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Codex Interview RPG Codex Interview: Eric Fenstermaker on Pillars of Eternity​

Infinitron

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Tags: Eric Fenstermaker; Obsidian Entertainment; Pillars of Eternity; Pillars of Eternity: The White March

Obsidian Entertainment's Pillars of Eternity has been a controversial game on the Codex, and there's probably no aspect of it that hasn't been discussed to death. To a large extent, discussion of the game has been driven by the online commentary of its director and lead designer, Josh Sawyer, whose opinion on all things is easily solicited on his Tumblr Q&A page. But dominant as he is, Josh couldn't have been responsible for everything that mattered in Pillars of Eternity. His response to a particular question that I asked back in November finally convinced me that we needed to look further to get in-depth answers on the topic of the game's narrative.

That's why after the end of the winter holidays, I asked Crooked Bee to establish contact with Obsidian and set up an interview with Eric Fenstermaker, Pillars of Eternity's Lead Narrative Designer and Lead Writer. Eric is a Harvard-educated computer science graduate who has been employed at Obsidian since 2005, playing key roles on games such as Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer and Fallout: New Vegas. Some people in the industry have described him as a genius, although he's never managed to occupy the spotlight the way George Ziets has, to say nothing of Chris Avellone.

To my knowledge, this is the first real interview with Eric about Pillars of Eternity that's ever been done, and we made sure to make the most of it. It took him over a month, but he managed to answer all of our questions too. All 27 of them! Here's one of them:

Josh Sawyer and Adam Brennecke have tended to downplay the significance of any content that may have been cut from the final version of Pillars of Eternity. Do you feel the same way? Is there any cut content you'd like to tell us about?

I'm not sure what the question is referring to regarding Adam and Josh. We made cuts. Some of the cuts made me sad. But they had to be made or the game wouldn't have gotten done.

Two big ones had a substantial impact on the story, although both happened early-ish in production, so the content was never built. One was that we cut the next-to-last level of the game - or rather compressed it down to a single map, which contained little content. (This is Breith Eaman, the prison.) That cut hurt pacing quite a bit. The end came up very abruptly. I'd have loved to spend more time at least doing some more repairs to that part of the story, but that wasn't possible. The time just wasn’t there, and I think I also underestimated the impact. Ultimately, when you are told you have to cut something in the story, you have to be prepared for that and have some answers. In this case, I was able to stitch everything back together so that at least it all made sense, but I'd have liked to have gone back and seen if there was a better way to solve the problem.

The other one was that we wanted to branch the middle of the plot. Some people have expressed frustration at the player's inability to influence the outcome at the ducal palace. Well, originally, we'd wanted the player to be able to do that. But it meant building two versions of the third act, and that's extremely expensive. That cut made me sad, but there was no practical argument to be made for keeping it. It was a clean cut that saved a ton of time and made our schedule semi-workable. Had to be done. Conceivably we might've allowed the player to save the duc without doing a major branching of the story, but even that would've required more time than we had. The game was delayed as it was, so there really wasn't room to add anything. As a developer at the end of a project, I think it's almost inevitable to find yourself thinking "man, the things I might've done with a couple more weeks." You're Liam Neeson at the end of Schindler's List, wishing you could have done more.​

Read the full article: RPG Codex Interview: Eric Fenstermaker on Pillars of Eternity​
 

Anthony Davis

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This was at the time they were starting development on Neverwinter 2, so I spent about a month building a mod in the NWN1 engine that was basically Madden but with elves and monsters. That went over well, and it got me hired.

I'm the one who reviewed that mod and recommended hiring Fenster. I remember it like it was yesterday.


Frank, my boss at the time, dropped it on my desk and said, "Review this - let me know what you think."

I loaded it up and played it and was blown away by the work and creativity he had poured into it. I went to Frank and said, "Hire him, immediately."

He was hired as a Junior Programmer - like he said, working as a scripter, because he has a CS degree and he had applied for a programming position.











He later betrayed us all by switching over to be a designer.







I guess it worked out ok.
 

Sizzle

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Eric Fenstermaker said:
BG II was able to draw on the preceding game and use Imoen (although, oh man did I want to let her rot in prison)

This man should be regarded a lot more highly!
 

Roguey

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Most of the dialogue in Pillars is first-draft with a cursory editing pass.

This seems to be a recurring thing with Kickstarter-funded RPGs.

Personally, I would like to see us make shorter games (e.g. 30-40 hours instead of 60-80) where we cut the worst of our content and spend time iterating on the best. But there is pressure from the market itself (or at least perceived pressure) to make longer games so as to justify the game's sticker price with its "value" as measured in dollars spent per hour of gameplay. And I'm not sure if people understand that when you're on a budget, there's a zero-sum tradeoff between gameplay length and gameplay polish. There was some backlash for Stick of Truth, for example, for being "too short" at 12-20 hours. But that was a game where we cut the bad stuff and spent extra time on the good stuff, and I prefer that model. As a gamer, I'm getting old. I'm short on time. I'd rather spend $60 on a 12-hour experience that makes me laugh my ass off than on a 100-hour experience that routinely wastes my time. If any of you are in agreement, be vocal about it, because I think the dollars/hour guys are usually louder. Come to our forums and ask for a shorter, more polished game. If you don't feel that way, shhh, you, shhh.

I too would prefer shorter RPGs. Or at least give the Dragon Age Inquisition method a try, where their "third act" was just two big optional areas, and the main quest itself felt polished from start to finish.

I'm to blame for a lot of that. Part of it was that I hadn't written prose in a long time. I found my stride later on. I am very sorry.

Fenstermaker's Folly

I think the biggest thing on my wishlist would've been an opportunity to do a closed, confidential alpha test of the entire game, and have gotten feedback on the story with a block of time to iterate on it afterward. Not so much to make sweeping changes, but more to find out, where are things unclear, where are we losing people with the main story, that sort of thing. That kind of iteration can make a huge difference in the end.

In hindsight, Sawyer's No Spoilers Before Release policy to appease Frank Costanza-esque finicky goons does seem ridiculous given the story we ended up getting. Meanwhile, Fargo just puts out the first third+ of New Torment like it's nothing.

They achieved their purpose at the time, which was to drum up enthusiasm among the backers, but some of the bigger goals probably cost quite a lot more to develop than they brought in - the second city, the megadungeon, and the expansion come to mind.

:lol:

One would be having fewer, but far deeper and more interconnected companions - interconnected both with respect to one another and with respect to the overall plot. "FEWER?! FUCK THAT," you say. But everything is zero-sum in this business, and every companion we add takes a ton of time to write and implement. So yes, fewer. But better. More memorable. More like a real group of people. Less likely to be collecting dust in your stronghold.

I'd like to repeat a suggestion I made way-back-when regarding hired adventurers: have the option to choose a prebuilt that has as much dialogue as the average BG or Jagged Alliance character. Some personality is better than none.
 

Anthony Davis

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Finished reading it. That's a great read.


Also, I played PoE - sunk about 120 hours into it around the initial release, 1.0.


Now that TWM:part 2 has been released, and the game is at version 3.0+, I started over with a new party - and the game is SOOOO much better now. The stronghold is so much better now. There are a lot of reactivity cracks that have been filled in. It's still not perfect, and there are still lessons to be learned and improvements to be made for future Pillars games, but if you are waiting to play it or replay it - now is the time.

I'm currently up to about 156 hours.
 

Anthony Davis

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He later betrayed us all by switching over to be a designer.
Can't blame him for wanting to have people acknowledge his work. :M

"The engineering team did a great job!" <- said noone ever


It's true, and all too frequently we get blamed for things outside of our control. Eric is also insanely talented - as many here already know from his work on FO:NV and SP:TSoT - and I do think it was a good choice for both him and Obsidian.
 

Anthony Davis

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Yet there are those who look at Obsidian today and don't like what they see. To them, Obsidian has become a play-it-safe, uninspired and po-faced developer, terrified of its "Bugsidian" reputation, and no longer capable of producing the imaginative Planescape: Torment-inspired character-driven metaphysical adventures that seemed to be its bread and butter back in the 2000s - games like Knights of the Old Republic II and Mask of the Betrayer. The departure of personnel such as Chris Avellone and George Ziets hasn't done much to dispel those beliefs. What do you say to those people? Do they have anything to look forward to from Obsidian?

There's always this reductive impulse among the public to try and personify companies based on scant information. We like to root for certain developers or demonize certain publishers or attribute entire games to individual personalities because it allows us to have clear-cut opinions and to debate them with others. Those opinions aren't necessarily baseless - they're often based on observed trends (although just as often they're based on rumors and conjecture). But in my experience, things are usually much more complex, because we're talking about a diverse group of people and trying to nail them down to individual traits.

There are people here who like to play it safe and people who like to take risks. There are funny people and humorless people. We've released inspired games and uninspired ones, and I've worked on both. We've lost strong developers and weak ones, and hired the same. The studio's output is a function of an insanely complex dialectic between all these people, nobody has as much influence as you think they do, and many of the people who had the biggest roles in our successes and failures, you've never heard of.

So I would say this. Whatever omens you're trying to read to determine if the company is on a good or bad trajectory, it's not enough information to make a sound judgment. It's a blind guess. Better to wait for the games, and see for yourselves if you like them, and judge every one independently of every other, because they're all different and made by different combinations of people. Otherwise you're just cultivating confirmation bias.

If you're looking for a reason to hope for good stories in Obsidian's games to come, I have this to add. The best weapon we have - and it's by no means a guarantee - is to hire good people. In the past few years, we've set ridiculously high expectations for our narrative design candidates, and the ones we've hired are truly a cut above. So I can say that I personally am very excited to watch these talented writers grow into their roles and make stellar contributions to our next titles, and to hire more people like them, as we find them. I believe there is a lot to look forward to on that front.


I also want to point out how absolutely astute and true this answer here is.
 
Self-Ejected

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It's true, and all too frequently we get blamed for things outside of our control. Eric is also insanely talented - as many here already know from his work on FO:NV and SP:TSoT - and I do think it was a good choice for both him and Obsidian.
Yeah. Beyond the Beef has some of the best content in FNV, didn't know he was responsible for it.

Also it's not a total betrayal, it must be better to work in a project with a Lead Writer/Narrative Designer that understands the technical side of things.
 

Zed

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One would be having fewer, but far deeper and more interconnected companions - interconnected both with respect to one another and with respect to the overall plot. "FEWER?! FUCK THAT," you say. But everything is zero-sum in this business, and every companion we add takes a ton of time to write and implement. So yes, fewer. But better. More memorable. More like a real group of people. Less likely to be collecting dust in your stronghold.

I'd like to repeat a suggestion I made way-back-when regarding hired adventurers: have the option to choose a prebuilt that has as much dialogue as the average BG or Jagged Alliance character. Some personality is better than none.
Hired adventurers should be a start-of-game option, like iron man mode. They should not be an optional in-game feature.
 

Bleed the Man

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Shadorwun: Hong Kong Divinity: Original Sin 2 A Beautifully Desolate Campaign Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire
Great interview, a lot of good stuff. It's always amusing to me seeing how interviews made by a bunch of nerds are so much better than the ones made by people who're paid for doing them, and the one interviewed also seem to take them more seriously (it helps to not have to answer to the same generic -broad as hell- questions).
 

leferd

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Mar 29, 2005
Messages
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This was at the time they were starting development on Neverwinter 2, so I spent about a month building a mod in the NWN1 engine that was basically Madden but with elves and monsters. That went over well, and it got me hired.

I'm the one who reviewed that mod and recommended hiring Fenster. I remember it like it was yesterday.


Frank, my boss at the time, dropped it on my desk and said, "Review this - let me know what you think."

I loaded it up and played it and was blown away by the work and creativity he had poured into it. I went to Frank and said, "Hire him, immediately."

He was hired as a Junior Programmer - like he said, working as a scripter, because he has a CS degree and he had applied for a programming position.











He later betrayed us all by switching over to be a designer.

Do they still let you review potential hires after getting bamboozled like that?
 

Mozg

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Otherwise we'd be, for example, voicing maybe one out of every six lines for Durance and the Grieving Mother, and it'd be conspicuously incongruent with the other companions, who had maybe 2/3 of their lines voiced. Unfortunately in this case it meant cutting down characters that had had a lot of research and creative energy invested in them, and there were some good ideas there that it would've been interesting to explore.

Wow. Who fucking cares? That is some hobgoblin of little minds shit. Letting VO economics sabotage anything in a kickstarter IE throwback is ridiculous.
 

Kz3r0

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Yet there are those who look at Obsidian today and don't like what they see. To them, Obsidian has become a play-it-safe, uninspired and po-faced developer, terrified of its "Bugsidian" reputation, and no longer capable of producing the imaginative Planescape: Torment-inspired character-driven metaphysical adventures that seemed to be its bread and butter back in the 2000s - games like Knights of the Old Republic II and Mask of the Betrayer. The departure of personnel such as Chris Avellone and George Ziets hasn't done much to dispel those beliefs. What do you say to those people? Do they have anything to look forward to from Obsidian?

There's always this reductive impulse among the public to try and personify companies based on scant information. We like to root for certain developers or demonize certain publishers or attribute entire games to individual personalities because it allows us to have clear-cut opinions and to debate them with others. Those opinions aren't necessarily baseless - they're often based on observed trends (although just as often they're based on rumors and conjecture). But in my experience, things are usually much more complex, because we're talking about a diverse group of people and trying to nail them down to individual traits.

There are people here who like to play it safe and people who like to take risks. There are funny people and humorless people. We've released inspired games and uninspired ones, and I've worked on both. We've lost strong developers and weak ones, and hired the same. The studio's output is a function of an insanely complex dialectic between all these people, nobody has as much influence as you think they do, and many of the people who had the biggest roles in our successes and failures, you've never heard of.

So I would say this. Whatever omens you're trying to read to determine if the company is on a good or bad trajectory, it's not enough information to make a sound judgment. It's a blind guess. Better to wait for the games, and see for yourselves if you like them, and judge every one independently of every other, because they're all different and made by different combinations of people. Otherwise you're just cultivating confirmation bias.

If you're looking for a reason to hope for good stories in Obsidian's games to come, I have this to add. The best weapon we have - and it's by no means a guarantee - is to hire good people. In the past few years, we've set ridiculously high expectations for our narrative design candidates, and the ones we've hired are truly a cut above. So I can say that I personally am very excited to watch these talented writers grow into their roles and make stellar contributions to our next titles, and to hire more people like them, as we find them. I believe there is a lot to look forward to on that front.


I also want to point out how absolutely astute and true this answer here is.
:whatisfun:
 

Zed

Codex Staff
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Messages
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Hired adventurers should be a start-of-game option, like iron man mode. They should not be an optional in-game feature.

I don't see how this improves things.
I think it subtracts from having written companions. It's hard to write down exactly why, but it feels like a discomfort to even have the (in-game) option to replace a written character with a creation of my own.

BG2, being the far superior game (in every way) that it is, put all that custom character bull-hockey in MP where only degenerate psychopaths would play with them anyway.
 

Neanderthal

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You fuckers really knock it outta park wi your editorials, shit all over supposed professionals. Thing that struck me were when he answered about low int dialogue an journal, just how fucking talented were Arcanum lads at Troika to be able to implement that when Obs can't, I mean Troika had publisher an more time but still they weren't exacly flush from what i've heard.

On question o gods reveal being too early, I still thik that as a rug pull it were executed too early as i've said afore, but I think that builds into something larger I see done in a lot o RPG gameworlds: Lurchin from one crisis to next, wi no build up o the world an enjoyment of it as is, an yet theres satsifaction in seeing a world evolvin an continuing rather than being rocked by otherworldly shenanigans. Specially if what you've done an experienced is reflected there. An sometimes world changing events can come from little stuff, ordinary stuff that afflicts a world an leads to interesting times. Dragonlance were worst for this, absolute ruined setting by havin a cataclysm every second Sunday, just made me stop being arsed.
 

Bester

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He studied CS? No wonder the writing was bad. It's bad enough they hire no-name novella writers to write for video games, but then they hire programmers to write? Jesus Christ. I'll read the interview later. Please tell me he's got SOME academic background somehow related to literature?
 

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