Tyranny's new expansion is a gift to fans of the niche RPG

Tyranny has had a bit of a rough ride. It’s an old-school 2D isometric RPG with a story told largely through text, released in the same timeframe as 2016’s biggest AAA hits. Despite critical acclaim, its sales were considered disappointing and it struggled to find an audience. Over the course of 2017, it has had far fewer active players than the older and much more successful Pillars of Eternity.

And this year, far mightier RPGs have faltered and had their DLC canceled. So the recent release of the Bastard’s Wound expansion pack for Tyranny came as a surprise. How and why did this happen?

What Tyranny is all about

First, let’s talk a little bit about what Tyranny is. As a 2D isometric RPG, it is already catering to a niche audience. For a long time, this audience had been desperately hungry for games. Before 2014, there hadn’t been a good entry in the genre for over a decade. When Wasteland 2 and Pillars of Eternity blasted past their Kickstarter goals, it became clear that this audience was large and excited at the prospect of new games. But after those games were released in 2014 and 2015 respectively, it’s possible that that appetite was sated, which may’ve hurt Tyranny’s sales.

Conceptually, Tyranny was also a difficult sell. It’s essentially Murder Lawyer: The RPG. Let me explain: In Tyranny you play a Fatebinder, something of a wandering sheriff tasked with enforcing the laws of Kyros, a distant supernatural overlord who has brutally conquered the entire known world. You have wide latitude to interpret these draconian laws, meting out mercy and death in equal measure.

I’ve never played a game like it. Simply put, you are one of the bad guys. While you can strive to solve problems as bloodlessly as possible, the game doesn’t shy away from the fact that, at best, you provide legislative cover to imperialist conquest. As a result, the game becomes a brutal moral mirror for the player. Even games that deal with the complexities of justice and law enforcement usually place you somewhere on the lighter side of the gray spectrum. That’s not the case here.

Even franchises that let you play the bad guy often do so in a satirical, winking way, allowing you some emotional distance from your choices. Tyranny, on the other hand, begins with a last-ditch rebellion of unseated nobles and brave common folk in the last free kingdom in the world. In other games, that’s the rebellion you’re leading. In Tyranny, it’s the rebellion you put down.

This is not a game for an audience seeking optimistic escapism from the real world, but there is still meaningful choice. Do you blunt the viciousness of Kyros’ rule by protecting the weak and vulnerable, or do you exploit the letter of the law to enrich and benefit yourself? Are you unquestioningly loyal or do you interpret the laws leniently to avoid bloodshed? Given a tremendous amount of power and a mandate from your god-king, how do you utilize it? Your choices are constrained by the themes of the game, but the experience is more impactful as a result, not less. This is a treacherous balancing act, and one that Tyranny pulls off gloriously.

Why did Tyranny get an expansion? 

When asked why Obsidian is releasing a DLC expansion now, Gustav Groth, associate product manager at Paradox Interactive, Tyranny’s publisher, said, “We usually work with long-term plans for adding new content to our games, and Tyranny is no exception… Despite not meeting our initial sales expectations, we feel that fans deserve to see more of the world that Kyros conquered. Also, we hope Bastard´s Wound will give lots of new players a nudge to give Tyranny a chance.”

This makes a lot of sense. A September release for the expansion means that Tyranny can occupy gamer mindspace before the heavy hitters enter the market in October, avoiding last year’s mistake of direct competition against AAA titles with immense holiday marketing budgets.

Furthermore, thinking about what “players deserve” is also a good move on the part of smaller developers. For the loyal fans who have followed Obsidian for years, we get more story and more world - more of the things we loved. Tyranny is their less popular property, but it isn’t being allowed to languish in obscurity. It gets patches, extra voice acting, and a new game plus mode - and that’s before the expansion pack. As a fan, Obsidian gives me the distinct sense that I’m being listened to. Blizzard is one of the only other companies that truly makes me feel this way, and they’re a behemoth that dwarfs Obsidian. But size should not and does not limit a company’s capacity to listen. Listening breeds loyalty, and loyalty, one hopes, breeds sales.

Larger developers/publishers can spend mutiple millions of dollars making us forget the last time they bungled a game release. I’m sure by the time Anthem is ready, EA will have found a way to make us forget how Mass Effect: Andromeda went. Obsidian lacks the capital to pull off a trick like that.

What Obsidian Entertainment does have, however, is a singular artistic vision. In case you didn’t know, they are responsible for some of the greatest RPGs of all time. Before they were Obsidian, they were Black Isle Studios, a division of Interplay that created the Fallout and Baldur’s Gate franchises, without which we may never have seen the wide array of choice-oriented story games available today. Ray Muzyka, one of the founders of BioWare, also worked on Baldur’s Gate I and II, and there are some straight lines you can draw between the design of that franchise and the Dragon Age / Mass Effect games, the standard bearers of the American RPG genre.

Black Isle is also responsible for Planescape: Torment, another game that failed to find its audience upon release, but is hailed as a seminal classic in the years that followed for its unique setting, beautiful design, and philosophical themes. While that game's spiritual successor was made by InExile, Chris Avellone, the original writer for the game and one of Obsidian’s founders, helped write it.

I say all this to make the point that Obsidian is a game company that, even under pressure, has never abandoned its particular way of doing things, nor forgotten the loyal fans who adore their idiosyncratic ways. They’re not a company that backs down. When they have a good idea, they hang onto it. Releasing Bastard’s Wound is a continuation of that joint artistic tradition / business strategy.

Contrast this with EA / Bioware shelving the entire venerated Mass Effect franchise after Andromeda. While flawed, there was something worth rescuing there, but EA would rather cut their losses. And I understand that point of view. Companies need to keep their doors open and their coffers full or studios collapse. And a Mass Effect game is an enormous commitment, far larger than Tyranny. But is game culture better for having lost that franchise, for seeing the death of an amazing, rich world that so many fans and developers have invested so much in? I don’t think so.

The release of Bastard’s Wound shows that Obsidian and Paradox have an exemplary commitment to their artistic vision and a dedication to their fans that other studios can and should learn from. It’s a methodology that has created and continues to create great games. I’m hoping that this expansion will provide Tyranny the boost it needs to find a sequel. As of the writing of this article, the day of Bastard’s Wound’s release, the 24 hour player peak has risen to 1,249, nearly ten times their usual daily player peak.

Importantly, Bastard’s Wound is a well-done addition to an already great game, and isn’t that exactly what we’re always looking for when it comes to DLC?