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.