Project Eternity‘s Chris Avellone: Pitching Publisher-Friendly RPGs ‘Makes Me Want to Slit My Wrists’

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Obsidian Entertainment

Thanks to Kickstarter, Project Eternity is funded, and just like that, an isometric-era roleplaying game by three major “name” designers, responsible for some of the most well-thought-of RPGs in computer gaming history, will happen sometime in the first half of 2014. Some of us are still picking our jaws up off the floor.

Crazier still, Obsidian Entertainment’s project hit full funding — $1.1 million asking — in just 27 hours, and with almost $1.8 million raised as this post goes live, it still has 25 days — and several stretch goals — to go.

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I asked Obsidian’s Chris Avellone (Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, Knights of the Old Republic II) how he felt about Project Eternity‘s Kickstarter returns so far, what he thinks of the industry these days and whether gamers should expect anything less (or more) from a Kickstarter-funded game. Here’s what he told me.

Were you surprised when Project Eternity hit its Kickstarter goal of $1.1 million in just 27 hours?

“Surprised” would be an understatement. I couldn’t tear myself away from the Kickstarter page, and when it got funded so fast, I was floored. And happy. And then terrified. It’s one thing to have an idea, and it’s another thing to bare that idea to the public and take the stones and arrows (and fireballs) being hurled at you.

But the fans didn’t respond that way, and they really came through in a way we never expected. It’s been a huge morale boost for the company, and everyone here is really happy to be able to see that level of enthusiasm from the RPG’ers who love these types of games.

I’m assuming $1.1 million is a fraction of what you’d typically require to make games like Neverwinter Nights 2 or Fallout: New Vegas. How’d you settle on this figure?

Yep, it’s a much reduced amount because you’re not doing all the extraneous features (total voice acting across all languages, the latest super graphic video card enhancements with tint control and crotch rumble™ technology, multiple skews across consoles, etc.).

We looked carefully at the budgets for previous Infinity Engine titles we’d done in the past at Black Isle [Studios], made adjustments for personnel (personnel costs have risen a great deal since then), kept the technology costs in mind and made a reasonable estimation of what we can accomplish. Our CEO (Feargus Urquhart) is pretty ruthless about stuff like that.

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We’re in a good position because a number of us have made this type of game before (Josh, Tim, Feargus, me, etc.) – and even better, we’ve done this type of game several times. Now this is our opportunity to take that production knowledge and make it even better. Knowing the process from start to finish helps reduce a lot of the X factors in terms of implementation and avoid many of the pitfalls in development.

Can you ensure the game won’t go over budget without sacrificing anything as you roll forward?

It’s hard to ensure anything. That said, we’re not subject to last minute changes, unusual feature requests that may or may not help the game, contract revisions and move in/move out dates from various quarters. Add to this the fact that this is the type of game we absolutely know how to make, we feel confident about being able to weather any development hurdles and challenges that come up.

Plus, we’re able to see those hurdles a lot earlier, in my opinion, especially since we can share content and progress with the public.

How long had you been working on Project Eternity prior to the Kickstarter announcement? Did you ever consider running it by a publisher?

A few months. And no, we didn’t run it by a publisher or even consider it. Why? Well, we’ve already run a number of fantasy worlds by publishers, and Project Eternity itself is less appealing to a publisher than the ones we’ve already pitched: “What, you want to do something like the old Infinity Engine games? On the PC (and Mac/Linux only)?” [Sound of door slamming.]

As mentioned later, I can’t blame publishers for the model they’re trapped in. What I like about Kickstarter is it helps games that people want to play still get made, even if you don’t pump $20 million dollars into it to try and meet all the stupid bells and whistles that publishers feel must be in games nowadays.

You say you want to bring “the emotional writing and mature thematic exploration of Planescape: Torment” to the game. Much of what made Planescape so memorable was its unconventional source material along with your writing. Will Project Eternity veer from genre clichés?

Yep. As a quick anecdote, franchises we’ve worked with have specifically stepped in to ask us to limit portions of content that we felt was mature and treated maturely, for no reason other than fear. Because you can’t trust players to appreciate subtlety or mature themes, apparently. It’s bad for business.

Hell, Fallout 2 had more mature themes being kicked around than a lot of RPGs nowadays between the institution of slavery, drug addiction, the repercussions of murder and assassination, dirty politics and class struggles. We are not afraid, and we’d like to show it with Project Eternity.

What sort of play model are we talking? Open-world? The whole story at once? Episodic?

We intend to follow the model of the Infinity Engine games, so there’s dungeon crawling and exploration at points across multiple levels, all toward a final end goal.

Full 3D environments vs. hand-drawn 2D backgrounds in isometric RPGs. Go!

Dorn’s Deep, notably the ice museum, from Icewind Dale. While you fight frost giants.

Interplay Entertainment (Click the image for a larger version)

The theory, with a Kickstarter project like this, is that it should liberate the design team. How bad would you say it’s gotten, in the ridiculously-big-profits-and-sequel-obsessed world of publishing, that it’s driving a company like Obsidian to Kickstarter? Or to ask that another way, how many times have you pitched stuff like this in your career and had it kicked back to you?

Publishers would rather us develop existing franchises they own across a range of platforms because that makes the most sense for their business model. As such, pitching something like Eternity is largely useless and even pitching other more “publisher friendly” RPGs in today’s market makes me want to slit my wrists. We’ve pitched and even begun development on a number of fantasy worlds that have never seen the light of day. All of those worlds… It’s soul-crushing to see them sputter out, one by one. Lost. Like tears. In rain.

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I can’t even blame publishers that much. When you’re dealing with 20+ million dollar budgets, I would pause before taking risks, too. But that’s part of the issue with their business model – I prefer Kickstarter because you end up asking what the players want first, if they’re willing to donate, and you know within 30 days if your idea resonates with the public. If it doesn’t, tough, go back to the drawing board, but at least you didn’t waste two years of your life making something people never wanted in the first place.

What are the downsides of doing something like this on Kickstarter? What do you worry about most?

I worry about someone else failing. To quote Archer when something bad happens: “This is why we can’t have nice things.” While I’m confident in Obsidian being able to deliver a quality title, it only takes one other Kickstarter developer to ruin things for everyone else and cast doubt on the donation process going forward. We sure as hell aren’t going to drop the ball, but Kickstarter is still in its near-honeymoon period and there’s still plenty of room for failure in the future.

What’s your sense for the core audience Project Eternity‘s designed to appeal to? Is it shrinking? Comics have been through several expansion/contraction cycles, for instance, and the concern in recent years is that the market’s not growing from the bottom up, age-wise. Do you think markets for these kinds of games will always exist?

I don’t know. We’re at over 40,000 backers right now, and Schafer got 80,000+ backers for the Double Fine adventure. While those might not be numbers that would make a bizdev guy get out of bed in the morning, let alone scratch their nose, the fact that these backers are willing to pledge anywhere from 5x to 200x the amount they would pay for a standard title… well, I think that says something about the passion of the fans. If the fanbase is shrinking, the amount they’re willing to give to play such a title far exceeds what publishers may be used to seeing, and that says a lot.

Pledgers are probably wondering, say you hit all your stretch goals, are there any ways Project Eternity will feel like a “lesser” game than something with a tens-of-millions budget? Should people expect a game world at least as artistically, narratively and mechanically rich as Baldur’s Gate 2 or Planescape?

So here’s my view – I don’t feel Baldur’s Gate 2, Planescape: Torment, or Icewind Dale are lesser games. At all. I feel they allow for more differences than modern blockbusters, and I’d argue they’re more RPGs than a number of triple-A titles on the market, mostly because they allow more freedom for the player to bring their own creativity and voice to the experience. Want your own portrait? Sure. Want your own bio? Sure. Want a spell and combat system that’s not limited to the controller buttons? ‘Twould be our pleasure. Prefer having a world that’s not limited by console memory? ‘Twould be our pleasure x2. We couldn’t have made many of the locations in Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment in a current console-gen title without blowing out the memory or making compromises, but in a game like this, we have more freedom to effectively paint a landscape for a player to explore.

If this goes well, could you see Obsidian shifting more definitively to a Kickstarter-based development paradigm?

It depends. Our hope? That Kickstarter and the sales of the final product allow us to self-finance a game on our own without needing to ask for donations ever again. I’ll be honest, I have no idea how likely it’ll be that we’d raise that amount of money, but if we couldn’t, we would definitely return to Kickstarter and see where the fans would like to see the next installment go.

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JOSH STOWERS
JOSH STOWERS

Great interview, has made me bookmark Time as a viable source of tech amp; gaming bits!