23 hours. That’s all it took for Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire to be crowdfunded on Fig.
Back in 2012, Pillars of Eternity broke records, becoming the highest funded video game at the time with over 77k backers raising more than $4m on Kickstarter.
For the sequel, not only did Obsidian manage to reach the $1.1m goal in less than 23h, but the campaign ended at $4.4m – 400 per cent of the goal – and accounted for the majority of all funds raised on Fig in 2017 (the platform raised $5.6m last year).
“We’ve done this twice and both times we’ve been very nervous,” design director Josh Sawyer tells MCV. “For Deadfire, I think there was a lot of concern and doubt about switching to Fig. We already had this fanbase on Kickstarter but there was potential for more money on Fig through investment. It’s a platform that we don’t know that much about and that doesn’t have that many titles on it, so we were nervous and wondered ‘Can it hit the target? Is it going to exceed the target? If it does, by how much?’ Thankfully it worked out really well.”
It’s fair to assume that with Obsidian’s CEO Feargus Urquhart sitting on Fig’s advisory board and having been instrumental in launching the crowdfunding platform back in 2015, the decision to move to Fig was very much an educated choice.
Considering the success of Pillars, Sawyer adds that Deadfire “could have [been] done without crowdfunding,” but the need for additional income to make the game extra polished was what motivated the decision: “All the rendering in the game has been overhauled, we completely rewrote the AI system. We did all this from scratch.”
He continues: “The whole point of us trying to crowdfund this was to say: ‘Let’s make something that we can really build’. And that is ours. This year is the 15th anniversary of Obsidian and this is the first time we have the ability to make a sequel to a game that we’ve made. That really shows you how important it is to us to have the ability to iterate on this.”
Being able to retain full control of Obsidian’s only IP was a key factor when choosing to crowdfund both titles, Sawyer explains.
“That’s one of the nice things about crowdfunding – no offense to publishers. Don’t get me wrong: there are some publishers that are very hands off about what we do but it is nice to really focus on the fanbase. It’s nice to look at their feedback, see how they’re playing the game and respond to them. The fact that it’s crowdfunded makes that even more important and it means that we’re not beholden to a publisher who’s saying: ‘No, you have to make it this way’.”
Obsidian does have a publishing partner though, The Banner Saga publisher Versus Evil (see our interview with general manager Steve Escalante), to manage marketing and distribution.
Sawyer explains this choice: “We considered self publishing for a while but publishing is not easy. If it was easy, everyone would self publish. As time went by and we got deeper into development it became obvious that we needed a partner. Versus Evil seemed like a good fit. The Banner Saga is a very cool series, and it seems to be comparable [to Pillars]: it’s niche but has a very enthusiastic fanbase.”
Versus Evil has chosen THQ Nordic to handle the distribution of the boxed version of Deadfire, including its collector’s edition that includes many extras – something essential for Sawyer.
“I started at Black Isle Studios in the late 90s and one of the things we found is that players really do like – if not necessarily the physical box – manuals, maps, tokens… I remember all the way back to when my grandma bought Ultima V for me in the late 80s and it came with the book of lore, a silver medallion and a cloth map. I still have those.”
At this point in the interview, we get a bit off track discussing Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale manuals that we still own – absolute bibles for old-school RPG fans. And it turns out things haven’t changed that much, as there has been a lot of demand from Pillars fans. Obsidian even has a producer devoted to handling the production of physical goods.
“I think that a lot of our physical sales go for the collector’s editions and that’s a common trend: when there are physical sales, people tend to go for the really big deluxe edition that has all the goodies,” Sawyer adds.
What the Pillars fanbase wants, the Pillars fanbase gets: Obsidian has been very attentive to backers’ feedback during Deadfire’s development, and has made changes accordingly. During our chat, Sawyer is noticeably respectful, committed and attentive to the Pillars community. The fans are, after all, what allowed the studio to create the IP in the first place. Which is why Obsidian opted for a backers-only beta.
“Since the beta started we’ve changed combat pacing quite a great deal, we’ve changed the speed of a lot of basic attacks, we’ve also changed movement speed so that characters move more slowly. A lot of people found it very difficult to control what was going on in the battlefield,” Sawyer explains. And these examples are only a tiny portion of all the feedback being re-injected into the game when relevant.
The beta was also the perfect way to get backers’ feedback on the big novelty of Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire: the new ship management features.
“We had a stronghold in Pillars and it wasn’t that good and a lot of people didn’t enjoy it. They felt the mechanics were a little shallow,” Sawyer explains. “More importantly the stronghold didn’t feel like it was really integrated into the story. So for a while we were talking about doing strongholds in Deadfire and the more we thought about it the more difficult it was to justify incorporating it into the story because you’re travelling all over the archipelago. Finally we decided we should just have the ship be a stronghold. So we said: ‘What do we want to get out of the ship?’ and really we want you to feel like you are the captain of the ship and you have your crew, distinct from your companions. Your companions are traveling with you and the crew members are relying on you and also helping you navigate the world.”
Exploration, tactical naval combat, upgrading and customising ships and levelling up your sailors are among the many things that can be done in Deadfire, though most of it is “optional,” Sawyer says, and players don’t have to engage in deep naval combat if they don’t want to. And even without the ship management features, Deadfire is bigger than the first entry.
He continues: “With Pillars we were really happy about how it came out but we also looked at it and said: ‘There’s a lot of stuff we could have done better’. So I think that the overall level of polishing and refinement in [Deadfire] is the greatest accomplishment of it.”
Deadfire is certainly not the end of the road for the Pillars of Eternity franchise. Obsidian has about a bazillion ideas for the future of the IP.
“We always have to think about the future even if we are not necessarily working on it,” Sawyer says. “If Deadfire is successful, we are probably going to make a third game, but I also think that there are other possibilities for this IP. I’m working on a tabletop RPG set in the Pillars world. We are also looking at options for things like an exploration first-person style of game set in the Pillars universe. We’re also interested in a turn-based tactics game that is less focussed on exploration and more on tactical combat. A lot of fans have offered opinions on that and I think a game like that could have a broader reach. So really we view the Pillars IP not as something that is just strictly for this style of game, there’s lot more potential for it.”
And that logic applies to other projects: Obsidian doesn’t want to be a one IP, one genre studio.
“Being able to develop and own their own IP is the sort of dream that companies have. And it took us quite a long time to get to the point where we could actually do that, now that we have it we really want to make the most use of it,” Sawyer continues. “Hopefully once we have a solid enough footing we can have additional IPs that we also retain control over. We like doing fantasy games but there’s more to role-playing games than just fantasy. And a lot of us like the idea of more radical RPGs, things like Alpha Protocol… I think people liked working on it because it was a role-playing game that was modern day espionage, which is not often explored.”
Whether or not these projects will see the light of day thanks to crowdfunding remains to be seen however, as Sawyer highlights the uncertainty of the platform… and the pressure of the process on developers.
“Crowdfunding is still such a new thing, even after all these years. It’s unclear how long all of this will be viable. So it’ll be interesting to see where things go in the future.
“I do think that the initial rush is over now. In my mind I’m hoping it settles into something that is a little more predictable, because even though it’s great when you succeed, it’s very nerve-racking and anxiety-inducing to be involved in these campaigns.”
Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire is out on April 3rd. If you want to learn more, you can also read our interview with Versus Evil's general manager Steve Escalante.