Pillars of Eternity 2's Josh Sawyer on crowdfunding, isometric RPGs, and storytelling

Pillars of Eternity was met with critical and commercial praise, but Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire, crowdfunded through Fig, looks to leave its record-setting funding in the dust. Shacknews talked with game director Josh Sawyer about his early days working on isometric RPGs, what he enjoys about working in the genre again, story tidbits from Pillars of Eternity 2, and how Obsidian's culture circa 1999 remains alive and well within the Pillars development team.

While Pillars of Eternity 2 certainly feels like a sure bet now, it wasn't always that way. In 2012, Obsidian Entertainment had been hard at work developing a game codenamed "Stormlands" for Microsoft's next-generation console. When Microsoft Studios cancelled the project, Obsidian teetered on the brink of ruin. Between 20 and 30 employees were laid off, and Stormlands was one in a series of cancellations—some of which, like Baldur's Gate III, had been plugging along for over 18 months—that had nearly depleted the studio's coffers despite previous successes such as South Park: The Stick of Truth and Fallout: New Vegas.

Josh Sawyer, who had been with the company for over a decade, joined a growing chorus of voices suggesting one last-ditch effort to stay afloat: why not crowdfund an isometric, party-based RPG? Their appeal made sense. The Kickstarter gold rush was in full swing; genres long fallow, namely the point-and-click adventure and turn-based RPGs such as InXile's Wasteland 2, were reaping bountiful harvests. If Obsidian didn't plant that seed, someone else, likely a former colleague who also harbored a fondness for the likes of Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale, would get there first.

The resultant project, Pillars of Eternity, not only kept the lights on. It was a smashing success, meeting its goal of $1.1 million in 24 hours and finishing with $3,986,929—surpassing Double Fine Adventure as the most-funded game ever. (It's now the fourth-most crowd-funded game ever.) With one striking success under its belt, and an encore coming, here's what Sawyer had to say.

Pillars of Eternity was a trendsetter on Kickstarter back in 2012. Now that you're crowdfunding the sequel through Fig, what are some lessons you learned from that first campaign that you transplanted into this one?

Josh Sawyer: There were a number of things we learned, some of which we knew going into this would no longer necessarily be applicable. We learned from watching our [first] campaign and subsequent campaigns that the future of crowdfunding is not necessarily a sure thing. We have to work every time we want to fund something. We also learned a lot of things about the types of rewards that people seem to be interested in, and we learned a lesson in planning because we didn't really realize that the campaign was going to be as successful as it was.

We wound up over-committing to a few things in terms of our stretch goals, so going into our Fig campaign we thought a lot about the types of stretch goals we wanted to support. We've been pretty careful, some might say overly conservative, but we'd rather be overly conservative with what we're promising than promising something we don't feel we can execute on.

Isometric, party-based RPGs are some of many classic game types to have enjoyed a resurgence thanks to crowdfunding platforms. You were one of the employees at Obsidian who pushed hard to try crowdfunding that style of game, which hadn't been around for a while. Was there any particular impetus for your push? Did the market seem ripe for one?

Sawyer: To be fair, I don't want to take credit for that. It was actually a number of people who had similar ideas around the same time; I was just one of a few people who suggested it. I was the person who specifically said, "Let's make a Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale-type game with some influences from Planescape: Torment."

I've been in the industry since 1999, and the first game I worked on was Icewind Dale. When we stopped working on the Infinity Engine series with ID2, at that time there were still a lot of players who were interested in playing 2D-style, isometric, party-based games. A lot of people loved BioWare's Neverwinter Nights, but there were people who were still engine in the Infinity Engine-style of games.

We've had fans on our forums for years and years; going all the way back to the late '90s, a lot of those people are still [our fans]. So we knew there was an audience. We weren't sure how big it was, but we knew there were people out there who wanted to play this style of game. The very idea of doing a Kickstarter I think came from Nathaniel Chapman, a designer who used to work here. He had the idea, and it was almost more of a joke because we didn't really know if it was something that was possible.

When Double Fine Adventure [had success], that's when we said, "Okay, this is a thing we can do. What are we going to try to do?" Project Eternity, which late became Pillars of Eternity, was our idea. It was a type of game we knew we could make, a game we wanted to make, and a game that had fans out there who wanted to see it come to fruition.

What was it like, back in the early 2010s and now, working within that template? Are there certain aspects of it that feel more open or restrictive relative to other RPGs you've worked on such as Fallout: New Vegas?

Sawyer: Working with a party-based game, there are some limitations you have to keep in mind in terms of how many people are running around with you and things like that. Obviously you're not working in a first-person perspective, so there are certain elements of visual storytelling that become more difficult when you're working way zoomed out from an isometric perspective.

Otherwise there's plenty of stuff we can do [with the narrative] that we don't normally get to do from first-person perspective, such as using narrative prose in describing things about the scene that you wouldn't [pick up on] normally. So we can mirror the style of Planescape: Torment, which did a lot with narrative prose to describe what was going on in the environment.

I never really found that format limiting, so going back to that style of game, the big time sink in a lot of cases is the art itself. You'd think 2D art is easy to make, but the way we do it, it's not easy because we do a lot of neat rendering tricks that essentially recreate a lot of the 3D data for lighting and things like that. We do real-time, 3D lighting on what is actually a 2D background, so we have to do a lot of tricks. Some of those areas get pretty expensive, but we have a pretty good pipeline worked out now.

I really enjoy working on this type of game because the team sizes tend be a little smaller, usually in the 20 to 30 employees size. Something like Fallout: New Vegas was pushing upper 70s by the end. It becomes more difficult to direct people at that level; you need a lot more middle management, more producers, and [structure] like that. On a team size like this, I get a lot more contact with individual designers, artists, and programmers. I like working on teams of this size.

I think a lot of the people working on this game who had only worked on large games are finding it pretty enjoyable as well.

It sounds as if you were able to transplant a culture and team dynamic from Obsidian's earlier days within the Pillars and Pillars 2 teams.

Sawyer: Yeah. When I worked on Icewind Dale in 1999 to 2000, almost everyone on the team was a junior employee. We didn't really have leads, which sounds crazy now. We all just talked to each other all the time. It sounds weird now to think about a team working at a company, a big company for the team, and we were all kind of autonomous, but we were all constantly talking to each other. We would just get together and say, "Hey, I want to do this, what do you think?" And people would go, "That sounds stupid" or "That sounds cool, I can reinforce that when the player comes through" and stuff like that.

That small team size, which you see more and more, especially with Kickstarter-driven companies—like the Banner Saga 3 campaign is going on right now. I know they've managed to keep their team size really small. They have a network of people they work with around the world. That can be really rewarding and satisfying because you feel like you have much more individual influence. When you say something, people hear it because we're all here, all in it together, all working on things at the same time.

How have the storms you and colleagues have weathered at Obsidian shaped the studio? What was it like to be so close to being shut down?

Sawyer: I've had a lot of projects cancelled, and I think most people, if they've been in the industry long enough, have as well. You don't hear about those things very much, but we all have projects cancelled. Sometimes they're little projects and it's not a big deal. Other times they're very large. The one preceding Pillars was very large, and it resulted in the biggest layoffs I think Obsidian had ever seen.

It was very demoralizing. I think one thing that has stayed with us is that we're really grateful to everyone who backed the first game. I don't know what would have happened if we hadn't succeeded with the [Kickstarter campaign]. Going into this one, we did plan for stretch goals, but we didn't take for granted how quickly we would be funding. I don't think anyone estimated that we'd be funded faster this time than last time, which is pretty incredible.

Coming that close to the dissolution of the company and that catastrophe made us more grateful and sort of sensitive to how much we rely on our fans for support and feedback, and their ongoing trust in us.

It's amazing that Pillars of Eternity took its subgenre of RPG from one that had been out of the limelight for quite a while to the saving grace of Obsidian. Folks like Chris Avellone said that a sequel was guaranteed provided the first game did well. Was it hard not to take that for granted?

Sawyer: Once we saw that [Pillars of Eternity] was critically and commercially successful, we said, "This is our IP." I can't emphasize enough how important it is for independent companies to own their own intellectual property—their worlds, settings, and characters. Really, a gaming company is only worth whatever properties it owns. Employees can come and go; all you have left are the physical materials, computers and desks. At the end of the day, what you have that is worthwhile is the things you've created.

With the publishing model for the past 15 to 20 years, publishers usually have developers under their thumbs. What that means is they can insist that intellectual property rights belong to the publisher. So the only way we would have not followed up Pillars of Eternity is if it was a catastrophic failure. Otherwise it was definitely something we wanted to grow. Thankfully it sold and reviewed well right away.

We were all nervous about it. [Producer] Brandon Adler said it might [review] somewhere between 80 and 90 [percent]. We weren't sure how it was going to sell. Someone asked me earlier: "Does it matter how much a game sells?" Of course it does, because we need to make money on this stuff; otherwise we can't make any more games.

Even though we're crowd-funding Deadfire, we're putting a lot of the money from Pillars 1 into Deadfire. That's just to go above and beyond what we wanted to do, even more stuff on top of [the first game's offerings]. Unless the game had been poorly received and did not sell well, we would have always tried to do a sequel.

Even if it had misstepped badly, we would have tried to correct that and move forward rather than just give up on it. You don't get many chances to own your intellectual property. I've been in the industry since '99, and this might be the first one we've had where it's our property that we own. It's that rare.

In designing the first Pillars, you carried over much of the style and game systems from genre staples like Icewind Dale. What about for Pillars 2? What did you observe from the reception of the first game, in terms of not only reviews but feedback from fans as well, that you wanted to sharpen in the sequel?

Sawyer: We learned that people are really interested in this style of game again, and that they want deep and tactical combat, character development, mechanics, and things like that. We're trying to improve all those aspects in the sequel, but we've also realized that there were certain things that were very unclear about our mechanics, so we've either tried to communicate those mechanics more clearly, or revise them so they're inherently easier to understand.

For example, in the first game we had a damage reduction system that was used for armor. It was fairly easy to understand, but when the player was making decisions in the heat of combat, it wasn't always clear what they should be doing based on the mechanics of the armor system. We've adjusted those mechanics to use a new armor penetration system that is more straightforward. The relationship between weapons, penetration, and the value of armor is clearer to people. It's a more interesting mechanic, and it's just easier to sort of process and understand in the heat of the moment.

There are other things, too. Combat clarity and feedback, making sure our visual effects don't overpower [on-screen action], slowing the pace of combat down just a little bit so it's easier to understand, spacing characters out—things like that.

That's something I wondered about. The first Pillars explicitly targeted fans who missed Icewind Dale-style games, but players new to the genre said they had trouble learning the ropes, and were fine once they got some momentum. It sounds like you're working on adjusting that learning curve.

Sawyer: Our goal is definitely to be more welcoming. I think it is more welcoming, but it's also just clearer. Even experienced players will find that the combat is easier to follow. We're going to do a better job tutorial-izing things; that's something that was a little last minute [in the first game]. We're trying to plan out our tutorials in advance of the end of the game [in production], so players should find that things are explained much more clearly, and that the pace of how things are introduced is much clearer as well.

There are some disconnects in the early game, where you get a companion like Edér. He's a fighter and very good at locking characters down, but then we take you into a dungeon where things break engagement constantly. We're trying to make sure things like that line up better so players aren't just wondering, "What the hell am I supposed to do?" You can think your way out of it, but it's a little more challenging than it needs to be, especially in the early game.

You've said in previous interviews that when Obsidian eventually did break ground on another Pillars game, you'd want to work in a new setting. What characteristics distinguish Deadfire from the first game's milieu?

Sawyer: We're in another part of the world, and that's what the Deadfire is. It's something we referenced in the first game, a part of the world [characters] talk about in passing, but very remote from the Dyrwood. It's physically very different, so it's more of a tropical or sub-tropical setting; most parts of the archipelago are. It has some desert areas, and some sub-arctic areas. It allows us to just have a different style in terms of the feeling of the climate in the world.

Additionally, the native culture that is there is much more of a Polynesian flavor rather than the European focus that we had in Pillars 1. We do want to have continuity between the two games; one thing we use for that is the colonial powers like the Valians are present in this part of the world. That helps bridge the gap where you do have some of this New World European elements that flow into the native culture of the Deadfire.

It really does allow us to showcase a lot of environments that would have felt out of place in the Dyrwood, which is much more of a western European or central European setting.

Given how integral stories are in this type of RPG, could you talk about the team's writing process? What steps does any given character or quest line go through before it's considered complete?

Sawyer: Our process goes through a number of phases. We want things to be interesting at a very base level. The very first thing we try to do is come up with a hook for a quest that's interesting, and then think how that hook can then turn during the resolution of the quest. So if someone has you go do something that, on the surface, appears very straightforward, always try to twist or turn that expectation halfway through the player is redirected to something new and unexpected.

From a narrative perspective, we try to focus on reinforcing the themes of the story as much as possible without going overboard. So, referencing what's happening in the main plot: too much of that can seem overbearing, but we do want the world to feel coherent so it doesn't feel like things are just hanging in the middle of nowhere.

When a narrative designer creates an idea for a quest, the other designers will go through it and give feedback for ideas on how we can improve either the characterization of a quest giver, or a secondary character, or ways in which the quest can be slightly restructured to focus more on themes and issues that tie into the larger game.

It's an iterative process. We put it through enough phases until we feel like the quest is fun and gives players a lot of choices in terms of mechanical builds: "I can complete this as various types of character." Also different role-playing options: if you want to play your character in a certain way, either making certain alliances or being really aggressive or diplomatic, you can do that.

We work at trying to find the voice of a character. One of the most time-consuming [processes] for a writer isn't just putting words down on the page, but trying to establish the voice for a character so it feels distinct with the world while being unique and memorable. It's definitely a process. It's something we take very seriously at Obsidian, and something we're trying to improve on for Deadfire.

Early materials have made a point of showing ships. How does that method of travel factor into Pillars 2's story?

Sawyer: All I'll say is that ships are important in Deadfire. [laughs]

You've cited an enhanced reactivity system as a primary goal in this game. How does the system work, and how do players' decisions from the first Pillars affect events in this one?

Sawyer: One of the things that makes reactivity a little easier in a sequel like this is that it's in a different part of the world. At the end of Pillars 1 we described a lot of changes which in many cases are really severe, but are localized to the Dyrwood. Colonial folks from the Dyrwood also appear in the Deadfire, so you can see consequences from the actions you took in the first game.

We don't try to react to every single thing that you did. Our criteria are usually choices the player made in the first game that feel particularly important. For example, at the end of the game there are a number of very important choices you make with regard to the souls you find and things like that.

Another criteria is that if there's ever some indication that characters involved in a quest might reappear or have some sort of influence in the Deadfire, even if it's a minor quest, we look for reference that as well.

Actually, we very secretly, at the end of Pillars of Eternity, made a save file called "save game." Do not delete that! [laughs] That is something we'll allow you to import so we can reference all the choices you made. That being said, a lot of people are going to be coming to this game without have played Pillars of Eternity; or even if you have, you can make a new game and establish story states in the opening if you want. That way if you don't want to play all the way through Pillars of Eternity, or you got close to the end but didn't finish and don't want to load it back up, you can go in, set the story states you want, and play the game from that point in time.

Deadfire has a vibrant, inviting look. What are some of the graphical systems contributing to that?

Sawyer: In the first game we stuck to [a palette] that was a little on the muted side. We were looking at the Hudson River School style of paintings, which are a little more muted in subdued in their coloration. We had a relatively subdued palette, and strove for a more realistic look for not only the environments, but also the character's proportions: armor and things like that.

Some things are exaggerated because they're [viewed from] isometric, but otherwise we tried to stick more to what I consider to be the age of fantasy in the late '80s through the mid '90s, I guess. Larry Elmore, Clyde Caldwell. Things were a little exaggerated but mostly realistic. The tones tended to be more on the subdued side other than certain artists like Larry Elmore. But in Pillars 2, especially because we're moving to a more tropical environment, we looked at upping the saturation. We're not going overboard, but we looked into upping saturation and color intensity relative to the first game.

Another big focus for us was on dynamic weather and foliage. In the first game we had a few experiments with dynamic foliage, like dynamic trees and grass and things like that. It never really looked very good and was hard to author, so our artists had a really difficult time actually getting some of the level looking good.

On this game, right away I said, "We're going to an archipelago. I expect there to be pretty wild weather at times, so we really should look at improving the fidelity and immersive qualities of these environments by introducing dynamic foliage and dynamic weather." We have things like cloud maps that will scroll across the screen casting shadows on the environment, which is really cool; rainstorms and wind that switch directions; you'll see all the particles in the environment, like smoke from a chimney and fire on a torch will actually react to that stuff. We have many, many more plant elements: trees, shrubs, things like that, and they all react as well.

On top of that, we have some really fantastic graphics programmers at Obsidian that really have taken things to an amazing level in terms of lighting. Character lighting is really, dramatically improved. The materials on the characters look incredible. Walking around with a torch or another light source in a dark dungeon is really fantastic.

At times it looks like a really detailed, 3D environment. It almost stops being 2D, which is something we weren't necessarily striving for, but when some people played Pillars we heard a lot of comments like, "Wow, this is really beautiful, but it just feels kind of static." I think all of these changes we've made are breaking that illusion lot more. It really has a lot of fantastic qualities to it that people are, thankfully, showing a lot of appreciation for.

Running crowdfunding campaigns obviously takes a lot of time. Besides that, what tasks are on the team's plate for the present and right after the campaign?

Sawyer: Because we know these crowdfunding campaigns take a lot of time, my workload directly on the game is reduced because I'm spending a lot of time interfacing with fans, doing interviews, and stuff like that. We're in the middle of production, so our focus continues to be on our main city, which is Neketaka. We're going to be doing an update on what makes Neketaka so cool; it's sort of the crown jewel of this part of the world.

We're also working on establishing the critical path that goes through the city of Neketaka during the course of the story. Once we've done that we're going to be looking at ways to tie a lot of our quests together. We've been doing lots of side quests, and we've had ideas for how they tie together, but we're going to be focusing more on linking them, making things feel more coherent, and just polishing everything so that when you go through these environments and see these vignettes, they feel like parts of a living environment.

The city is really cool and has a lot of interesting content in it. I really loved our companions in Pillars 1, but people wanted really wanted more reactivity. They wanted them to be tied closer to the central plot, and that's something we're putting more effort into this time around as well. We started working on companions much earlier than we did on Pillars 1. I think that's going to be reflected in the amount of tie-in and feedback, and the reactivity you see from those characters throughout the course of the story.

So right now our focus really is on making sure we come through the crowdfunding campaign sane. [laughs] Then we'll drill down into the heart of the game, which is the city of Neketaka, and then building out from there.

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