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Obsidian On Project Eternity, Old-School Innovation

Moving Forward By Looking Back

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I think – after all these years – it might finally be safe to say that a few people kind of liked Baldur’s Gate. Admittedly, there’s not much evidence to support this insane theory of mine, but Obsidian’s Project Eternity is scraping by decently I guess. In light of that, I got in touch with Obsidian creative overlord Chris Avellone to discuss his company’s Kickstarter-fueled overnight success. Among other things, we discussed how different systems (progression, leveling up, choice, etc) will work, why Obsidian picked a fantasy setting, why Project Eternity’s PC-only forever and ever, the potential for something like Fallout 2’s idiot dialogue options, and developers’ ability to innovate in spite of confining themselves to “old-school” rules. Contribute $586 million to the (non-existent) RPS Kickstarter to unlock the “after the break” stretch goal.

RPS: You make some pretty big claims about Project Eternity’s lineage – likening the game to Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape Torment. Can you explain how it’s like those games on more specific terms, though? For instance, you say it’ll have the “mature thematic exploration” of Planescape. What kind of themes does that entail?

Avellone: Baldur’s Gate was a party-based, tactical D&D RPG that had a strong storyline, strong companions, and stayed true and faithful to the RPG experience. The biggest takeaway from the BG example is in the way we approach the companion design. We feel that people formed attachments to companions in BG for many reasons – their humor, their backstories, their unique touches in inventory items and barks, and even how they dealt with each other and the player. Also, the amount of questing and exploration, especially in BG2, is something that people love and would love to see again.

Icewind Dale was a party-based, tactical dungeon exploration RPG across a variety of diverse environments that were a hell of a lot of fun for the level designers to make, especially Icewind Dale 2. IWD had some of the most beautiful, crazy-ass locations we’ve ever done, locations that are notoriously hard to do with modern engines.

Planescape explored the philosophies and religions of other races, it explored the idea of the mind shaping reality, and it put forth the question of your place in the universe and then gave you mechanics to compliment that. It purposely bucked many archetypes and tried to re-examine them from the opposite direction, and we’ll do the same in Eternity. We want to explore the ideas and perspectives of other cultures, religions, the concept of language and oral tradition in a world where books aren’t commonplace, and the concept of self in a world where souls transfer from being to being. What kind of cultures and religions come into being in a world like that? What does that mean for you and your companions?

RPS: Why opt for a fantasy setting? I mean, gaming has quite a few of them. How will you set your mythology apart – as opposed to simply being another world of orcs and elves and dwarves and totally-not-hobbits?

Avellone: The type of races and concept art that’s been revealed for Eternity we hope display our commitment to showcasing seemingly-traditional races with unusual gear and traits – including the fact our women characters wear… appropriate armor. In addition to the more easily recognizable races, we have a number of specialized races as well, including the god-touched races and even more unusual races we intend to unveil later. In addition, the technology level and the concept of souls puts a further twist on the races and classes of the world in an interesting way.

RPS: Black Isle’s RPGs included all sorts of amazing, totally optional details. For instance, I always got a kick out of Fallout 2’s idiot dialogue options and how much thought went into that system. Will Project Eternity have any surprises along those lines?

Avellone: Yes, we want to examine the dialogue mechanics, and one thing we’re going to do is low-intelligence options – either based on Intelligence or a trait – and have the sequences play out differently according to the player’s intellect. As a narrative designer, I enjoy writing interactions like that, and I had a blast with the stupid options in F2 in Vault City and New Reno.

RPS: That was pretty innovative for its time, come to think of it. Meanwhile, Kickstarter seems to be ruled by nostalgia these days, and I feel like Obsidian’s a perfect example of why it could be a problem. On one hand, you’re making a very intriguing game. On the other, Obsidian’s created some truly innovative and forward-thinking features in games like Alpha Protocol. Does this trend put progress on hold? Is it dangerous for everyone to be indulging in nostalgia like this?

Avellone: Innovative concepts don’t need to be tied to modern blockbusters or to nostalgia. While RPGs have lost some mechanics over the years in their transition phases from PC to console, there’s plenty of innovative elements you can do in old school nostalgia games – for example, low intelligence options were pioneered in Fallout, and that didn’t require any special tech whatsoever. It just required the Fallout team to think it up and put it into practice.

Fallout really opened my design eyes to the possibilities of a mechanics-driven dialogue system that reacted to your attributes, skills, gear, and more. We’d like to continue that tradition, and it’s easier to do when everything’s not voice-acted and super expensive for every line you have to fight for.

RPS: You’re placing a premium on positioning and formation in combat. Why do you think that tactical element fell out of favor in the first place?

Avellone: The camera view and number of party members you can control both were changed to the point where formations fell away. Formations when you only have 2 people in the party – and you often have to give them fire-and-forget AI commands – aren’t as valuable or needed.

RPS: What sort of progression system will Project Eternity have? Will it be pretty standard leveling up, talent trees, and gear collection? Or will there be other elements – for instance, involving souls?

Avellone: We’ll have traditional levels and advancement options. It’s also important for us to tie the setting and mechanics together. We feel that worked well for New Vegas, for Torment, and Mask of the Betrayer. We’re exploring how we can allow the player to use soul-based advancement elements specifically tied to their character and his/her personality/background – outside of class-based soul abilities.

RPS: How about morality and choice? Will it involve a point system/meter of some sort? I attended a talk at GDC where Project Eternity’s own Josh Sawyer deemed them essential in showing the player the results of their actions.

Avellone: I don’t believe in a morality bar for the player. It was excluded from Alpha Protocol on purpose. Something like the reputations – personal and faction and community – that were in Alpha Protocol and New Vegas feel more true to me.

RPS: Are you hoping to make choices more evident in the way the world reacts to players’ characters, then? How big of an impact can we make? 

Avellone: That’s what we did in New Vegas and made apparent in community barks – as well as all-out hostility. We also had a number of trigger events that would occur based on quest completions or even events triggered by actions the player took elsewhere in the world. One thing we’d like to avoid is special casing everything. I feel Alpha Protocol was reactive, but designing that reactivity was a much larger commitment than the more fluid way that I feel New Vegas was able to implement it.

RPS: Old-school RPGs weren’t perfect. Animations weren’t great, controls were clunky, menus required a billion clicks, numbers were everywhere, etc. How much are you modernizing the old-school template vs reproducing it?

Avellone: You should expect to see changes across all those departments – with added technology, recreating the old-school experience can be beautiful, as Legend of Grimrock proved from the look of dungeons to the look of the monsters.

RPS: Obsidian’s had its fair share of ups and downs with publishers – for instance, the Metacritic controversy with Fallout and Alpha Protocol not living up to Sega’s sales standards. Did those things, at least in part, prompt your decision to go to Kickstarter?

Avellone: We just want to make an isometric game without having to “sell” it to anyone other than the players. If the players want to support it – and they do – that’s enough for me.

RPS: Publishers are clearly still needed to produce truly big budget game projects. Is that simply a necessary evil at this point? Would you even consider it any sort of “evil”?

Avellone: I consider it a different financial model that has advantages and disadvantages, but I don’t feel it has its own morality bar, no.

RPS: You’re hoping to turn this into a franchise, right? If so, how? Add-ons to the main game, new characters and locations, etc?

Avellone: Our hope is we can keep making brand new Eternity titles, yes, and keep the franchise going into brand-new full games. We’d like Eternity to keep going as long as players want to support it, and we want to make it worth their while.

RPS: You’ve taken a very ardent stance on being PC-only. Meanwhile, many developers claim that designing for consoles doesn’t compromise their ability to create a truly great PC game. Why do you think otherwise? Is it mainly a matter of the genre you’re working with?

Avellone: It’s difficult to control a party tactically with most console controllers nowadays. And when you have 5+ party members in addition to 20+ potential enemies running around on a level, most consoles don’t appreciate that level mob mentality, either. This isn’t to say we haven’t had fun designing console RPGs, but there are limitations, sure.

RPS: Obsidian’s always been a cut above, well, pretty much everyone in terms of writing. And yet, it’s arguable that you haven’t had the success you deserve. Why do you think gamers don’t value great writing in the same way, say, movie viewers do? Or do they? Does modern culture in general discount great writing?

Avellone: Good writing does not make a popular or accessible game. While we value stories and deep character interactions, there are other factors at work that feed into success, and the Kickstarter is proof of our success in the industry. People are willing to back our ideas and stand behind them, and we’re ready to prove ourselves.

RPS: Dungeon Siege III appeared to finally kick Obsidian’s bug problem. What exactly did you change, and are you planning to refine the process even more with Project Eternity?

Avellone: It was our own toolset. We had our own bug-reporting and tracking software, and our programmers who knew the engine inside and out were just down the hall. We found it easy to change and iterate on code and toolsets to make DS3 go smoothly. Speaking from a narrative design standpoint, for example, having a customized dialogue editor that caters to everything we’ve learned about writing reactive dialogues over the years was a blessing.

RPS: You’re calling it Project Eternity. Given the history of certain other games that named themselves after infinite expanses of time, I think you’re tempting the fates. You’re saying it’ll come out in 2014, but let’s be real here: 15-year development cycle, right?

Avellone: Sure, let’s be real – April 2014, that’s the target.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

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