Kickstarter can be a fickle mistress sometimes. Just ask the Yogscast, who recently saw their Kickstarter venture go up in flames following months of delays and cost overruns.
For studios like Obsidian though, Kickstarter is the best opportunity in a decade to return to their roots and still make money. With the help of crowdfunding, Obsidian was able to directly target their hardcore audience, many of whom have been around since the days of Black Isle Studios—the studio that preceded Obsidian. The result is Pillars of Eternity, which is very much in the mold of Infinity Engine RPGs like Planescape: Torment and Temple of Elemental Evil.
Designer Josh Sawyer was part of many of those projects, and he's been eager to get back to basics since the Double Fine Adventure (now Broken Age) first blew up on Kickstarter.
"Even before South Park we wanted to do something like this," he says. "Pillars of Eternity was something we knew we could do, and we knew that... you knew... we could do. We could pitch an Infinity Engine-style game made by the people who did Neverwinter, Temple of Elemental Evil, and Planescape and have people say, 'Yeah, I think you can do that."
"Even before South Park we wanted to do something like this. Pillars of Eternity was something we knew we could do, and we knew that... you knew... we could do." - Josh Sawyer
And indeed, it proved to be a relatively easy pitch to the fans who have been following this particular group of developers for more than 15 years now. The Pillars of Eternity Kickstarter went live in September 2012, and within 24 hours it had reached its $1.1 million objective. Obsidian has since raised nearly $4 million, bringing with it the promise of more characters, player housing, and a new region, among other things.
It's a far cry from even a few years ago, when Sawyer admits that a game like Pillars of Eternity probably couldn't have been made: "I remember when we were working on the Black Hound and the original Fallout 3, we were moving to 3D but still staying isometric, and we had people asking why we weren't going fully 3D. The publisher mentality shifted away from making isometric to 3D game. They just died for a very long time."
He makes no bones about the fact that he's basically making a new Infinity Engine game for a group of hardcore fans who happen to like that style of game. He also feels beholden to the backers, even if they are occasionally passion to a fault. Arguments about semantics regarding the difference between strength and might can be wearying at times, but Sawyer mostly just tries to roll with it.
"They did pay in advance," he shrugs.
By and large, Sawyer and company feel confident in their ability to create a successful RPG and satisfy their rabid fans. Infinity Engine RPGs, after all, are squarely in their wheelhouse. And Sawyer says he never really got tired of making them, even if he did occasionally tire of making them on short schedules.
Their veteran sensibilities are apparent in Pillars of Eternity's construction. No longer based on BioWare's old Infinity Engine, Obsidian has opted to adopt the Unity Engine, which has become a common standard for smaller studios and independent developers alike. They also know their limitations, so you won't see any expensive cutscenes in Pillars of Eternity. Instead, Obsidian has created Choose You Own Adventure-style sequences rendered in still images, giving Pillars of Eternity the distinct flavor of an 1980s-era PC RPG.
It wouldn't really be fair to say that Obsidian is cutting corners with Pillars of Eternity, though. The spell effects are exciting and kinetic ("We've learned not to skimp on the spell effects," Sawyer says) and the depth is certainly there. During their demo, Obsidian offers a guided tour of their character creation mode, which includes multiple races and up to 11 classes. Parties will consist of up to six members, and it will be possible to create generics if the pre-built companions prove unsatisfactory. It won't be possible to date them, though.
"We decided we couldn't do a good, robust romantic system. They're very sensititve. It's very easy to do romances badly," Sawyer says. "So we decided to take them off the table."
That said, it will be entirely possible to ruin your reputation if you're continually a jerk. Pillars of Eternity will also include unlockable conversational options that depend on certain stats, though they will no longer be the "auto-win" solution that they were in Fallout: New Vegas. Pillars of Eternity may lack high-end production values; but as RPGs go, it's relatively ambitious, largely reversing the trend toward smaller parties and simpler mechanics designed to placate mainstream audiences. That's not to say that Pillars of Eternity will be totally unwelcoming to newcomers. It's just the Sawyer understands that he is catering to a hardcore audience, and he doesn't want to disappoint them.
If it seems like Obsidian is taking extra care with Pillars of Eternity, it's probably because they have big plans for the series going forward. Should it prove to be a hit, they will move forward with a sequel, and possibly other games like it. Sawyer isn't willing to say that Obsidian will only focus on isometric RPGs from now on, but it's apparent that they've found a business model they like.
For Obsidian, Kickstarter and platforms like Steam provide a niche that mid-tier studios have struggled to find in recent years. Big budgets and bigger teams have put them in a position where they often can't compete. Sawyer notes that Obsidian has only around 150 employees, which represents their peak. By contrast, the Assassin's Creed: Unity team alone reportedly has more than 400 people, and that figure is the norm.
"It's hard for us to try and punch at that weight," Sawyer says. "So looking at other ways to make games that are smaller scope, and just the style of it, means we can have a smaller team. I think we would like to find more midcore development where we're not competing with Call of Duty or something like that."
Fans of isometric RPGs, meanwhile, can count on Obsidian to cater to their particular tastes. Sawyer is right there with them: "They're saying, 'I want heavily stat-based combat with isometric views. I don't want the new stuff. I feel like I'm getting squeezed out, please help me.'"
After a tough development cycle with South Park that saw them go through multiple publishers, Obsidian seems to have found renewed purpose. Sawyer occasionally seems frustrated by the back-and-forth with fans over controversies like the effects of certain stats—Pillars of Eternity is unique in that the might stat effects both damage and healing—but he also really knows his RPGs, and he seems to be pleased to be developing for people who can appreciate his work.
Pillars of Eternity will be out in the winter, which is when Obsidian will be able to see how viable their new business model really is. In the meantime though, the studio that has in some ways been out in the wilderness ever since the closure of Black Isle Studios appears to have finally come home.