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AusGamers Pillars of Eternity Interview with Obsidian Entertainment's Josh Sawyer
Post by Dan @ 05:02pm 21/03/14 | Comments
With publisher Paradox Entertainment having recently taken on marketing and distribution duties for Pillars of Eternity, AusGamers was fortunate enough to score some quality Q&A time with Obsidian Entertainment's Josh Sawyer to discuss the studio's much anticipated crowdfunded return to the classic party-based isometric-style RPG.

AusGamers: I’m not really sure where to start… the development process of this game has been so open, it’s tough to know what’s left to ask. Features and content-wise, it feels like basically everything except plot spoilers has already been laid out.

So I guess, can you describe what that has been like? Inviting the public so deeply into the process like that, and what kind of impact that’s had on the steering the development process?

Josh Sawyer: It’s been very good, as far as I’m concerned. At both Black Isle and Obsidian, at both of those companies we always tried to communicate a lot with the fans. So the main difference here is that we’re doing it a lot earlier in the development process.

Previously, it was sort of our modus operandi to… we’d be working on a game for six months, nine months, and it would be a year, and then it would be announced, and then we’d start getting feedback from the fans. Then sometimes, you would get conflicting feedback from the publisher. Whereas now…

I prefer this method, because from day one they’re aware of what we’re trying to do. Actually, even before day one; before we even started the project, during the Kickstarter they could talk to us about what we were doing; decide if they wanted to back our project or not; ask us questions about it and we could change course if we felt that we needed to.

Instead of trying to rely on a marketing group or focus group to figure out what the fans want, then listening to the fans and hearing them say something completely different to what the focus group says, we can just talk directly to the fans. We don’t just read what the fans are saying on the Obsidian forums, but also on places like NeoGAF, RPG Codex and Something Awful and stuff like that. So it’s good to get their feedback on things. They hear the reasoning that goes into why we like certain things or don’t like certain things, and overall I think it’s been a very positive experience. So, it’s great.

AusGamers: Now I don’t know how specific you can get on this but, how many separate projects are in the works at Obsidian now? Even with South Park wrapped, it seems like there must be a few? Has the team expanded significantly in recent years?

Josh: Recently it did expand, because South Park was winding down, so we’ve wrapped up on that, and of course we’ve just had our announcement about Armored Warfare, which there’s a lot of folks at Obsidian working on that. Then we always have other projects that are in progress -- things that we’ve started up and are working on in the background. So we always try to be a two or three project studio, and that will probably continue for the near future.

AusGamers: Has the creative freedom afforded by the crowdfunded Pillars of Eternity noticeably altered studio culture at all? Has there been a measurable envy from the devs working away on the big publisher licensed stuff, or do you even have strictly defined teams for each project in that sort of way?

Josh: Well I wouldn’t say it’s strictly defined, but people don’t just kind of float around. People will move over to our project sometimes then work on something else for a while and maybe come back later. Obviously it’s nice to be able to work with your own IP, but there are other certain nice advantages of working with someone else’s IP, but you know, the grass is always greener.

It’s very hard to build an IP from scratch. We’re not really making any bones of the fact that we’re trying to make a game that feels very much like Forgotten Realms; we’re trying to capture the feel of those old Baldurs Gate and Icewind Dale games. So there is a certain framework to what we’re doing, that we’ve already pre-established, but even so, we do have a lot of freedom to make up things: we don’t have to run them by a publisher; we don’t have to run them by an IP holder; we’re the IP holder, we’re the ones making it.

Really we’re just beholden to the fans. So for example, early on when we were developing the races during the Kickstarter, something I talked about internally with people was: I’m pretty sure there are plenty of people that want to play elves and dwarves [laughs]; I’ve got a feeling a lot of people want to play those two races. I don’t necessarily know if anyone wants to play gnomes or halflings, so we’ll just kick those guys right out and make up some new races. But elves and dwarves I’m pretty sure people want to play those guys.

So it’s not about whether I personally like elves or dwarves, it’s about, if you played Baldurs Gate, you probably have some sort of an expectation of elves and dwarves. So we do still have sort of boundaries and restrictions about how to develop things, but it is nice to be able to take those in directions that we want to.

AusGamers: I believe the latest word on a release target for Pillars of Eternity was pointing to late this year. Is the current plan to launch then as a feature-complete game or will there be public alphas for the backers or any other type of early access things preceding that?

Josh: Yeah I think we’ll have beta access at some point before release, and that’s good, because it will get a lot of eyes on the game and people can give feedback. People do have a tendency to be extremely negative during betas, but that’s ok [laughs]. I’d much rather get their feedback at that point, so we can just fix it, or see how they respond, rather than come out with the game and suddenly have them all going “Oh, I hate this UI; I can’t do any of this stuff”; Oh whoops, I wish we’d have seen that earlier. So we are planning on having a beta beforehand.

AusGamers: Obsidian has created RPGs in pretty much every possible form factor it seems: first person, third person, 2D. Has going back to the isometric classic RPG style felt restrictive or limiting at all? Were there any kind of modern game mechanics you wanted that just couldn’t translate back?

Josh: There are certain things, but they’re not things that are really missed that much. Obviously there’s a sense of intimacy with first person that you don’t get when you’re pulled out into isometric view. There are certain ways that you have to build levels that you really can’t… like, this will sound kind of weird, but with an isometric viewpoint, you can kind of get an M.C. Escher style warped perspective, because the depth of everything is sort of flattened. So you have to build things in a certain way to avoid creating optical illusions. You can very easily create and illusion and spoil the player by how you build things.

So there are certain things that you have to keep in mind, but those are things that I still remembered from when we worked on the original games. So yeah, obviously you’re not doing a lot of fast-paced action-based combat, because you’re controlling six characters and way zoomed out. But then again, we’re not going to have very high fidelity models and animations, because we’re pulled way out; that’s not the style of game we’re doing.

So we’re not doing big crazy cinematics; we’re not doing any of that stuff. It’s more about illustrations and dialogue, and narration and the traditional tools that we used way back then.

AusGamers: You mention you yourself recalled how to work way back when with those methods. Has that been a bigger adjustment for the newer staff that weren’t around back then and are used to working in dynamic 3D, whereas now they’re baking in these isometric scenes?

Josh: Yeah, it took them a while to adjust. Mostly it took them a while to adjust to the rules of how to lay things out and how to not lay things out. For example, one of the rules that we have is don’t ever raise the terrain elevation toward the bottom of the screen, which might sound strange, but if you see it… when a staircase looks like a line, then when characters walk up it, because it’s isometric, they don’t get any bigger because the perspective is flattened.

So there are certain things like that, where we’re telling them don’t have rolling terrain, because it screws up the walk-mesh and the player can’t appreciate the difference anyway because it’s all isometrically rendered. So there are certain things about laying levels out that they had to learn, and there are certain things about where to place creatures and monsters relative to the fog of war -- because we have a fog of war system -- and other things like that, that they had to all learn over time. But most of them picked it up pretty quickly.

There were enough of us there that had worked on those games, or who had played those games obsessively enough that they sort of new the rules intuitively on how to build things. So it did take some adjusting, but they go into it pretty quickly.

AusGamers: You guys have been quite open on supporting the mod community with Eternity. Are you able to elaborate on the kinds of tools intended to be available for modders: will there be any specially tailored and documented editing software, or will it be more of a “just go and download the latest version of Unity, and import the game files kind of thing.

Josh: I don’t think we can announce anything like that yet. At the very least, we’re going to try to make all of our file formats open for people and expose how to tinker and edit with those things. It will remain to be seen how open we can be with that stuff.

We’re not building our own standalone toolset to release with it though, that’s beyond the scope of what we’re able to do, but we do want to make that stuff as open as possible for modders to use. The biggest thing that will be a challenge will be getting new levels, because I know a lot of people will be wanting to get new levels into the game. That might be a challenging process, but we’re going to look at if there’s any way that we can make that stuff easier. We can’t promise anything right now, but we know how important it is to our fans, to mod our stuff.

AusGamers: The team is obviously heads down on creating the game as described, but have there been any conversations about post-release DLC or the like? I’m mostly wondering how those sorts of discussions might differ with a crowdfunded game versus when you’re having that discussion with a traditional publisher.

Josh: Well they’ve already backed an expansion [laughs] so that’s already guaranteed. Then if the game is successful, we’d want to do more sequels and expansions and things like that, and it will really depend on the success of the game. And what sort of funding we would do for it will also depend on how successful the game is.

If the game is extremely successful and we would hopefully be able to self-fund. It is our IP and that puts us in a very good position for future titles, as a negotiating point that’s out IP to use as we want. So if we do a good job and people like it, I’d say it’s very likely that we’re going to make more games for this IP.

AusGamers: And I have to ask, is there any loose goal or intention to incorporate multiplayer as a potential future feature for the game or series?

Josh: It’s not really a big focus for us. It’s something that we know -- historically at least on the Infinity Engine games -- it was a feature that many people asked for, and virtually no one played and used. It’s a huge amount of work, really a very large amount of work to get that working in the first place, and especially because of the tight budget constraints of this project, we didn’t really want to mess around with that stuff.

I wouldn’t say that we’re never going to do it, but we know that it’s a very expensive feature to implement, and that traditionally, despite how much people say they want it, it doesn’t wind up getting used a lot.

AusGamers: Ok. Thanks so much for your time today Josh, that’s fantastic. Best of luck with the game.

Josh: No problem. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

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