Video game publishers have not treated Obsidian Entertainment very well over the years.
The studio behind games like Fallout: New Vegas and Alpha Protocol has missed out on bonuses because of Metacritic scores, lost out on sequels because of Metacritic scores, and been forced to lay off staff because of sudden project cancellations (that would have probably been ruined because of Metacritic scores).
So now they're ditching the publisher model. They're going straight to the fans. They want $1.1 million to make an original, brand new, fantasy role-playing game in the vein of old classics like Baldur's Gate II and Planescape Torment. It's a dream project. And they've got the talent to pull it off.
This afternoon, Obsidian is launching a Kickstarter for what they're calling Project: Eternity. It's an original fantasy role-playing game created by many of the company's top minds: Chris Avellone, creator of Planescape: Torment; Tim Cain, one of the brains behind the original Fallout; Josh Sawyer, a lead designer on Icewind Dale; and a number of other programmers, artists, and designers who have worked on all of those games.
Their goal: to make an RPG that blends the combat and exploration of Baldur's Gate, the dungeon spelunking of Icewind Dale, and the powerful narrative of Planescape: Torment.
In other words, this could be an RPG fan's dream game.
"Project: Eternity is our opportunity to FINALLY develop our own fantasy RPG world and franchise," Obsidian's Avellone told me in an e-mail this week. "FINALLY. Did I say FINALLY enough? One more time: FINALLY.
"It's not like we've had any lack of ideas, only a lack of opportunity or anyone who wanted to finance it. Then Kickstarter came along and a door opened—this was FINALLY our chance to sidestep the publisher model and get financing directly from the people who want to play an Obsidian RPG. I'd much rather have the players be my boss and hear their thoughts for what would be fun than people who might be more distant from the process and the genre and frankly, any long-term attachment to the title."
They're targeting a spring 2014 release. The game will cost you $25 (or $20 if you're an early supporter). And it'll be PC only, because Avellone is "tired of designing content and interactions that caters to consoles and console controllers."
"Those limitations affect RPG mechanics and content more than players may realize (especially for players who've never played a PC RPG and realize what's been lost over the years), and often doesn't add to the RPG experience," he told me.
Avellone also echoed something I've written quite a bit about: the value of having conversations with gamers. Kickstarter can free a company like Obsidian from the message-driven shackles of publishers and allow designers like Avellone to be as open as possible.
"It's nice to be able to TALK about our Kickstarter projects, not just with devs, but with fans directly," he said. "Want to share a vision doc? Sure! Want to show early screenshots and concept art? Sure! Normally that kind of sharing with the community is strictly monitored and shackled, and often, we can't share what we're working on until way, way, way down the line of the development process. That's always struck me as one of the worst business models in an industry where iteration is key."
So what's the game actually going to look like? The final product is still at least a year and a half away, but Avellone shared some thoughts on how Project: Eternity is shaping up:
Combat will be old-school. "It'll feel like Baldur's Gate 2. After discussions here, we decided to pursue a similar combat style to the [games on the Infinity Engine, like Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale]—real time with pause. It'll offer the same breadth and depth of combat choices as you'd expect from combats in Baldur's Gate, and our combat system has been one of the first systems we've delved into for the Kickstarter."
The world is totally original. "It's fantasy with its own voice. Josh Sawyer has been leading the charge with the world and race creation—at first glance, players will recognize archetypes and seemingly-familiar landscapes, but often, we just use that as a means to draw you in and let you begin to see the subtleties and differences. Our first goal with the world creation was to make a world that's fun to explore first, and then construct the lore, factions, and conflicts around that."
This is a game with soul. "So there are a few things—we want the player to be able to build their own character, and we want the player to be able to evolve and grow. And this growth wouldn't be limited to the first game, but would continue into subsequent titles as well. The story and world is built around the concept of magic and power tied to a character's soul, and the player's soul and the souls of his companions are... special."
You won't get to create your own party. That's not a bad thing. "Much like Baldur's Gate and Planescape Torment, the player creates one character and gathers a party while exploring the world. We'll be giving the companions as much love and attention as we've done in our titles in the past, from Torment all the way up to [Neverwinter Nights 2:] Mask of the Betrayer and Fallout: New Vegas. We don't want them to outshine the player, but support him and act as a sounding board for his decisions and choices in the game. Our desire is the player character and the companions (if they survive) will go beyond simply one title into future installments."
It will look like the old classic isometric games. "While Project: Eternity heralds back to the Infinity Engine games our fans have played, we'll be using a different engine and it will be isometric. We feel isometric lends itself to more tactical party-based play."
If the Kickstarter fails, they'll just try again. "[We'll] refine the idea, figure out what didn't work, then try again. The nice thing about KS is that you know in 30 days (often, less) if your idea doesn't resonate with the public, rather than 2-3 years down the line or trying to pump so many marketing dollars at people they become brainwashed into liking an idea that never resonated with them in the first place. (That's my final rant.)"
If the Kickstarter succeeds, this will be a franchise. "It means we FINALLY have a world of our own that we can build upon, not just for this title but for future releases down the line. We've wanted to do our own RPG world for a long, long time, and it's been hard to pursue outside of existing franchises. Project: Eternity is our chance to take all the RPG knowledge, mechanics, lore, and characterization we've learned over the years and turn it into the game our fans have been hungering for."