So if there was one meticulously-crafted video game that you would all but sell your soul to play at the moment, what would it be? For me, it would be a party-based role-playing game with vibrant characters, vast amounts of branching dialogue, beautifully painted two-dimensional backdrops, and history-rich equipment that hearkens back to what we saw in the Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape Torment titles. And today I find myself in extremely fortunate circumstances, as it's no longer something I have to dream about. That's because the RPG veterans at Obsidian Entertainment have just launched a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of crowd-funding such a title, and its name is Project Eternity.
As fate would have it, I actually played a small role in getting the development wheels turning on Project Eternity. While the lengthy chat I had with Obsidian Entertainment CEO Feargus Urquhart during E3 2010 isn't entirely represented in that previously linked interview, it was clear to me at the time that Feargus felt the same way as I did - that the Infinity Engine was one of the greatest RPG engines ever created, and that its retirement wasn't due to a lack of demand for the style of gaming that it provided, but rather the many turbulent forces within the industry that were pushing back against developers who aspired to keep building new games with it. But these forces have no bearing on Kickstarter, and so it's with great exuberance that I bring you the very first details on this IE-influenced game through yet another publisher-free chat I had with Mr. Urquhart earlier this week:
Buck: Alright, wait a minute. Was Project Eternity really inspired by the old-school CRPG talk you and I had at the Square Enix booth during E3 2010?
Feargus: It was absolutely inspired by our talk. At Obsidian, we would often reminisce about the Infinity Engine games, but it was hard to come up with a way to get one started. After you and I talked at E3, I mentioned it to more people and even talked with an investor about getting it going. However, as the Kickstarter momentum got going, it brought the conversations back and we were all sitting around one day and said “Let’s do it!”.
Buck: Why do you feel that now is a good time to pursue a party-based, IE-inspired RPG, and why do feel that Kickstarter is the best way to do it?
Feargus: The reason is not a whole lot different than what we talked about a couple of years ago. It’s not as if people stopped wanting games like Icewind Dale or Baldur’s Gate, it was more that BioWare moved on as a studio and Black Isle went away. I hear from people all the time that they run out of the newer games to play and go back and play Baldur’s Gate 2 or Torment for the fifth or sixth time. What Kickstarter does is let us make a game that is absolutely reminiscent of those great games, since trying to get that funded through a traditional publisher would be next to impossible.
Buck: What sort of style and play experience are you hoping to achieve with Project Eternity? What is it about the game's premise and engine (with two-dimensional painted backgrounds!) that wouldn't fit into a traditional developer/publisher arrangement?
Feargus: We absolutely want to bring back what was great about the Infinity Engine games. While we plan to improve some things based upon what we think fans of the older games expect now-a-days (like the interface), Project Eternity is going to play and feel like an Infinity Engine game.
When it comes to not fitting into the traditional developer/publisher arrangement, it is probably going to sound like we are giving publishers a really bad rap. In some ways that’s true, but in other ways – this kind of project is just not one that fits in the traditional model. The big publishers are built around making games that cost millions of dollars to make, millions of dollars to promote and market and millions more to build the units that get shipped to stores. Their organizations are built around that model. To make the same amount of revenue on games like Project Eternity, they would have to ship hundreds of games a year instead of ten or twenty. They are just not built that way. Plus, with Kickstarter, Steam and social media – we can fund, distribute and promote our games entirely ourselves. In a way, we just don’t need them for a game like Project Eternity.
Buck: Who are the people at Obsidian Entertainment that are actively working on the game? How large of a development team do you think you'll need to achieve your goals for the game?
Feargus: On top of Josh Sawyer, Tim Cain, Chris Avellone, and Adam Brennecke, we have a few other people working on technology and an entirely new rendering method that should surprise everyone when we are able to show it off. The ultimate size of the development team is going to be dependent on how the Kickstarter campaign goes – the more money we get in, the more people we are going to bring over onto the team.
Buck: What can you tell us about the entirely new fantasy world you're building, and would you categorize it as high/low magic or high/low/heroic fantasy? Why did you decide to go with fantasy instead of a lesser used theme, and what are some unique elements that set your world apart from the many others already out there?
Feargus: We talked a lot about the genre and to be honest we kept on coming back to fantasy. With all the experience we have had with a lot of varied fantasy settings, we are really looking for to taking our unique approach with factions, characters and mature themes to the setting. Ultimately, we really feel that what an RPG is about is the characters and the story – not the setting. Hit points are hit points whether you are killing past, present or future zombies. What engages and what keeps you going in an RPG are characters that you love and hate and story lines that tug at your emotions.
Buck: You stated that you're shooting for a mature game with themes that treat players as adults. Does this mean that there will be difficult choices with harsh consequences, realistic scenarios of repression, racism, and survival, bloody and ever-present war, shocking dialogue, or all of the above?
Feargus: Chris Avellone said it best when he talked about how we want tackle Mature subject matter. We are already getting to make South Park which gets all of the “dick and fart jokes” out of our system. In Project Eternity, we want to tell a story that treats players like adults. Does that mean sensationalistic topics – potentially. It means more that if a story is going in a direction our designers don’t need to shy away from how it concludes.
Buck: Speaking of dialogue, are you also using the Infinity Engine games as a source of inspiration for how to handle dialogue trees and voiceovers? Will there be voiceovers for major cutscenes and for flavor at the start of a conversation, but vast branches of dialogue that are text-only? Will our attributes, abilities, or previous actions affect our dialogue choices?
Feargus: Our goal is to use voice over as flavor and not as something that exists for every written word in the game. We don’t want to cut down on the depth of dialogs or the number of choices that players have because we are counting voice over dollars. That means, like practically every Obsidian project to date, we are going to push the boundaries of reactivity in our dialogs. And, the more we get funded the more we can do that.
Buck: Let's talk mechanics. While the game is certainly far from completion, what are your goals for the character creation and advancement system? Will progression be a standard affair with attributes and skills/perks/feats, or will you be treading into unknown territory? Finally, will there be a major focus on the non-combat abilities that are often overlooked in modern RPGs?
Feargus: Yes, yes and yes – we are still rolling up the system, but our goals are very much along the lines of creating a robust and multi-faceted RPG system. That means having a huge focus on support abilities and not just combat ones. Josh has been whiteboarding up a system for a number of months now for the support ability system and it’s looking very, very cool.
Buck: As you're going with a fantasy world, one would assume that there will be a magic system of some kind. What are your goals for the game's magic system, and will the spells that we gain access to be reminiscient of the D&D-based arsenal we had in the IE games?
Feargus: We will be talking about the magic system more in the coming week and months, but we are tying magic and overall potential of all characters to the power of a character’s soul. Player characters and companions are among the people in the world with great potential, those with "unbroken" or "strong" souls. As for the spell types, we’ll definitely see spells that give that us that D&D feeling. But, we want to use the connection between power and the soul as an added factor into every part of the character development system – including magic.
Buck: Will you be going with a similar "real-time with pause" combat system that was present in the IE titles? What do you feel are the advantages, disadvantages, and challenges of implementing such a combat system?
Feargus: Personally, I have always loved the real-time pause system other than when we first had to have the conversation with TSR / Wizards of the Coast about how every person or creature was on their own individual round in combat. That all eventually turned out fine and the D&D team was always extremely supportive particularly when we moved Icewind Dale 2 over from 2nd Edition to 3rd Edition. There were a ton of conversations about how to make sure the way that the Infinity Engine did magic could stay true enough to the rules.
I probably digressed a bit there, didn’t I? The system itself (real-time with pause) works great for robust RPG systems that have a lot of moving parts and encourage the player to not just throw their characters at the enemy, but to think tactically. I always love the big battles in Baldur’s Gate 2 – the felt like puzzles that I had to crack in order to win with a minimum of casualties on my side.
As for disadvantages – that’s a tough one to answer. I think there is some feeling that taking some RPG systems that are designed as turn based and putting them into a real-time with pause system losses something in the translation. A lot of that has to do with timing and the fact that things don’t happen simultaneously in those systems. Pure turn based does let combat play out in a more like chess like way – which can definitely be fun. However, since we are designing Project Eternity from the start to use a real-time with pause system, we can avoid some of the translation issues that can happen when taking a table top game into that arena.