Releasing to rave reviews ( including ours) following a successful Kickstarter campaign and years of development, Pillars of Eternity is a deep and richly rewarding adventure, containing both old-school RPG roots and some reimagined concepts. I recently spoke to Obsidian Entertainment CEO Feargus Urquhart over Skype about the benefits of funding a game through Kickstarter, their plans for future expansions, morality in games, and taking Pillars of Eternity's lore and characters to other forms of media, like books, card games, and a tabletop RPG.
Photo credit: Cassidy Rainer
PC Gamer: We hear a lot from developers that they go to Kickstarter because the game they want to make wouldn't be possible with traditional publishers. Did you shop Pillars of Eternity to a number of publishers first?
Feargus Urquhart: So, we didn't... I never shopped the concept specifically. I had talked to publishers over a period of time just about, you know, kind of the idea of a game like it in general. But it was never anything that anyone showed any interest in, it was sort of... I think a lot of publishers [have] a very big console focus. And Pillars is just not a game that is very console friendly in a lot of ways. And so, it's kind of very hard, and it totally makes sense, it's almost like you can look at [consoles and PC] as two different businesses. And so, what we wanted to do was just very different than what a lot of the traditional publishers do. That's not necessarily a bad thing, it just means that they don't necessarily have slots for that in their portfolio.
You still wound up with a publisher, Paradox Interactive. How did they help you with the game and the release?
The big thing is, ultimately, we're a developer, you know. We have a public presence and we have forums and Facebook and all that kind of stuff. We interact with people a lot. But there's a whole mess of stuff... we don't have the people to do those things. And so a lot of it was figuring out... strangely enough, my wife used to do all of the trade shows for Interplay back many years ago, and so she's an expert in doing that, but internally at Obsidian we don't have anybody who's ever done trade shows. So, a big part of, when you want people to know about your game, you want to go to Gamescom, you want to go to E3, you want to go to PAX East, West, South, North... [Laughs] I don't think there's a North.
And so, it was great to have a publisher, they already have all of the people and the mechanisms and all that kind of stuff to do that. What they also have is a group of people who can kind of talk to all of the different groups around the world who may want to put Pillars into retail in South Korea, or in Germany, or France or Italy or Poland. I know some of those people but it's not the business that we do, or I do, on a daily basis. So, a lot of it is they just really helped us get a much broader reach and, I think, more awareness after the Kickstarter, which was very cool.
There have been some high profile failures with crowdfunding. What sort of pressures did you feel while you were developing your game? You had a very successful Kickstarter, but did you see some of these other companies and games kind of falling down, and did that put added pressure on you?
I think so. I think from our perspective it was a little disappointing. But then, I think, maybe sometimes... games are hard. [Laughs]
They're hard to make, and so I think, as least as it relates to us, this is something that we've done, and done for a lot of years, so we were, I think, maybe a bit better prepared for, 'what are all the things we need to do? How are we gonna?' with sort of a lot of experience knowing, like, 'a character like this is going to take this amount of time, we need a person of this level to be able to do it.' So going into and coming out of the Kickstarter, it was just because we were doing something we were so familiar with.
I think a lot of people on Kickstarter, they kind of do something new, and it's awesome, I think that's what's incredible about Kickstarter is that you get to do speculative things and you get to do these amazing things. Now, of course, people are expecting that you're going to be successful. But I think maybe that's the double-edged short sword? It's awesome that it's allowing people to different stuff, but when you do different stuff it's less known that you're going to be successful. And I think that was a little bit different for us. I mean, we did have to build an engine and all this different new code, and all that kind of stuff, but it was still something we had a lot of experience doing.
And did you learn anything from the Kickstarter process and that experience that you think you can apply on your next game, or games in the future?
You know, I think what was interesting about it, I think that the most important thing that we learned was, and maybe it was more of a reinforcement—but it was a big, big reinforcement—it was the closer that we can talk to people and involve people... back in the day it was weird to give your game out really early and have people play it because they might say stuff about it and then that conflicts with the messaging and all that kind of stuff.
But I think with us putting out the backer beta, I think that really helped a lot. While people were playing it, and obviously they had opinions of it, it let us have a better conversation with everybody about it. And I think that Josh Sawyer, the game director, he had a lot of ideas about some stuff he wanted to do that was different than the normal model of the Infinity Engine games. So, he had a lot of these ideas and then with people playing the backer beta, he was able to have these informed conversations with people about what they liked and what they didn't like, and that then changed the game. And I think that was super cool. And something that we learned was that it's okay to go out and show people things really early, and then have a conversation with them and see how to make it better.
Do you recall a specific example of something that, when you released the beta to the backers, something specific that maybe their thoughts or ideas steered in a different direction?
Yeah, so there's kind of two. One I have a little less detail about but I know there were changes. Our Rogue class was a fair amount different when it was first released to what is in the final game. And lot of that is based on conversations Josh had. The second is how the inventory system works. Josh was trying come in with a very tactical way of players dealing with inventory in which you had sort of a restrictive stash and [restrictions on] how often you could actually get into your larger inventory.
And after he kind of talked to people, and we had very good reasons, sort of gameplay reasons for wanting to do that, a lot of people just sort of talked to him about it and said, "I can get all of what you're saying but it kind of just makes the game less fun to play." And he listened to that, and so that actually changed how that whole system ended up being in the final game.
Last year we talked with Mark Darrah of Bioware about Dragon Age: Inquisition, and he was talking about how there's kind of a nostalgic drive to revisit old classic computer RPGs, but he also talked about how Skyrim had paved the way for the big open world games again. How do you see the genre right now? Is it healthy? Do you think there's more options out there?
You know... I think it is healthy. I think it's healthy, and it's not. It's interesting. I make roleplaying games, probably because I love roleplaying games. And, the awesome thing about roleplaying games is that you play them and you get on this huge adventure and you slay the dragon. I mean, that's sort of trite, but... and a lot of times because you enjoyed that experience, you want to play the next one. And I think that the only challenge right now is that particularly with something like Dragon Age: Inquisition... and what those guys did was awesome. You know, I've known Mark for years and Aaron Flynn's a great guy.
[But] that game is so huge, it's almost intimidating to think that that's how you have to compete in that genre is to go create a Dragon Age: Inquisition. And I don't think that's worrisome, it's just something that we think about. Skyrim is different, it's a big game, but it's sort of not as much... it's larger in scope but not by a whole lot compared with what we did in Fallout: New Vegas, and we were able to make Fallout: New Vegas with not a gigantic team in not a long period of time, and so that kind of thing is okay. But there's still a little bit of that concern just about, you know, people's expectations are that every RPG has to be 200 hours of content. It sort of gets into that, "Does every RPG need to be that big?"
On the flip side, I think it's been great to see that a lot of these older style RPGs, Eternity being one of them, but, you know, Shadowrun, and Divinity, and Grimrock, and Wasteland... you know I personally really enjoy them and looking at the sales, [a lot of people] really enjoyed them as well. So, that's healthy, right, that there's options. There's options for developers about how they want to make an RPG, what they can do. So, yeah, it's healthy but with a little tinge of... is it possible that RPGs could get too big?
Kind of a big topic in gaming right now is virtual reality. Is that something that Obsidian has any interest in developing for?
I don't know! It sounds cool, it's one of those things that I don't see that something like Eternity makes sense for virtual reality. [Laughs] I don't know, I mean, you're like the little god with your hand in the world moving people around. I don't know. I would kind of put it in the 'wait and see' type of thing. I'd love to see what people do with it. I'm not negative on VR, but it is a little bit of sort of, like, let's see what people come up with. And let's also see what makes sense. I would never put VR in the same place as the Kinect, but it is still sort of like, what is that application for VR that people really feel, "Wow, this is something that actually fits perfectly with it and it's something that everybody loves playing with."
So, in Eternity there's a lot of familiar character classes like the Paladin and Rogue. There's two kind of new ones, the Cipher and the Chanter classes. What in particular inspired these classes, or where did you kind of get those concepts from?
So, [the concept] of why we wanted to come up with those classes, was really this idea of RPGs, and obviously we always all go back to Lord of the Rings as the way to look at everything, but a lot of it was, we wanted to make sure that when it's related to classes there was enough that was familiar, very familiar. And then sort of having familiar classes with these sort of nuanced tweaks, and then to have kind of a small, but not tiny percentage, of anything we do be something new.
I think the Chanter in particular came from this idea of, a lot of people love playing Bard. And often the implementation of Bard in games is, they're a great idea but they kinda suck? I mean you can only beat someone over the head with your guitar so many times. So the Chanter was really this idea of coming up with a class that sort of had this musical base but was something that really, that felt like a character that really supported the party.
And on top of it, it wasn't just something that had to sit in the background. And that's really kind of where Josh kind of focused. Josh also kind of loves European history and he loves sort of singing in choir and all that kind of stuff. I don't want to call it, you know, that the Chanter is the modern Bard, but that's really what I think was he was trying to accomplish.
It feels traditionally that roleplaying games are the ones who end up pushing boundaries on questions of morality. In Eternity, a lot of the moral decisions, there seems to a lot of ambiguity. They're very gray and murky and it's hard to tell what's right and wrong. There doesn't seem to really be any clear answers. Was that a particular goal of yours?
It's important to us, and Chris Avellone did a great job of this in Alpha Protocol, of... you're making choices. Are they right? Are they wrong? But more importantly, you're making choices that are reinforcing how you're playing the game and you're being rewarded either way. Rewarded is maybe the wrong word. You're being successful either way. I think, prior to Alpha Protocol in particular, there was a lot of roleplaying games, probably games in general, there was sort of the good way and the bad people way. And the good way, you walk grandma across the street, and the bad way, you... throw her across it, I don't know.
The thing being that, particularly, the bad way was always like you were kind of playing a psychopath. So, when we started focusing on more on, well, you can be a psychopath, but more importantly you just have different ways of accomplishing things in the game, and the game lets you, and it's not like this is a bad way of doing it and this is a good way of doing it. This is just a way. And when you compound a lot of decisions like that, have the game... I don't want to say mold, that's not the right way to put it, but it lets [the players] truly make choices about how their character is expressed within the world. And that's why. So, when they're more gray, and they're not dead-end decisions, then I think players more and more get to really play the kind of character they really want.
When I was playing, I was kind of surprised to receive a stronghold so early in the game, and then I was surprised to have so much fun kind of managing it. Where did the idea for this sort of Stronghold Tycoon element come from, and are there any plans to expand on in the future?
So, a lot of that did come from Baldur's Gate 2, I think it's sort of a fond memory that a lot of people have is sort of this Stronghold that they got. It did happen a little bit later... you got it in Chapter 2 if you did a fair number of the quests. And we liked what we were able to do with Crossroad Keep in Neverwinter Nights 2, and people just like that idea of having their own place. It's also a great place for, from the standpoint when players want to feel that they have a place to have their companions congregate and they can kind of pick them up and leave them off, and it's that idea of building your home.
Now, in the future, we look at it as also a great place where we can, when we add content to the game, where we can sort of have these quests, new people can show up. If we have new features, new items and things like that, we can add aspects to the buildings, in which those buildings can do new things with items, so it's definitely a core thing of the game that we plan to grow as we continue to grow the game.
Speaking of expansions, can you give us any details on what might be coming in the future?
Sure. So, with the Kickstarter we announced that we were going to do an expansion, and so how we're approaching that is to actually do the expansion in two parts, and have one part out sooner than the other part. The idea being that people are really enjoying Pillars right now and they're going to get finished their first or second playthrough within in the next two weeks, a month, something like that. And so, we definitely want there to be content for them to enjoy and I think we're going to be talking about that pretty soon. I don't think we've released anything specifically, but it really ends up being this concept of this story that expands parts of what you would see in those sort of old school expansions we made for Icewind Dale and Baldur's Gate. So not just these three, four hour downloadable DLCs, but definitely big chunks of a story and a new hub to go to and things like that.
So that's kind of how we're really approaching it, like we've done with Eternity throughout is this idea of, these games kind of went away but not for a reason they should have. The industry shifted to so much console with this idea that PC wasn't so much of a gaming platform, which I know no one thinks that anymore. So, back then when you got an expansion you got this meaty thing with hours and hours of gameplay. And that's really what we're trying to do. So, while we're splitting it in two, it is like one continual story that people get to play.
Do you have any plans for an Eternity tabletop RPG or anything like that? I mean, you created this new world and all this new lore, do you see that expanding out to other media?
Absolutely. So, actually one of the things we're going to announce very soon, I don't even know if I talked about it. Not in the latest backer update but the next backer update, we're definitely going to talk about how we're going to be Kickstarting... not us, but another group is going to be Kickstarting a Pillars of Eternity card game. This isn't like a CCG or anything like that, but it's more just a fun, kind of, four people get around and play a single session card game. You have heros, and you have a village, and all that kind of stuff, and you can take your heroes into a dungeon, and you can also take your heroes and armies and attack your friends while they're playing, so it's kind a very fun card game and it's actually designed by Chris Taylor. Not... there's two Chris Taylors. [Laughs] It's Chris Taylor, a friend of mine for many many years who was the lead designer of Fallout.
So, that's the first thing we're really looking at, and also, absolutely on the tabletop roleplaying. We're not sure yet how we're going to do it, we were kind of going back and forth on, do we use the game's rules, do we use someone else's rules, do we come up with another set of rules? And it's something we're going to be talking [about] soon. But absolutely, we want to expand. New books, roleplaying, all that kind of stuff.
HBO series, I presume?
Absolutely! I don't think George RR Martin has done enough with his work. [Laughs] So that's our goal. We need to one-up him.