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"How Kickstarter Saved Obsidian" - Kotaku interview reveals cancelled Obsidian RPG Stormlands

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"How Kickstarter Saved Obsidian" - Kotaku interview reveals cancelled Obsidian RPG Stormlands

Interview - posted by Infinitron on Thu 9 July 2015, 08:57:35

Tags: J.E. Sawyer; Microsoft; Obsidian Entertainment; Pillars of Eternity; Stormlands

Obsidian have spoken before about how the Pillars of Eternity Kickstarter saved the company, most notably in their recently released documentary, but the details behind that occurrence have always been a bit vague. A new interview with Josh Sawyer posted over at Kotaku yesterday sheds some more light on what Obsidian was going through in 2012. It officially reveals the name of Stormlands (previously known to fans as Project North Carolina), a Microsoft-published RPG for the then-upcoming Xbox One whose cancellation in March 2012 led to the layoffs of 30 people. Perhaps more interestingly, it also reveals that Josh Sawyer himself had to drag Obsidian kicking and screaming into the Kickstarter era. It seems the management simply did not believe in it.

The idea was compelling to some at Obsidian—including a few other staffers who had independently suggested or thought the same thing—but some of the higher-ups disagreed, Sawyer told me. Some were skeptical that they’d even be able to raise over $100,000, let alone hit any sort of reasonable budget for a modern video game.

“I think because the company was in such a bad state at that time, it was very difficult for everyone,” Sawyer said during a recent phone interview. “I made it very very clear that we needed to do a Kickstarter. I couldn’t see any other way for us to move forward, because we were getting offered contracts that didn’t seem like they were gonna go anywhere—people were not really interested or excited about doing them. It seemed like we were letting a perfect opportunity slip out of our fingers.”

For a while they debated, arguing over how it’d make them look, how much to ask for, and whether people would care enough to crowdfund one of their games. Things got heated—I’d heard a rumor that Sawyer threatened to quit in the midst of these arguments, and although he says he never actually did, he acknowledges that the situation was tense. This isn’t some sort of big secret—in the first episode of Road to Eternity, Obsidian’s documentary on the Kickstarter process, various higher-ups at the studio talk about how in 2012, their future seemed dismal.

The debate ended in the spring of 2012, when two significant events turned Obsidian’s Kickstarter from argument into inevitability.

Event one was the Double Fine Adventure, which came out of nowhere in February of 2012 to break records and usher in a whole new era of crowdfunding. Their Kickstarter, helmed by the inimitable Tim Schafer, promised a point-and-click adventure that would evoke fans’ nostalgia for games like Grim Fandango and Full Throttle. It raised a whopping $3.3 million, exponentially more than anyone thought a video game could ever get on Kickstarter. (Previous Kickstarter games had usually capped out in the thousands or, at best, the tens of thousands.)

The second event was grimmer—in March of 2012, Microsoft cancelled the RPG they’d contracted Obsidian to make for their new Xbox, which was then called Durango. Obsidian was calling the game Stormlands, according to a source, and they’d designed it to be one of the Xbox One’s premiere RPGs, but Microsoft axed it during a final greenlight meeting. This was a brutal one—Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart called a company meeting shortly afterwards and, choking up, announced that they’d be laying off 30 employees.

At that point, to Sawyer and some others at the company, Kickstarter seemed like the only option. Maybe Obsidian could do for RPGs what Double Fine had done for adventure games. Isometric 2D role-playing games weren’t exactly in fashion—publishers didn’t think they’d sell well enough to be worth investment—but Obsidian was made up of people who had worked on games like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale. If anyone could bring the genre back, it was them.

“We saw a closing window,” Sawyer said. “We said look, somebody is gonna try to Kicsktart a game like this. Somebody is going to try to Kickstart an ‘isometric 2D background with 3D characters, real-time with pause, fantasy role-playing game.’ There’s no way that this is going to go untapped for that long. There are enough other ex-Black Isle and Bioware developers out there, that if we don’t do it, we’re just gonna miss a perfect opportunity.”

But the co-founders didn’t want to put all of their eggs in one crowdfunded basket. Sawyer eventually struck a compromise with Urquhart: he’d spend the next few months pitching publishers on other, more traditional games, while producer Adam Brennecke put together everything they’d need to launch a Kickstarter for the game they really wanted to make: a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate.
As for future projects, the interview says Obsidian are "hoping to make sequels, too, maybe with more Kickstarters". There's nothing about that non-PoE project Feargus was talking about back in 2013-2014, though.

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