Obsidian is free as a bird with its Kickstarter millions

Chris Avellone on creative freedom and crowdfunding

Ever since Double Fine enjoyed massive success on Kickstarter, eager game developers from all corners have attempted to replicate the success. Hungry upstarts and old veterans alike have seen “crowdfunding” as a way to pursue passions in a market otherwise uninterested in their dreams. Few succeed, but those that do have had outstanding victories. 

Obsidian is the latest, and possibly greatest, of these achievements. The long-running studio recently passed the $3.4 million mark with Project Eternity, officially becoming the biggest Kickstarter game to date.

For designer Chris Avellone, it’s been a liberating experience, as Obsidian plans to do things it’s never had the chance to do before.

“We’re loving it, and it feels like we’re back at Black Isle doing the Infinity Engine games again. I feel young again, even though I felt pretty young already,” Avellone told Destructoid. “Sure, we like working on franchises, and will probably do so again. That said, through all the RPGs we’ve done, we’ve brought other people’s ideas to market, so Eternity is our chance to shout at the world with an internal IP that we can build. It’s been incredibly liberating. We’ve had a lot of ideas for design mechanics and approaches to role-playing games we’ve learned over the years — we’d just like to make a world for them all to live in.

“Even better, the lore we’re developing for the world is allowing us to explore new classes and new powers. For example, the mentalist Cipher class came about after a discussion concerning how we could tie the class structure into the soul mechanics of the world.

“However, it’s worth saying that we’ve been able to be creative within franchises as well — what may seem like limitations at first, really end up being new opportunities,” he continued. “When we did Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, we found new areas and themes in the Forgotten Realms to explore, and in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, that was an opportunity to explore some of the philosophies and perspectives on the Force that may not have been touched on in the movies and novels.”

One of the biggest benefits for Obsidian was the opportunity to create an M-rated game, something its prior publishers have apparently been shy about embracing. For Chris, being able to explore adult themes in Project Eternity has been an exciting prospect. It’s not about the sex and violence, either — Eternity hopes to look at some really interesting issues. 

“The question of purity of spirit and the prejudices that can stem from it is one of the primary themes,” he explained. “In a world where souls transcend the body and live on in others (and souls that can fracture over time), what does that mean for a nation’s culture, a race, and the religions of that world? How would they treat a fractured soul housed in an individual — and how would they work to prevent that from happening, either in a benevolent or ruthless way? How would pure souls or fractured souls make themselves felt through an individual’s actions, feelings, and psyche? The concept is ripe for a whole spectrum of questions, discrimination, and conflict… and that’s only a small part of the world’s conflicts.

“In short, we don’t intend to use the Mature rating as a means of introducing purposely shocking content, we just want the freedom to approach a range of themes without worrying about a publisher’s fears that we’ll offend a segment of the audience. I think our audience trusts us (especially after the gender and sexual preference portrayals in New Vegas and the religious take in Honest Hearts) to execute on mature themes.”

Without a publisher getting in the way, Obsidian exclusively serves the consumer. For Chris, the difference between traditional publishing and the Kickstarter route is that he now serves one master as opposed to two, potentially conflicting, overseers. 

“We have to answer to players, no matter what. When you work for a publisher, you have to answer to both, and the two of them may not see eye-to-eye. I’d rather the player pay me directly for something they want, and I’d rather talk with them throughout the process to make sure I’m delivering something they want as well. It’s what every Gamemaster wants — they want the people sitting around the table playing D&D to have a good time.

“Originally, I was worried that increased player transparency might create pressure, but it’s been the opposite for us here at the studio — it’s energized the process, and a lot of devs who normally can’t speak to fans or don’t have the opportunity to can now do so freely (and help do things like organize Reddit talks, or discuss studio operations, coordinate community volunteers, etc.). Often, when you work with a publisher, the flow of information and contact with fans is scrutinized and limited, and things like being able to share early screenshots, vision docs, discuss class mechanics, and more isn’t allowed — you may not even be allowed to discuss any problems or challenges you’re facing or say anything critical of your own work at all.

“Worse, you’re operating in secrecy for such a long time, that when your project sees the light of day, you may discover that the public doesn’t appreciate or like a certain feature you’ve introduced. With Kickstarter, you know if the premise is going to fly in 30 days or not (plus, the opportunity to do a reboot if it’s not, which is great), and even better, the more contact with the community allows you to make decisions throughout the process and in the first few months of pre-production that saves months of useless work down the line for a feature they don’t seem to care for or wasn’t that important to them anyway. This is a win as far as I’m concerned … often when you reveal a game in a traditional market, there’s no time to make changes or it’s too expensive to make the changes in the 5-6 months before ship, which kind of sucks.”

Of course, one other major benefit of Kickstarter is that it’s beginning to demonstrate an eager market for games that aren’t supposed to have a market anymore. Adventure games. Old-fashioned RPGs. These are the titles that publishers seem to think can’t sell, yet gamers are eager to fund them. Why are companies afraid to touch any of this stuff?

“Games are large investments, so publishers tend to be risk-adverse by promoting brands and similar experiences,” offered the designer. “I can’t blame them, especially considering the budgets involved with AAA titles and the marketing of those titles … if a game fails, they’re taking a huge multi-million dollar loss. As such, they want to avoid anything that might alienate any percentage of their audience and make as accessible a title as possible to hit their numbers — this includes multi-platform support, the removal of any descriptors or adjectives that could put a listener/reader off (the word “old-school,” for example), and more.

“Also, I’m going to go against the grain and say that I don’t know for sure if Kickstarter games can succeed. They appeal to a passionate, niche market, sure. But no publisher I know of is going to be seduced by 80,000 backers, for example — it’s often not enough for them to take notice. And they’re even more limited in their financial model because the publishers’ backers pay a set price. With Kickstarter, backers can pay 100x the cost of the game if they like it enough, and they’ll get bonuses and rewards that go far beyond what a publisher can offer (or makes sense for the publisher to offer in terms of logistics).

“I think Kickstarter-backed games have support enough to pay for themselves, but we don’t know if they’ll ever hit the profit of a summer blockbuster. Then again, we don’t care — the backers have covered the cost, and now we get to sit down and design a game. I also love the fact that with Kickstarter, I can now financially vote to see a game I like being developed, like a Double Fine adventure (I thought I’d never see another adventure game that wasn’t on the DS or the iPhone again) or Wasteland 2 (I loved the original, and I’d play a sequel to it in a second).”

And what of Kickstarter itself? Is there longevity in that process? Can it continue to be mined, or will things dry up before too long? Avellone isn’t sure, but he can safely say that, for Obsidian, there’s certainly gold in those hills. 

“If there wasn’t enough profit from the first title, yes. We approach Eternity from a pragmatic viewpoint that the only money we should ever expect to get is the backer support.

“As far as the ‘Kickstarter well’ being dried up, I was worried that was the case when we first examined the process … aside from Double Fine and Wasteland 2 (and Shadowrun to an extent), it seemed that video game projects were barely making their funding goal. We didn’t even know if we would reach ours, and we were afraid that people were simply exhausted of Kickstarter.

“Guess not.”

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James Stephanie Sterling
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