Josh Sawyer Interview

RPG Codex has published an interview they conducted with Obsidian Entertainment's Josh Sawyer. It is extremely long and goes into detail about a whole lot of various topics.

An interesting takeaway there are Sawyer's thoughts on what narrative and mechanical changes Pillars of Eternity could use. Comparisons between the original game and The White March expansions, as well as several of the questions, heavily hint on some of these things being considered for the Pillars sequel.

Main topics discussed in this regard are: intricacies of optional level scaling, viable number of skills and skill checks, combat density and encounter design, reactivity and its scope, power curve arising from an increased level cap.

Some questions touch on the differences between regional markets, the focus of writing in Obsidian's games, Sawyer's ideas on mods, reasons for choosing Unity as their go-to engine, Sawyer's dream historical RPG and his favorite history books.

The interview runs for a length of a small novella but is quite an interesting read if you have the time. A couple of excerpts:

Some people believe the White March is a blueprint for how the series is evolving.

Yeah, any lessons that we learned, sometimes we can retroactively apply them, but sometimes it's like that content is done and there's only so much you can do. As we develop expansions and patches, we are trying to address concerns in the base game or use the lessons we learned for new content. So for example, the Siege of Cragholdt, we were like "Okay we're developing new AI." I mean it's not great still, but it's better having all those enemies within Cragholdt use a much higher level of AI than most enemies in the base game. So anytime that we have new improvements that we are trying to apply in something like The White March where it's an expansion, even if people absolutely despise it, which thankfully it doesn't seem like they do, then we can say oh that went over pretty well, let's keep going in that direction.


Some people were wondering specifically about, with regard to The White March and the Endless Paths, the way the level of progression and level scaling are implemented. Do you have a vision for a game where you can offer this kind of breadth of options starting from the beginning of chapter one without having to forfeit on level scaling?

We had to sort of hand scale everything, which is pretty awkward. In the future, I think that having a more systemic approach for it would be a lot healthier and easier. I do still strongly believe this should be something that people opt into or out of. I think a lot of people want to just play it at the level it's made for, and that's fine and good. I think giving people options to either not see the information is also fine. For example, some people will walk into Longwatch Falls or they walk into Cragholdt, which is funny because the steward will tell you you're too low-level and you're like "Okay, I know what you mean," and you go in there and get killed. If you opt into "show me what level this area is for," if you don't want to see that, you don't have to see it, and if you do and you don't want scaling, it's fine. And also if you do want scaling, it's a systemic scaling as opposed to the half-measure we did with The White March.


Will you implement more noncombat content in the next game?

I think a broader set of skills with more noncombat applications overall. I can do a whole talk on skills in a party-based game. It's a challenge because it's very easy to have skills that feel redundant, it's very easy to have skills that have a personal benefit but no party benefit or party benefit but other people can't contribute to it, so it's hard to come up with a spread of skills that feel like you can invest in them all the same way with the same pool of skill points. Obviously it doesn't need to be perfect, but you're not just doing something stupid like hey I have three lock picking characters. Great, that's a huge waste of skill points. If you have three characters that have lore, then everyone can read scrolls and they all benefit from that. I always have three characters in my Pillars parties who can read scrolls.

One thing I don't feel good about in our skill spread is that because there's a small number of skills, it's hard for those skills to make each character feel distinctive. For example, there's just lore, that's everything. I think having a larger skill set, as long as you can actually support it in the game, it allows you to feel like my character doesn't just know about lore, he knows about metaphysics or she knows about arcana. In D&D you can clearly delineate that I'm the expert in this thing, so it's a role playing thing. As long as you can make the game content use that in a way that feels satisfying and not frustrating like a waste of skill points, then that's cool. I'm always looking for ways to improve, because I recognize that people weren't too happy with the spread of skills that we had in Pillars.


Someone wants to know what your favorite history books are.

I made a couple of Youtube videos. One was about the importance of real world knowledge, and there's another one just about history stuff, and I mention a number of books. Favorite specific history books of mine are The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Jonathan Spence wrote that, and it's about Matteo Ricci who was a missionary to China, he became fluent in Chinese and at that time they were amazed by it, that was something westerners had not really done. He was not very successful as a missionary, even though he became very well integrated into Chinese society. It's a fascinating look at how he was split between the two worlds.