Pillars of Eternity Post-mortem Interviews

We have rounded up a number of very recent interviews with Obsidian Entertainment developers who have worked on Pillars of Eternity in lead positions. Given The White March Part II was the last major piece of content for Pillars of Eternity (although the game is presumably going to get a couple of additional bug-fixing patches), I took the liberty to dub them "post-mortem". Personally, I'd also be interested in reading an actual post-mortem from the developers, but nothing like that has been published yet.

The folks at RPG Codex asked lead writer Eric Fenstermaker a series of questions about the main game's narrative, The White March expansion, and the future of the series. Note that the interview was sent before the launch of The White March Part II, so Fenstermaker doesn't really get a chance to discuss the latest piece of content for the game:

There have been a few recurring criticisms of Pillars of Eternity's narrative which you've probably heard of. From beginning to end, the major ones are:

1) A lack of motivation at the beginning of the game ("Okay, I'm a Watcher, so what?")
2) The stronghold - its lack of content and its disconnection from the narrative
3) A loss of inertia in the game's third act, due to Twin Elms' isolation from the conflicts that drive the main storyline and its lack of a strong central arc

Josh Sawyer has already issued a mea culpa over some of these, but I was wondering if you had anything to add.

I'd have liked to do more with the insanity end of the player's affliction to help push immediate motivation. In an ideal world I'd have wanted to push it almost into Eternal Darkness territory, trying to make it more present and memorable. But that would've required quite more time and a greater resource investment.

It's a surprisingly difficult balancing act to motivate a player along the main quest of your game. One reason for that is that different kinds of players resent that kind of push to varying degrees. Players who self-identify as explorers may hate you for making them feel rushed if you employ a ticking clock device. (That was one major source of criticism on Mask of the Betrayer re: the spirit-eater system.) I think that's why you see a lot of open world games dispense with the ticking clock entirely and just decide it's not a big deal if the player wants to forget about the main plot and goof around. New Vegas took criticism for its early-game motivation, too(do I really care about getting revenge on this guy?), but I think it's easier to forgive in a systemic sandbox engine where the distractions and side paths are the stars of the game. For us, we did have to be careful not to push so hard that we didn't give people an opportunity to explore this new world on their own time, but I think there was more that could've been done in terms of motivation.

My first story pitch actually had a climactic defense of the player's stronghold! But this was (rightly, I think) regarded as too costly and was one of the things that ultimately sunk that pitch. The last time we attempted a stronghold siege was NWN2, and that ended up being quite a lot more expensive to develop than anyone anticipated. It was considered, too, that in BGII, the strongholds didn't have much of a connection to the narrative beyond the quest to acquire them, so I think that was chosen more as the model. Fortunately, the new 3.0 content for the stronghold goes a long way toward making it feel more integrated into the game. I think people will enjoy it.

As for the third act, the truth is, we had fewer resources to invest in it than we did the second act. If I had to guess, I would say it got half the resources that Act II got. I could be off base. And we did have to nix some of the original plans for the plot there. It's one I'd have loved to have spent a lot of time fixing up.

You may have identified the recurring theme of resource scarcity. None of this is to say we couldn't have figured out things better on our own, or didn't make mistakes. I personally made plenty. But in most cases, the biggest thing separating the game from the heights of its potential is a simple lack of time and money. "Writing is rewriting" is a great quote about writing that I read that was written by somebody who never worked on a mid-budget video game. Most of the dialogue in Pillars is first-draft with a cursory editing pass. There was very little time for iterative improvement, especially later in development. You can be an Uncompromising Creative Genius about this predicament and make yourself very miserable and probably never have a game come out because you're just not happy with it yet (and these people are numerous and well documented), or you can learn to accept it, and be grateful that you aren't working on an Uncompromising 5-10 year per game development cycle.

Personally, I would like to see us make shorter games (e.g. 30-40 hours instead of 60-80) where we cut the worst of our content and spend time iterating on the best. But there is pressure from the market itself (or at least perceived pressure) to make longer games so as to justify the game's sticker price with its "value" as measured in dollars spent per hour of gameplay. And I'm not sure if people understand that when you're on a budget, there's a zero-sum tradeoff between gameplay length and gameplay polish. There was some backlash for Stick of Truth, for example, for being "too short" at 12-20 hours. But that was a game where we cut the bad stuff and spent extra time on the good stuff, and I prefer that model. As a gamer, I'm getting old. I'm short on time. I'd rather spend $60 on a 12-hour experience that makes me laugh my ass off than on a 100-hour experience that routinely wastes my time. If any of you are in agreement, be vocal about it, because I think the dollars/hour guys are usually louder. Come to our forums and ask for a shorter, more polished game. If you don't feel that way, shhh, you, shhh.


It's becoming increasingly obvious that Pillars of Eternity is going to get a sequel. The most recent press release for The White March Part 2 has all but spelled it out. Now, we don't expect you to confirm that or offer any specifics, but...what sort of things would you be looking forward to doing in a hypothetical Pillars of Eternity 2?

Hypothetically, I have a few things I would want to play with. I don't want to tip my hand, so pardon the vagueness. One would be having fewer, but far deeper and more interconnected companions - interconnected both with respect to one another and with respect to the overall plot. "FEWER?! FUCK THAT," you say. But everything is zero-sum in this business, and every companion we add takes a ton of time to write and implement. So yes, fewer. But better. More memorable. More like a real group of people. Less likely to be collecting dust in your stronghold.

The other big thing is I would want to do a plot that is more dynamic and player-driven. Pillars is no more linear than Baldur's Gate or Planescape: Torment, but the structure was still A to B to C to D to E. Next time, if there is a next time, I would want the player to have some agency in picking where the plot goes next, and I would want the world to respond to it in big, meaningful ways during the game. Big talk, I know. But I do have an idea for this that pushes dynamism and puts my degree to use (for once) that I would be excited to experiment with.

MMORPG.com has a brief but dense chat with project director J.E. Sawyer:

MMORPG: How is the game doing, saleswise, now that it is out in the wild?

Josh: I don't think we have exact figures for the second part of the expansion, but the release of The White March, Part II the midweek Steam sale bumped Pillars back into the Steam best sellers list again. We can't complain about that.

MMORPG: One of my concerns, as big of a fan as I am, is that spreading content over a longer period may cause some fans to lose interest. But the other side of that is that the ramp up to release also keeps the public consciousness and there's less waiting between updates. What's your take: is it better to have smaller, more frequent expansions or bigger, spread out add-ons?

Josh: In a CRPG of this sort, it can be difficult to tell some types of stories in bite-sized DLC. The traditional Tales of the Sword Coast-style expansion pack feels more appropriate for a game like Pillars, but it's true that all of the data we've seen on expansion/DLC sales suggests that they drop off pretty rapidly after a few months. So, while I prefer "traditional" expansions, DLCs seem to have a better attachment rate and offer a better return.


MMORPG: What is next for Pillars of Eternity -- can gamers consider the game done or are there more expansions or even a sequel planned?

Josh: Pillars of Eternity is all wrapped up. It's been a great experience, but we'd like to move on to a new project. We'd love to make a sequel and have a ton of ideas for ways we can improve on Pillars, but that's a way off.

And finally, USGamer also chatted with game director J.E. Sawyer, although the interview comes in the form of a podcast. It runs for a little more than an hour and covers the release of the expansions, the game's successes and failures in terms of system design, the new Story Time difficulty mode, the CYOA scripted interactions, the reasons the Stronghold was barren at release and how the team attempted to correct those problems in patch 3.0, the guiding principles the Pillars of Eternity writers adopted when working on the title's world, whether Kickstarter RPGs have fulfilled their promise so far, and more.