Pillars Of Eternity: InfInIty Reborn

Over 70,000 Kickstarter backers collectively spent $4 million bringing Pillars of Eternity to life. Developed by Obsidian, of Fallout: New Vegas, South Park: The Stick of Truth, and Knights of the Old Republic II fame, it’s a faithful homage and passionate love letter to Infinity Engine roleplaying games such as Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Tor me nt. It’s a project born of genuine love for the classic RPG, and a desire to resurrect the genre. How did it all get started? “We were at a point at Obsidian where we didn't have any projects to work on,” Adam Brennecke, executive
producer and lead programmer on Pillars of Eternity, tells me. “We were doing a lot of pitches, and we weren't making any headway.”

At the time, Kickstarter was still a relatively new phenomenon. “Double Fine did theirs, and inXile had pretty good success with Wasteland 2. We were always talking about doing our own.”Brennecke and project director Josh Sawyer talked to the bosses at Obsidian, and ultimately convinced them that if they were ever going to attempt a crowd funded project, the time was now.

“So the owners, Feargus Urquhart and Chris Parker, told me to start preparing to do one. I started discussing it with the senior people, and we all had a very similar idea in mind, which was to do an Infinity Engine-style game. That was a good fit, and we’ve always wanted to make a game like that. So we just started preparing for the Kickstarter, then launched it about a month later. So I’ve been involved since the first minute of Project Eternity, as it was called back then.”

Project Eternity achieved its initial goal of $1.1 million in a little over 24 hours. “The response was pretty freakin’ amazing, I have to say. The first day of the Kickstarter was just insane for us, because we really didn't expect that to happen. We were unsure if people were still interested in a game like this.”

The Infinity Engine games were million-selling hits in their day, but it’s still remarkable how well their reputation has endured. The mere mention of Baldur’s Gate is enough to make many PC gamers misty eyed. Why is that, I ask Brennecke.

“People loved the characters and the stories from those games. The companions really left an impact on people, and you got involved in their stories. Planescape: Torment is still remembered as the best written game of all time, and I don’t think it’s been eclipsed yet. People who didn't enjoy Baldur’s Gate because they weren't really story guys, they loved Icewind Dale because of the focus on combat. It was a very deep, difficult game, and a fun dungeon crawling experience. So we tried to boil these things down, and we want Pillars of Eternity to have something for every kind of player.”

While BioWare had Dungeons & Dragons to base its combat and lore on, Obsidian has to create everything from scratch in Pillars, which is a huge undertaking but one that will, ultimately, make for a better game.

“We’ve had to come up with our own thing. I worked on Neverwinter Nights II, which was a big D&D CRPG, and there’s a lot of inherent programming and design issues when you’re trying to put a turn based game into a real time with pause game. With all of our experience, from working on the Infinity Engine games and Neverwinter Nights, we made up our own rule system that is better suited to a CRPG. It’s like how Hearthstone does things with the collectible card game genre that you can only do on a computer. We’re doing a similar thing. The game is inspired by pen and paper RPGs, but we’ve changed some of the rules to work better in the context of a computer game.”

Such as? “We’re trying to improve the resting system, so people aren't rest spamming. That was an annoying thing in those old games, where you’d have to rest after every encounter. So we’ve put in some restrictions, like having finite camping supplies that limit how many times you can rest on any given adventure.”

‘Pre-buffing’ was also considered a problem. “We always found it annoying the way you’d have to pre buff your party before every fight. So you’d go into a fight and get destroyed, but then you’d reload and go, well, if I cast this spell before the fight, I should win. You can’t cast buff spells until you’re in combat, so you won't need pre-knowledge of a fight to succeed.

We’re not really trying to rock the boat. We know people who backed the game want an experience like the old games, so we’re not doing anything too crazy.”

True to the old Infinity Engine games,  Pillars  will let you explore the world map freely without being warned that what lies ahead is too powerful for your party. The accompanying sense of discovery, and danger, is part of what made those games so compelling.

We have a very open environment to explore. We learned a lot of tricks from working on Fallout: New Vegas  on how to set up the wilderness areas, so you feel like you have a chance to explore, and maybe if you’re a good player you can get into areas that are a little bit higher level than your party. But then there’s some encounters and some dungeons that you can try, and you'll probably get your ass kicked.”

For example? “Right when you get out into the wilderness for the first time in  Pillars of Eternity , there’s a bandit camp with pretty high level enemies. They look tough, and you think, yeah, I probably shouldn't go up there, because I don’t even have a party yet. But it’s fun watching people play, because they’ll go attack them and just get wiped out.”

I’m struck by how closely they’ve managed to recreate the look and feel of the IE games, but with a modern, high-res sheen. Anyone familiar with the old games will feel instantly at home, right down to the interface iconography.

“Our backgrounds are actually full 3D environments. They only exist in Maya, our 3D modeling package. Those scenes are super high grass blades. You can’t render this stuff in real-time yet, even with high-end PCs. So we take these scenes, then we render them with a fixed camera, and we end up with huge images. Some of the biggest are like 12,000 by 12,000 pixels. We chose the Unity engine because we were able to get things up and running quickly. It’s really cost effective for a small team to use. We looked into building our own engine, but for a team our size, we just weren’t able to. Using Unity was pretty much the wisest decision we could have made. We did make a lot of changes to how it works, though, to create the illusion of having a 2D background with 3D characters on it. We’ve even shown it to some Unity guys and they were pretty amazed by what we were able to do.”

With such a small team, and no existing D&D rules to fall back on, I found myself wondering how Obsidian can effectively balance such a vast and complex RPG. There are 11 classes in the game, all of which have their own spells, abilities, and quirks. Brennecke puts his faith in good communication with the fans.

“It’s great being able to talk to the backers about what we’re doing. You can include them in the entire process. We’re in beta now and we’re getting some great feedback. I don’t like making games in a black box, where you don’t have any discussion with the people who are actually going to be playing the thing until it’s on store shelves. I think games can be a lot better if you include the players in the process.”

Magic is one field ripe for elaboration. “We have a lot of spellcasters, and every caster has a lot of different spells and abilities. We wanted to make them all feel a bit different, in how they gain spells and how they use them. Our wizards have grimoires, and that’s their spell book, but it’s an item that they actually have to carry around. If you encounter an evil wizard, you can kill them and take their grimoire, then write down their spells in your own book.”

And then there are the chanters. “Chanters are kind of like our version of D&D bards. They have these songs that they perform during battle called chants. They have their own user interface where they have to piece together different phrases of songs. Keeping all this balanced is difficult.”

Tim Cain, senior programmer, plays a major role here. “He picks one class, does a really big pass over it, then we refine it, and we keeping doing this over and over again. We have a whole QA team who test individual classes. Balancing is an interesting thing, and we are getting a lot of good feedback from the backer beta. We’ve learned that druids are pretty overpowered, and we’re probably going to make some changes.”
We made up our own rule system that’s better suited to a CRPG
One of the most interesting things about the game is its reputation system, which goes a lot deeper than those of comparable RPGs. You can respond to almost any conversation with the demeanor of your choosing, and this will affect how people perceive you. There’s no binary morality here, and the decisions have lasting consequences.

“We have two types of reputation. in the game. Factional is how a town or village judges you, which is very similar to Fallout . So if you do good things for a town, they’ll like you more and give you benefits. Then we have a new thing, which is our disposition system.”

This is a way to further roleplay with your character, Brennecke says. “When you're conversing with people, there are qualifiers at the end of most, if not all, of our player responses. These can be things like honest or benevolent, and there are neutral and negative ones too. So if you’re brutal or dishonest, we’ll keep track of it, and over time you’ll get a reputation. Throughout the game, NPCs will comment on this.

“If you’re always honest and kind, people might try and take advantage of you in the seedier parts of the world, like the docks district Defiance Bay. It’s not designed so that if you’re always a good guy, good things will come of it. It’s never that black and white.”

One of the Kickstarter stretch goals was the Endless Paths of Od Nua, a vast, 15-level dungeon that sits beneath your home base. The idea is to tackle a few levels, come back when your party is a bit stronger, then tackle a few more,  and so on until you reach the bottom, where something nasty, predictably, lurks. But I'm not allowed to say what.

“We wanted the mega-dungeon to be a real dungeon crawl,” says Brandon Adler, lead producer. “Go in, kill lots of enemies, explore cool-looking areas, and find the loot. We also wanted it to be something you keep coming back to throughout the course of the game.”

“It’s 15 levels under your stronghold. A character called Od Nua used to live in the keep above, and he started excavating down into the earth. He wanted to build a giant statue of his dead son and transfer his soul back into it.”
We wanted the mega-dungeon to be a real dungeon crawl
The focus in the mega-dungeon will be on combat think  Icewind Dale and it’ll take you a significant amount of time to plumb all of its depths. But it’s optional, and players who are more concerned with story will be glad to know that there are two massive cities in the game to rival  Baldur’s Gate II ’s Athkatla: Defiance Bay and Twin Elms.

“Defiance Bay is quite a typical fantasy city, with normal-looking buildings. The difference with Twin Elms is that it’s more wilderness like, and it’s built on ancient ruins. The Glanfathans are the protectors of the ruins, and they’ve built a city around them.”

Twin Elms was another stretch goal. “It’s got quite a bit of content. It has four districts, and they’re all filled with things to do. We definitely made it smaller than Defiance Bay. That was on purpose. Once you get to the end of the game, you don’t really want to go through another huge city. Defiance Bay is absolutely enormous.

“We have more areas than  Baldur’s Gate . We don’t have quite as many as Baldur’s Gate II , because that game is just absolutely huge, but we do have more wilderness areas. We really liked the open feel of the first game, where you could explore all these different areas, many of which weren't on the critical path.”

Pillars of Eternity is on course for a winter release. From what I’ve played of the backer beta, and from the passion of the team, it’s clear this isn't just some nostalgia trip, but a rich, lovingly crafted RPG that’s a worthy successor to the Infinity Engine games that inspired it.

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