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Obsidian and Bethesda Have Made the Same Strange Move in RPG Design

Obsidian and Bethesda Have Made the Same Strange Move in RPG Design
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Obsidian and Bethesda Have Made the Same Strange Move-in RPG Design

In many ways, the histories of Obsidian Entertainment & Bethesda Game Studios have been intertwined. Many Obsidian developers were involved in creating the Fallout games before Bethesda bought the franchise and made it an open-world RPG. Many of these same developers later returned for Fallout New Vegas, published by Bethesda.

Obsidian, which had parted ways with Bethesda in the past, created its own satirical sci-fi IP, The Outer Worlds. It is now developing Avowed, a first-person fantasy RPG, as a response. While both studios have a rich history, fans may be surprised by a recent move by either.

Obsidian and Bethesda

Both Obsidian Entertainment and Bethesda have a reputation for creating open-world games. Obsidian Entertainment’s Fallout: New Vegas has been praised by many as one of the most enjoyable Fallout games. Bethesda, on the other hand, uses the same open-world format across Fallout and The Elder Scrolls. Although Obsidian has a slightly larger portfolio, it is still difficult to find two companies in the same space in the RPG market. Bethesda, however, remains the larger company.

Skyrim, Fallout 3, and Fallout: New Vegas were huge successes that influenced the RPG industry. Games like Dragon Age: Inquisition introduced open-world elements into series that hadn’t used open worlds before. Despite Obsidian’s and Bethesda’s open-world successes over the past decade of RPGs, however, both companies appear to be losing that key element as they move into the 2020s.

Although The Outer Worlds allowed players the freedom to explore the Halcyon System more or less in any order once they had their ship the Unreliable, it is not an open-world game. The Outer Worlds galaxy is not seamless. Each planet allows for the player’s freedom to roam a small area while the ship allows them to access an overworld map and not a fully rendered solar system.

It isn’t easy to imagine how Obsidian could create an RPG in space with the same seamless open world as New Vegas or Skyrim. It is not only impossible to make each planet appear small because of the multiple planets required. The Outer Worlds is not an open-world RPG like the Mass Effect trilogy. It allows for some freedom, but its explorable areas are separated into level-like zones across its solar system.

E3 2021 saw The Outer Worlds 2, which included a trailer mocking the announcements of games still in development. The Outer Worlds 2 may move to an open-world format, but it’s unclear if Obsidian will commit to setting the game on one planet. If Obsidian does, it would be challenging to imagine how they could do that without seamless travel between the planets, something neither Bethesda nor Obsidian have ever attempted.

Bethesda is also putting some of its future in a game that is unlikely to offer the seamless open world fans have come to love from the studio over the past two decades. Starfield, Bethesda’s first IP in more than 25 years, has been called “Skyrim In Space” by Todd Howard. However, the studio has been quiet about interplanetary travel mechanics so far.

It seems unlikely that Bethesda can create an open-world game with seamless exploration, like The Outer Worlds. Players are likely to explore most locations in any order, but it seems likely that the actual areas they’ll have access to will be smaller and more isolated than most Bethesda open-worlds games.

The video narrations of Emil Pagliarulo, Bethesda’s design director, were supported by the YouTube videos. Each video was about a different Starfield city. It was revealed that Neon was created as a pleasure city by a corporation after it found a fish with psychotropic abilities living in the planet’s oceans. Neon’s location on an otherwise underwater world means that it is likely that Neon is the only area that can be explored on the planet. This shows how Starfield may have divided the world into smaller pieces than in past Bethesda titles.

Seamless Worlds to Be Gone

Interestingly, two studios who have found so much success with open-world games in the past would retain so much of their first-person RPG formula while pursuing a genre that makes developing a truly seamless open world almost impossible. However, there may be other benefits to leaving open-world seamless worlds behind.

Starfield and The Outer Worlds settings can feel much more scaled than their open-world counterparts. Skyrim‘s map was large for a video game, but it isn’t long before most players realize it’s only a few square miles despite representing a nation-sized province. Similar to Fallout had rendered real-world areas in a way that leaves them feeling a lot smaller than they were before the series moved to Bethesda.

Focusing on a few isolated areas on each planet might help Bethesda and Obsidian create locations that feel immersively to scale. Creating more immersively large cities was even one of the goals Todd Howard set out when explaining Starfield’s greater use of procedural generation at Brighton Digital 2020.

The question will be whether fans were drawn to open-world games in the past because of their seamless settings or the freedom they afford their players. Both The Outer Worlds 2 and Starfield are likely to afford their players the freedom to explore their galaxies however they see fit. Perhaps the likelihood that those in-game worlds won’t be rendered seamlessly will not actually affect the true appeal of the studios’ RPGs.

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