Back in September 2012, on the eve of launching their first ever crowdfunding campaign, Josh Sawyer and the team at Obsidian Entertainment knew one thing for certain: Tim Schafer was going to be a tough act to follow.
In March of that year, Obsidian Entertainment had watched while Schafer and the team at Double Fine used a hilarious pitch video, gags borrowed from their laundry list of classic games like Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango and Psychonauts — even a cameo by Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster — to push their Double Fine Adventure project well over $3.3 million.
That campaign, which became the game Broken Age, was among the most heavily funded projects on the Kickstarter platform, ushering in a wave of high-profile developers looking for a piece of the action.
But Obsidian, just like everyone else, needed to find its own path to success.
“Tim is a very, very funny guy,” Sawyer told Polygon during an interview last week. “I like to think I'm a funny guy, but I'm no Tim Schafer. It just didn't seem like that sort of a campaign would really work as well for us.”
So Sawyer and his team decided to take Obsidian’s campaign, for a project that would eventually become the critically acclaimed role-playing game Pillars of Eternity, in a different direction.
“I said, ‘Let's just be sincere. Let's not try to be jokey or funny. Let's just show people how much we really love this type of game, and how much we want to make a game like this, and just be sincere and I think that will carry us a long way.’ That was the focus of everything that we talked about and everything we showed.”
And it worked.
Call it pent up demand for classic, isometric RPGs like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale, call it the trust that comes from being the same studio to create Fallout: New Vegas, but 27 hours later — the day after the campaign launched — Obsidian had well more than its $1.1 million ask.
Now, the team had an entirely different problem.
“We hit our initial goal and then honestly, we were not prepared at that point,” Sawyer said. “We came in on Saturday morning, very early, and we said, ‘What can we do? What are we willing to do?’”
There were 29 days left in the campaign. Money wouldn’t be collected from each backer until the campaign was over. If backers lost interest, they might back simply drop out. More importantly, the team saw an opportunity. By feeding the community a smart set of stretch goals they had the potential to double, or maybe even triple their initial ask.
Even if the team at Obsidian didn’t know any Muppets, they might still be able to go toe-to-toe with Schafer. So, they started throwing out every idea they could think of to make Pillars of Eternity stand out.
At the end of a long overtime weekend, they settled on one idea in particular. It would be a series of ever more dangerous dungeons buried underneath the player’s home base, a stronghold called Caed Nua. As the campaign reached certain stretch goals, additional levels would be unlocked. Each one would be exponentially more difficult than the last, requiring players to journey through the game’s main storyline and then come back, again and again, taking down tiny sips of Caed Nua’s mysterious lore over the course of the entire game.
Soon, the crowdfunding campaign began to pick up steam once more.
“It was Rob Nesler, who is our art director here at Obsidian,” Sawyer explained. “We wanted to show people progress. ‘Here's another level of the Endless Paths,’ when they reach a certain stretch goal. ‘On my god, here's level three!’”
But, as they continued spoon feeding the dungeon to Kickstarter backers, something altogether strange happened.
“He started illustrating this figure inside of the illustration that he was making,” Sawyer said. “As we kept going down, Rob started revealing this figure. It was really kind of a weird, and he didn't actually have an explanation for it. I said, ‘Rob, what is his guy?’ And he's like, ‘I don't know. I just thought it would be cool to sort of see this weird thing up here, and then you see more of it as the levels go down.’”
Unlike many other campaigns at the time, Obsidian chose not to tie progress to the amount of money they earned. Instead, the Endless Paths would grow the more backers signed on to the project. For as little as a dollar, fans could help make a bigger game for those who were even more invested in the project.
The gimmick worked. By the end of the campaign, Pillars of Eternity had nearly 80,000 backers — and nearly $3.98 million in funding.
“That eventually became a 15 level mega-dungeon known as Od Nua,” Sawyer said. “We were able to go down all the way to his feet. It started off as just a figure in Rob Nesler's imagination, and then it became a core part of the campaign.”
The statue was such a key factor in the success of the game, that Sawyer felt compelled to make it part of the sequel. In Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire it’s become possessed by a god, smashed its way up out of the player stronghold and nearly destroyed everyone, and everything, they earned in the original.
Now, the statue is on a rampage, and it’s up to players to stop it. And it was all Sawyer’s idea.
“It did take some convincing for people to think that this actually could be a good foundation for the story,” Sawyer said. “But I think it worked out. For the sequel, I wanted to make the central problem impossible to ignore. I said, ‘What if it's a 700-foot-tall stone man who is walking around the world wreaking havoc? That, well that's going to make things pretty easy to spot.’
“That was really where we started. But, like I said, it did take some convincing.”
Just yesterday, Obsidian unveiled the next stretch goal for its newest campaign, which is being run on the Fig platform. Called Fulvano's Voyage, it’s building out the world of Pillars of Eternity 2 with a chain of mysterious islands.
“Centuries ago, a band of renegade dwarves fleeing the law erected the lighthouse fortress nicknamed Balefire Beacon,” reads the campaign’s latest update. “The torches burned with a fierce, blue light — a rallying point for their like-minded countrymen and comrades. What became of the dwarves is anyone's guess, but the lighthouse is now the keep of Captain Furrante, the calculating leader of the Príncipi sen Patrena and his crew of misfit pirates.”
For every additional 1,500 backers that the campaign adds, between now and the end on Feb. 24, they’ll add a whole new island onto the chain. And so, with backer’s help, they’ll make their world a little bigger than it would have been before.
For Sawyer and the rest of the team at Obsidian, the Pillars of Eternity 2 project is especially meaningful.
For years the studio has made its way creating sequels in other company’s worlds. Founded 13 years ago, it’s created games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords, Neverwinter Nights 2, Fallout: New Vegas and Dungeon Siege 3. But Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire will be the first sequel it’s ever worked on for a property that it created itself. But it will also have some real, practical implications for the game.
“It's pretty rare that we actually get an opportunity to do a full development cycle on the same piece of technology twice, which is kind of ridiculous,” Sawyer said. “So now, with Pillars of Eternity 2, even though a lot of things are changing, the engine we are using still remains fundamentally the same and our game design principles still remain fundamentally the same.
“So we are really focusing on using all of that to make incredible content for a nice, big, full-size game.”