Before Pillars of Eternity, Obsidian nearly met its end
"We had a date in mind."
I had no idea things at Obsidian Entertainment had been so bad. I knew things weren't great before the record-breaking Project Eternity Kickstarter campaign, but I didn't realise that game had saved the company - that without it the studio would have closed.
"We had a date in mind where, like, if we pass this date [without signing a project], we're basically screwed," revealed key Obsidian person Adam Brennecke, during a preview of the Road to Eternity documentary film. "We were basically going to run out of money."
This was in spring 2012, following a string of cancelled games, most notably the cancellation of an Xbox One game (which isn't named, but has been potentially labelled North Carolina in the past).
"It was really exciting but it was a lot of work," said Obsidian boss Feargus Urquhart in the documentary clip. "And unfortunately the game got cancelled."
"With these larger budgets, when you crash, you crash hard," added Josh Sawyer, director of Fallout: New Vegas and now Pillars of Eternity. "And for a company the size of Obsidian, to have a project cancelled like that, it had a big impact on us financially."
They tried to pitch the game again, changing the world and a few things, but it didn't get anywhere, and they had to lay people off.
"We're watching dozens of people clear out their desks and leaving, a lot of people who had worked here for years and years," said Sawyer.
"For me, and for the other guys at Obsidian, it's doubly bad," added Urquhart, "because it's a public statement of failure." Everyone knows, publishers know, and the blame is all aimed at Obsidian, the company in all of the pain. Suddenly signing a life-saving project became exponentially harder.
"We were all coming to work just to come to work," recalled Adam Brennecke. "We weren't actually working on anything. You feel like a lost soul."
"We had just been burned really badly," added Sawyer, "and it really made it difficult to go out and have high hopes for what we were going to do."
But either you give up at that point or you do something about it. Josh Sawyer had been looking at Kickstarter and now other people started looking too, joking about putting their canned game there, seeing what would happen. Talk expanded, interest intensified - and then the Double Fine Adventure Game blew Kickstarter wide open, raising millions and propelling the platform onto the global main stage.
Josh Sawyer knew at that point Obsidian had to act. "It reached a certain point where I said to the owners, 'If I can't be involved in it, fine, but we, we, should do it!'"
The responsibility fell on Adam Brennecke, who for two months explored ideas with Josh Sawyer, and gathered the heads of the studio for brainstorming, until a concept was approved and a pitch written.
"That day of doom that I talked about was fast approaching," said Brennecke, "so we had to hit it out of the park."
On 14th September 2012, the crowdfunding campaign for Project Eternity was launched, and Obsidian did hit it out of the park. Now Obsidian readies Pillars of Eternity for a 26th March 2015 worldwide release, with an eye to extending the series should the debut game find success enough to warrant it (and Feargus Urquhart has already said he'd be surprised if Eternity 2 didn't happen).
Meanwhile, Obsidian pays the bigger bills - it's a 140-person studio remember - with Armored Warfare, a game that is very much a change of pace: a free-to-play tank MMO made for Russian publisher My.com. You never know, it may be great - and it's not a permanent shift for the studio if it isn't. Obsidian's also playing adviser to My.com fantasy MMO Skyforge, which looks respectable.
Obsidian has talked openly about the possibility of a second Kickstarted project, too, so much so, in fact, it once sounded like a sure thing. But that was back at Christmas time, 2013, and we were supposed to hear more last spring. But we didn't, probably owing to a Pillars of Eternity delay. Perhaps now Pillars of Eternity is nearly out the door we're about to hear more.
While that was all going on, South Park: The Stick of Truth came out and was received very well, and had an interesting development story to boot.
Cor! If I'd have known all this in the summer of 2012, when I hunted Obsidian's Chris Avellone down for a podcast special, a Planescape: Torment post-mortem - which itself would spark a new Torment game being developed at inXile, bizarrely! - I'd have asked a few different questions of my own.