factory level logo distressedIn February, the good people at Obsidian Entertainment were kind enough to allow me to explore their office in Irvine, California. Newegg TV’s Steve and Paul came along, and we spent the day talking with some of the brightest minds in gaming — as well as checking out the progress of their upcoming game Pillars of Eternity.

The office space currently inhabited by Obsidian Entertainment was previously a gym, but there’s little evidence of that now outside of the light hardwood floors underfoot. From the moment you enter the lobby it’s clear that this is a place where gamers work. The extended DVD set of The Lord of the Rings trilogy can be sighted in multiple offices, alongside visual references for medieval weaponry and dozens of empty Starbucks cups. Wandering the halls of Obsidian means passing an office devoted to a game of Dungeons and Dragons on your way to a lunch room sporting a one-of-a-kind arcade cabinet that features digital versions of real-life Obsidian employees.

The one-of-a-kind Obsidian arcade cabinet in the lunch room.

The Obsidian arcade cabinet in the lunch room.

The walls throughout the Obsidian offices hold posters advertising the huge titles that the company has produced in the past. Everything is represented: the wonderful (though notorious) Knights of the Old Republic II, the ambitious but unfortunately unpolished Alpha Protocol, and of course the studio’s biggest success: Fallout: New Vegas. Figurines and sketches from the recently-released South Park: The Stick of Truth are also a common sight. That game was published by Ubisoft and has been enjoying highly positive reviews since its release on March 4th.

Of course, as any fan of PC RPGs should know, there are other games associated with Obsidian as well. Games from a previous era, when many of these same people worked under the Black Isle banner. Games such as Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment. Those classic titles are what established Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart and his team as premiere forces in the PC RPG genre – and it was invoking the spirit of those titles on Kickstarter that brought Obsidian an unprecedented crowd-funding windfall.

Pillars of Eternity ­– originally known as Project Eternity – was announced on Kickstarter in September 2012 with the stated goal of making a game that “aim[ed] to recapture the magic, imagination, depth, and nostalgia of classic RPGs that we enjoyed making – and playing.” The message was clear, and the money poured in from fans. Nostalgia had translated very successfully into cash. Pillars of Eternity soon set the record for video game funding on Kickstarter, raising almost four million dollars on the site.

When people think of a typical game that was funded through Kickstarter, they wouldn’t be wrong if they imagined inexperienced game designers attempting to do something they had never done before — but that’s definitely not the case with Pillars of Eternity. It was one of the first examples of an established game studio taking advantage of the crowd funding model, following in the footsteps of InXile Entertainment’s successful funding of Wasteland 2. Now production of Pillars is in full-swing, with computers humming in every office and the definite feeling that the pieces are coming together. This is a crew that has been making games for years — or decades, in some cases.

Whether or not the game hits its currently planned release date of Winter 2014 – and Obsidian has been burned before by rushing a game to release, so it’s unlikely they’ll repeat that mistake – it is clear that a release will happen. The goodwill and pledges from fans are being translated into an actual real-life game that people will be able to play. Obsidian already considers their first foray into crowd funding a huge success – and it isn’t at all hard to see why. They appealed directly to their fans for support to make exactly the kind of game they wanted, and the fans responded.

An in-progress game of Dungeons and Dragons in an office at Obsidian.

A game of Dungeons and Dragons, currently on hold, in an office at Obsidian.

During our tour of Obsidian’s offices we had a chance to watch some of their artists at work. At one station a designer was working to turn a photo of one the project’s crowdfunding backers – a long-haired gentleman holding a staff – into a portrait of an elven hero ready to be used by players of the game. This, of course, was one of the most coveted and highly-priced of the pledge-rewards, and seeing how awesome the portrait was looking had us believing that backers are going to be very pleased with the results.

We also had a chance to take a look at some of the other character portraits in the game, which followed the theme of minor variations in hair and coloration that we’ve already seen on the game’s official blog:

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An example of the subtle variation in character portraits featured in Pillars of Eternity.

Starting with a base portrait and tweaking it slightly should allow Obsidian to create a wide variety of different options for players at a relatively low cost – though of course some of the differences will be quite subtle. It will be interesting to see how it plays out in the game; running into dozens of NPCs using what amounts to essentially the same portrait would be disappointing.

Our tour continued, making a stop in one of Obsidian’s conference rooms, which featured a stunning collection of board games. For the record, Betrayal at House on the Hill was named as a favorite by several Obsidian staff members.

Obsidian’s board game collection.

Brandon Adler and Adam Brennecke, two of the producers of Pillars of Eternity, showed us a demo of one of the latest builds of their game in their office. While we waited for everything to be ready, we had a chance to admire the dozens of pun-based jokes taped to the wall. We were told that Brandon infamously hates puns, so of course other Obsidian employees cover the walls of his office with pun printouts every chance they get.

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Some of the “tearable puns” hanging in Brandon Alder’s office.

To anyone who enjoyed Baldur’s Gate, the following description of what we saw in the demo should be enough to get you excited about Pillars of Eternity: the yellow circles indicating your party formation are back, but when the circles appear in water they ripple and shimmer as if glowing from beneath the surface of a pool! That’s really the best and simplest possible summary of the gameplay that was on display during our visit to Obsidian: exactly like you remember, only better. Pillars of Eternity looks like a game that comes from a world where Black Isle never stopped making these isometric RPGs, but instead concentrated on refining the genre to the highest possible level.

The visual effects accompanying environments and spells in Pillars are stunning – even a placeholder effect featuring a doge that includes the words “so temp” and “much replace” is impressive. Individual leaves fall from trees as you explore the forest and fire spells light up the darkness in ways that just weren’t possible in the days of Icewind Dale. We also had a chance to witness the dynamic day-night cycle present throughout the game – though we were told it’s mostly just a visual effect, rather than something that will have a big impact on gameplay. You can check out some of these effects for yourself in the Pillars gameplay teaser that Obsidian released back in December:

Dialogue options in Pillars of Eternity are clearly labeled, so you know at once if a choice is reliant on your character’s intelligence or if it’s the “diplomatic” option. These labels can be turned off, though, and here’s where it’s clear that Pillars represents an evolution of the Baldur’s Gate model, rather than just a copy of the old format: dozens of different game settings can be modified or turned off entirely, to allow players to turn Pillars into the game experience they want. Additionally, Brandon and Adam stressed that Pillars has a complex morality system, and that the “diplomatic” dialogue choice wasn’t necessarily the “good” one. “Sometimes making the diplomatic choice could mean something horrible will happen,” Brandon said, which sounds like exactly the sort of complex, shades-of-grey storytelling fans were hoping for when they supported this title on Kickstarter.

Obsidian told us that most of the quests and content in the game could be regarded as “optional,” with the caveat that completing a certain amount of quests in a region will be necessary to build up alliances, gain information, and make progress. Understandably, no one wanted to quote a specific number of gameplay hours, since the game is still at a stage where small changes in animation speed could dramatically increase or decrease the length of the game overall. Regardless, everyone was keen to stress that Pillars will be a “huge” game with “a lot of content.”

The party of adventurers we saw in our demo consisted of six heroes, which we were told is the standard size. Players will have the option of filling their party with either fully-realized, “official” party members or constructing their own at the “Adventurer’s Hall.” These customized party members won’t have the same depth of characterization and writing as the official ones, but the option exists to prevent players from being stuck with party members they don’t enjoy and to allow players to experiment with unusual party configurations (such as a party composed entirely of warriors or healers, which Obsidian stated is something they want to support as much as possible).

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One of the many striking environments in Pillars of Eternity.

As the demo unfolded, I was struck by how many of the design and gameplay decisions were clearly made by people who had been playing RPGs both on the computer and on paper for decades. The people at Obsidian know what is fun and what isn’t, and they are interested in making a fun game. That philosophy is seen in their new take on combat damage, which has players paying more attention to rapidly-regenerating stamina rather than harder-to-heal health. Obsidian said they wanted to avoid forcing players to reload the game whenever a character died in combat, and in their new system most of the time your party members will just be knocked out, rather than permanently killed.

Another sign of Obsidian’s fun-first philosophy can be seen in how player choices in Pillars of Eternity affect gameplay. The developers want to make sure players don’t get punished too much too early for making “bad choices” (there shouldn’t be a certain class/race combo that makes the game much more difficult, for example) but they’re also interested in making sure that choices made in the game have real results. “Your choices matter” is something of a mantra for Obsidian, and we heard it repeated several times in response to our questions about how race, gender, and dialogue choices would play out in the game. This will be a game where your decisions have meaningful consequences.

Literal Obsidian in the lobby, a gift from a vulcanologist fan of the company.

Literal obsidian in the lobby, a gift from a vulcanologist fan of the company.

After the demo came to an end, Brandon and Adam walked us through some of the other plans for the game they weren’t able to show off just yet. The Stronghold system in particular sounds like a lot of fun, as it has grown from a small minigame into a fully-fledged sub-game experience, complete with resource management and interactions with party members in between quests.

I left the demo more excited than ever to get my hands on Pillars of Eternity. Though there’s still a lot of work to be done before the game is complete, so far Obsidian is hitting all the right notes in their effort to produce a modern evolution of the classic Black Isle RPGs. We didn’t have a chance to see much in terms of combat in the demo, which will obviously be crucial to determining how enjoyable the game is to play, but if Obsidian is able to deliver on their stated goals in terms of strategic depth and meaningful choices then it should be a solid experience with tons of replay value.

Everyone we spoke to at Obsidian spoke about Pillars of Eternity with confidence and pride, and industry veteran CEO Feargus Urquhart in particular seemed energized and excited about the chance for the company to develop a game on their own terms, directly funded by the fans. It remains to be seen if this new way of doing business will be successful enough to become the new standard in the industry, rather than just a temporary detour before things go back to “normal.” Industry figures will be watching Pillars of Eternity closely to see if it provides a clear answer to the “crowdfunding” question. At the same time, RPG fans will be watching to see if it proves to be a worthy successor to Baldur’s Gate and the other classics that were invoked to garner funding in the first place.

Be sure to check out everything else about Pillars of Eternity we have on GameCrate, including video interviews with CEO Feargus Urquhart and project director Josh Sawyer and a list of ten cool Pillars details we picked up during our day with Obsidian.

  • TheRevanchist

    I have a thing for Obsidian. Let’s call it a man crush. How I envy you for being able to visit their offices.

  • LC

    Nice article, but the text format is kind of broken…

  • Guest

    So… nice article…. some text in between the images and videos would be nice though…
    Methinks we are having some growing pains?

    (Anybody know how I can remedy this even temporarily? Reloading didn’t help.)

  • http://www.gamecrate.com/ NickGC

    To the best of our knowledge adjusting the size of your browser window is the best quick fix. The text SHOULD appear once you’ve done that. We’re working on eliminating these problems on our end.

  • Pray For Death

    I changed the page zoom in chrome back and forth and it was fixed

  • Ailantan

    Nice article :)