Dungeons & Robots
Sprawling towns, dungeons, and wilderness environments combed through inch by inch with a party of hearty adventurers who drank and fought together. All viewed through a slanted camera raised high above the land where that merry band explored and fought alongside one another.
Adam Brennecke, Project Eternity’s executive producer, could visualize the dream. Before Obsidian’s team could make it real, they had to sell it. Not to consumers. To themselves.
“We said, ‘How are we going to make this classic-style model?’” Dimitri Berman, lead character artist, remembered asking himself. “We decided to prototype it quickly to see if this was even going to work. We put together a background that was functional way before the Kickstarter, just to make sure we could do it before we launched the campaign. We wanted to be able to say, ‘We're not BS-ing anybody, we just need a little bit of help.’”
The rub was to produce a game that evoked the classic RPGs made by BioWare and Black Isle Studios, but with a fresh coat of paint. While the rest of Obsidian’s developers cranked away on South Park: The Stick of Truth and Project Eternity’s Kickstarter—still going strong with one month to go—Dimitri Berman and Hector Espinoza, the studio’s lead character and environment artists, respectively, put together a prototype. They were assisted by Michael Edwards, a programmer who specialized in graphics.
They stuck to essentials. The demo they built, meant to be seen only by Obsidian’s developers, consisted of a small church with an adjoining graveyard rendered using Maya, a 3D animation and rendering package. A tiny avatar trundled around the environment.
“They put together a little demo of a pre-rendered image and a character walking behind part of the image. It was a little robot character,” Brennecke recalled. “I think it was one of Unity's little characters that they ship Unity with.”
Berman clicked around the screen. The robot set off at a walk, exploring the graveyard. The environment scrolled as he moved. Another click, and the robot disappeared behind the church. Doors were functional. A simple creature attacked the robot, and the robot knocked it back.
The simple scene motivated Brennecke. The dream could be real. “A couple of days later, we had dynamic lighting in the scene,” he continued. “The little robot man had a torch. There was a point light in the scene. The point light was illuminating the scene, and that was blowing my mind. I was like, 'Okay, I think we've got something here.' I felt pretty confident in that direction.”
Project Eternity’s demo was a testbed in which artists and programmers would build and experiment with tools. “It was pretty early on, so we had to figure out a lot of the tech. It was pretty fast and furious, to be honest,” said Bobby Null, lead area designer. “It was one of those things that a lot of times happens when you're a small team. There were a lot of things to figure out, and we were learning pretty fast, refining as we went.”
Instead of building a proprietary engine from scratch, Obsidian’s developers chose Unity, a cross-platform engine capable of building 2D and 3D games for mobile, tablets, PC, and consoles. “It was seen as the quickest way and the cheapest way, given that we would not have an engineering team to support us with the internal software and editor,” said Rob Nesler, the studio’s art director, of the decision to build Project Eternity in Unity as opposed to other engines such as Unreal. “Unity was the choice, and Maya and Unity are pretty well-suited to each other.”
Michael Edwards had been the one to propose Maya over Softimage, Obsidian’s current 3D program of choice. “We had to build some scripts for Maya and render out the scenes, integrate them into Unity. That's when we did that initial experimentation and research,” Edwards explained. “The first thing we had to do was to take the output of Maya and make it work in Unity with 3D characters, and have them integrated so that you'd have proper occlusion, and they could cast shadows onto the world.”
Another advantage of Maya was that it bridged the gap between artists and coders. “Artists were more involved in doing what in previous games you'd need a programmer to do because Unity exposed all these things to them, and had a really nice user interface,” said Tim Cain. “There were a lot more things going from [the team] directly into the game without needing a lot of programming intervention. That was new and exciting to watch.”
The simple testbed scene evolved into a small sewer system. A party of dwarves outfitted in helmets and battle axes waded through it. With a click, the party assumed battle formations such as the two-by-three arrangement standard in Infinity Engine RPGs.
Not only was Maya compatible with the Unity engine, it could take huge maps made of thousands of polygons and rapidly convert them to pre-rendered—flat yet highly detailed—2D terrain. From there, programmers plugged in collision geometry so the 3D characters running across flat images bumped into objects such as buildings, monsters, and items—like game board pieces able to collide. “The real advantage of rendering in Maya is it's a complete package that produces high-quality renders,” Edwards said. “The artists are limited by the number of polygons they can use to an extent, but not nearly as much as in a real-time 3D game.”
“The environment artist never has to think about how the game will perform,” Brennecke added. “They can go hog-wild on those and make them look perfect, and they don't have to worry or go back to it for performance or real-time rendering reasons. It's also nice because when making our areas, we can do whatever. We can mash stuff together. As long as it looks good from our camera angle, that's fine for us.”
“Ultimately there was a limit to geometry,” Nesler clarified. “We crossed it several times. We'd put too much geometry into Maya and create a monstrous file that was difficult to work in and would take forever to render, so we did have to learn ways of optimizing those things, using the layer system effective to develop art.”
Poking and prodding at Maya to expose limits was a good thing, and the main purpose of building out prototypes. By late September of 2012, Project Eternity’s tech team was confident in moving forward with their nascent toolset. They would refine and add to those tools as they went along.
“Once we realized we could have simple, 3D characters running around on pre-rendered backgrounds and interacting with a 2D scene, and being integrated without really any issues, we knew, ‘Okay, we can do this. We can make a real game with this,’” Berman added.
Building a prototype had convinced Obsidian’s team that the dream of crafting an Infinity Engine-style RPG with modern trappings could be a reality. Now they had to convince their target audience.
The fact that their target audience hard already bought in by funding Project Eternity’s Kickstarter in record time made delivering a slice of the dream to them all the more important. Players had to know they would get their money’s worth, and that Obsidian’s team was up to the challenge.
“We needed to do an image, something that would capture the imaginations of the people we wanted to deliver this game to,” said Hector Espinoza.
“It was a guide for [crowdfunding backers], but also for us,” Berman added. “It was like, ‘This is our target. We can do this, and we can make a whole game derived from this scene, and here it is.’”
Brennecke wanted to deliver a screenshot to Kickstarter backers before the campaign ended. Espinoza teamed with Berman to build out a single area. Concept artists sketched illustration after illustration, which the artists began converting into a playable zone. Brennecke encouraged them to scale back. “We almost had a full area concepted, and when we started building it out, we said, 'Let's just get one screenshot done. If we try to build out this entire area it's going to take us forever, and we really need to have something to show during the crowdfunding campaign.’”
Rob Nesler saw a need for someone to take charge of the project. Design documents, concept sketches, and feedback on those designs and artwork were flooding in. Nesler corralled them in SharePoint, software aimed at organizing documents and other files. Next, he sketched an environment for Berman and Espinoza to render.
“I think the drawing I made was of a much larger place, and the decision was to just focus on the entrance,” Nesler said.
Nesler’s sketch depicted the exterior of a temple. Beyond it, warm orange light hinted at torches just inside the entrance. Opposite the entryway, an ornate bridge led to a dirt path bordered on one side by vegetation, a waterfall pouring into a riverbed on the other.
“That was crucial to letting people know the level of detail and realism we were striving for in our environments: rocks and things that looked weathered, trees that were growing and had the right size leaves, grass high enough that enemies could be concealed in it, but not too thick that it looks fake and cartoonish,” Nesler continued.
Espinoza and Berman extrapolated on Nesler’s sketch, getting input from Game Director Josh Sawyer as they worked. The team’s first step was choosing an art style evocative of the Infinity Engine games: vibrant for nature scenes, dank and gritty when delving through dungeons. They landed on the Hudson River School.
The Hudson River School was an American movement that originated when artist Thomas Cole hiked through New York’s Catskill Mountains. Noticing a thunderstorm off in the distance, he set up a canvas to paint. Cole’s objective was to capture America’s 19th-century themes of discovery, exploration, and settlement.
Arguably Cole’s most famous work was a panorama of the Connecticut River Valley titled “The Oxbow,” the tableau he observed during his hike. Storm clouds gather above wilderness and trees on the left side of the canvas. Vegetation punctuated by a towering, bent tree trunk grows unchecked. To the right, the sky over the Connecticut River is peaceful as the river wends through landscape cultivated by people.
Art critic Clarence Cook or Homer Dodge Martin coined the term “Hudson River School” to describe the painterly style used by Cole, who went on to found his eponymous school and teach his techniques. The style became known for juxtaposing the wild of nature against land that had been tamed by those who lived upon it, and for its realistic level of detail.
“The Hudson River School had come over to the west coast, and they had done paintings of Yosemite Valley and places like that,” Espinoza said. “We wanted that sort of feel to capture our forests.”
Starting out, Berman and Espinoza used the Hudson River School as a compass. They branched out as they worked, mixing in elements of the fantastic to balance the style’s realism. Sawyer weighed in on the scene as it progressed. “There were a couple of things that I wanted to do with this exterior environment from a high-level perspective, one of them literally being perspective,” he said.
Details were added by drawing from Sawyer’s wish list. Giant statues carved from marble flanked the temple entrance, enhancing the scene’s sense of scale. Flora and fauna such as woodland creatures, foliage, and water would be dynamic, animated instead of frozen—another leap forward from the Infinity Engine. “We wanted to recreate what we had done in the past with a lot of detail, and at the same time, make it fresh and new using the tools and advancements from the 3D software we had,” Espinoza recalled.
Besides helping to establish an art direction, Sawyer wanted the scene to convey his plans for Project Eternity’s isometric camera. He wanted to break from Infinity Engine convention. “We made a change early on that some people still find controversial, which was the internal angle of all scenes in Pillars of Eternity is about seven degrees lower than it was in the Infinity Engine games, and the exterior camera is fifteen degrees lower,” he said.
His goals in tweaking the isometric camera’s viewing were to define and differentiate. Outdoor spaces would be huge, and players would need to see more of the environment, usually trees, rocks, bushes, streams, rivers. But lowering the camera would be better for the game’s art: Obsidian’s environment artists could add more detail to surfaces and characters, as well as encourage players to soak in those details to make game spaces and their parties of characters feel realer.
“For example, if you look at the camera used in Fallout 1 and 2, it's actually a fairly low camera,” explained Sawyer. “You can see the characters in a pretty good amount of detail compared to something like Baldur’s Gate. When you look at certain buildings in Fallout 1 and 2, you can see a lot more detail of what goes into the side of that building because the camera angle's so low.”
Sawyer was concerned about the interaction between the game’s camera and playable space. Tactical combat was a main draw of Infinity Engine RPGs, and being able to take stock of the positions of the positions of enemies and allies was crucial. Espinoza worked alongside Sawyer to find an angle that facilitated gameplay while also taking artistic considerations into account.
“One of the main things we tried to focus on because of the game's orthographic view was making sure we had enough detail at the top of assets to keep areas interesting. You don't want a lot of flat surfaces or empty spaces,” said Espinoza.
“One thing we really wanted to show off was those two large statues on either side of the cave entrance, those big marble statues,” added Brennecke, speaking to the scene being constructed for Kickstarter backers. “That was to showcase that we were using a lower camera angle. We knew those statues would show really well at that angle.”
Obsidian’s developers struggled with camera angles for months, long after the exterior shot of the temple was shown to backers. One problem was that steeper angles tended to make environments appear flat. Flat terrain complemented tactical combat, but squished artwork detracted from scenes and disrupted the player’s immersion. Another issue was how players might react to an overt change in camera angle when they went from indoor to outdoor regions or vice versa.
“You don't want a jarring transition from the exterior [camera angle] to the interior because the interior had a shallower angle, which allowed for a better gameplay experience. That's what we were trying to fine-tune: What camera angle would work best for both situations so that transitions wouldn't be too jarring,” Espinoza explained.
Sawyer agreed. The lower the camera angle, the more compressed backgrounds became. “Which makes sense, because the more the camera pitches down toward the ground, the more pixels of space the ground takes up,” Sawyer said.
However, the lower a camera descends, the more screen real estate is taken up by vertical services such as walls, decreasing the amount of flat terrain on which players do battle and explore. “We iterated on that back and forth until we hit on something that felt like, ‘This is a good gameplay space, and it also is aesthetically very striking,’” continued Sawyer. “When you went inside, the camera angle did change to reflect that it was more cramped, because interiors are always, by their nature, more cramped.”
Project Eternity’s camera took on other benefits as development marched on. Players can zoom in or our using the scroll wheel on their mouse, a subtle advancement that was not possible with the Infinity Engine. “Visually, you misremember what those games look like,” said Tim Cain. “If you go back and play those games, they're much jankier and low-res. In Eternity, you can zoom in on your characters and see their hairstyles. It's much more immersive than those older games were. It was familiar to people who had played Infinity Engine games, but anybody who hadn't played those games, it still appealed to them because the UI was modern, the graphics were modern, the take on the classes were modern.”
After the game’s release in 2015, some players balked at the change in camera angle. They explained that they liked being able to see fine details on their characters but complained that characters often got lost behind objects such as other characters or scenery like walls. Other players admitted they disliked the change in viewing angle at first, but it grew on them as they played.
Sawyer stood behind his decision. “There's a lot of really cool structural elements that go into those that we could show off. And, frankly, the area art being beautiful is one of the big appeals of this style of game. I said, ‘If we're going to put all this effort into building these life-and-death, death-and-life sculptures, I want people to be actually able to see them, and feel that they're on a grand scale.’”
The team was experimenting with assembling backgrounds out of tiles, an approach that had worked on Infinity Engine titles. When the developers set out to build a dungeon out of stonework, Brennecke called a halt. “We spent probably two months on that. I sat the leads down and said, 'Hey, guys, this isn't turning out like the IE games at all,’” Brennecke recalled.
To get them back on track, he identified a few small but important deviances from the classics. One issue was that the artists were adding detail where none was needed, a step in the rendering process that could slow down production or gameplay. “I said, 'If you look at the interior screenshots of Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2, there's no geometry on the front-facing walls at all. It’s just black,’” Brennecke said.
The artists took another stab at an environment and produced a small inn with wooden walls and floors. “Once our artists made that, we all evaluated it and it looked like something that could be in Baldur’s Gate. I think we were all pretty happy with that approach,” Brennecke continued.
Obsidian’s developers published their screenshot in mid-October of 2012. Fans exclaimed over the painterly art style and sense of scale.
The team basked in the feedback, then got back to work. A still image was merely representative, a window into the collective dream of a contemporary-classic roleplaying game. What fans really wanted to see was how Project Eternity looked in motion. Prototyping continued through the fall of 2012 and into the spring of 2013.
“The difference with Icewind Dale and even with Pillars was that everything was pre-rendered, so we had a lot more freedom to make something that was really detailed and intricate,” explained Espinoza. “In Dungeon Siege III, we were limited by the real-time, 3D aspect of it. We had to be really good about asset management, area densities, textures sizes, things like that that are very restrictive.”
Baldur’s Gate and its ilk had combined 2D backgrounds and 2D characters. Project Eternity needed 3D characters moving atop pre-rendered backdrops for players to truly appreciate how far the genre had come since Icewind Dale II in 2002. “The largest reason was for character customization, and knowing from the hell the IE devs had to go through, like on Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2,” Brennecke explained. “Three-dimensional characters offer a lot more flexibility with what you can do in terms of, you can equip different helmets, different heads, hairstyles, all the armor can swap in and out if you want to make hundreds of different armor sets and weapons and [show them] with high fidelity.”
Setting 3D characters loose on 2D terrain hit a few snags. The process of aligning moving polygons on a flat plane proved difficult. “To place items, we needed to output little waypoints, points in 3D space that we could snap to in order to easily blend things into a 3D world,” Edwards explained.
Developers solved the problem by applying ambient techniques. One involved taking sample colors from the background and devising illumination that factored in the character’s position on the screen and the type of environment, such as stone, wood, or vegetation. Another was creating a shadow system that controlled how much sunlight hit a character and coloring that character’s shadow to match 2D elements.
Michael Edwards wrote code that enhanced scenery. “What we needed to do was use a similar approach to what we'd done in some other games, which was deferred rendering,” he said.
Deferred lighting affects 3D objects such as characters and 2D elements like backgrounds. A torch can illuminate both environment and characters, and can be applied to spell effects such as a fireball that explodes upon contact and brightens the surrounding area.
Edwards modified his code to carry out another way of displaying pre-rendered backgrounds. First, artists fed backgrounds into Maya. Maya converted polygons into flat images by going through four separate passes. Each pass performed a specific function, such as adding color and applying textures to scenery such as rocks and walls.
The fourth pass, depth, was the most important. “A depth pass is the most impressive, because that's what gave the engine an idea of where things lay in the world: where rocks are, where water intersects, what lighting being cast would interact with,” explained Espinoza. “These were all things that artists had to wrap our heads around. At the same time, the material that was specific to the rendering engine we were using, mental ray, that would allow us to do that. Trying to figure all that out and fine-tune it was challenging. Over a few months, we had to figure out how to do it all in Maya. There was a lot of research, a lot of cramming of information, to get the best results.”
After completing all four passes, Maya produced pre-rendered backgrounds in high detail and that consumed massive amounts of storage. “It's almost a completely different domain of art,” Brennecke added. “All the stuff we're doing is really, really high quality. Some of our scenes have fifty million polygons in them, just lots of geometry, tons of high-res textures.”
Obsidian’s developers knew they could never expect players to download hundreds of gigabytes worth of data. That’s where Edwards’ code took over. “We set up a system of tiles to render these images. We wanted to stream them in because we knew some of these maps would be huge, and we didn't want to keep them all in resident memory. It was a system designed to stream in based on what was visible. That was the first step, just getting the basic rendering up and running.”
The result, 3D objects such as characters overlaid against the 2D world, ground Obsidian’s computers to a halt. “A lot of our scenes had problems early on where we had a city or a town that would take three or four days to render,” Brennecke admitted. “The iteration time on that is just awful and not really acceptable, so we had to figure out how to get render times down to something more manageable, hopefully under a day. That was one of the big challenges we had with working with pre-rendered backgrounds.”
All That Jazz
On April 10, 2013, nearly six months after the Kickstarter had been funded, Josh Sawyer posted a new update to Kickstarter. It stood out to backers for two reasons.
The first was that it was short. Most of the Project Eternity team published lengthy posts, especially Sawyer and Brennecke. The second was that the main body of the update, a YouTube video, showed Project Eternity in motion, an event that developers and fans alike had been anticipating. “The update where you get to see that magic, that the visible world is just a two-dimensional image, was an amazing moment for us,” said Rob Nesler.
Characters moved about, sunlight refracted against water bubbling through a rocky stream, day gave way to night, a tiny creature that resembled a firefly fluttered near the marble statues casting a soft orange glow, and water poured from the falls and churned against the pond below, kicking up a light mist.
The waterfall and the way it brought the scene to life had been Hector Espinoza’s pet project. “That, I think, was what was really going to sell the image,” he said. “Getting something so detailed into the scene felt really good. I had a lot of fun getting in there and making a really nice, natural-looking environment that captured a lot of what we wanted to do when it came to the feel of real exteriors.”
Obsidian’s developers knew they had months, even years of work ahead of them. Even so, they were proud. They had sold the dream of an Infinity Engine-style RPG to the tune of nearly four million, but the screenshot and demo testified to the work they had put into learning how to make a contemporary title that looked like, but drastically outperformed, the games that had inspired it.
All it really needed—besides characters, lore, settings, quests, and countless more lines of code and reams of artwork and music—was a name.
Broadswords and Pillars
Project Eternity worked as a placeholder title. It spoke to how souls functioned in their fictional world. But a placeholder was still a placeholder.
Josh Sawyer invited any developer to submit a real, proper title, provided they followed some guidelines. “I don't like names that feel overwrought. I think it's good when a name evokes something in the mind of the person hearing it, but I think it's easy to go too far with a title and wind up with something silly and overdone. I sent out a list of criteria to the team. I said, ‘Here are some rules. There can be no colons or dashes in this title. This is going to be a title without a subtitle. You can't use any of these words: shadows, black, storm, vengeance’--think whatever bullshit cliché words go into titles.”
Sawyer had no designs on being the dictator of any part of Project Eternity, let alone its name. He established ground rules to exhort creative suggestions from the team. “We went through a few meetings where we discussed all the names,” Brennecke remembered. He didn’t want to see 'dark' or 'darkness' in the name, or any '-ing' [words].' So, no ‘reckoning’ or any of that stuff. He also didn't want to have a colon in the name.
As a bonus, Sawyer mentioned, it would be great if someone suggested a title with PE as the initials. Near the end of 2013, one of the developers hit on exactly what Brennecke and Sawyer were looking for. “We didn't want to change the name completely from Project Eternity,” Brennecke explained. “I think Kaz might have come up with 'Pillars of Eternity.'”
Kazunori “Kaz” Aruga was Obsidian’s lead concept artist and a college buddy of Adam Brennecke’s. “We were trying to nail down a name, and it was Something-Something of Eternity,” Kaz said.
Sitting down at his computer, he banged out a list of words starting words that would flow into of Eternity. “'Pillars' just happened to be in it. I guess in my mind, that title painted a very mysterious picture of old ruins, which I felt would fit our RPG setting,” Kaz said.
Sawyer pulled up Kaz’s email. Pillars of Eternity. “Pillars” made him think of the pillars of adra, a material able to manipulate souls in the game world.
“I don't know that Kaz was thinking of adra pillars at the time, but that's what I was thinking of,” Sawyer recalled. “I decided, with the lead team, on Pillars of Eternity. It had PE, for Project Eternity, and it tied to the adra pillars, which were central to how reincarnation worked in the world, so I thought it was a really good fit.”