In Pillars of Eternity, Obsidian Finds Renewed Purpose

A mid-sized developer once again finds their niche.

Preview by Kat Bailey, .

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.

Pillars of Eternity's robust character creation includes a large number of classes, races, and backgrounds.

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."

There will be puzzles; but don't worry, it will be possible to avoid them.

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.

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Comments 9

  • Avatar for touchofkiel #1 touchofkiel 3 years ago
    I'd love to play games like this - Western, computer isometric RPGs - but no matter how much I try, I cannot get used to using a mouse and/or keyboard. Console gamer since the day I started playing games. I just don't have the ingenuity or patience to configure a controller into a workable setting. I did make my way through Baldur's Gate - an otherwise great game - but my poor PC gaming skills made it such a slog that it wasn't really worth the experience. Point-and-click always feels less like controlling my character, and more like ordering him. The difference is semantic, I guess, but it always detracts from the immersion - fine in strategy games, not so good in RPGs.

    I wonder if it's even possible to optimize this kind of game (and other PC-like titles) for controller use (yeah, yeah, make your PC master race jokes here) without compromising the game mechanics. Bioware did a decent job with Dragon Age Origins, and Square has optimized typical MMO mechanics beautifully for controllers, but I dunno.
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  • Avatar for EuroDarlan #2 EuroDarlan 3 years ago
    I just got done with a replay of Baldur's Gate II, and it stands up as one of my favorite games of all time. I can't wait to give this a try, it's probably my most anticipated game of any at the moment, big AAA budget stuff included. It's a shame there won't be any romances here, they are far from the most important bit but they add a nice bit of flavor and long term goals aside from "kill the main dude".

    In these days of people yelling at Ubisoft for not including a female assassin at E3 *while simultaneously* not really saying a word about the Witcher 3 devs going "we got more titties and you can probably #($@ a mermaid this time, woo!", I can see why Obsidian judged the field far to unpredictable and troublesome.

    (To be clear, I don't disagree at all with the anti-Ubisoft push for more varied representations, just the oddly uneven application and rule sets applied. I'd be concerned about release romance options in a game too because of this.)Edited July 2014 by EuroDarlan
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  • Avatar for hal9k #3 hal9k 3 years ago
    The screnshots and trailer are very appealing. I think this game will live or die based on the strength of the story and the under-the-hood RPG mechanics; basically, the things that money can't buy. The Balder's Gates, Icewind Dales, and Planescape had solid D&D rules to fall back on - this game won't have that advantage.

    I'm not a tabletop gamer (Axis & Allies is the closest I've come), so when I first picked up BG a few years ago, part of the fun was figuring out D&D mechanics. They're right there on the surface in those old games, and you could trace the evolution through different editions as the game series progressed. I got a lot of satisfaction from finally understanding stuff like THAC0. I also loved how the mechanics were flexible and balanced enough to approach situations in many different ways - I never felt like there was only one correct solution to a battle. Well, honestly I did feel that way a bit in Icewind Dale (ranging was always the best option, and bards had one very useful song in the first game), so that along with a weak story made those games inferior to BG for me.

    Obsidian will have to come up with mechanics as good as BG if they want to compare favorably to those classics. That goal must be daunting, but it's possible (didn't Fallout use an original system?), so I hope they can pull it off.Edited July 2014 by hal9k
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  • Avatar for hiptanaka #4 hiptanaka 3 years ago
    @hal9k Obsidian themselves have said they wanted to create their own system specifically around real-time-with-pause combat, to get around the problems of translating a turn-based system such as DnD.

    Have you read any of the Kickstarter updates? They sometimes discuss mechanics in detail. The class updates, for example.
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  • Avatar for Royfe #5 Royfe 3 years ago
    @touchofkiel This is exactly the experience I've been having with trying to get into Baldurs Gate 2 and Icewind Dale 2. The Ordering vs. Controlling is only a small part of it, though.

    For me exploration needs to be rewarded by a sense of discovery. But for me, the third person perspective makes different regions blend into each other minimizing the feeling of experiencing something new when I explore. Add in the fantastically slow movement speed of the characters and the exploration feels unplayably slow paced and unrewarding.

    There are lots of other issues too. There's the writing that, while it might be good by videogame standards, is god awful by book standards. There are the ridiculously obtuse combat systems that handle like 18 wheelers. I could go on, but it really wouldn't do any good.

    I think people love these games partially because they broke new ground during their era and partially because of nostalgia. As a newcomer whose videogame experience is primarily console based, it's very hard to get into them, even if you really want to.Edited July 2014 by Royfe
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  • Avatar for hal9k #6 hal9k 3 years ago
    Hi hiptanaka, I actually just read through a wiki I found on the game that seems to aggregate a lot of Josh Sawyer's forum posts. I'm more excited for the game now, it sounds pretty well-thought out and the mechanics sound deep. I like that they're including crafting, which wasn't in the old games and I don't think was mentioned in the article.

    I'm glad that they're going with real-time-with-pause. As a console RPG player (really almost Square exclusive) I liked that the old Black Isle games looked real-time, but you could still see the turn-based beats underneath. I think using a mouse was ideal for those games, but I'm not quick enough to be any good at an RTS like Starcraft; therefore, being able to pause and issue commands was an excellent idea. Maybe this relates to touchofkiel's issue. I wish more games worked that way - for example, I would've liked Homeworld a lot more if I could've issued commands from pause.

    To Royfe - blasphemy! Just kidding, to each his or her own of course. I played all of these for the first time about 5 years ago with almost no experience with Western or PC RPGs, and I loved them. You're right that the pacing is slow - pausing is a key mechanic, and the games are more deliberate and strategic than most console RPGs. As I said, I also had to learn about D&D rules from scratch before I really got what I was doing - but for me, it was so worth it. Personally, I wasn't as crazy about the ID games because they had weak plots and seemed less balanced. BG1 is brutal to start and has random encounters that don't seem to fit, but it's useful as "training wheels" for BG2. In BG2, both you and your enemies get incredibly powerful and have a ton of options (even more so in the expansion), so it's very complex but rewarding. Planescape is its own thing - weaker as a game I think, but very memorable story and characters. I really think they're all worth trying, especially the BG games.
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  • Avatar for touchofkiel #7 touchofkiel 3 years ago
    @hal9k Yep, being able to pause was about the only thing that made me able to get through BG. And lots and lots of saving. It still made it quite a slog, though. It's easy to see how they really streamlined it, without totally compromising it, in KOTOR and Dragon Age Origins (obviously they took it a little too far with Mass Effect though...).

    I can't complain too much, though - console (and handheld!) gamers have so many varieties of JRPGs to choose from, and a healthy selection of quality WRPG ports.

    Still, when I see games like this and Divinity, it makes me a little sad that I'll probably never be able to jump that PC hurdle.
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  • Avatar for hal9k #8 hal9k 3 years ago
    Yeah touchofkiel, BG1 was very tough, especially without a background in D&D. I made it harder on myself because my girlfriend, a bit of an amateur musician, talked me into playing as a bard. I started with maybe 4 HP (I would've had even less with a magic class) and was pretty useless until I picked up Kivan the ranger and Ajantis the paladin. Bards are the worst (though they had a great buff song in ID1 - nerfed in the sequel).

    The funniest part of the early game was in the 2nd town (I think). There's a house full of guys on fire. They don't bother you unless provoked - they're just hanging out, on fire. But you need experience desperately, because you're a bard with 4 HP. If you manage to take one out by a concerted effort, they self-destruct in a fireball, possibly setting off a chain reaction if others are nearby. One fireball is enough to wipe the party at that point. That's when I realized the game wasn't very friendly.
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  • Avatar for mganai #9 mganai 3 years ago
    Been looking forward to this for ages. One of my friends is on the dev team.

    I hope they give similar depth of choice/consequence to this game that they did Alpha Protocol's interactions. Right now I just want to see more about the game mechanics.
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