In retrospect, how do you think the perception of CRPGs has changed since the ’90s?
Oh, I would say a great deal. I think that even within video games in the ’90s, RPGs were still considered to be more niche. Because, in the mid-’90s, there was a rise of FPS that I think really exploded the popularity of games for a wider audience—people doing LAN parties and lots of online competitive gaming, etc. Also, more competitive RTS gaming. So, I think that RPGs were still more niche and, really until the very late ’90s, there still wasn’t a focus on multiplayer. Even then—like in Baldur’s Gate— there was multiplayer, but it wasn’t extremely well-implemented. Same with Icewind Dale; we didn’t do a great job with either of those [laughing].
I think that through the 2000s, MMORPGs especially really helped to expand the player base of RPGs, broadly. Now, of course, the type of RPGs that I worked on were not really like MMORPGs. But I think that between that, and between, strangely enough, things like The Lord of the Rings movie series becoming so popular, fantasy as an aspect of gaming in RPGs became a little less niche. It was on people’s minds and little more mainstream within gaming—as mainstream as gaming could be within the 2000s.
And now I think, especially things like The Elder Scrolls are incredibly popular. Of course, again, also the style of the game is very different from what I traditionally worked on. But I think RPGs have a much broader base than they did in the ’90s—proportionally.
What do you think is the main reason behind the glorious return of the golden RPG titles of the ’90s and early 2000s? Resurrected titles such as Wasteland 2, Divinity: Original Sin and, naturally, also the recent RPGs produced by Obsidian.
So here is the thing: Gamers did not tell us that they were tired of these games; retailers told publishers that gamers were tired of these games. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy; no one’s buying these games because no one’s making them, and therefore nobody wants them. That was really frustrating for me, because we were pretty happy making isometric RPGs. I think that after a long time—and [after] RPG games becoming more mainstream overall and going to consoles and things like that—there was still an audience there. It was usually older people who were like, ‘man I really wish there were updated versions, or new types of games like we played in the ’90s—’80s even—but no one is making them. The audience was not necessarily huge, I mean it is not gonna compare with something like…
The Witcher, or something like that. But there was an audience there. So with crowdfunding, we were able to meet our goals and then go much beyond—way beyond our goals. Divinity was extremely successful, Pillars of Eternity was also really successful. A lot of these smaller games actually do not take that much for us to be successful, because the cost of development is not extremely high. It is higher than it was back in the ’90s [laughing]—everything is. So I think that is why; there is always an audience there that still wants to play these sorts of games, and publishers and retailers told them that they are not going to let them anymore. So when we said, “Hey, if you give us this much money, we’ll make this game,” they said, “I have been waiting for these games for 10, 15, 20 years—let’s go!”
I can only imagine how satisfied you must have felt when you finally succeeded to push Pillars of Eternity on Kickstarter!
First of all, I would like to point out—because sometimes people don’t credit the right people for this—Nathaniel Chapman, who was a designer at Obsidian and is now at Blizzard, kind of jokingly brought up the idea of doing Kickstarter for a game. And this was before Double Fine Adventure. I was like, “Oh, really? How much money do you think you can actually raise through that?” I was just half-joking, but we were also like, “Haha, that would be nice.” Then Double Fine Adventure came out, and we were like, “Oh man, they did it! We need to make a small Infinity engine style of game.” Yeah, the owners were initially not particularly interested in it—they had other projects they wanted us to work and be focused on—but eventually Adam Brennecke and I, we just got serious with them. We were like, “This has to happen!” So Adam started working on it. I kept working on other pitches, but I was just really hoping that Kickstarter would go through. Then I and some other people joined in and we launched it and kept on.
So, by applying stubbornness, you eventually triggered a chain reaction! How hard did you press the bosses?
Ah, very hard [laughing]! I don’t know, I can’t really say how hard, but we are still friends and work together and we made the game, so that is all that matters [laughing].
Do you think that it was chiefly the massive successes of the Pillars and Wasteland 2 Kickstarter campaigns that inspired this new wave of crowdfunded CRPGs?
I think a lot of credit should be given to Double Fine Adventure—first and foremost that it was possible to do it. Then certainly to Wasteland 2 and Pillars for continuing to keep the bar raised high. It was like, ‘Wow, RPGs and adventure games can raise millions of dollars, and all these other projects coming up.’ Lots of projects failed [laughing], either at Kickstarter or at execution. I think that took the wind out of the sails for lots of fans, which is to be understood. I know that some people were disappointed by Pillars, but I am glad that most people seem to be pretty happy with it.
I still haven’t finished Pillars‘ main campaign, but I do remember how delighted I felt when I initially heard voice-overs during dialogues—that didn’t last long though. Then I thought, ‘Oh wait a second, have we not pledged them enough?’ Just look at Divinity: Original Sin—this is how it’s done!
[laughing] But they said how expensive that was, right?
True. It was only the Enhanced Edition that was fully voiced, so it was, in fact, a reinvestment.
But here is the thing: They did voice all the stuff in Divinity 1 and 2. Having worked on Fallout: New Vegas, I know that it’s more than just the money that is expensive; it is the amount of time that needs to be spent in the studio, preparing scripts and casting all the staff. We are going to increase the voice acting quite a bit in Pillars 2, but I don’t want to over-commit to anything in this interview [laughing]. We also know that Divinity 2 has set quite a high bar for quality.
It is apparent that Divinity has tried, quite bravely, to go its own way, whereas Pillars seems to keep to a more conservative execution.
Oh I would say, definitely, that Pillars is much more conservative—I fully admit [laughing]! Pillars is made to be more conservative in general.
So what are going to be the main differences between Pillars 1 and 2?
There is a lot of stuff that we have talked about; mainly the multi-classing. The sub-class system allows for a ton of additional ways to build your characters. I think that this thing really feels the most [different], but that’s not really that radical a departure; it is just [adding] more complexity to the systems that are already there. I think the things that are the biggest changes are the ship system and everything that has something to do with the ship. We had a stronghold in Pillars 1 and never really integrated that well. A lot of people were disappointed with it, which is why we had a free content update in patch 3.0; to add more content to the stronghold. Because people were like, ‘This is not really exciting and does not integrate with the story that well.’
I have never fully grasped why an element like this is implemented into single-player games; I usually consider that only as some sort of optional and needlessly distracting mini-game. A typical example would be Fallout 4.
Yeah, we never found a really great way to integrate it. There were a lot of people who really hated the idea of stronghold, so we have tried to make it as optional as possible. Because of that, it was not integrated very well, so it was like no one was happy with that [laughing]. The people who wanted to do stronghold stuff were annoyed that it was not integrated into the crit-path, and the people who didn’t want to do it were still annoyed it was there.
The point is, that the ship is your stronghold in Pillars 2, and your ship is integrated directly into the game. There are things about it that you don’t have to pay too much attention to, but you basically have to use it—it’s how you get around.
Where will the story take part?
So, Deadfire takes place in Deadfire Archipelago. It is hundreds of islands and your only way to move between them is your ship.
Are there going to be naval battles?
There is ship-to-ship combat. In our Fig [crowdfunding] campaign, people have seen the deck-to-deck combat, where ships are next to each other and people are jumping back and forth. We also have ship-to-ship combat which is like a dueling system, but I really can’t go into the details right now.
Is it going to be a more of a standalone mini-game perhaps?
Yeah, it is actually [laughing]. It’s way more complicated than we initially had expected. I think it’s really cool though. Enemy captains will have their own AI.
Real-time or turn-based?
I can’t really talk about it [laughing], but I think you’ll like it. It has a lot of little details in it. The crew system is also very cool, so you can build up your crew, you can customize your ship and what cannons you carry, et cetera. You have to manage resources for the ship—but we are going to be going into details pretty soon.
Overall, that concept of using a ship as a base seems a bit similar to the Normandy from Mass Effect. It didn’t get into fights, but the player spends a lot of time there. Could you project how much time proportionally that players spend on board the ship and outside on the islands?
That is a good question. I don’t know if I can answer that quite yet, but there are quite a few quests within the main city Neketaka, where you can just travel around the city or do the quests. But a lot of the quests will send you out into the archipelago, and as you do that, the world map is like Fallout—Fallout 1 and 2’s world map. You are actually exploring and moving freely wherever you want to go. You can discover an island, then disembark and walk around the island, and discover a cave, go into the cave, get into an encounter, and do all these little things. There is a heavy focus on exploration and I don’t think we have quite—we are doing our full playthroughs now, but those are just critical pathways, through which we are trying to get as fast as possible. The game is going to be pretty big [laughing].
So how much more open will the world be in the sequel?
It’s pretty open. Instead of all the other things to think about with Pillars I, where the world map is something you explore in this unlocking fashion, in the world map in Deadfire, you can go in whatever direction you want.