Obsidian’s Dungeon Siege III Finds an Identity in Balance

Feargus Urquhart stands smiling as a conference room full of journalists stares at him.

“Any questions?” He asks. Nobody pipes up — it’s about 10 a.m. at Obsidian Entertainment’s enormous offices in Irvine, California, and there’s a full day of Dungeon Siege III ahead. Everyone in the room just wants to see the game.

Five years have passed since the last time a Dungeon Siege title was released, and this one is being handled by Obsidian, long known for picking up and running with beloved franchises. It was recently responsible for Fallout: New Vegas — believed by some to be better than its predecessor, Fallout 3 — and other great entries in to great franchises, including Neverwinter Nights 2 and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords.

But Obsidian isn’t looking to just create another Dungeon Siege title in the style the developer that created the franchise, Gas Powered Games. It wants Dungeon Siege III to be something new, something that reflects the way Obsidian does RPGs. But in order to makes something new, the company had to figure out what Dungeon Siege was at its core, Urquhart said, and build upon it.

“A lot of what we tried to take from Dungeon Siege in general in initial meetings (with Gas Powered Games) and talking to (Dungeon Siege creator) Chris (Taylor) was just the flavor — what were they trying to do?” Urquhart said. “We, of course, had our own ideas: I always feel like it’s always about constantly moving forward and a lot of action, obviously tons of loot and stuff like that. Maybe a little bit more on the moving forward than other action role-playing games. And we talked with Chris to try to get that idea of what he felt the essence of Dungeon Siege is.

“Try to go, okay, what is the essence of Dungeon Siege, and make sure that while we’re changing game systems and while we’re changing the look of the game, to a point, we don’t want it to not feel like you’re playing a Dungeon Siege game.”

In taking the reins on the series, Obsidian spent a lot of time talking with Gas Powered Games and specifically with Chris Taylor, the original creator of Dungeon Siege. Especially early in the process, Gas Powered Games and Taylor were consulted pretty heavily about the world they had created.

Dungeon Siege III Creative Lead George Ziets said it was refreshing that the original developer got on-board early with what Obsidian was hoping to create. It might have been a function of the fact that for Ziets, honoring the world of Dungeon Siege was extremely important.

“A lot of sequels throw away the lore from the previous game,” Ziets said. “They kind of go, ‘Here’s what really happened,’ and we didn’t want to do that.”

So Ziets asked Gas Powered for everything the company had created for the DS universe, once he’d played through Dungeon Siege I and II. He was rewarded with a huge amount of material — original story development documents, the Dungeon Siege lore bible that ran down everything the writers had already written, and a huge timeline of events that shaped the world Ziets was set to deal with. He read through it all, and from much of that original material, Obsidian’s developers culled the beginnings of the story they wanted to tell from the earlier games’ framework. They had the history of the Kingdom of Ehb, the setting of Dungeon Siege I — and they ran with it.

Dungeon Siege III starts telling a story 150 years after the events of Dungeon Siege I, giving Obsidian the freedom to create its own tale while remaining true to the originals. To map it out, Ziets created the Ehb Sourcebook — more than a hundred pages that would serve as the foundation for Dungeon Siege III. Then he asked Gas Powered for feedback on it.

It was all positive. Ziets said the early back-and-forth with Gas Powered, before the developers at Obsidian took the project and really made it their own, was a great experience and made the IP transition go very smoothly. With Gas Powered happy with Obsidian’s take on its world, the new developer was ready to move on and create a sequel that would attempt to bridge the old and the new.

Phrases like “moving foward” and “constantly moving” came up repeatedly throughout the day at Obsidian as developers talked about the game. Urquhart called it his idea of what the true essence of Dungeon Siege was — constant progression and exploration. In many ways, that sentiment has been captured in DS III: there’s motion in everything, even the user interface menus. Combat itself is an exercise in constant progression, as players are rewarded for their use of offense rather than defense.

Obsidian had to find balance with that philosophy as it worked to expand Dungeon Siege III, especially from a story perspective.

“We wanted it to be approachable. Dungeon Siege, when it first came out, was a very approachable action-RPG; the companions were smart, they could kind of take care of themselves, you didn’t have to micromanage them. The story and stuff — you always knew where you needed to go, to keep moving forward and things like that,” said Rich Taylor, DS III’s project director. “Obviously we wanted to introduce more branching and optional quests, side content and things like that, but we wanted to be careful with how we did that, that we didn’t stray away and find, ‘Now the game’s really too complicated,’ or ‘I get lost’ or ‘I don’t know what quest I’m on anymore.’”

Then there was the question of platform. The first two Dungeon Siege games had appeared as PC titles, but Obsidian was making the third installment of the series for consoles as well as PCs.

That meant finding a way to give PC fans of the series what they wanted, while still making the game sensible for console players, Taylor said. Thinking about how to solve dilemmas to fit both platforms permeated into much of the discussions and decision-making about the game.

“Certain things were on the table — do we simply loot or dumb it down for a console game?” Taylor said. “A lot of console actiony RPG type games, the loot has, like, a stat on it or maybe two, and you always upgrade because you just got the better one. PC gamers really want more interesting loot options than that.”

So a more complex loot system, with weapons, armor and items featuring several stats that could effect the character on whom they were equipped, made it into the game. But that posed issues with interface for the console, which was something that had to be solved.

Meanwhile, taking combat from a mouse-and-keyboard format to a console gamepad had to be considered, too.

“Right out the door we knew that on a console, you don’t have point-and-click combat — so how do we make that work? It wasn’t a sacrifice to go in the direction we went in — I think what we actually ended up with is something that actually plays very fun on a PC and on a console, but that was something  that if we were working on just a purely PC title, maybe we would have gone with more traditional point-and-click combat because we can,” Taylor said. “Going to a console, you have to think about it differently.”

Obsidian opted for faster combat and a more action-oriented control scheme. Players can dodge enemy attacks, execute special moves, and switch melee stances to change their attack strategies all on the fly.

The result: a hack-and-slash RPG that’s not all hack or slash, but not all RPG either. Dungeon Siege III is neither all console nor all PC, and it isn’t all action or all strategy. It’s an amalgam, a hybrid game whose designers have labored to find the sweet spot between opposing forces at every turn.

It goes without saying that Obsidian is proud of what it has created. Taylor mentioned that the design team is happy with the way DS III’s systems ultimately shook out, and seeing the game in action really does bear out that this is a new game that remembers its roots — a hack-and-slash action-RPG body with an Obsidian soul.

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