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Stormlands and the million-man raid: Obsidian's cancelled Xbox One exclusive


Throw your mind back to Microsoft sharing a dream of an infinitely powerful Xbox One cloud, a box under your TV able to suck an almost mystical power into your living room, transforming games as we know them. The vision wouldn’t quite materialise, but while Microsoft was hallucinating over the cauldron it was also throwing money around – throwing money at Xbox One exclusives to embody this future, and Obsidian Entertainment was spinning in its pot.

“We were given a proposal, the million-man raid,” Obsidian co-owner and CEO, Feargus Urquhart, tells me. “Conceptually what came from Microsoft was this idea: imagine you’re playing The Witcher, maybe with a friend. What happens if at points in time a giant creature pops up that you can see in the distance and it’s not just popping up while you’re playing, it’s popping up for everybody who’s playing. You all rush this creature and there’s this haze around it, and as you’re all rushing through the haze the game is matchmaking you into 40-man raids who are going to fight the creature.

“Then you fight it, but while the creature is being fought all the footage is being recorded up into the cloud. Then at the end we would come up with some kind of intelligent editing thing which would deliver everybody who fought a personalised, edited video of their participation in the raid. That is what was proposed to us.”

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The Stormlands pitch demo on Xbox 360. These pictures have never been seen outside of Obsidian and Microsoft.

“Microsoft’s ambition,” says fellow owner Chris Parker, vice president of development, “was to do a lot of things and do it very new. Nothing that was standard or typically accepted in video games should be taken as acceptable. It was always, ‘Try to get it up to the next level, try and figure out something different or some new way to approach it or put a different spin on it.’ Every feature it was, ‘How do we change this feature to make it better than it has ever been before?'”

This game was a big deal, an exclusive Xbox One launch game, and barring four and a half years of Armored Warfare cheques it would be the biggest deal Obsidian would ever sign – bigger than Fallout: New Vegas, South Park: The Stick of Truth, the lot. Microsoft was even already talking about a sequel. “They wanted to invest in a developer and IP over the long-term,” Urquhart says. “That deal was the largest contract we signed.”

The game was Stormlands, codenamed North Carolina, and it would never see the light of day.

Stormlands! Obsidian had been sitting on the idea in some form since 2006, and in early 2011 finally had the chance to work it into a pitch for Microsoft, titled Defiance. “OK well this is interesting,” Microsoft said, “but it feels a little bit too trope-ish, a little too standard, so are there ways you can try and reinvent things and try and make it a little bit different?”

Sensing a big opportunity – a platform holder with a new console – Obsidian threw the kitchen sink at the rewrite. “We’re going to pitch a big game and we’re going to do it like all real developers pitch stuff instead of our normal three-page [proposal],” says Urquhart, “so we’re going to do a demo and we’re going to put a real pitch together and a Power-Point – a whole package.”

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It was a playable demo. Feargus Urquhart was at the controls.

Some of the fundamental ideas from Defiance remained but the world was taken in a more dramatic direction, aiming for something far less standard than in other role-playing games. What Obsidian returned to Microsoft with was Stormlands, a game set in a world of crazy storms, where the storms themselves factored into magic you used.

But Obsidian wasn’t under any illusions of success. “We had no expectations,” says Urquhart. “There’s no way they’re going to sign us,” they thought. But something about the pitch-booklet emailed had evidently struck a chord, because when Obsidian went up to Redmond to present the Stormlands demo, all the big shots at Microsoft were there.

“We had a demo on the Xbox 360 and they asked us a lot of questions,” says Urquhart, “and then I was really surprised because we went downstairs and we were waiting for a taxi and Noah [Musler, Microsoft Game Studios biz dev] came down and said, ‘I don’t want to get your hopes up but I think we’re looking good.’ And he’d never shown any – that was the most positive he’d been about any of our proposals.

“We started talking pretty soon after that.”

Stormlands was to be a third-person action role-playing game with a camera behind the character as in Fallout: New Vegas. “The fighting was super-action,” not like Dark Souls, more like The Witcher, Urquhart says – the difference being Stormlands would have companions.

While we’re talking about the game, he rummages through boxes in his office looking for the Stormlands booklet, but sadly he never finds it. What he does find, though, is the original Xbox 360 pitch demo and he loads it on his PC. The screenshots you see in this article are from that demo and have never been seen outside of Obsidian or Microsoft before. Don’t you say I never do anything for you, you rotters!

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Even six years later it is… striking! Sorry.

The demo, running on the Dungeon Siege 3 engine, is visually impressive, even now, several years and a new console later. There’s a bruised peach tone to the otherworldly sky, which rumbles and crackles with storms while a haunting kind of Arabian music moans in the background. It reminds me immediately of Assassin’s Creed or a Prince of Persia, with the main character, a man, wrapped in similar-styled clothes, a cloak slung over one shoulder. There’s a brooding atmosphere, helped no end by the bodies a storm has entombed in the rocky mountainside around us.

We eventually come across a female character who was to be one of your companions. She takes her facial armour off before talking to us, which is a nice touch – it bugs me in other RPGs when characters waffle away like noisy, bobbing helmets. A classic dialogue screen of choices appears and the characters interact, fully voiced. On the horizon is a kind of castle we’re aiming for and from which, by the demo’s culmination, a huge enemy erupts. “That was the pitch that got us the project,” says Urquhart as it ends.

He loads a Stormlands development milestone video on his screen afterwards, which revolves around combat and is narrated by one of the Stormlands team. This appears in grey-box form so there are no textures only a smooth grey skin coating everything – characters, enemies and terrain. In this video I see the character rolling to evade attacks, as in The Witcher, and teleporting short distances, as Ciri does in The Witcher 3. I also see a variety of acrobatic attacks used against a variety of enemies, from beast men to wraiths. Crucially I see companion moves too, special attacks you can trigger allies to perform – it would always be you and one other on a level. These companions and these special partner moves were to be a fundamental cornerstone of the Stormlands experience.



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