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How RPG studio Obsidian ended up making a survival game

(Image credit: Obsidian Entertainment)

Obsidian's next game isn't a sprawling RPG. It's a co-op survival game called Grounded, made by a small team at Obsidian that wanted to try something different. And it's definitely different, both from Obsidian's past work and the other survival games you can play on PC today. Grounded is set in a backyard, which you're exploring as a tiny, shrink-rayed teen—Honey I Shrunk the Kids is the obvious reference. Instead of trees, there's grass. Instead of dinosaurs or animals, there are insects.

You can read all about what Grounded plays like in my preview here. I also spoke with senior programmer Roby Atadero about how this project came to be.

The natural question for everyone is: Why a survival game?

(Image credit: Roby Atadero)

"We've been interested in doing a survival game for quite a while now," said Atadero. "We tossed around a lot of ideas. We were experimenting with what we wanted to do [a couple years ago], and it just so happened that The Outer Worlds kind of needed that team to take over, so it got tabled. But then after Deadfire, Adam Brennecke, our project lead, and Bobby Null, one of the lead designers on Pillars, had a brainstorming session: 'If we want to do this survival game, what are some good ideas we could roll with?'

The one idea that came out that was quite interesting and different, but it resonated with a lot of people was, 'What if you were shrunk to the size of an ant in a backyard?' And we knew that was a little different. Anytime we pitched it to anybody, it just sparked everyone's imagination. Adam got a team of a lot of senior devs from Deadfire as that rolled off, and we made a prototype, and within a couple months, we knew we had something pretty special."

You can expect more of a focus on story in Grounded than many other survival games, though without the full-on RPG narrative decisions of most Obsidian games. Also, Obsidian's developers just quite like survival games.

"Everyone here loves RPGs, but we're all gamers and we try everything. And survival games started to resonate a lot more in the industry, and people were playing them and really enjoying it. And we wanted to kind of explore it: This is kind of a genre that would be interesting to dabble in, and maybe we can find a way to make something that had Obsidian DNA mixed with the survival game. We knew that if we wanted to have a smaller team and do more experimental stuff, that this fit very well with that."

Despite being on the back burner for a couple years, once Grounded got a prototype, the team quickly knew it was worth making. Atadero gave much of the credit for that to the art team, who really sold the feeling of being tiny in a backyard jungle.

"They established the art style they wanted to go with, they started prototyping a level of what it looked like. Grass, and scale, and creature sizes. Once we had something small where you could walk around, that had just some grass and some creatures and a big spider that made everyone say, 'Oh, I'm not going over there,' we knew we were getting the feelings that we wanted. And we did it in such a short time that it was like, let's move this forward."

(Image credit: Obsidian Entertainment)

The insects are one of the key things that set Grounded apart—Obsidian said they're simulated to have their own lives and goals, and as you interrupt their ecosystem their behavior will change. It's hard to say how deep that simulation will go, but Atadero told me a little about their plans for it, and gave an example of how the insect AI can already lead to some emergent player choices.

"There's basically a natural order. If the lady bugs are hungry, they're going to stick around in this area because that's where the aphids are. If you end up hunting all the aphids, well now the lady bugs are going to migrate, and they might go to a place that's now populated by spiders, and that might kind of mess with that ecosystem. The more you kind of disturb the natural order and all the different biomes, the more the creatures will eventually come to not like you. And so you might need to start preparing for that.

Playstyle-wise, I like to see what I can do with the creatures. One thing that's kind of new and neat was, a lot of times like the ants would have a hard time reaching you if you got up on a grass blade, or if you jumped on a clover. So, because we would do that a lot, one thing that we just added is ants can go over to a clover if they see you're on it, and start chopping it themselves and knock you down. You can use that as a means of chopping without an axe—just keep hopping around, let them chop for you. Any time we find a way to outsmart the bugs, we look to see what we can do to bring them back up to snuff."

Grounded is coming to Steam Early Access and Xbox Game Pass next spring.

When he's not 50 hours into a JRPG or an opaque ASCII roguelike, Wes is probably playing the hottest games of three years ago. He oversees features, seeking out personal stories from PC gaming's niche communities. 50% pizza by volume.