probably never succeed (despite none of the naysayers in question ever having seen my work), I wouldn’t need to have a career.  As I stepped through the double-doors into the breakroom where the presentation was to be held, all I could think of was a scene straight out of some 80s teenager movie where the conversation stops and every head turns to glare at me until I drop my notebook and run, weeping, back to the car.

Instead, I found a huge group of some of the kindest and most engaging people I’ve ever met.  They were happy to answer my questions and showed genuine interest in who I was and what I’m currently working.  I had beginning development tools suggested to me left and right.  I may have started the evening hiding in a corner with my bunny earrings and a can of diet Coke, but I ended it laughing and shaking hands with incredible individuals who I hope I am one day able to call my colleagues.  I have to admit that for the past couple of months I’ve had so much snark and nastiness dumped on me that I was beginning to seriously reconsider whether or not I should keep trying to break into the industry.  After my fantastic experience at the IGDA July event, however, I find myself with a renewed hunger and strength towards achieving my goals.  I am encouraged.  I feel, with one hundred percent certainty, that I am on the right path, partially due to the other IGDA members, and partially from discovering over the course of Urquhart’s talk that my own mentality and development principles match up quite neatly with the tried-and-true lessons he was teaching.

A video of the approximately hour-and-a-half-long combined presentation and Q & A session will be available to the public on YouTube in the near future, but for the time being, I’ve got a Hello Kitty notebook chock-full of notes to share that will hopefully illustrate how incredible this event, and the opportunity to attend it, was.

Feargus Urquhart on Project Process

Throughout the presentation, Urquhart used real-world examples from Obsidian’s development history to explain each point and make them simple to understand, even for someone like me who has never worked for a studio.  His witty delivery and willingness to answer questions kept the experience engaging; by the time he had finished, it felt like mere minutes had passed.

Urquhart began by listing some of the terms you might hear when talking about the style of development used in a particular project:

  • Waterfall
  • Agile
  • Traditional
  • Modified X
  • Gant Charts
  • Jira
  • SharePoint
  • Scheduling vs. Tasking

I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t supply brief definitions of each for those of us who’d never heard those terms used in a development context before, but there is now this amazing thing called The Google to give an opportunity for some self-study later on.

“No one thing works,” Urquhart emphasized, “and it won’t work for the whole project.”  Hard work and attention to detail are the catalysts needed to ensure an awesome end product, and part of that is asking yourself at various intervals whether or not the original plan is really working.  Determinations like these are easier when using smaller teams with clearly-defined goals for each along with, of course, passion for what they’re doing.  When each group knows exactly what they intend to accomplish, project process can only lead to good things.

The main focus should be quality rather than adding more stuff, which can be said of many creative endeavors, including cooking — add too many spices to your dish and they won’t enhance the flavor, they’ll clash and turn what could have been an amazing dinner into a confusing mess of tastes.  Urquhart cautioned that RPGs are perhaps the trickiest types of games to develop while adhering to this mentality, and that in the case of sandbox games like Skyrim, the scope and expansiveness of a game does actually become important, but even here, it’s important to remember that players want an overall experience from a game, not just more “stuff.”

Quality should also be the focus when selecting development tools.  You’ll know you have a good set of tools in use if you can use them to make as much game content as possible in an efficient manner without having to deal with a ridiculous amount of bugs.  Smart usage of tools with a small team as previously discussed will allow more development without having to sacrifice quality.  Reviewing, verification, and adjustment when needed as a project progresses will ensure that everything shapes up nicely in the end.  Even if everything seems to be going great, “make sure what’s done is done,” Urquhart says, verbally triple-underlining the last word in his sentence.  Don’t just assume that a task is finished, verify it to prevent as many last-minute scrambles and crises as possible.

This is actually the point in the presentation where Urquhart said the one thing that made me absolutely certain that I was heading in the right direction.  “If you review and verify something, you can adjust it to make it better.”  Sound familiar?  It’s only the Overlord Bunny Official Game Design Motto.  And if Feargus Urquhart agrees, then… well, I must not be too far off the mark.

The next point focused on the importance of moving forward — not just talking back and forth about something until you’re blue in the face, but actually doing it.  Communication is, obviously, an important part of the design process, but there comes a point when everything constructive has already been laid out and any further discussion is just killing time.  Choose either option A or option B and try it out, which is usually a cheap and easy process even if the first choice ends up being a bust, Urquhart assured.  Only by taking action can a team move forward and allow the project to progress.

Urquhart suggested that the first approach to any project should be a simple question: is this fun, and does it feel good?  If the answer is “no,” find a way to bring it up to speed.  A project should be analyzed piece by piece before adding any more content.  “Developer debt,” as he called it, must be avoided — if the first part is lacking, there’s a debt that the developers have to the players to make up for it as the game continues.  Get too far into developer debt by settling for lower quality or fixing it later, and you’ll be hard-pressed to crawl out of that hole.  This is why Urquhart stresses the importance of a hearty alpha-testing process, using Blizzard Entertainment as an example of how an extensive alpha leads to an incredible and much more polished product.  I was very impressed by this praise and respect, since it seems that trash-talking Blizzard has become the trendy (and incredibly unprofessional) thing to do, but Urquhart quite clearly proved that he has the ability to see the entire picture and recognize the good without succumbing to the kind of juvenile “rivalry” bias that seems to plague the industry.  Yet another reason to listen intently to the words coming from this man.

From here, Urquhart gave us a more visual context for the concepts of simplicity and a manageable start.  Start with one room, and once that’s been reviewed, verified, and adjusted as needed, add another room and a hallway.  If you begin your project by delving right into the sprawling metropolis that houses your single room, you’ll be doing yourself — and your players — a great disservice.  Only after your rooms are built should you determine how to build and render the rest of the world.  By building outwards from the core in the manner, you’ll ensure a solid foundation for the rest of the project.

We were reminded of the importance of using good developer tools, but also that good does not necessarily mean complicated.  Urquhart recommended that a toolset should only be as complicated as it absolutely needs to be, and that even if it means fewer options overall, being able to do them well, quickly, and without constant crashes is still the most important aspect of your selection.  Decide what to make and find a way to do the smallest amount of work in order to answer the most questions.  Though games are a modern way to tell a story, they are not the written word; they’re a unique animal entirely.  What would work in a novel won’t necessarily translate well to the screen, and, as Urquhart points out, your game is only as good as what’s in front of the player.  Promising that something is going to be great carries less weight than providing something tangible that is already good.

Before moving to the next stage of production, there’s a series of questions that must be asked:

  • What core gameplay needs to be done?
  • What do we want to learn?
  • What doesn’t need to be final?
  • Are there too many people involved right now?
  • What can we cut?

Urquhart illustrated this by explaining how voiceover work does not necessarily need to be finished for alpha testing.  Small cosmetic changes can be made at a later date rather than delaying the entire process and possibly leading to a higher cost for the studio.  Involving fewer people doesn’t mean firing them, merely switching them to other projects once their work has been completed, like an assembly line.  The example given here was that you don’t fire the programmers once the code is done, you hand them something else to do and continue on with the other teams whose work is not yet complete.  Again, he stressed, critical review, assessment, and adjustments are needed to figure out when “finished” really means finished before moving on.  The development stages look something like this:

  • Prototype: Focuses on core gameplay, nailing down pipelines, samples of game art, and figuring out a development toolkit.
  • Vertical Slice: Similar to a demo (but not usually released publicly, or at least not at E3 or similar conventions), this is a fully-finished section of the game that shows off the game’s tools and features.
  • Production: Making the smallest game you are comfortable with.
  • Alpha: Making it better (and sometimes, bigger).
  • Beta: Fix any bugs.

A game design document, or pitch, is typically just a couple of pages long and is less a listing of features than it is an explanation of them.  This means that rather than saying “two levels with monsters and traps,” you’d start off with something like “The player will start on the Ice level, and, moving forward…”  The player experience is what will define deliveries; later, you can go ahead and list all of the parts for assignment and tasking.  Tasking should be used for short term goals, scheduling for long term.

In short, it seems that project process could be summed up with “keep it simple,” but what’s the real “Secret Sauce,” as Urquhart put it?

  • Discipline.  Stay on target, use your process, and remember that more does not necessarily mean better.
  • Communication.  Talk about your goals and your progress, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  • Pragmatism.  Realize that something that’s new, hard, and unique won’t necessarily be good.  Making a game means making people happy, not exhausting them.

Urquhart pointed out that while creativity and passion are obviously important as well, these three principles are absolute requirements for a successful project.  “Games are fun to make, hard to make, and a collective, creative endeavor,” he stated, earning more than a few chuckles of agreement from the veterans in the audience on the second item.  The presentation itself ended on this note to thunderous applause and the floor was opened for questions.  Urquhart seemed not just willing, but eager to answer every single question, and in fact had to be reminded that time was running out, at which point he proceeded to answer three or four more, ensuring that no one went home unacknowledged.

I couldn’t be more pleased with my experience, and I’m glad that I struck up the courage to attend despite currently being just another freelance dreamer.  If there was any downside at all, it’s that I was able to see enough of Obsidian’s processes and viewpoints to be even sadder about recently being turned down for a job on one of their upcoming projects — they don’t just make great games, they’re also some of the most down-to-earth and visionary people you’ll find in the industry, exactly the type of people I want to work with, especially on a long-term basis.

Special thanks to the IGDA Orange County chapter and their sponsors for putting on such an amazing event and, of course, to Feargus Urquhart for giving up his evening for all of us who attended.|

EDITED: The video has now been made publicly available — I highly recommend that even if you’ve read the article, you give it a watch, as it’s much more entertaining and I’m sure I haven’t done justice to the concepts prevented by Feargus Urquhart.

 

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