Tyranny Interview

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Paradox Interactive
Developer:Obsidian Entertainment
Release Date:2016-11-10
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Buy this Game: Amazon ebay

Obsidian Entertainment seems to be in a far better financial position these days, thanks in no small part to the success of Pillars of Eternity, their crowdfunded isometric RPG, which they released with the help of Paradox Interactive. The next step of the collaboration between the Californian studio and the Swedish publisher is Tyranny, another isometric CRPG based on the same foundations as PoE but with quite a few changes to the formula, starting from a bronze age setting where "evil won."

We've been keen to hear more information on the title ever since its announcent in March and got in touch with game director Brian Heins to ask him a bevy of questions about it. We're confident you'll be interested in the answers you'll be able to read just below:

GB: Before we dive into specifics, can you give us a quick update on where the development of Tyranny currently stands and any further information regarding the release window you’re targeting for the game outside of "this year"?

Brian: Right now Tyranny is in its Beta stage, meaning that we have all of the content in the game and we’re focusing on fixing bugs, balancing gameplay, and trying to refine systems and presentation wherever we can. We’re playing through the various areas and quests as often as possible, looking for progression breaks and presentation issues, and working on fixing as many of them as possible.

"This year" is the best answer I can give on our release window at this point, until Paradox decides when they want to release a more specific date.

GB: For those fans who have spent a considerable amount of time with Pillars of Eternity and its expansions, can you compare and contrast the games across both their design tenets and technological foundations? Additionally, can you elaborate on any development efforts you’ve made to address the performance and loading time concerns that fans have raised regarding PoE?

Brian: Tyranny is built on the foundation created by the Pillars of Eternity team, so fans of Pillars will find many similarities between the two games. Both games are party-based isometric CRPGs that use real-time with pause combat systems. On the technical side, for Tyranny we were able to update the engine to Unity 5 which gave us some performance improvements over Unity 4, which Pillars shipped on.

On the design side, there are several differences between the two games. One of Pillars of Eternity’s goals was to create an experience that was true to the old Infinity Engine games like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale. That goal shaped a lot of the game’s direction, from the questing experience to the interface.

For Tyranny, we wanted to play with that formula a bit. By not trying to hold as true to that same experience, it allowed us to make changes like reducing the party size, creating an RPG system based on character skill rather than class, and focusing on a smaller game with a higher level of reactivity to player choices.

It would take a lot more space and time to compare every element of the two games, but those are some of the higher-level differences.

GB: The "evil has won" tagline that Tyranny carries means that Kyros the Overlord has conquered much of the known world and imposed his own brand of law and justice, some of which we've experienced in one of your developer diaries. But what exactly characterizes Kyros as "evil" compared to the moral and ethics standards of the setting? What kind of social order did Kyros upset?

Brian: By conquering the known world, Kyros’ Empire has imposed a single, very rigid, view of how society should operate on a large number of nations and cultures. Individuality is suppressed in favor of conforming to the Empire’s laws and traditions. Is that evil?

In Kyros’ view, it’s an absolute good. The various nations and peoples of Terratus were constantly at war with each other. Fighting over food, water, and resources would escalate into fights over pride and honor. Entire generations grew up without ever knowing what ‘peace’ was. By imposing a single law over the entire world, Kyros tries to eliminate the differences between people that lead to conflict and war. If everyone just does what they’re told, when they’re told, everyone will get along just fine.

It’s a perfect utopia, as long as you’re the one who gets to decide what everyone else should do, or are someone who agrees with what they’re being told. If you don’t – or can’t – agree, then you are brutally punished or forced to comply with the Overlord’s laws.

GB: Tyranny is set in the transitional era between the bronze and the iron age of its fictional setting. How much will the setting be influenced by that period of our own planet's history, and how much will the presence of powerful magical forces and fantastical creatures make it diverge? How will that influence the plotlines and mechanics of the game?

Brian: Tyranny is a fantasy RPG rather than an historical RPG, so it’s influenced by this period in our history but doesn’t try to emulate it. I decided to set the game at this transition point for a couple of reasons.

First, it creates a plausible reason to explain why Kyros was able to conquer. Creating bronze weapons and armor was expensive. Often you had to trade with neighbors to get the metals needed to alloy bronze. It took skilled smiths to reliably mix the metals in the proper ratio to create bronze hard enough to serve as weapons and armor. Both of these meant that most nations could only afford to outfit a small number of soldiers with bronze weapons or armor.

Iron weapons had the advantage of only needing a single source of metal to create. Once people figured out how to smelt iron ore, it became much cheaper to outfit a larger number of soldiers. Early iron weapons weren’t better than bronze – they were often heavy and brittle. A bronze sword might bend or grow dull in combat, but it wouldn’t shatter. However, when you can outfit ten soldiers in iron for the cost of one soldier in bronze, you’re able to bring a much larger force to the field.

This was one of the things that allowed Kyros to conquer. The Overlord controls the secret of smelting iron ore, so has access to a cheaper source of weapons and armor, and can outfit a much larger army than any other nation that tried to resist.

Secondly, Bronze Age warfare was more up-close and brutal. There weren’t guns or firearms that allowed you to kill enemies from a distance. You fought at sword or spear-length, or hurled javelins from a shorter distance. For a world where evil won, I wanted to capture some of that feel in our combat.

GB: While you have talked about the setting and the protagonist's role in more than one interview and developer diary, you have been very tight-lipped about the premise of the game. Can you give us a vague idea of the sort of story arc Tyranny will offer to players?

Brian: We don’t want to reveal the game’s story prior to release, since we want players to experience it fresh while they’re playing the game. So far we’ve revealed that the game takes place in the last conquered section of the world – known as the Tiers. You begin the game as a Fatebinder, an agent of one of Kyros’ Archons, sent to bring Kyros’ laws to conquered lands. You start the game as part of the conquering evil army. What happens from there will depend on your decisions.

GB: In Pillars of Eternity, companions were optional and didn't have a direct effect on most of the game's questlines or its central plot. Can you give us an idea of the role that companions will play in Tyranny and how they’re integrated into the game? Can we expect them to chime in during a quest or a plot point, either to lend aid or perhaps even stand in our way?

Brian: Players will definitely want to bring Companions with them as they travel through Tyranny. Companions have skills the player may not possess, and all of their abilities are unique to them. They’re able to perform actions in combat that aren’t available to the player. In addition, we’ve added our Companion Combo abilities, combat abilities that allow the player and a Companion to work together in concert to perform powerful effects that can change how combat plays out.

When it comes to quests and conversations, there are definitely times when Companions will interject their opinions into the dialogue. Sometimes they’ll even offer to resolve a problem for you. How you handle these interjections will shape your Companion’s reputation, which will in turn unlock additional Companion Combo abilities.

Each of our Companions is a distinct personality, with their own strong opinions on what you decide to do. From my own playthroughs of the game I can say that bringing different Companions with you will definitely change your experience of quests and combat.

Ultimately, if a player wants to travel through Tyranny solo, they are able to do that. They’ll have a more complete experience of the game if they travel with a full party.

GB: One recurrent criticism of Pillars of Eternity has been that its prose is sometimes too overwrought and its plot too slow-paced. While Tyranny doesn't share the same creative teams, some Obsidian developers and writers in particular have worked on both. Do you consider these criticisms of Pillars of Eternity to be fair, and have you applied any such feedback to the writing approach you’ve taken with Tyranny?

Brian: We always try to look at players’ reactions to our games, trying to learn from what worked and what didn’t. Tyranny has a different narrative style than Pillars, but that’s mostly driven by the fact that we are a smaller game that focuses on giving players the chance to play in an evil world, with multiple different paths through the story. Those choices required us to take a different approach to how we write the game.

GB: Since the game's announcement, you've been keen to stress that Tyranny is a shorter RPG than Pillars of Eternity, but is more focused on offering many choices and consequences. Can you give us an idea of the breadth of the choices offered by the game? Will we be dealing largely with signposted moments like the showdown you used as your E3 demo, or will there be occasions where a seemingly benign choice earlier in the game will have a profound or unexpected effect much further into the game?

Brian: During character creation you get to decide how your character was involved in Kyros’ conquest of the Tiers. Those initial decisions will shape the starting state of the game, changing what some areas look like entirely, determining which factions are in control of others, as well as changing how various factions will react to you as you adventure through the game.

On top of those early choices, you can decide to ally with certain factions, which will unlock entirely different questlines for your character through the game.

Beyond those larger decisions, you’ll make a lot of choices about how you solve the problems you confront. How you make those decisions will change how various factions feel about you, which will have repercussions in later quests and interactions with those factions.

Basically, it’s a combination of the larger decisions that will shape the broad arc of the game’s story, and the moment to moment decisions that will change how your character resolves the problems they’re presented with.

GB: Speaking of reactivity, one of your previous games, Alpha Protocol, became something of a cult classic, largely because of the way even minor choices such as Mike Thorton's attire would be taken into consideration during the game. Can we expect this same attention to detail to be present in Tyranny, or will reactivity be largely limited to dialogue choices?

Brian: Reactivity is largely based on choices you make during character creation and in dialogue with NPCs throughout the game. We would have loved to include reactivity to things like what the player is wearing, but we simply didn’t have the time or localization budget to account for reactivity of that type. We’ve written over 700k words for the game so far, so there will be a ton of reactivity for players to explore.

GB: Our understanding is that Tyranny will feature many choices and a variety of paths for players to explore. How do you ensure that each of these are weighed against one another such that players don't feel punished for making the "wrong" choice, while at the same time offering substantial gameplay differences between them?

Brian: We try to design the choices such that players can’t make a ‘wrong’ one. There may be some that are more suited to their play style or goals, but we don’t want to give the player a choice where they feel punished for making the decision. It may open up a different quest path than what they originally thought, but that will give them a new option for how they play through the game.

GB: Tyranny utilizes a classless skill-based system, where skills will be improved through use rather than via level ups. This type of system is usually associated with more open-ended games where there's room for a lot of experimentation, while Tyranny sounds like a game with a tighter scope and a faster, more directed pace. Can you elaborate on why you chose to use such a progression system and how it has impacted your design approach in regard to interactivity with the world?

Brian: The simplest answer is probably that it’s my favorite type of RPG system. I’ve both worked on and played many games that use a similar skill system, from pen-and-paper to CRPGs to online games. So designing this type of RPG system for Tyranny felt a bit like coming home.

I personally like to create the hybrid character, the one that doesn’t fit neatly into any specific class. One of my goals with Tyranny’s RPG system was to allow players to make those type of characters easily, while still allowing for the pure fighter / mage / rogue archetypes as well. This type of skill system works really well with that goal, as someone who wishes to be both a fighter and a mage can practice both types of skills, and grow in strength naturally. And, if they decide partway through the game that they’re really liking the mage aspect they can naturally focus more on that by casting spells more frequently. It allows them to adapt their character to what they’re enjoying about the game.

One of the potential flaws with many skill-based progression systems is the ability for players to level up their skills / characters by doing mindlessly repetitive actions – climbing the same wall over and over, swimming back and forth across a safe stream, or sneaking next to a creature that’s scripted to not respond until a quest trigger happens. We designed our environment and dialogue skill checks such that they will only ever grant skill XP the first time they are used. So trying to game the system by climbing a wall over and over again will only waste the player’s time, not unbalance the experience progression. Combined with focusing on a small number of skills with broad applications lets us give players plenty of opportunities to increase their skills in a more controlled manner.

GB: You've recently outlined a series of changes to Tyranny’s combat, including the removal of friendly fire, which we’ve become accustomed to in the Infinity Engine RPGs and Pillars of Eternity. Can you elaborate on why you decided to remove friendly fire in Tyranny? How will this affect positioning as a tactical consideration during combat?

Brian: It was a pretty simple decision. At the end of the day, I wanted players to spend their time focusing on using their abilities to the greatest effect in combat, and not worrying about potentially affecting allies or enemies adversely. While that level of tactical planning can be fun, it wasn’t part of my goal for combat in Tyranny.

GB: Will Tyranny feature random encounters with enemies, or will most combat encounters be deliberately placed within the game? Random or not, will enemies be static in regard to their level/power or have you incorporated level scaling into the game?

Brian: Combat will occur with placed enemies, as with Pillars of Eternity. Some combats can be avoided or modified through dialogue options, but we don’t have any random encounter systems in place. We had ideas for systems along those lines during development, but ended up cutting them when we didn’t have the time to bring them to an acceptable level of polish.

There is level scaling in the game. Tyranny has a more open, branching structure than Pillars of Eternity did, which means that there are many different ways for players to travel through the world. The same area needs to support players arriving at level 5 or level 10, and provide them with interesting and engaging combat when they do so.

Enemies will scale within a level range, and their level becomes fixed when they are revealed by fog of war. So if you see an enemy and they are level 5, then leave the area, gain several levels and come back, they won’t suddenly increase in level. They’ll still be at level 5. On a different playthrough, if you went to that same area for the first time at level 8, the enemies would be a higher level.

The goal with this scaling is to keep combat interesting and not something you can just ignore on difficulty settings beyond Story mode. So far from our playtests its working out very well.

GB: You've often talked about the combat of Tyranny, but can you give us an idea of what we'll be doing outside of combat and how extensive the exploratory and non-combat aspects of Tyranny will be? Could you provide us with a brief example or two of the non-combat interactions we should expect from the game?

Brian: Outside of combat, Tyranny has a lot of the core RPG experiences our fans will look for: deep conversations with NPCs and their Companions, the ability to explore the world and solve puzzles, disarm traps, and interact with the environment, magic sigils to discover and learn, as well as a host of powerful items to create at the base you can upgrade.

As for how much of that – Tyranny aims to be 20-25 hours on a single playthrough. Those who try to do all of the side quests and extra content will have more time spent in the game, and any one playthrough won’t get you access to every area in the world.

GB: Can you elaborate on what we can expect from the equipment system in Tyranny? Will item statistics be entirely randomized, semi-randomized, fixed/hand created, or some type of hybrid combination? Additionally, will items be statically or randomly placed in the world?

Brian: Items are hand created rather than randomly generated. Most of the key/named items are hand placed, with some available as random loot drops.

Weapons and armor in Tyranny have a quality level that determines how good their respective stats are. These quality levels are Common, Fine, Superior, Exquisite, and Masterwork. One of the benefits of the player base is the ability to upgrade weapons and armor to better quality levels.

GB: What are the benefits and drawbacks of the various weapons and armor classes in the game? Will the balance be comparable to Pillars of Eternity, or will the game feature more powerful and unique items that are comparable to The White March's soulbound weapons?

Brian: There are lots of different weapon types and armor types in the game. I don’t want to go into detail about all of them just yet, as we’ll be going into more detail about these in an upcoming developer diary. Beyond the basic weapons and armor, we also have several powerful Artifact items which we’ll be talking about a bit more at Gamescom in a couple weeks.

GB: In the event that you develop any DLC or expansions for Tyranny, what areas of the game would you like to expand upon? If the game is a big success, would your publishing arrangements with Paradox Interactive put you in a good position to develop a sequel?

Brian: I’ve been living in the world of Tyranny for over two years now, and there’s a ton that I would want to explore further. More than we could do for any single DLC or expansion. The game is set in one corner of Kyros’ Empire. If it’s successful, I would love the opportunity to explore deeper into the Empire, showing how the world is shaped by Kyros’ laws, the Archons, and the Fatebinders.

GB: Thanks for your time, Brian!