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

The histories of Obsidian Entertainment and Bethesda Game Studios are intertwined in many ways. Many of Obsidian’s developers worked on the first two Fallout games, for example, before Bethesda acquired the franchise and turned it into a first-person open-world RPG. Many of the same developers later returned to work on Fallout: New Vegas, published by Bethesda.

After parting ways with Bethesda, Obsidian went on to develop its own satirical sci-fi IP, The Outer Worlds, and now appears to be developing first-person fantasy RPG Avowed as a response to The Elder Scrolls. Although the two studios have an interesting past, a recent move made by both may still come as a surprise to their fans.

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Obsidian And Bethesda

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Obsidian and Bethesda are both known for their open-world games. Obisdian Entertainment's Fallout: New Vegas is considered by many fans to be one of the best Fallout games, while Bethesda has relied on the same rough open-world formula across both Fallout and The Elder Scrolls since Morrowind. While Obsidian’s portfolio is slightly more diverse, fans would be hard-pressed to find two companies that occupy such a similar space in the RPG market, even if Bethesda remains the larger of the two.

The success of Skyrim, Fallout 3, and Fallout: New Vegas saw a huge pivot across the RPG industry, with games like Dragon Age: Inquisition introducing open-world elements to series that had not utilized open worlds until that point. However, despite the impact of Obsidian and Bethesda’s open-world success on the last decade of RPGs, both companies seem to be sacrificing that key element to a degree as they tackle the 2020s.

The Outer Worlds allowed players to explore the Halcyon System in more-or-less any order they wanted once they had their ship, the Unreliable, but the game is not an open-world title. The Outer Worlds' galaxy is not seamless. Each planet allows the player to free-roam across a relatively small area, while using their ship allows the player to access what is essentially an overworld map rather than a seamlessly rendered solar system.

In fact, it’s hard to see how Obsidian could ever develop an RPG set in space that had the same kind of seamless open world found in Skyrim or New Vegas. Not only does the need for multiple planets necessarily split up the in-game world, but it would be very difficult to allow players to explore the entirety of any given planet without making each planet seem ridiculously small. In the end, The Outer Worlds is no more of an open-world RPG than the original Mass Effect trilogy; it allows players some degree of freedom, but the game’s explorable areas are divided into level-like pockets across its solar system.

Charting A New Course

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The Outer Worlds 2 was announced at E3 2021, albeit with a trailer parodying the announcement of games still in very early development. It’s possible that The Outer Worlds 2 will turn to a more open-world structure, but unless Obsidian commits to setting the game on a single planet, it’s very difficult to see how the studio could achieve that without rendering seamless travel between planets in a way neither Obsidian or Bethesda has ever attempted.

Bethesda is similarly staking at least part of its future on a game that is very unlikely to have the same kind of seamless open world that fans have come to expect from the studio, and which have become its trademark over the last two decades. Starfield is Bethesda’s first new IP in over 25 years, and has been described by Todd Howard as “Skyrim in space,” but so far the studio has been very quiet when it comes to the mechanics of interplanetary travel.

As with The Outer Worlds, it seems unlikely that Bethesda will be able to create a truly seamless open-world game when the game’s explorable areas are divided among multiple planets. Players are likely to be able 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.

This was backed up last month when Bethesda’s design director Emil Pagliarulo narrated three videos that dropped on Bethesda’s YouTube channel. Each video focused on a different city in Starfield’s universe. The “pleasure city” of Neon, it was explained, was founded on a fishing platform after the corporation running it discovered a fish with psychotropic properties living in the planet's oceans. The fact that the city is isolated on an otherwise aquatic world makes Neon itself likely to be the only explorable area on that planet, showing the extent to which Starfield’s world may be divided into far smaller chunks than past Bethesda titles.

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Leaving Seamless Worlds Behind

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It’s interesting that 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 which makes developing a truly seamless open world almost impossible. There may, however, be some overlooked benefits to leaving seamless open worlds behind.

For a start, Starfield and The Outer Worlds' settings have the potential to feel far more to scale than their truly open-world counterparts. Skyrim’s map was large for a video game, but it isn’t long before most players realize that it’s only a few square miles despite representing a nation-sized province. Similarly, Fallout’s rendering of real-world areas since the series’ move to Bethesda’s first-person RPG format has often left those areas feeling noticably scaled down.

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 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 because of 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.

Starfield releases November 11, 2022 for PC and Xbox Series X/S.

MORE: The Outer Worlds 2 Needs to Avoid Mass Effect’s Biggest Pitfall

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