How Kickstarter Saved Obsidian

How Kickstarter Saved Obsidian

In 2012, Obsidian Entertainment almost fell apart. The independent game studio had just suffered a major blow — the cancellation of a big-budget role-playing game they were developing with Microsoft — and they were struggling to make ends meet in the midst of an uncertain, transitional gaming industry.

Josh Sawyer, one of the company's public faces and the veteran game designer who directed Fallout: New Vegas, suggested they launch a Kickstarter. With crowdfunding, he argued, they could make the one game they all wanted to make — an isometric fantasy RPG — without having to give up creative control to an outside investor or publisher. On top of that, they could own what they made — no longer would they be shackled to a big corporation's licence, like they were with New Vegas, Alpha Protocol, and all of the other RPGs they'd developed since first forming in 2004.

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 sceptical that they'd even be able to raise over $US100,000, 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 rumour 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 $US3.3 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.

In September of 2012, Obsidian launched Project Eternity. Fans fully funded the project — helping it reach $US1.1 million — in just over a day. By the end of the Kickstarter campaign, they'd raised close to $US4 million, setting a new record and blowing away even their own loftiest expectations. "A lot of us didn't expect to be funded, actually," Sawyer told me. "We certainly didn't expect to be funded within 27 hours."

The money gave Obsidian a level of freedom they'd never had before. With Project Eternity, they wouldn't have to worry about a publisher hacking up their budget, setting unreasonable expectations, or missing milestone payments. People at the studio no longer had to come into work worrying that suddenly their game had been cancelled. They already had the money.

On March 26, 2015, close to three years after Microsoft cancelled Stormlands, Obsidian finally released Pillars of Eternity. It was a huge success both critically and commercially. (We thought it was stellar.) It's led to a two-part expansion — coming in the near future — and they're hoping to make sequels, too, maybe with more Kickstarters. Things worked out the first time, after all.

We hear — and report — a lot about Kickstarters that over-promise and under-deliver, or those that disappear with fans' money. Sometimes, though, Kickstarter can save a studio from what seems like inevitable doom. Sometimes crowdfunding can lead to great things.


Comments

    Aw man, I would like to see what Stormlands was. Glad the company turned it around, though. Pillars was truly excellent.

    They should do a Kickstarter for another Alpha Protocol. That game was great.

      Agreed. I'm a bit over Fantasy settings, give me a modern Bourne inspired RPG.

      +1
      Alpha Protocol was very unappreciated, but a solid game. Might give it another run through this weekend

      Why the hell is someone downvoting Alpha Protocol comments...

        I guess they disagreed. People sometimes downvote things they disagree with, even opinions. *shrug*

          Such a sustained attack for nothing other than mentioning a particular game...

          I would expect them to reply explaining their opinions at least. That's why I attempted to draw them out with the previous comment.

            Sometimes I upvote people I disagree with because they had good arguments, or were polite about their opinions.
            I tend to reserve downvoting for people being tools, but maybe I'm in the minority.

            Maybe just go with a straight shout out.

            @meresti has 10 comments over 3 years, so I guess he/she isn't very talkative.

    Wow, I didn't realise that Obsidian were in such a bad way financially.
    Good for them !

    I love this, and wish more top notch companies came to the fans to create something different. I hope Obsidian can build itself into a great stable gaming company that has many great releases ahead. I would defiantly help fund the next few games.

    I also hope companies don't start looking at kickstarter as a direct alternative to publishers, using them well after financial security has been reached, a point in which they should be funding their own projects. Using the likes of kickstarter as a risk free publisher for every tittle.

    legal legality could make it impossible but if that is a trend we start to see, crowd funding should morph in these circumstances, and instead of inciting with in game items, it should be seen as a investment were payback and even return is given depending on amount. Both crowd funder (if you could still call it that) and dev win.

    Last edited 09/07/15 2:35 pm

      I think being obliged to the fans is a pretty good system, whereby they get to make the game they want and we get the game we want, with a bunch of small concessions along the way. inXile are probably standing on their own two feet after Wasteland 2, but I'm happy to keep swinging them cash for games up front if it means they might actually hear my voice when I have an opinion about said game.

        there is certainly that aspect of it, and no one would continue funding a company that didn't listen, so they are held accountable, shotty releases are less likely to happen and gamers be more understanding of delays within reason to bring a better quality game to release. Features etc less likely to go missing... or more importantly be removed without clearly stating it.

        Good point, and your 100% right.

        Last edited 11/07/15 9:36 am

    I still can't get into Pillars... Even as someone who has IWD/Baldurs 1 & 2 on all systems including iPad.

    Something wrong with the rushing in combat encounters and that weird endurance/health system.

      As someone who's most complex combat system was dragon age origins prior to pillars, I'd say give it a chance. I'm half way through pillars and I still don't quite understand all the stats, defenses, attacks and a ton of other systems - but it really is so awesome developing an understanding of it all. If you devote the attention and time to learning it, it is super rewarding - really helps that the games story and writing are top notch as well :)

      That's if you're keen of course, if you're not into that stuff then fair enough :)

    I loved new Vegas so damn much, and pillars is damn fantastic. It's so great to see that something so good can come out of new technologies that couldn't have existed or wouldn't have worked even 10 years ago.

    Obsidian are quickly becoming one of my favourite dev studios ever, and I'll be happy to continue helping them create the games they want to make. They're Damn good at what they do - and when you bring together people that are both talented and love what they do, great things happen. Pillars is a testament to that. Can't wait for the expansions :)

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