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Obsidian Entertainment studio tour


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#41
kirottu

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Obsidian games are always "AAA" in my heart of hearts.


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#42
injurai

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Obsidian games are always "AAA" in my heart of hearts.

 

I've said it before, but Pillars feels like a AAA game. Something about the pre-rendered backgrounds, so no doubt that Obsidian is punching above their weight.



#43
Ethics Gradient

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It's not a massive marketing push for Tyranny+DLCs and Pillars of Eternity. They fly out few journalists to Irvine and pay few hotel rooms. That's relatively cheap marketing if you ask me. Add few of Paradox's streams that don't really work for a plot driven game and you've got part of their marketing campaign right there. 

 

I would be surprised if it turned out that Paradox is publishing Project Indiana. I'm not sure they are big enough to publish a multiplatform AAA game. /

I'd be super-surprised too.  Paradox is great and all, but the SEC filing for Deadfire shares states the mystery project is "an unannounced title with a major publisher."*  You really don't want to get too creative with how you word things in those filings.  Misrepresentation can be an easy avenue for investor lawsuits.

 

Anyway, I still think it is hard to imagine anything sneaky going on here.  Paradox has two new products shipping, and they may have learned a lesson or two from a Tyranny launch that pretty much took everyone by surprise.  With Gamescom and PAX running back-to-back, now's also a great time to be in the news cycle.

 

The marketing plan appears to be roughly divided between "look at these awesome new releases" and "look at the awesome studio that was responsible for them."  Compared to just talking about the new products, reminiscing with Obsidian effectively doubles the media exposure.

 

*Edit: Not intended as a slight against the awesome crew at Paradox.  Just if you can argue that they're a "major publisher", there isn't much left in the english thesaurus to describe something the size of EA or Valve.


Edited by Ethics Gradient, 02 September 2017 - 02:43 PM.


#44
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"Do most of us here actually prefer "AA" Obsidian products? I do."

 

They're more "E" for Effort.


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#45
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As compared to "AAA" Obsidian projects or do you mean compared to AAA Non-Obsidian products?


Using the general industry accepted standards of what constitutes AAA.

#46
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Using the general industry accepted standards of what constitutes AAA.

What exactly are those; (is there an official requirement list)?

I got the impression long ago that the AAA label meant merely the approximate amount of money they planned to sink into the project... (with any measure of quality being an incidental side effect that hopefully comes of hiring good talent and letting them work unfettered—that doesn't imply that they must hire qualified talent to be AAA though). 

 

Is 'AAA' one of those "I dunno how to quantify it, but I know it when I see it" sort of deals?  I know I've seen some pretty disappointing games labeled AAA in recent years.

Or is AAA code for 'targeted only at the mass consumer market'; (and all of the negative design connotations that comes with that)?


Edited by Gizmo, 03 September 2017 - 12:31 AM.


#47
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@Bendu: Tyvm for posting this vid! :)

 

And I really appreciated it Feargus tour. He so funny, and like me, jovially talkative.

Still, there were some hush-hush stuff that he didn't want anyone to see, and that secrecy looming over the tour was hilarious, like a modern comedy Irvine version of Count Dracula, having his unsuspecting guest over at his castle in Transylvania. 

 

And Dan the Man, what can I say. The games he has coded are pretty darned good.

 

Also, I loved Justin Bell's office. It looked nice and still it had room for a number of odd instruments - there was more order than chaos, with post-its on that older washing machine wall with bullet holes (sic!).

And those quiet hours, 3-5PM, was a neat idea.

 

And Rob and his missing alkohol, hehe - where did his spirits go? ;)



#48
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Using the general industry accepted standards of what constitutes AAA.

What exactly are those; (is there an official requirement list)?

I got the impression long ago that the AAA label meant merely the approximate amount of money they planned to sink into the project... (with any measure of quality being an incidental side effect that hopefully comes of hiring good talent and letting them work unfettered—that doesn't imply that they must hire qualified talent to be AAA though). 

 

Is 'AAA' one of those "I dunno how to quantify it, but I know it when I see it" sort of deals?  I know I've seen some pretty disappointing games labeled AAA in recent years.

Or is AAA code for 'targeted only at the mass consumer market'; (and all of the negative design connotations that comes with that)?

 

 

Let's not over complicate it.  AAA is more colloquial than quantifiable and its standards are era-dependent. Basically AAA is what is considered as a game with a massive budget, with a large development team, with state of the art graphics and/or production values for the time it was in production, and with sales expectations congruent on an exponential scale as to what is considered to be a blockbuster.

 

Dragon Age: Inquisition = AAA

Pillars of Eternity = Not AAA

Mass Effect: Andromeda = AAA

Tyranny: Not AAA 


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#49
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Well to answer the question. I don't really have a preference for just one type of game. As far as "AA" games go, I think Obsidian is one of the better studios. They are one of my all time favorites after all.

 

Amongst forthcoming games Deadfire is at the top, but the others are mostly AAA. God of War, Red Dead Redemption 2, Cyberpunk 2077. I love AAA production, but too often profit and sales get in the way of a good game. I loved Mass Effect, by the end of 2 I knew I was done. I enjoyed DA:Origins and knew on sight of 2 I was done. So it all depends. Plus these days I'm a savvy consumer so I can wait out AAA games to find out if they actually deliver, usually I can tell if it's worth it by the first proper demonstration of the gameplay loop.

 

I find I'm kind of a console 1st party, PC old guard sort of player.



#50
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Obsidian Entertainment’s CEO is arguably RPG royalty.
 
 
With Pillars of Eternity finally arriving on console, Obsidian Entertainment continue to solidify their already rock-solid reputation as one of the most important creators of role playing games around today. Unlike many RPG studios, they’ve done it all: big budget, open games like Fallout: New Vegas, licensed adventures such as South Park: The Stick of Truth, plus smaller-scale revivals of classic isometric RPGs.
 
The choice to bring Pillars of Eternity to console is a brave one, dragging a format of RPG rarely seen on console to a new audience after some solid PC success. To celebrate the launch, we had a lengthy chat with Obsidian CEO and hardcore RPG nerd Feargus Urquhart about the genre at large, Obsidian’s future and the art of storytelling in RPGs. He’s really one of the best people you could speak to on this topic, having worked on scores of classic RPGs including the original Fallout titles, Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate and others.
 
This is a long, long chat – so strap yourselves in for a big one. Thanks to Feargus for nerding out about RPGs with us for so long.
 
VG247: So, the genesis of this chat was because of course Pillars of Eternity is coming to console. Why is now the right type for this really traditional type of RPG on console?
 
Feargus Urquhart: I think that… y’know, I think people have some very distinct games that they really love to play. There’s the people who love… they’re only going to play World of Tanks, or they’re only going to play League of Legends, or they’re only going to play Candy Crush… that’s a bad example, but y’know. There’s people that – they’re just going to play a certain style of game.
 
But I’m a big believer that more and more there’s definitely a lot of us out there, gamers, who are happy to play and try lots of different things. Y’know, I’ll play Undertale, then I’ll play Skyrim, then I’ll play Horizon. I’m often a bad example ‘cos that’s what I do for a living, but on the flip side I still play games when I’m home, so… that’s our idea. That people are increasingly interested in trying out lots of different stuff. I just see this stuff that my son plays – he’s 12, and, I mean, all the crazy stuff he plays… he’s not allowed to play New Vegas yet, but other than that… And somehow I feel like he’s probably played it anyway. [laughs]
 
But even… it’s interesting, even when I’ll go speak at junior highs – kids that are sort of somewhere between ten and fourteen – I was amazed a couple of years ago after South Park came out because they shouldn’t be playing South Park… but I was talking about the games I worked on – I worked on Star Wars, I worked on Fallout, blah blah blah, and oh we just came out with South Park… and they all start saying, ‘Oh, South Park is amazing!’ and I’m like… Ummmmm! How are you guys playing this game?! They all just smile.
 
So, I guess that’s what it is with Pillars on console. I think that there’s a lot of gamers out there that are willing to give different games a try, and I think it’ll be really cool to see its reception. Some of it is that – it’s like, let’s see. Way back when, Interplay was going to put the original Baldur’s Gate on PSX. Back then I think the technology and stuff meant that trying to put a game like Baldur’s Gate on the PSX was going to be a little hard, but I think now the technology is there, it can handle the graphics… Which sounds silly since it’s just a 2D, but the backgrounds are huge and immense, so…
 
It’ll be interesting, but yeah, I think that’s what it is – players now play a lot of different stuff, and I think they’ll be receptive.
 
What do you think has changed in the console RPG space, and how do you feel about where the genre is right now? I feel like it’s been a really interesting period since around the original Xbox – Japan struggling and now seeming to find their feet again, Western RPGs really figuring out what they need to be on console, all that.
 
It’s interesting that you mention the original Xbox… when I think of the original Xbox of course I think, for me, it’s Fable and Knights of the Old Republic – I think of those two. It’s interesting because I’m more of a proponent of Fable than I think most people are… I really enjoy Fable 3. I don’t know what happened there and why people were so negative.
 
I think ultimately, when I think about where RPGs are now… I think, y’know, part of it is I guess I have some criticism? I think that… I like the kind of RPGs we make. Of course I’m very biased because it’s what we do, but I really enjoy those type of games and I think that there’s been some push lately to make action as an absolute part of RPGs.
 
What I really see about RPGs and what I want to see us all be doing is creating these immersive worlds. Now, yes, immersive is a huge buzzy word, but I think that’s what they are to me. It is making games that I feel like I’m in this world, I have choice, I have agency, and those choices actually have a reaction in the world.
 
I think games like Uncharted – Uncharted is awesome. I’m actively engaged in the action, but I’m playing a story. I think that’s awesome, and I think those are like I love going to the movies, I love watching TV shows, I love games like that – but I think what’s awesome about RPGs is embracing this aspect of… we have this opportunity to kind of take people out of their real world, where sometimes… the real world sucks. Sometimes you don’t have power, and you don’t have choice – you just have… I have to go into the office and deal with the TPS reports and things like that.
 
I think that as a genre when we embrace the fact that we can truly take players somewhere else – and I’m not talking in VR, I’m talking mentally – we can take someone somewhere else and make them feel that they can be the character, the player, the persona that they want to be in that world, and the world reacts to that… and it’s telling them a story and putting them through scenes that are interesting at the same time… I think that’s when we are at our best. I would love to see us, all of us doing RPGs, doing that as much as possible.
 
Regarding that push towards action games, do you think that sometimes those two things can be at odds – the action and role playing? Bethesda’s experimented with that for instance, but hardcore RPG fans criticized Fallout 4 a lot for ‘not’ being a ‘proper’ RPG and such.
 
Yeah, I mean… I think it depends on what sort of action you want. Do you want Dark Souls like action where the focus is the action? Dark Souls is funny because I think sometimes there’s discussion about if Dark Souls is an RPG or not an RPG, and very much I feel it is an RPG – particularly as they went up from Demon Souls up to Dark Souls 3. I think that as game makers, we just have to look at… what does the action component of this game mean? What do we want out of it?
 
It was interesting – when we were making South Park, there was a lot of talk about making an action-like combat system. At one point we even had a couple of prototypes of people running around… it was this sort of weird active-turn-based system within that. But the action had to be zoomed out, and it couldn’t be… it was hard to have all these crazy big unicorns running around and Jesus coming down and all that. You couldn’t focus much on the personality of the characters and the things you could do with them. So that led to… well, let’s look at this turn-based and let’s just do everything we can with this turn-based thing because it fits more within the game itself.
 
In other words, I guess what I’m trying to say is… whenever we’re looking at games we shouldn’t just do action just for action’s sake. Action can absolutely fit, but it should be a part of the experience and fit in with the experience. It shouldn’t be like let’s make sure there’s a ton of action combat that requires a lot of skill because some RPG players aren’t as skillful action players, and we should take that into account depending on the type of game that we’re making.
 
Part of what makes Obsidian’s work stand out so much is your approach to storytelling and in particular branching stories and player choices. What’s the anatomy of a good Obsidian player choice?
 
With player choice, it can be often too easy to make it about good and evil, right? So player choice needs to be legitimate and it needs to be about the player and not the designer. I think that’s the biggest important thing. We’re at our best when we’re thinking about – okay, where is the player in the game? What do we feel that they’re thinking, what are they enjoying, and what are the type of players that they’re trying to be?
 
When we do that and give players choice based upon that… of course we can’t say you can be any type of player. You can’t be a serial killer and you can’t be a nun! [laughs] We still have to start with some sort of ground rules as far as what choices we’re giving the player to do… but it’s important to make those choices really make sense contextually within the quest and within the area of the game – it can’t just be do you shoot grandma or do you help her across the street. Now, fifteen, twenty years ago we were doing a lot more of that, but I think as time has gone on we’re understanding that better.
 
I think the other thing with choice is… hard choices are good, but they’re tiring. I think this is the other thing – so if you give players a hard choice that’s hard for anybody unless you’re a complete nun or a complete psychopath… those are great to have but they have to be used sparingly. This is because the player comes out of it kind of emotionally drained and if you do that too much… it’s like playing Doom 3! [laughs] It just ends up like, oh my god, stop. I think that’s an important part of it, and I think that’s what we focus on.
 
The last… the last really key thing about choice is consequence, right? The other thing we used to do and I think what we try to do better and better now is… consequence has a negative connotation. There’s this idea of… so, well, a consequence must be bad. No. What we mean is a reaction to what you did based upon how you did it. The player should always be ‘rewarded’ – in quotation marks – it’s not just that if you help this person you get 10 gold because you’re a good person but if you slit their throat you get all 1000 gold pieces on them.
 
It’s not that – it’s more what we really started doing in Alpha Protocol. So there’s an arms dealer, right – if you’re nice to him and you work with him then it means these kind of things will unfold across the rest of the game. Punch him in the face and slam his face into the bar and then another type of consequences and reactivity will happen. In a lot of ways it can all be rewards – it’s just different types of rewards, with the key reward being that what you get is tuned to how you as a player chose to go through that. That goes back to that immersion – it makes you feel like you’re in that game. If you slam his head in and he’s like ‘Alright dude!’ and then he reacts to that throughout the rest of the game and now he’s scared of you, the rewards in the game down the road are based on him being scared of you. I think that’s how we’ve tried to make choice as relevant and as impactful as possible.
 
Do you think tone can impact that? I felt like Mass Effect Andromeda suffered because they tried to remove that focus on black and white, being a saint or a ****. That sounded smart to me in theory, but when I played the game I felt like that pulpy sci-fi universe needed that black and white duality more than something like New Vegas. Does tone impact your approach to choices?
 
We have these conversations all the time here – I’m the Paladin character. I want to be the hero. We always talk about that in our games. Because sometimes we can get very wrapped up in… this is a tortured anti-hero and this, that and the other thing… but then I’m like – I want to go home, sit down and I want to be a good guy. Not like 100% lawful good, I don’t like being this shining pillar of the world or whatever. I can still be a tortured character, but within that let me be my hero. So whatever tone you have – be it dark or light or weird, I think you still kind of need to give players this opportunity to be the player that they want to be. We try to understand those things.
 
It’s tough. There is this modern… in our world today, not to make this about politics or anything like that, but there’s this idea of making everything so broad and so inclusive and all this and all that. That’s awesome, but I think that sometimes if we try to do that in a game it can risk flattening everything. In some ways we need to embrace the fact that ultimately we’re telling a story, and it’s fiction, and we’re trying to tell things that have themes, and we’re exploring those themes and those themes will require choices… and some of those choices in modern life you would never do. Some you’d go to jail for doing! That’s the difference between games and real life – it’s not meant to mimic real life, it’s meant for us to put players in these worlds and have them experience things that will be broader than real life.
 
Now Pillars of Eternity is very much done and dusted and the sequel is underway, what would you say you’ve learned about the old isometric Computer RPG genre?
 
The odd thing was how it’s still relevant. It learned that it’s still relevant. I still find it strange that the RTS isn’t a relevant genre… but they’re not made. I dunno – that’s a tangeant right there…
 
No, I’m with you. Any EA executive I meet I ask about Command & Conquer. [laughs]
 
Yeah. But the tough thing is there – and this totally makes sense for Activision and EA and Ubisoft… it’s tough to look at something, like, can we make a billion dollars out of it? A lot of people will go… well that’s silly, but it’s a hard thing when you have these really large companies for them to say let’s not make a billion dollar game, let’s make a 20 million dollar game. Let’s say that 20 million dollar game we triple our money on it… compared to the money made on something like Assassin’s Creed, why distract ourselves? So they’re not evil and they’re not wrong, but it’s… yeah, it’s an interesting thing.
 
Anyway, sorry… I think what we learned a lot is… When I look back at something like Icewind Dale and Baldur’s Gate… I think Baldur’s Gate was always more approachable than Icewind Dale in certain ways. Icewind Dale was more action just being in it, and when someone lives in Icewind Dale I think they really enjoyed their time… but Icewind Dale asked the player, with no tutorial, to create six Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition characters. Just go do it, then play the game! Nowadays we look back at that like… what the hell were we thinking?!
 
There was just… we made these assumptions about players. On the flip side I think that in the early 2000s there was a reaction to that – even we were doing that a little bit – treating our players like they were dumb. It just needs to all be about getting players into playing it, and then it can get complicated.
 
I’m not going to say that we’ve been wonderful about that with eternity, but we make it easier. What the genre has learned is that it needs to be easier to get into the game than it was back in Icewind Dale.
 
The other thing is that we want as many people as possible to play this, and so the game needs to communciate what’s going on. We did that a lot in Eternity 1, and the console version of Eternity is built off the latest version which does a lot more communcation with the player. Where is this spell going to go? How’s it going to explode? Is it going to be successful or not successful? Basically, helping people to understand the system with some numbers but also with graphics and icons and things like that rather than just going ‘hey, good luck’!
 
If there’s anything, I think that’s what the genre had to learn – this is not meant to be the most archaic football manager that’s basically just a spreadsheet RPG. It needs to be something where I’m led into it, I’m given information… and then I can enjoy. Some people may play it, directly control a character and just want to rush off and hack at things with a sword – and that’s awesome! But I think for people that could like this type of game where we’ve been pushing it to help them understand what’s been going on… that’s good.
 
This isn’t in the console version, but a thing we’ve put in Eternity 2 is this idea that you can throw a fireball out there and as the caster is casting the fireball you can pause, click on the area of effect of the fireball and move it. Things like that – helping the player to manage visually and with UI and stuff like that.
 
As a studio, you dabbled into other things with Armored Warfare – but have you come back around following the Pillars success to saying – hey, we’re an RPG studio, and this is it. This is what we do?
 
Absolutely. Armored Warfare was great for us and we’re absolutely proud of what we did – really proud, actually. I mean, going from a non-MMO studio at the end of 2012, early 2013 and by October 2015 basically… two and a half, two and three quarter years later, we’d built an entire MMO. Everything! The back-end, the front-end, the client – all that kind of stuff. So I’m really proud of that and I’m very proud of the team.
 
I think though that our knowledge, our experience and the thing that we love doing is making RPGs. So whenever we can do that, that’s what we want to do. It’s interesting – as I was telling you before we started, I was editing a pitch I’m sending off… it was supposed to be sent two hours ago, but that’s okay! [laughs] One of the things… we wrote up this thing probably three or four months ago that says when we’re evaluating a game – there’s usually four sections. Financial, who’s the player, but one of the big sections is ‘Why is this an Obsidian game?’ The counter to that is that we’re an independent studio. I’m not saying we want to whore ourselves out or anything like that, but there’s decisions we need to make sometimes because I want to keep on making games – sometimes that means making a game that’s a little shifted in one direction or another.
 
You’re never going to see us make a racing game, but I think that particularly with Armored Warfare… there were a couple of things going on. It was not a great year for independent studios. It was incredibly hard to sign anything in sort of the 2011 to 2013 time frame – it was just real bad. Then Armored Warfare came along and one of the key things it had was that there was a group of ten or fifteen people in the studio that loved World of Tanks and they wanted to make a game like that. If that didn’t exist, we would never have done Armored Warfare. I can’t make people love a genre, and if you don’t love a genre… you can be a professional and you can competently make a game, but you’ve got to love it to make it into something we all love.
 
It did other things for the studio. It got us making really big environments. Big surprise – we want to make RPGs with big environments, so it kept us in that game. There were lots of benefits to it.
 
Ultimately to answer your question though, it really is increasingly important to us that any game we do really is an Obsidian game.
 
You’ve obviously had a lot of success with Fig and Kickstarter now, getting smaller-scale projects off the ground – but you are still fishing about and looking for large-scale projects?
 
Yep! We’re a pretty big studio and it’s not a big surprise but Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky [Alumni of Fallout, Vampire: The Masquerade, Arcanum and others] work for us – that’s pretty public, and they’re not working on Eternity. [laughs] So it’s pretty much a two and two thing that people can put together.
 
But you’re right – I’ve talked to people publicly before about… my brain is this weird half-and-half of the business and the game. A lot of times that’s what I’m looking at, the business. I think I even said publicly at one point, y’know – doing two Eternity games makes us more money than doing a big game. Someone asked me recently… so then why do the big game? And I said… ‘cos we’re stupid. [laughs] No, it’s because that’s what we all got in here to do. We want to do the big RPG, and that’s… when I go home, that’s what I want to play, so that’s what we want to make for people.
 
You guys have played in the worlds of others a fair amount – is that something you’re still particularly keen to explore, even as you build your own?
 
When we look at other worlds – Star Wars, D&D, South Park, things like that – we like doing those things. That’s for a lot of different reasons. Making a new IP is hard, and stressful, and tiring. I don’t want to say working in somebody else’s world is a break because it’s not in the long term, but it’s a change. You get to shift your brain and go exist in someone else’s world. Since we started working on D&D games back at Black Isle in the 90s it’s always been our feeling that D&D is not ours. We love it, but it’s not ours – and so we need to be good shepherds. That’s the most important thing.
 
The IP, the brand, the world – that is what’s important. Then let’s go tell a really cool story within that which fits it. I think when you take it that way and you always protect that… a lot of IPs, after we’d been working with it for a while we get very little brand feedback because we’re protecting it as much because it’s important to us. When we protect it and tell our story within it, maybe that’s what makes it resonate with people – because our story isn’t fighting the brand.
 
It’s maybe a different feeling of story or a different story, but the story is still reinforcing the brand rather than just telling a story while the brand is just there. Maybe that’s why what we do resonates? I don’t know. It’s funny, we don’t really think about this… we just do it. I know some people think we just sit in rooms with our big brains… and we do that about some things, but not everything. Sometimes we can’t tell you why something was as successful as it was – we just know that it was.
 
Let’s talk about Pillars of Eternity 2. At a high level, what’s your vision and aim for the sequel?
 
We learned a lot making Pillars. We built a whole engine, we had to do the kickstarter thing – and that was all great. The thing about Pillars is we wanted to make it… we used the example and I almost hate to say it… but we always try to use the example of Baldur’s Gate 1 to Baldur’s Gate 2. That’s sort of like – BG1 was building the engine and figuring out how to make role playing games, and BG2 was okay, we’ve figured this all out and we’re going to use our engine again and make this incredible sequel – and that turned out amazing.
 
Now size-wise we can’t mimic BG2 just because making a 200-hour game is just insane. But what we did learn is what we can do to… how to say – how to flesh it out and make everything feel like more. From the standpoint of things like one of our big criticisms was that the characters were okay, but they weren’t great. They look really, really good now and everything is unique. We’ve put more animators on it. Y’know, people can sit down now! [laughs] And they can even get back up!
 
The world too – because we’ve moved to this Caribbean setting there’s winds and we wanted trees to move and so we came up with a way to have moving trees within our 2D backgrounds. We wanted effects and fireballs to just have way more parts and pieces and so we worked on that. We created the world map, so you can take your ship and go around where ever you want – so it’s more open. We just wanted it to feel more open and dynamic.
 
Pillars is awesome and it’s still a great game, but it wasn’t as open and as dynamic as Eternity 2 is gonna be. That’s what it is – it feels like it’s now more of… In Pillars 1 you were in an area. In Pillars 2 you have a whole part of the world to explore.
 
To close off I want to ask some of the obvious, wishy-washy, pie in the sky questions. If you were going to revisit something from your past, what would it be? Another Fallout? Alpha Protocol? Star Wars? Something from the Black Isle days?
 
Y’know, that’s interesting! I would… what would I want to do…? Um… A part of me I would say… I’d love to do another Fallout, but I kind of want to come up with a better answer than that. I love Star Wars.
 
We talked a lot before InExile did Torment about if we wanted to do another Torment. Another Torment is interesting to me because I love the ending of Torment. It’s almost like the character walking away from the vault in the original Fallout. If we wanted to return to Planescape and Torment at some point, I don’t know what you’d do, I don’t have a good answer for that. We never did.
 
I would… I think it’s Alpha Protocol. I would want to go back from everything that we learned and do that because I think there’s a lot that can be done. We had some really cool ideas for Alpha Protocol 2. That would be it. I think I’d want to do Alpha Protocol 2, particularly now that it’s almost like the game has sort of… I don’t want to say aged, because I mean it in a positive sense. It’s found what people love about it and what we love about it, and now I think we could express it differently fixing a lot of the things that weren’t maybe what they should’ve been.
 
No, yeah. It’d be Alpha Protocol.
 
And – don’t kill me for asking this one – if you had a blank check and you were going to pick somebody else’s playground to play in… what would you do?
 
Hm! It’s interesting. What comes to mind is… and it’s hard, because I’m a product of the 70s. I was born in 1970 and so when I was 7… Star Wars came out. I think if I had a blank cheque and I was going for somebody else’s IP that’s what I would do. Partly because Star Wars is just such an interesting thing – I mean, it’s hard to do Jedi in RPGs because they’re supposed to be these all-powerful fighter magic users, but you can get around that.
 
I think that it’s just… it’s a sci-fi fantasy. It’s not just sci-fi, it’s like D&D in space. It sounds odd because I’m looking at it that way, but it just opens up… there’s all these different worlds, there’s enemies that people just understand and get. You have all these different races too, and it’s just something that people – myself included – it just makes us happy. Star Wars just makes me happy. I almost wish I had a better answer, but that’s the real answer. [laughs]
 
I also think it’d be interesting to do Harry Potter. I think that world where it’s the real world and the magic world mixed together… I think there’s something there as well. There’s like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere which is cool. Simon Greene has done this series of novels about the Dark Side – both of them are places that you get to from London, I don’t know why… I think there’s something else there, but it’s nothing like Star Wars.

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Beyond Infinity: Obsidian on modernising the art of the isometric RPG
Rick Lane on September 4th, 2017 at 9:00 pm.
 
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When Obsidian Entertainment started work on Pillars of Eternity [Official Site], the studio had two goals in mind. First, it wanted to recreate the style and tone of the classic Black Isle RPGs – particularly Baldur’s Gate. Second, it wanted to modernise that style, taking advantage of today’s technology, and avoiding mistakes made the first time around.
 
In both cases, the visual representation of Pillars’ fantasy world was crucial to the success of the project. Baldur’s Gate’s distinctive pre-rendered backgrounds have become synonymous with isometric RPGs, and as a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate, Pillars needed to evoke that look. But Obsidian also wanted to bring those static backdrops to life using modern graphical techniques: dynamic lighting, particle effects, 3D character models. It would be a blend of old and new, fusing the visual style of Black Isle with modern techniques.
 
To help promote the Kickstarter campaign, Obsidian released a concept image of what they intended the final game to look like. It’s a gorgeous picture, depicting an idyllic pastoral landscape with verdant foliage, a lichen-covered bridge, ancient marble statues and a crystalline waterfall. It sold the fantasy brilliantly, helping to raise almost four times the funding Obsidian originally asked for.
 
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There was just one small problem. Obsidian didn’t know how to make the game look like that.
 
“We had no idea how the tech would even work at the time,” says Adam Brennecke, executive producer on Pillars of Eternity. “The next eight months of development was trying to figure out how to actually make a game that still looked like the Infinity Engine.”
 
Recreating the aesthetic of a fifteen-year-old, two dimensional RPG sounds like it should be easy, especially with the technology available to today’s developers. But Baldur’s Gate was built on a unique and highly idiosyncratic engine, using a rendering technique that has been somewhat lost to the ages. The problem revolved around Baldur’s Gate’s use of pre-rendered backdrops. Pre-rendering was a clever way of creating detailed, high-resolution environments at a low cost to performance, as the static image means the computer doesn’t have to redraw it with each new frame.
 
Today, there’s no need for pre-rendering because games can render stunning 3D environments in real-time. Nevertheless, this was the approach Baldur’s Gate used and Obsidian needed to mimic that to live up to their promise. But to look good on a modern PC screen, a pre-rendered image needs to be many times sharper and more detailed than back in 1999.
 
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In theory, this isn’t a problem. In fact with today’s computers you can potentially render an image with an infinite number of polygons, something that Obsidian had a lot of fun experimenting with. “Our backgrounds, they have millions and millions of really high poly, highly dense geometry, and the art-team just go wild with it.”
 
The problem is that rendering these images at such detail takes a lot of time. “It takes days to render these images out, because they’re so high-res, they’re 10,000 by 10,000 pixels,” says Brennecke. “It’s more like how a movie is made, where you need a fat renderer farm with a lot of computers churning out these really highly dense, really crazy images all night and all day….that was a big learning process for us, how to hit that balance and figure out how to render things offline.”
 
Alongside the brute-force of rendering these images, Obsidian needed to adapt the Baldur’s Gate style to suit these sharper images. For inspiration, the art team looked to the Hudson River School, a 19th Century American art movement which produced pastoral landscapes heavily influenced by romanticism. Meanwhile, one of Obsidian’s engineers, Michael Edwards, created a pixel shader that accurately mimicked the Infinity Engine’s approach to rendering. “It was a very accurate representation of how the Infinity engine kind of did their rendering pipeline,” Brennecke says.
 
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With the basics in place, Obsidian created their first dungeon, only to find it looked nothing like Baldur’s Gate. So they went back to Baldur’s Gate and re-examined that game’s aesthetic from every possible angle. “There were a lot of little tricks that they learned how to present the image. For example, especially for interior areas, the front-facing walls are all not there. You don’t draw those at all.” Brennecke says. “The tops of the walls are all black. So it makes, like, where this image is sitting in a black void. Our first prototype dungeons didn’t look anything like that.”
 
Obsidian’s art team also struggled adjusting to drawing isometric backdrops in general, not only making environments look nice, but also appear proportionally correct from that perspective. “For any height difference, you need a ramp to connect those heights, and whenever you have a ramp that is sloping away from you, it ceases to read as a ramp in our mind because there is no perspective, there is no sense of depth,” says Kaz Aruga, concept artist on Pillars of Eternity and lead artist for Pillars 2. “As you go up the image, you want to make sure it’s increasing in height, not decreasing.”
 
Eventually, the art-team focussed on developing one area, a tavern interior, with a mind to replicating the Infinity style as accurately as possible. “When we got it into the game, we were like ‘Hey that looks good, we hit the mark with that.’ Then we designed our dungeons with all that in mind,” Brennecke says.
 
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Like many developers, Obsidian’s design team had spent years working with real-time 3D graphics. Hence, trying to create 2D, pre-rendered, isometric visuals was like forcing a modern textile manufacturer to work with a spinning jenny. When Obsidian began the process of introducing more modern elements like 3D models to Pillars of Eternity, the process became considerably easier.
 
“The decision to go 3D with the characters was pretty much a no-brainer for us,” says Aruga. “If you go pure 2D you’re making everything, and everything is raw data at that point. So you’re losing a lot of flexibility, like a hat that got rendered out for a set of sprites may not work for a slightly larger character and that’s a unique asset you have to create. Whereas 3D, you just make the abstract hat asset once, and it pops onto the various different rigs.”
 
The same goes for lighting and shading. Back in the early isometric days with games like Fallout, all of the lighting and shading information had to be detailed manually, a painstaking process undertaken at the time by a designer named of Scott Everts. “He had to paint into the tint information for every single map, for every location,” Aruga says. “So imagine like a fiery, reddish-lit temple interior or something. He would have to go in and define how the character sprites would be tinted.” In Pillars of Eternity, all that information is calculated by the lighting engine, so all the artists have to do is place the lights and define colour, intensity and other variables to create the desired effect.
 
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Replicating the look and vibe of Baldur’s Gate applied not only to the general aesthetic of Pillars of Eternity but also to the fantasy world Obsidian was building. Given that the game was crowdfunded, Obsidian was aware that backers would have certain expectations of what the experience would be like. Consequently, Obsidian focussed on making the fantasy world grounded and believable over unique and unusual.
 
At the same time, however, they didn’t want to fall too deeply into cliché. “We base everything in sixteenth-century, central medieval Europe, or medieval time-period, in between medieval and renaissance,” says Brennecke. “And when we introduce fantasy elements, we try to introduce them where it’s like, you kind of know what it is right off the bat, but there’s a unique twist to it, or something that’s unusual about it.”
 
The key thing with Pillars, however, was to get the game out the door. To get the art-style right, to get the tech working, to meet the expectations of the Kickstarer backers. Yet while Obsidian worked on Pillars, it was also developing another isometric RPG, one with goals at the opposite end of the fantasy spectrum.
 
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Where Pillars of Eternity was designed to meet the expectations of Black Isle fans, in many ways Tyranny was designed to subvert them. It’s an RPG where the evil overlord has won, where your character gets to decide not how to save the world, but how to subjugate it to their will. Even the game’s development cycle was markedly different from Pillars. Where with Pillars a lot of the time was spent getting the tech to work, Tyranny didn’t have to worry about any of that. Indeed, there was a period towards the end of Pillars’ development where the Tyranny team consisted solely of artists, because as game director Brian Heins jokes, “at one point they stole all of our programmers for several months.”
 
With Tyranny, Henis deliberately wanted to move away from the traditional style that Pillars embraced. This was partly because of the darker, more modern themes that Tyranny was exploring, but also so that people didn’t confuse Tyranny as a sequel or spiritual successor to Pillars. “We wanted to make sure that the game didn’t feel like it was, uh, Pillars 1.5, or was trying to step on the toes of the Pillars franchise,” Henis says. “It was like ‘Well if you have screenshots side-by-side of the two games, and they don’t look like each other. People aren’t going to expect that they are sequels of each others, or set in the same world.”
 
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For Tyranny’s art, the designers deliberately moved away from the grounded fantasy of Pillars, shifting toward something more surreal and stylised. “We tend to have much more simplified forms,” Henis explains. “Like with the characters, if you open the paper doll, you can see they have much more sharply defined lines than a realistic approach would. And we had the same approach to the environment. Even our textures, we went much more low-detail on the texture. Probably [an] even more painted look to the textures than even Pillars 1 did.”
 
Alongside helping to distinguish Tyranny from Pillars at-a-glance, this more stylised form also acted as a buffer between the player and the subject-matter. Depicting Tyranny’s downtrodden and decaying realm was a difficult balancing act for the team, as they didn’t want to make it so grim and depressing that nobody wanted to play. “We had to kind of find this balance of straddling the line between something that looked beautiful, but not so beautiful that it felt like it was a happy fantasy-land,” Heins says.
 
The more abstract, surreal style was one approach to doing this, but the designers coupled this with small yet frequent reminders of the long and bloody war for which the player is tasked with swinging the final blow. “Every armour piece that you find has dents and nicks and corrosion, nothing’s brand new and shiny. Everything has been through the war. Every detail you look at, canvas tarps are mended and patched. Nothing is pristine,” Henis says.
 
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Within a year Obsidian had released two very different isometric RPGs, one a classic, grounded fantasy, the other dark, twisted and unconventional. Now they’re working on a third – Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire. For the sequel, Obsidian has taken cues from both previous projects, retaining that link to the classic Infinity RPGs, but setting their story in a new, and far more exotic location. “Deadfire is a place where it is very different from the Deerwood,” Brennecke says. “The cultures that you’ll find there, the look of the buildings, the architecture, the cities are all completely new and different.”
 
To complement this, Obsidian is working on a much more complex blend of pre-rendered and real-time elements. This includes reflection probes – so the pre-rendered backgrounds will be reflected in metallic objects such as 3D armour worn by your party. In addition, characters will be lit by indirect lighting from the pre-rendered scene. “So for example, if you have a red light, and it bounces down the hallway, our characters are actually lit properly with that bounce-light,” Brennecke adds.
 
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Perhaps most intriguingly of all, in response to criticisms that the’ environments were too static, Obsidian has reworked the tech so that these pre-rendered background will, somehow, cast real-time shadows. “The pre-rendered elements in the background scene will actually cast a shadow, so you can calculate cast-shadows from a cliff-side that is pre-rendered, casting a shadow onto the 3D characters who are overlaid in front. Kind of twists your mind a little bit,” Aruga says.
 
Obsidian is so pleased with the way the lighting and the backgrounds react with one-another that they’ve partially built a party character around the effect to show it off. “One of the characters that you get fairly early-on is a character named Shodi, and Shodi has a lantern that she holds. There’s a narrative reason why she has a lantern. But it’s really cool because you get her early on and you can adventure with her.” Aruga says. “Walking down very dimly lit dungeons, you can see how all the materials react with one another, how the light bounces off walls and stuff like that. It looks amazing.”
 
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With Pillars of Eternity, Obsidian knew what kind of game they wanted to make, but didn’t know how to make it. With the sequel, both these potential problems have already been solved, and Obsidian can simply focus on making the game they want to make. “We did the heavy lifting in the base game,” Aruga concludes. “If the base game was like a rollercoaster, where we’re fixing the coaster as it was going up the hill, it feels like Pillars 2, the production feels like riding a Lamborghini or something. It’s so much smoother.”

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He’s Getting a Fireball: Josh Sawyer Reflects on Nearly 20 Years Spent Making RPG Classics for Obsidian and Black Isle Studios
Obsidian’s veteran RPG designer talks about getting into the industry, working on some of the best RPGs ever, and what he does to monologuing villains.
 
 
It's a quiet Wednesday morning; and what has become a regular ritual for the Obsidian, Josh Sawyer has brought bagels for the team. He enjoys it because it brings him back to college, where it was much easier to bike around than in Irvine.
 
Soft-spoken and yet loquacious, Sawyer will rarely speak until a topic peaks his interest, at which point he will hold forth for seemingly minutes at a time. And as it happens, quite a few topics peak his interest: fencing, history, tattoos. At one point he even attended the Lawrence Conservatory of Music for vocal performance (he quickly switched to history).
 
But what Sawyer is best-known for is RPG design, which is why he's been at Obsidian-and before that, Black Isle Studios-for more than a decade. Sawyer has worked on some of the best-loved RPGs around, and he brings the same laser-focused intensity to his work as a designer that he does to his conversations.
 
I recently sat down with Sawyer to discuss his nearly 20 year journey through the industry, which has taken him from a small town in Wisconsin, through the collapse of Black Isle Studios, and into Obsidian, where he is currently working on Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire. Below you can find his reflections on his successes and failures, the challenges he's faced through his career, and most importantly, why he's prone to throwing fireballs in the faces of monologuing villains.
 
Origin Story
Josh Sawyer grew up in a small town in Wisconsin. An introverted, artistic kid, he mainly gravitated toward games as his outlet. Dungeons& Dragons were where he found friends, and also an understanding of how games really worked.
 
You grew up in Wisconsin in kind of a small town. Is that fair to say?
 
Josh Sawyer:: Yeah. It's Fort Atkinson which, when I was growing up I think it was 10,000, now I think it's 11, maybe 12,000 people. Yeah, it's very typical of a Wisconsin town. There are lots of 10,000 population towns all over Wisconsin. Now my family lives in a little teeny town of like 2,000 people. It's technically like a village, I guess.
 
It was a pretty typical sort of upbringing. We moved around a lot but usually lived in farmhouses in the countryside and just went to public schools.
 
The Bard's Tale was the first CRPG that you saw.
 
JS: Yeah. That was pretty weird. I actually started playing D&D before I really knew about CRPGs. My family didn't really have a lot of money growing up and so having a computer was not really a thing, especially since computers were relatively expensive back then, but we had a really nice public library. I went to the public library with a few of my friends and I saw this older kid on a Commodore 64 playing something and I was like, "What in the world am I looking at?" It was Bard's Tale and it was incredible to me.
 
This older kid, Tony, he was actually pretty nice. He was, I want to say like six, maybe eight years older than me, but he was pretty nice to me considering I was a little kid and he was in high school. He told me all about it and I said, "Oh yeah, we play D&D." He was like, "Oh, what do you play," and I was like, "Oh, I play Expert with my friend Ryan." He was like, "Oh, me and my friends play Advanced," and I was like, "I don't even know what that is!"
 
I started playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons with Tony and his friends. It's a small town so there was lots of connections between, like so one of Tony's friends who played in the game was the son of the guy who owned the pizza joint where everyone went after the football games.
 
It was pretty cool. It was sort of a way for me for me to socialize, because I grew up in the countryside and I wasn't super social and because we moved around a lot. I didn't have a ton of close friends but I knew a lot of people. Like when I went to high school, I knew almost everyone because I had gone to every public school in the area and I had played basketball with the kids from the parochial schools as well, but I didn't really have close friends. D&D was one of the ways where I finally started to get friends that were more than just kind of superficial, more than acquaintances, I guess.
 
I'm not a designer by any means, but I used to make missions and that kind of thing. I would also play the occasional tabletop game, and it did get me thinking in kind of game design terms. Was that the same for you?
 
JS: Yeah, very much so. I started thinking like, "I don't really like how these rules encourage this behavior or how these rules discourage this a cool and fun behavior." Or, "I don't really understand what this rule accomplishes, like why is this rule here? What good does it do?" That's when I started just modifying rules, just sort of saying to the players, "Hey, I'm going to change this. Does anyone really care?" Sometimes they cared, most of the time they were like, "No, that's fine." Sometimes it was to their benefit and so they were like, "Oh great, sure, change whatever you want.
 
Then in college, I played a lot more tabletop games. Played GURPS, played Vampire, played Legend of the Five Rings, played a lot of this stuff and so I was getting exposure to different mechanics that were just fundamentally really different from AD&D's. Then I started thinking, "Oh, okay, so this is another way that you can do things and this is what this accomplishes and this is what this really doesn't accomplish," or, "These are the problems that arise in something like Shadowrun." People joke about rolling 26 sided dice to do things.
 
Also, a friend and a classmate of mine, Gerald Strandberg, was designing his own roleplaying game and he wanted playtesters. I signed up to just break the rules. I would be the guy who said, "Hey Gerald, you know if you do this then you can basically break the game," and he's like, "I don't think that's true," and I'm like, "Here we go, my friend." I'd start building the characters. "Okay, okay, okay, you proved the point, you proved the point!" It wasn't to do anything malicious, it was literally to help him. I said, "There is a structural problem here."
 
College was when I started developing my own tabletop roleplaying game and playing with my friends. I ran a campaign for a few years and that was really complicated, but it also showed because in my mind, being a young amateur game designer, I was like, "Oh, I want to simulate things more, I want it to be more realistic." But in doing that I also saw, "Oh, this can really slow the game down, there are drawbacks to doing this."
 
I think that's when I started to understand that design is less about coming up with a perfect decision. Like, "Oh, this is the perfect answer to the problem." It's more about what compromises you are willing to deal with, because there are really tradeoffs to almost any decision you can make. There are people that you're going to make happy, people who are not going to be happy, things that you're going to accomplish, things that you're not going to accomplish, things that you're going to cause to happen that are negative, but you have to weigh them against, "Well, that's a negative, but I think that overall accomplishes something good, so I'm willing to accept that."
 
Even as an amateur designer I was starting to get a picture of design as about deciding what you want to do. Like fundamentally at a high level, "What am I trying to accomplish with these rules, these characters, these systems," and then thinking about, "Okay, if this what I'm trying to do, how can I get there?" Constantly reevaluating and saying, "Am I still really getting to where I want to go or have I gone astray?" That helps redirect me into hopefully something better.
 
Who was your favorite character?
 
JS: The character that I really liked in college was a holy strategist of the Red Knight, so she was a cleric of the goddess of strategy and tactics. That was the character I made for the Second Edition campaign because it kind of allowed me to metagame in character, like I could have a character who was min-maxing because that was her point.
 
She was a little non-traditional in a few ways. She was physically not very strong, which as a cleric can be a liability in Second Edition because you kind of expect them to do a little bit of melee fighting, but she had an 18 in intelligence, which is not really an asset for a cleric but that's the character that I wanted to play. As this super intelligent priest of tactics, she was pretty wise and sort of charismatic. But she was also ruthless, always thinking about how she could get the drop on people, how people could get the drop on them and really pragmatic.
 
The party got this magic item called the Medegian Bracelet of Lost Ships and we got a Helm of Underwater Action, and so we used those to find a sunken Cali****e war galley I think that had sunk off of the Sword Coast. We were like, "God, how are we going to get this thing out of here?" She was like, "Okay, I've got a plan."
 
We went to the Priests of Lathander in, I think it was Lathtarl's Lantern on the Sword Coast. We were like, "Hey, we will make a big donation to your church. We know that you have the spell Rosemantle that can be used to repair damage to things. Would you come out with us to the ocean and help us fix this ship?" They're like, "What? Okay, I guess that's fine."
 
We went out there and we used the Medegian Bracelet of Lost Ships. We had our ranger put on the Helm of Underwater Action and go around down below and scout it out. We brought it up and the Priests of Lathander, they patched the ship up. They were like, "How are you going to get this thing back to shore?" I was like, "Oh, we got some ways to take care of that. Here's the donation, see you guys later," and they went back to shore.
 
Then my character animated all the dead sailors and had them sail the ship back. When they got into port, the Priests of Lathander were like, "What are you doing?" Because it's a bunch of undead. She was like, "What's the big deal?" She dismissed them all. She was like, "It doesn't matter. They're all resting now. It's no big deal."
 
That was a really fun character to play, just in part because she was kind of against type. She wasn't physically strong, she wasn't actually super wise, but she was very smart. And being able to metagame or min-max in character was pretty fun.
 
What was the eureka moment that made you go, "Yes, I want to work in games"?
 
JS: I always thought I was going to work on tabletop games. I think it was in high school. I don't think there was a eureka moment, I think I started to realize, "Hey, you can just make rules." This is something I sort of tell people all the time, like, "You know, roleplaying games a lot of times in the books will say, 'Hey, you're free to change any of these rules.'" But a lot of people feel very paralyzed, they don't really do it. I'm like, "No, no, you can just do whatever you want." There are going to be consequences to I,t but you can just get rid of a rule, you can change a rule, you can do whatever you want. You can sit down and you can write all your own rules for you and your friends. You don't even have to write all of them, you just have to write the rules that you need and that's enough.
 
When I started realized you could do that, I felt like almost anyone could do this. Like they wouldn't necessarily do it well, but I think I could do a pretty good job of it. That's when I started thinking, "I think I want to be a tabletop game designer." I had no idea how in the world I was going to do that. I had no idea how that industry even worked even though my dad had worked with TSR and with TSR artists and all this other stuff, but that was in my mind. I was like, "Oh yeah, I'm going to be a tabletop game designer."
 
It was just luck that wound up getting me a job at Black Isle working on computer roleplaying games that happened to be based on tabletop roleplaying games. It was just incredible lucky, really, that I wound up in the game industry at all.
 
 
Black Isle Studios
Josh Sawyer applied to Black Isle Studios as a web designer and was ultimately hired after the first choice moved to Seattle. Soon, Sawyer was a junior designer working on Ice Wind Dale.
 
Can you paint a picture of what Black Isle was like back in those days? Coming to Black Isle, it was lots of dudes, lots of young dudes mostly. There were some people that had been in the industry there for quite a while, some of whom still work here at Obsidian.
 
Icewind Dale was interesting because we had no leads. It was almost entirely juniors, so it was a bunch of junior designers. Some of them had worked on Torment, but they were still juniors.
 
That was when I lived very close to work in Irvine. I lived with a coworker, Jacob Devore, who was a programmer at Black Isle, and we went to work pretty much every day. I didn't really have a life outside of work. Part of that was because the school has a very compact campus. Everyone is required to live on campus and you don't really need a car It was very hard for me to think outside of just waking up, going to work, doing a bunch of stuff, playing Tribes--I played a lot of Tribes--and then coming home.
 
It was a little more stressful than Obsidian in a lot of ways. There were more personality problems to manage, I think in part because there were so many us who were very young and inexperienced and we were just brats and professionalism was not a thing that we really understood. If we got into arguments, they could just be big, stupid arguments. For the most part, though, surprisingly we got along on stuff.
 
It was a bunch of people just trying stuff. For me, from my perspective, I think Colin McComb recognized pretty early that I knew the Forgotten Realms and Dungeons& Dragons really, really thoroughly, and so I was the person on the team who was the most driven to get all the Forgotten Realms elements in, to get all the rules as close as possible.
 
One of the things that always bugged me, because Baldur's Gate came out before I came to Black Isle and I was really irritated that none of the racial bonuses were implemented. So as soon as I got onto Icewind Dale I'm like, "Okay, we're implementing all these racial bonuses. Elves get resistance to Sleeping Charm," an so on. I was the person who was really into all the lore stuff and trying to get all that really accurate.
 
I remember people loved working on games. Maybe not every single person, but overall the feeling was that people wanted to work hard. We never had required overtime, but people were there all the time because they just wanted to make cool games, and so we just wanted to be at work doing that, and we were in our 20s.
 
Was Colin McComb kind of a mentor?
 
JS: I wouldn't necessarily say that. It's kind of weird. One of the things that's sort of unfortunate is that, I mean I respect Colin a lot, don't get me wrong, but the Icewind Dale project was a bunch of juniors without leads. Colin gave feedback, Colin came up with the name of Yxunomei because I was like, "Okay Colin, you come up with goofy fantasy names. Give me something with Xs or Zs in it or some apostrophes." Chris Avellone gave feedback and he eventually wound up writing some characters and things like that, but they had other stuff to work on.
 
It was sort of a weird environment where there wasn't formal mentoring. We sort of learned things as we went along. We got feedback from the more senior designers, but it was just less structured, I think, than a lot of companies are in terms of a junior comes on and they're immediately put with a senior person or a lead to help guide them. But that really wasn't the vibe at Black Isle. It was kind of, "Make stuff! Talk to each other! Figure out how to make more stuff!"
 
Any particular hard lessons or things that you learned from Icewind Dale where you were like, "Oh, don't do that again?"
 
JS: Oh, there was tons of stuff that was not good. There was lots of stuff about level design. I started as an area designer even though I was doing a lot of system design as well. But things about level flow and layout, the fact that Dragon's Eye was five levels deep and had no backdoor to get out of so you had to march all the way back out to the top.
 
I did learn some good things, I think, in Dragon's Eye even though it didn't make necessarily great sense. There were some good things I wound up doing there in terms of varying the enemies that you fought so that as you go from level to level to level you feel like, "Oh wow." Not necessarily that each encounter is new, but that each level is certainly new.
 
There were certain other things that I did, like not randomizing unique items that people rely on for their build. Also making sure that everything that you can specialize in as a weapon is represented in the game by a unique item, so if someone says, "I'm going to be a short bow specialist," there should be a weapon that's better than +1 Short Bow in the game.
 
There's just a lot of things to think about, and a lot of this came out in the feedback where people were like, "What the hell, I made this character and I was hoping to get this mace, but that mace is randomized, so on my playthrough I never found it."
 
I thought it would be cool, sort of like tabletop. Like, sometimes you find the thing you want and sometimes you don't. When a person is investing that amount of time into a CRPG, though, they just get more aggravated.
 
A lot of people associate you closely with Chris. Is it fair to say that you guys had a really close working relationship, and how did that mature and grow over time?
 
JS: It changed from time to time. On some projects we worked closely together, on some projects we didn't work on at all. Certainly Chris is really fundamentally responsible for how we wrote dialogue at Black Isle. Colin was also a huge influence on that. As we came over to Obsidian, Chris was the driving force behind, like these are the standards for how we write things, how we format things, and he was always very quick to give constructive feedback on story elements, character development, things like that.
 
Our paths sort of crossed at various places. On Icewind Dale, he wound up writing a few characters, and then in Heart of Winter he wrote a few additional characters, but it wasn't like a very close working relationship. Then on Fallout 3 he was the lead designer and I was the lead systems guy. We worked closer on that because Chris had the Fallout bible that he had written, and so I was trying to help focus. Like, "Okay, is there a single story in here that we can take and actually move forward with," because he had an incredible range of ideas.
 
The other thing that Chris did was he ran a Fallout tabletop game based on the computer mechanics at Black Isle, and so I was one of the people playing in his campaign there. Then at Obsidian, the games that we worked most closely on were Fallout: New Vegas. Chris was not super involved on the core of Fallout: New Vegas. He worked a little bit with me and with John Gonzales on cleaning up the story and certain character things, in part because John Gonzales, who's a great writer, was not used to writing branching narratives and stuff like that, so Chris and I worked a lot with John to evolve that.
 
Chris wrote Cass, one of the companions. Then as the main game wrapped up, Chris was the director on Dead Money, on Old World Blues and Lonesome Road. I was the director on Honest Hearts and Gun Runner's Arsenal. Although Gun Runner's Arsenal didn't really have anything to do with the rest of the stuff, Chris and I had to collaborate a lot to make sure that the DLCs actually fit together with Fallout: New Vegas and the core game. He had a certain progression towards Ulysses in mind, and Honest Hearts needed to fit into that progression.
 
What was the number one thing that you learned from working with Chris Avellone?
 
JS: I would say it's thinking about what the player wants to do. There's pictures of Chris around the office with a speech bubble that says, "Can I make a speech check here? Because I really want to make a speech check."
 
The idea is like if a NPC says something, imagine if you're sitting at a table. You have to write the possibilities of what the player can say. If an NPC is a jerk, think about, "Okay, well how is a player going to want to respond? How are different players going to want to respond? Is the player going to want to slap this character? Is the player going to want to take the high ground and be above it all? Are they going to be quiet and just accept it? Or are they going to want to do something else?" Also like, "Oh, if there's a quest that presents this thing, does that sort of beg, 'Oh, I'm a character with these skills and that makes me want to do these things?'"
 
He was always the guy who was pushing for us as designers to find ways to respond. Not only to give players opportunities to slap the guy who makes fun of you, but also saying, "Hey, if you have this skill in the game, if you have electronics in the game, you have to find ways to bring electronics to the surface and let a character who specializes in electronics feel like they are a cool character." He reinforced that a lot.
 
Sometimes when we would play through games, he would make a character with an odd build that would seem kind of unusual and he would say, "Why can't I use these things," which is a good point. Again, if you make a character that's built in a certain way, if the player doesn't have some opportunity to really shine and go, "Ah yes, finally, all those points I put into doctor make me feel like I'm really cool," then that sucks. It feels like a huge letdown.
 
Black Isle obviously produced some of the best CRPGs ever. Planescape: Torment, Fallout. What was the secret?
 
JS: do think that the huge focus on really trying to let players define who they were and express that and have the world respond to it instead of just boxing them in. Instead of the designer saying, "This is my story and you're here to go through it," you're saying, "Here is a story, here is part of a story, here's half of a story, and here is a space where you decide how the other half comes into this."
 
It's saying that when you, I think back to, I'll pick on one of my DMs from high school. I won't name him, but he had this tendency to read big chunks of block text, like soliloquies from villains. It gets kind of boring. He had this wizard come down these stairs, actually I think it was a lich or something, and he started reading this box text and he started to talk and I'm like, "Hey dude, fireball." He's like, "What?" I'm like, "That guy's getting a fireball." He's like, "Oh, but he just started talking." I'm like, "He's getting a fireball."
 
He was really upset and I'm like, "I'm not going to listen to this guy. This dude has been tormenting us. He's screwed with us. He yanked us off our ship. I don't want to hear what he has to say. I want to throw a fireball at him," and so he's like, "Okay." And so I f*cking just blew this dude up with a fireball!
 
I think about that and I think about other DMs who try to bend over backwards to make the player go on their story. That's not why people really play those games. When I listen to people talk about their favorite roleplaying game experiences, I'm talking about tabletop, they're not talking about the DM's story. That's not what people talk about. That's literally never what people talk about. They talk about, "Dude, we got in this thing, and I smacked this guy, and then they called the guards, and then I jumped out the window and my character broke their leg, and then..." It's like all this sort of side stuff where they improvise and they do the unexpected thing and they just lash out and act crazy, and the DM goes like, "Okay."
 
The good DMs, they just roll with it. They create a world that doesn't punish the player for doing what they want, but responds believably. Yeah, if you smack the mayor with a bunch of guards standing around with spears, they're probably going to come after you, but if you murder someone in the middle of nowhere where no one can see it, maybe you get away with that.
 
I think that with Fallout, for me it was really amazing in college to play that because I got all the way through it and you can kill everybody in that game, and when I got to the end and I went online and there was this nascent forum, a Black Isle Fallout forum. People were talking about the evil ending and I was like, "What? What is this?" I was like, "Okay, what would be more efficient? Would it be more efficient for me to replay the entire game or to take my character into the game and murder everything I come across until I get negative karma?" I'm like, "The latter."
 
I went in and I killed everything and I got back and I got the evil ending and I'm like, "Wow, that's so cool. The game just lets me just lay waste to all these things." The more I looked at Fallout and I realized that the structure of it allowed me to go straight from Vault 13 to the Necropolis. You can do that. You would never do that on your first playthrough because you don't even know the Necropolis exists, but the game's structure actually allows you to do that and you can get the water chip very quickly.
 
I started thinking about how that gives a player a huge amount of freedom. They can do stuff in all sorts of weird orders. They can ignore the path and they can do all the stuff and it really made me as a player feel like, "This is not a tabletop game, but it's giving that feeling where the DM says, 'Oh yeah, Vault 15 is over there,' and I'm like, 'You know what? We're going south,' and they're like, 'Uh ... Okay!'" Then they start coming up with like, "Uh, you encounter a group of raiders!" You're like, "Oh my God!"
 
A good CRPG I think gives you that sense.
 
When did things start to get a little rough at Black Isle?
 
JS: Things started getting rough at Black Isle when they were rough at Interplay. Black Isle was a pretty successful division of Interplay, but Interplay had a lot of divisions that were not necessarily successful or a lot of games that didn't really pan out, games that were big budget and that didn't really sell many units at all. Also, Interplay was a publicly traded company, so when things started getting rough for Interplay, they started getting rough for Black Isle.
 
Granted, it's not like we did everything perfectly. We were developing a roleplaying game called Torn using LithTech. LithTech at that time was not a super robust engine. We were having a lot of technical problems with it and it just so happened that it was at a time when Interplay was starting to get pretty strapped for money and was having not a good time.
 
Torn was canceled and that was the first time and maybe the only time that Black Isle had layoffs, which was really crazy. We'd never had layoffs before. Then I remember Feargus [Urquhart] and [Chris] Parker and Darren [Monahan] maybe took me into an office and said, "Here's what happening. Tomorrow we're going to cancel Torn, we're going to layoff a handful of people, and we're going to start developing Icewind Dale II." Though Feargus will dispute this, at the time he said, "We need to develop it in four months. What do you think?"
 
I said, "We can work on that game. It's not getting in four months." They're sort of like, "Well, we're under the gun. Interplay is in a lot of trouble."
 
The layoffs happened and we started working on it. I worked with Steve Bokkes a little bit and I went home. I said, "I'm going home to write the story." I wrote the story for Icewind Dale II in 48 hours and came back. I wrote the story, I wrote the major characters. I said, "These are all the areas in the game," because I had to come back and this is the first, well, I was the lead designer on a game that got canceled before that, but they said basically everyone just has to go to work.
 
That was pretty rough. It was very stressful. There was a lot of arguing at that time because we were really under a huge amount of pressure. Later of course, that game slipped to nine months and it eventually shipped in 10 months, which is frankly astonishing that that game. I mean it had a lot of problems but we made the game in 10 months.
 
It was really rough. I think that was the beginning of Icewind Dale II was the beginning of hard times from my perspective. We had people leaving too because either they were really fed up or stressed out or they just were going, "I don't know if this is going to really pan out in the long run."
 
A lot of people stayed, honestly, because we still really wanted to make Fallout 3. There was the game that I had been working on that we paused, which was [Baldur's Gate III: The Black Hound]. They were like, "Oh yeah, we're going to stop working on this for now because we need to get a game out in a short amount of time and that one is not going to come out soon." But that game got canceled because Interplay lost the D&D license.
 
Then Fallout 3 started, but we were losing people and then the founders of Obsidian left. I'm like, "I don't know, we can still maybe make something here," but Interplay was moving in a different direction. At a certain point I realized that we were never going to get this. Like, there is a handful of really talented people working their asses off to make the game they've dreamed about making for years and years and years and we're never going to get to finish it. I was just like, "I've got to go."
 
That must have been pretty tough.
 
JS: Yeah. It was really, really disappointing. I can't say that it was completely heartbreaking because I got to make a bunch of cool games and there are a lot of things I would do differently if I had to make them over again and they were made kind of under duress. And also the people I worked with were great, I learned a lot of stuff, and even though we didn't get to make Fallout 3, we got to play through tabletop stuff that was fun. The process itself was enjoyable. I think was more disappointing was to see how Black Isle just collapsed over time.
 
Some of the things, like the artists especially. There were fantastic designers. Don't get me wrong, amazing designers. The artists at that studio, Justin Sweet, Vance Kovacs, Jason Manley, Chris Applehans, Andrew Jones, Kevin Llewellyn. Just phenomenal 2D artists. John Dickenson. I can't even name them all. I took for granted, "Oh, like wow, I guess the game industry is full of phenomenal artists." I mean it is, but Black Isle really had this incredible stockpile of fantastic artists.
 
Anyhow, it was just sad because it was a studio that, when I got there, was just people worked really hard because they wanted to work hard, not just because they were under, well, they were under pressure too. Don't get me wrong. Especially the Torment team was under a lot of pressure so I don't want to misrepresent that. People were working hard in part because they just wanted to make something awesome. It was just like at every step of the way is getting huge bags of concrete put on your back.
 
What was the moment you decided to leave? Was it you just kind of looked around and said, "I don't have enough people to make this game?"
 
JS: The moment I decided to leave was literally, we had a great character artist on our team, and he was like the only character artist left on the team. Interplay senior development pulled him over to a non-Black Isle project. I'm like, "Okay, you know what? If you're going to take the only senior character artist off of this project, you have no interest."
 
The other thing too is that Tom French and I... Tom had taken over as producer on the project. We had been sort of begging Interplay development, like the upper management, to come over and look at what we were doing. We were like, "Dudes, we're making something really cool. We're super excited about it. You got to come see it. We're scheduling stuff. You can take a look at our budget, our schedules, all this stuff." We were working hard to make something amazing and they never came over and looked at anything. It was really disheartening. It basically made me think, "They have either no interest in what we're doing."
 
Black Isle really seems pretty special to you in hindsight.
 
JS: I don't want to overstate it because there were certainly problems there. I don't think I would want to work in that environment now, to be honest. I mean it was an environment of, again, dudes, many of whom had a lot of personality problems, who worked too hard and so had a very myopic view of things. I'm including myself in all of this. By the same token, it was the first job I had in the industry. A lot of people come into the game industry at companies that are not making anything particularly noteworthy, to be honest, and I just completely lucked out.
 
Like if you had asked me before anything, "What company do you want to work for in the game industry," I'd be like, "Black Isle. I guess they're the guys who made Fallout, right? Okay, I want to work for them." Maybe Ensemble at the time because I was really into Age of Empires.
 
It's funny because as Black Isle was imploding, I did interview at Ensemble. I went over there and I do remember one design. It was great because I got to meet Sandy Petersen. He was a person I did remember because he worked on Darklands, which is one of my favorite games of all time. At the end of it, I met everyone, it was a really good time and they said, "You should keep working on roleplaying games."
 
Is there a single project looking back on Black Isle that you're like, "Yeah, that was my favorite," or maybe most proud to be associated with?
 
JS: I guess I would say, there's something that's kind of, have you seen Jodorowsky's Dune? That documentary about, I think it's Alejandro Jodorowsky. He was making a version of Dune before David Lynch and it was insane. It was absolutely ludicrous and he pulled together all these people who later went on to do Alien and all this other stuff after the movie imploded. It was canceled right as they had all these amazing ideas together that were just phenomenal. He said, "It's the perfect movie because it never had to come out."
 
The Black Hound was the game that I always wanted to make. It's like everything that I like about D&D, it's everything I like about the Forgotten Realms, with none of the stuff I don't like about Forgotten Realms and the way I want to tell a story and the way I want to do this. It was this huge game: 1,600 pages of design documentation for it. I was a lunatic, like, "Yeah, it's gonna be this big! It's three times the size of Baldur's Gate II!" I mean it wasn't quite that big. but it was enormous. and it had all these companions and all this other stuff.
 
I feel like with The Black Hound and with Fallout 3, we didn't actually get to achieve that stuff. We got to start doing it and then go like, "Hmm, maybe this would go wrong." Then later on like when we worked on Fallout: New Vegas, we got to say, "Okay, what are some things from Van Buren that we think actually could be cool on this engine in this setting?" Then on Pillars of Eternity it was like, "Okay, what are some ideas from The Black Hound that I think would be cool coming over into this?"
 
I think about The Black Hound as the thing that I'm happiest with because it never had to suffer reality. But of games that actually came out, I'd say Icewind Dale. I think it's kind of astonishing again in some ways that it was really just a bunch of juniors just making stuff and we didn't really know what we were doing. We just were like, "Let's put a bunch of stuff in and make areas," and it came out actually reasonably well.
 
 
Interlude at Midway
After the collapse of Black Isle, Sawyer moved on to Midway, where he spent the next year and a half.
 
You weren't at Midway very long. Were you just seeing it as a transition point? What was it like there?
 
JS: It was interesting. I came over to work on Gauntlet and Midway was sort of trying to refocus itself as a leader in mature titles because of Mortal Kombat. They wanted to do it with Gauntlet. I'm like, "Okay, mature, like M-rated Gauntlet? Holy crap, what does that look like?" I just kind of went wild on it.
 
I came over, and John Romero was there as the lead designer, and then he later took over as creative director and made me the lead designer. I hadn't worked on console games before, so that was new, so I had to learn a lot about that. Thankfully there were some really cool folks there like Mike Cuevas who had worked on Ready 2 Rumble, and he taught me a lot about how to work on console games and action games and things like that.
 
I had gone from one sinking ship to another sinking ship because Midway was not in a good position. It just came down to the point where I was really cognizant of not staying at some place when it was really hopeless. Because I should have recognized Interplay was not going to support Black Isle much earlier. At Midway, I was much more cognizant of, "There is a big company here that doesn't really care about me and it doesn't care about you as much as you care about games."
 
Now granted, again, the development team, it's not like we did things perfectly. We made a lot of mistakes. I can't remember even how much money we spent on an intro cinematic that was like super M-rated. Crazy stuff. They were like, "Hey, we notice a lot of kids play this game, it's kind of a family game. We should make this T." I'm like, "Holy crap, dude, the whole game is designed around being M! You've got people chopping heads off and doing all this crazy stuff," and they were like, "Nope, it's going to be a Teen rated game."
 
They also wanted to death march everyone for six months. They said, "Okay, we understand that was going to be this much time but we really need to get the game done and so we really need you guys to do this, and Midway rewards teams that deliver so just stick with it." I'm like, "Nope! Nope! I'm out, I'm not going to do it." Because I knew that no matter what, no matter how hard we worked, this game was going to be half-baked. I was like, "I did not come here to just make something that is shovelware," because it was being made just to get out, and so I left and a lot of people actually were really mad at me for doing that. I said, "I really do not think this is going to go well."
 
At the time, Darren Monahan had been talking to me about coming to Obsidian because they were in the middle of Neverwinter Nights 2.
 
I was going to ask, were you recruited?
 
JS: It wasn't like I stopped talking to everyone here when I went down to Midway. I would talk to Darren on MSN Messenger or whatever and he was like, "Buddy, come up here!" I'm like, "I got a game I'm working on!" Then, yeah, I said, "Hey dude, I think I'm going to hit you up for that." In the end that Midway team got that game out for Christmas and then they were laid off and the studio was shut down. I shouldn't say they were all laid off. Some of them were given the option of going off to LA, but it didn't really work out.
 
I learned a lot from those folks. I do feel kind of bad that I wasn't able to help them, but I would have been helping them just get something out that I don't think was that great. Not for the fault of anyone working on it. After Midway, I came up here and started working on Neverwinter 2.
 
 
Obsidian: The Next Chapter
JS: Yeah, relatively new. It was 2005, so it was almost two years into their development. They had already shipped Knights of the Old Republic II and they were working on Neverwinter Nights 2. They were at full speed on Neverwinter Nights 2. I was really burned out from Midway, really disappointed, and I said, "You know what? Can I just be a senior designer? I don't want to be a lead, I don't want to be in charge of anything. I want to be in charge of some areas. Just let me go back to designing areas and working on systems and I'll be totally fine," and they were cool with that. That's what I started doing.
 
You must have felt like, "I'm a hardened veteran at this point."
 
JS: It's not so much of a hardened veteran as much as like I saw a bunch of really young, very ambitious people and I was like, "Okay, everyone's kind of just doing stuff." I mean six years is really not that much time, but it was enough that it didn't feel like it was very organized. That was my first impression, where I was like, "There's a lot of cool stuff going on, I don't know what everything going into this game is," but I'm like, "Okay, this is my chunk of it and I'm going to try to just take charge of it and make sure that this is really solid and good."
 
The thing with Neverwinter Nights is it had a lot of bugs when it came out and that kind of thing. I think that happened a fair amount at Obsidian. It was kind of a case of ambition meets limited resources?
 
JS: Very much so. I'm not always responsible about resources, but I'm fairly responsible. One of my main concerns coming onto Neverwinter 2 was, "I don't think all this stuff is going to get done. I don't think all these areas are going to get done, I don't think these quests are going to get done, I don't these prestige classes or these abilities are going to get done. I think we've got to start getting real serious about cutting this stuff."
 
I will say, I had set a really bad example at Black Isle.
 
Because you liked to write 1,600 page design documents?
 
JS: [laughs] I mean seriously, that's what I had designed. I guess the thing is the rubber never really had to meet the road on that because I was in documentation land for a really long time. Then I looked back at it and I was like, "Oh, that was a bad way to do that. Of course we shouldn't have done that." Midway was much more production oriented and so I started going like, "Oh crap, I really have to think more carefully about this."
 
Again, it wasn't like I was innocent in all this stuff but I was very concerned when I came over. One of the main things that I had said to the owners at the time after I did a more long term analysis of Neverwinter 2 is, "Hey, KOTOR 2 came out and it was really buggy and a lot of people were mad but they were like, 'Okay, this was their first game.'" I said, "Neverwinter 2 can only be so buggy or else we're going to become the studio that makes buggy games," which is exactly what happened. That was really my concern, which was, "Hey, if you want to make the number of bugs go down, don't put as much stuff in the game and be more responsible about how you put it in the game." It really took a long time for the project to get to the point where that was the reality check.
 
I actually moved off of the project for several months because I was concerned and I didn't really feel like, "I don't know, I don't feel like I'm able to contribute to this team because I have these concerns that don't really seem to be shared. There's a console game or some, you know, pitches and things that are going on. Maybe it would be better if I contributed to those because I don't want to be the guy who's just saying, 'Hey everybody, listen to me! There's trouble!'"
 
I went over and I worked on another project for a while and then they brought me back over to Neverwinter 2 to just clean it up and get it in order. Because it was rough. It was rough for a very long time.
 
It was maybe around this time that publishers moved away from isometric RPGs. I know that you've told me in the past that this was kind of frustrating on you. In that moment, what was that like?
 
JS: It was kind of annoying. To be honest, that whole intermediary phase was a little frustrating because I remember when we were working on Van Buren, it was a 3D game but it still had... I wouldn't say isometric, but it was narrow field of view, top down camera or three-quarter view camera. I remember some people saying, "Why is it even 3D if you're not going to get in close?" I'm like, "What do you mean? There's a bunch of cool stuff that we're doing with the 3D. We don't have to be first person or close third person. Plus if we want to have a party, we want to do all these things.
 
On Neverwinter 1, BioWare made certain choices. This is about design and choices and accepting the consequences. BioWare made playing Neverwinter about your character. Like you make a character and you control that character and you have companions but they're more satellites. They're not controlled like they are in Baldur's Gate. The camera is fairly close to you, you're fairly close to the action. It's a very different feeling from Baldur's Gate or Icewind Dale or Fallout.
 
In Neverwinter 2, we had three camera modes and none of them felt that good. There was a tradition iso camera, there was a follow camera, there was one other one that I can't remember, which goes to show how important it was. It was this weird thing where we were like, "Well, you have a party but we want to also support this 3D follow cam, but you don't really want to fight in that mode because you can't see your party." It was a struggle to try to get into that space and figure out how we want to set up cameras.
 
The camera is the way that you view the whole game and so the decisions that you make with that are ultimately going to have a big effect on can you have party members, how do you control party members? Even thinking about something like Mass Effect when BioWare started going into close third-person, and I'm thinking about you have other characters around you, how you command them and understand where they are relative to you is a tricky thing to solve.I was disappointed to no longer have the sort of high top-down camera to play with, but more than that, it was frustrating trying to find a middle ground. We didn't really do a good job of finding a place where it's like, "Ah, this feels like the game that you know and love but it looks fresh and modern." Those were things that weren't really that compatible.
 
 
The Canceled Games
If the 2000s taught you anything, I'm guessing it's that AAA is a brutal business. Is that fair?
 
JS: I don't know. I guess it depends on what you define as AAA. I do think that dealing with publishers is really hard. One of the most difficult things that I think Obsidian had to deal with that Black Isle did not have to deal with, Brian Fargo understands what roleplaying games are about. He gets what roleplaying games are about. Keep in mind that my first CRPG was Bard's Tale, so coming to Interplay and meeting Brian Fargo, although I doubt he remembers initially meeting me, I was like, "Oh my God, this is incredible!"
 
Brian played games at Interplay. He would get mad. He would play multiplayer games and get upset. The "by gamers for gamers" thing, with Brian, I believed in that. I was like, "This dude, he gets games, and he gets roleplaying games.
 
Most publishers have a blind spot when it comes to roleplaying games. Roleplaying games are very esoteric and they have very specific needs and the audience is very specific about what they want and don't want. Publishers, when they talk to us, it's like they don't really understand where we're coming from and so a lot of times when we say like, "Hey, this is important," they don't understand why or they don't believe it is." They're like, "No, no, no, this thing is more important because the mainstream audience." We're like, "Okay, but hold on. This game fundamentally is not one that really is mainstream, so when you do this, the mainstream people, they're going to play it. Then the hardcore fans that really love it are going to hate this."
 
The 2000s were like the period of that. It was all this kind of like, "Oh come on, do we really have to do this? Is anyone actually going to enjoy this?" There was a lot of fighting over that. That's one of the reasons why on Pillars of Eternity it was like, "Woo!" Because we're just talking to fans, reading the boards, seeing what they say, getting their feedback and trying to respond to that.
 
The 2000s, it wasn't so much that AAA is brutal. It's just that publishers don't understand roleplaying games. At the beginning of my career I didn't have to deal with that because everyone at Black Isle understood roleplaying games and Brian Fargo understood roleplaying games. Who else needs to understand anything? Then it became more difficult.
 
The Aliens RPG was famously canceled. Can you open up about that at all?
 
JS: Cool. I thought it was going to be super cool. I want to say that it was Travis Stout who... he was a designer here for several years. He, I think, wrote up the initial pitch for it. So one of the things that I was most interested in exploring was the spacefarers who are now the engineers in the rebooted Aliens universe. That's what I wanted to explore and focus on. In terms of mechanical stuff, it was really focusing on a large group of companion characters who are working together to try to survive.
 
In my mind, the Alien setting is fantastic for a roleplaying game because I think about characters and character interactions. Especially the first two films, I think you can argue that all the films are about these relationships but Alien and Aliens at their core are about these human relationships and how people respond to stress and break down and help each other or turn on each other and all these things. That's what I think makes for great drama in a roleplaying game.
 
I liked the idea of coming into some environment where really it's not about, "Oh, I'm going to meet a world full of NPCs to talk to." I think that's what a lot of people think about when they think about roleplaying games, is like there's a big world and there's 200 NPCs and they all have dialogue. The way I thought about an Alien roleplaying game was that it's you and a small group of survivors and that is it, and it's about your relationships developing as you're like, "How do we survive? How do we get out of here? Who's on my side, who's turning against me," and all the dynamics of that.
 
People saw the leaked footage where it was about primarily, like a third-person, and obviously it was really rough but it was like a third-person exploration shooting mechanic. You had two companions with you at any given time and a handler. The handler would help sort of manage what was going on and call out things for you and your two support people would do various tasks like cutting through doors or setting up turrets or things like that or hacking. That was really the whole vibe of the game.
 
You weren't thinking in terms of, "How can I make really scary aliens?" You were thinking in terms of the scene from Aliens where Hudson is going, "Game over, man! Game over!"
 
JS: Yeah. Don't get me wrong. That was also very important and we did put a lot of work into lighting and sound and all that sort of stuff. I think in the leaked footage you can see where we have those little stingers or things moving and sounds playing. We did try to convey the horror sense. That was always the mood that we wanted to convey. But in terms of the mechanics we wanted to bring across, we wanted to think about the human interactions and how you manage this group of people and how they try to work with you or against you over however many hours it would take you to get through.
 
Was the atmosphere and the character interactions the thing that you were most proud of on that project?
 
JS: Yeah, I think so. What I really love about Alien is that it's a very small cast and you get to know those characters at a deeper level and you see them each break down over time. It's also really great because it's this kind of like blue collar space horror movie.
 
What I liked about Aliens, and this is something I think James Cameron does very well, which I'm just going to say I don't think Ridley Scott actually does very well: James Cameron does a good job of introducing a lot of characters in a brief amount of time and establishing strong characteristics that you remember about those characters. In Aliens, when you meet Vasquez, Frost, Hicks, Hudson, these people, some of them don't have a whole lot of screen time but you get enough to know something about them and to have a connection with them.
 
I liked the diversity of all these different characters. You got military people, you got company people, and you got blue collar workers. That's kind of the idea for the classes. We're sort of forming, like these are the sort of people that you're with. I was really most interested in establishing a range of these people from all over the world: different ages, backgrounds, really diverse appearances, because I think that's really important, because we weren't doing anything fantastic. We were doing something that's more grounded sci fi like Alien and Aliens, which was to try to bring out a lot of character just from using things that didn't look like costumes. They were like, "These are the clothes that this person wears." We put a lot of work into that and I think it was coming along really well.
 
Cool. You would have been stuck on a planet, the aliens are coming, kind of like Aliens, right? Just like, "How do we get out of here?"
 
JS: Yeah, and figuring out what the heck was actually going on on this planet and focusing mostly on the spacefarers, the engineers and what their deal was.
 
What would you say, I mean Obsidian obviously has tons of war stories. What would you consider a shining moment for you in your time here?
 
JS: Getting New Vegas done. That was a huge challenge. It was an opportunity to work on Fallout again, which I never imagined that I would get that opportunity. A lot of people had wanted to work on Fallout. We had no experience working with that engine. The first person who came here who had experience working on the engine was Jorge Salgado, who was a modder who had made Obscuro, an Oblivion overhaul, while the rest of us were completely clueless.
 
We just went wild and it released kind of bumpy. There are things that we certainly could have done better on it, things that I could have done a lot better on it, but yeah. We got that game done in 18 months and it's the game that, if someone were to just say, "Hey, what game of yours should I play," I would say Fallout: New Vegas. I think it's the easiest to get into, it has a ton of reactivity and player options. You can make a huge number of different characters. I'm happiest with that, especially considering the amount of time that we made it in.
 
What's kind of a defining war story for you here at Obsidian, a moment when the rubber hit the road?
 
JS: The end of Neverwinter Nights 2, I guess. I would say that even on Fallout: New Vegas, we had a little bit of mandatory overtime on that, but it was actually not too bad. We were stressed on that. Neverwinter Nights 2, I mean I was like the butcher of Neverwinter. I came in and I was like, "Get rid of this, get rid of that, cut these classes, we're not doing this feature, get rid of all this stuff." It was really rough. It was also really rough, there were a lot of people here who were busting ass to make that game be awesome, but it was enormous and there were so many things left to do.
 
At the time I was living in downtown San Diego or like Hillcrest, and I was taking the train up and down every night and it was an hour and 50 minutes each way. I would get up at 6ish or whatever and I would get home at sometimes 11:30 or midnight. I would take the last train back. That was not easy.
 
It was all just... it was really just triage. It was me being like, "How many quests do we have in this area? How far along are they? Okay, these three are barely started? Cut them. Just get rid of them. Figure out how to clean up the loose ends and get rid of them." Because we were already way behind schedule and over-budget. That was really rough. We got through it but it was stressful.
 
What about Stormlands?
 
JS: Yeah, I was the director on Stormlands. The end of that was very, very sad because we had to lay off a ton of people. I think on that project, with Neverwinter Nights 2 we were death marching to get that out. With Stormlands, it didn't end in quite the same way, but it was a more catastrophic ending because of the layoffs and everything.
 
My understanding is that it became Tyranny at a later point.
 
JS: I wouldn't really say that, no. There were ideas of, I think there was actually a name for Tyranny. Maybe it was Defiance or something like and then there was the TV show and the game called Defiance and we changed it. There was a period in time where we talked about using that tech in that way, but none of the story elements, none of the characters, none of the mechanics really were coming over. It was like, "Hey, we have this technology that's actually pretty cool. Do we want to use it to make a different game?" Then Avallone had ideas for Defiance, which later became Tyranny.
 
You had the tech from Defiance.
 
JS: We had the tech from Stormlands and we talked about, "Hey, we maybe make a different game. We could make a different game in this technology which is very beautiful, it works great on consoles and all this other stuff." Then we did Pillars and we said, "Okay, wait. We don't want to probably have two completely separate code bases. Do we really have the staff to make this huge third-person console-oriented game, or should we make Tyranny using essentially the Pillars of Eternity technology?" That's how that kind of went.
 
There's nothing really in Tyranny that's from Stormlands. The only link there is that after Stormlands was canceled, we were like, "Okay, we've got this engine. Do we want to make something with this?" Then we said, "Actually no, we don't. We want to make something with the Pillars of Eternity technology."
 
What was your vision for Stormwinds?
 
JS: Oh, I wanted to make a weird, wild fantasy thing. It's just a bizarre, a fantastic and beautiful land of crazy stuff and really pushing the artists to make imaginative and beautiful things. A lot of the ideas for it were actually inspired by Justin Cherry, and his art which is very fantastic.
 
I think one element that is similar between an idea for Stormlands and Tyranny is the idea of a sort of post-apocalyptic magical setting. I was like, "We're going wild, we're going to have crazy architecture of bizarre materials and it's just going to look brilliant and colorful and fantastic and just really, really unique." There were struggles with it because any time you really try to synthesize something that's really fresh, that's a hard thing to conceive together, but it was fun. It was really fun working on that.
 
Pillars of Eternity, it's often been said that it's kind of a studio saving success. Is that fair?
 
JS: Yes. I would say so. Don't get me wrong, it's possible we could have done something else that also kept the studio afloat but Pillars definitely, not only did Pillars financially work out very well for Obsidian but it reversed the morale at the company which was at its lowest following Stormlands cancellation, like bad, bad, bad.
 
Yes, that story's certainly been written. Now you're making Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire. You've successfully crowdfunded multiple projects. Is there any chance that you might return to AAA at some point in the future?
 
JS: I think Obsidian would like to. I think Feargus would certainly like to make AAA games. I, frankly, could take it or leave it. If I never made a AAA game again I would be totally fine with that. I feel like I got to do that on Fallout: New Vegas and that was really cool, to make a game that literally millions and millions of people played and the surreal experience of... I remember coming home and my girlfriend at the time was watching South Park. A commercial came on and there I am on TV. Like, "What the hell is this?"
 
Bethesda had taken these interview clips and they had bought ad time for Fallout: New Vegas during South Park. People from high school contacted me on Facebook and being like, "Dude, did I just see you on South Park on Comedy Central?" That was surreal and cool. It was cool to be driving down the 405 in Los Angeles and see a billboard for Fallout: New Vegas. I was like, "What in the world is happening?"
 
That's cool. I don't feel like I need to do that again. I feel like I made a cool game that was a big game, that tons of people knew about and had a huge advertising budget and all this crazy stuff. That was, neat and if I never do it again, that's okay. Because that game is the game that I'm most happy with. I was totally happy making Icewind Dale, I'm totally happy making Pillars of Eternity and Deadfire. If I made something smaller than that, I would also be happy doing that. Personally I don't need to work on huge games again. If I got an opportunity to and it were the right game, then yeah.
 
I do know that, one of the things with Stormlands that in a way was cool was that Microsoft was totally actually on board with every insane world-building thing that we wanted to do. It didn't matter how ludicrous or crazy or wild, they were like, "Sure, awesome, sounds great!" I'm like, "Wow!" I know that AAA development is usually much, much more conservative than that. There's a trade-off there. Once you start designing for a truly mass market mainstream audience, you have to be really conservative and mainstream with your mechanics, with your characters, with your stories, your dialogue. Or maybe you don't have to but it's a very delicate balance.
 
I enjoy making hardcore stuff. I like making games like Pillars and Deadfire that are much more numbers oriented, they require a lot more tactical thinking, they require you to read a lot more than I think most AAA games do, and I'm totally comfortable with that.
 
How have the past 18 years changed your perspective on RPGs?
 
JS: That's an open question. I don't know. I don't think that they've really fundamentally changed tremendously. I think that I still found that the greatest value in RPGs came from finding ways to let players be part of the story. There's lots of different ways that you can do that, but even coming into the industry I still had that feeling that, yeah, this is about us making a space in which players get to define their own story, which on Icewind Dale was a little weird. I felt a little uncomfortable because it was so linear. It was a fun game but it was fundamentally a dungeon crawler and I was like, "I want to build something with more space than this."
 
I think when I came into the industry I viewed RPGs as a thing that needed to be designed a specific way, like there was a way. I think this is a common thing, like a game designer early on, they have ideas and then as they start to work they think, "Oh no, okay, this is the way that you design a game." I think now I'm in the phase where I feel like the challenges of designing an RPG are the challenges of designing anything, not just in a game, anything. A chair, a car. Anything at all.
 
The most high level design principles where you're thinking about, "What are the needs of what I'm doing? What are the constraints of what I'm doing? Who is this for?" Starting to abstract those things and think more like, because you can design a game like Fallout: New Vegas that's... it's not hardcore in terms of its mechanics at all, it's actually a pretty simple game in most ways, and still say, "This game, this is a mass market game. This is a game for millions of people to play, and so I'm not going to go crazy on these mechanics." I mean I went as crazy as I could but then I stopped short which is why I made the JSawyer mod. It's like, "Actually, let me get more noodly with this stuff."
 
It's a pretty easy game. It's not that challenging in a lot of ways, but it's about, "Okay, this audience wants the feeling of exploration. They want the cool story." I feel like the place where the tabletop stuff comes in that the mainstream audience can also benefit from is the freedom of choice. You can ally with whomever you want, you can go your own way, you can ally with Mr. House and then betray him, you can do all these things. That doesn't require a hardcore audience, it doesn't require a mainstream audience. It's just a thing that I think people will think is fun.
 
Something like Pillars, there's a lot that goes into it where I'm like designing a class. I like classless systems more than class-based systems, but the audience for Pillars of Eternity wants a class based game. Rather than say, "Well, I'm going to turn this upside down, you ain't never seen classes like this," that's ridiculous. No, make a good class-based game where people can have a lot of options, they can make cool characters. Things like make sure there's plate mail, make sure there's flairs, things like that where it's about feeling.
 
I think in RPGs you can get lost in the technical aspects of the systems and things like that, but really even those systems are about giving the players a feeling at various points. Like, "How do I feel about the game? What is this making me experience emotionally?" That can come from mechanical things, it can come from story things. I think over time, I've stopped really thinking that there is a single way to really design anything. It's about, "Well, what are the trade-offs?" Who are you going to design this for? Who are you not going to design this for? If you want to do this, can you accept this drawback or can you design it more like a little bit over this way and then this problem goes away? Is that acceptable or have you lost the essence of what you were going for?
 
I've just started to view RPGs as something that's, it's like any other design problem. It has a lot of unique things to it, but fundamentally it's like any other game or any other thing that you have to design.
 
One last question. Obviously you've gone through many tough times but also many amazing times. Is it a relief to find maybe a modicum of stability here at Obsidian after so many years? Also, what's the future hold?
 
JS: No, I don't think anyone likes living in an unstable circumstance. I mean growing up, my dad was a sculptor. He's a freelance bronze sculptor which is not exactly a super stable sort of thing. That could be rough at times. That's why we moved around a lot. I don't think anyone likes the fact that the industry overall is unstable. It still is not a very stable sort of place. The fact that Obsidian is coming up on its 15th year, most companies don't last that long.
 
Especially not a studio like Obsidian, a mid-range independent studio.
 
JS: Yeah, we're very uncommon. It is very nice to be in this position but we have to keep working. We have to keep building our IPs. The thing is too, again, 18 years has also given me the perspective of... I remember going to Ensemble to interview around the time of Age of Empires III being like, "Oh my God, this studio is amazing! This is incredible! I can't believe all the people here and all these facilities are incredible," and then within four or five years, they're gone. I know that you just can't take any of this stuff for granted. It's certainly nice to have some sense of stability, but I think anyone who's been in the industry for a while knows it's never really that stable.
 
As far as the future goes, I really want the next game I work on to be a historical game. It's probably going to be even smaller than Pillars or Deadfire. As far as Obsidian overall, that's for the owners to decide. I work on the projects that I get the opportunity to work on.
 
Josh Sawyer's next game is Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire. It's due in 2018.

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#53
Infinitron

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“If you treat them as the enemy, it’s not going to be a good relationship.” Obsidian’s Feargus Urquhart on publishers
 
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Since its foundation in 2003, Obsidian Entertainment has worked with seven different publishers. Commencing with LucasArts on Knights of the Old Republic II, Obsidian has since signed contracts with Atari, SEGA, Bethesda, Square Enix, Ubisoft and most recently, Paradox Interactive. In fact, up until Pillars of Eternity [official site], every single game Obsidian had made was funded and distributed by a different publisher.
 
This is a highly unusual state of affairs, and has proved precarious more than once in the company’s history. But it has also provided Obsidian with a unique insight into how the world of publishing works, and how the relationship between developer and publisher has changed in the last couple of decades. This topic is especially pertinent today, as new methods of funding and distributing games have seen a significant shift in the power dynamic between developers and publishers.
 
I spoke to CEO Feargus Urquhart about how it all works (and doesn’t).
 
 
It’s worth noting that Obsidian never intended to travel down such an atypical road. “When we first started the company, there was an expectation that we would find a publisher and we would work with them, and continually work with them, because that was our life at Interplay,” says Feargus Urquhart, co-founder and CEO of Obsidian Entertainment. “I think that world started to change literally as we were starting Obsidian, and I think it’s just accelerated.”
 
Urquhart has experienced the games industry on both sides of the fence. In the mid-nineties he worked as a producer at Interplay, and later founded Black Isle as a subsidiary of Interplay, producing Fallout and its sequel, and cooperating with BioWare on Baldur’s Gate. At that time, not only were the budgets for individual projects much lower than they are today, individual publishers were shipping many more games.
 
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“As a producer back then I myself was producing like ten games, so Interplay was just doing a lot of stuff,” Urquhart says. “I was approving like twenty-five thousand dollar milestones [the amount a developer would be paid for reaching a certain goal]. Now we’re talking a single milestone could be one and a half, two million dollars.”
 
This gradual shift toward much higher budgets for a smaller number of games means the risk a publisher takes for each game they finance has increased exponentially. In the nineties, a single poorly-selling game, while disappointing, would not typically spell disaster. Nowadays, one underperforming game can kill off a company. This has fundamentally altered how publishers relate to and negotiate with developers.
 
“In the nineties, publishers liked to sign up multi-product deals with developers. Basically they’d just sign ’em up, say, ‘We’re gonna publish your next three games’. And that’s kind of disappeared,” Urquhart says. “There was never a meeting about ‘Do we do Baldur’s Gate 2?’ and there was never a meeting about doing Fallout 2 really…we started to work on Fallout 2 before Fallout 1 came out.”
 
Nowadays, this is far less likely to happen. With modern development cycles, a three-game deal could amount to a contract lasting twelve years or more. If the first game underperforms, then the publisher is stuck with the deal for another eight years. “Because the stakes were so high, they also needed to understand if the game was successful before they wanted to sign up the sequel,” Urquhart says.
 
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The growth of the industry, and the risks that have grown with it, also force both developers and publishers to make tougher choices. For example, Obsidian often have a waiting period between a game being finished and it coming out, particularly on consoles where there are various approval processes to go through. “We need people to be working on other stuff, whether it’s DLC or other games, to get paid. But then the publishers are not necessarily comfortable signing up the sequel for ninety days. So I think that started to create this very different relationship,” Urquhart says.
 
The relationship between any given developer and publisher can even be challenged by events that aren’t directly related to it. For example, if a new game developed by a publisher in-house sells poorly and plans for a sequel are cancelled, the publisher might then have a hundred programmers, artists and designers employed but without a project to work on. “But they have this other game and it looks pretty good and this external developer has done it,” Urquhart says. “And they’re like ‘Well, we could lay off these one hundred people, and have that external developer do it. OR we could just not sign. We’re not contractually obligated to sign that independent developer up. And they’re an independent developer, and they’ll go find some other game, and we can move it internally.’”
 
Hence, Obsidian formed at a time when publishers were becoming far more cagey about signing on developers for extended periods of time, and were more inclined to either sign for a single game or bring the developer in-house by buying them outright. This is how Obsidian ended up migrating from publisher to publisher with every project.
 
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Feargus points out that this had its advantages “The awesome thing about being independent is we’ve had the opportunity to work on Star Wars and do our on IP and do South Park and do Fallout,” Urquhart says. But it has also come with its own unique set of challenges. One of the major challenges was that no publisher works in exactly the same ways. Each contract is different in terms of what the publisher offers, what it demands, and who is responsible for what.
 
This has caused some unfortunate misunderstandings for Obsidian. In the mid-2000s, Obsidian earned a reputation for releasing buggy or unfinished games, with Kotor II, Alpha Protocol, and Fallout: New Vegas all receiving criticisms in that regard. But Urquhart states it has always been the case that publishers, not developers, are responsible for providing QA.
 
“Even back in the day when we were doing stuff with BioWare, or Blizzard for that matter at Interplay, QA was done at Interplay,” Urquhart says. “But then there are these weird situations. With Neverwinter Nights 2, Atari was closing down their Santa Monica office, which we were originally working for. So there was no test locally, and Atari was still trying to figure out where they were going to test games. So we came to the arrangement – now I’m pretty sure we’d already signed up to do the game – we then just came to the thing of like, we would hire thirty testers and then Atari would pay for them.”
 
Because of unusual situations like this, and the flak that Obsidian received for them, the studio now stipulates precisely the terms of QA in any contract they sign with a publisher. “One of the things that we’ve had to learn to do is to actually, in our contract, to say the publisher must put this number of QA people on the game as of this date. And KEEP them on the game for the extent of, you know, from when the game is ready to be tested all the way through like a month or so after the game has been released.”
 
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There’s no question that Obsidian’s relationship with publishers has been a bumpy road, and one that at its roughest points, such as the infamous Metacritic bonus situation with Bethesda, almost destroyed the company. So when Obsidian had the opportunity to break away from the traditional publishing cycle with its wildly successful Kickstarter campaign for Project Eternity (later Pillars of Eternity), why did Urquhart ultimately decide they still wanted one?
 
“Whenever we have to dedicate ourselves to something like that it means we’re not dedicating ourselves to the games,” Urquhart says. “As the world knows, 2012 was a tough year for us. So we had to build the studio back up a lot and development needed to be the focus. So a lot of it is we looked to a publisher to do the things that we don’t have expertise in.” In other words, although Obsidian could finance the development of Pillars of Eternity, they didn’t have the infrastructure to publish and distribute it, and it was easier to sign with a publisher that understood these areas well, rather than dedicating an entire section of their own company to it.
 
This is where Paradox came in. “They’ve really learned how to manage the digital marketplace,” Urquhart says. “I can throw out ten things that I know about managing things on Steam, but they know a hundred,” Urquhart also feels Paradox understand the kinds of game Obsidian want to make. “They just get crunchy, you know, enthusiast hardcore games like Pillars, and that just makes any relationship easier.”
 
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There’s a persisting notion within the games industry that crowdfunding liberates developers from the yoke of oppressive and demanding publishers. But Urquhart believes that crowdfunding simply leads to a different set of responsibilities, and in some ways more responsibilies than having a contract with a publisher. “It’s kinda scary spending your own money sometimes. There’s that old adage that people say particularly about Hollywood. ‘Never spend your own money, always spend someone else’s money,’” he says.
 
Of course, Obsidian are still spending somebody’s else’s money. The difference is that rather than being held to account by a handful of publishing executives, now they must answer to thousands of backers from crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Fig. But Urquhart points out that it’s largely a similar relationship, with communication being key. “I think we do exactly the same thing with our backers as we do with our publishers now,” Urquhart says. “Funnily enough, when we turn a milestone for our publishers now, they get all these videos [that say] this is a feature, this is what’s happening.”
 
In a curious twist of fate, dealing with fans and backers through crowdfunding has taught Obsidian a lot about how to maintain a good relationship with publishers. The importance of regular updates, of listening to feedback and giving the publisher the opportunity to hold Obsidian to account. This has resulted in some significant changes to how that relationship worked even a few years ago.
 
“Almost every agreement that I’ve signed whether on the development side or on the publisher side has this sort of generic language that says that the publisher, with five business days notice, can come to the developer and see everything that they’re doing,” Urquhart explains. “But what we’ve changed it to recently; it’s not that they’re able to, they have to. They must come here every thirty days or every sixty days or every forty-five days. It’s a material requirement of the agreement that they come on site and they hang out with us.”
 
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Urquhart concludes our discussion with two pieces of advice for developers and publishers respectively. On the development side, he believes it’s crucial not to treat the relationship with a publisher as adversarial. “If you treat them as the enemy, it’s not going to be a good relationship. If you flip ’em off or whatever, just say ‘Hey those guys are idiots,’ now you’ve created this relationship where the people that are going to be heavily involved in what your game is don’t want to be in the same room as you.”
 
On the other hand, Urquhart urges publishers not to treat publishing as a zero-sum game. Indeed, he believes in some ways the industry is shifting back towards what it was like in those early days of Interplay and Black Isle, with lots of games being released, all with very different budgetary requirements. “It doesn’t need to be one million dollar mobile console games, or one-hundred-million dollar games. There are absolutely these other avenues that independent developers can be super successful at,” Urquhart says. “Looking at games where selling a million units is seen as a success and not a failure.”

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#54
Leferd

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Good interview. Nice tidbits on Jefferson and Aliens.

I would totally pre-order/crowdfund a historical game from Sawyer.

#55
Flouride

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Good interview. Nice tidbits on Jefferson and Aliens.

I would totally pre-order/crowdfund a historical game from Sawyer.

 

Same here. I'm pretty sure they could get a budget around of 1.5-2 millions at least on Fig for that game. Hopefully Josh gets to make it after Deadfire.



#56
Infinitron

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The making of Alpha Protocol, Obsidian's secret best RPG
 
Imagine a glitzy cinematic sequence where you, as a secret agent, fight your way through an aeroplane soaring through the sky. You're pressing button prompts appearing on the screen while your hero whacks, chops, spins and kicks at the baddie in your way. "You fight all the way down until eventually you beat the guy and rip off his parachute and, I don't know, break his neck, and he floats off and you use his parachute to land." Sounds great, like a James Bond or Jack Bauer or Jason Bourne scene, or something from Uncharted 3, which hadn't been made yet.
 
But this is Obsidian Entertainment talking, and the scene in question was from 10 years ago, before Pillars of Eternity, before South Park: The Stick of Truth, before Fallout: New Vegas. The scene was from Alpha Protocol, a spy game, Obsidian's own idea, and secretly one of its best. I'm in a room now, at Obsidian, with pictures of characters from Alpha Protocol framed on the walls around me, talking to Chris Parker, one of Obsidian's owners (and game director of Alpha Protocol) as well as a handful of other people from the Alpha Protocol team.
 
The scene Chris Parker is describing took a year and a half to make and cost something like $500,000. "This took an unbelievable amount of resources to build," he says. There was no way Obsidian could keep it up across a 20-hour game, or even across three hours, the team jokes. Nor did they want to. The sequence represented everything wrong with Alpha Protocol at the time. "It was kind of cool and it was kind of neat but it was way, way outside what our core gameplay was supposed to be. The fundamental RPG experience had gotten lost underneath a whole bunch of other stuff that seemed neat."
 
Obsidian's golden opportunity to make something original, rather than a sequel to someone else's game, was out of control, a headless chicken with no direction. Enough was enough, something drastic had to change, and the expensive aeroplane scene was scrapped, never to be seen again.
 
A year and a half earlier, in summer 2006, Obsidian was all excitement. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Neverwinter Nights 2 were done and now Sega wanted a role-playing game - and Obsidian had a spy pitch in the wings for just such an occasion.
 
"That was just a five or six-page pitch," Parker says, which is uncommonly brief. "I remember it started in a narrative style and set up this idea of what Alpha Protocol was but that you were a burned agent - it borrowed from Burn Notice, which was a TV show at the time. Then it just kind of said, 'Yeah, be Jason Bourne and James Bond and Jack Bauer' - 24 was very in at the time - 'and kick a bunch of ass and use fancy tools.'"
 
It worked, Sega liked it, and in next to no time a contract for two and a half years of development was signed. Six months later Sega would also sign another deal with Obsidian for an Aliens role-playing game.
 
Good times, then. But outside of the six-page pitch Obsidian struggled to define what Alpha Protocol was. Which of the spy icons - Bond, Bauer or Bourne - would the game try to be like? Would it be an action game or a role-playing game? The pendulum swung back and forth but with no project leader never settled.
 
On top were technical concerns. The ubiquitous Unreal Engine 3 wasn't quite ready in 2006, and stealth, it turns out, is bloody hard to do. Enemies need brains to respond to sneakers, and levels need sneaking routes. What's more, while Obsidian knew RPGs it only had a handful of people who knew anything about making shooters. "It was a struggle," says Matt MacLean, who was lead systems designer on the game.
 
Alpha Protocol wasn't the only struggle either. The Aliens RPG, Aliens: Crucible, was up poop creek too. "We all recognised we had put Sega in a hard situation," says Feargus Urquhart, another of Obsidian's owners and also CEO. Chris Parker adds: "It was a situation where we figured the hammer was going to fall somewhere but we didn't know necessarily where it was going to fall."
 
The hammer fell on Aliens: Crucible - but it was a wake up gong for Alpha Protocol. The project could go no further as it was. Chris Parker was brought in as lead producer/game director and Chris Avellone (another owner) as lead designer. Parker says, "We had a big 'coming to Jesus' meeting where we decided what are all the things we wanted to do and didn't want to do."
 
Before the big meeting, there weren't any spy safe houses. "You'd go to Moscow and go straight through Moscow," Matt MacLean says. "It almost felt like a series of first-person shooter levels. The extreme over-correction would have been 'let's make an open-world city!', but no, we don't have time to do that. But what we can do is let the player move between the hubs."
 
 
alphaprotocol_female_2.JPG
 
The lady who never made it into the game: Uli Booi. Her picture hangs on Obsidian's wall. Photo taken by me.
 
 
 
Before the big meeting, Alpha Protocol's infamous mini-games were even worse. "The original mini-games were several minutes of 'this is a whole new game in and of itself'," MacLean says. "The best thing to liken it to is the way BioShock tried to solve hacking by doing a little puzzle game within.
 
"We were trying to do a puzzle game but it didn't really feel like what you were doing and took too long to resolve. Are you just sitting here hacking for three minutes while guys are shooting at you? Or do we pause the world - in which case if we pause the world, where's the pressure?"
 
Chris Parker remembers it more bluntly: "We had these mini-games that were clearly not fun, nobody liked them. There were a lot of arguments about how to make them fun, but what we had to do was actually back up and go, 'No, they're not fun, let's throw them away and have them do this.'"
 
The team even toyed with scrapping mini-games altogether in favour of a time or resource component instead, but apparently Sega wanted them in. "So the mini-games that we shipped with are..." MacLean exhales, because he made them, "the redeeming feature is that they're faster."
 
Before the big meeting, there was parkour. "We did all these really specific parkour elements," Parker says. "I don't know how the player was supposed to know this - again, why this was cut - but there was a path where you can go around to shoot some guys, or, if you walk over to this crack in the wall and hit A, Mike would do this fancy spider-climb up through the middle of it, which did look super-cool. It was kind of neat but are we going to go through and make levels that are just filled with exceptions? The pay-off just really wasn't there."
 
Before the big meeting, there was environmental interaction. "You're running through this airplane graveyard and we've conveniently placed enemies underneath the props of these airplanes," Parker says, "and if you shot the middle of the props then the props would fall down and kill the enemies. It was like, 'Ohh this is great!'
 
"It wasn't great," he adds, "it was a lot of work and it didn't have a whole lot of pay-off. People found it just as much fun to get in a straight out firefight over figuring out where we game-designed-in some cool environmental interactions, so we scrapped that."
 
Before the big meeting, there were on-rails motorbike and yacht chase sequences - hence the motorbike in Alpha Protocol, and the yacht ("but there is no chase to get to the yacht - we spared you that part," MacLean says).
 
"We were always going to have chase sequences," Parker says, "that was how the parachute [in the scrapped demo sequence] came to be. When we refactored the game we just said, again, 'that seems like a whole lot of work for not a lot of pay-off' and outside of the core of what we wanted to do."
 
Before the meeting there was also another major female character called Uli Booi. So much work was done on her that her picture hangs alongside the other notable Alpha Protocol characters on the wall in front of me (pictured above).
 
By the time the big meeting was over, Obsidian had a solid vision for Alpha Protocol at last - a kind of Jason Bourne adventure with baddies as zany as in Kill Bill, Chris Avellone would later say. The game would take longer to make and cost more money than originally budgeted but Sega's confidence was restored, and so was the team's. "The direction we were going wasn't something everyone was completely happy with so changing that around ... it really revitalised a lot of the team," says Tyson Christensen, lead level designer on the game.
 
What lay ahead was simply months of hard work. And, inevitably, as push came to shove, there were sacrifices. Good artificial intelligence was one of them. "One of the big complaints after the game came out was the AI was not good enough and too stupid, and that was a factor of time," Parker says.
 
"We put together a really cool AI system but it sucked up too much performance and it was eating frames from the game and we had to get performance up. We wound up making our guys stupider late in development because there wasn't a good way to go back and change it at that point. If we could have gone back in time we could have come up with a better overall system but it was too late to do that."
 
Another sacrifice was the option of playing as a female character, a Michaela Thorton or a Michelle Thorton. "All of us would have loved to support such a choice, but for the game we were making it was just 'we have to do it'," Matt MacLean says.
 
"We would have to re-record every cutscene with a female actor and change any use of 'him' or 'her' or 'Mike' in reference to the protagonist. We'd almost double on our voice acting budget - at least the main character would have to re-record each line. It was a cost thing: we made the decision it's only Mike Thorton and saved 60 per cent of our voice acting and animation budget."
 
But there were unforeseen changes for the better too. The mission debriefs you see at the end of a level, the ones telling you what you have and haven't accomplished: they weren't intended to be shown. They were for internal development feedback. But one tester played a version accidentally displaying them, and he loved it. "It was a bug to us but he was like, 'You guys should keep this in there!'" Tyson Christensen says, and so Obsidian did.
 
With rolled up sleeves and gritted teeth Obsidian finished Alpha Protocol and, according to the team in front of me, did so in time for the advertised October 2009 release. "We were set to ship at the end of 2009," Parker says. "The game was basically done to ship in 2009." Why, then, was Alpha Protocol delayed until May 2010? "It slipped into 2010 for reasons we'll never be able to answer in this room. They [Sega] held it until 2010," he says.
 
thorton.jpg
 
My Mike Thorton, and an example of the perks tied to imaginative achievements in the game.
 
 
 
But that was OK wasn't it? It meant Obsidian had more time to polish, more time to fix bugs. Well no. "We had 20 people fixing bugs on the product and they were all going to be done by the end of September," Parker recalls. "But that was when they said, 'We're not going to ship it this year any more,' so the team went to 10 and fixed bugs through to the early calendar year. And then it sat around for around six months."
 
The team at Obsidian was - and still is by the sound of it - confused. They knew there were bugs in the game and didn't understand why they couldn't use the delay to address them. "We've come this far, how do you guys just leave it in the can and not put it directly to the shelves?" Matt MacLean remembers thinking. "Why don't we use this delay to fix more bugs?"
 
Presumably - and I've asked Sega for comment - Sega moved Alpha Protocol to avoid other big game releases. In autumn 2009 there was Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Uncharted 2. Then in early 2010 there was Mass Effect 2 ("oh dammit - we're going to have to follow Mass Effect 2?" was Obsidian's reaction) Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Conviction. You can see Sega's thinking.
 
Regardless, May 2010 rolled around and Alpha Protocol's release neared. Obsidian knew the game wasn't perfect but was proud of what had been made. "We always talk about how we think a game is going to rate before it launches," Chris Parker says. "We all expected [Alpha Protocol] to land around 80. We knew it had some issues, we understood all of that, but we thought if people could just get over those things the content would pull through.
 
"When it launched and it did significantly worse... it was pretty disheartening."
 
But as time passed, opinion began to change. People looked beyond the jankiness and began to appreciate the web of reactivity and choice and consequence Obsidian had spun. Here was a game which could look very different based on decisions you'd made. "There was one particular cutscene at the end that had so many character combinations in it it took probably 20 days of work time to do," Tyson Christensen says.
 
Here too was a game which could play very differently based on how you played. I killed four major characters in cold blood and Alpha Protocol not only tracked this and gave me an achievement, it gave me a permanent +1 damage with my favoured weapon as a reward. It made it feel like Alpha Protocol was listening to me, and it's always so nice to be heard.
 
Alpha Protocol was purposefully brisk, too, a Sunday afternoon James Bond film of a game rather than a Lord of the Rings epic we see so much of today. Obsidian knew it couldn't show you all possible choice permutations in one sitting so it needed to make the game stomachable to play again. "At some point the length of the game becomes a virtue," Matt MacLean says. Not often you hear an RPG maker say that.
 
Tieing into that brilliantly was Alpha Protocol's time-pressured dialogue, which gives you a moment to make a dialogue choice before it chooses for you, forcing the pace throughout. "There was a lot of internal division about it with some people saying, 'This is totally not how RPGs do it! Players are going to be stressed out and hate this,'" senior designer Charles Staples says. "But apparently people seem to like it."
 
All of this consequence and time pressure has a brilliant knock-on effect. In the Rome level there's a filthy ice cream parlour and a filthy guy the team has nicknamed Gelato Dude. You need to talk to him undercover to get information. One wrong move and he'll be onto you. It's eerie and tense and also, as it turns out, all for show.
 
"There's really not as much nonsense going on as you think is going on," Matt MacLean says, "but because it's so creepy and you don't have time to think about your choices, it feels more stressful than it actually is. This creepy Gelato dude actually scares you because you don't have time to think about the situation."
 
It's for these reasons and more Alpha Protocol enjoys a kind of cult following now. "It's funny that with time and distance it's been getting the recognition that it almost deserves," MacLean says, "because it is a fun, quirky, bizarre game."
 
And it's for these reasons and more people want an Alpha Protocol 2. "We finished a complete pitch for Alpha Protocol 2," Chris Parker says. "It's a pretty detailed pitch about 35-40 pages long. A lot of it was to do with fundamentally revisiting some of the gameplay systems to get some of the jankiness out of them and shore them up overall. I know the intention was to focus on reactivity because we knew that was one of the things people loved the most.
 
"I remember there was this idea I didn't think we could ever pull off. It was this choice and consequence web people wanted to have in the interface so you could see your choices and how they spider-webbed through [everything]. There were so many ways to play through the first game I don't think we could ever do that in the second one, but that was an idea people really wanted to pursue."
 
But Obsidian cannot make Alpha Protocol 2 without Sega sanctioning it, because Sega owns the game, the intellectual property, and when I asked Sega it didn't sound like an AP sequel was part of any kind of plan. But Sega almost didn't own the IP. The real kicker in all of this - the absolute heart-wrencher - is Obsidian almost did. What scuppered it was Disney cancelling the Seven Dwarves Snow White spin-off Obsidian was making after Neverwinter Nights 2.
 
"When the Dwarves thing happened we were practically done with an agreement with Sega to do Alpha Protocol," Feargus Urquhart says, "but what this cost us - Dwarves getting cancelled and that contract - was the Alpha Protocol IP. Having to get that contract signed right away... Originally we were going to own the Alpha Protocol IP."
 
As it is, Alpha Protocol 2 can go nowhere but into the bulging drawer of Obsidian game ideas and pitches I've been lucky enough to rummage through for you, and I'll be telling you more about the treasures within this weekend.
 
Meanwhile Alpha Protocol remains not Obsidian's most famous game but, as the studio's own heartbreaking attempt at launching an original series, a special one. "It's a game that we go back to every now and then and say, 'Remember how we completely ****ed this thing up in AP? Let's not do that again,' because we spent a year-and-a-half working on a game ultimately no one really liked and we had to refactor and took us forever to finish, and arguably we didn't finish it in some ways," Chris Parker says.
 
"It's also used as an example of how to do a ton of really solid reactivity in ways that are meaningful. Sometimes in our quest to make reactive worlds in role-playing games we do things that are not meaningful, and nobody really remembers or cares about those things. The way that AP handled that stuff, the things that changed on everybody's playthrough are meaningful - they're kind of in your face. They're things that people take away from a playthrough."
 
I wish more games were like Alpha Protocol.
 
Disclaimer: Travel and accommodation for this trip was provided by Paradox Interactive.

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#57
FlintlockJazz

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Alpha Protocol rocks.  Anyone else wondering why Paradox Interactive paid for this guy's trip to Obsidian to talk about Alpha Protocol and Stormlands (posted in the other thread)?  I'm kinda wondering if the secret project of Obsidian's is Alpha Storm Protocol Lands published by Paradox.



#58
injurai

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I have a feeling that whatever is coming is marking solid relationship going forward. Perhaps with Paradox. Meaning Paradox wants the reputation of Obsidian to flourish and floweth over.



#59
FlintlockJazz

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Indeed, Paradox is pretty much paying for these walkabouts and such, they wouldn't do that if there wasn't some long-term plan in place.



#60
ShadySands

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Building up to the Vampire announcement  :yes:


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