Deep dive with Pillars of Eternity project lead Josh Sawyer: The full interview

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What are the Pillars of Eternity?

JS: You’ll find out. But they are a real thing.

Is there a specific role-playing module you’ve been influenced by in this game? It’s a lot weirder than D&D proper, especially with souls coming into it.

JS: We’re really trying to make it not that weird, especially when it comes to how the classes and the world feel. I acknowledge that some people want us to go soul-crazy and be like, “Soul Everything, Soul This, Soul That,” but in a lot of cases we use it as a way to explain more traditional ways that classes work.

Like wizards gather shards of shattered souls that are in the world all around them and gather them into their spellbook like a magical capacitor and then redirect that energy at people. Paladins are fanatics—they’re all fanatics of something—and that fanaticism makes their own soul this burning wellspring of magical power that grants auras and allows them to do these directed, targeted things.

So it’s almost used as a way to explain things instead of, “Let’s reinvent everything you’ve ever known about the world.” And I think when people look at our game, it’s not going to look like weirdo world. There are going to be things in it that are unique and they look a little different and they’ve shifted in different ways, but overall it should stay pretty traditional. They’ll look at it and say, “This looks pretty Realms-y.” I think that when people look at our screenshots it looks like it could’ve come out of Icewind Dale or Baldur’s Gate.

AB: A lot of those weird elements aren’t really in your face. We want you to slowly get introduced to that stuff.

Project Eternity

Are you sticking to D&D? Are there other tabletop games that are at play here?

JS: All sorts of stuff I guess. As I’ve said, we’re looking more at the classic D&D stuff. When it comes to themes and thematic exploration, we’re trying to be—I don’t want to say serious, but there are things that are parallels to real-world concerns obviously. There’s medical research and philosophical things that come up. And so we do want it to feel more serious. A lot of role-playing games stick to very easy-to-grasp thematic concepts, and we’re kind of going a little more nuanced. Which is I think more in line with stuff like Vegas or Torment where it’s a little more on the serious side.

I think in overall flavor we’re looking at First and Second Edition Forgotten Realms for a lot of the feel, the way things look, the way characters look and feel, the way armor looks.

Is that because it matches up with old Infinity Engine games?

JS: Yeah, I think when people—I can’t speak for everyone, but we kind of have to assume some things—I think that when people say, “I want to see this type of game again,” they don’t mean, “Nothing like that!” They mean, “Actually kind of a lot like that, but just looking nicer.”

So in terms of color palettes and how exaggerated or not exaggerated armor is, how much magic is in the world, there’s a kind of tight band for how much of that stuff you should be seeing and how it’s presented. If we showed them a game that looked as colorful as League of Legends or a game that looked as clamped-down as The Witcher, I think both of those are out-of-bounds. The Infinity Engine games were both more exaggerated and more colorful than The Witcher—by the way, I think The Witcher looks awesome. But the Infinity Engine games were a little more saturated, a little more colorful. The armor and weapons were a little more exaggerated.

But by the same token, they’re not as exaggerated as something like League of Legends or World of Warcraft.

So you’re trying to avoid the Diablo 3 syndrome of people seeing those screenshots and saying, “This looks nothing like Diablo.”

JS: Well, I kind of think people were exaggerating that as well.

Well sure, it’s the Internet.

JS: It is the Internet. But we did look at that, and I think ultimately, yeah, sure, a lot of people complained about Diablo 3. I think that the appearance of Diablo 3 in the end was not a bad thing. And especially if you compare Diablo 3 with World of Warcraft, they do not look like the same thing.

AB: But we definitely have a folder on our server with all the map images from all the Infinity Engine games and we definitely look at those a lot. We talk about techniques they used back in the day in constructing areas, how they lit things. If you look at our screenshots, it really looks like an Infinity Engine game and we’re trying to get that style in our interiors and exteriors.

BA: Also, our fans will let us know. We do constant updates,  we’re always showing screenshots, we’re showing kind of what we’re doing. If it doesn’t match what they’re thinking, they’re going to let us know, “Hey, we were kind of expecting something more like this. What about this over here.” There’s a dialogue with the backers.

Have they let you know?

JS: Oh yeah.

Can you give me an example?

JS: Color levels of grass. Lighting levels overall, like things looking washed out or not dynamic enough. Integration of 3D objects into the 2D scene, which obviously wasn’t a concern in the Infinity Engine games, but there’s a higher expectation of fidelity in 2013.

Project Eternity

Is it all art direction?

JS: System stuff, dialogue presentation and stuff like that. By no means is there a unified opinion on this, but there’s a cloud of swirling ideas that kind of tend to focus on a few things and we have to make a decision.

User interface is one of them. The majority of our backers, we’re pretty confident, want more skeuomorphic, solid-style user interfaces.

Old-style, Baldur’s Gate interfaces.

JS: Yeah. And there is a non-trivial segment of people that don’t. They want a more modern-looking one.

We’re not doing it. We’re not going to make two user interfaces, and sometimes we have to make a decision that goes one direction and can’t support the other.

With a lot of these option things like, do you want to see rolls or not? Do you want to see this or not? It’s easy for us to just say, “Yeah, no, turn it on or turn it off.” Designing GUIs that fundamentally work differently, like “They align on a completely different side of the screen,” or whatever...there are certain decisions where we just have to say this is the direction we’re going. We think that overall people are going to enjoy this experience more, and we understand that some people are not going to be happy with it, but that’s just how it goes.

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