In-depth interview: Pillars of Eternity's Josh Sawyer talks character creation, cloaks, and ten-foot poles
It's no secret I'm pretty excited for Pillars of Eternity, Obsidian's spiritual successor to 1990s CRPG classics like Baldur's Gate and Planescape Torment. In the past I've gone to Obsidian's headquarters to check out the game and chat with project lead Josh Sawyer, and then I saw a second demo at E3.
This time I sat down with Josh Sawyer here in San Francisco to discuss character creation and...well, a lot of other stuff.
Josh Sawyer: So you've already seen a couple of our demos and you saw our E3 demo, so we'll be focusing on our character creation stuff.
You played the Infinity Engine games? We wanted to provide an experience that's very deep and had a lot of customization to it, so...we found the time to animate female characters. Very excited.
PCWorld: But how many people did you have to hire in order to animate those female characters? [Laughs]
JS: Turns out...zero. [Laughs] So yes, of course, male and female characters just like basically every game we've ever worked on. We also have our six races, and then a sub—you have your humans, your dwarves, your elves, and then Aumaua and Orlan. Aumaua and Orlan are new for our setting. Aumaua are big aquatic guys. Orlan are little feral halflings, kind of. Cat-people?
And then the Godlike are weird as shit. They're like the plane-touched in the Forgotten Realms, where they're blessed by the gods, they have insanely weird appearances. People tend to respond either very positively or very negatively to them.
Death godlike? [In reference to seeing a potential godlike character on the creation screen]
JS: Yes, that was a death godlike. We also have the different ethnicities you can choose from. You can be a Meadow Human, which is your standard Euro dude. We also have Ocean Humans, who are from near the equatorial region. Savannah Humans are more Mesoamerican.
Eleven character classes. Kickstarter, during the campaign we started with I think five. Over the course of stretch goals that moved to a total of eleven. We have all the standard classes—fighters, wizards, rogues, all those guys. Chanters and ciphers are two new weirdo guys. Chanters are a replacement for bards. Ciphers are a bit like psionicists. When you pick your character class here obviously you're getting a vibe for the different outfits and looks of them. All the classes play pretty differently. Paladins are good at defensive stuff and single-target buffs. Fighters are really good at defense. We're going to go with a barbarian. Barbarians are really good at doing area of effect melee damage and really fast bursts of damage, and they can also do things like sprint across the battlefield.
Attributes, this is D&D like superficially in the sense that there are six attributes physical and mental. It took us a long time but we made sure that all the attributes are good for all classes. So if you want to make a super genius barbarian, you can, and it's actually good for them because Intellect affects area of effect and duration. For a barbarian, if you want your Wild Sprint last longer, a high Intellect will let it last longer. If you want a bigger AOE on melee attacks, a high Intellect will give you a bigger AOE on your melee attacks.
So there's not just a dump stat?
JS: Exactly. We wanted to avoid—well, not just avoid dump stats, but if you have an idea, like you want to make a super-genius barbarian, I want to make a stupid idiot wizard, I want to make a weakling charismatic fighter, you can do all of that and the system is built so there is a way where you can play with those stats.
The other thing, too, is that if you just dump points into the things you typically associate with those classes, like "I want to be a super-strong barbarian," that's great, you're still a really good character and that's fine. But it's the kind of oddball things—my opinion is, if there's only one or two builds you can really make with a character, why have attributes? Why not just say you're a barbarian and you're strong because you're a barbarian. I think that limits the player in a lot of ways, and I'd rather just say "Nope, you can be a super idiot smartie, whatever you want to do, and it's all valid in the game.
So here we go with cultures. Cultures actually change your starting gear depending on which you start with. So there's this battle-axe and sword dude, this guy has leather armor, spear, and a shield. Each of the different cultures has a different set of gear you can use with them. And of course once you start a game you can buy new gear, change it around. This is just how you want to start off.
Are all these comparable, gear-wise?
JS: Yes, they are. For instance if you start with a character that has a pike or spear or something like that, shields give you a deflection bonus but your attack goes down, spears give you an accuracy bonus. The one guy starts dual-wielding a sword and a battleaxe. The battleaxe has a higher critical damage, and the sword does best of slash and pierce damage. Every armor is strong and weak versus different attack types. The sword attacks the weakest of slash or pierce resistance.
Each weapon has its own cool things, but they're all designed to be equally valid. One guy starts with two hatchets, and they're actually good because they're designed to be really fast, and they give a deflection bonus so you actually get the parrying bonus as well.
Same with armor. Heavier armor protects against more damage, but you have longer delays between each attack. It's all supposed to kind of work out.
You can also pick...this is more role-playing stuff in-game, so you can pick "I was a colonist" "I was a slave" "I was a clergyman." You can pick these little backgrounds. They don't have a huge gameplay effect, they're mostly for roleplaying stuff. They help shape your character for the rest of the game.
Classic 2D portraits. As in the other Infinity Engine games you can pick from the portraits we made or you can just import one.
Are they the same resolution as the old Infinity Engine portraits?
JS: No, but they're the same aspect ratio, I'm pretty sure. If they were actually the same size they'd be pretty small, but they're the same proportions so if you uprezzed one you'd be fine.
You can also customize colors. You can customize facial hair. You can customize your hairstyles. In most cases your character is pretty small on-screen but it holds up pretty well.
How do you make it, because you want to make everything equally valid, how do you make it so all the characters don't feel like the same character?
JS: Have you ever played 4th Edition D&D? Superficially you'd look at that and say all the classes are the same. They all get the same number of abilities, they all get the same number of per-encounter, but they all play completely differently. As the levels go on, those characters play way more differently than third-edition characters. On paper if you look at the choices you're given, you all get one daily, one encounter, one utility, whatever. But mechanically when you actually play them, they play completely differently. So that's really what we try to do.
For example, yes you can make a character with a high intellect versus high might. Pretty much for a barbarian you're saying "I want to hit a big area of effect. I'm not going to deal a ton of damage with each hit, but I'm going to hit a big area." You as the player need to try and cluster as many people together as you can. If you have a high might, you can more focus on tiny groups, which you have to because you sacrificed Intellect to get that high Might. You're emphasizing a different style and focus for that character.
Another example is rogues. Rogues with a high dexterity will hit a lot, which is great. Rogues also inflict status effects that allow them to do sneak attacks. Status effects have durations. If you have a high Intellect, those durations go on longer. If you have a low Dexterity, you won't be able to hit as often. So it's all about trading off "What do I really want to emphasize with this character? Hitting a lot? Hitting for a lot of damage? Interrupting?" Perception actually causes characters to play hit-reaction and interrupt their action. It's all about emphasizing specific things for a character.
Is it important when building your party, instead of just "I want two fighters, a wizard, et cetera" to now say, "Okay, I want these fighters because they'll complement my skills..."
JS: Yes, it's very helpful. One of the things we'll show you when we get in...Barbarians are actually vulnerable to attacks from mobs sometimes. If you give them a weapon that has some reach, like a pike, they can complement that weakness by sitting in the back row. You still get your AOE damage, so you can have a fighter intercept the mob and then the barbarian can just pound the shit out of them.
Similarly, you have a Rogue. They get an advantage when characters are on the ground, you can have a fighter knock a guy down and then the Rogue just ganks the shit out of them. So it's kind of about what you want to emphasize and what you want to do by playing off the strengths of the different classes.
[He pauses. Lead producer Brandon Adler clicks through the last few character creation screens.]
You can pick voice sets. It's thrilling.
You can enter your name.
[Brandon says "I can enter your name" to Josh.]
If I were playing I could enter Brandon's name.
Does character creation happen after the opening text scrawl?
JS: Yeah, it happens after the text scrawl. It gives you the context. The background of the character creation screen is actually where you're standing in the opening scene.