Pillars of Eternity is not a game designed explicitly to attract a wide audience. At a time when it sometimes seems like an undue imposition to unmute a Facebook video or expand a Tweet, Pillars makes you read long passages of descriptive text and written dialogue in order to digest its world and unlock its treasures.
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It’s also very difficult, frequently and spiritedly cutting you and your party down for a) failing to pause and plan an imminent fight, b) failing to find the right balance of classes in your party, or c) failing to equip your perfectly-balanced party with suitable abilities and equipment.
And why does it make such reaching demands of its players? Why, to evoke and homage a cluster of isometric RPGs released between fifteen and twenty years ago, of course. Now – hands up who thinks that sounds like a game destined for an estimated Steam audience of over half a million players?
Obviously, Pillars found that audience. Not in spite of those idiosyncrasies, but because of them. Viewed through the gamer’s eyes it seems almost a no-brainer for veterans of Obsidian and Black Isle Studios to come together and launch a Kickstarter for a new Infinity Engine-inspired RPG. But if you’re the creator about to put your livelihood on the line, as Obsidian cofounder Josh Sawyer was in September 2012, you don’t take anything for granted.
“Our original goal was $1.1 million, and we really weren’t sure if we were gonna make that goal,” he tells me. “We knew that there was an audience but we did not realise that it was as large or as passionate as it turned out to be.”
Project Eternity, as it was known early on in its Kickstarter campaign, hit that goal in just two days. In the month that followed, that figure rose to just short of $4 million, pledged by 73,986 backers. Despite narrowly missing its final stretch goal by $14K, the Pillars crowdfunding effort could only be considered a success story. However, as Sawyer explains, developing a game amidst such moving goalposts posed a formidable challenge.
“The Kickstarter campaign was very gruelling, which is a common theme other people who have been through the [same] process have reported. It sounds like a silly complaint: ‘Oh god, it was so successful, we had to keep working so hard at it.’ But we had preliminarily discussed [a budgeting plan] and we really didn’t think we’d have to move on that for a few weeks. So when the money started coming in, we realised ‘Oh crap, we really have to move quickly with this.’ We launched on a Friday, and the next day we were in the office at 8AM on a Saturday going, like, ‘Oh crap, we have to figure this out right now.’”
In many cases, Sawyer says, the team were using their best guesses to assess how much certain elements of their game would cost. “For example, we had our two big city goals. It was like, does it cost five hundred thousand dollars to make a huge city? It seems like maybe it’s more. Does it cost a hundred thousand dollars to make a Linux version or a Mac version? I don’t know.”
With backers continuing to tick off the project’s stretch goals, the team had to decide where to allocate their time and money quickly, and commit to those decisions. Ultimately, Sawyer concedes, it led to certain features such as the player’s upgradable estate, Stronghold, “not quite getting as much attention as it should have.” With the game garnering a Metascore of 89 at launch, though, and many of the rough edges subsequently ironed out in post-release updates, Sawyer is in a position to reflect on any mistakes without too much chagrin.
Among Pillars of Eternity’s stretch goals was an expansion called The White March, the first part of which was released recently. While the base game draws much inspiration from the Baldur’s Gate series, often described as a spiritual sequel, The White March finds inspiration from the sub-zero climes of another Black Isle RPG family: Icewind Dale.
“It’s not really that big of a departure,” says Sawyer, “but in the base game we very much made something that was very cosy, very Dalelands, very temperate. Meadows and forests and things like that.” The White March is a chance to put the player in a more perilous environment, then, while servicing the Pillars community with yet more Infinity Engine nostalgia.
But while the expansion is obviously a conscious effort to summon something old, the question of Pillars being a spiritual sequel to Baldur’s Gate is less straightforward. There’s the matter of the actual Baldur’s Gate threequel (aka Project Jefferson), announced back in 2002 by Black Isle and publisher Interplay, and cancelled in 2003.