There’s always a fine line to walk when you’re working to remake or expand upon a classic game or series.
You want to pay homage to the original and not veer off too much in another direction, but because of advancements in technology and how we play video games, sometimes it’s not possible to replicate a classic completely.
Josh Sawyer, the game director at Obsidian Entertainment, knows this conflict too well. He’s been working on some of the most traditional roleplaying games of the past decade: Pillars of Eternity, Tyranny, and Alpha Protocol, just to name a few. The studio has become known for its dedication to classic RPGs, specifically games made on the Infinity Engine such as Baldur’s Gate, while also updating them just enough that they can exist in the modern age.
Its latest release, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, continues the trend, creating another RPG that fans of classic titles can sink their teeth into while also ensuring they’re getting something new. Deadfire probably strays the farthest from Infinity Engine out of all the games Sawyer has worked on, but he says it’s still in the same tradition. Otherwise, its audience wouldn’t bother playing it.
Infinity Engine games are specifically appealing for a number of reasons, but according to Sawyer, one big draw of Deadfire's design has to do with its openness.
“I think that the feeling of exploration is really huge,” Sawyer said during a recent Gamasutra Twitch stream. “The party-based exploration adventure style is really appealing because you have this mob of colorful characters going around this big world with you and this freedom to take who you want, leave people if you don’t like them, explore things at your own pace, it's just a very unique feeling.”
"The party-based exploration adventure style is really appealing because you have this mob of colorful characters going around this big world with you...it's just a very unique feeling."
How do you update tradition?
Infinity Engine games are specific. They’re RPGs where players build small but mighty parties to combat enemies, traverse a fantastical world, and improve their skills, but there’s something distinct about them.
There’s the aforementioned sense of exploration. Obsidian designed Deadfire to be an open-world exploration game from the beginning and it shows, specifically in one of its major new features: the inclusion of ships. It’s meant to be a replacement for the stronghold system, where players can spend in-game currency to upgrade and add features to their boats. Obsidian did this so that players couldn’t just ignore a whole system. Ships are essential to how you move around the game.
"it was a really really big challenge but the focus was to make the thing you're investing in and upgrading feel more central to the aspect of exploring the world. and then to try and tie in more quests and NPCs into that thing,” Sawyer explained.
The developers also ensured that players could do a lot of quests in a non-specific order. One of the hallmarks of quality open-world games is that freedom. A player runs into an obstacle preventing them from going where they want and the illusion is crushed.
“We try to do a lot of work to think about 'hey what if the player did these things out of order from these other things’ and we try to account for all of those in the conversations,” he continued. "Assume your players will do the worst, which is to say the best, which is what they want… I'd say resist the temptation to clamp down and say ‘no we're not gonna let the player go over there.’ Try to say yes.”
"Assume your players will do the worst, which is to say the best, which is what they want...try to say yes."
The appeal is also partially an aesthetic thing. Infinity Engine, and now some Obsidian, games have a distinct top-down, isometric, hand-painted feel that brings to mind Dungeons & Dragons manuals or fantasy book covers.
So when Obsidian creates those Infinity Engine-esque games, it tries to skew close to that style, with some subtle but important updates. Of course updates are necessary when the engine is different (Infinity vs. Unity 4 for the first Pillars of Eternity). For Deadfire, Sawyer says the team had to redo its entire art pipeline to update to Unity 5.
“We got a lot of flack on the first game for how static the environments looked. We also got a lot of flack for how the characters looked because their textures and resolution wasn't super great,” he explained. “We had high level goals to make dynamic lighting a really high priority.”
How to achieve that balance
Sawyer has been playing around with updating Baldur’s Gate since before Pillars, back when he was working on the first Icewind Dale in 2001 (he joked about how he began prototyping Pillars back then during the stream). He and his team try to consider two things when making a change to the formula: will it improve the game and what does the community want?
“In Deadfire, we changed a lot of mechanics based on feedback,” he explained. “The iteration process is mostly looking at the Infinity Engine games, trying to see if there were lessons that we could learn to improve on them, making some mistakes, trying to correct those mistakes and just iterating with the community."
Obsidian has already made some tweaks based on feedback. They made modding easier between the two Pillars, for example, and are also working on fixing the difficulty curve for players who want more of a challenge.
Sawyer knows well that a lot of his target audience, while wanting new experiences, will expect certain things out of Deadfire. The party will be of a certain size, for example, or there’ll be a large amount of dialogue and prose to flesh out the world. At a talk in Croatia, he got in a bit of trouble for insinuating that RPG fans could go to the extreme and become “unreasonable.”
“I understand that not all RPG fans are unreasonable... but especially with a game that is a throwback, it's supposed to appeal to more traditional tastes and styles,” he explained.
So how do you prevent yourself from going too far away from audience desires? Sawyer said you have to ask yourself a couple questions: what’s the point of the change and will it improve the experience?
“We don't try to change things just for the sake of changing things,” he said. “I try to think very carefully about what the advantages and disadvantages of staying the same way are versus changing it. Ultimately if I feel like the audience is going to have a more enjoyable game by making a change that's not like the original games, then I'm probably going to push to do that. That being said there's only so much you can change per game before it doesn't really start to feel like the things that inspired it.”
Deadfire changes quite a bit, even from its predecessor. There’s the aforementioned changes -- the ships, the updated graphics, the improved modding -- but there’s also small things that have a profound effect on old fans. The party size was reduced from six to five, which drew some ire from the community, but there’s an explanation.
“We did that because the number of characters in the combat, or rather the amount of stuff that each individual character can do actively in combat is much larger than it was in the Infinity Engine games. So there's a lot more advantage per character.”
Sawyer said that there’s still a bit of anger, even after he gave an explanation, but Obsidian’s mission has never been just about recreating the games of old. It’s been about paying tribute to them while also improving them based on newer technologies and for other audiences. If you want to go back to a six-player party, there are other games to choose from. Generally speaking though, even Deadfire still evokes those same feelings that Infinity Engine games once did.
“Even if we change individual mechanics here and there... we try to keep the overall feeling and atmosphere really true to the spirit of the original games,” he added. “Pillars 2 feels like a biggers step away from the Infinity Engine games than Pillars 1 did but I think that people seem to enjoy Deadfire more than Pillars 1.”