Interview with Josh Sawyer of Obsidian Entertainment

One of the benefits of being an editor at a gaming website is that sometimes you have the opportunity to speak directly with the leading developers of the gaming industry. Developers whom you always admired and, under normal circumstances, you would only see at a game’s end credits or through the pages of another medium. After our interviews with some notable, independent creators, along with a few more recognizable personas in the gaming industry, we are very pleased to present our latest interview. This time our guest of honour is Josh Sawyer, Lead Game Designer of Obsidian Entertainment and creative mind behind games such as Icewind Dale 1 and 2 (under the roof of the now-defunct Black Isle Studios), Neverwinter Nights 2, Alpha Protocol, Fallout: New Vegas and the most recent RPG epic; Pillars of Eternity.

The occasion which sparked this interview was the recent milestone achieved by “Pillars”, which is none other than the sale of 500k game copies on the PC platform. Eventually, of course, we escaped the “confines” of that particular topic and ended up discussing the past and future of Pillars of Eternity, the isometric RPG genre, crowdfunding, aspects of RPG design and table-top RPGs, along with a few more “personal” (to the extent of sheer fanboy-ism, one might say) Obsidian-related questions that resulted in… quite interesting answers.

So, without further ado…


RQ: Passing the 500k mark in sales is only the most recent in a series of impressive milestones Pillars of Eternity has reached. At which moment in its entire development and release cycle (from its inception, all the way to the recent sales milestone) did you begin to realize that Pillars was indeed on its way to reach such levels of success?

JS: I don’t know if there was ever a point early after release that we knew we were going to sell 500k copies, but after the second and third days of reviews, we realized how well it was being received. It was a big relief to us, because you never really know how gamers and the press are going to respond to something until it’s actually out in the wild.


RQ: To continue on the same topic, the sales of Pillars have adamantly proven right your decision to make the game an isometric RPG with its main focus on delivering an engrossing story, rather than try to “re-invent” the genre with pseudo-cinematic approaches. Based on this commercial success (which was achieved exclusively on the PC platform), and excluding the upcoming release of Tides of Numenera by inXile, what is your opinion on the future of the isometric RPG sub-genre in general?

JS: I think there’s a healthy market for it. It’s not a huge market, but I don’t think there needs to be a huge market to support the sizes of teams required to make these types of game. Not that long ago, it was really hard to get publishers interested in anything that wasn’t going to be on consoles, certainly in isometric RPGs. Crowdfunding and digital distribution have made it possible to fund and distribute these games for a relatively small amount of money. That said, it’s still usually millions of dollars, but not tens of millions of dollars.

Beyond isometric RPGs, I think digital distribution has really broadened the scope of what kinds of games can be made and become success stories on the PC. I really respect what Hinterland Games has done with The Long Dark. There’s a lot of essential “Canada-ness” that the team has put into the game, and I know that Dave Chan, their audio director (of interest, he also did audio for Baldur’s Gate 2), has done a lot of Foley capture work out in the wilderness. How many publishers do you think would be into the idea of a PC-centric Canadian wilderness apocalypse with no zombies? I have friends at Fullbright who worked on Gone Home and the upcoming Tacoma, one of whom just released her own small, very personal game (Cibele). These games have more of a focus on emotional experiences than gameplay mechanics and again, would be a difficult sell to a lot of publishers. Small games with small overhead and a ready market can succeed now. I don’t think that was true five years ago.

That said, I’ve heard more than a few people complain that they don’t like these sorts of games. Great. A lot of people don’t like isometric games about elf forests. Personally, I would rather have crowdfunding and digital distribution make more games possible and available even if I’m not into them. Gaming can comfortably include a lot of niches. It still has a lot of room to grow.

RQ: Now that Pillars has been out for a respectable amount of time, do you have any “regrets” about it, design or content-wise? Is there anything you now wish you could have added/removed or changed in it before its release?

JS: The stronghold never really got the content it needed to make it feel worthwhile or important. During development we realized that if we had someone focusing on stronghold content, it would jeopardize other quests that we felt were more valuable. That’s why the stronghold wound up being system-heavy and content-light. It’s something we’re trying to address with our 3.0 patch, which will be available when The White March, Part II, goes live.

Not all of the companions were tightly connected to the storyline. The companion I wrote, Pallegina, is one of the most disconnected. I think their connection to the central plot could have been stronger and there could have been better reactivity among them to both your choices and each other’s’ actions.

In the early game, it was very difficult to communicate all of the ideas that form the hook for your character’s motivation. I think trying to communicate more cleanly or focusing more on the difficult concepts (in particular, the negative aspects of being a Watcher) would have drawn people in more easily.

obsidian-snap2Pillars of Eternity

RQ: What are, in your opinion, the main obstacles in creating a new IP?

JS: If you’re making an IP for something funded by a publisher, the publisher always tries to negotiate ownership of the IP, which makes it feel like a lot of effort for something you don’t get to own. That’s one of the big reasons why we were really excited to work on Pillars as a crowdfunded game. Thankfully, we knew our audience and the inspirational source material (Infinity Engine games, Forgotten Realms setting) well, so we had a sense of what key things we needed to maintain to prevent fans from feeling alienated. That’s why we have forest-dwelling elves and dwarven mountain kingdoms in addition to the new races like Aumaua and Orlans.

I think one of the biggest obstacles is simply one of scope. If you make a game in an established IP, there’s a lot to draw from and work with. If you’re making a new IP in a setting that’s not Earth, you’re making everything from scratch. Every map, every culture, every language, every placename, the history of myriad groups — all of it needs to be developed to at least some small extent so that people can build within that setting. You don’t need to block out every piece of the world to work in it, but there at least needs to be a framework, guideposts for other people to use as reference.

RQ: At the end of the elaborate Numenera corebook, Monte Cook provides a brief list of book titles from which he drew inspiration when he was creating the game (and as good resources for further reading). Could you name a few of yours, while making Pillars?

JS: Sure. They’re mostly history books. The rise of Saint Waidwen was inspired by “Peasant Fires: The Drummer of Niklashausen” by Richard Wunderli. The Vailian Republics were inspired by various accounts of the early Renaissance Italian republics, e.g. “The Prince”, but also Christopher Hibbert’s “The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall”. The general panic and malaise of Waidwen’s Legacy were inspired by the real pre-19th century infant mortality rates of most of the world (often around 50%) and the Black Death in Europe. Infant mortality caused so much grief that it was sometimes used as the basis for accusations of witchcraft, either against the unfortunate mother or a midwife who had helped with a series of ill-fated births. Of course, people who tried to apply various folk remedies for problems with childbirth also often failed and they could be accused of witchcraft. You can get a good general overview of European witch-hunting hysteria from Kors and Peters’ terrific “Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History”.

The machinations of the Hand Occult and the Leaden Key are the only parts that are really inspired by fiction — though admittedly works of historical fiction by Umberto Eco. “The Name of the Rose” deals with murders in a monastic order that revolve around the preservation (and containment) of knowledge. Baudolino’s titular character conspires with his friends at the University of Paris to write various false histories to legitimize Frederick I’s rule. Their false histories and the false histories written by other parties wind up becoming part of the historical canon, i.e. “real” history as far as anyone knows.

RQ: Other than the White March two-part expansion, the card game and the e-books, what else is there in the Pillars of Eternity “master plan”? Do you aim to release any more expansions or other forms of extra content for the first game before starting to work more actively on a sequel?

JS: The expansion, card game, and e-books are keeping us pretty busy, but we’re talking about ideas for a sequel. Yesterday the lead team had a meeting to talk about high-level goals that we’d like to accomplish and it went well, but we’re still in the early phases of planning. Bobby Null and I have also talked to Feargus about the possibility of making a separate game in the Pillars of Eternity setting focused on turn-based combat. Pillars of Eternity’s area sizes and input systems don’t translate well to non-PC formats, but I think a turn-based game could be very cool.

obsidian-snap3Pillars of Eternity: The White March – Part I

RQ: Taking for granted that there will be a “Pillars 2” eventually in the future, and using the company’s experience so far as a guide and general compass, do you think you would return to crowdfunding in order to fund the possible sequel (fully, or at least partially)?

JS: I think it will depend on what we’re looking at for our overall scope. Crowdfunding was a huge success for Pillars of Eternity and I know a lot of people have expressed an eagerness to support crowdfunding for a future sequel, but I believe we have to be careful about how we approach it. There’s always a danger of asking too much of people or giving a bad impression by how a crowdfunding campaign is structured.

RQ: Is there a particular Game Engine other than Unity that you could see yourselves using in the future, or that you would like to work with at least, given the chance?

JS: Obsidian has used a lot of engines over the years. BioWare’s Odyssey and Aurora engines were adapted for Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Neverwinter Nights 2, respectively. We used Bethesda’s engine for Fallout: New Vegas, Unreal 3 for Alpha Protocol, Unity for Pillars of Eternity, and now CryEngine for Armored Warfare. For Dungeon Siege III and South Park: The Stick of Truth, we used our own engine, Onyx.

The type of engine I’d like to work with really depends on the needs of a project. In my experience, they all have shortcomings. That said, I know a lot of our artists and designers would really like to use Unreal Engine 4 in the future. The artists I’ve talked to are interested in pushing environment art quality and the designers are interested in using Blueprint (the replacement for UE3’s Kismet).

One thing Obsidian has been investing in more is project-neutral tools. Our quest and dialogue tool has now been used in three games and will hopefully continue to grow and adapt to the needs of future titles. Our RPGs have very specific needs that most middleware engines don’t support, so our internal tools help us be productive and maintain continuity from project to project.

obsidian-snap4South Park: The Stick of Truth

RQ: Now that the success of Pillars has enabled you to finally reach a certain degree of creative autonomy, would you ever consider working in collaboration with another company again to create a game (like your past collaboration with Bethesda for Fallout: New Vegas, for example)?

JS: Sure. There are still plenty of established IPs that would be interesting to make games in. Independent developers are often stuck in difficult positions due to money constraints and a lack of owned IPs. When developers maintain control over IPs, it also gives them a better negotiating position with publishers and IP holders. In the past, it was often vital to make a licensed IP game with a publisher. For the industry as a whole, that’s not as important any more. The fewer developers we have effectively begging for scraps from publishers, the more they can try to push IPs, licensed or otherwise.

RQ: What is your favourite table-top RPG? Is there any chance we would ever see any of the less known, yet with very dedicated fanbases, pen-and-paper RPGs (eg. isometric Call of Cthulu) come into our computer screens by Obsidian?

JS: My current favorite is 5th Edition Ars Magica. I studied medieval and early modern European history in college and continue to read history books, so the “Mythic Europe” setting has always appealed to me. Aside from the setting, the biggest draws are the flexible magic system and the long-term downtime gameplay. In the current campaign I’m playing in, I’ve had two companions age to death and a Lombard magus who just turned 95 (but looks 36 due to the wonders of longevity rituals). The tribunal books include new magical traditions and cool takes on “mythic” 13th century Provence/Normandy/Ireland/the German states, etc.

I think a lot of us here would be interested in exploring other tabletop settings in a computer game format. A lot of people here either worked on or fondly remember Vampire: Bloodlines and would be interested in a World of Darkness game. Call of Cthulhu is also popular, with Delta Green being my personal favorite take on the mythos. For anyone who’s interested, there was just a great Delta Green Kickstarter that was very successful, so we have some cool stuff to look forward to in the next few years.

obsidian-snap5One might always hope that the reference to Vampire: Bloodlines was not simply coincidental…

RQ: Which of the titles Obsidian has ever developed do you believe has come the closest to encapsulating your “dream design” for RPGs? Purely an encyclopedic question, to satisfy our inner rabid fanboys more than anything else.

JS: Fallout: New Vegas. I think we did a lot of great things in that game. It did something that I believe is very important in the RPGs we make, which is to give the player a strong sense of control over how things will play out while keeping those choices difficult. Some RPGs focus on choice as a means of consistently expressing an initial concept of a character. I think that is important, but to keep pushing things forward, I believe we need choices to be about something beyond simplistic morality.

By the way, I think one of the games that does this best is Papers, Please. The game has a narrow focus, but it accomplishes a lot with the choices that you are forced to make within the context of the basic gameplay. I really recommend it.

RQ: Lastly, another question in the same spirit: would you ever consider re-visiting older company projects (the cancelled Aliens RPG or the massively underrated Alpha Protocol come to mind) to work on either a possible sequel or at least a similarly-inspired “non-Fantasy” title?

JS: Yeah, I think we had some cool ideas for Aliens and Alpha Protocol definitely could be even more outstanding in a sequel. Alpha Protocol had a rough development but I think the people on the team and the company as a whole learned a lot from that experience. We certainly appreciate how much of a cult following Alpha Protocol has and we recognize that a lot of it is due to the heavy focus on relationships, choice and consequence, and the strange novelty of having an RPG set in a (mostly) realistic modern day setting.


We’d like to thank Josh Sawyer for taking the time to personally respond to our questions, and for providing us with undoubtedly interesting answers as well as plenty of food for thought and material for extra RPG (and history) reading and research. We hope to have the opportunity for another discussion with him in the future, possibly when Pillars of Eternity reaches the “1 million” milestone, or perhaps following a new project announcement on behalf of Obsidian Entertainment…

Κώστας Καλλιανιώτης

Αρχαιολόγος/Ιστορικός, RPG Player, Οπαδός των Motörhead, Καταναλωτής Προβατίνας.

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