Pillars of Eternity: What next for Obsidian?

© Obsidian Entertainment
CEO Feargus Urquhart on paid mods, player choice and Pillars’ place in the fantasy revival.
Written by Rich WordsworthPublished on
How do we judge the success of Kickstarter? Not a Kickstarter. Kickstarter in general. Since crowdfunding first started making waves (well, promising splashes) back in early 2012, people who talked about ‘the success of Kickstarter’ were really conflating two things: the site’s success, and the success of its projects. Kickstarter would be a success if Broken Age, Wasteland 2 and Shadowrun turned out to be great games; a failure if Tim Schafer, Brian Fargo and Harebrained Schemes took all their funding and escaped in a helicopter, never to be seen again.
Thankfully, in the years since, the former has been more common than the latter. But really, there’s a higher benchmark to set for the success of Kickstarter. Because so far, the games that have been the runaway successes – pulling in the kind of six-and-seven-figure amounts that might merit a daring escape by chopper – have something in common: they’re games that we have, sort of, seen before. Broken Age is Schafer being Schafer, and the same can be said, with all the good will in the world, for Wasteland and Shadowrun, too.
If these games weren’t what people wanted, their creators wouldn’t have taken penny one. But we’d suggest that the success of Kickstarter the gaming platform can be celebrated once a game without feet so firmly planted in the PC classics of yore can pull in the same amount of money. Could these games’ creators have pitched something completely novel to potential backers, and come away with the same amounts of cash? Was Pillars of Eternity – a spruced up fantasy CRPG for the crowdfunding age – pitched because it was the game that developer Obsidian wanted to make? Or because CEO Feargus Urquhart and his team knew it would be the easiest Kickstarter sell?
“To be honest, it’s a bit of [both],” Urquhart tells Red Bull in the aftermath of the game’s release. “Part of it was the reality that Brian [Fargo] had already done Wasteland, which was post-apocalyptic, Harebrained [Schemes] had already done Shadowrun, which was fantasy and cyberpunk. For us, it seemed like the best opportunity was fantasy.
“[But] more importantly, a lot of us all came up in the D&D world. I had the privilege of making D&D games from 1996 until 2008… Fantasy is also something we love – I loved working on the Baldur’s Gates with Bioware. So part of it is that we’re making Pillars because that’s probably the best place we can be as a business. But look, hey, [we also said:] 'It feels like there’s an opportunity here, to make something we love and we want to make'. So luckily, we were able to line both those up with Pillars.”
The success that Pillars of Eternity has enjoyed since its release at the end of March has been staggering, sitting on a Metascore – from both critics and users – that would make most triple-A publishers cry under their mahogany desks. But its roots in classic RPGs raise an interesting question: when you’re selling your game (before it’s even been made) on the promise that it’s like what’s gone before, does keeping that promise restrict the sorts of creative decisions you get to make in its development? In simpler terms: would people back a fantasy game without elves, dwarves and haunted ruins full of loot?
“I don’t look at it as a standard high fantasy game being restrictive,” Urquhart says. “The way I look at it is, it’s not wrong for people to want that sort of high fantasy – it’s comfortable. I can more quickly immerse myself in this world because I understand orcs and elves and dragons and zombies and liches, and that’s what we do.
“But there needs to be different stuff as well. We’ve done different styles of fantasy games: go back to [erstwhile RPG publisher] Black Isle and you’ve got Icewind Dale, which had a very different focus, and Planescape Torment, which a different focus on top of that. That’s how we look at it, you know, ‘do we always want to make a high fantasy game?’ No. But it’s fun to do.”
Fantasy as a genre has changed a lot since the PC RPG heyday. But while Pillars is about complexity and had the fortune (and guile) to launch its Kickstarter in September 2012, just a few months after the wrap of Game of Thrones season 2, it’s Lord of the Rings to which Urquhart says the team owes the most credit (particularly Peter Jackson, and “his belief in Lord of the Rings as not just something that the nerds love”). In fact, around eight years ago, Obsidian actually turned down the opportunity to do the first Game of Thrones RPG.
Pillars of Eternity
Pillars of Eternity
“I don’t know if the project would have ever happened,” says Urquhart, candidly, “but we were approached by a big publisher, and they had the Game of Thrones licence at the time. And I love Game of Thrones – it’s an incredibly rich story and world and obviously the characterisation is amazing. But, there’s a couple of things about it that are challenging if you want to make a roleplaying game.
“Part of it was very interesting to us because of the focus on characters, and that’s kind of what we do. But if you think about the world, it’s so much about the politics and it’s so much about the linear story of what’s going on. Then you tie that to magic playing a very little role, and to be honest, [the story is] mostly [about] people. There’s not a lot of standard role-playing fantasy things, [like] putting an adventuring party together and going to find the abandoned ruins full of zombies and witches and ghosts and spectres and ghouls and all that kind of stuff.
“My recommendation at the time was that it would make a better RTS [real-time strategy game], or something like an RTS. Again, a geopolitical, war simulation-type game.” (Something which, incidentally, now exists: in the form of this mod for medieval RTS Crusader Kings 2).
Anyone who’s played Pillars (or the 90s and early-2000s PC RPGs that inspired it) will know, however, that putting together a merry band and charging off into the unknown to steal loot from zombies, spectres and ghouls is only half what you’re paying for. Like its forebears, Pillars is also a game about choice and consequence.
According to Urquhart, most people who play games like Pillars have an idea before they start of the sort of person (or elf, or dwarf) that they’re going to be: the gallant hero, the sneaky thief, the smooth-talking mage. Urquhart calls this the “comfort factor” – allowing the majority to slip into familiar roles and leave the unfamiliar, exotic classes for a second playthrough. But that’s not always the case.
Pillars of Eternity
Pillars of Eternity
“There’s definitely a group of people – a minority – who will pick something like a Chanter [a new class unique to Pillars of Eternity], put it on the highest difficulty, and put on Iron Man mode [in which a single death means starting the game again – no do-overs]. And they will do that for their first playthrough. But that’s their enjoyment! They love that aspect of playing through the game multiple times and seeing how the game reacts.
“A lot of what we have to do is make that balance. Some of our fans will always make a combination of class and race that no-one’s ever seen before. And then other people will say, ‘well, you’ll have to pry my dwarves and elves from my dead hands!’ Because that’s fantasy to them. So a lot of what we’re doing is trying to create that world where it’s not a compromise. It’s more like, let’s make this world work for people who love fantasy in general, and give something new to the people that play a lot of these things.”
Players who start out with ‘evil’ playthroughs are similar outliers. Unlike the hero tropes of more traditional high fantasy, a hallmark of games like Pillars is the freedom to be, if not the cackling, maniacal villain of a Saturday cartoon (or if we’re honest, many modern RPGs), then at least a self-interested cad. And even if you’re a shining pillar of light and virtue, having the choice to behave like a monster creates a sense of agency. But that’s not all it’s there for: some people who play Pillars really are just horrible people.
“In general more people play through the first time as good,” says Urquhart when we ask about the caddish minority. “It’s probably somewhere between three-to-one and four-to-one [ratio of first-time good players to evil ones]. But there’s still a pretty significant group of people who go through and stab everyone in the neck. I think even 15 years ago we were doing a pretty good job of making games where you could choose evil choices, but it wasn’t psychopathically evil. Yes, there were those choices, but it was more self-interest – more the ends justifying the means mentality.
“Moving through the years, I think Chris Avellone really penned it well with Alpha Protocol, in which most of the choices are grey. But what was important was, no matter what you chose, you got rewarded. It wasn’t just, instead of helping grandma across the street, you rolled her for her cash. It’s not that option. It’s more, ‘I can do this or I can do that – I can help the arms dealer, I can threaten the arms dealer’. Either of those leads to other things – it’s not like one is the way to move forward and one is not. I think that’s the coolest thing that a game can do: let someone play the game they want to play it and have the game react correctly to that.”
Pillars of Eternity
Pillars of Eternity
And for as long as Obsidian is reliant wholly on crowdfunding, the form these games will take is likely to be more top-down RPGs. Not because that’s all that Obsidian knows how to make – its back catalogue of games is a happy mish-mash of RPG styles, and includes the third-person Alpha Protocol, the first-person Fallout: New Vegas and the 2D-cutout South Park: The Stick of Truth – but because, bluntly, the four-million-or-so dollars Pillars raised with its Kickstarter drive goes further in some genres than others.
“It goes to some extent to budget,” Urquhart explains. “A third-person game like, let’s say, the Fallouts or the Skyrims, they’re expensive to make and there are a lot more expectations. When you do something like that we have put more resources into environments and animations and things like that. That’s the challenge there: how do you balance those two?
“And we’re looking at that right now. We go to the drawing board and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got $4 million to make Skyrim. What could we do?’ We’re looking for solutions to that. Could we get something from crowdfunding, something from here and something from here, and kind of build a bigger budget that will let us move there?”
As it happens, in the past few weeks the search for new revenue streams has seen another fantasy publisher trot out a novel fundraising method that has drawn… well, not applause. In late April, Valve announced that it was going to give users of Steam Workshop – a hitherto free platform for distributing fan-made mods for games that support them – the opportunity to start charging money for their work (with Valve and the publishers divvying up a hefty 75% cut of the sales). The response was swift, bitter and sometimes smartly mocking: with users creating add-ons including anti-paid mod protest signs for Skyrim and a $30 expansion that added another apple to one of Skyrim’s many taverns.
We can’t link to either since Valve reversed its decision – but with Pillars’ director Josh Sawyer having discussed the possibilities of Pillars modding during the game’s development, the elephant wasn’t so much sitting in the room as it was reaching over to bash out the modding question with its loudly snuffling trunk.
Pillars of Eternity
Pillars of Eternity
“Pillars is hard because it would be very difficult for anyone to create more levels,” says Urquhart. “They can mod the interface, they can mod that kind of stuff, and because it’s developed with Unity they can get pretty much direct access to it already.
“But you know how, if you eat sausage you don’t want to see the sausage factory? You have to look at the tool itself as a product. You make it more usable than you probably would internally... You have to take your build process and turn it into this clean thing that everyone can share. You have to expose that part of the sausage factory.
“A lot of the time it’s just that we’re working so hard just to get the game out, that to ship the tool alongside it is just tiring to think about. It’s not that we don’t want people to have it! It’s just in the end it’s the human side; it’s taking 110% of what we have just to get the game out.”
When we ask Urquhart about the possibility of paid mods for Obsidian games in general, he hasn’t yet heard about the kerfuffle on Steam (“I must have had my head in the sand,” he says). When we explain it, the response is largely encouraging:
“Wow. I’m going to use the word ‘quagmire’,” he laughs. “The money thing is hard, there’s so many people on so many different sides – it’s a challenge. I don’t know if we’d ever try to monetize mods to our game. I don’t know. That would be something we’d have to seriously think about.”
He pauses.
“But just think about how many more hats we’re going to get now!”
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