Adam Brennecke’s eyes shot open. Something had jolted him awake. He squinted through the darkness. It was the morning of May 8, 2018.
The fog over his brain tore away. Launch day. In a few hours, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire would unlock on digital platforms, and thousands of players would set sail for Eora. Then his bed shook. Brennecke sat up and fumbled for his phone.
Mother Nature was determined to rock the world first. At 4:49 a.m., a 4.5-magnitude earthquake sent ripples across southern California. Two smaller quakes followed on its heels minutes later.
Brennecke read the news alert, closed it, and opened Google. He was on the hunt for news, but not of the quake. “I kept checking my phone to see if anyone broke the embargo for reviews. I got up at the usual time, walked the dogs, spent time with my wife, got into work a little bit early, and then checked in with everyone just to make sure everything was running smoothly.”
A fourth quake, more of a muttering at magnitude-4.2, hit around nine o’clock. By that time, Brennecke and other developers were drifting through Obsidian’s corridors or already stationed at their computers. The lower half of California may snap off the continent and drift across the Pacific, or it may not. Either way, they had a game to welcome into the world.
Josh Sawyer managed to get three or four hours’ sleep before coming in. Like Brennecke—and lead character artist Dimitri Berman, and co-lead narrative designer Carrie Patel, and like everyone else—he was waiting for 10:00 a.m. Pacific, the time when reviews would be published and Pillars of Eternity II would go live.
Berman was nervous but confident in the game he and the team had made. “It's always really nerve-wracking following coverage because we have no idea what people will say about it. A game that changes a lot of stuff is doubly nerve-wracking. We made a lot of stuff in a pretty short timeframe,” he said. “Games developers can take shortcuts to make a lot of content. We don't, really. All the characters are unique, and we went out of our way to make them look different and feel special. I don't think we could have done more given our schedule and team size. There's a lot of love that went into this game, and I'm proud of it. Thinking back, there's nothing I would have done differently. We did a lot of things right, and I'm happy about that.”
Patel’s stomach was calm, a sharp contrast from how she had felt nearly three years ago on the day Pillars of Eternity became available for purchase. “Pillars 1 is a great game, but I honestly feel we've improved on it in every way with Deadfire. That's not to say anything negative at all about the work we did on the first game, but we'd learned a lot about making this type of game, so it was exciting to have a chance to go back and say, ‘Okay, how can we do this thing, but better?’ When you have a team as strong as ours, and the support we've had from management and from our fans, the passion we've all brought to this, and the experience from the first game especially, I think that really gives you an opportunity to try some new things, improve the things you did well, and polish the things that didn't work as well as you'd hope.”
She had another good reason for feeling more excited than anxious. “I've been moved to another project,” Patel explained, “so there was already work lining up that was more urgent than, ‘Fix these Deadfire bugs right now!’ I guess that gave me a little more balance to check in, see how everyone's enjoying the game, think, Wow, that's really exciting, and then go back to working and say, ‘Okay, let me try to knock this thing out.’ It was a good day.”
Brennecke had ample reason to be giddy and leery of Deadfire’s possible success. Before the original game had launched, he’d made another bet: If the game scored at or above a certain score on Metacritic, a site that compiles and calculates aggregate scores for movies, games, and other media, he would eat a Meat Mountain, a gargantuan sandwich from Arby’s packed with over a pound of meat and cheese.
Brennecke won, but his nutrition lost. Pillars of Eternity had pulled in an aggregate score of eighty-eight out of one hundred based on seventy-one critical reviews. Arby’s was ready to cheer him—and all of Obsidian—on again. “It was funny, we actually got Arby's to tweet something about Pillars II this morning,” he said.
“Welcome back to Eora,” Arby’s tweet read, complete with a photo of curly fries and ketchup arranged in the game’s sun-and-stars story crest.
Arby’s tweeted at nine o’clock, one hour before the floodgates opened. Brennecke replied two minutes before ten, imprinting his challenge within the annals of social media lore.
As Obsidian management had done for Project Eternity’s Kickstarter almost six years earlier, the room adjacent to the office kitchen was converted into a party area. Sofas faced a big-screen TV where staff could relax, eat snacks, and drink wine—which had arrived that morning complements of publisher Versus Evil and Obsidian’s management—while watching Twitch and YouTube influencers play Deadfire.
When the clock struck ten, everyone in the office wore a grin. The TV blared to life as streams hit Internet airwaves, and developers hunched over their phones or sat glued to monitors. A short time later, Sawyer, Brennecke, lead producer Justin Britch, and other senior developers gathered the team into the kitchen for a private meeting. Behind closed doors, everyone poured a drink and listened as the leads gave toasts. “You could pick: champagne or sparkling cider,” said Obsidian co-founder Chris Parker. “I went for the sparkling cider, being that it was ten-thirty in the morning. I had some champagne later.”
There were a few items on the agenda. First, Justin Britch unveiled magazine covers and Deadfire’s world map, blown up to more than twice their size and framed to hang on the wall near materials from the first Pillars of Eternity.
Then Josh Sawyer took the floor. Standing there in front of his team meant the world to him. Obsidian’s staff had poured countless hours into making the Pillars franchise, yet they rarely got the opportunity to come together to bask in their shared accomplishment.
“There were a lot of people on the team who had gone through personal crises during development, and professional crises,” Sawyer said. “They were trying to find their place on the team. I thanked everybody for really coming together and helping each other out. Whatever someone needed, whether it was help getting through their design, or feedback, or if they were struggling with something in their personal lives, people were very supportive of each other. That's something that, I think, more than a lot of other things on the game, is something they should try to take with them and move forward with it. After doing this for nineteen years, I've come to believe that it's very important for us to take care of ourselves and watch out for each other. Otherwise we have a tendency to work ourselves a little too hard.”
Sawyer knew there were many developers for whom Deadfire was their first project in the industry. He congratulated them and told them what to expect the rest of the day. They would adjourn shortly, go back to their computers, and read and watch lots of reviews about what they had created together. He advised them to take comfort and pride in reviews that praised their work; players getting excited about their game was cause for jubilation.
But he encouraged them to go beyond reading glowing reviews. Absorb criticism. Contemplate it. Ask what Obsidian could do better on their next product and how each developer could contribute to their personal and professional growth, as well as the team’s.
“None of this would have been possible without every single person in this room, and I'm very proud to have worked with you,” Sawyer concluded.
Obsidian’s team took Sawyer’s advice, soaking in commendation when it came and paying close attention to critical remarks from reviewers as well as the larger Pillars community. While reviewers were mixed on naval combat, they were sold on the parts of the game that reflected Obsidian’s strengths: updates to game systems such as combat and A.I. for companions, a fun, colorful new environment to explore, and engaging quests and stories.
Metacritic crunched numbers and came back with an aggregate score of eighty-eight, and Brennecke prepared to scale the heights of Meat Mountain once again.
One comment Sawyer noticed time and again was that players expected a tougher experience. In the weeks after launch, he and the system designers combed through each area, modifying encounters and submitting them to the QA team for feedback. Andy Artz was Sawyer’s secret weapon. A senior QA tester, Artz had a habit of “min-maxing,” or leveling up each character’s best abilities. Min-maxing can make players too powerful, a situation Sawyer and Artz wanted to avoid.
“I would either approve submissions, or I would say, ‘Please make these changes’ or ‘Please think about these changes,’” Sawyer explained of working with the designers. “Once they had gone through the process again and an encounter was good to go, it would go to QA.”
Brennecke and the programmers worked steadily, squashing bugs and rolling out patches as bug reports hit their task lists. So far, the company’s “Bugsidian” reputation showed no signs of rearing its head. “The ones I'm worried about are game-corruption bugs, where your game is completely corrupted and you can't progress after playing the game for twenty hours,” he said, remembering the biggest and worst complaints from Pillars of Eternity’s launch in 2012. “So far, at least, we haven't seen anything like that. A lot of the bugs are fairly cosmetic and minor, and easy to fix. I'm fairly confident right now that we don't have anything super scary coming down the pipe in the next few days. I'm much happier this time around.”
By early June, support for Deadfire had died down to minor bugs and balance issues. Sawyer redirected his attention to the upcoming 1.1 patch, the game’s first major update that would make sweeping changes to game balance that had been too big to tackle in earlier updates. “The players who want a big challenge, and who are playing on Veteran and Path of the Damned, they were... I don't want to say universally, but a lot of them were disappointed by the party balance, especially the farther into the game that they got,” he explained.
Sawyer’s goal with Deadfire version 1.1 was to adjust how abilities and levels scaled as players progressed through the story. “This is all done by hand,” he continued. “We go into each scene in the game, and we [fine-tune] the composition. When that is done, I look it over with a designer, make suggestions before they check it in.”
As usual, Andy Artz led Sawyer’s vanguard by putting encounters through their faces and returning feedback on how to make fights even tougher. “We just put that patch out into beta, and people are crying a lot, which makes me feel very powerful, by the way. Based on feedback to that, we can do more tuning before release,” Sawyer said of the major patch.
When he wasn’t busy fixing bugs, Adam Brennecke ruminated on the lessons he had learned over the past six years, from pushing Obsidian’s management to crowdfund a game and being so insistent as to prepare to walk away if they turned him down, to juggling his dual roles of executive producer and lead programmer. With leadership skills under his belt, Brennecke eyed the future of Obsidian.
“I think it goes to being more of a manager, and less trying to do everything myself,” Brennecke said. “I took a lot of stuff on, on Pillars 1, probably way too much stuff. Sometimes it's better at the end of the day to let someone else take care of it. Sometimes it's detrimental to the game and the team if one person has too much responsibility, so delegating, letting go, on the programming side is probably the thing I've had to work on the most.”
Whether he leads projects as an executive producer, coder, or both, Brennecke knew exactly what he wanted those projects to be: Roleplaying games, Obsidian’s bread and butter, and his. “I think there's still a lot of room to improve our current formula that we have with the Pillars games, and doing other [projects], too. I know internally, we have a lot of great ideas on where to take Pillars in terms of features, gameplay, and story. It's going to be fun to see if we can explore those ideas in the future. I think it would be foolish to abandon the Pillars of Eternity-type games, because I still think there's tons of room to improve on that. I don't want to abandon it, like what happened with the Infinity Engine. There's still a huge market for these games. Deadfire's really successful, so I think it would be foolish not to continue making these types of games.”
Months before Deadfire launched, Obsidian had at least one other project on the fire. In the spring of 2016, Tim Cain had pitched in on preliminary design work for Pillars of Eternity II before reuniting with Leonard Boyarsky, who had spent years at Blizzard Entertainment working on Diablo 3 after the disbanding of Troika Games. “I'm a colorblind programmer who likes to design,” Cain said. “Also, Temple of Elemental Evil taught me that I can't write. If you want proof, play Temple of Elemental Evil and play the story, and you will soon come to the conclusion—as I did—that Tim Cain can't write.”
Boyarsky offset Cain’s self-professed weaknesses. “I'm in charge of system design and programming, and Leonard is in charge of narrative design and art. We make the setting together. It's been a great collaboration because we've already worked with each other a million times. Leonard is dark in his sensibilities, and I'm silly, so our sense of humor is coming together again. We started working together, and it's like we hadn't been apart the last ten years.”
Cain and Boyarsky have updated the roles they played on the original Fallout years ago at Interplay, but they have not spent the past several years working alone. They’ve got a lead designer and a lead artist, and other developers joined up as their project flourished. “It's killing me not to talk about what we're doing because, after spending five years supporting the visions of others, it's been fun to go back and make a brand-new IP from scratch using all the lessons I've learned over the past several decades. It's fun,” Cain said. “I'm all prepared to talk about the things this game does that you haven't seen yet, and ways I think it evolves the RPG genre. But for the most part, I think our team reached full size about a year ago. We've had quite a lot of people working on this for the last year.”
While his peers geared up for Obsidian’s future, Sawyer made ready to follow a parallel track. He had split his time between balancing Deadfire and turning over the reigns of the franchise to long-time Obsidian producer Brandon Adler, who took charge of the sequel’s DLC expansion packs.
“I'm taking a break from Pillars for a while, from directing, especially, because I've been working on it for six years,” Sawyer said. “I didn't create Pillars as a dream project for myself. I created it because I felt it was important for the company as a whole to have something that we owned, and that other people could do things with. I really do believe the best part of this is I don't have to work on more Pillars games. Other people at the studio can do that. Actually, I'm excited to work on the tabletop version of Pillars because I'm going crazy with that.”
Sawyer also worked on a tabletop RPG, one of his dream projects. Feargus Urquhart had agreed to give Sawyer total control over the tabletop game’s design, and Sawyer was having a blast designing it. Heading into the fall, he planned to take a sabbatical. “I'll probably go back to Wisconsin to visit my family for a little while,” he said. “I haven't been back there since Christmas. I'll probably take a break there. In the fall—most of October—I'll be doing a small bike tour in Wisconsin, and then I'll be in Europe for the rest of the month. Hopefully that can give me some time to relax and enjoy some stuff that I haven't really had time to focus on during the last year or so.”
In 2003, three self-professed clowns started down a path lit by their experience at Interplay and Black Isle Studios.
More than fifteen years later, one needn’t look skyward to find the path they followed. Visitors who set foot in Obsidian’s lobby are greeted by wall-to-wall statues, t-shirts, awards, framed magazine covers, and mementos from more than a decade of crafting some of roleplaying’s most memorable experiences—stars formed by the hands of storytellers and woven into constellations that celebrate a rich history.
Feargus Urquhart has never stopped stargazing. “With the success of Eternity 1 and Eternity II, I think a lot about, Are we a different studio than we were ten years ago? Absolutely,” he answered.
Obsidian has grown in numerous ways. From their first office in his attic, to nearly 170 employees; from a work-for-hire studio excited to play in other creators’ sandboxes, to creators happy to balance their own dreams with time spent playing in galaxies molded by others. Only one thing has remained immutable: Obsidian Entertainment was and is independently owned.
That could change, provided the circumstances were right. “I'm always very up front: If someone showed up with a dump truck full of gold bricks—not bitcoins, but gold bricks—of course we would sell the company. It would be silly not to, depending on the number. But I do enjoy us being independent,” Urquhart said.
Despite his preference for independence, Urquhart acknowledged the difficulties of being in charge of making sure hundreds of people had money to eat and pay their bills every month. Another immutable fact of life at Obsidian: Projects always needed funding, and there was no surefire source. “Kickstarter and Fig are great, but there's a limit to the amount of money you can get. Depending on how well you do, you're looking at two-and-a-half, three million to five or six million. That's kind of the range now. If we wanted to make an epic game, that's a thirty, four, fifty, seventy-million-dollar game. That's not coming from Fig. Where's it going to come from?”
Urquhart believes Obsidian has another epic RPG—one as massive as Stormlands, if not bigger—in its future. When, not if, the time is right, he will be approaching publishers rather than crowdfunding platforms.
No matter how the stars align, Obsidian’s identity will remain intact.
“I'm not saying that's what we're doing right now,” Urquhart said of creating an epic RPG, “but the thing about being independent is you're always looking at: We want to make these games, we want to be successful, we want to stay who we are.”