Diving In – A Conversation With Pillars Of Eternity II Director Josh Sawyer
Our latest issue of Game Informer released today to digital readers, with the print version rolling out in the coming days. Within, you’ll find an in-depth look at Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, including hands-on impressions of a near final build, in advance of the game’s April 3rd launch on PC, Mac, and Linux, with console versions (PS4, Xbox One, and Switch) coming later in the year. I also had a chance to chat with the game’s director, Josh Sawyer, who went in depth to explain the inspirations fueling the new game, what has changed since the original, and details about new features that fans may not yet know about, including an as-yet undetailed character and other clues.
Read on for all of Sawyer’s insight into the upcoming role-playing game from Obsidian Entertainment.
Matt Miller: I want to start out talking about this intriguing corner of your campaign setting in which Pillars II unfolds. Can you tell me about the world of Pillars 2 and what makes it unique, both tonally and geographically?
Josh Sawyer: Sure. When we started on the original Pillars of Eternity, we intentionally skewed conservative because we were doing a Kickstarter that was playing heavily on nostalgia. We were very open about that, and because a lot of the Infinity Engine games focused on the sort of very traditional western European feel of something like D&D’s Forgotten Realms. We leaned pretty heavily towards that, but we always knew at the time that for future games, we wanted to spread our wings and take a look at places, visual styles, and cultures that aren’t necessarily dealt with as much in fantasy. Early on in Pillars, because both to stir the imagination of the designers and to stir the imagination of our players, I came up with a bunch of far-off locations for the worlds there that were not anywhere near where the first game took place. Places like Rauatai, the Living Lands, and the Vailian Republic, and then the Deadfire.
The Deadfire, when we first conceived of it, I just thought it would be cool to have at the eastern edge of the known world, at least in this part of the world, the eastern edge of the known world is this huge chain of islands mostly made up of dormant volcanoes, which is where the name Deadfire comes from. And there’s a native population there, but it’s also full of pirates and sea monsters and all sorts of crazy things. When it came time to make the sequel to Pillars, we said “Where do we want to go?” The most common reply that I got was to the Deadfire. So, when we decided to set it here, we knew right away that we were going to have a lot of opportunities to have a much different visual style to our areas, we would introduce a culture that felt very not-European while still bringing over the colonial elements of cultures like the Vailian Republics.
There is some familiarity there for people who played the first game; it’s not like there’s no connection to the first game, but the Deadfire really allowed us to really start exploring other cultures, other styles of cultures, architecture, and visual things. It also allowed us to really extend the style of our art to include things like dynamic weather and dynamic foliage. While people seem to really like the look of the first game, they also found that it felt very static because there was a lot of stiff 2D trees on a 2D background, so all of these wild weather systems and plants, ferns, trees, and stuff allowed us to really make the levels feel a lot more alive.
In the first game, another thing thematically is that you’re kind of in a post-colonial area. It’s an area that’s already been colonized, there were already wars between the native culture and the colonizers, and most of that stuff has been resolved even though there are still some lingering issues. But in Deadfire, it’s an area that is actively being colonized despite there being a native culture there. Those themes and issues are more to the forefront. One of the reasons why we chose to have two colonizing factions is I felt that if it were simply a native culture and a colonizing culture, it would be very easy for that to fall into a trope or a lot of tropes that aren’t necessarily that interesting to explore, and some of the things that I think are very interesting about exploring colonialism in Earth is that often you will get colonial powers not only fighting each other, but also trying to play that native culture against their rivals. That’s the space that I thought was interesting to explore in Deadfire in terms of the secular conflict on the ground.
MM: It seems from the time that I spent with the game that some of those influences look to both Pacific Island cultures, as well as nods to Pirates of the Caribbean dynamic. Are those inspirations you were specifically looking towards, or was it more general than that?
JS: Well, I think that there’s a certain element, as much as I’ve tried to avoid it, people have fun with traditional views of piracy, so there is some element of that, mostly expressed through the princhipee (spelling) faction. The Principi, which is a kind of organized, but as you play the game, not super-duper organized, pirate faction. They kind of represent what a lot of people will think of as more traditional pirates in a lot of ways. Then there are the colonial powers and the native quama (spelling) culture. The native Huana culture is not specifically based off of any individual pacific island culture, but there are elements of pacific island cultures in them. There’s also elements of Japanese in the language and stuff like that. If we borrow too much from one culture, then they will seem like a literal stand-in for that culture, so we try to find ways to come at these things from right angles or introduce other elements so that they’re not direct analogues. They’re there to provide some familiar context, but they’re their own thing.
MM: In addition to real-world inspirations, fantasy settings also let you include fantastical elements. What are some of the features that help the Deadfire Archipelago stand apart as a fantasy setting?
JS: One of the things that can up early on is we talked about “what is the reason for people to come here?” The Deadfire was a known place a long time ago, within the past few hundred years within the Pillars universe, so it asked the question why aren’t people already climbing all over this place? I’m looking at colonialism, for example, the exploitation of rubber in the real world. Until rubber became vulcanized and there were lots of industrial applications for rubber, there wasn’t a huge drive to get that substance. Why would there be? In Deadfire, there is a substance called luminous adra. Adra is a material unique to Pillars of Eternity, it’s what the Pillars of Eternity are made of. They are the substance that grows naturally out of the world that seems to conduct soul energy. In the Deadfire, there is a unique type of adra called luminous adra that is so filled with soul energy, it literally glows. For a long time, people were like “that’s kind of crazy. I don’t know what we can do with this, but that’s kind of neat.”
The breakthrough in the Pillars world was that an animancer, people who study soul energy and the science of souls, discovered several very useful properties of luminous adra, including an elixir that temporarily restores vitality and feelings of youth, and a youthful appearance. That immediately became extremely popular among wealthy people in the Eastern Reach, which is actually to the west of the Deadfire Archipelago, the place where Pillars of Eternity took place. Once this became a precious commodity that could be refined and used for a variety of valuable purposes, those colonial powers decided to rush in and make all these crazy ways to use it. It’s physically prominent in the environment, luminous adra does grow throughout the Archiepelago. It’s also notable for a number of physical features that are very imposing. Magran’s Teeth, which is a chain of volcanoes named for the goddess Magran that is very dangerous. There’s also an enormous, supernatural storm called Ondra’s Mortar, that is a barrier to any farther exploration eastward. To all sailors, it represents the eastern edge of the known world. It presents a real-world problem, but it is very obvious by looking at it that it is not natural, so there is some supernatural cause to that, in addition to the various beasts and creatures that lurk in the sea.
MM: Sure. One of the things I noted with my time playing that game is that it seems like there’s a bigger focus as a gameplay idea on exploration than maybe in the first game. Do you think that’s true?
JS: That is true. I wouldn’t say it’s a dramatically different focus, but I would say that the focus has been refined. In Pillars of Eternity 1, we relied a little more on our wilderness areas for exploration and because of how they were laid out and how we had to populate them, a lot of players were mixed about how that exploration felt. I always liked the style of world exploration found in a game like Fallout 1 or Fallout 2 where you have a world map that you can navigate in any direction you want to. Because the game is set in an Archipelago it felt like a natural fit to explore that by boat, providing the player with specific points that they can go to. You’ve got a ship, you got a big ocean, and a bunch of islands. If you know where you want to go, you can go there, but otherwise, just set sail and find what you can find. That sense of exploration and adventure is much more of the focus. To be honest, it’s challenging in a much different way, but as we work on it, it’s going to be a very rewarding experience. You really are setting off into this big ocean and sometimes you’ll go several screens of open water and wonder “am I going to make it out here? Do I have enough food and pay for my crew? What am I going to find when I get there? Is it going to be worthwhile?” Hopefully, that really feels like something where there is a sense of excitement, of risk and reward.
MM: Part of the challenge there has to be that you’re also a narrative-based game. How do you balance those needs? If people can go wherever they want, how do you make sure that you also get across some semblance of a linear narrative?
JS: Well, it just has to be some semblance of a linear narrative. Going back, I’ve actually used Fallout 1 as my model for the open storytelling structures. It’s what I also used for Fallout: New Vegas, even though people debate that. In New Vegas, you can go straight from Goodsprings to the strip and Benny is there and the story will make sense by doing that, because he’s always there. You’re just trying to find out where he is and get there. In Deadfire, we put a lot of effort into continually asking “What if the player goes here before going here? How does the story respond to that? What if they want to leapfrog that?” In shockingly few cases do we restrict that. In most cases, we say this can make sense as long as we account for this in this way. My focus in a game where we are trying to stretch player agency is not only in the sort of character they make, but the choices that they make in terms of dialogue – what they choose to say and the way they want to resolve quests, but also how they explore the world. Instead of constantly backing up and saying “don’t” to the player, we want to embrace the sense of role-playing and the player being in control of their destiny. As much as possible, we want to allow them to do that.
In certain cases, the story will still hold up. It won’t feel as tight as if you played it in the intended order, but I firmly believe that most players are going to play the game linearly. If we set up the game and the world and the story in a certain way, they’re going to play it in that way. If you think of Fallout 1, it is theoretically possible for you to find the water chip without going anywhere other than Vault 13 and the Necropolis. But nobody plays the game that way on their first try because they would never know to go there. I believe that players appreciate having that flexibility and the openness of that game. For us, we try to make the linear story a really good and engaging one that is paced well with emotional highs and lows, and also account for the fact that we want to allow players to skip around and do the things that they want to without the story falling apart when they do.
MM: A central element of the story involves this chasing down of reemergent god. One of the things that I found really interesting in the couple of spaces I saw was the idea of very clear marks on the world that indicate his presence or his passing. Is that something that is in mind as you design, that looming over any of these side quests and discovery of these islands that you also have this giant, titanic force that’s making its way across the islands?
JS: I will say that in Pillars 1, I handed Eric Fenstermaker a difficult problem for him to solve. We have an illness that is driving you crazy, and portraying madness from an isometric camera is really difficult to do, especially in a supernatural world. Is that a ghost? Sure, there are ghosts in the world, but is it a real ghost, or one that I just imagined? That’s a difficult thing to communicate. Regarding Thaos as a villain, which I think Eric developed a very cool villain, one of the problems is that Thaos is part of a secret organization that no one knows about and everything he does is very covert. When he pops up, no one has any idea what he is or what he’s doing, and if you contrast that with Jon Irenicus, he pops up and just starts popping people, and people know who he is and he’s a big deal as an antagonist. People can go “John Irenicus, that dude is psycho” and talk about him. For Pillars 2, one of the things I said right away is that Eothas is coming back, and he’s in this big statue. He’s as tall as skyscrapers in Chicago. We did the measurements. There’s not a big chance that people aren’t going to notice that he’s walking around, and he can leave physical marks in the environment. We wanted to make sure that it felt like he had a real presence in the world so that players didn’t feel like they were pursuing this thing alone and the world was not responding to it.
Next Page: A look at ship-to-ship combat, and the unlikely connection to a cartoon named Street Sharks
MM: I want to switch gears a bit and talk about one of the other major tenets of this game that makes it different from Pillars 1, which is the focus on ships and specifically, players having a ship. Do you think of the ship, as being a little bit like the castle was in the first game, or is it a totally different dynamic?
JS: In one sense, it is a replacement for it. In another sense, it is a completely different dynamic. With Pillars 1, it was kind of naïve in my head, because people liked the strongholds in Baldur’s Gate 2, so I thought: “let’s have a stronghold in this game.” But the strongholds in Baldur’s Gate 2 were incorporated in a much different way and there were a bunch of them. They were pretty light, whereas the stronghold in Pillars 1 had a big system around it, didn’t have much content around it, and it wasn’t super-well integrated into the main storyline. So, a lot of people were like ‘well, this is a weird fit’. It has a bunch of mechanics, but I don’t really know why I care about it.
If you contrast it with something like Neverwinter Nights 2, Crossroad Keep was extremely important to how you played through the story of the game. For Pillars 2, we talked about strongholds and debated the pros and cons, and eventually I gave into logic and said if you’re sailing around this whole place, you shouldn’t have a stronghold, but a ship. Let’s devote our efforts toward making the ship something that’s really engaging and cool and something that there’s a reward for managing, but there’s also a scaling level of involvement. So, if you don’t want to be a super involved captain, you can stick with the Defiant and a relatively small crew with relatively low impact. Or, you can get the high-end ships, you can upgrade everything, you can hunt guys down all over the Deadfire and murder pirates everywhere. It can be a really big and engaging system. I feel like saying that it’s a substitute for the stronghold sells it short, because we’ve put much more effort into integrating it into the game as whole:
MM: What can you tell me about the ship battles?
JS: We debated a lot of different ways to do them. There are two ways you can think about them: ship-to-ship duels, or deck-to-deck combat. The ship-to-ship duel is a system we developed that is more tactical and slower paced. It’s about maneuvering and positioning your ship based on distance and flanking, pacing out the loading and reloading of cannons, dealing with catastrophes on your ship. It’s all turn-based and happens in this interface that is very similar to our scripted interactions. We debated a number of ways to handle ship-to-ship combat. Full 3D seemed like literally making an entire different game within the game and also seemed like an enormous use of resources. I wanted you to feel like the captain of the ship with crew members that you grew to care about over time. Because of that, I felt like a turn-based approach would give you more time to look at and treat your crew members as individuals. If they get injured, you think of them as individuals and you care about them recovering. You’re weighing the crew as individual people in a frame of time that allows you to do that. Some of the bigger ships can have well over a dozen crew members, so for that to really work and care about them individually, I don’t think that would work in a real-time setup.
If you don’t want to duel and want to get straight into melee combat, you can go to deck-to-deck combat. It pulls your ship up alongside another ship and your party and some of your crew members will roll onto the enemy ship, which has a captain and combatants for you to attack. We’re trying to make it so that if you really don’t want to do the ship dueling that much, you can either run away, fly false flags to trick people, or go deck-to-deck fighting if you want more Deadfire style combat.
MM: You’d expect that the average player would do a mix of both. They’d do some ship-to-ship and some deck-to-deck and just enjoy the idea of being a ship captain and having some crazy combat.
JS: I think so. And I know that there’s a risk that some people will see our ship-to-ship system and think that it’s not for them, that they don’t like that style of combat. And that’s okay. The game is not hinging on being super involved in that all the time, but we think that it has enough depth that the people who do engage with it would be like “whoa, there’s a lot of cool, fun stuff here.” I think that the average player who is at least into the concept would play a mix. We set up some fights intentionally that way. Let’s say you come across a galleon bristling with cannons, but you look at the captain and the captain is experienced but low level. I am going to storm that ship and beat the s--- out of everyone, and if you want to complete the duel that way, you can do that. There’s also the inverse where the ship is not that great, the captain is not that experienced but a really high level, if you choose to close with the enemy ship, it’s much more difficult to fight them on the deck than it is to just ship than just sink it outright.
MM: I noticed looking in the game that there’s an interface where you’re examining individual slots on your ship for new cannons and other improvements. Are ship upgrades affecting both of those styles of combat?
JS: No, once you get into the deck combat, it’s really just about your party. If you do try deck-to-deck and your ship is rickety and not manned properly, you can get blasted pretty heavily on the way in. So, you might go into that deck-to-deck combat with some injuries, but you can do it. But I did want to keep those two things more or less separate. While your crew will come over in the deck-to-deck fights, they’re AI controlled; it’s you and your companions that are the bulk of the fighting force. The upgrades to your ship, cannons and stuff, that affects the ship duels. But, like I said, if you blast some of the crew with the cannons in the ship duel, they will show injured or even dead in the deck-to-deck combat.
MM: Shifting gears, I want to talk to you about the companion system. How does it affect interactions with the world and NPC’s and how does it affect combat?
JS: The companion system is mostly focused on role-playing, it’s not really mechanically focused so much. There are occasionally minor mechanical effects from it. We looked at how companions were handled in Pillars 1 and one of the things we found is that people wanted companions to chime in to stuff in the world more often. Second, we found that people wanted NPC’s in the world to react to the companions reacting to them. So, it felt like when a companion made an aside, it was said to the player silently or to the camera almost, because the NPC’s would never pick up on it and say anything back. So, we wanted to make them feel like they’re more engaged, and we also wanted the player to feel like the player could develop relationships over time. Right away, we knew we were going to devote more time to writing the companions overall.
There’s something systemic I’ve been thinking about doing since the early 2000’s, something more or less called a topic-based system for adjusting companion reactivity. It’s a little complicated, but I’ll break it down: in a lot of games, companions will be set up to hate or love each other and you’re along for the ride as they hit these certain break points. There may or may not be a lot of evidence leading up to that point, but those companions are designed to like or dislike each other. I wanted to try and find something that married the more organic and systemic elements of a game with narrative offerings that sort of fit the ideas we have as designers.
For example, Edér, beloved Edér, is your racist uncle. A lot of people didn’t realize that until later on in Pillars of Eternity that Edér has some latent racist ideas about Orlans; he doesn’t think of himself as a racist, but he has these backwards ideas that come up in comments here and there, but once an Orlan joins the party, he starts saying this racist stuff and doesn’t really realize it, but players are like “wow, this dude is racist.” The idea is that there are certain topics that different companions will respond positively or negatively to. They can come from other companions or the player. When those topics are hit, like someone being anti-god in the case of Pallegina,someone being racist in the case of Edér, someone being cruel to animals, which is a thing that Edér doesn’t like but other people might do, these are things that companions will react to.
They can react to either systemically where they’ll express dissatisfaction through either a physical tick like scratching their beard and shaking their head or plucking their tongue or they will actually chime in and say, “that’s not cool, I don’t like that.” But when that happens, that’s what is moving that relationship in a certain direction. It’s not something that is random or unplanned; it’s something where we’re like “hey, if this character doesn’t like racists, and we know Edér is racist, we should plan for and author a relationship between them that hinges on the expression of that behavior”. But, if you don’t actually have those topics come up a lot, then that relationship will not develop in that way. It could develop in a positive way or not develop at all. Of course, in the case of someone like Pallegina, if you keep asking her what she thinks about the gods, she’s going to keep saying about how she hates them and anyone who thinks of that as offensive is going to continue taking offense.
So, much like being at Thanksgiving with your racist uncle, there are certain topics you might try to avoid in conversation because you know that it’s going to set someone else off. That’s what I feel like is a very interesting aspect of the system. These aren’t random things, you will start to see and experience and you’ll go like “oh s---, if this person keeps going, this other person is going to keep getting angrier, so I have to try and drive the conversation away from these topics. Or, maybe I don’t give a s--- and I’ll exacerbate that and move towards those topic points.” In a way that you might expect, when those relationships come to a head, even positive ones, you’re there as a central character as the captain of the Defiant and the people that bring these others together, you’re there to smooth things over or move things along in the case of a romance or friendship. It’s been a delicate balance because it is not random, where anyone can have any sort of relationship with anyone, but something where if someone says “I can’t stand Pallegina because she’s so hateful of religion and the gods”, the player just shouldn’t be like “what, I haven’t heard her say anything like that” but should be like “yeah dude, she’s said it like half a dozen times”. So, it really feels like a natural outgrowth of the behavior you’ve already seen.
MM: One of the things we got a first look at for our magazine feature for the first time is this new character, Tekehu. He is one of how many playable party members that join up with you?
JS: There are seven companions and there are four sidekicks. The difference between companions and sidekicks is that sidekicks don’t have their own personal questline. Writing companions is a huge amount of work, but we know people love variety in terms of visuals and mechanics. Some wish we could have more companions or more colorful companions that don’t need quests, like Minsc. Minsc didn’t have a personal quest in Baldur’s Gate 2. He was just a cool guy and had funny lines and people thought that was cool and wanted him in their party. So that’s what a sidekick is. So, we have seven full companions with their own quests and relationships and then we have four sidekicks.
MM: And this character Tekehu, which category does he fit into?
JS: He’s a full companion.
MM: Tell me more about him.
JS: So Tekehu is a native of the Deadfire Archipelago, one of the godlike, or people who are born with features that resemble or are associated with a certain god. Pallegina is also a god-like and is associated with Hylea, the goddess of birds. Tekehu is a marine god-like, associated with Ondra, the goddess of the sea. Because the Huana culture is also very nautically oriented and they live in the Deadfire, he’s sort of doubly revered. He was born into a caste of artisans, and from a very early age, people decided that his art would be water-shaping. Water-shaping is something that is unique to the Deadfire Archipelago. It is actually seemingly unique to the city of Neketaka. Tekehu is able to manipulate water in this beautiful, artistic, sometimes deadly way and he is a member of the Water Shapers Guild, and although he is not really a senior member or guild master, he’s got a chip on his shoulder. Because everyone has told him he is so gifted, he believes it. He is really talented, but it goes to his head. He’s very dismissive of people telling him how he should be using his arts, how he should use them to help people. He believes that is his gift to decide what to do with it. He’s very headstrong and amorous. He has a lot of romantic inclinations and as you walk around the city of Neketaka, you run into people who have come across him in various ways. He is well known throughout the city. He is a very colorful and passionate character but is very headstrong and full of himself. He is also very inexperienced in dealing with the outside world. That is his conflict with reality.
MM: From a gameplay perspective, one of the things I saw in the screens is that he has transformative qualities.
JS: From a mechanical standpoint, Tekeku can either be a druid or a chanter or a combination of the two. Regardless of what class you pick for him, he has the ability to turn into a wereshark. This is an ability that is unique to him. It’s a very potent combat form. He can still cast spells in that form, but he is a very powerful melee combatant in that form as well.
JS: Some might say “Jawesome”, if you’re familiar with the Street Sharks.
MM: Looking at the screens here in our office, someone in our office asked if he was a Street Shark. That’s a reference I haven’t heard in a long time.
JS: I will admit, back when I was in college, I played a ton of D&D and we had to fight weresharks and I was blown away. The dungeon master showed me the stat block, back in the second edition D&D, and when I started working at Black Isle, I was like “someday, I’m going to put one of these f---ing things in a game”. Actually, when we first played, we had a tabletop session, I got a YouTube stream tabletop session and I put weresharks in it and threatened they were going to come to Pillars of Eternity, and now I finally got my chance.
MM: That’s amazing. That used to be one of my favorite things with those old D&D Monstrous Compendiums. They were in huge three-ring binders and got to the point where they were just pumping out one after another after another.
JS: There were like over a dozen of them.
MM: Yeah, there were so many of them. So, if you were DM, you just had this whole mess of mega-binders of monsters that went completely off the rails. Quite literally jumped the shark at certain points.
JS: The golden days.
Next Page: Evolving the Pillars combat system, and how to balance the desires of hardcore fans with players that have less time on their hands
MM: I want to make sure and ask you about the ways that combat is compelling in the new game. Can you talk to me about some of the stuff that you’re proud of in Pillars 2, maybe in particular as to how you feel like it’s improved since the first game?
JS: It’s an ongoing process; our backers give us a lot of great feedback, so we are still tuning based on that feedback. One of the things we wanted to focus on is clarity in combat. I did not want to make the game any simpler just for the sake of simplicity. I think most of the problems people had with Pillars 1 combat was due to unnecessary complexity and it just being hard to follow. So, there are a number of things that we have changed to improve on that. One is that the overall speed of combat has come way down. It’s not glacially slow, but still much slower and easier to see what’s going on. Creatures move more slowly on the battlefield, which is something our backers commented on earlier on in the backer beta. We’re also adding a combat speed slider to the main HUD. That’s one of the new things that we’re doing in response to backer feedback. What that will allow you to do is basically say “I just want combat to be this fast” and it will run at that speed. If you want to speed it up to fast mode and plow through fights in which you’re over-levelled or if you want to go at a slower pace, you can do that as well.
We’ve also changed how our visual effects are rendered for two reasons: one, we found that in Pillars 1, we could blow out the screen very easily. A big spell would land, something bad just happened and you’d hit pause and not be able to see half the battlefield because it’s covered in a glowing fireball. We changed how the rendering works so it’s much less likely to blow out. We’ve also added a feature where when you pause, the opacity of combat visual effects specifically goes way down so that same fireball is not only easier to see through in general, but it literally becomes transparent when you hit pause, so you can see where everyone is and what’s going on.
We also changed esoteric rules, like our stacking rules, which is a very D&D, noodley thing; we made those much clearer and simpler. We also looked at our status effect system. I think there were 30 afflictions in Pillars of Eternity and they were all unique and their relationship to each other was very unclear. You had to memorize which priest’s spells countered which afflictions and all this other nonsense. We brought that down into a set of afflictions that’s easier to understand based around the different attributes. For example, “weakened” is the first tier of strength affliction and there are multiple levels up from weakened that are basically all the effects below plus the effect above, and if you counter it with any strength inspiration, such as “strong,” that gets rid of them all automatically. It doesn’t matter if it’s a low-level or high-level affliction; it’ll get rid of any of them and make you immune to any subsequent applications of them. If you learn that for strength, you’ll also learn it for intellect and dexterity and others. They all follow a similar convention.
All of this means that it should be much easier to understand the fundamentals of combat and make tactical decisions. We did not want the technical depth of the game to be affected. The other big thing that people have commented on is that we completely reauthored how our artificial intelligence works from the ground up. There are two ways how that affects combat. The first is that encounters are potentially more robust and intelligent. If you’re playing on harder levels of difficulty, creatures will use very devious and effective tactics. They are very responsive to what the player is doing.
On the flip side, we allow the player to fully author their own AI scripts. Much like Dragon Age: Origins or the Final Fantasy gambit system, we have a full set of conditionals that the player can set up for each of their characters. They can go extremely in depth and set up brilliant AI packages, whatever level of customization that they want. For people who really enjoy that and don’t enjoy micro-managing characters but would rather micro-manage at the strategic level, it makes it much more manageable for them. It makes them feel smart and powerful because they were smart and powerful. On the flip side, for people who want a really awesome challenge, it allows us to make battles that feel difficult because the enemies are smart, not just that they have high stats.
MM: What can you tell me about the four main factions that are competing in Deadfire, how that affects the player experience, how it might affect the role-playing opportunities, and the conclusions of the game?
JS: Obviously, I’m not going to spoil anything, but when we did the teaser for Deadfire, we led off with images and words associated with our three returning companions, Aloth, Pallegina, and Edér. Then we started showing images from our four major factions, which are the Principi, the pirate faction, the Huana, which are the native culture that live in the Deadfire, the Vailian Trading Company, who are also present in a minor way in the first game but are a colonial trading power, and then the Royal Deadfire company from Rauatai, who are another colonial power that is more militaristic coming into the area. In a way that is maybe not entirely unfamiliar, but because it makes for a good recipe, these four factions are all in competition in one way or another. They’re all rivaling and jostling and trying to use each other against their other opponents.
When a 700-foot tall titan starts stomping around the area that they’re squabbling in and you’re sort of pursuing him through the middle of it, you get drawn into what’s going on there and they get drawn into what’s going on with this titan you’re pursuing. There are things you can get from them and they can get from you. If we do our jobs well, you will look at the factions and go like “yea, I kind of agree with these guys; I’m going to side with them.” And then if we do our jobs really well, later on you’ll change your mind and want to change factions. We try to allow that flexibility so that you can form a nuanced opinion over time, change your allegiances. It’ll be hard, but you can go your own way. You don’t have to ally with a faction to make it through the game. They’re all jockeying for your help and you can potentially get a lot from them as well. Ideally, we’re trying to tie together these different conflicts, your pursuit of Eothas with the conflict that’s going on in the Deadfire, tying them together and moving toward the end of the game.
MM: So, it’s safe to say that your alliances there are going to affect how the broader game turns out and what happens to the Deadfire Archipelago?
JS: That was some criticism that we took to heart from Pillars 1, where we had these three factions that we started building up in Defiance Bay, and I think our writers and quest designers did a really good job developing those factions, but then as soon as you left Defiance Bay to go to Twin Elms, those factions pretty much dropped off the map. They weren’t really involved in the end game. They were kind of a part of end game slides, but it really was about these other choices you had made. People were kind of disappointed. They were like “well, I didn’t really spend a lot of time with a faction. I got cut off from the other faction quest really early, and at the end of the game, it didn’t really feel like that made much of a difference.” We wanted the factions to feel much more integral to what was going on in your story and throughout the entire game.
MM: Josh, the last question I wanted to put to you was to ask a little about the potential audience of Pillars 2. One of the challenges at this point must be trying to reach players who might never have played those original classic isometric RPGs. At this point, it’s a pretty significant segment of the gamer population, if only because of age. In what ways do you feel like you’re trying to make the game more accessible to new players or something that they can discover on its own terms? Or is that not a priority for you?
JS: I mean, it’s a priority, but it has to be balanced against the fact that the core fans of this franchise like things hard and brutal. The people who have been with us since Black Isle on, they want a hardcore, challenging game. Any changes that we make to that formula have to be made carefully because if we change too much of the spirit of the game, they start to feel like it’s losing touch with the core audience. The whole reason we’re able to do this is because of our core fans and crowdfunding. When I look at it, a lot of it has to do with things like thinking about “hey, just because D&D has 8 billion status effects that you can read in a rulebook at your convenience, doesn’t mean that the video game that is like D&D has to be structured in the exact same way.”
We also can talk about things like in the first hour of the game, are their certain gameplay concepts that you just don’t have to introduce to the player right away. It’s not to say that they shouldn’t be in the game, you just chill out and don’t necessarily expose them to that aspect. Whether it’s the ship or crafting or enchanting, you have to think carefully about how we expose the player to new gameplay concepts and how quickly we expect them to adapt to that. There are a lot of very complex games, whether they are action, MMO’s, or strategy games that do a really good job of introducing concepts over time. I think one of the reasons that role-playing games don’t tend to do that very well is because, and I will admit that when I first started in the industry many moons ago that I made the same mistake, is that I assumed that everyone playing it was familiar with D&D.
There’s all sorts of stuff that’s not intuitive that you have to learn from playing D&D for 10-25 years. In the RPG genre, we got very used to the idea of them knowing D&D and figuring this stuff out. Now, we’re taking the approach that we have to actually teach people about these concepts, one at a time, in a way that feels like they can handle them until they have a full mastery of all these different tools. Then it can expand into being this beautiful, rich, deep, tactical thing. It’s not that people are dumb, it’s that we throw a billion things at them at once and expect them to catch them all immediately.
It’s that, and I will say that we’ve been more sensitive to time-pressed people. Even among our core fans, we’ve found that there are parents who say “I love all of this stuff, I love the tactical combat and the deep mechanics, but I don’t have time. I’m working 50 hours a week and I have three kids. There’s not a lot of time for me to get through this.” One of the things we added in at the end of Pillars 1 was story mode in one of our latest patches. Story mode basically biases things in your favor, makes it really hard to die. People online called it “dad mode” and said that they had a reasonable chance to get through this game. Because this game is massive, people who are pressed for time wonder if they are able to play a game that’s 50-70 hours and losing a fight causes them to reload. Story mode lets them blast through all that stuff in half that time.
I think there are a lot of ways through tutorialization, letting people choose the level of difficulty and difficulty scaling that they want, we can make it much friendlier to people who don’t have interest in the deep stuff or don’t have the time for it. We can do that without sacrificing the highly tactical combat. I believe that at the highest levels of difficulty, the AI and tactics they use are much more brutal in Deadfire. So, for people who want that challenge, we’re going to have that in spades, but I think we’ve done a good job of balancing that with the people who just want to get into it for the first time or who love the nostalgia, but just don’t have the time.