After all of the votes were tallied the winner of TS2’s “Most Successful & Respected Executive Producer” in the industry is Feargus Urquhart!!
"It's a great honor to be voted in as the Most Successful EP in the industry. It shows that even when you start as a play tester, you can get far in our industry - something that makes me happy to have this been my career for more than eighteen years." -Feargus
Here is TS2's Ryan Jones' interview with Feargus Urquhart conducted in April 2009. (Answers have been paraphrased and reviewed from notes from Ryan's conversation with Feargus.)
Feargus, can you give a brief overview of your background and how you got to where you are in the gaming industry?
Feargus got into the industry as a game tester with Interplay in 1993 working on Rock and Roll Racing and developed by Silicon & Synapse, Inc. later to become Blizzard. Actually he had a friend that was working as a game tester there and at the time they were playing D&D. So it all goes back to D&D. His friend who was working at Interplay said that they were looking for game testers and since he was “breathing and did not stink” he was qualified for the job. So it was really a little bit of luck and knowing someone that got Feargus working in the gaming industry. At the time he was going to school for biomedical engineering at UCSD and started commuting back and forth to work. Pretty soon after he realized this was not working out and decided not to go back to school. Although his father is fine with it now the decision did not make him very happy for a couple years after.
While working on Shattered Steel (Bioware’s 1st development project) Feargus worked with their external development studio gaining perspective working with an outside team. During the production of Shattered Steel he was still maintaining an internal staff of approximately 60 at Interplay working on a variety of RPG, action and strategy games. Through the next couple years at Interplay, Feargus worked as both the development and publishing producer on multiple titles. Feargus mentioned that this was one of the great things about Interplay. So working on titles such as Battle Chess he was able to gain different perspectives from working cross functionally with internal teams representing both sides of the process. Feargus noted that to be a good producer it helps to have perspective on both sides of the equation to understand where these external relationships with retailers and magazines come into play. In 1996 Black Isle Studios was formed with the namesake coming from the Urquhart’s family castle actually located in proximity to Black Isle’s in Scotland near Loch Ness. Feargus continued his career managing such titles as Fallout, Baldur’s Gate and began the Neverwinter Nights project.
In 2003 Feargus Urquhart, Chris Parker, Darren Monahan, Chris Avellone and Chris Jones started up Obsidian Entertainment in beautiful Irvine, CA to continue their work developing the Neverwinter Nights 2 series and the very successful Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II with Lucas Arts. With currently a team of over 120 Obsidian is now working on a couple of unannounced RPG titles and the newly announced Fallout: New Vegas. This newest announced title in the Fallout series has the team working again with the team from Bethesda Softworks.
What would you say, is one of your projects that was a turning point in your career?
“Definitely I would say Fallout I and Fallout II. Just going through the process and taking these games to completion.” When he started at Interplay he was dealing with 5 people in a development team and with Fallout he found himself working with teams in excess of 30 people. This, he said, really showed him how to manage people and make a game in the current environment. The complexity that has to go into the production of these games is so different than it was even 10 years ago. There is much more focus on the source control, the tools used, and more intense focus of preproduction than there was in the past.
Feargus noted that he is currently looking at the differences between preproduction and production as potentially two different teams with a different focus. The focus of the preproduction is what kind of game it will be and may not mean that those people are necessarily needed to be the ones working on the production team.
Other differences that have affected his career are operating as an independent developer working with publishers. Feargus said the big difference is when dealing with a publisher is that they look at the bottom line and want to know how much it will cost and how long it will take to develop. With the cost of games in the tens of millions range the ability for a team to experiment a great deal outside of the original scope is limited because the importance of hitting milestones. “Working with a publisher we are contractors,” Feargus cited. “We go in and sell the idea of building a 12’ swimming pool and how we see it as a finished product. Then you go to dig the hole and find out that at 10’ there is bedrock that did not show up on the seismic readings. To go back to the publisher and explain that to get that pool to 12’ we will either need to increase the budget and timing or make some adjustments to the plan has been challenging.” Feargus said he is much better now at understanding the core of a project and explaining the additional features and ideas that go along with the concept but that are not essential to creating a completed game. It is managing those expectations and clearly understanding your vision for the project that allows for successful relationships with publishers.
Feargus also got a better understanding of working with a publisher’s goals and motivations. Although it takes many people to develop and publish a successful game not everyone involved has the same timeline to hit certain milestones. A PR person may need a certain asset for an upcoming cover that the production team slated for finalization weeks down the road. By understanding that there are external relationships and deadlines that are going to affect the schedule is part of the process. These changes come up but they do not change the milestones originally set. Feargus mentioned that he has seen people new to game development struggle trying to get a publisher to understand their situations and the results of the changes; where the disconnect lies is the publishers don’t need to understand your job to do theirs. The passion can be different and is usually focused around different things. Explaining a back story of a character to a publisher that is focused on the multiplayer feature is not helping. In working on both sides earlier in his career Feargus was able to understand some of the relationships involved in the process allowing him to focus on what is important to his team being successful.
What advice would you give a young game tester that aspires to be in your position some day?
With Feargus starting out playing D&D in the early 90’s the industry was much different. The risks are higher, the teams are larger and Feargus himself said in today’s climate he could not put someone in charge of a project that has the level of experience he had when he was charged with running his first title. So with the industry maturing Feargus still manages his team encouraging the traits that led him to where he is today; being aggressive to learn more about your job.
We talked about how it has been said that in order to get promoted you need to start doing your bosses job. Feargus disagreed, “I am going to promote the guy who is best at his current job, not the guy trying to learn someone else’s.” He admits having a technical background has served him well in the industry but he still had to learn the individual components in the development process. Being able to talk with an art director about tone mapping or other technical aspects is how Feargus remains connected to the project at every level. Feargus does point out that to get involved to that level of understanding requires a love and passion for the industry. As a producer Feargus said perseverance is a must-have quality. “Every day you need to get 40 things done, now at the end of the day you may only get 10 of those completed but the next day you need to get things ready to go again; and you need to do it with a smile.”
Another thing that Feargus believes made him good at his role was not to focus on the rules but the task at hand. “If I was at Black Isle and we were going through a hiring freeze but I needed a programmer for a specific aspect of a project some producers expect management to understand that the hiring freeze is going to effect the schedule of a project while I would talk to management and explain that regardless of the freeze I need this programmer!” Feargus explained that sometimes you need to win the battles in order to win the war.
Another area that Feargus mentioned in his progression was taking ownership of his role. He talked about how a person’s job function was not limited. Back when Feargus was at Interplay in the QA department working as a tester he was getting frustrated about how things were not getting fixed fast enough. So Feargus asked the lead tester how these things worked. The lead tester explained how the scripts ran through sceneries that basically offer choices that would decide if you won the game or not. He then asked him to see the scripts. Now this was before companies were tied into the internet; so he printed out a copy and handed them to Feargus. Feargus took the printout and went though each one and in a couple of days they had tremendously less bugs. And that was really his first foray in really getting involved with the process. By taking initiative he was able to learn more about the process but never lost focus of his current role. Today Feargus fosters that mentality in Obsidian. Any tester or programmer that wants to get a bigger picture of the process is encouraged to get involved, focus on the game and be the best at what they are.