Promises and Guarantees
Josh Sawyer walked down the hallway to Adam Brennecke’s office and told the junior programmer he had found a bug. He was playing the latest build of Neverwinter Nights 2 and noticed that the camera failed to maintain its pitch when players switched between companions.
Brennecke scoffed. What Sawyer was saying was impossible.
“I'm like, 'Believe the impossible, dude,” Sawyer said. “It's on my monitor. Right now. This is not a distant recollection. It's here right now.”
“I knew, as a programmer, whenever I had to go talk to Josh about anything, I had to have a lot of ammunition to defend my point,” Brennecke stated. He assured Sawyer that the camera was working perfectly because he had just checked it.
Sawyer grinned. Brennecke was a junior programmer and a graduate from DigiPen University. Like a lot of programmers fresh out of school, he was naïve and displaying a confidence bordering on arrogance. “I said, 'Okay. How much will you bet?'” Sawyer recalled.
Brennecke wagered one penny. Sawyer accepted. They left Brennecke’s office and went back to Sawyer’s computer. Sawyer sat down and moved his mouse. Brennecke stared. Sure enough, the camera’s pitch had changed from one campaign to the next. Stunned, he told Sawyer he had no idea why the bug was happening. Neither did Sawyer—which, he pointed out, was why he had asked Brennecke to take a look in the first place.
Also, he added, Brennecke owed him a penny.
“It was a little humbling,” Brennecke admitted. “I learned the lesson of not to promise things as a developer, because things can change so rapidly in game development day to day. He was teaching me a lesson, but it was pretty fun.”
Sawyer made sure Brennecke never forgot their wager. He named his winnings The Penny of Broken Promises and, along with a florid account of the bet, framed it and dated it August 17, 2006.
A few weeks later, Sawyer went to Brennecke with another problem. Neverwinter Nights 2’s portraits were failing to render at a proper level of detail. A portrait’s appearance should change relative to the player’s distance from the portrait: more detail up close, less detail further away. Once again, Brennecke guaranteed that Sawyer was not, could not be seeing what he claimed to be seeing. Once again, Sawyer dared him to back up his words by putting a penny on the line.
Once again, Brennecke handed over a penny. This one, Sawyer proclaimed, was The Penny of Broken Guarantees.
Two months passed. Neverwinter Nights released to favorable reviews, and Brennecke and Sawyer moved on to Aliens: Crucible. While carpooling one morning in November, they passed a Hardy’s restaurant. Brennecke noted the smiling star logo shared by Carl’s Jr., and mentioned that Hardy’s had always used the star. Sawyer corrected him: He could not be sure when Hardy’s had adopted the star, but it had not been a permanent fixture.
Brennecke amended his stance: Hardy’s had used the star logo for at least ten years. He wagered a penny.
The first thing Sawyer did when he got to his computer was google Hardy’s and Carl’s Jr. Then he went to Brennecke to share his news: Hardy’s had been purchased by Carl’s Jr. parent company CKE Restaurants in 1997—nine years ago.
The Penny of False Guarantees went up on Sawyer’s wall on November 8, 2006.
“It's great, though, because he learned,” Sawyer said. “I remember we were working on New Vegas, I think. He said, 'That's not happening' to whatever bug I found. I said, 'Are you sure? Do you want to promise me that?' He said, 'I am... very confident.' I said, 'That's good, because it means you're not absolutely sure and there's a possibility you are incorrect.'”
“Whenever I need to talk to Josh about anything, I have to make sure I have a lot of reasons, well-developed reasons, for why I want to change something, or why I think something is not going correctly,” Brennecke added. “It's a challenge, but I've found that Josh is right ninety percent of the time, which is really good for any developer. He has a good track record in his games, and his design sensibilities are really good. I've learned over the years to have ammunition to defend my position, or to just let him do what he wants to do, because he's usually right.”
In the spring of 2012, Obsidian prepared to make several wagers. The company had been burning through cash to support its largest staff to date. With Stormlands cancelled and the staff gutted, the co-founders estimated Obsidian had until September to sign a game.
“The situation is dire for every independent studio on any given day. Was 2012 one of the more dire times at the studio? Absolutely,” Feargus Urquhart said. “There were going to be points where we were going to have to make decisions about moving forward knowing that we can't keep spending money on things that aren't going anywhere. It was pretty dire.”
Everyone else at Obsidian pounded pavement. “We had agents reaching out to different publishers to see what types of games they were interested in, and we would try to tailor our pitches to those publishers just to see if they would sign anything, get anything going with actually discussing projects and moving forward without anything substantial,” said Brennecke.
Part of drafting pitches was researching the market and talking with contacts to find out what publishers wanted. “There were six, seven, eight-week stints where we were working on pitches for a new idea,” said Rob Nesler, art director at Obsidian. “Companies are always interested in what we do, but it's also about crafting the right thing for them and what's going on in their world.”
Sawyer detested sending pitches, but this situation made the process even worse. Obsidian’s layoffs had made headlines on virtually every gaming website and magazine. That gave publishers an advantage. “Negotiating with anyone when they know they have you up against the ropes is awful,” Sawyer admitted.
Obsidian’s reputation as a maker of engrossing RPGs based on licensed properties worked against them. Before a project started, the team needed time to dig into a property so they could learn about it. Time was in short supply. “It is very frustrating because you might do a lot of work to put together a pitch doc, and they might not even read it, or you might get a ten-minute meeting where an executive looks at it and says, 'Yeah, we don't really want an RPG' and you're like, 'Oh. That's cool.' There's a lot of that,” Brennecke added. “It is really grueling for the team to go through that process. It feels like there's a lot of wasted work.”
Brennecke wanted to take a different tack. While working on Stormlands, he and designer Nathaniel Chapman had joked about Obsidian funding a game on Kickstarter, a crowdfunding platform where users pledge money to help fund a good or service in exchange for rewards. The higher their pledge, the more goodies they receive when a funded project is finished. Independent developers had funded games through Kickstarter in modest numbers, raising a few thousand or ten thousand.
Chapman and Brennecke rapped about crowdfunding a game, then forgot about it. They were joking, killing time while working on Obsidian’s epic RPG. Then Tim Schafer put consumer-funded projects on the tip of every developer’s tongue.
In February 2012, the legendary designer behind point-and-click adventure classics such as Full Throttle and Grim Fandango launched a Kickstarter for Double Fine Adventure, a game in the vein of his past hits. Schafer and his company, Double Fine, set a funding goal of $400,000. They ended up raising $3.4 million, setting a Kickstarter record.
One month later, Brian Fargo’s company, inXile, announced Wasteland 2 as a Kickstarter project. Fargo had turned to Kickstarter as a Hail Mary. He had pitched several big-name publishers including Microsoft and THQ on reviving the Wasteland franchise from its roots as an Apple II game after he acquired the license. With a publisher’s deep pockets, Fargo believed a sequel could enjoy the sort of commercial success Bethesda had achieved by resurrecting Fallout.
Microsoft turned him down. They had BioWare and Mass Effect, at the time exclusive to Xbox 360 and Windows. THQ, on the verge of financial collapse, was looking to create an original game, not dig up what executives viewed as a moldy-oldie.
“The business had fragmented such that everybody had their own unique perspective,” Fargo explained. “I had one company say, ‘We only do licensed products.’ Another said, ‘We only do products that we think can become billion-dollar franchises.’ And, ‘We only do multiplayer games now.’ It wasn't like back in the '90s when we were all kind of doing the same thing. Things were very, very [specialized]. There was zero interest from anybody. Really, Kickstarter was a last-ditch effort for us to make those kinds of roleplaying games.”
Fargo and inXile plowed ahead and set a Kickstarter funding goal of $900,000 to make Wasteland 2. They hit the number in two days. By the time its month-long campaign ended, Fargo and inXile had raised over $2.9 million.
Adam Brennecke and Josh Sawyer had watched game developers make headlines by tapping into the grassroots crowdfunding movement. “It wasn't just one success, it was repeated successes,” Brennecke said. “While we were doing this pitch process, we kept on saying, 'Why don't we do a Kickstarter instead?'”
“We were like, 'Oh my god, this is a thing. We could actually do this,’” Sawyer recalled.
The landscape of Obsidian had changed by June 2012. Stormlands had been cancelled and developers were frantically sending off pitches to publishers. Brennecke and Sawyer approached the co-founders and ran the idea of crowdfunding by them. Urquhart and his peers demurred. “One of the things about running an independent studio is it's so much about perception: about how publishers see you, how your fans see you, how your employees see you, how you feel about your own company,” Urquhart said, explaining his hesitation. “When it came to crowdfunding, I have to admit I was skeptical. If we put this idea out there, and we were having a tough time as a studio, what happens if it falls flat?”
Brennecke and Sawyer were undeterred. They approached management a second time. For a second time, management shot them down. Chris Parker backed up Urquhart and Darren Monahan. He knew the dangers of succumbing to industry trends. “There was this whole thing with Xbox Live Arcade,” Parker remembered, “and then everybody was like, ‘What you've really got to do is make this game that costs $8.99 on Xbox Arcade, and everything will be great.’ Okay, and then everybody makes a game like that, and maybe nobody likes yours. You see it today with VR: ‘Man, if you're not making VR, then you're going to be left in the dust.’ Okay, there's some cool VR stuff out there, but it's not changing the industry.”
Privately, Parker was intrigued by the enthusiasm around Kickstarter. Four months earlier, he had talked with Brennecke and Sawyer about crowdfunding and had even put together a proposal. Urquhart and Darren Monahan had voted him down—co-founder democracy in action. Parker had acquiesced then, and again when Urquhart and Monahan turned down Brennecke and Sawyer, because that was his job: He towed the company line with his partners. But the Kickstarter bug had bitten him.
After getting the thumbs-down yet again, Sawyer and Brennecke decided the time had come to make their biggest wager yet. This time, they were on the same side: If Obsidian refused to capitalize on crowdfunding, they would quit and launch a campaign on their own.
Josh Sawyer had one foot out the door when word of his imminent departure reached Chris Parker. Obsidian’s co-founder sprinted across the studio to his office and asked Sawyer why he wanted to leave. Sawyer spelled it out. He and Brennecke wanted to make their game, and they wanted to crowdfund it. Parker was sympathetic, but explained that the co-founders needed everyone pitching to publishers.
Sawyer clarified his position. He didn’t have to be the one to crowdfund an Infinity Engine-style game. He simply believed this was something that someone at Obsidian should do, even if it wasn’t him. Brennecke, for instance.
Parker considered. If Brennecke was allowed to focus on the Kickstarter, would Sawyer continue pitching to publishers? Sawyer said he would.
Brennecke and Sawyer sat down for one final meeting with management. Brennecke stressed that now was the ideal time to crowdfund a project. With Stormlands cancelled, they had an opening.
“I give both of them an incredible amount of credit for really pushing and pushing me on it, and getting me to be okay with it, because it's been an amazing thing for the studio,” Urquhart said. “I think the tipping point for me was, in some ways, I had to get more comfortable with it, just with the concept [of crowdfunding]. And I think it was also tied to the fact that we were not getting anywhere with a lot of the other pitches we had out to publishers. My partners and I had to make that decision to really trust Josh and Adam. If you mix that all together, we said, ‘Okay. Let's do it.’”
Exhilaration coursed through Brennecke. With the go-ahead from management, he could begin building a crowdfunding campaign. Now all he needed was an idea for a game to fund. He had just the one: An Infinity-style RPG with isometric view, companion characters with unique backgrounds and personalities, real-time-with-pause combat, a party of adventurers, memorable stories and decisions that had lasting effects on characters—all the trimmings that had made Baldur’s Gate and its descendants instant classics.
“I felt that was a very strong choice as the game to make, and the game that would succeed on [Kickstarter] just because of our roots with Black Isle and having a lot of people at the studio who worked on Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale,” Brennecke said. “I thought that would be a great way to enter crowdfunding, and a good idea [on its own]. I felt that when people heard it, that would be enough for people to open their wallets and give us their fifteen to twenty dollars.”
Sawyer was on board. He missed the type of exploration that had been unique to RPGs like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale. One of his colleagues described playing them as moving through a diorama. That hit the proverbial nail on its head. “With 2D isometric games, even though a lot of people really don't like the look, it is a different experience,” Sawyer explained. “It's you're looking into this little box that was created for you to peer down into. The way of navigating those spaces, the way you explore them, the way you fight in them—it's a different feeling.”
Many of their peers agreed. Like Brennecke, senior designer and writer Eric Fenstermaker had grown up playing Baldur’s Gate and its descendants. “I liked the challenge of working with a lower budget and seeing what could be done with the approach to the narrative to compensate for a lack of cinematic cutscenes. After having scripted—in the programming sense—dozens of cutscenes Neverwinter Nights 2, which was built on an engine that was built on another engine that was hopelessly nondeterministic and absolutely the worst imaginable framework for trying to create cutscenes, the notion that we might just write the actions rather than script and animate them was appealing.”
Senior designer Bobby Null saw a hole in the market. “I thought, Nobody's making those games. Of course we should do it. There's got to be a market for it because we all love those games.”
Rob Nesler missed the satisfaction of playing armchair general. “I like having a gathering of characters, of companions with interesting personalities, and having them move through the world and kill monsters and get loot. Certainly the character interactions and the thoughtful decisions that need to be made for me to feel right about how I'm playing—that's a layer of complexity that I'd forgotten about. It was quite wonderful to be reminded that that was going to be a possibility again.”
Urquhart was sympathetic to Brennecke’s and Sawyer’s desire to create the next generation of classic RPGs. More than that, he missed those games, too. “You can definitely have a party in Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and games like that, and I love those games. But it's different in Infinity Engine-style games: How you have that control, that tactical control over a party. The other thing that's really cool about those games is the 2D-rendered [artwork] aspect. You can have this really immersive world and graphics, tied to having that Dungeons & Dragons style of party, on-screen all at once.”
Pitching Obsidian’s Kickstarter project as an Infinity Engine-style RPG made sense. Its foundation dated back to Baldur’s Gate in 1998. What Brennecke needed next was a hook.
Sticks and Stones
If not for a quiet little mountain town in Colorado, Obsidian’s leadership may have had no choice but to reject Brennecke’s and Sawyer’s request.
“I wasn't that familiar with Kickstarter, but we were so busy programming away—we had other tasks to do—that that was something Adam and Josh were handling. I think we were still working on Stick of Truth,” said graphics programmer Michael Edwards.
Obsidian had been a multi-project company since 2004, when it had announced development of Neverwinter Nights 2 several months before shipping Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2. “Multiple projects could effectively leapfrog each other, giving us two sources of revenue at any given time, essentially buffering ourselves against some sort of calamity,” Parker explained of the reasoning for developing several games at once.
While Brennecke built out a crowdfunding campaign, a small team toiled away on South Park: The Stick of Truth, an RPG based on Comedy Central’s long-running adult show. The loss of Stormlands and the uncertainty surrounding Kickstarter—maybe players would want an Infinity Engine-style RPG, maybe they wouldn’t—put increased pressure on the team.
“When we're just at one project, that means we've only got the one revenue stream from those milestones,” Parker explained. “We've got however much money in the bank that we can burn for some period of time. Every single one of the South Park milestones [contributed] very little to the money we had in reserve. There was no room for mistakes. We couldn't submit one and have somebody tell us that they hate it and it's not approved, or tell us, ‘Fix these forty-eight things, and then we'll pay you.’ Everything had to be done correctly, and it had to be done on time.”
Like the Star Wars license years earlier, the opportunity to develop a South Park game had dropped into their laps. South Park co-creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker had become disenfranchised with game development after several poorly designed and equally poorly received games based on South Park had raked in money but had failed to represent their vision of the characters and storytelling. They believed those games had failed because none of them had tapped into what South Park was all about: A bunch of kids going on epic adventures.
After a long hiatus, Matt and Trey wanted to take another crack at designing a South Park game. But not just any game. There would be no further attempts at kart racers or first-person shooters. Only a roleplaying game could capture the scope, humor, and larger-than-life characters of their wacky town. Matt and Trey considered pitches from several studios. They chose Obsidian’s.
“Going into it, it was going to be on their terms,” said Chris Parker. “It was going to be the game they wanted to make: their humor, their everything. We just wanted to make sure we could make the best RPG that actually catered to all of the things that South Park really was.”
South Park Studios’ pitch to studios had been for a roleplaying game starring “the new kid,” a new South Park character controlled by players. Combat would occur in real-time, a decision that rubbed Obsidian’s newest Black Isle veteran the wrong way.
After leaving Interplay in 1997, Tim Cain had partnered with fellow ex-Interplay developers Leonard Boyarsky and Jason Anderson to co-found Troika Games. The studio made several RPGs, but shut down after it failed to secure funding for another project. Cain joined Carbine Studios as a senior programming working on online RPGs. Seven years later, Cain received a note from Obsidian co-founder Chris Jones suggesting that he lend his programming expertise to South Park. Cain agreed to come on for six months.
At Cain’s first meeting, one of the designers suggested he play Stick of Truth so the team could get feedback from someone who had never tried it before. “He put a controller in my hand, and I was terrible,” Cain admitted. “Part of the reason I was terrible was because there was an awful lot you could do. You could pick different spells, you could block, you could re-position where you're standing.”
Cain asked to take a crack at converting the game from real-time gameplay to turn-based. If combat unfolded over turns, players could take their time thinking through attacks. He produced a turn-based demo in seventy-two hours.
“We really liked it turn-based, and that's how we shipped it. It's designed for casual players, and I think getting rid of the time pressure in combat made the game more casual friendly,” Cain said. When his six months were up, Cain was having so much fun that he asked the co-founders to make his position permanent. They consented.
Cain discovered soon after that his conversion may have been the easiest and quickest leg of the game’s development. “South Park went through a lot of iterations. We could have made two more games from the content that didn't ship,” he said.
Month after month, year after year, South Park suffered from delays. Turbulence at THQ, the game’s publisher, was one cause. The multi-billion-dollar publisher owned over a dozen studios and sat on $500 million in cash as of 2007. Eight years and a series of bad management decisions later, ranging from bloated budgets to dismal software sales, the coffers were nearly dry.
Obsidian’s co-founders watched THQ’s stock price fall, and fall, and fall. “The concern was that as we got into summer, that's when the stuff with THQ looked like it was going a little weird. It wasn't a concern yet, but it was going to be,” said Urquhart.
Tens of millions of dollars in debt, THQ received permission from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court to sell off most of its studios and intellectual properties in early 2013. Publisher Ubisoft scooped up THQ’s Montreal studio for $2.5 million and South Park: The Stick of Truth for $3.3 million. Ubisoft’s eleventh-hour save meant that Obsidian would be able to keep getting paid.
Many of those payments went toward addressing myriad technical challenges that cropped up during development. The demo that had won over Stone and Parker showed the town of South Park with the same style and level of animation as seen on the show. Fleshing out that demo into an entire game proved a tall hurdle to jump. Like most RPGs, players find weapons and outfits to equip as they explore the world. That meant the character artists needed to account for every possible combination of outfits and weapons.
The artists ended up using rotoscoping, tracing over footage frame by frame to create realistic cinematics. Or, in South Park’s case, the paper-doll-like movements for which the show had become known.
After creating an animation, the developers had to render it out to each scene in the game and fine-tune details such as lighting. “That was a huge challenge,” Obsidian’s Chris Parker admitted. “That was one of the things that, maybe six months out from launch, we still didn't have it perfect, and I was completely freaking out. In fact everybody was freaking out. They were saying, ‘I don't know if we're going to be able to get this right,’ and Matt and Trey said, ‘You guys have to get this right,’ and of course that's how we felt, too.”
Collaboration with South Park’s co-creators was always fascinating and often frustrating. “Working with Matt and Trey is always a thing I will look back at with a lot of pride,” Chris Parker added. “Working with them was one of the most enjoyable things I've ever done in my life, but it was also incredibly difficult to deal with.”
Early on, Trey and Matt left Obsidian to their work while they explored other projects. The team harnessed the power of the PS3 and Xbox 360 by creating an exact replica of the town of South Park—and then expanding on it. “When it came to doing things like the town, we went to South Park [Studios] and said, ‘Hey, do you guys have a map of the town?’” Chris Parker recalled. “And their answer was, ‘No, of course we don't have a map of the town. The town changes to exactly how we want it to look and what we want it to do.’”
Developers took initiative by adding shops, characters, streets, and entire blocks. “I would say the town layout changed a good two or three times as the story was rewritten, or we decided some building needed to be there or didn't need to be there, or maybe some level wasn't working, so we'd nuke the whole level and then have to figure out how to patch the town back together again without having [the level] in there,” Chris Parker said. “Like everything on that game, it was a very, very iterative process.”
As the game plugged along, Matt and Trey got more involved . Story was their primary focus. Everything, from gameplay features to characters to areas, flowed from story. As South Park’s co-creators exerted more control, Obsidian’s creative freedom dwindled. “There'd be times when I'd work on a weekend to get something finished,” recalled area designed Bobby Null, “and then Monday morning someone would say, ‘Have you seen the new script?’ No, I haven't seen it yet—and everything I'd done over the weekend was just gone.”
Chris Parker attended a meeting at South Park Studios every Thursday. One afternoon he entered a conference room to find map printouts of areas in the town taped to a whiteboard. “It was like, ‘Oh, okay, I guess this is going to be the new layout,’” he recalled. “We talked through the town on a Thursday, and I think that's the town we ended up shipping with it. We had a lot to do with laying out that town, and I think it's really, really cool that we got this opportunity at Obsidian to give a little bit of our love to what has become the town of South Park: a lot of the things in it, and a lot of those characters.”
Like the hands-on approach of Matt and Trey, South Park’s repeated delays were a double-edged sword. Pushing the game out and convincing THQ—and later Ubisoft—to give them more time and money was stressful, but Stick of Truth benefitted by giving the team more time to hit higher quality marks. In 2014, Stick of Truth shipped almost entirely free of bugs and won over critics with its spot-on recreation of the show’s characters, settings, and themes.
“I look back on Alpha Protocol and South Park favorably,” said Parker. “Their development was hard and complicated. We probably made them more complicated than they had to be.”
Adam Brennecke did not know the woman sitting across the restaurant, but there was something familiar about her.
He was sitting in the dining room of Dave & Buster’s drinking beers with a few of the guys from work when his gaze fell on a woman sitting at a far table. She seemed familiar, as if he had seen her before. Then it came to him: Her laugh. He knew it, could hear it in his mind. But her name eluded him.
Back in his office, Brennecke couldn’t shake the girl’s face. Her laughter rang through his head. He went back to work on his Kickstarter pitch.
Then it came to him. She worked at a Starbucks he had frequented every day. That had been years ago. She had not been a friend, just a barista he had made small talk with.
The memory of her laugh sent his brain down a rabbit hole. What if, in Obsidian’s upcoming RPG, reincarnation was a known phenomenon? Everybody lived past lives, and everybody knew it. The soul was a time capsule, buried upon death and unearthed in the next life so that a special type of person could read those souls like books, recalling every memory and detail.
“That fits in with the Planescape: Torment-y vibe, because I was trying to fit some Torment into our pitch so that people who enjoyed it would have something to latch on to,” Brennecke said.
Josh Sawyer latched on to the idea. His mind raced: The study of souls could be a discipline, a science that led to philosophical conflicts. “When we started out, we said, 'We want a little bit of Baldur’s Gate, a little bit of Icewind Dale, a little bit of Planescape: Torment.' One of the things with Planescape: Torment is that it's metaphysical in a lot of ways: It deals with philosophical issues. I thought that the ideas of soul and self, and reincarnation, the relationship of gods to mortals and faith—I thought those were very interesting things that we could tie together through this concept of reincarnation.”
Brennecke bounced ideas off Sawyer and Chris Avellone as he built the Kickstarter campaign. Over email, he and Sawyer kept a running list of their favorite tropes from the Forgotten Realms, the license that had helped Infinity Engine games attract attention in the first place. They called their list The Realms-iest Realms.
“We wanted to put our stamp on things, so making things slightly different in terms of history and technology,” Brennecke explained. “One thing that I think was one of my ideas was, I really like guns, so having gun elements is in line with Forgotten Realms but isn't something that's unique to the game: having pistols, rifles, and stuff like that is one thing we did. That kind of [helped to establish] what time period equivalence to earth's time period we'd be setting the game: Somewhere around the sixteenth century, and we could go from there.”
“Some of the key elements were an area like the Dalelands,” said Sawyer, referencing a region in the northern hemisphere of the Forgotten Realms continent of Faerûn. “That’s why our Dyrwood is very much like the Dalelands in a lot of ways. Also, having gods that are kind of manipulative, and even if they're remote, they're still involved, kind of pulling the strings, and that they have these big personalities that are frequently in opposition to each other. Another thing I liked about the Forgotten Realms is when the gods occasionally assume avatars and start smacking things around, so we've included little bits of that. The goal was really kind of, ‘What can we put in here to give the [Realms] flavor so that if someone loves Baldur’s Gate, they can say, 'Oh, yeah, that feels so familiar?’ It was important for the first game.”
Rapping about creative ideas was the fun part of piecing together Obsidian’s foray into crowdfunding. Settling on a funding goal was tougher. Brennecke researched funding and investing. He fixated on a minimum budget, the lowest possible amount Obsidian would need to raise in order to build a modest-sized game.
“Because once you hit your funding goal, you're on the hook for making your game. What I did was put together a budget with $1.1 million in mind,” Brennecke said.
“I think with Pillars, even from the get-go, if we had only made $1.1 million, we would have made a game for $1.1 million,” Urquhart added. “But it never would have been the game we wanted to make. It was the game we were telling people we wanted to make, but just like everything in game development, you want to make something that's bigger, better, and has more moving parts. Really, for Pillars, that was always the goal: Can we do one of those amazing games from the past? I think always in our minds, no matter the budget we had, we were thinking, How do we get there?”
Sawyer was undecided on their odds of success. On the one hand, Kickstarter was still a new publishing paradigm to the gaming industry. On the other hand, he really hated writing pitches. “I was saying, 'Dude, if we sign this project, I guess it will be cool if it means getting paid, but, man, I don't think anyone wants to work on this,'” he recalled of pitching to publishers. “That was the other part: Success by the safe route is still depressing and bleak.”
Brennecke continued his research. One of the most important takeaways was that less is more. The goal of the Kickstarter was to raise money. To do that, Obsidian didn’t need to explain every little detail of the game players would get if they helped fund it. All he needed to do was sell the dream. You liked Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, and Icewind Dale, his pitch should say, so wouldn’t you like to see what that type of game might look like running on a modern engine? His job was to brew a potent cocktail of nostalgia and modern tech.
Coming up with the right name for the game was equally important. Things like concept artwork and screenshots from an isometric view would sell the dream by suggesting a specific type of game: Baldur’s Gate and its ilk. The game’s title should likewise tease something familiar to their target audience. “The one thing I wanted was to have something that reminded [players] of the Infinity Engine, so coming up with a way to incorporate 'Infinity' or 'Eternity' into the name was very important to me.”
Brennecke had talked with management to set a target date for the Kickstarter. They had arrived at mid-September. Late August rolled around, and Brennecke had yet to come up with a title. Sawyer suggested Project Broadsword. Rob Nesler raised an eyebrow.
“I wasn't attached to it,” Sawyer said, “so I told him to come up with something else.”
Nesler mulled it over, then lobbed another idea.
On the morning of September 10, 2012, Obsidian’s website showed a four encircled by an ouroboros. The symbol teased a new game titled Project X.
The Kickstarter that would solve for X, Project Eternity, was set to go live two days later, and Brennecke was fighting down panic. “The thing I was thinking about was, Oh, shit. We've got to make a game, now. That's when my attention immediately returned to the budget. I was running the numbers, like, 'Oh, man, what if we only make this amount? What the hell do we do now?'”
Building the Kickstarter had been a company-wide effort. They had shot a video featuring Obsidian team members touting Project Eternity and explaining why backers should give the company their money. Elsewhere in the office, developers were building a screenshot meant to function as a proof of concept. The screenshot would show an environment from an isometric angle, perfectly engineered to sell the dream: If you fund our campaign, the shot should say, this is the type of game you’ll get.
If, that was, Obsidian could raise over one million dollars.
The campaign was an all-or-nothing deal. Kickstarter gave creators a finite amount of time to fund their projects. If they hit the mark, they got paid. If they fell short by so much as a penny, they got nothing.
Obsidian converted the lounge area adjacent to the breakroom into a party zone. A big-screen TV counted down the hours and minutes until the morning of September 12. On the day of, Michael Edwards looked away from his screen and out into the party area where several peers hung out on chairs and sofas, talking avidly as the timer depleted.
When the timer expired at 10:00 a.m. Pacific, any developers not clustered around the TV dashed back to their cubicles and opened the Kickstarter website. “This was our first crowdfunding campaign, and I was a little naive when I thought, Oh, look! We got it all done and ready. The page is ready to go, and I can't wait until we hit go and we're live,” Rob Nesler remembered. “Then as soon as we were live, it was like, boom—we need this, we need that.”
At his workstation, Brennecke pressed the F5 key to refresh the page. The screen cleared. The Kickstarter page materialized again. The number next to the dollar sign had gone up. He refreshed again. The tally showed more money.
All around the office, fingers stabbed F5 keys. “As soon as the clock hit ten, and people could donate, there was around $9,000 in the one-tenth of a second from the campaign not being open to being open,” Bobby Null said.
One of Null’s friends came running into his office and exclaimed that the campaign had raised another ten grand in the short time it had taken him to run down the hall to the bathroom and take a leak.
“I remember thinking that was so bizarre,” Null continued. “That there were people so eager to give us their money that they were waiting for the second, the absolute, first possible second that they could donate, and they did. It just kept going all morning. We were laughing about it. Not laughing as in, ‘Ha!’ but as in, ‘I can't believe this is a thing.’”
Just over twenty-four hours later, Project Eternity soared past its goal of $1.1 million. Brennecke drifted through the office, dumbstruck, accepting and giving high-fives. “Everyone on the South Park team was very excited too,” he said. “We were all in it together. Everyone's attitude completely changed in that first hour after the crowdfunding campaign went live.”
“If the day Stormlands got cancelled was the low point of morale, the day Pillars completed its funding was the highest,” Sawyer added.
“It really was a very high time at the studio,” Chris Parker recalled of the viewing party Obsidian held to count down the final hours of the Kickstarter one month later. “Things were really awesome. People were in the lounge, partying and having a good time. That was happening during a live stream. But for me, at the time, I was stopping by and saying ‘Rah-rah’ with everybody, then I had to deliver a milestone for South Park that day. I was actually packing up documents and sending them off to Ubisoft for approval. But I still got to get over there and have some fun with everybody.”
Parker wasn’t the only one with little time to bask in the glow of success. Since the first hours of the campaign, Brennecke and Sawyer had realized that Obsidian would not only meet its funding goal. It would smash through it.
They needed to be ready. Kickstarter allowed project creators to add stretch goals, milestones beyond the funding goal that enticed users to continue pledging money until the campaign’s expiration date. Project Eternity needed every cent it could get. “It then became a marathon to constantly find a way to maximize our idea, and to gain more interest, more backers every day, for the thirty days,” Nesler said.
At the nadir of Obsidian’s history, the team had banded together to sell the dream. Now they had to make it.
“I didn't think I would need to develop so much lore so quickly,” Sawyer recalled, “but because the Kickstarter took off, it was like, 'Holy shit, I've got to write so much more stuff.'”