No alarm bells rang in Feargus Urquhart’s head when Adam Brennecke and Josh Sawyer asked him for a lunch meeting at the Cheesecake Factory.
“He fixates on particular restaurants and binges on them for a few years at a time, then he switches them up,” Brennecke said of Urquhart. “He'd probably eat there two to three times a week. Most of our lunch meetings were at the Cheesecake Factory during Pillars I.”
Brennecke met Urquhart’s gaze with difficulty. “At that point we had to make our case,” he explained. “It would be foolish to launch Pillars of Eternity early and rushed.”
Sawyer recalled feeling more composed. Resolved, even. “This game could technically be shipped now, but it should not be shipped,” he recalled saying. “It's way too buggy. We really need more time to iterate.”
“If Feargus and the other owners figure out how to make the money work for another six months, we could make a really, really great game,” Brennecke added.
Urquhart’s gut response was anger and restrained panic. When Project Eternity’s Kickstarter had launched in the fall of 2012, Obsidian had been confident that the game would be ready within two years. A delay of six months pushed that release window far off target. “I think when Josh and Adam came and talked to me was, I was frustrated, because my job is to get the money and make sure everybody gets paid,” Urquhart admitted. “Selfishly, I turn into a twelve-year-old for a bit and go, ‘Why me?!’”
He took time to collect himself. “In game development, there are delays. I know this is not a big revelation, and it's tough,” Urquhart said. “But then my job is to take a breath and say, ‘What's best for the game? What can we do? We can't spend ourselves into the poor house, but how can I give the teams as much as we can without putting the company out of business?’”
Over the course of spearheading projects at Obsidian and Black Isle, Sawyer had gained an appreciation for Urquhart’s situation. “Obviously, when you go over budget on anything, the people writing the checks don't like that,” he said. “So, when you say, ‘We're going to burn extra months on this project,’ you're talking about paying to employ those people, which is a lot of money in Southern California. It's totally justified that, anytime you ask for more time, the people writing the checks and looking at bank accounts go, ‘Hey, dude, that is a huge pain in the ass, and dangerous, and potentially catastrophic.”
Urquhart reminded them of Obsidian’s situation. The four million dollars raised through Kickstarter and PayPal was gone. It had paid for two years of salaries, equipment, software licenses, and other development costs. Urquhart and the other co-owners would have to dip into other coffers—money earned from working on South Park, the steady stream of revenue from discounted titles on digital platforms such as Steam—to extend Pillars of Eternity’s runway.
He granted the request for more time, on one condition. “That was the big discussion: If we didn't hit March , our heads would be on the table. He made that very clear to us,” Brennecke said.
Sawyer remembered events a bit differently. “Fearg wasn't happy about it, I can say that. I think Adam recalls it as being more dire than I do. I remember him being upset. I said, ‘Look, man, I get it. I didn't want us to be in this state either, but the fact of the matter is we have to make sure that this game is solid, or at least more solid than it is now, when it comes out. That's not going to happen without more time.’ And we got it. We got more time.”
On October 2, Urquhart published a notice in the Pillars of Eternity forums stating that the game would be pushed until early in 2015. The clock was ticking.
Return to Form
All the content in Pillars of Eternity was in place. The problem, as Sawyer had explained, was that it was a complete mess.
One perk to Kickstarter backers at or above a certain pledge level on Project Eternity had been access to a beta. Feedback to that beta had been shaky. Quests were broken. Everything—combat systems, companion dialogue, elements of the user interface, everything—needed at least one more round of polish. The developers would need to apply that polish. QA would need to play through it and give a thumb-ups or thumbs-down. That cycle would repeat until the game sparkled, or at least was in better shape than it was in the late summer of 2014.
“We were having a lot of difficulty with our save-point system not being that reliable, which can cause a lot of problems with QA,” Brennecke explained. “If you can't save and load through a forty- to fifty-hour a game, it's hard to get good progression. Or if things are breaking left and right after you reload, it's a challenge to get a good test case on things.”
Unlike his time working on the Icewind Dale titles at Black Isle, Sawyer had not fought to add more content. Quite the opposite. “When we made Pillars of Eternity, I tried to be much more diligent about cutting back on systems, sub systems, class features, and areas that I didn't think were necessary.”
That, he knew, was a big risk. Sequels—and spiritual successors—came with expectations. Fans expected more: More characters, more quests, more dialogue, more weapons, more monsters, more areas. If it had existed in the Infinity Engine games, fans would expect it to exist in Pillars of Eternity in some form.
Sawyer was aiming for quality over quantity. Where Baldur’s Gate II had featured 200 maps, Pillars of Eternity would feature 150. “It's a challenge because player expectation states that the game should be very big,” Sawyer continued. “Ultimately, we were on the hook for a game, so what we did on both Pillars I and II was we took extra time.”
Every team rolled up their sleeves. Depending on their discipline—code, art, narrative, audio—they refined content, or they cut it. Fenstermaker and his team of narrative designers had labored over every character interaction, every line, every word. Pillars of Eternity would take between fifty and 100 hours to finish. They needed to trim word counts while still making sure that players understood what was going on and why.
“I’d have wanted to keep doing rewrites until the script was clean, top-to-bottom, but that’s just not how things work,” Fenstermaker stated. “When you’re on a budget, there are also the inevitable days when a producer walks into your office and says, in the middle of production, ‘We’ve determined that at our current rate, we can’t build the entire story. Please cut it down by twenty-five percent, and make the cut as fast as humanly possible because there isn’t time in the schedule to make that edit, either.’”
PSA: The Eternity website is undergoing maintenance for the time being. I wonder why that could be... #PoELaunchMarch26— Obsidian (@Obsidian) March 24, 2015
The narrative designers made concessions where deemed concessions feasible, excising a large chunk of the final act and doing their best to sew up the gap so players would not notice anything amiss. At least, Fenstermaker hoped they wouldn’t. “Moments like that, your heart just sinks, because after you go through all the stages of grief with the producer, you know there’s only so much you’ll be able to repair,” Fenstermaker said. “You polish what you can but you always run out of time. I hated that: Shooting blind. Films and games with bigger budgets, they get focus testing, they get opportunities to make edits or cuts or additions or reshoots to shore up problems no one foresaw. For us, there wasn’t time. The burn rate doesn’t pause for focus testing.”
On March 17, five months and thirteen days following Urquhart’s public declaration that Pillars of Eternity would ship in early 2015, he announced that the game had gone gold.
Eight days later, Obsidian’s managers had threw a party so the developers could bask in their shared accomplishment. The next morning, only hours remained before release. The big-screen TV was set up in the area adjacent to the kitchen so the team could watch live reactions and video reviews. The development team crowded around the screen and watched with mixed feelings.
Hector Espinoza was eager, exhausted, and more than a little apprehensive. “It was hard as hell, getting it all to come together, but we felt good about what we had made. We just knew that, to us, it felt right, it looked right. We were delivering on the things we said we would deliver on. You just can never tell what the public would do with it.”
Carrie Patel couldn’t figure out what she should be feeling, thinking, doing. Pillars of Eternity was her first game. Everybody had been stressed for months, including herself, tying up what loose ends they could and crossing their fingers that players and critics would fail to notice frayed ropes that had not been tied off. “I look around and look to the people who have worked on games for a while and say, ‘Is this normal?’ And they'd say, ‘Yeah, this happens every time.’ I'd say, ‘Okay. So, are we actually in trouble, are we in pretty good shape.’ They'd say, ‘I think we'll be in pretty good shape... once we get these things ironed out.’”
Sawyer tried not to let his anxiety show. “I was nervous during the launch of Pillars 1 because I had no idea how we were going to be reviewed. I thought the game was pretty good, but I knew there were some real problems with it.”
“We worked really, really hard, but we weren't sure--and I think I speak for other people, too--if people would respond to this style of game,” said Dimitri Berman, echoing Sawyer’s edginess. “It had been a while since this kind of game had come out. Everybody was playing Call of Duty and games like that. Were they going to say, ‘What is this game? What is all this story stuff? Why do I have to pick all these races and play through this game of weird concepts and Watchers?’”
Berman fretted over how players might respond to the game’s weirder features. The death godlike—that race was bizarre, alien. But then, he considered, he really liked it. Perhaps his confidence would bleed over to the gaming public. “I just make what I like, what I think is cool,” he continued. “I think a lot of times it works out. If you're just being honest, you'll find people who get it and who will respond favorably to it. I think that's how everybody on the team approaches these games and everything they're doing. We're not trying to do what this or that game did, or follow what's marketable. We're just doing what we know to do. That feels good to me, and I know it works.”
Confidence was rewarded. Critics responded positively, citing Pillars of Eternity’s visual style, area design, and story—particularly characters such as the Grieving Mother—as highlights. Moreover, declared outlets such as The Escapist, Pillars of Eternity was clearly a game inspired by nostalgia—but more than that, it modernized conventions and should appeal to new players interested in a deep roleplaying game. GameSpot declared that music, particularly the battle motifs, calls back to Infinity Engine games while at the same time carving out a place for Obsidian’s title.
The atmosphere turned from tense and uncertain to relaxed, celebratory, and reflective. “I remember on release day, everyone gets into the office and we're looking at reviews and commentary. I said, ‘I'm going to fix bugs. I'm not going to get drawn into this,’” Patel recalled. “And I totally got drawn into it. It's just so exciting and addictive. As a team, you're all stepping back and looking at this thing you've made, waiting very anxiously to see how it's received. By the end of it, we felt good about the product we'd created, but I think it was even better received than we expected. That was immensely rewarding for us.”
For Bobby Null, Pillars of Eternity as more than a modern-day throwback. It had been his chance to contribute to one of his favorite types of games. “When I got into the industry, I didn't think I'd be able to work on games like that, because they were in the past. Being able to do that was awesome. Working with the people I'd worked with in a scrappy, against the world, ‘We can do it!’ mentality, and being backed by so many people--it'll be hard to top that, I think. It's weird because we were making kind of a retro game, but it also felt like we were pioneering at the same time because we were using crowdfunding, and setting the bar, at least at the time, for what crowdfunding could do.”
Kaz Aruga, another long-time fan of the Infinity Engine style of roleplaying games, took satisfaction in what Pillars brought—and brought back to—the genre. “I was proud of the whole package: Just the fact that we had such an ambitious scope for this game and that we pulled it off with a [smaller] team. I was proud of just how close I think we came to replicating the Infinity Engine games. I remember being very pleased with that.”
Like Aruga, Tim Cain found it difficult to pin down one piece of Pillars that he was proudest of. He knew the rigor involved in building a property from nothing, and took pride in his team for walking that long, hard road. “Because it's the first game, everything was made from scratch. The only sequel for a game I worked on was the beginning of Fallout 2. There's so much heavy lifting involved in the first of any game series, and I went into Pillars wide-eyed, knowing what we were getting into. A lot of people didn't discover it until later. It was too late for them! There was so much work, and people started to feel overwhelmed, but I was like, ‘No, we can get this done.’ That's what I was really impressed with: For the first IP made on an engine platform we'd never used before, with a funding system we'd never used, we got all that done and made such a great game. It was just absolutely amazing.”
Dimitri Berman agreed. “Most of the reason I think they're fun is because they're our games,” he said of Pillars of Eternity and its 2018 sequel, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire. “After Stormlands, where the publisher oversaw everything we were doing, and everything has to be a discussion with the publisher to make sure they're happy, and you're happy, and everybody's happy with what's happening. Pillars was a whole different thing.”
Fenstermaker kept waiting for the phone to ring, and for Feargus Urquhart or Josh Sawyer to be on the other end with good news: They would be making a director’s cut of Pillars of Eternity, and he would have all the time and money he needed to heal all the game’s warts. “A lot of those fixes wouldn’t be all that difficult and that sort of kills me a bit,” he admitted.
Still, Fenstermaker continued, he got to do what he had wanted to do since the beginning of his career: Write a grounded fantasy tale. “The truth is, in spite of its many warts, I like the game. I’m proud of it, and I had fun playing it. I like the ideas and turns in the main story even if the execution floundered at times. I like the companions. People rightly criticized that they didn’t all have a great justification to journey with the player, and I know people wanted there to be more to some of their quests. But their thematic ties were really good and I think for many players that made them emotionally impactful, and helped the overall narrative land. I like the antagonist even if he was a little too enigmatic for too long. I like the atmosphere for the setting that the team pulled off. That took area designers, narrative designers, concept artists, effects artists, level artists, all operating together at a high level. As a player it made me feel the pain of the place and want to set things right. With all the challenges and constraints we faced, I’m amazed things turned out as well as they did.”
Brennecke and Sawyer were proud of the game. However, Brennecke saw room for improvement. “I was somewhat optimistic about it, but as a programmer, I always get frustrated with how buggy our games are. We had a reputation for buggy games, and I knew how many open bugs we still had, so I was fairly disappointed with the state of the game when we launched. It reflects poorly on the programming team. It's not our fault, per se, it's just something you have to deal with as a developer: Having a game go out, and still having open bugs.”
Sawyer too was keeping a list of things he wished had turned out better, but was proud of the game. The team had done it. Together, they had sold the dream. Their long-term reward was a brand-new property that was Obsidian’s to control and direct without publisher interference.
“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. “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.”