Grounded – An Interview with Obsidian's Senior Programmer Roby Atadero
During X019 Obsidian Entertainment released information about their upcoming survival-adventure title, Grounded. With the release hotly on the heels of the highly praised release of The Outer World, Grounded is a sharp departure from anything Obsidian has done before. We had the opportunity to sit down with the Senior Programmer, Roby Atadero, and chat a little bit about Grounded.
For those unfamiliar with the premise of Grounded, players are shrunk down to the size of an ant in an experiment that went awry. In addition, players can expect a singular story objective, interwoven with 4-person cooperative non-linear game-play. With a bevy of more information available both on the official landing page, and more in our announcement overview, our interview with Roby Atadero answers some additional questions inquiring minds may be wondering.
MMORPG: What brought Obsidian to the decision that you wanted to create something in the survival genre?
Roby: A lot of us have been playing survival games since they have started becoming popular, and we enjoy a lot of the aspects that they’ve gained, and we’ve been looking at what kind of experimental games we can dive into. That one kept popping up, amongst our leadership, so, once (Pillars of Eternity) Deadfire finished, Adam Brennecke, our project director and Bobby Null, the lead designer on Deadfire, they really wanted to push this forward still. They had a brainstorming session, and asked, “What could we do with a survival game?” and listed out a bunch of ideas.
This one we knew was a little out of left field, but every time this pitch got told to someone, their eyebrows popped up, and their imagination immediately began to spark. Feargus (Urquhart, Obsidian CEO) said, “Hey try it out, see where it goes.” So we started a prototype with a small team and within months it was pretty obvious that being immersed in this small world with this kind of perspective was pretty exciting to anyone that saw it.
MMORPG: Were there any games that influenced your design decisions in how you wanted to build Grounded?
Roby: Yeah, we played a lot of the big-name survival games, we’re pretty big fans of all of them. We played, The Forest, Subnautica, a bunch of them, there’s a bunch, but this is part of our research patterns too. We wanted to see what works well in this genre, what things we think we can improve on and we culminated what we thought would make the best experience and find ways to put our little Obsidian stamp in it as well.
MMORPG: This game isn’t procedurally generated, everything has been placed where it is for a reason, but in terms of the maps, will there be custom options where you can have different rulesets?
Roby: For starters we want to have different modes of difficulty, because we realize there are a lot of survival fans out there, but there are also a lot that haven’t quite been exposed to this. We want to have a variety of difficulty settings and different modes. There may be a mode where you just want to explore, and you just want to play the survival game, so we want to make sure there’s something for everyone of all levels.
MMORPG: Since it’s cooperative, will there be a random drop in / drop out feature? Or will this be something where you need to have a specific set of players on your friends list to team up?
Roby: No, it’s designed to be played as single player but up to 4 players. You can play with 2 players or 3 players, and have it publicly hosted or you can have a game session that’s just for friends and they can come in and out as you play.
MMORPG: You mentioned that players can drop in and out of your hosted game, but has Obsidian thought about allowing for games hosted on Obsidians servers?
Roby: It’s been a discussion and we’re seeing what best makes sense. Right now we want to focus on getting the basic core, the survival game play really fun, and getting that multiplayer experience working and enjoyable, so that’s where our focus has been. The experience.
MMORPG: Pretty much everything in the environment is able to be interacted with, but when you get inside the tunnels, is there anything you can do, such as bridging the tunnels or creating new tunnels?
Roby: As of right now there is no terrain morphing or digging.
MMORPG: When you’re building, are there any limitations to where you can build?
Roby: We’re trying to do what we can, if there’s an area that’s inaccessible, like if it has a type of material or man-made object, maybe we won’t allow it. There are certain buildings, like if it uses sap, you can only place that on wood, so you have an understanding of where you are placing these buildings, so we are going to try to keep building to ways that stay true to the gameplay.
MMORPG: You have this big oak tree in the middle, and Obsidian mentioned there is a hedge where you can traverse vertically, are you going to be able to climb up the oak tree as well?
Roby: As of right now, there is no verticalness in the oak tree, but with the ant colonies there is a lot of underground gameplay. It’s more vertical in the downward direction.
MMORPG: Are you able to build something yourself, if you wanted to build vertically?
Roby: Right now, we haven’t put any limitations, but we know that’s going to be a problem. We’ve had one of our QA testers who made this 12-story mansion one day. It was probably a better vista spot than what was seen in the demo.
MMORPG: Do you have to be locked into a single camp? If you want to build multiple camps across the world, can you? If you are able to, is there a fast travel option between campsites?
Roby: We’re still exploring what makes sense. We have a lot of interesting traversal. We’re trying to decide what speed makes sense for the game. We do have a lot of fun traversal elements; we have a bounce pad where you can build a little trampoline out of a spider web to help you get up high. We’re exploring what stays true to the game design.
MMORPG: Once you’ve completed the story portion of Grounded where the player has been shrunk and the entire premise is to make the player grow back to their normal size. If the end of the story is that the player returns to their normal size, without giving too much away, will players still be able to continue playing in their world even after you’ve completed the story, or do you have to start over?
Roby: We want to make sure that, if you’ve completed all of the story aspects of the game there’s still a route that you can live in this world and toy around. There’s enough of a sandbox element that you can mess around to see what happens and build the biggest base if you wanted.
MMORPG: If players are allowed to stay in the world, have you thought about ideas for expanding the gameplay post launch?
Roby: We’re going to be an early access title, and part of our strategy is that we want to have a strong cadence of free content which includes updates and free updates. We have a lot of ideas internally of what we want to do to keep expanding the game, but once we have it out to the community, we want to see what their feedback is too. It might help, if we see they’re really digging a specific idea, that we think we can do, we might take that route and see how they interact with those systems. We want to be agile since we’re a small team, it allows us to pivot very easily. If we think there is something that’s higher priority in terms of fun, we can say, “Let’s pump the brakes and do this instead, because it’s resonating really strongly.”
MMORPG: In terms of programming and coding specifically, have you found that building a survival game has specific challenges that you weren’t prepared for?
Roby: You mentioned it briefly before but most of the foliage, such as the blades of grass, every clover, every sprig on the ground, you can either chop it down or pick it up. We knew that was going to be a tricky technical solution, so we found some sneaky ways to have a very efficient world that’s full of all this grass and models but we can still have the player interact with them all. The other big one for us that I’m pretty proud of is the fact that we have hundreds of creatures all living and interacting, and they each have their own desires. They do what makes the most sense for them at the time, it’s generated a lot of emergent gameplay for us and I’m excited about that.
MMORPG: How does that work into starting a new game? It was mentioned that every time you start a new game, even if the landscape doesn’t change, the behavior of the animals may change, like a simulation.
Roby: A big technical challenge was asking “How do we get a dynamic creature behavior that allows for different results depending on how the player engages?” Some examples would be, if there’s a bunch of aphids in one area, that means ladybugs, when they get hungry, they’re going to go there and hunt those aphids. That could mean that you have less aphids yourself, but if you go and hunt all of them, then the ladybugs have nothing to eat. Then they would have to migrate away and they might go into a biome that has predators for them. If one of the predators gets them, then that changes that area, and the more you end up disturbing this natural order the more you’re going to have to potentially pay the consequences and that’s where our base building aspect comes into play.
MMORPG: Since there’s no levels specifically, as you grow the number of items you’re building, will the game be able to tell how advanced your base has become and adjust its difficulty based on that information?
Roby: This is something we’ve been experimenting with a lot; do we want a traditional difficulty curve or do we want it to be completely reactionary? I think we’re going to try to do a mixture of the two, because we don’t necessarily want you to be in the late game, and you build this big base and it’s demolished, and then two hours later another huge wave of creatures comes back. We want it to be a little based on your disturbance of that area and how much you are messing with nature. We want it to be a little bit based on progression and a little bit based on how much you are overpowering them.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Grounded will be available in Spring 2020 on Xbox One digitally through Xbox Game Preview and with Xbox Game Pass, and for PC through Xbox Game Pass for PC, the Microsoft Store, and on Steam.