Recipe for Success
Like a family recipe passed down through generations, crafting an environment in a roleplaying game calls for specific ingredients. The quantities of those ingredients varies depending on the flavor of RPG one aspires to make.
Over the spring and summer of 2013, Pillars of Eternity’s developers baked their Infinity Engine RPG cake and cut off a vertical slice. “That was the June to August timeframe when we were trying to finish that up,” Adam Brennecke explained. “The vertical slice was the Dyrford Village scene. We wanted all the core elements of the game working and up and running at that stage, before moving into production.”
Vertical slice is industry speak for a playable chunk of a game designed to showcase progress across an entire project. The concept artwork and animated background Obsidian had released in late 2012 and the spring of 2013, respectively, formed the foundation for the vertical slice, the pan in which the rest of the game would be prepared. The goal of a vertical slice is to incorporate most or all of the features to be used in the final version of a game. Once the slice is finished, content creators build out from there.
More developers piled onto teams as work on South Park: The Stick of Truth wound down. Bobby Null, designated Lead Level Designer, was one of the most excited to dig into Pillars of Eternity’s vertical slice. Though he had joined Obsidian five years earlier contributing to design for Neverwinter Night 2 expansions as well as Dungeon Siege III and South Park, his penchant for building dated back to childhood.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I've loved Legos, erector sets, Lincoln logs,” Null said. “Building things is cool, and I think level designers, most of the ones I know, have that same mentality. They just love to put things together. For me, inherently, area design is the most interesting of the design disciplines from the sense that you're touching everything. You're responsible for the final level. You're taking everybody's work, all these creative people's work—including your own—and putting it all together in a finished piece.”
Dyrford Village was the first area created for Pillars of Eternity by being the area built for the vertical slice. That single area spanned eleven maps to provide a sampling of each major type of environment: towns, dungeons, and wilderness. Every discipline’s leaders had priorities. As Art Director, Rob Nesler focused on concerns such as environmental details that transformed spaces from oddly shaped containers to hold characters and gameplay, into spaces that felt alive. “If we're building a world where human beings are characters, I feel it's important that we assemble things in a way that looks like human beings would build them and live in them,” he explained of Dyrford. “That was one of my main rules.”
A dirt road leads into Dyrford Village from the northeast and wends south, broadening into a town square that hosts an inn—the village’s largest building—a mill, a few houses and shops, and a temple. A river hugs the north and western sides. Stone bridges cross from the village over to the Temple of Berath.
The milieu is appropriately quaint, a product of its status as a rural outpost. There are few paths in and out, and all paths feed into the square—a way to guide players to the town’s main attraction: NPCs with whom they can talk, trade, and receive quests. “You don't want it too spread out, but you don't want it to feel too small, either,” said Hector Espinoza. “Balancing that is really important. You want a lot of areas of interest.”
Functionality must balance verisimilitude. Every building had to serve a purpose. “There are so many house interiors with nothing going on that you want to design,” Null said. “If you design too many of those, players find themselves spending four, five, six hours exploring them and doing menial things rather than exploring exotic locations like dungeons and places that have more fantastic elements in them. You've got to get the bang for your buck out of every asset that's being requested, and that's pretty tricky.”
Planting shops and homes in the center of town was purposeful: It’s a hub of interaction for players and the NPCs they’ll meet. Vertical slices are essential for establishing big-picture details such as town squares, and for squaring away minutiae. “That's where you're going to define your door dimensions, and that's where we pushed reality back a bit in order to guarantee that nobody gets hung up or stuck on going into doors,” Nesler said. “That's where we have to break our rules of authenticity: For the benefit of the design of the game.”
Aesthetics informed the design of Dyrford and other areas as much as functionality. “Josh further identified it as in the Renaissance, a colonization sort of empire. He was really hoping for Spanish colonial architecture, so I would take that feedback and come up with ideas for it, and for characters,” Nesler explained.
Josh Sawyer had envisioned Eora as a world straddling the line between the real-world Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. True to European history, Eora’s people did not dump the trappings of an earlier era once a new, shiny epoch began. Swords had remained the weapon of choice during the Renaissance, but guns grew more important as scientists made advancements in munitions. Nearby Dyrford Village’s newer, Romanesque buildings sit the crumbling remains of medieval structures, the foundation of history on which the settlement’s inhabitants have built, and a way to communicate the deep history of a single area in Eora.
Every environment, every screen, was a joint collaboration between all of Pillars of Eternity’s disciplines. Teams had shared priorities as well as individual goals. Area designers made the call on details such as map layout and placement of items and monsters. Environment artists created levels based on area and story specifications provided by narrative designers and area designers, who often went back and forth on decisions. “There were some competing interests there, each valid,” recalled Eric Fenstermaker. “There was the desire for area designers to have maximal creative ownership of the thing they were making, versus a desire to make sure that most of the side quests were on some level contributing to the player’s experience of the story, whether that
In most cases, Environment Artists did not paint so much as a pixel until a Narrative Designer had distributed a document describing an area’s rough layout, where it would be found in the game’s progression, the types of items, enemies, and other actors the environment team should place there, and what the area should convey to players about the story and the world. “For example, the religion of the setting and understanding what Watchers were to the society and what the civil unrest level in Defiance Bay was, because if you’re not showing that kind of thing all the time through quests then it’s just in a big exposition dump somewhere and players won’t engage with it,” Fenstermaker continued.
As development rolled on, the area and narrative teams reached an accord. Writers would have final say on any region involved in the critical path, while the environment team was free to take charge of side quest-centric areas such as optional dungeons. While every Environment Artist had an opinion concerning just how much ownership they ought to get, everyone understood that they were meant to work as a unified team and deliver what players wanted.
“I believe you have to be an adult,” Nesler said. “You have to recognize that a whole project you're working on is the work of art. There is artwork in that, and that's my responsibility, but the truth is that the game experience, the idea that it is fun, is really what people are paying for. There's really nothing else that matters. Art reinforces that, and art is a firm reward in the game: the details of the layout of a space, and whether or not the animation is quick enough or slow enough, or the effect is bright enough. These are the things that are most important in how art relates to players enjoying themselves.”
Nesler admitted that he needed time and distance to learn many of the lessons he espoused to his art team during production of Pillars of Eternity. “In my first decade or two of doing this, I was more rabid about the art. I think sometimes that might have been a little irritating to programmers or designers who worked with me.”
Grass and Dog Hair
Dyrford Village is one of the most verdant regions in Pillars of Eternity. That Thomas Kinkade-esque portrait of rural tranquility was the result of years of iteration and polish. The area’s beginnings were humbler.
Before a single flower was planted or a rock jutted up from the mud of the river hugging the village’s northern bank, Dyrford Village started out the same as every other area in Pillars of Eternity: As a gray box.
Drawing from simple geometric pieces, artists whip up an environment filled with quick-and-dirty mockups of the hills, buildings, and paths to give designers an idea of how the area could look. “The gray box of an area can take on any shape, and artists are encouraged to try new things and experiment with different shapes, layouts of buildings, layouts of exterior environments. It kind of starts from there,” said Adam Brennecke.
“There's a fair amount of detail that goes into the plan for an area that an area designer will come up with,” added Bobby Null. “Generally speaking, area designers are working in a box, from a higher level, particularly if it's a critical-path area where critical portions of the story take place. If it's side content, there's a little bit more freedom to do whatever you want in a lot of cases, but you still have to work within the context of the world. I think there's a big difference, though, from being able to put together something that kind of works, to putting something together that's shippable. In those cases, those pipelines took a lot longer to finalize.”
Gray-boxing occurs after designers receive an overview from the narrative team. If the area to be built will host a side quest, the area designer assigned to it may write up that document. Those write-ups serve as blue-prints, with gray boxes acting as unvarnished models to reference before construction on the real deal gets underway.
“From that point, we may have a tile set that can fit, say, a dungeon,” said Hector Espinoza. “It could be an underground dungeon, a sewer system, or a cave. Based on that gray box, we start putting down walls based on that tile set.”
The first pass on any area is done with tile sets, the brushes with which artists and designers paint settings: walls, floors, decor. If the coloring and feel strike the right chords, designers add in more details and fine-tune elements such as lighting, the texture of rough surfaces such as cavern walls, and so on. Next, they populate the scene with doodads such as treasure chests and areas of interest, extracted from information in write-ups from narrative designers—say, a campsite where players must meet with a character to further a quest—or from their own imaginings.
“We make sure to hit key locations in the scene,” Espinoza clarified. “If there's going to be an event in one area, or maybe this is the last area of a level where there needs to be an interaction with a key character. But the initial block out doesn't involve much on our end. It just says, ‘This is what design needs for their layout.’ As soon as we can, we drop assets into it.”
Obsidian’s culture of ownership afforded designers and artists the freedom to cater to their tastes. While a design criteria must be met, Espinoza, for instance, could concentrate on setting mood. Likewise, artists encountered unique challenges. Espinoza struggled to find harmony between aesthetic details and game spaces, terrain where gameplay such as combat, exploration, and quest progression—finding an item, talking with a character—must take place.
“That just involves collaboration between design and art. In the end, we had to ask, ‘Does it look good? Does it play well?’” Espinoza said. “We try really hard to achieve what design wants. If they want some architectural element that they want to help sell the feel of an area, it's a really easy thing to just communicate and balance that out. What's cool about this perspective and the way we build these levels is they can be pretty flexible. We can move things out, just adjust things or fake things so it looks like there's a bigger sense of space without affecting too much of the area.”
Bobby Null stepped up to design the Ruins of Cilant Lis, the first dungeon players explore, and one of the more elaborate dungeons of Pillars of Eternity. That made it a good choice to position first: Players would get a feel for its combination of eye candy and dangerous traps. The interior juxtaposes crumbling walls and holes in cracked cavern floors with jaw-droppingly ornate rooms adorned with pillars, mosaics, and sconces that give off colored light. Exploring leads to encounters with monsters as well as interactive elements such as breakable walls and a puzzle that can only be solved by inserting a gem into a slot.
By being the first dungeon in the game, Cilant Lis feels lengthier than it is due to players learning their way around the game’s controls and their small party’s dynamic. “I wanted to keep it short. I've played other games where starter dungeons are a bit too long. I think on a first playthrough that's generally fine, but on subsequent playthroughs, people start to not appreciate that,” Null recalled. “It's good to encourage the player to explore the whole space, so that's there. But if you go back and look at that dungeon, there are some very fast ways to get from the starting point to the ending point.”
Null and the other designers needed time to get their isometric-RPG legs under them as well. Using an orthographic camera angle affords players a generous view of their surroundings at the expense of a sense of depth. Many gray boxes, and even later revisions of dungeons, evinced impossible views that made discerning height and depth nearly impossible, giving them the quality of M. C. Escher’s famously surreal paintings.
“Managing that was one of the biggest issues we had in the beginning,” Espinoza said, admitting that countless disorienting visual layouts were discarded over the course of development. “For example, the biggest no-no when it comes to this kind of stuff was pathways that are parallel to edges of the screen. You don't want to do that. Everything needs to be at an angle, even a slight angle, so you avoid flatness in areas.”
Artists had to account for technical details as well. Despite converting three-dimensional geometry into flat, pre-rendered backgrounds, Pillars of Eternity needed to pack in details so that it looked like a modern game. “Getting grasses to work properly and not look like dog hair, but to actually look like grass,” Nesler submitted as an example. “All of that stuff was just an order of magnitude of extra detail that could not have been considered in 1999.”
Even with a vertical slice under their collective belt, Obsidian’s team viewed the construction of a contemporary-classic RPG as a learning experience. That learning experience continued over two years and across a variety of settings. One of the most popular of those is Raedric’s Hold.
“I just love how it came together organically,” Bobby Null said. “It was just a simple idea. I thought, We need a big, cool, gothic castle in this game. I can't believe we don't have one.”
Raedric’s Hold sprawls across three areas: one outdoor space consisting of a courtyard and grounds, and two floors of dungeons. As much thought goes into how players will arrive at and enter dungeons as the perils that await within. Rarely do they simply walk through a front door. Players can talk their way into Raedric’s Hold by following a quest, or by killing the guards stationed at a drawbridge. Other ingresses exist. Players with a nose for exploration may discover a grate around the east side of the keep, or they can scale a wall.
Over a weekend, Null and fellow designer Jorge Salgado went into the office and covered a whiteboard in scribbles and sketches for the two-level dungeon. By Monday, they had a layout in mind. All they needed was the story, but notes from Eric Fenstermaker and the narrative team were threadbare. Null ran with his idea for a haunted castle and plugged in Lord Raedric VII, lord of the Gilded Vale, who had devolved from a harsh but fair ruler into a tyrant who believed worshippers of Eothas, god of renewal and light, were behind the Hollowborn crisis and ordered them exterminated.
“I knew I wanted it to be a big, gothic keep with a tragic lord. That was the initial idea,” Null explained. “Once we moved past that, I wanted it to have multiple levels where you could either start at the top, start at the bottom, or go through the front gate and get your ass handed to you, essentially.”
Salgado and Null approached Josh Sawyer and Eric Fenstermaker with their layout and lore, and were given approval from both leads. “Sometimes you do start with the story first, if there are major, important things,” Null continued. “Because Raedric's Hold was a side-content piece, it's easier to plug that into a story.”
All paths lead to a throne room where Lord Raedric awaits, but paths differ based on how players enter the structure. More differences arise on the inside, such as hidden switches that players can only find if one of their characters is adept at sneaking around. The quest can end in one of two ways: killing Lord Raedric, or murdering Kolsc, a nobleman and kin to Raedric. “I would say Raedric's was probably the most complicated,” Null said of the areas he had a hand in creating. “I don't want to say it was the most difficult because it was near the end of production and we were getting pretty good at [designing levels]. There's a lot of reactivity and things going on that required a lot of work.”
Null and Salgado passed Raedric’s Hold on to another designer so they could work on other environments. One of Null’s duties was to provide feedback on the level design team’s work, a responsibility he shared with Rob Nesler. “He and I would go through levels together, and he would have his feedback for the layout,” Nesler said, “such as where hallways got too tight, where a doorway was not helpful or would be needed, room rearrangements.”
Nitty-gritty details were necessary to bringing levels to life. Pacing, for instance, came into play during design of Sun in Shadow, the underground city where Eora’s gods were created, and one of the final areas in the game. The path through Sun in Shadow is long but linear, and full of tasks players must complete. “A lot of tricks you use for levels in the middle of the game are to slow the player down, like, I've got to figure out how to open this door,” Null said. “Those are slow-down things you want to do, and those can feel good, but at the end of the game you want to speed things up in a lot of cases.”
Doors emerged as Null’s arch-nemesis during the making of Pillars of Eternity. “I've always hated doors. You'd think they'd be simple because they sound so simple, but a lot of times they get pushed to the end of production and rear their ugly heads. They cause problems from a gameplay perspective and a realism perspective. Do you make them big? Do you have to put a lock through them? I think a lot of area designers would probably agree that doors are a thing that's a pain in the butt, but that we have to deal with.”
The larger an area, the more little problems crop up during and after development. As Obsidian’s Kickstarter continued raking in pledges, Josh Sawyer hit on the idea of a stronghold as a stretch goal. Strongholds were a throwback to Baldur’s Gate II, a fortress players could deck out and make their own. It didn’t turn out quite the way Sawyer envisioned. “I think the big shortcoming was that it wound up being primarily system driven and not content driven, and that was a result of not having enough content designers to make content for it,” he said.
The problem, Sawyer knew, was that the area designers who were needed to add features to the stronghold, Caed Nua, were busy creating fifteen floors for the Endless Paths of Od Nua, a “mega-dungeon” that ramps up difficulty as players descend, and that sits below the stronghold. The area designers remained buried in work through the game’s internal ship date. Sawyer did the best he could, prescribing simple features such as item storage and investing resources that expand the fortress and open up more quests.
“We did that, and nobody liked it. I wasn't extremely surprised by that,” he said. “Obviously I was disappointed, but we made it a purely optional thing. People can ignore it. It's not integrated into the game, which was probably also a mistake. I said, ‘I can't justify pulling people off core content to make stuff for this stronghold that not a lot of people are jazzed about.’ That was very difficult.”
Fortunately, Sawyer and the designers got to fix Caed Nua after Pillars of Eternity’s release when they rolled out a huge patch, 3.0, centered on stronghold content. “It would have been cool to have in the base game, but it involved a lot of work that was done post-launch, and a lot of it wouldn't have been possible at launch because we used features that weren't in the game at launch,” Sawyer said.
Rolling out an expanded stronghold in a patch rather than on the first day of a game’s availability had advantages. “The other thing is, putting cool things in patches gets players excited about jumping back into a game. It gets people talking about it, and other people in buying the game,” Sawyer explained.
Last In, First out
The first area or level that developers make is not always the first that players will explore. In fact, design legends such as Super Mario Bros. creator Shigeru Miyamoto and Doom co-creator John Romero leave first levels for last so they can take all the lessons they’ve learned and tools they’ve created and pour them into a first level capable of making a positive first impression on players.
Obsidian’s designers and artists applied that same logic to Encampment, Pillars of Eternity’s introductory zone. “That area went through so many iterations to make it feel just right,” admitted Hector Espinoza, whose colleague, Sean Dunny, built the map. “It's one of the last areas to be made, but you know it's also going to be the first area people see. At that point, you already have a lot of experience in how assets play together, and we had the freedom to iterate and make it feel just right.”
Pillars of Eternity opens with a cutscene showing a caravan of wagons traveling beneath a starless night sky. The player-character, not yet a Watcher, falls ill, and the caravan leader smells a soulstorm on the air. Control passes to players’ hands, and they find themselves in a cozy glade that has all the trappings of a high-fantasy pitstop: a campfire giving off a warm, orange glow; dirt paths leading unspooling toward clusters of rocks and ruins; arched stone bridges over babbling streams. One adornment stands out: A collection of large, emerald-green rocks that shimmer like crystal.
“For the encampment portion, Eric Fenstermaker needed an encampment and the bivouac and all those things that are packed into the game. I supervised how we get that stuff into the game,” said Bobby Null.
Encampment underwent iteration not because the designers lacked the building blocks to make it. They had amassed countless trees, bushes, rocks, and other art pieces during development. “We understand that the first version of an area—and this is common in game development—will take longer than other environments, but they're encouraged to build up an environment using pre-existing assets, and then try one or two other things that could be used elsewhere,” Adam Brennecke said.
Rather, the designers had to zero in on a suitable scale for a starting area. “At first that scene felt too small, then too big,” Espinoza said. “At first, there wasn't an expanse on the other side of the river. You know how you have to cross the river at the beginning? That wasn't there.”
The caravan leader asks players to track down berries with medicinal properties to cure their illness. The greater purpose of the quest is not to track down fruit, but to let players familiarize themselves with fundamentals like movement, exploration, and combat. They need enough space to stretch their legs and experiment, yet not so much that they become lost.
After finding berries, they encounter bandits, giving them their first taste of combat. Soon enough, they witness a key event that transforms them into a Watcher and, from there, follow the road north from the encampment into Cilant Lis, their first real tactical challenge.
Ornate floor tiles, breathtaking mosaics, colorful torches—all set decoration. The real reason players delve dungeons in RPGs is to test their mettle against enemies and leave the labyrinthine richer and stronger than when they entered.
The Forgotten Realms setting was an obvious point of reference for tactical combat in Pillars of Eternity. “It's pretty easy to tell we were heavily inspired by that stuff, down to how our fireballs look,” Brennecke said. “A lot of our spells are very inspired by Dungeons & Dragons because that's what players expect when they're playing a wizard. With our other classes, even our fighters, our martial [arts] classes are still fairly similar, but I think we took more liberties with how they look and function.”
Forgotten Realms and D&D’s 2nd and 3rd Edition rule sets had formed the backbone of RPGs made with the Infinity Engine. The developers brought their affinity for that world and those rules into Pillars of Eternity, from allowing players to travel with up to six characters at a time to the design and functionality of inventory screens for characters in their party.
“It feels like maybe they're not necessary, but there are players who like it, and it's not hard for us to include it,” Sawyer said of inventories. “But there are players who are annoyed that they're even included. I could say that we don't have to pay attention to any of that, but I think that would also be kind of a big ‘Fuck you’ to everyone who backed the game. We didn't advertise [Pillars I] as, ‘We're going to make this whatever we want.’ We advertised it as a spiritual successor.”
As much as Sawyer and Brennecke loved D&D, they removed their rose-tinted glasses. Some aspects of Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, and Icewind Dale, such as their real-time-with-pause combat, held up. “It seemed like the game had to be real-time with pause, just because it would be very strange for people if they played a game purporting to be an Icewind Dale-style successor that was fundamentally a different combat system,” Sawyer said of Pillars of Eternity’s gameplay.
Other aspects of Infinity Engine RPGs had existed due to technical or resource limitations rather than because their designers believed them to exhibit good design. “I wanted anyone who played a character, who made a character of a certain class, to feel that that character was a good character,” Sawyer said.
Sawyer was intimately familiar with D&D’s history. He had played the game since early editions when the community at large had concurred, like a hive mind, that certain classes were awful and not worth playing. Infinity Engine games had been afflicted with that curse. Despite pushing player freedom, players could choose any class only to quickly intuit that their choice had been ill-informed.
Sawyer pointed to Imoen, a mage-thief hybrid character whom players meet early in Baldur’s Gate. Soon after, they run into Montaron, a fighter-thief. If the player chose to play a thief character, they find themselves saddled with a party of three thieves. Ideally, parties should feature a range of classes so players have diverse abilities to deploy in encounters. “It's kind of a crappy feeling because it's basically a sub-standard combat class that can open locks and remove traps which, while important, you don't three people to do that. Or the bard, who was even less useful in a lot of ways,” Sawyer continued.
Brennecke also sought to do away with the user-unfriendliness of party configuration, which had plagued him in Icewind Dale as well as Baldur’s Gate. “I still can't make a good party in those games. I'd show my party to Josh, and he'd say, 'Why are you doing this?' And I was like, 'I don't know, man.' He'd say, 'Don't ever pick that combination of options.'”
Sawyer was aware of the shortcomings in both Icewind Dale titles. They were a result of tight budgets and timelines. Although Pillars of Eternity’s team was under the same gun, he and Brennecke resolved to do their best to strip out potential for bad character development. No matter the combination of race and class players selected for their Watcher avatar, they would have interesting things to do and choices to make for themselves and their party.
Tim Cain helped make class diversity possible. After wrapping up on South Park, Fallout’s co-creator made himself available to program any game systems on Pillars of Eternity that Brennecke and Sawyer needed coded. Artificial intelligence, spells, and abilities became his purview. Though Cain worked on every class, he took a special interest in the Cipher, Druid, and Bard.
“That shape-change effect was a bear to implement because you're basically turning into a whole new character,” Cain said of Spiritshift, a Druid ability that allows players to tap into their soul powers to assume the form of a bear, cat, stag, and other animals. Players who assume anthropomorphic shapes cannot wield weapons, but are still able to cast spells.
Other elements of the game’s design benefitted from Cain’s morphing system. “Once that stuff was done, I would point out, ‘Hey, we can shape-change now.’ I wrote [the system] for everything, not just for Druids. Some classes would summon things a certain way, like the Bard would bring things in temporarily, but the Ranger could have a permanent companion. The underlying code for [those two summons] is very similar. I was moving back and forth on so many different things.”
As character classes and creatures came online, Cain received a list of spells to implement. Some, such as the shapeshift effect, could be recycled among numerous characters. “Usually I'd try to figure out what's missing. Like, ‘This character doesn't have a lot of damaging or defensive spells,’ things like that. I'd talk about that stuff with Josh,” he explained.
Cain built a library that anyone could use to get a spell or ability up and running in record time. He prioritized efficiency in order to create spells quickly, yet not so hastily that they looked outdated or shoddy. A fireball, for instance, consisted of a particle and an explosion. That was his gray box, a preliminary pass just to convey the basics of what a spell entailed.
Cain would take his demos to Sawyer along with statistics such as the radius a spell affected and suggestions for how much spells should cost in terms of player resources. Sawyer would make recommendations and pass them on to Cain, who, after applying Sawyer’s suggestions, handed them off to artists such as John Lewis and James Melilli, who specialized in graphical effects. Once Lewis and Melilli spruced up a spell and implemented it, QA testers, Sawyer, and other developers would give feedback: on its visuals, on how effective it was or was not, and whether it was something they found themselves using or ignoring.
“That's important too,” Cain explained. “If you have a really cool spell but no one ever uses it, and you find out it's because it's so high-level that there's another spell they'd rather use, or it's an ability that's limited to one time a day and you were always saving it for the perfect time—we'd try to figure out why that was happening and change the design of abilities so they would be used more frequently.”
In addition to frequency of use, Pillars of Eternity’s abilities offer flexibility in terms of when and how they can be deployed. RPG convention states that players gain experience by killing enemies and spending points on stats such as strength and intelligence—a one-size-fits-all system. Sawyer and Brennecke disliked that approach as well. Some RPG fans invest so heavily in a game’s story and characters that they desire to roleplay. Fighters would pummel monsters into submission, but players who opted to specialized in stealth or diplomacy, two of many abilities available for players to learn and increase as they play, would prefer to sneak or talk their way out of tough spots, although players will have to fight on occasion.
Pillars of Eternity upended convention by rewarding players experience for completing quests rather than killing enemies. Players who love indulging in tactical combat can sharpen their swords and sling fireballs as much as they like, while other players can make use of abilities and items at their disposal and often avoid combat.
Player choice trickles into combat. Fighters are heavy hitters. Rogues deal less damage per attack, but all of their attacks offer a chance to interrupt an opponent’s next move, giving Rogues more opportunities to get their hits in. To counter interrupts, Sawyer implemented a mechanic called concentration—comparable to D&D’s execution of the ability circa 3rd —that prevents a character’s attack or spell from being interrupted if their concentration stat is high enough.
The real-time-with-pause formula was upgraded as well. In effect, the player’s party and their enemies attack in rounds. Most actions come with a mechanic called recovery speed that prevents a character from launching another attack until a certain amount of time has elapsed. Other abilities such as disengagement come with no recovery time, making the need—or lack of it—to recover with characters an important consideration in every battle.
Sawyer tempered factors such as recovery time by giving players more control over the pace and flow of combat. Combat rounds lasted six seconds in Infinity Engine games (unless tech-savvy players tinkered in the engine). Sliders, a construct made for Pillars of Eternity, let players manipulate pacing from within the game. “A lot of our time-slider stuff, such as recovery time, our combat-speed slider—those were all put in because one of the bigger problems with real-time-with-pause combat in a game where your party size changes over time, is that the pace of combat really changes pretty dramatically from hour to hour and fight to fight,” he said.
Older editions of D&D required players to roll dice to deal damage. Based on that roll, they either hit, or they missed. Pillars of Eternity’s graze mechanic alleviates the frustration of missing by adding increasing odds of landing a hit. If their virtual dice roll falls within graze range, they land a lighter attack. It’s less damage, but better than nothing. “It made fights feel less wild in the sense that you wouldn't have two characters whiffing at each other, and then one of them lands a hit and takes a third of the other's health off, which feels chaotic in a not-good way,” Sawyer explained. “What grazes did was they helped normalize damage output so they felt like more of a gradual grinding down.”
Despite its new mechanics, Sawyer agreed with players who came away mixed on combat in Pillars of Eternity. “I think the pace of combat was not that good in Pillars I, but I think rounds are a [mechanic] that make sense first and foremost if you come from a tabletop background. If you're not coming from that background, it feels weird in a real-time-with-pause setup. I said, ‘I think we should go [with a model] where there are action times and there are recovery times, and those are all independent from each other. It's time, it's seconds, and you can see that.’ I know people who think that's awful, and really bad and dumb.”
Combat was tested through encounter design, handled primarily by Bobby Null. Already pulled in too many directions, Sawyer gave Null reign over encounters but did play-test them and offer feedback. Most of his comments revolved around increasing enemy diversity—both to change up the arrangement of enemies so players had a constant flow of challenges, and to modify the game’s difficulty.
“The way we handle levels of difficulty is that we change the encounters,” Sawyer said. “If you're playing on normal, there might be three Xaurips and three worms in an encounter,” he continued, referring to a reptilian species of wilder enemy modeled after goblins and orcs. “If you play on hard, there might be three Xaurips, a Xaurip Priest, and instead of three worms, there's a drake. That's maybe an extreme change, but it's indicative of the type of tuning I would do.”
Sawyer estimated that players would need dozens of hours to finish Pillars of Eternity (although enterprising adventurers figured out how to take advantage of glitches and cross the finish line in roughly forty minutes). Over that time, players should master combat so they can bring every weapon, spell, ability, item, and dirty trick to bear in their final battle against Thaos, the renegade animancy who left a path of deception and destruction in his wake. Sawyer and his design team took pains to scale the artificial intelligence of Thaos so players could challenge him whether they had soaked up every quest and nugget of lore on their way to the confrontation, or had ignored side quests in favor of following the shortest, straightest line to the end.
“I don't remember exactly what the default scaling ranges are, but we can also say that unique creatures have a six-level scaling range, but they can have an eight- or ten-level scaling range if we want them to,” he said. “That way, if someone stumbles into the final level of the game, and they're only level-8 or something, we can say, ‘Well, jeez, if you really want to fight this boss, we'll scale him down as much as we can.’”
The battle against Thaos takes place in on a platform where two animated statues join the fray against the player’s party. Giving Thaos minions made the encounter easier to balance. “I find that the more focused RPG fights are on singular, big enemies, the harder they are to balance overall,” Sawyer said. “That's one of the reasons I try to insist that every boss battle has minions in them. That makes the party not able to focus on one big, bad enemy.”
Thaos poses a significant challenge regardless of the strength of the Watcher’s party. However, Sawyer expressed regret at the buildup of dramatic tension leading to the final encounter. Players get through Defiance Bay, one of two major cities, and then enter Twin Cities, another vast area. After that, they must clear a lengthy dungeon. Only then do they challenge Thaos. “They were super exhausted when they got to that point, and that fight, especially on higher levels of difficulty, could be really challenging,” Sawyer admitted. “I don't think we handled it that well on Pillars I, and then we overcorrected on Deadfire.”
Game directors are cursed to only, or at least mostly see flaws in their creations. Setting aside what he perceived as missteps on Pillars of Eternity’s combat, Sawyer acknowledged that the game had done a more than admirable job of picking up the tactical-combat torch that the Infinity Engine had carried.
“There are always things fans will be let down by, but I am happiest that we made something for our community, for the people who backed the game,” he said. “We fulfilled their dreams. I think it's very important, especially with crowdfunded projects, not to try to make everyone happy, but to fulfill the passions of that group of people.”