Chatty AMA: Adam 'Jabby' Brennecke, executive producer & lead programmer on Pillars of Eternity II

Brennecke has been a Shacker even longer than he's been a developer at Obsidian Entertainment. Now is your chance to ask him anything about Pillars of Eternity, his career at Obsidian, and game development.

29

Beneath a Starless Sky: Pillars of Eternity and the Infinity Engine Era of RPGs is my latest Long Read at Shacknews. I spent eight months writing it and over 40 hours interviewing developers from Black Isle Studios, BioWare, and Obsidian. Adam Brennecke was one of those developers.

Adam joined Obsidian in 2004, before the release of the studio's first game, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II - The Sith Lords. He's contributed to nearly every title since, from Neverwinter Nights 2 through 2015's Pillars of Eternity and this year's well-received sequel, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire.

Adam will join us at 7pm Eastern / 4pm Pacific for our inaugural Chatty AMA. Duck into the comments and ask him anything about his career at Obsidian, game development, the Pillars franchise, how long he's been with Shack, and where he goes for his daily dose of political news. (Hint: If you're a Chatty member, you probably go there, too.)

On a personal note, I'm thrilled to have Adam join us today. It's safe to say I couldn't have written Beneath a Starless Sky without him. I approached Obsidian last summer about writing a Long Read on Pillars of Eternity II once it was finished. Mikey Dowling, the studio's PR manager, was enthusiastic, and so was Brennecke, the executive produdcer, lead programmer, and co-creator of the Pillars of Eternity franchise. His support and enthusiasm combined with Mikey's willingness to subvert the usual PR protocol of severely limiting a journalist's access to developers got this ball rolling.

While Adam answers your questions, start reading Beneath a Starless Sky, or check out the inaugural entries in Shacknews' two brand-new video series: 24 'Til Launch - Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, and Long Table: Pillars of Eternity II and RPG Design at Obsidian Entertainment

Long Reads Editor

From The Chatty

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 3:09 PM

      Hello, Mr, Jabby. Was there anything you guys learned from the adaptation of PoE to consoles that directly affected or changed the approach to building Deadfire, even though it was a PC game?

      • reply
        October 5, 2018 4:03 PM

        This might be a little surprising, we didn't ever discuss or talk about a console version while developing Pillars I. It was developed as a PC only title, and well after the release of the game Paradox approached us on doing a console port. Our PC only approach carried over to the development of the sequel as well. Josh and I made it clear to the team that we were making the game for a PC audience and didn't want to waste the team's energy or time thinking about how the interfaces or control scheme would carry over. With that said, the Paradox team did a great job with the port, and we worked closely with them on how to make the interface work. We learned a lot during that process, and the lessons that we learned are being used on the Deadfire console version.

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 3:22 PM

      Greetings! First, thank you for taking our questions. I've got a few:

      Given free license and funding, what themes/worlds would you like to create with Pillars-style gameplay?

      Beyond controls, what's another obstacle the team had or has to overcome when developing this type of RPG for console players?

      What ability/skill/monster almost broke you as a programmer?

      • reply
        October 5, 2018 4:19 PM

        1. I would love to make a isometric Fallout game in the style of the first two. I think it would be a fun experience to work on Fallout again. A turn based game would be another interesting challenge that I would like to have the chance to make.

        2. Player movement is a huge challenge that went through many iterations on the console. It was important that the game felt like a console game and not a PC port. A previous iteration on the console had the player moving the player via a mouse-like cursor, which didn't feel very good. We finally settled on a "drive mode" scheme for the player character with the rest of the party following so you could actively move your character with the analog stick. The interface is another challenge - I think the radial menus were a good choice for quickly navigating menus.

        3. Timestop was a requested spell that we decided not to pursue because of how complex the implementation would be. For a real time with pause combat system like Deadfire, pausing time selectively for some characters but not others poses a tough technical challenge that could have been really cool, but could have taken several weeks with a lot of really specific code to implement.

        Thanks for the questions!

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 3:22 PM

      Paging our resident Pillars and Infinity Engine fans: jayacheess Rehevkor Dravenport Modulus RaptorII nwillard Mecha Tofu Pirate daggot ]pm[chem megarust32 theWhite moonfist80 code-e255 Captain Science valcan_s Cubictoast ArB Rice-Rocketeer Nitrotoxin AxeMan808 deadbeatsaint

      • reply
        October 5, 2018 3:23 PM

        Fuck yeah. I see, I see! Thanks for this, Mr. Craddock.

      • reply
        October 5, 2018 3:34 PM

        My body is ready for this!

      • reply
        October 5, 2018 4:07 PM

        Rude that you didn’t include me in this list of random people

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 3:25 PM

      Just wanted to say thanks for doing an AMA here!

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 3:28 PM

      Shacknews for eh ver

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 3:34 PM

      Heya everyone! I'll be answering questions starting in 30 minutes.

      • reply
        October 5, 2018 4:08 PM

        OK! I'm starting the AMA now! Thank you everyone for posting questions.

        Make sure you read the awesome long read that David and the Shack team put together over the last year. Working on Pillars has been an amazing experience - I want to thank and give a shout out to the backers of both crowdfunding campaigns. These games wouldn't be possible without you.

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 3:35 PM

      So this AMA is starting soon?

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 3:43 PM

      Hey, Jabby! I've already asked you literally a billion questions, so what's two more?

      1. I enjoyed learning about many of Obsidian's cancelled projects while interviewing you and the team. Of all the projects that were cancelled, which did you most want to see come to fruition--not as a developer involved with Obsidian, but as someone who loves games and was really looking forward to playing a finished product?

      2. You've been more involved with some of Obsidian's projects than others. Of the games you didn't work on, or didn't contribute to as much, which would you have enjoyed working on if you'd been able to?

      • reply
        October 5, 2018 4:29 PM

        Hi David!

        1. The Aliens RPG for sure. First, I worked on that project from day 1 to the day of cancellation (and even for a bit of time past that), which was 2.5 years of my life. The cancellation was the worst day of my career. The game wasn't near completion, but the team had a lot of good ideas brewing, and it would have been great to see those in a finished game.

        2. The Obsidian games I didn't get a chance to work on are Alpha Protocol, South Park: The Stick of Truth, Armored Warfare, and Pathfinder Adventures. As a programmer, all of those games would have been fun to work on - If I have to single one out that would be South Park, because it was such a strange development process and offered a lot of unique challenges. Most of the art was built in Flash which ran in Obsidian's own Onyx engine. The engine was originally built for Aliens RPG, and also used for Dungeon Siege III. Those games are so different from South Park - but they all ran on the same engine.

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 3:50 PM

      I LOVED Pillars 1. It was such an amazingly full game. I did not expect to get what I'd consider a full fledged game out of a Kickstarter project. It made me believe in the potential of crowd funding.

      There are a ton of positive aspects to Pillars, but my favourite is the background/level/world artwork. Even without the story and gameplay, I would have likely continued exploring just to see everything worth seeing. I've got my Kickstarter version of Pillars 2 installed, and I'm eager to get in to it when I have some time. From the preview media, I'm expecting more of the same in world artwork, and better.

      So my question: how did this all turn out so well? Most modern devs haven't done balder's gate style world art in many years, if at all (I assume). Was this a challenge, or were you able to apply some newer tech to have a similar, but modern effect on this style of world art?

      • reply
        October 5, 2018 4:39 PM

        Heya jayacheess, A large focus for the team was to make sure that we were delivering a game for our Backers first and foremost. Thanks for the question.

        How did it turn out so well? It's hard to say exactly why, but I think it was a good mix of having talented people on the project that understood what made the IE game good in the first place, technology that let us build a game at this scope quickly with a small team, and the experience of the developers at Obsidian. It was challenging with about six months of R&D to reach the final result, and we used modern techniques like shaders (those didn't exist back in '98) to blend the scene together in a convincing way. For Deadfire, we pushed it a bit more, and included more fancier stuff like point light shadow maps, and used dynamic lighting that comes from the pre-rendered scene.

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 3:51 PM

      Helllo good sir Jabby. You are behind a lot of the tech on the games over there. What is some dream tech you want to work with? Also, besides isometric style RPGs, any style of game you have wanted to take a stab at?

      • reply
        October 5, 2018 3:53 PM

        Also thanks for your work, and Pillars 2 was super polished!

      • reply
        October 5, 2018 4:43 PM

        I've worked on a lot of different game styles and engines over my career. It would be nice change of pace to work on a first-person game. I haven't worked on one since Fallout: New Vegas, which was the only first-person game that I've been able to work on.

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 3:55 PM

      Do you like Arby’s or is the Meat Mountain a special occasion thing?

      • reply
        October 5, 2018 4:44 PM

        I love Arby's. I usually eat at Arby's once a week.

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 4:02 PM

      1. Why don't you post more!?
      2. How important has the FIG campaigns for POE 1 and 2 been? Would POE 1 not have been if not for the FIG campaign? What about POE 2?
      3. POE 1 and Divinity: Original Sin II shared some similar themes. That was a statement, please make it into a question and respond to it.
      4. Please make a New Vegas 2
      5. There seemed to be some bad blood between a couple of Obsidian's founders. Do you have any thoughts on this (you probably shouldn't answer this)? Has Obsidian treated you well?
      6. Do you have any strategies for ship combat in POE 2?

      • reply
        October 5, 2018 4:52 PM

        Hi Modulus, thanks for the questions

        1. I'm usually super busy at work, and I don't have a lot time to post, or contribute to conversations. I do read the Chatty almost daily.
        2. POE1 would not have been made without Kickstarter. POE2 would have been made from the money earned from POE1. The Fig campaign certainly helped with expanding the budget for Deadfire.
        3. Yes?
        4. We get asked this like everyday. :)
        5. Obsidian has treated me well. I've been here for 15 years.
        6. Don't die! How do you like the ship to ship combat?

        • reply
          October 5, 2018 6:01 PM

          How do you like the ship to ship combat?
          I've only have a few hours with the game (when it first came out), I'm kind of waiting for all the DLC to come out and then play through. I ended up doing that with POE 1 and it worked well for me.

          I haven't been watching the patch notes, so I don't know if you guys have updated it since launch but my initial impression is that I didn't fully understand what to do, hence my original question. I'm not sure what the goal is. Do I try to linger at range and do damage and hopefully kill enemy sailors? Or do I just try to go in for the boarding action?
          Is there a strategy? Can I be good at it? Or is it just a sequence of events leading up to a boarding action or sinking of the enemy ship?

          • reply
            October 5, 2018 6:19 PM

            It depends on how you want your play style to be. Some captains like to stay far away and whittle the other ship down to either sink it, or to weaken the crew before boarding. Just straight up boarding and killing everyone works just fine. :)

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 4:22 PM

      What area(s) do you think need to have some innovation for the top down turn based RPG genre going forward? For the most part, these games have been similar in gameplay for a while. I love the Pillars series but I wonder what the future holds for turn based and even action RPGs. I'd love to hear you even speculate about what you'd love to see in say, 5-10 years from now.

      I've been a fan of turn based games since the original X-COM on PC and I've watched the genre grow up over the years. I'm just not sure where things will go from here.

      • reply
        October 5, 2018 4:59 PM

        This is a tough one. I think for a real-time Pillars style of game - more clarity in combat is a must. We can keep adding more and more features, but if you don't understand what's going on and why, making decisions in combat isn't terribly fun, challenging, or interesting. I do believe that there will always be room for this style of game, and I hope we see a few developers take some chances and experiment with the formula a bit more.

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 4:34 PM

      Thanks for doing this Jabby!

      1). Where do you see the future of CRPGs going? Will there still be room for the PoEs, Tyrannys, etc. of the world in the next five years or will there be another lapse as gamers gravitate towards the Fortnights of gaming?

      I'm also gonna ask a question that is probably outside of your wheelhouse.

      2) One if my favorite things about the old IE games was the music. It always perfectly set the tone of a game, from the dramatic battle music in BG2 to the lonely melodies of IWD. When you all started designing PoE, what were you looking for in music to help you set the tone of your games?



      • reply
        October 5, 2018 5:06 PM

        Thanks for the questions moonfist80!

        1. I think there's room for all sorts of type of games, and I hope that CRPG "Top Down" games continued to get made. There's so many settings to be explored besides fantasy.

        2. Oh yeah, we discuss music early on in development. You can read the chapter in the long read article about the development of the music, which details the process much better than I could in this response.

        • reply
          October 5, 2018 5:09 PM

          God I want you guys to do a top down espionage RPG set in the 60s or 70s. So bad.

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 4:36 PM

      I haven't played the first one. How lost would I be if I played II without playing I?

      • reply
        October 5, 2018 5:10 PM

        I don't think you need to play the first one to enjoy the second game. A recap of the story on wikipedia should be enough to get you going.

        The proper names, gods, locations, and people that are mentioned in the second game have context tooltips that have an explanation of what/who they are to help out people like you.

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 4:43 PM

      What's your opinion on turn based vs real time with pausing? There is a pretty big divide over that in the community for the newer crpgs.

      • reply
        October 5, 2018 5:20 PM

        I like both styles personally, if they are done well.

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 4:52 PM

      what are your favorite video games of the past couple years that you didn't make?

      • reply
        October 5, 2018 5:24 PM

        Hey wtf242! To name a few of my favorites: Breath of the Wild, Subnautica, Stardew Valley, Hollow Knight, Dark Souls 3 (I just got around to playing this).

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 5:16 PM

      Might be slightly out of your speicifc wheelhouse, but as an executive producer on Pillars 2 and your lengthy time at Obsidian which itself has now a lengthy history of character and narrative depth, what's your favorite NPC from a game you've spent any time working on and why is it Kreia?

      Okay, okay, it doesn't have to be her (it's totally fine if you don't even like her) or even something you've worked on, but I am honestly curious what your favorite character is, even if it's a specific variant of a player character.

      Alternatively, if you don't want to name a specific character, what elements, backgrounds, and experiences are common amongst your favorites?

      • reply
        October 5, 2018 5:34 PM

        Kreia is one of my favorites for sure. She is an amazing character. I'm proud to have worked on a lot of her scenes, and work on her boss fight. My favorite scene of hers by far is this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzBgnzwBv7I I was super stoked (and made the animators happy) that I figured out how to put that scene together and make it work in engine. I love when she reaches out her hand for her lightsaber, but is too weak to pull it to her hand.

        Other favorites include Eder from Pillars I and II, HK-47 from Kotor II, Steven Heck from Alpha Protocol, and Yes Man in New Vegas. You can probably get a sense of what types of character I like from that list.

        • reply
          October 5, 2018 9:28 PM

          Thanks for answering my silly and probably slightly obnoxious question. I agree that is a great and character critical scene, and that subtle detail of the sabre shake really helps sell it.

          Cheers!

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 5:40 PM

      No question. I just want to say it's a really cool idea to do a chatty developer AMA and these should happen more often.

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 5:42 PM

      Adam, you’re free to answer questions for as long as you like, but since it’s been about 90 minutes I wanted to thank you for taking the time to give such excellent answers. Have a great weekend!

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 5:50 PM

      When can I use Berath’s Blessings in combo with Magran’s Fires and other challenges??

      • reply
        October 5, 2018 6:13 PM

        I don't know if and when will enable that. Maybe after all the challenges are out!

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 5:52 PM

      Are improved default AI profiles coming for all characters?

      • reply
        October 5, 2018 6:15 PM

        I think we will continue to make adjustments if needed. What sorts of things would you be looking for?

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 5:53 PM

      How awesome will the last DLC be? Sorry I was late to this thread

      • reply
        October 5, 2018 6:16 PM

        Pretty awesome! The idea is great, and I just played through an early first version of it last week. It's shaping up rather well.

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 6:03 PM

      This is really great stuff guys! I look forward to seeing more of these.

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 7:45 PM

      I Was busy with the kids while this was happening, but it's great to see that the exec producer of one of my favourite series of games ever is actually a shacker. PoE is amazing.

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 10:00 PM

      I have familiarity with the title of the game, but have never played it and don't even know what genre it is. What's your elevator pitch to get me to try it? Also, you are awesome for doing this!

    • reply
      October 5, 2018 10:10 PM

      1. I love your games, but I'm more of a fan of simpler real-time combat, e.g. like in Diablo, or WoW. How many people at Obsidion prefer the slower, more complex D&D-like system? Do you guys think an action-focused system could work for your style of RPG, or would it dumb the game down too much?

      2. Will you implement nVidia ray-tracing features in your next engine (update)?

      3. Which programming language, libraries, and tools do you guys use to make PoE? Is it all based on custom-written C++, or do you also have stuff like - I'm just guessing - some quest scripting engine in a high-level language?