A video game is a multidisciplinary construct. Artists render environments for players to explore and animate the characters we control, befriend, and battle. Programmers give them life by instilling them with artificial intelligence that makes them think, act, live, and die. Writers give them personalities. Actors convert those personalities into spoken words. Audio designers and musicians pull us deeper into virtual worlds. Level designers build the spaces we explore.
Developers are crucial to development, but dozens, sometimes hundreds of individuals in less-publicized roles can make or break any project. Producers, community managers, public relations departments, testers, marketers—these are just some of the wizards who toil away behind their curtains, but whose contributions are just as important as the quests and characters who leave indelible impressions on the lives of the players who experience them.
On the afternoon of July 26, 2018, Obsidian PR manager Mikey Dowling and a couple of friends from work headed to Halal Guys for lunch. The business had started in 1990 as a hot dog cart in New York City. Today, it’s a growing chain of fast-casual restaurants dotted across the country.
Dowling and his friends knew what they wanted. They had referred to the menu posted on the back wall and decided to take the Halal Guys challenge: A small plate of lettuce and tomatoes or rice, mixed with chicken, beef, or falafel, and seasoned with twenty lines of the restaurant’s patented hot sauce, the equivalent of up to 130,000 heat units on the Scoville scale, plus one packet of white sauce, made from a secret recipe.
“You are given ten minutes to eat the whole dish, and you can't drink anything for another five minutes after you've completed the meal,” Dowling said.
His companions, lead QA tester Caleb Diaz and programmer Jorge Morales, had asked him if he was up to the challenge. Dowling smiled and said yes. All three signed Halal’ Guys waiver. When their server appeared with three plates of food, Diaz and Morales let out nervous laughter. Dowling kept smiling.
Their server stood beside their table holding a stopwatch. Community manager Aarik Dorobiala had—perhaps wisely—opted to record a video rather than partake in the challenge. The clock was set for ten minutes and placed it on the table for all three challengers to see. The countdown begun.
Dowling gave himself no time to think. He stirred the white sauce into his food and shoveled it into his mouth. To either side, Diaz and Morales ate slowly, exclaiming over the extreme spiciness of each bite. “I’m crying,” Diaz said, waving his hand over his mouth.
One minute and eighteen seconds later, Dowling pushed his plate away. “I still feel heat on the back of my throat and somewhat on my lips. That's pretty impressive, because this happened a few hours ago,” he said.
Dowling was immortalized by having his picture taken and stuck on a corkboard in Halal Guys’ lobby. He positively beamed for the camera, his grin speaking to a bubbly enthusiasm familiar to anyone who has met him. The middle and ring fingers of his right hand touch the pad of his thumb in the “Too Sweet” gesture thrown up by professional wrestlers.
His companions may have believed that the secret to Dowling’s victory was to eat faster than he could think. The truth was much simpler. “A lot of my career has been me saying, ‘Yes,’ and just trying new things and not being afraid to do it, and having a modicum of success in doing so, which is kind of nice.”
Dowling started in the games industry as a clerk at a Babbage’s retail store that later transitioned to GameStop. He got an offer to manage a retail store that specialized in anime DVDs, only for the business to hit a slump when otaku realized they could download all the anime they wanted for free instead of paying $25 for a single DVD that only featured three episodes.
While managing the store, he wrote news and reviews for the now-defunct GamesAreFun.com, alternating between writing assignments and chatting up members on the site’s forums. A friend whom he’d met while working at GameStop had accepted a job at Obsidian, and reached out to Mikey with a job lead. Obsidian was looking to bulk up its staff of QA testers. If Dowling applied, his friend would put in a good word.
“I had been doing retail for eight years at that point. Going into my eighth retail Christmas was looking pretty draining,” Dowling recalled. “I had a decent—not great, but decent—management salary and would be dropping down [in pay], but I would be out of retail and in games, which was something I really loved.”
Obsidian signed Dowling to a six-month contract in QA. His first project was Alpha Protocol, the company’s stealth/RPG hybrid. It ended up being the perfect fit for Dowling, who enjoyed both types of games. Six months later, his contract was extended. He had moved beyond testing to organizing scripts of dialogue so voice actors could record VO for them, and drawing up flowcharts to assist designers in mapping out each conversation’s branching decisions that shaped the path players would take through the game. In his spare time, he tinkered with the Unreal level-editing toolset.
“As soon as I got into games and was doing QA, my mind was blown by the amount of effort that goes into development,” he said. “I just didn't know. It was pretty intense seeing all these different facets and getting to know everybody who worked on them. When someone would say, ‘Would you like to try this?’ I had to say, ‘Yeah, absolutely. Teach me. I want to see how that works.’ I just went for it.”
Dowling’s work in flowcharts and scripting sparked an interest in narrative design. He spoke with Chris Avellone to learn more about what working as a narrative designer entailed. Later that fall, he was approached by an animator with a request. “They really needed help getting extra animation in, and they said, ‘Could you do the news feed animations for all the news reports in the game? They're really simple.’”
He said yes. When he finished, the team asked if he wanted to pitch in on cutscenes. Dowling said yes. He learned how to do camera setups, graphical blending, and editing in Unreal. When audio needed support, he went over and served as producer, taking notes as the team played Alpha Protocol and uploading them into Obsidian’s bug management tool where audio designers could refer to them later.
When Alpha Protocol wrapped up, Dowling hopped over to Fallout: New Vegas and was tapped to help close down areas, a process that occurs when department leads concur that an area is finished. Dowling’s job was to make sure each area was VO ready: scripts finalized and exported so actors could record their lines.
His next task, if he chose to accept it, was to calculate the exact number of lines of dialogue in New Vegas and begin scheduling VO sessions according to when actors—especially celebrities such as Ron Perlman, Felicia Day, and Wayne Newton—were available. Dowling said yes.
Before they could schedule, the team discovered that the Gamebryo engine, written by Bethesda and licensed to Obsidian, was still plugged up with hundreds of VO lines from Fallout 3. “We had to find out a way to get rid of all of those, which ended up being this insane two-week process because of how the system attached lines to characters. We got our actual number [of lines] in, and built out from that,” Dowling said.
Working in QA and production opened Dowling’s eyes to facets of video games he had never considered. The detail that surprised him the most was footsteps. Audio engineers stressed the importance of the sound of footsteps matching the material on which characters walked: carpeting, stone, wood, dirt, gravel, and so on. “That world opening up to me was bizarre. You'll play a game and maybe think, I'm running on tile. If I run [outside], I should hear dirt footsteps. But if you do that and then hear tile footsteps because the environment wasn't matched correctly, you're [pulled out of the moment]. That's something that's really easy to tag incorrectly. It's one thing that made me say, ‘Wow, that can add a lot.’ It exists on a subconscious level, those sounds, so you don't really think about it. But when you know it exists, you think about it all the time.”
A moving target up to that point, Dowling’s career seemed to have landed on voiceover production. He did everything, from scheduling to sitting in on recording to implementation to putting areas to bed. Once New Vegas wrapped, he moved on to Dungeon Siege III and South Park: The Stick of Truth. When audio director Justin Bell asked him if he’d like to try designing audio, Dowling said yes.
For the first time, his drive backfired. “Compared to the rest of the team, like Zac Simon, he's one of the greatest people on the planet, but he's also a very talented sound designer. I would hear his stuff and then hear mine and say, ‘I don't know what I'm doing. I can organize. I can work with actors. I can do script stuff. That all makes sense to me, but sound design just isn't clicking.’ I felt like a weakling.”
Feargus Urquhart sensed his discouragement. When Obsidian’s CEO asked if he was happy in sound design, Dowling said no. He knew he was capable of contributing to Obsidian in other ways. He just didn’t know what those were. Urquhart told Dowling he was very charismatic and that nothing seemed capable of getting him down. Perhaps, he suggested, Dowling should think on where and how those strengths could be applied.
The next day, Dowling’s father passed away. He took a leave of absence and went home to be with his family. During downtime, he thought about Urquhart’s comment. While scrolling through Obsidian’s Twitter feed, he hit on an idea. What if he ran the studio’s social media? It would be a different way of doing what he loved best: Engaging with people, learning, and bringing the company and its players closer together.
Moreover, he knew exactly the approach he wanted to take. “As odd as it is—and I tell this to everyone and they always react with shock—I look at what WWE does on social media, since I think they do that very well, and at what independent wrestlers do,” he said.
Dowling had been a wrestling fan since childhood. He followed every promotion: juggernauts like the WWE, to local indie feds, to bigger international outfits such as New Japan Pro Wrestling. Although every company put forth different styles of matches, one thing they all had in common was talent who understood the value of social media. “They're always selling. They're doing their best to engage an audience. They travel, so they have to cast as wide a net as possible. I follow a lot of wrestlers on Twitter, and the amount of content out there for their fans to see is very impressive. It's also the work ethic they have to make sure they're constantly talking and engaging. There's something special there because they're trying to put a personal spin on what they're doing, because that connects more.”
Back at work, Dowling ran his plan by Urquhart, whose eyebrows rose as he listened. At last he laughed and gave Dowling the okay. “Over a two-hour lunch with Feargus, that's what I pitched him. Something he'll say when people ask him about me is, ‘Yeah, he told me he just wanted to do it like WWE.’ I thought it could work.”
The way Dowling saw it, social media could be and should be more than a promotional tool. Obsidian specialized in RPGs, which meant most of its products demanded dozens of hours of investment and commitment. Diehard fans of a game went above and beyond, playing for hundreds or even thousands of hours, starting fan sites and podcasts, and evangelizing their favorite games.
“If they're going to take the time to tweet at us, I feel we have an obligation to that fan to spare them 240 characters,” he said. “A ‘like’ is just an extension of that. I check our Twitter feed constantly to make sure nothing is going crazy or to make sure someone is being heard. I'm on Facebook Messenger, I'm on Discord. Some people message me directly. I talk with them about games or stuff in their life, because they just want somebody to talk to who they feel knows more about life than they do. I tell them constantly that I don't, but I can listen and be a sounding board.”
Dowling tackled his job as Obsidian’s manager of public relations with gusto, expanding his role on social media to press outlets and influencers. “We had nobody talking with press, so I just decided I should reach out to press and talk with them. I just did it. It came from, not people asking me, ‘Can you do this?’ but me saying, ‘I bet you I can do this, and it might work.’”
It's time for another #Deadfire community poll! This time we want your help to create a new pet in the game.— Pillars of Eternity II: #Deadfire (@WorldofEternity) September 4, 2018
To get started, what kind of pet should it be?
Dowling juggles numerous plates every day at Obsidian. Fortunately, he’s got backup. “Aarik is absolutely my partner in crime,” he says.
Aarik Dorobiala’s entry into the games industry was no happy accident. “I've spent the majority of my life playing video games, so I thought, Why not take that passion and put it to good use by getting a job?” he recalled.
Getting his foot in the door took time. He studied 3D animation and art at Cal State Fullerton, eyeing careers in games or Hollywood. One of his professors had worked in games and bestowed advice: Apply to QA positions. It was a tough job, he admitted, but qualifications for an entry-level tester were low.
Dorobiala followed his professor’s advice and landed a contract gig at Red 5 Studios, developer of multiplayer game Firefall. “I had to test all the shooting to make sure the reload animation worked correctly, make sure every gun scoped properly: shoot, reload, scope, shoot, reload from scope. That, with over 200 guns. That was kind of not fun, but I eventually proved that I could do tasks with more complexity to them.”
Fortunately, the other part of Dorobiala’s job clicked. “Right off the bat, my role was to go on forums and confirm bugs being reported from the community,” he said. “They had released a beta, so I was getting feedback from that. When we launched, it was super crazy. It was just me and one other person on forums, going in and verifying all the bugs. It was an MMO, so trying to reproduce bugs in [games of that scope] was pretty difficult.”
Managing the community for a game as massive as Firefall was long, hard work, but Dorobiala enjoyed it. He liked talking with the other players, finding out what they liked, and passing on their suggestions to the development team.
When his contract expired, Dorobiala applied for a QA job at Digital Hearts, an outsourcing company that provided testing and localization for several games at once as a service for studios that lacked the time or resources to test in-house. To get the job, Dorobiala had to pass a test. Each applicant was assigned a game and given fifteen minutes to log as many bugs as possible. “The test was a dev version of BioShock for Xbox 360. I found issues with the loading screen: The game took almost a minute to load, way too long. I picked that up within fifteen seconds. There were text errors, typos, a lot of graphical clipping.”
Dorobiala passed. His first game as a member of the team was 2015’s Godzilla by Bandai Namco and NatsumeAtari. The game was a port of a PlayStation 3 title, but included a brand-new multiplayer mode that demanded long days and nights of testing. As a thank-you for Digital Hearts’ efforts, Bandai and Natsume listed them in the game’s credits.
“It's kind of rare that they would include [an outsourced team] in the credits, but the guys who made it said, ‘You guys did a good job. We want to put you in the credits.’ It was a great learning experience. I got to work on mobile, console, and PC games, and really rounded out my QA skills. Just learning.”
Dorobiala continued taking classes in parallel to working QA. Finishing his time at Digital Hearts, he went back to his professor and said he wanted to parlay his experience into a full-time position. His teacher advised him to join Beer Wednesdays, a Facebook group comprised of current and aspiring developers. “They go to this Irish pub in Costa Mesa, I think, every Wednesday. You go there, hang out, shoot the shit with other developers.”
Dorobiala hung out on the group’s Facebook page, chatting with other members and perusing listings for jobs. When Jim Rivers, then senior hiring manager for Obsidian Entertainment, published a note that he was looking for testers, Dorobiala wrote back. Rivers arranged an interview, and Dorobiala talked with producers and lead QA testers about requirements. They wanted him to spend lots of time on Obsidian’s forums engaging with the community and keeping his eyes and ears open for feedback. That was Dorobiala’s specialty.
Before they hired him, the interview team wanted to make sure Dorobiala was the sort of individual who would be interested in working at a studio concentrated on roleplaying games. They asked him who he thought was the weakest class in Dungeons & Dragons circa 3.5 Edition, and how he would overcome those deficiencies. “I said fighters, or melee classes. They don't have spell-casting abilities, and they get so out-scaled by spell casters that you would need to give fighters abilities that are kind of like spells, but more like maneuvers. That wouldn't be on par with spells, but it would give them a little something extra.”
Dorobiala’s knowledge of games and enthusiastic interactions with Obsidian’s community put him on the track to become a community manager when the studio launched Pathfinder Adventures, a digital card game that mixed in adventure elements. “I was on the forums and writing support emails, but I didn't really do anything like handle social media. I was moved on to Armored Warfare because Pillars 1 had wrapped up. At the same time, Pathfinder Adventures launched. I don't think they expected the impact the game had when it came out, the amount of players.”
When the excitement around Pathfinder’s launch died down to normal levels, Mikey Dowling asked Dorobiala if he’d like to learn how to manage Obsidian’s social media accounts. Dorobiala answered said yes. Right then, Dowling knew he’d found the right cohort. “He was able to come on and adapt to the voice I had built when I took over for social media and customer support, and build on that,” Dowling said of Dorobiala’s work in social engagement. “He is the person who, if I need something taken care of, I can trust that it will be done with the approach I have for our company in mind.”
Dorobiala picked up on Dowling’s approach right away thanks to internal documents managed by Dowling that described the voice Obsidian should use on every major social platform. Instagram, for instance, is the place where Dowling and Dorobiala share behind-the-scenes videos and pics. Twitter’s gimmick—a term used by Dowling in the context of professional wrestling—is being one with fans: sharing memes and GIFs, and responding quickly when fans have feedback or raise technical issues. Facebook serves as extension of the Obsidian website by hosting news articles and, through the Messenger app, giving fans a place where they can reach out to Obsidian night or day.
“I just like being human,” Dowling said by way of summing up Obsidian’s online presence. “The second something sounds corporate, it sounds robotic. That could disconnect somebody. I don't want them to be disconnected. I want them to know they can reach out to us and that we will help them, and I stress that to anybody who helps us on the customer support side of things: They need to be real, and helpful, and live by honesty and kindness.”
Dorobiala and Dowling collaborate on more than tweets. In anticipation of Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, they evolved backer updates, a critical part of any crowdfunding campaign, to be more than long notes from developers. Dowling writes scripts for videos, works with Dorobiala to film them, and then Dorobiala fires up his video-editing tools to apply final touches. “We just released a backer update today that I finished editing before the Fourth of July break,” Dorobiala said when we spoke. “I love editing videos. I went to school for that as well, and I didn't realize at first that I'd be able to do that here.”
In the days and hours leading up to Deadfire’s launch on May 8, 2018, Dowling and Dorobiala concentrated on preparing for the storm. “I came up with an FAQ covering all the foreseeable stuff that we think might be asked,” Dorobiala remembered. “Getting the website ready. Making sure people are able to redeem their keys and that the game activates correctly on Steam and GOG. Just getting information ready for anything that might come our way, so we can redirect someone to our website or forums where they can find that information, making sure they know how to reach us. It's a lot of prep. I had a window to our forums open, and was refreshing it a lot. I knew nothing like this would come in immediately, but around five hours in, we started seeing tweets and comments on the forums. It was quiet until midday, but that's when things started ramping up.”
Each day, Dorobiala and Dowling look forward to collaborating and finding out what Obsidian’s teams and communities have in store for them. “As weird as my career trajectory sounds when I describe it, the question is, especially from people who have known me for a while, is, ‘Are you happy now?’ I very much am,” Dowling answered. “I think the role I have now and the ability I have to be able to represent the company, talk with our community, and press partners, and influencers the way I'm able to, it's the perfect fit. If I were to move up from where I am right now, being director of communications sounds awesome. But I'm really happy with what and where I am. I don't know if I could think of doing much more.”
“I'm a pretty quiet, introverted individual, and it's funny that I got into community management,” Dorobiala said. “I guess I do better talking with people from behind a keyboard than in-person. It wasn't until my first convention that I got to talk with fans face to face. I liked seeing their eyes light up as they talked about how much they loved the games. I like the happy stuff.”
Justin Britch had life all figured out. He would go to college, graduate with an aerospace engineering degree, and work on spacecrafts.
He hit just one tiny snag. “I was going through college, trying to get into an engineering program, but it turned out that getting into engineering programs is hard,” he said.
Britch knew his grades were decent, but “decent” wasn’t enough to secure a spot in University of California, Irvine’s engineering programs. While he brought his grades up, he explored other options. One jumped out at him: Computer Game Science, a degree centered on programming games. “I thought, Hey, this is something fun I can do for a year while I'm switching over degrees. I've always wanted to make them, but other than messing around with Game Maker, I never did anything seriously.”
Britch got into UCI’s Computer Game Science Program and met other aspiring developers by joining clubs and attending game jams, marathon coding sessions where participants have a short amount of time to create a game from scratch. What started as a hobby became an obsession. Soon he was founding his own clubs so he could partner with other students and make more games.
Over two years, Britch assembled teams that published games through Xbox Live Indie Games, a service succeeded by Microsoft’s ID@Xbox initiative in 2015, and the Windows 7 Phone Store. Britch networked, making contacts in the industry and trying out games made by others. While browsing Facebook, he stumbled on a job post by inXile, the company Brian Fargo founded after leaving Interplay.
InXile was in the market for a QA tester on Choplifter HD, a remake of the popular action game made by Dan Gorlin in 1982. “I walked in, and the interview process was, ‘Hey, do you want to work in video games?’ I said, ‘Sure do!’ They said, ‘Okay, go to that desk over there and start testing this game.’”
Britch’s tenure at inXile served as a bridge that got him a job at Blizzard Entertainment. As a sophomore in college, he attended the Game Developers Conference and applied as a production intern. The recruiter explained that the company had plenty of projects cooking, and wanted to know where Britch’s interests lay. Britch said he’d love to work on cinematics. The recruiter beamed—and told him about a job on the company’s website production team. Confused but undeterred, Britch applied anyway.
“I wanted to work for Blizzard. That's how I ended up working on Battle.net. I worked on the web side of World of WarCraft’s Mists of Pandaria [expansion] for launch, doing the pre-order web launch events. The job was managing UI artists and programmers, and building websites for pre-order campaigns.”
Irvine, California, is a small town within the context of the games industry. It hosts Obsidian and Blizzard in addition to several other studios. Britch made a friend who worked at Obsidian as a production intern. The company’s CEO, Feargus Urquhart, was looking for someone who could help him with graphs to chart bugs and schedules, and who had experience in Microsoft Excel and Jira, a task scheduler. “I ended up having a Cheesecake [Factory] lunch with Feargus where we talked for about an hour. A few days later, he said, ‘I'd love to bring you in as my assistant to help me with all the various things that I need to track where projects are going, what their status is, and bugs as projects happen.’”
Britch knew he had found his calling, and a niche that many studios didn’t even realize they needed to fill. “Production is where I always wanted to be,” he said. “I program in my free time, but my day-to-day work, what I'm really passionate about, is managing people and helping people who are much more creative than I am make really cool games.”
He joined Obsidian in March 2013, six months after the company had crowdfunded Pillars of Eternity on Kickstarter. “For the most part, I didn't work on the core team during the base game's development, except that during the last six months I tracked pretty much all of their bugs for them. It's a bit nerdy, but I'm really proud of it.”
His duties as an intern in the budding operations department were to generate email reports and spreadsheets that logged the progress each team was making at squelching bugs assigned to them. The reports functioned like leaderboards in a game, showing granular data such as which individuals in each department had disposed of the most bugs.
Britch’s most versatile tool was SharePoint, a web-based platform used to manage files such as documents and spreadsheets. Putting his programming knowledge to work, he wrote scripts in Visual Basic that automatically pulled data, populated spreadsheets in an easy-to-read format, and auto-distributed reports over email.
“I love and look for any places where it could help, so a lot of the stuff I was doing was setting up automated reports,” he said. “Each supervisor wants a report every day showing the things my people did yesterday. I created a report that told supervisors what their people did the previous day so supervisors could follow up with them. A lot of that work was living in Excel or playing the game until I transitioned to the DLC team.”
When he wasn’t generating tools to help the team track bugs, he played Pillars of Eternity and asked questions. “The first day I played the game, I walked over to the designer pit where there were three or four of the junior designers on the project. I sat there for about a full day just asking questions about how the game worked: ‘What's resolve do? That's a weird name. Why is my monk character terrible?’”
One month before Pillars of Eternity released in late March of 2015, Britch went to lunch with Feargus Urquhart and Brandon Adler, one of the game’s producers. They mentioned that production on the game’s DLC expansions, The White March Parts 1 and 2, needed to ramp up, but most of the team was busy making last-minute adjustments.
“They needed someone to go over there and manage the team while Brandon was focusing on the base game,” Britch remembered. He volunteered, assuming the position would entail a few extra hours and management alongside Adler. “I did that for about two days. Then Brandon said, ‘Hey, Justin, just to let you know, you are now the only producer on the DLC, and you need to take this thing to launch.’ I said, ‘Oh. Oh! That's what I signed up for, huh?’ But that was easily the greatest thing that's ever happened in my career.”
While other teams worked on projects such as Tyranny and Armored Warfare, Britch took the reins as the sole producer assigned to The White March. Adler and Adam Brennecke made themselves available to offer pointers and provide guidance when needed. “They kind of kicked my butt around for the better part of a year, shaping me into a significantly better producer.”
Britch was to be Urquhart’s eyes and ears, but he wasn’t Big Brother; Urquhart wanted him to gain an understanding of what game development looked like as a manager, and guide White March’s developers toward the level of efficiency—scheduling, bug tracking—necessary to keep things on track. Still, some developers weren’t quite sure what to make of him. “There was a bit of an awkward phase when I went on to White March because the team was uncertain as to why I was there in terms of, ‘Are you here because Feargus thinks we're all a bunch of chuckleheads, and he needs to send in a spy to figure out what's going wrong?’”
Britch worked hard to build trust with the team. He assured them that he was there because he loved games, and because he wanted to share his thoughts as someone new to the type of RPG that Pillars of Eternity evoked. “There's a tribal mentality of, ‘We are a collective group, so anytime someone new is coming into the team, especially in a leadership position, there will be a transition period. Let's sniff each other out and make sure we're all okay.’”
One way Britch formed bonds was to defer to Brennecke and Sawyer who, as the executive producer and game director, were ultimately in charge of the Pillars franchise. Britch worked to reassure them that he understood his role on the team, and to demonstrate that he was there to facilitate their decisions so that their projects shaped up to be exactly what they wanted to make.
“Really, the reason I want to be in the industry at all is to help super awesome, smart, and creative people like Josh Sawyer create the games he wants to make, and for them to come out, for them to be successful, and for the teams to be happy. I communicated that: ‘I am here for you.’ I was helping them do the things they wanted to do. I wanted to help them be successful. Generally when I'm bringing up concerns, it's stuff they already know about. They just need help moving it along.”
As he got to know the developers, Britch set production goals for White March’s two parts, to be released in the summer of 2015 and spring of 2016, respectively. The way he saw it, his goals should be simple. Fans of Pillars of Eternity wanted more of what had made the first game great. The team’s directive was to produce more: more combat encounters, more characters, more areas, more. He concentrated on tightening loose screws in the production processes they had put into place on the base game, and ensured that those same processes could be transplanted onto other projects so production could get up and running quickly.
“It was this ongoing effort of, okay, the next project we do will follow these guidelines and practices. During development, I might say, ‘Some of these ideas were not that great [in practice]. Some of these ideas worked out really well.’ So, when the next project started, we would once again say, ‘Here's how this project is going to go.’”
White March’s team was smaller than the larger effort to develop Pillars of Eternity. That was typical of expansion packs: Because production pipelines and a game engine already exist, smaller teams make add-on content while other developers work on bigger projects such as sequels. In order for the development team to focus on making the expansion, Britch became a point of contact for games press and influencers. “Production in general is what I like to call a ‘fill role.’ Anytime there's something that needs to be done and there's no easy answer for who's going to do it, you probably need a producer. Interviews was one of those things: ‘We need someone to go to PAX, or GDC, or E3, or whatever else and do a bunch of interviews with the press. Our development leads generally aren't available, so let's send one of the producers.’”
After The White March: Part 2 wrapped up in early 2016, Britch and Adler agreed to co-produce Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire as the team shifted focus to the sequel. Britch thought things were going great, until Adler got an opportunity to co-design Deadfire’s systems. That left Britch concentrated on production for Deadfire.
He rose to the challenge, assisting with his regular purview in production as well as lending efforts to staff up in departments that would provide support to developers. “Over the next year or so, we hired a few people, and promoted some of our QA [testers] into the production staff, and making production interns our associate producers.”
Many of Britch’s initiatives made the jump from Pillars, to The White March, to Deadfire. Others evolved, and new programs were added. One of the team’s most powerful tools was a beta test that backers of Deadfire’s campaign on the Fig crowdfunding platform got access to as development progressed. “This tool is absolutely invaluable to us for getting a bunch of feedback early on about where we can make changes,” Britch explained. “Like, ‘We don't understand how this new thing works,’ or ‘This change you made seems to be doing more harm than good.’”
Another tool, arguably Britch’s most invaluable, was designating periods of time to play the entirety of Deadfire, or certain areas or quests in need of feedback. “As an example, at the beginning of February , we stopped everything the team was doing, and we spent a whole week just playing through Pillars II. Everyone on the team participated, and everyone on the team wrote up, ‘Here's all the things I think could be done better, and here are what I feel are the most important things.’”
Britch cut back on his PR-related responsibilities on Deadfire. What Mikey Dowling and Aarik Dorobiala didn’t handle, he turned over to Katrina Garsten, a producer who had come over to Deadfire from the Armored Warfare team. Garsten, who has since joined Blizzard Entertainment, did so well at acting as the game’s public face that Britch encouraged her to do as much as she felt comfortable taking on.
That, too, was part of Britch’s job: Finding the best person suited to a task and leaving them to do what they did best. “That kind of stuff ebbs and flows on any project. Like: ‘Who are the right people to be doing a bunch of public-facing stuff?’ On White March, it was more me. On Pillars II, it's more Josh, Katrina, Mikey, and people like that.”
A few months before Deadfire’s release in early May 2018, Britch turned his attention to triage, which took the form of daily meetings where producers and testers decided what parts of the game to prioritize. “Just this morning I had a debate with a few other people about how we were going to spend twenty minutes of an area designer's time, and whether or not a programmer should focus on this thing for an hour or this other thing for an hour. Because when you're getting close to the end of a project, you get such a wide view of, ‘Here's all the things we could be doing, and here's all the things we have time available for,’ and how dramatically different those things are. It's a daily reprioritization of, what's everyone on the team doing? What are the things we're trying to fix?”
Even now, with add-on content for Deadfire rolling out, Britch is still astonished at how his willingness to immerse himself in development took him from organizing a few college clubs to producing projects at one of the world’s most prestigious RPG studios.
“A lot of stuff is almost accidental, but accidental in a good way,” he said of his career. “The ultimate goal for where I'm going is to run a studio, more along the lines of what Feargus does. Not necessarily being a CEO, but I like to help games get made.”