Kickstarted: Old School ‘Project Eternity’ RPG Gets Funded — Could It Raise $10 Million?

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Obsidian Entertainment

So this is happening: Developer Obsidian — with talent responsible for roleplaying oldies like Fallout, Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment — just killed it on Kickstarter, hotfooting from zero to $1.1 million with its “Project Eternity” halcyon-days RPG reboot in about 27 hours.

Is that a record? I’m not sure. What I do know is that a developer promising to give us a time machine back to the days roleplaying games didn’t involve mashing buttons on gamepads or nosing about in newfangled “first-person” just galloped from zero to over $1 million in slightly more time than it takes the planet to spin once on its axis.

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Obsidian’s now fully-funded Kickstarter project is about making “an isometric, party-based RPG set in a new fantasy world,” according to its design team, who read like the holy trinity of retro-PC gaming: Chris Avellone (Planescape), Tim Cain (Fallout) and Josh Sawyer (Icewind Dale). It’s like a big hair super-group, only one slinging lutes and crooning stuff like “Road goes ever on and on…” or “An Elven-maid there was of old…”

Here’s the description:

Project Eternity aims to recapture the magic, imagination, depth, and nostalgia of classic RPGs that we enjoyed making – and playing. At Obsidian, we have the people responsible for many of those classic games and we want to bring those games back… and that’s why we’re here – we need your help to make it a reality!

The goal: To “pay homage to the great Infinity Engine games of years past: Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment.” The Infinity Engine turned out to be finite, of course, ending its reign after a handful of games with Icewind Dale II in 2002, though it’s making a prominent reappearance in November on the iPad vis-a-vis Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition, a port of the game that re-launched Dungeons & Dragons on the PC back in 1998.

Fun fact: Developer BioWare’s first stab at the Infinity Engine was a real-time strategy project dubbed “Battleground Infinity.” So sayeth that online tome of infallibility, Wikipedia, anyway. Former BioWare designer Trent Oster recently clarified that “Battleground Infinity” was actually a “hacked Direct X demo” and that the Infinity Engine “was a from-scratch effort.”

Hold on, the days of isometric roleplaying games are over, aren’t they? Oh right, hello Diablo III and Torchlight II. But those games aren’t technically isometric, and that’s not how we use the word these days anyway. Nowadays, it’s meant more in its literal sense: “having equal dimensions or measurements.” You wouldn’t call Diablo III an isometric RPG, you’d just call it an action-RPG, and if pressed to describe how it looks, you’d probably say something like “3D point and click” — that is, if you bothered at all.

Since everything’s pretty much rendered as a 3D object of one sort or another in today’s games and you can theoretically view it from any angle, the need to describe stuff like perspective, beyond genre where it’s implied, e.g. first-person, third-person, etc., has pretty much passed.

But in the 1990s and early 2000s, “isometric” was wonk-speak to loosely reference an entire era of games where the camera was situated above the play area, looking down at an angle — games that ranged from Ultima VIII to Arcanum to Divine Divinity. An “isometric RPG” also came to signify thoughtful storytelling, tactical depth, player parties of six or more, lush and often hand-drawn backdrops, dozens of hours of gameplay at minimum and armor ratings where lower ratings were desirable and negative ones sublime.

Project Eternity is Obsidian’s bid to bring some of that back. According to the Kickstarter explanation, the team wants to “take the central hero, memorable companions and the epic exploration of Baldur’s Gate, add in the fun, intense combat and dungeon diving of Icewind Dale, and tie it all together with the emotional writing and mature thematic exploration of Planescape: Torment.”

And that sort of name-dropping, I suspect, is why it hit $1.1 million in slightly more than a day. It’s up to $1.45 million as I’m typing this. If it slips past $10.2 million, the total for the Pebble E-Paper Watch, we’d be talking about the highest funded Kickstarter project yet.

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What do we get for $1.1 million? Nothing, technically — Kickstarter’s a venture startup thing, not an e-store, and there’s no formal mechanism for returning what amounts to an unconditional donation if thing go awry. That said, whatever you think of Obsidian’s more recent games, the company knows how to run the ball in, so when they lay out the following details about “Project Eternity,” I’m inclined to think it’ll happen, as estimated, by spring 2014.

Combat uses a tactical real-time with pause system – positioning your party and coordinating attacks and abilities is one of the keys to success. The world map is dotted with unique locations and wilderness ripe for exploration and questing. You’ll create your own character and collect companions along the way – taking him or her not just through this story, but, with your continued support, through future adventures. You will engage in dialogues that are deep, and offer many choices to determine the fate of you and your party. …and you’ll experience a story that explores mature themes and presents you with complex, difficult choices to shape how your story plays out.

Speaking for myself (but probably most of you, too), this sort of thing makes me want to throttle my inner-cynic. It cuts ROI-obsessed publishers out of the picture and, assuming Obsidian’s budgeted properly, shows how we might actually be able to have nice things without corporate benediction. It gives guys like Avellone and Cain and Sawyer, who’ve clearly wanted to make further games in the Planescape mold but haven’t been able to secure backing, a way to go forward democratically. And it all happened in a day. A day! From nothing to “it’s on” in no time.

And to think, $1.1 million for — I say this with love — a pretty niche computer roleplaying game. Imagine the possibilities were Jane Jensen to revisit Gabriel Knight (she successfully funded a new standalone adventure game on Kickstarter earlier this year). Or Tim Schafer (via LucasArts) to give the Grim Fandango or Full Throttle universes another shake. Or Square Enix to throw its weight behind a long-pined-for Final Fantasy VII remake.

Actually, forget the remakes, because who needs ‘em with sites like Good Old Games (as well as Square Enix) making yesterday’s stuff playable on today’s hardware. The beauty of this Obsidian Kickstarter thing is that, while it’s retreading certain core design principles, it’s its own thing. A brand new world with the promise of future installments, us willing. Exciting times — our chance to see what might have happened, had these sorts of top-down, roots-roleplaying games lived on.

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