As Microsoft picks up two premier RPG developers at once we look back at two studios with a shared past, some similar challenges to overcome, both in many ways rejuvenated by Kickstarter and now champions of old-school RPG experiences.
An article about InXile Entertainment and Obsidian Entertainment has to begin with Interplay Productions. After all, it's the company Brian Fargo founded before InXile and where he spent almost two decades working on and publishing games including titles by Black Isle Studios led by Obsidian Entertainment co-founder Feargus Urquhart. In a way, Microsoft picking up both is reuniting the core of what once was Interplay, all that remains is acquiring the name and the last few IP rights Interplay holds. Well, minus Chris Avellone who has had less than nice things to say about his former bosses at Obsidian as of late.
Brian Fargo was the first to leave Interplay and set up InXile Entertainment in 2002. Interplay's troubles began in the late 90s in spite of big hits like Fallout, Fallout 2, and later Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, they never really recovered and piece by piece things began to fall apart. A year later the RPG division, Black Isle, led by Feargus Urquhart was closed down, which in turn gave rise to Obsidian Entertainment.
Both studios started out where they left things off. InXile Entertainment's first title was The Bard's Tale, an action-RPG take on one of Brian Fargo's first games at Interplay using the Dark Alliance engine. Meanwhile, Obsidian Entertainment was given a very short amount of time to follow up Bioware's hit game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, with Black Isle having published Bioware's Baldur's Gate titles a few years earlier. For Obsidian this was the start of plenty of similar projects, working on sequels to titles other developers had created including Neverwinter Nights II, Dungeon Siege III, and Fallout: New Vegas. Of course, with New Vegas it was a chance for many on the team to get back to Fallout after Interplay cancelled the third game in the series when Black Isle was shut down.
InXile in the meantime had some success with smaller games and mobile games such as Line Rider 2 and Fantastic Contraptions. However, their next big project, Heist, was cancelled in 2010 as publisher Codemasters wanted to focus on "high-quality games". Ouch!
Obsidian dabbled in creating fresh IP with the espionage-themed Alpha Protocol, a game that was met with mixed reviews, but that has some degree of a cult following among a small yet loyal group of fans. Alpha Protocol was published by Sega, but the next project with Sega would get cancelled before it even got a proper showing, an RPG based on the Alien IP. The next big title Obsidian worked on, Stormlands, was also ultimately cancelled (in fact, it was to be published by Microsoft) and so three years went by from Dungeon Siege III until the release of South Park: The Stick of Truth (another troubled game that went through a publisher switch from the bankrupt THQ to Ubisoft).
InXile had dipped back into the old Interplay catalogue once more for Hunted: The Demon's Forge (loosely based on Interplay's The Demon's Forge) that was published in 2011 by Bethesda to little fanfare. It was not long thereafter that the Kickstarter craze took off proper with the likes of Double Fine Adventure (later Broken Age) in February 2012 and this gave InXile the idea to fund the development of Wasteland 2 (rights Fargo had acquired a decade earlier) through the crowdfunding platform. Obsidian, who found themselves in a similar position having had two major projects cancelled and wanting to go back to their roots, put Project Eternity (later Pillars of Eternity) on Kickstarter later that same year.
Kickstarter success fueled a change at both companies where they had a closer relationship to their fans and were able to make the sorts of games they themselves had missed as the last decade had been spent trying to try and make RPGs for a broader (console) audience. An equation that wound up successful in some cases while failing in other cases.
InXile followed up Wasteland 2 with the spiritual successor to another Interplay classic (Planescape Torment) in the form of Torment: Tides of Numenera, and this year they brought out The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep, a more classic take on Bard's Tale than that first InXile title.
Obsidian, on the other hand, found work with My.com for World of Tanks rival Armored Warfare (up until 2017, when My.com assumed development responsibilities), along with CRPG Tyranny, which was published by Paradox in 2016, as well as the sequel to Pillars of Eternity, Deadfire, which released earlier this year.
Both companies have had a lot of ups and downs over the years, and perhaps the decline in crowdfunding made the decision to join Microsoft Studios easier. InXile are hard at work on Wasteland 3, a game that was funded via Fig.co and therefore will see release on PS4 (unless Microsoft makes some kind of deal with the investors), and Obsidian's Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, funded via a similar deal and via publisher Versus Evil (which should also come to PS4 as well as Xbox One) and which shouldn't be too far off (officially it's still late 2018, but that may have changed). Other than that there are no officially announced titles, but Obsidian did announce a partnership with the new Take-Two indie label Private Division for an original title made by a team headed by Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky. Presumably this title is one of the main reasons why Microsoft wanted to pick up Obsidian and it remains to be seen if it will still be published by Private Division or if it makes a reversed Mass Effect (Microsoft published the first Mass Effect, then EA bought Bioware and the series went multiplatform with EA as publisher). Brian Fargo has expressed interest in both returning to other old Interplay properties and creating something altogether new. It remains to be seen what that might be.
It is also possible that Microsoft would let Obsidian and InXile provide their own take on an existing Microsoft IP. It doesn't sound like the most likely route, but imagine an Obsidian-made Halo RPG or if InXile wanted to dabble in something related to Shadowrun. It would also be interesting to see the Gears of War universe explored by one of these companies or maybe even Fable (though rumours are that one is already being rebooted at Playground Games). Perhaps Obsidian wants to return to the Stormlands concept Microsoft cancelled a handful of years ago?
From a Microsoft Studios perspective, it is easy to see why these acquisitions make sense. Having closed down the few RPG-focused studios they had (Lionhead Studios and even further back FASA Interactive), now they've got two of the finest developers in the CRPG space under their roof. For the Interplay alumni in charge of both studios, it means a nice exit, while their studios get a bit more financial stability moving forward even if you never know when Microsoft might start downsizing their stable of studios again. In many ways, it's a win-win for both parties, with perhaps CRPG fans who prefer their games on Steam being the losers... beyond Wasteland 3 that is.