Pillars of Eternity Interview

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Paradox Interactive
Developer:Obsidian Entertainment
Release Date:2015-03-26
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay

It's been nearly 14 months since Project Eternity was successfully funded through Kickstarter and nearly 15 since we kicked off our Immortalization campaign, and today officially marks the largest unveiling of the game since then. Not only has Obsidian Entertainment announced the game's title as Pillars of Eternity and kicked off a new backer portal, but they've also treated us to some exclusive screenshots and provided us with a generous helping of information about the RPG through the interview you're about to read.

And so we charge into the five-page Q&A, with project director and creative lead Josh Sawyer handling all of the answers:

Buck: Reading through the nearly 70 updates you've posted to date, one thing is abundantly clear: there is a lot of excitement at Obsidian Entertainment when developing this game. How liberating is it to be able to give 110% to this game, to have a legion of fans supporting it, and to know that many of the roadblocks involved with publisher-backed development are non-existent this time around?

Josh: It's been great so far. We've focused a lot of our effort on capturing the feeling of the old games -- in responsiveness, GUIs, the style of characters and equipment, the look of environments, how we structure dialogues, etc. It's nice to have two sources of discussion, internal (devs) and external (fans), without a third party complicating matters. We don't feel like we're making Eternity for a mythic, nebulous audience defined on a spreadsheet.

Buck: What are the (Pillars of Eternity) and for what reason will we be seeking them out? Do you care to elaborate on the significance of the (No Sleep For The Watch/er) phrase at the video's conclusion?

Josh: It is a mystery.

Buck: So far, you've announced the Barbarian, Chanter, Cipher, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Priest, Ranger, Rogue, and Wizard. Do you have any other surprises in store for us yet, or is this the full list of professions planned for day one?

Josh: I'm sure we'll have more surprises, but we're not adding any more classes! Eleven is more than enough to make from scratch. Tim Cain has done a great job implementing and iterating on the classes and their mechanics. We've still got a lot of work to do, but I'm confident that players will enjoy playing their favorite classes as well as the new ones we've thrown into the mix.

Buck: What should we expect from character attributes and their implications in the game? What role will they play throughout the game outside of derived bonuses?

Josh: Attributes all determine a variety of bonuses for characters and they are now the main component of a character's defenses, so they are extremely important in that regard. We've put a lot of thought into defining the attributes to ensure that every character class can gain something from a particular build. We're not trying to make everything perfectly balanced, but we do want players to feel like there are viable concepts for every attribute/class combination.

Outside of their derived benefits, attributes are the most commonly-checked character elements in dialogue and scripted interactions. We check things like skills, races, and classes as well, but attributes are the stats we check most often. Even the physical attributes will open up possibilities for player to take actions in the context of a conversation. The options that open up are not always beneficial in a conversation, but they do give you a wider range of expression based on your character's build.

Buck: Can you please share the design approach you're taking toward character health, regeneration, death, and resurrection in Pillars of Eternity? Will characters sustain permanent injuries of any kind after being incapacitated during a battle?

Josh: Party members have two health-related resources to monitor: Stamina and Health. When characters take damage, the damage is first applied to Stamina, which represents resistance to short-term injury. Stamina is relatively easy to recover through items and spells and it replenished quickly once combat has ended. However, if a character loses all of his or her Stamina, they will go unconscious. Some abilities can revive an unconscious character, but otherwise they are out of the fight until combat ends.

Health represents long-term injury. Health loss occurs at the same time as Stamina loss, but at a fraction of the value (1/4). So if a character takes 20 points of damage (after armor is accounted for), he or she would lose 20 points of Stamina and 5 points of Health.

Health is much more difficult to recover. It doesn't regenerate on its own and neither items nor spells can bring it back. Only rest can restore Health. In standard gameplay, when a character hits 0 Health, they are not only knocked unconscious, but receive a Maimed status. They can get back up after combat, but they are stuck at 1 Health and suffer a variety of penalties until they rest. While a Maimed character can chose to participate in combat, they are much less effective and will typically drop from even a minor hit.

In Expert mode (or when optionally enabled in standard gameplay), players can opt to turn on full character death. In those circumstances, 0 Health results in the character permanently dying. There is no resurrection in Eternity.

Buck: How are you implementing party formations in the game? Will players have the ability to switch between multiple formations or customize their own, and will this be necessary to protect the weaker members of the party from ambushes or traps?

Josh: Players will have the ability to switch formations. We would like to support custom formations but we haven't finalized plans for that. Formations can be important for protecting more vulnerable characters in certain circumstances because we often design encounters to attack the party from multiple directions.

Buck: By default, will the party leader always be the one entering into conversations with NPCs and party members' attributes/skills will automatically come into play during dialogue? Or will we have to select the character we want to use for the conversation before entering into dialogue?

Josh: The story follows your main character, so your character is always the primary party speaker in conversations. As in the Infinity Engine games, companions will interject when it makes sense for them to do so.

Buck: Have you had any other notable collaborations with your backers regarding their special content? Do you see these requests as limiting, or a chance to do something fun or interesting that may not have occurred to you normally?

Josh: They're not limiting in most cases because we're creating our content to mesh with the backer-created content. Our expectation is that we will work together with the backers to make inns/adventuring companies/items that fit into the world while fitting their vision. That said, sometimes the things that stick out a bit help bring great flavor to the world, so I want to be flexible and have a good back-and-forth if I think it's going to produce something players will enjoy.

Buck: The stronghold you debuted in Update #66 had a before and after visual accompanying it. Can you give us an idea of what it's going to take for a player to restore such a stronghold to its former glory?

Josh: Time and money, mostly. :) First you need to get the stronghold in its dilapidated state, then you need to work with your steward to make the magic happen. As soon as you get the stronghold you can start interacting with the gameplay elements, but we expect it will take a long time to fully upgrade every element.

Buck: In update #63, Tim revealed that our strongholds will house prisons, and that "named NPCs" can be barred inside as tools for future endeavors. How often will we have the opportunity to take enemies prisoner? Is this a mechanic that is only going to be available during scripted events?

Josh: It's purely scripted, only when it makes sense to provide the opportunity. We'd rather have custom interactivity with prisoners than generic lines for any old person you meet in the world.

Buck: Are you drawing most of your inspiration for the combat system in Pillars of Eternity from the Infinity Engine games? Will we be facing a large number of foes during key battles, and are there any concessions you've had to make in regard to the number of enemies we're facing at a given time? Are you ensuring that most classes have some sort of crowd control ability to help even the odds?

Josh: We shouldn't have any problems with having a lot of combatants. Things can slow down a little when things get really nuts, but overall we can support big fights with a lot of combatants and spells/wacky things going on. Druids, wizards, and barbarians are the crowd-stomping powerhouses but several other classes have abilities in that field as well.

Buck: How are you approaching enemy design? We've seen a few previews of baddies so far, but what are you doing to ensure that enemies are unique from each other and need special tactics to bring down rather than just charging them with your fighters and hammering them with your biggest attack spells? Will enemies have special abilities or scripting not available to the player, to add extra challenge?

Josh: We're designing the enemies to be mechanically distinctive in a variety of ways, mostly through their basic statistics and abilities. To tune creatures, I take common party tactics and apply them until I've found an enemy behavior, placement, or stat setup that breaks the tactic. After that, I try to foster a variety of ways that different parties can overcome the enemy using other tactics. By combining different enemies who have contrasting strengths and vulnerabilities, the player has to prioritize and adapt from battle to battle.

Buck: Why did you make the decision to remove item durability and degradation, despite these being planned for implementation in the beginning? Do you feel that having any type of item wear detracts from the game in a measurable way?

Josh: It wasn't actually planned for from the beginning, but when we developed the Crafting skill, there didn't seem to be much applicability for it from the perspective of an individual character. In a game where you're most likely to gain additional companions over the course of the game, it's very easy for you to find that you and a companion have redundant skills.

Redundancy is only a problem if the skill operates solely as a key for a variety of systemic locks. Traditional "Lockpicking" skills are the literal example of this. Only one person needs to open the door; everyone else can walk on through. If someone in the party is King Lockpick, another party member with 75% or 50% of the King's score may as well have 0% of the score. The bench-warming lockpicker gains nothing for their investment in the skill. We're trying to avoid this as much as possible.

For us, tying personal item degradation rate to the Crafting skill of the user solved two problems. First, it made Crafting valuable to any character who took it. Second, it provided a money sink in a style of game that typically does not have many.

I decided to remove the Crafting skill (not the system, just the skill itself) along with durability because many players didn't like the idea of durability in this game and/or didn't care about the economic implications (most of which would appear in the late game). Without the individual character benefit, the Crafting skill didn't meet the criteria for inclusion, so it was removed.

Does not having item degradation detract from the game in any measurable way? It's one fewer skill, but it was a skill that was tied to a system that still exists without it. It does mean player wealth will accumulate faster because that sink doesn't exist. But as I wrote above, mechanical additions that the player doesn't value over the course of the game should either be modified or removed.

And really, the bottom line is player enjoyment. Challenge is part of enjoyment and even routine activities like item repair can be part of enjoyment. In series like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or Fallout, it can be part of what's enjoyable because it fits the setting. Systemic item degradation and repair mechanics have never been part of the IE games (and are only rarely used in any edition of A/D&D) so they feel less appropriate.

Buck: Can you please elaborate on some of the game's non-combat skills such as Mechanic and Survival, their importance in the game, and how often we'll be using them? Will all of these skills be equally as valuable, and will they complement combat skills in any measurable way?

Josh: Mechanics can be used to find and disable traps as well as to open locks. For individual characters, it determines the power of traps that the character sets. Only one trap per-character can be active at a time, so even if you have a party of rogues who all have maxed-out Mechanics, it's valuable.

Survival is used to determine how long the effects of consumable foods, drinks (including potions), and drugs last. Their durations are modified based on the user's Survival, so individual characters can derive a lot of benefit from investment in it.

Additionally, Mechanics and Survival can be used in scripted interactions and, less commonly, in conversations. Those uses are not systemic, but depend on the circumstances of the interaction.

As with most of our character build options, we want to make all choices valuable to the player, so even in scripted interactions we want to make regular use of each skill.

Buck: A deliberate focus on thieving abilities, particularly the ability to find secret doors, has been considerably lacking in a vast majority of role-playing games in recent memory. How will Pillars of Eternity handle secret doors, traps, lockpicking, thieving, disguises, and other roguish elements?

Josh: We use a combined searching/sneaking state called Scouting Mode. When you activate it, characters slow to a walk and your Stealth and Mechanics skills turn on -- the former to hide, the latter to find hidden objects.

Unlike the Infinity Engine games, searching is not on a 6 second timer, but it is possible to overrun a trap if you aren't careful. The higher a character's Mechanics skill is, the farther away from the object (trap, door, etc.) he or she can be before detecting it.

Detecting a trap is no guarantee that the character can disable it. If no one in the party has the required skill, the trap is still visible, but you will either have to set it off or find some way around it.

Lockpicking is also handled by the Mechanics skill. Pickpocketing/sleight-of-hand instances are special cases. They are covered by the Dexterity attribute (not skill) in conversations and scripted interactions.

As a side note, no class has restrictions on what skills they can purchase. Rogues get a free bonus to both the Mechanics and Stealth skills, but all classes can buy them.

Buck: While we're on the thieving front, what do you intend to be the penalty for player characters who are caught thieving and/or breaking the law within a patrolled area? Will we be saving our game on a regular basis before carrying out any such mischievery, or will there be other options for us to deal with encounters with the law?

Josh: That will depend on the area, honestly. We're not going to go overboard with crime and punishment systems but there will be some reactivity.

Buck: How are you approaching itemization in Eternity? Obsidian has dabbled with randomly-generated loot in the past, so will we be seeing Diablo-style prefixes and suffixes on items, or are you concentrating on more unique items with special and unconventional effects? As for rewards from quests and dungeoneering, one problem that has traditionally existed in RPGs is providing players items they don't need, like a sword for a wizard. Are you using any sort of scaled rewards, selecting them based on class, or offering players a choice of reward?

Josh: We're not using randomly generated items, but hand-built items in lightly randomized lists. Our unique items have their own histories and a mix of common effects with a few rare or truly unique ones.

Our equipment system is less restrictive than D&D and much less restrictive than AD&D. Combined with our party system, I don't think that finding uses for items will be a stumbling block in Eternity.

Buck: As crafting is a significant component in Eternity, how much of our characters' equipment are you targeting to be acquired through purchasing vs. looting vs. crafting? Which of these three are you focusing on for the most powerful equipment in the game?

Josh: Most of our crafting is focused on creating consumable items or adding effects to equipment, though we will also have special quests (like Crom Faeyr or Cera Sumat in Baldur's Gate II and Icewind Dale II, respectively) to find or assemble powerful items.

The majority of your gear will be found and purchased with crafting allowing you to add further customization. The most powerful items will likely be found in optional, high-difficulty areas. However, even those can potentially be modified with crafting.

Buck: What can you tell us about the game's inventory management at this stage of development? Will the managing of our backpacks be tied to encumbrance, the size of the objects we're carrying, or both?

Josh: Each item or stack takes a single inventory slot as in the Infinity Engine games. Every party member has his or her own pack on the shared inventory screen. The number of pack slots available to each character depends on his or her Strength score (and possibly Talents). Pack sizes are smaller than they were in the Infinity Engine games, but the party also has a separate stash where they can store items that don't get regular use.

The stash can be accessed for deposits at any time but players can only retrieve items from the stash when they are at certain locations (e.g. camps and merchants).

Buck: Will buying/selling items in regular intervals be a requirement, and do you ever foresee the need for a player to leave an area and/or backtrack to take care of inventory-related needs at their stronghold or at the planned stash?

Josh: It won't be a requirement, no. When picking up items, the players will have decisions to make because their packs fill up quickly. Pack size limits their options in the field, but the stash can easily be used for overflow.

Buck: You've given us a brief glimpse of the game's dialogue system and the alpha UI you've built for it, but can you describe how the dialogue system has evolved from what we've become accustomed to over the years? In particular, how does it compare and contrast to the Infinity Engine games or, for example, Fallout: New Vegas or Neverwinter Nights 2? Do skills, attributes, and previous choices consistently play a role in the dialogue options presented to the player?

Josh: We want our dialogue to be very reactive both to how you build your character and how you role-play over the course of the game. Attributes come up in dialogue very often, but as with other stats, the options they provide are not always the ideal way through a conversation.

As in Fallout: New Vegas, we track faction reputation. We also track your personality reputation, which is the sum of how you generally behave. If you are consistently diplomatic, hot-tempered, stoic, or cruel, we want you to feel like you are developing a reputation for being that kind of character in the world.

Perhaps to many the most appealing new feature we're implementing is the ability to turn off the game mechanic indicators that we use in dialogue. By default, players will see when an option has been opened up because of a particular attribute or if it will influence a reputation. In Expert mode, these are all turned off automatically. In standard games, players can turn them off or on as they see fit.

Buck: To help build a vibrant modding community, early in development you stated that you're going to "release our file-format information and expose as much of the data in the game as possible." Has anything changed on this front? What are you doing to ensure that prospective modders have everything they need to shape the game well into the future? Is there any concern that this will impact your own DLC plans?

Josh: Nothing has really changed in our plans, but we probably won't have any more details on this for a while.

Buck: What can you tell us about "The Endless Paths of Od Nua" mega dungeon at this point in time? How far along is development on the dungeon, and how is it going to factor into the storyline? Are there any dungeons from the Infinity Engine games that you'd liken it to?

Josh: We're developing The Endless Paths of Od Nua right now. The artists are in the home stretch on it and it looks great. The Endless Paths can be found relatively early in the but the player only has to dip his or her toes into the dungeon on the critical path. We're designing the progression so the challenge ramps more quickly than you can level-up within the dungeon. We suspect many players will periodically retreat and come back later to tackle challenging levels.

I wouldn't liken it to any Infinity Engine dungeons, honestly. A 15 level dungeon is huge. In some ways, it could be thought of as similar in flavor to Dragon's Eye from Icewind Dale. Each level has a different ecology in it that relates to the levels above and below. Naturally, there is an over-arching optional quest that you can pursue from top to bottom.

Buck: Thanks for your time, Josh!