For years, a number of gamers have been clamouring for a sequel to one of the greatest games of all time — Planescape: Torment. Unfortunately, thanks to some rights issues, we’ll probably never see a second Planescape game — and to be honest that’s probably for the best as any slight flaw in the game would be transformed into a crippling error by the powers of nostalgia. But for old-school RPG fans, a recently finished Kickstarter campaign could give us the next best thing. I’m speaking, of course, about Project Eternity, the isometric RPG by Obsidian Entertainment scheduled for a 2014 release.
To many backers, myself included, Project Eternity is something of a dream project; a veritable super-group of RPG developers, including Chris Avellone (Planescape: Torment), Tim Cain (Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura) and Josh Sawyer (Icewind Dale II) teaming up to create an old-school epic. By the end of the campaign, just shy of 74,000 people backed the project on Kickstarter, with another undisclosed number contributing through Paypal, After asking for $1.1 million to make the game, Obsidian Entertainment raked in over $4 million, making the project the most strongly backed Kickstarter game campaign so far, and increasing the size and scope of the game far beyond the original parameters.
With only a single screenshot of the game existing, it’s far too early to speak about the game itself, but the amount of money raised, the way the stretch goals for the campaign were structured and some of the comments on both the Kickstarter and on gaming forums say some very interesting things not only about Project Eternity but also about the industry and community as a whole.
For anyone slaving away behind a desk (as long as that desk isn’t a giant mahogany number at the top of some high rise somewhere), four million dollars sounds like a lot of money, but in the world of game development it’s a drop in the bucket. Game development budgets frequently range into the tens of millions, with equal amounts of money being pumped into marketing. Compared to that, $4 million is pocket change.
One of the more frequent claims of game Kickstarter campaigns is that the project isn’t something that the major publishers wouldn’t touch, and that’s a claim we’ve seen repeated with Project Eternity. Whilst it’s disappointing to see beloved genres and styles falling by the wayside because of fiscal concerns, if you look at some of the base numbers you can really understand why major publishers don’t want to touch niche projects like Project Infinity. The game may have broken Kickstarter records for the amount pledged to a game, but when you take a step back you see that the 74,000 people who backed the campaign have in essence already bought it.
Sure, there will be extra profit made through GOG, Steam and retail sales, but if that went through a normal publisher they probably wouldn’t pay for the marketing campaign necessary to push the sales on launch.
Sidestepping the traditional publisher/developer deal should enable Obsidian to ride on something they have a lot of — goodwill. The clever way in which the Kickstarter rolled out stretch goals, each adding something beloved to both old and new school RPG players – new races, classes and areas, crafting, player housing and the like — has garnered them a lot of love in the community, but there is also another interesting thread of goodwill that has run alongside the Kickstarter campaign.
It’s not that controversial to say that Obsidian is a name almost synonymous with rushed or buggy games. KotOR II, Fallout: New Vegas, Alpha Protocol and Neverwinter Nights 2 all featured a number of bugs on launch, prompting many gamers to question whether the company ever did any kind of QA. That particular reputation appears to have been ditched with the Kickstarter campaign. Although a few people have commented on the Kickstarter itself or on forums that they wouldn’t contribute to a game they knew would be buggy, it seems as though the majority have decided, rightly or wrongly, that it is the traditional publisher/developer relationship that was responsible for Obsidian’s infamous bugs and lack of final polish, that budgetary restraints and unrealistic deadlines imposed by publishers were the cause of all ills.
I have no idea if that is true of not, but the mob has spoken and developers seem to be as virtuous as publishers are villainous. In the span of one campaign, Obsidian has transformed from a developer renowned for bugs to being all but beyond reproach. Now it’s time to see if it can hold up.