Obsidian Entertainment has staked a claim on the CRPG genre in the last year. With Pillars of Eternity, the studio returned to their roots, abandoning the sprawling 3D open worlds of Fallout: New Vegas and the pop culture satire of South Park: The Stick of Truth for isometric cameras, dice rolls, and one of the best interactive stories this side of the open world. Now that the last expansion, The White March Part Two, has hit digital shelves, we sat down with Director and Design Lead, Josh Sawyer to look back on the game.
MMORPG: Hi Josh! Thank you for chatting with me today. What’s the atmosphere like in the studio with The White March Part Two has finally released?
Josh: It's hard to believe it's been almost three and a half years since we launched the Kickstarter for Project Eternity, but it's been a fantastic experience. All games have their development challenges, but with Pillars of Eternity, we really felt like it was up to us to prove ourselves to the fans and backers. We're very happy with how the core game and expansions turned out, but of course we have a lot of ideas for improvements in the future.
MMORPG: How is the game doing, saleswise, now that it is out in the wild?
Josh: I don't think we have exact figures for the second part of the expansion, but the release of The White March, Part II the midweek Steam sale bumped Pillars back into the Steam best sellers list again. We can't complain about that.
MMORPG: One of my concerns, as big of a fan as I am, is that spreading content over a longer period may cause some fans to lose interest. But the other side of that is that the ramp up to release also keeps the public consciousness and there’s less waiting between updates. What’s your take: is it better to have smaller, more frequent expansions or bigger, spread out add-ons?
Josh: In a CRPG of this sort, it can be difficult to tell some types of stories in bite-sized DLC. The traditional Tales of the Sword Coast-style expansion pack feels more appropriate for a game like Pillars, but it’s true that all of the data we've seen on expansion/DLC sales suggests that they drop off pretty rapidly after a few months. So, while I prefer "traditional" expansions, DLCs seem to have a better attachment rate and offer a better return.
MMORPG: Looking back at it, do you think Pillars of Eternity was too hard? The new Story Mode almost seems like a reaction to players who perhaps didn’t experience the early days of PC RPGs and were taken aback by how challenging it could be. Then the other side, you have difficulty boosts like Knockout Injuries. What’s the thought behind these changes?
Josh: It was a little too hard in some ways, not hard enough in others. Easy Mode could make areas feel relatively sparse. It did help make combat easier, but not dramatically. Story Mode really turns a lot of dials to help the player win. Knockout injuries and the addition of damage and affliction immunities were intended to make combat more challenging for players who like using Hard and Path of the Damned.
Since our more aggressive players are the ones most likely to replay the game over and over, they need changes to core mechanics to keep the challenge level high.
MMORPG: Reading through player reviews of Part Two, it’s clear that this expansion feels slightly different from the last. How did your team incorporate player feedback into the overall design (meaning apart from the major features) or was this just approached differently based on internal goals you wanted to accomplish?
Josh: We already knew that the arc of the story was going to feel different between Part I and Part II, so it's not surprising to see people respond more positively to the "epic" elements toward the end. Soulbound weapons were new in Part I, so we tried to improve them for Part II. We had not originally expected to do so many gameplay revisions for Patch 3.0, but I think a lot of players are experiencing both Part II and the 3.0 improvements at the same time, so the patch really enhances the feeling of the expansion.
MMORPG: One of the additions coming to the game with this expansion are improvements to the stronghold. Many of these reports are a bit vague (i.e, “rich stories” and “new challenges”). Can you tell us a little bit more about how the stronghold has been improved?
Josh: We've tried to improve in three areas: adventures, visitor dilemmas, and a new quest line. In the core game, adventures were generic "off-screen" opportunities for companions you had stored at the stronghold. We always intended to give them proper names, descriptions, and unique items, but there just wasn't time. In the 3.0 patch, we added over 30 unique adventures with their own mini-stories and special items.
The core game also had stronghold visitors, but those visitors just applied a small bonus or penalty at the stronghold. In 3.0, the visitors all have small dilemmas that require your assistance as the lord or lady of Caed Nua. There are a variety of ways to resolve each dilemma, including the always-popular "hang the visitor outside the gates" resolution.
Caed Nua's new quest line is a lot of fun. Your right to Caed Nua is challenged by an Aedyre noble who is thoroughly unlikable. He continues to escalate conflict with you until you are forced to deal with him. The end of the quest is one of the coolest things we've made for the game and we hope people really enjoy it.