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Project Eternity interview: Obsidian on making RPGs awesome again

Project Eternity is Kickstarter's latest success story. VG247's Dave Cook spoke with Obsidian's Chris Avellone find out why the game will make RPGs awesome again.

At the time of writing this piece, the Project Eternity Kickstarter has made $1,775,192. The only way you'd make that kind of money in just seven days is if you won the lottery.

For Obsidian Entertainment however, it's a message that many gamers are fed up with the way role-playing games have gone today, and that they simply want to see more of them.

Project Eternity is being helmed by the studio, and it's a team that lives and breathes the RPG genre, comprised of team members that have had a hand in some of the most iconic games in that category.

From Baldur's Gate, Fallout: New Vegas and Planescape: Torment, to Icewind Dale and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2, Obsidian's employees have certainly walked the walk. VG247 spoke with creative director Chris Avellone to find out why this pool of talent will make Project Eternity a truly outstanding RPG experience.

VG247: So, how does it feel to make $1.6 million with 27 days left to go? What does that influx of funding tell you about what people are looking for in their RPG experience today?

Chris Avellone: Well, I uess the old-school RPG genre isn’t dead after all. Players recognize that you don’t need the latest graphics, tint control, fully voiced characters, and distracting bells and whistles to make a great game, and in some cases, it makes for a better role-playing game not to have those attachments present.

People miss Baldur’s Gate, they miss Icewind Dale, and they miss Planescape: Torment, and we’d like to bring those games back because we enjoy making them.

In terms of funding – wow. It’s been a crazy ride, that’s for sure. We didn’t expect to hit our funding goal so fast, and we’ve all been really gratified by the amount of player support for the title. We recognize that the project caters to a set of gamers who are passionate about the title and the idea, as evidenced by the level of funding.

You name-dropped a lot of amazing RPGs there, and it's true that Obsidian has some stellar RPG talent, but it's been a long time since you worked on your own IP. How does it feel to be creating something new that is entirely yours to own?

It feels great. We’ve done a number of original world pitches and projects that have never seen the light of day and so now we’re taking an original IP to the people we should have taken it to in the first place - the players. If publishers don’t want to finance them, maybe our core audience will. Crazy, huh?

It does seem a little backwards that publishers wouldn't want this, but yeah, it's refreshing to see a platform like Kickstarter putting power in the hands of the gamer. How does this different route change up your approach to development?

There are not any changes to our process except proofing the idea with the public first, rather than the publisher trying to sell it to the public in the last six months. In addition, doing an original IP makes things easier, rather than spending time doing research and trying to parrot someone else’s franchise and tone, you spend that creative energy channeling it into world elements you’re passionate about and really want to speak to.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s room for that in traditional franchises - like we did with Mask of the Betrayer and Knights of the Old Republic II, both of which took the core franchises and explored new angles - but being able to do that from the get-go is exciting for everyone over here.

It's going to be a big world.

Can you give us an insight into what stage of that process you're at now?

We’re in pre-production, although most of our efforts at the moment are focused on the Kickstarter. Adam Brennecke is heading up our production and tasking efforts - he’s where we’ve gotten most of our Kickstarter metrics and planning.

Josh Sawyer is our project lead and he’s laying out world elements, races, and systems, I’m working on narrative approaches and character concepting - which should be up this week -Rob Nesler is setting up the visual look and feel of the game, and Tim Cain is working on a number of design elements of the game, including basic stats and armor mechanics, as well as ideas for non-combat ability design.

In addition to the folks above, we have a number of other Obsidianites are working on gameplay and graphics, which you'll see samples of in the days to come.

Most of the members on your team have a work history steeped in some of the most revered RPGs of all time. What does that knowledge base bring to the table for Project Eternity?

Obsidian’s known for story and characters. This time, however, we’re going to explore character and fantasy elements that we haven’t had the chance to in previous franchises, and even better, we get to explore those elements along the development process with the players.

Unlike traditional projects, we can share more about character and world evolution, and even work with players on bringing elements they’d like to see to the fore. Also, we’ve done a lot of iconic old-school RPGs and we’ve learned a lot after doing 4-5 of them.

When you’ve gone through the process several times, that experience allows you to focus less on the logistic problems and more on exploring how to bring about new evolutions of content. What evolutions, you ask? Wait and see.

Project Eternity is geared towards bringing back the magic of classic RPGs like Baldur's Gate. Can you give us a run-down of what key values you absolutely have to include in the game to make sure the end product meets hits that target?

Significant character creation with classes, races, skills, and character development. Party-based tactical combat – some of the mage battles in Baldur's Gate and the boss rival adventuring crew battles in Icewind Dale 2, especially the Holy Avenger fight and the Chult dragon fight, are moments we want the player to challenge themselves with in Eternity.

There has to be a meaningful, strong selection of companions, along the lines of the Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment crew, and a strong storyline, quests, and freedom to move, explore, and quest as you would in an Infinity Engine game.

You also need reactivity to events in the world and factions based on your actions, as well as narrative and character continuation into future titles - backers and players willing.

OK, that's a lot of features. You mentioned narrative and NPS reactions to the player. Can you tell us anything about the game's plot?

We’re still kicking around plot elements at Obsidian, and should have more on that soon. I don’t want to go into the plot, characters, arcs, and themes too early until everyone’s had a chance to weigh in, including players.

"Obsidian’s known for story and characters. This time, however, we’re going to explore character and fantasy elements that we haven’t had the chance to in previous franchises."

Fair play. Well going back to NPC reactions, how deeply will morality enter into plot progression? Just how dark are you looking to go with the narrative?

Dark’s a little boring to me, and it’s also too easy to fall down that hole in storytelling in an attempt to be pseudo-hardcore. Some of our strongest releases kept the dark on the backburner and cloaked it within a blanket of humor, and people responded to both.

I’m more interested in how people in the world perceive you rather than an internal morality bar. Alpha Protocol did this. You didn’t have a rep, you only had values for how others viewed you, which feels more natural.

We’re still fleshing out the lore and faction elements, but I’d always felt that morality and hard choices are things you don’t need to weigh on a slider, you only need to introduce them in the right context to make a player pause and go “oh, shit, what do I do?”

As long as they can feel the tension in the decision and see the result in a way that makes sense from their exploration and understanding of the world, that’s all we’re looking for.

All of this takes place in what you've billed as a huge world, filled with lore, races, ethnic sub-cultures - everything. How do you even begin to start pulling all of that together?

You start with the core system mechanics. What makes the world fun on a second-to-second basis? This includes spell systems, how the magic of the world and the powers of the world can be harnessed by your character – and how they can oppose your character.

It also includes races, character selection, skills, and more. Ideally, your world - like Eternity - has a core thematic spine to it in terms of how characters gain and harness power, and you want to weave that into not just character creation, but character leveling, and also into the exploration and narrative aspects. This is similar to immortality in Torment, or the soul-eating mechanic in Mask of the Betrayer.

From there, you figure out how the systems work in the environment – what’s the best backdrop for these systems? At its heart, Eternity is a rich world, and it’s a world of adventure.

We want cool locations to explore and cool people to meet, as well as cool companions in your party who can also act as sounding boards. Among its many elements is we want the player to explore fantastic beautiful locations, and also engage in cool dungeon-crawling adventures where they have to utilize their skills and those of their companions to conquer puzzles, traps, and encounters.

Once you have these elements decided, you work on giving a narrative context to these elements - the history of the location, how it came to be, and what ecology and cultures live in these areas.

At what point did you decide you wanted to take the Kickstarter route? You have to imagine that all of this would have been a hard to do precisely the way you wanted under a big publisher.

A few months ago. Exhaustion with the pitch process was part of it. We’ve been pitching titles for months upon months upon months upon months, and even then, none of them are isometric RPGs that we used to do and love.

Considering how much success Wasteland 2 had with the public and the willingness of the public to support this type of RPG, we wanted to do the same thing and all pitch in on a world we were all excited about. If the public hated the idea, fine, at least we knew. Now we know they don’t, and they support it more than we had ever hoped for.

Given that freedom to buck trends and to really just make the game you want, what will Project Eternity deliver that many modern RPGs are lacking?

More role-playing in terms of customization of bios, looks, or even how your perceive your character acting – a number of modern RPGs dictate those things to you in the interests of giving you a specific character with a specific voice.

While I think that can make for a better game in some respects, I don’t think it makes for a better RPG. Also, the level of tactics, customization, and system leveling is also something we want to bring to the table, and we want to explore a variety of themes and elements that publishers often shy away from in the interests of not offending anyone.

I’d argue RPG’ers are a lot more tolerant and accepting of a variety of issues than publishers give them credit for.

Obsidian = big teasers. But we still love 'em

Your Kickstarter trailer ends with the phrase 'No sleep for the watcher'. What's that all about then?

We’ve given a lot of thought to the construction of the world in a global sense, and an equal amount of attention to specific moments in the game we thought would be cool. There's more on this to come, even if you have to wait until you play the game itself. We don’t mean to tease, but as virtual gamemasters, it comes with the territory.

You should Kickstarter a new Alpha Protocol, as the original was a genuinely interesting game.

Thanks, I appreciate the kind words. I’ve tried to let people know that Kickstarter isn’t the place for funding someone else’s franchise - SEGA owns Alpha Protocol, for example, Dungeons and Dragons is Hasbro - that’s a different kettle - cauldron? - of fish.

We’d love to do sequels to these games that we’ve worked on, but that’s often not up to us, and it’s not something we could do through Kickstarter, really, or I couldn’t see how they might be done).

About the Author

Dave Cook avatar

Dave Cook


Living in Edinburgh, Scotland. Writing a game called Jettison and a book called Seventh Circle. Loves spicy food.

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