Game designer Josh Sawyer is best known for his work on Icewind Dale II, Neverwinter Nights 2 and Fallout: New Vegas. In 2015 he became project director and design lead on Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity.
The game was inspired — and deliberately intended to evoke — Bioware’s classic Infinity Engine RPGs such as Icewind Dale and Baldur’s Gate. The game’s fundraising was a huge success with over $4m raised from 77,000 Kickstarter backers.
In his talk at GDC Europe, Sawyer spoke about the challenges of creating a modern RPG that shares its DNA with much-loved classics from the past.
“We did not think making such a game would be possible until DoubleFine Adventure launched on Kickstarter,” says Sawyer. “Then we decide we definitely has to make a game like this. It took a while to convince our owners that this was a good idea but they relented and we decided we were were going to make an Infinity Engine style game. We wanted it be a combination of elements from Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment.”
Sawyer attributes the success Pillars of Eternity’s Kickstarter to many factors but one of the most important was nostalgia.
“It’s about passion and a longing for a time when we remember playing the games that we love and how great they made us feel,” he says. “And it’s about the (gameplay) challenge presented by a lot of older games. You can find games made today that are still challenging but it’s not as common.”
The danger for Obsidian was that by following such a fondly remembered design lineage it would prove difficult to please everyone. In trying to evoke the past it’s possible to hit the wrong target, design for the wrong audience, or create a game for a niche audience that no longer exists.
“If you over-design to appeal to one tiny niche, you’ll never broaden your appeal at all. The reason why you get a lot of people interested in retro revival games in the first place is that they’re very passionate about the games themselves,” says Sawyer. “And if it doesn’t really have the feel or doesn’t evoke the nostalgia the players are looking for, then we’ve failed.”
The most important thing to capture — above any game mechanic — is the soul of that made the original games so special, explains Sawyer.
“Soul is a very ephemeral thing. When people remember the things that they love, their memory can be selective. It can gloss over a lot and most of what they remember is their emotional attachment to it. So when you modify things you have to be very careful about what you’re modifying. You could tweak one tiny thing that turns out to be a key component that made that something very cool.”
Art and design
It was decided early on that the right visual approach for Pillars of Eternity was to use 2D hand-touched environments but to make them come to life with 3D lighting.
“A lot of the art that we looked at for inspiration was from the 2nd edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” says Sawyer. “This meant using less saturated palettes and relatively realistic weapons.”
There was never any debate about retaining the classic isometric look and feel of the Infinity Engine classics, but subtle tweaks were made to allow for a broader environmental canvas.
“For Pillars of Eternity’s isometric style we wanted dynamic lighting, and of course we’d raised the resolution quite a bit,” says Sawyer. “We used a lower angle for how we rendered exteriors. Most players don’t even notice because it’s only a 7.5 degree difference but what it did was allow us to emphasise a lot of vertical structures.”
Replicating the classic user interface of the original Infinity Engine games also presented a challenge. Obsidian decided to retain the skeuomorphic look – that mimics real world textures such as wood, metal or stone – for Pillars of Eternity and lay the GUI across the bottom of the screen in one block.
“We wanted to use a layout that borrowed from Icewind Dale II and Planescape: Torment,” says Sawyer.
There was no negative feedback from reviews regarding the GUI but some Kickstarter backers hated it. Eventually — after much online debate — fans modded the layout and reintroduced the classic U-shaped format used in Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II.
Another element that was missed by fans were the elaborate and detailed sketches of in-game items.
“We wanted to mimic cursors and icon style but we didn’t have time for item sketches,” says Sawyer. “Item sketches were in all the Infinity Engine games and a lot of people really enjoyed them — and they missed them.”
Item sketches were eventually introduced for Soulbound items the The White March expansion to positive response.
The game mechanics for Pillar’s of Eternity were designed to be AD&D-like but with fewer arbitrary limitations. The team wanted to allow the player a large degree of freedom to express themselves in the game.
“We didn’t limit what races you could be, or classes. We didn’t limit who could use certain types of gear,” says Sawyer. “And overall we didn’t rely on hidden heart-pounders that would take players a long time to learn.“
The pace of combat was also something Sawyer was keen to increase, certainly in the game’s early stages.
“This was done to address problems we had in earlier Infinity Engine games, where combat could be very slow. Each round was on a six second timer and each character performed one action, so at the beginning of the game combat moved very, very slowly. It could be very boring.”
The flip side to speeding up combat was that once a player had five or six party members the on-screen action became hard to follow.
“It was exacerbated by the fact we had visual effects that were very over-powering,” Sawyer admits. “So people almost all wound up defaulting to a slower pace after a few hours of gameplay. That was not really the way we wanted it to go. We over corrected in that regard.”
The combat model was revised and is something that will continue to be developed future, says Sawyer.
“We’re looking at adding back in layers of combat complexity. Once you’ve been playing the game for three or four hours you can add in a new layer of complexity. If you’ve been playing the game for twenty hours, you can add in more layers of complexity. That’s why it’s interesting making RPGs; you have a lot of hours over which to introduce new concepts.”
Another cause for concern upon the game’s release was voice acting. Players were confused by its inconsistent use across characters and scenes, the result of a slender audio budget.
“We allocated our resources and spread them out across a lot of characters in a strange way. People played the game and it seemed very random,” Sawyer says. “Random lines would come in, a conversation would start and people would say three lines and the they wouldn’t talk any more. And so it seemed like a bug. But then, in another conversation, they would talk through the whole thing.”
“That was us looking at the resources and dicing them up way too far apart. The lesson we learned was when you have limited resources, don’t spread them too thin.”
In keeping with the objective of evoking past Infinity Engine classics a traditional fantasy setting was used for Pillars of Eternity.
“Our world is a pretty traditional, pretty standard fantasy setting but we wanted to change a few elements. So, we didn’t have halflings, or gnomes, or orcs. But we had elves and dwarves — a lot of people want to play as those,” says Sawyer. “We decided on a Eurocentric style and setting. A lot of fantasy settings are in this vaguely 12th-15th century, English, French, German kind of place. We wanted to set it in the 16th century with a renaissance zeitgeist so we could capture the feel of a world in change.”
In comparison to other Infinity Engine Games the tone of Pillars of Eternity was rather serious and straight-faced. Much of the feedback from players after release was for the introduction of more silly and funny elements to help lighten the mood.
“Players or reviewers had mixed to favourable reactions about the world and the lore. A lot of people wished there had been more experimental or crazy things, but that’s not really what we set out to do. And a lot of players missed the light-hearted and fun moments that were in the Baldur’s Gate games.”
Sawyer concluded by returning to the main challenge of creating Pillars of Eternity, capturing the essence of the game’s inspiration and then dealing with the feedback from a passionate and committed fan base.
“Not every choice that you make when you are developing these games is going to actually get at that soul,” he says. “You have a bunch of ingredients that are going into this mix and if you’re not tasting the sauce once in a while, you don’t really know how it’s coming together.”
And no matter how brutal the feedback can be, Sawyer recommends listening to your fan base.
“Listen to as many of your players as you can,” he advises. “Don’t ignore the vocal minority and also don’t ignore the larger player-base. They are all people who are interested in playing the game.”