9 min read

Novelty out of nostalgia: Josh Sawyer on Pillars of Eternity

We talk to Josh Sawyer about the difficulties and opportunities of recreating the feel and style of Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale in Pillars of Eternity.

Of all the Kickstarter success stories, Pillars of Eternity is perhaps one of the most appropriate. Obsidian is a studio with a large fanbase due to the pedigree of its staff and a series of flawed but excellent and interesting games, including even the maligned-but-ambitious Alpha Protocol.

That wasn't all: it was evokes the golden children of CRPGs: Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale. Pillars of Eternity would be a game that felt like it was made in the Infinity Engine, as its spiritual predecessors were, but it would bring with it over a decade of new experience. It was, as they say, a no-brainer.

While it might not have been a surprise that it raised over three times its target of $1.1 million -- bringing in almost $4 million -- what was is how well the game has been received after launching in late March, both critically and commercially. What Obsidian has done is create a CRPG that does indeed feel like those old games, yet without being shackled to them; it's nostalgic without resurrecting clumsy systems and obfuscated mechanics.

While Pillars of Eternity certainly hasn’t been simplified, what has changed is how it is all communicated: The combat makes more immediate sense, and the way the world is structured feels considerably more cohesive, perhaps because it isn’t beholden to the world of Dungeons & Dragons.

This is the result of a variety of different challenges that Obsidian faced, from the very large and initial challenge of taking something as complex and nuanced as the Infinity Engine and transplanting it into Unity, to developing a new world that feels familiar enough to the old that it isn’t abrasive, but has enough of its own identity that it can tread new ground.

The first of these problems actually turned out to be more of an opportunity. "What we found was that prototyping was very fast," says Josh Sawyer, director on Pillars of Eternity. He also served as a designer and writer on the game. "We knew how to do things using the actual Infinity Engine, but doing them within Unity, which is an engine we’d never used before, wasn’t the same because we had to build all those structures without relying on any established pipelines. We had to do everything from scratch."

Not only that, but the Infinity Engine was built for 2D environments and sprite-based characters. Unity, on the other hand, is fully 3D, which presented its own unique challenges and opportunities. "The main thing that we tried to do very early on was figure out how to have a good combination of 2D and 3D elements. We had to figure out how to build those levels in the first place, and then how we were going to render them in such a way that they didn’t seem as flat as the old levels."

"We wanted it to feel like an Infinity Engine level, but then it would come to life as we threw around visual effects and lights."

"So we had to figure out how to add those elements back into those old-style levels. We wanted it to feel like an Infinity Engine level, but then it would come to life as we threw around visual effects and lights. We knew we had to build a huge game, which meant our pipeline had to be extremely solid, and the levels had to look extremely beautiful, as that’s one of the things people remember about the old games."

That weight of expectation wasn’t as straight forward as it might seem. Both Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale, and to a lesser extent both their sequels, are revered for a range of reasons, but on top of that they’re far enough in the past that nostalgia is going to warp and alter exactly what people love about them. Identifying what that core expectation is when developing something new can’t have been easy.

"It’s not a case of pure logic," Sawyer tells me. "It’s not a case of, 'This is the most logically sensible thing.' It’s that this is the thing that is sensible enough, but also feels correct from the perspective of the player. And that’s a very difficult balance to strike, but that’s what we tried to do.’

"So we still have a class-based system, and while my personal preference is for skill-based systems that don’t have classes or levels, that feels very very different from the Infinity Engine games, as they’re all Dungeons & Dragons based. So we knew from the beginning we were going to have classes, and we were going to have levels, everything like that. We tried to keep those familiar structures, but then within those structures we tried to change them in such a way that players thought it was a positive change, but wouldn’t react negatively to the fact that it had been changed."

It was here, in figuring out exactly what people were expecting and wanting from Pillars of Eternity, that their established audience of Kickstarter backers became an asset to development. Through an extensive backer beta, as well as having an open discourse with their audience from very early on in development, the team was able to ask the people most invested and excited about the game their opinions, and then iterate on those opinions where they felt it necessary.

"If a bunch of people really don’t like a system it doesn’t necessarily mean we should change it, but we do need to look at it more and make an evaluation. You can’t make everyone happy, but you can usually find something that’s enjoyable for everyone, even if there are bits and piece some people don’t like."

When it came to building the world for Pillars of Eternity, the expectations shifted dramatically. On the one hand Sawyer and his team didn’t want to stray too far from the established tone and settings of those games which had inspired Pillars, but on the other they were still making something original, that needed to feel like a new place, and a new world. I ask Sawyer whether they felt pressure to strike out in a starkly different direction, to set it apart from what came before.

"No, I don’t think so. I do think we still need to account for player familiarity. We intentionally created a setting that felt ‘Realmsy.’ It was very D&D, high fantasy. If you look at Torment: Tides of Numenera, they’re definitely doing something that feels very very different, which is great and cool, and they were very successful. But for this project we wanted to do something that was very much in the line with Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale, so that meant ‘Euro’ fantasy.’

"We’ve developed a world where, in the future, we can explore all of these other cultures we’ve established, which are much more non-‘Euro’, for lack of a better term." The idea being that, now that the team has established the world of Pillars with the familiar part of it, they can now use it as a spring-board into new and more unfamiliar places, knowing that they have eased the players into their setting already.

A setting which, for all its familiarities, has its own strong identity, coming primarily from the way it deals with souls as an established and temporal thing. Everything from reincarnation to undeath is accepted fact in the world of Pillars, as well as having a strong influence on how the classes and sociopolitical issues of the world manifest.

"This project we wanted to do something that was very much in the line with Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale, so that meant 'Euro' fantasy."

"It really didn’t seem like such a big deal when we came up with it." Sawyer tells me. "It was just a question of what was the central theme or hook of our world, and it was just that everybody knows that souls are real things, and everyone knows that souls come back and change over time, and they know various things about them, but not everything.

"There are certain truths that everyone accepts: Souls are real, they have power, they carry memories of past lives. However there are a lot of other metaphysical questions that no one knows the answer to, such as: Where do they go? What determines how they come back? Is there rhyme or reason to it? How are the gods involved, which is a big question for everyone. It was really just that, and it was a way to provide pretext to explaining tons of magical events, as well as how things are created, and how things work."

The major effect of this is that, somewhat ironically when dealing with a metaphysical concept, it grounds the world of Pillars, giving you something that is understandable but different, and something that you want to explore and investigate as a player. Each class has its own relationship with souls, as well as your character having their own insight into those of others. It might be but one element in a larger world, but it permeates in such a way that Pillars feels significantly unique from its predecessors.

Now that Pillars of Eternity has had a month out in the wild, it’s clear that it achieved what it was intended to: To create a game that tapped into the nostalgia and yearning for a game in the same vein of those great CRPGs of the late '90s and early 2000s, while still offering something new and unique. According to Sawyer, Obsidian is pleased but vigilant, still working to refine the game and address the concerns people have about things like the late-game being too easy, as well as ironing out bugs.

Looking forward, it seems like, even with Pillars' success, Obsidian is eager to go down the route of Kickstarter again -- if only to have that backer resource that proved so valuable in development. "I think the whole process of Kickstarter was very good for us," Sawyer elaborates. "I think it gave our backers a lot more insight into the process of development, even if it could sometimes be frustrating for them. But now I think they understand how it goes. We wouldn’t be opposed to using Kickstarter again in the future, and there is also the possibility of doing partial funding, such as how Shadowrun: Dragonfall did."

But for now, Obsidian is focused on the expansion to Pillars of Eternity. "It is looking incredibly beautiful. Our artists had a whole game to get back into the groove of making 2D environments, and what they’re creating, now that they’re comfortable with it again, is astonishing, and I’m really excited for people to see it."

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