In a blog post released on November 8, 2019, Josh Sawyer of Obsidian Entertainment indicated that the RPG series Pillars of Eternity may not see another sequel due to the poor sales of Pillars of Eternity II: Dreadfire. Sawyer suggests that Obsidian would be hesitant to fund another sequel without knowing why Dreadfire sold so poorly compared to its predecessor.
In contrast to Dreadfire, Obsidian’s recently released The Outer Worlds enjoyed commercial success relative to Obsidian’s other franchise. The Outer Worlds is a vastly different game from the Pillars Series, the former being a first-person shooter more reminiscent of the modern fallout series than an isometric RPG game.
The relative drop in sales between the two Obsidian franchises may indicate a decrease in consumer desire for CRPGs (Computer Role Playing Games) like Pillars of Eternity. Though, it is unclear that this is the case, as other games in genre sold well compared to Obsidian’s flagship series. Divinity: Original Sin 2 was a commercial success, and the CRPG Pathfinder: Kingmaker also sold well. The more recent Disco Elysium, which I would have figured to be a niche title, has proven to be a runaway hit, both commercially and with critics.
What Happened? Why Was Dreadfire Such a Flop?
The problem with Obsidian’s isometric RPG games is the company’s increasing emphasis on combat and action-oriented gameplay at the expense of dialogue and character development. With a first-person shooter like The Outer Worlds, that focus does not detract from the fun of that game on the same level as it does with an isometric RPG like Pillars of Eternity.
FPS combat is more immediately satisfying than the combat of a CRPG, which is more ponderous and tactical. The issue with Obsidian’s games is the degree to which they rely on the crutch of combat to prop up inert and sterile fantasy worlds and characters. Combat is typically the least exciting thing about a CRPG. It is slow, tedious, and driven by random stat rolls. The interaction with the world, the characters, and the relationships you form with your party are what draws people to play these games. Pausing a game and casting magic missile isn’t my idea of riveting combat. But the worlds these developers build, and the characters found within capture my attention and imagination. Instead of focusing on these core elements of RPG games, Obsidian has whittled away at the story and character interaction of their games and focused instead on action-oriented gameplay in an attempt to capture a more general audience to boost sales. A modern Obsidian CRPG is like chocolate cake without the icing. They’ve thrown out the best part.
The deep roads in Dragon Age is an excellent example of this kind of tooth grindingly frustrating combat as a content filler. The fighting is constant – every room, every step, it never stops, and it goes on for hours. People hated it. Even if you have a good story, and good writing, if there’s a boring combat barrier between those expositional moments, people aren’t going progress to the story sections, and when a sequel comes out like Pillars of Eternity II: Dreadfire, players are going to think back on the tedium and skip the game. Most consumers will probably not be aware of precisely what they didn’t like about the game, and just like the developers themselves, they’ll be left scratching their heads as to why the game didn’t resonate with them. Dungeons and Dragons, the basis of many previous CRPGs and a heavy inspiration for the combat in Pillars, is fun because you’re playing it with your friends. If you were playing it on your own, the fighting absent that social interaction is missing a huge part of what makes the experience fun. Without characters and dialogue that resonate with players, a CRPG is a bit like playing a Dungeons and Dragons game alone.
The Outer Worlds is more enjoyable to an average gamer than something like Pillars of Eternity because you can flood an FPS game with combat, and it doesn’t drastically slow the pace of the narrative down. But with a CRPG, you get burnt out on constant combat because of the slow, arduous nature of the fighting. And if it’s everywhere, like it is in Pillars, you start to dread taking another step in the game world.
These are fundamentally pacing issues in modern games. Even in FPS games, relentless combat can bring about serious pacing issues, and if developers rely on it too much, people get burnt out. Doom is an example of a game with relentless combat that was well-received, but Doom was only 13 hours long. A typical CRPG game usually exceeds 50 hours of gameplay length, and these games don’t have the exciting and fluid combat found in Doom. Though, I have serious doubts that I could stomach a 50-hour Doom game.
Developers are not going to get a player who enjoys general action-oriented gameplay to fall in love with the combat of a CRPG. This is a target that big development studios keep trying to hit, and each time, these strange hybrid games fall flat. What developers end up doing is creating a bastardized hybrid game that satisfies neither the role-playing enthusiasts nor the adrenaline junkies. Think of EA as they cannibalized Bioware and destroyed their ability to make novel and interesting RPG games. The role-playing elements became more and more generic, and the games gradually transformed into sci-fi shooters, culminating into the soulless mess that Anthem was.
Companion Quests and Side Quests
With RPG games, particularly with side quests, they tend to pull the player’s attention in multiple directions. If you’re continually yanking a player away from interesting quest lines with monotonous busywork quests or quests that are not rewarding, it can have a detrimental effect on engagement and enjoyment. This applies particularly to games without a monolithic narrative – that is, a single main story line that a player follows from point a, to point b, and c linearly until they have reached the end. If you have too many side quests of dubious quality, the player becomes overwhelmed with tedium, and is less likely to seek out the few good side-quests. If you have too few, the world feels empty – the NPCs and characters become cardboard cutouts of the kind you’d find in a haunted house. If I could give only one piece of advice to developers, it would be to treat these quests with the same kind of care that you would your main storyline. They cannot be simple hunt and fetch quests, or shopping list quests. As a player, I would much rather have a few interesting side quests, involving characters that I’ve formed an attachment to than I would a patchwork of busywork quests.
Side quests are by their very nature character-driven. Companion quests must be given by interesting characters. If the companion is boring or generic, a developer might as well leave that character out of the game. The Pillars games, particularly Dreadfire, make the cardinal sin of grating and uninteresting characters.
The dialogue, voice acting, and charisma of the characters in Baldur’s Gate II are in a completely different league. There are so few bland characters in Bioware’s game, but Pillars of Eternity is filled with them. A conversation about a character’s sleep patterns is so pedestrian and bland. I half expect the next line of dialogue to be about one of the character’s fibre intake. I feel like I’m listening to someone’s conversation with their grandmother, which is fine, but it’s not something I expect to hear in a fantasy game.
What Happens if a CRPG Game Gets Rid of Combat Almost Entirely?
Disco Elysium is an interesting case-study for Computer Role-Playing games. With companies like Obsidian focusing on action-oriented gameplay, the developers of Disco Elysium, ZA/UM, opted to build a different sort of role-playing game. The gameplay features almost no combat. It is entirely expositional. The Wikipedia page indicates that it is independently published by ZA/UM, a company that was venture capital-backed. This is likely a game concept that would never be greenlit by a company like Obsidian or a publisher like EA. An RPG with no combat is too risky a venture for a big publisher. ZA/UM opted to go in the opposite direction of most modern CRPGs and develop a game that is dialogue and story-driven. Disco Elysium stands as the polar opposite to the direction of studios like Obsidian, who are spending less time developing story segments in favor of action-oriented gameplay. Choices in Obsidian’s modern games are superficial. Companion quests are boring and monotonous busywork.
Disco Elysium, by contrast, as it is absent combat, hinges on well-written dialogue and player-choice driven by CRPG style stat rolls that influence dialogue options. How the player chooses to build his character influences how the action plays out in the game-world. A character who focuses on strength will take a different path, with different choices and interactions with characters than one who focuses on logic and reason stat traits. The characters, their personalities, and their motivations are all fleshed out and well-written. To be fair to Obsidian, I would have thought that a game like Disco Elysium would not have been as widely well-received as it has. ZA/UM is a pioneering studio in that they’ve managed to pull together a niche concept and turn it into a mainstream and critical success. It is very clear that the big development studios view CRPG games in general as niche concepts, and they’ve been doing everything they can to whittle away at the rough edges of role-playing games to try to appeal to a more general audience.
At the 2019 Game Awards, Disco Elysium won the awards for best narrative, best debut indie game, best independent game, and it took home the award for best role-playing game. For the category of best role-playing game, it beat Obsidian’s own The Outer Worlds and other titles like Final Fantasy XIV, Kingdom Hearts III, and Monster Hunter World: Iceborne. Disco Elysium is also still on the global top sellers list on Steam’s storefront. Not bad for a niche indie game.
When the RPG Pendulum swings too far into action-oriented gameplay, the games seem to be more poorly received by players than when it swings towards narrative-driven and expositional gameplay. But is Disco Elysium’s success reproducible? This is difficult to say. At the very least, it indicates that big RPG development studios should be allocating resources to hire more writers. Combat in an RPG game is fine, but it is clear that action should not be the primary focus of a CRPG to the extent that all of the other elements that make up these kinds of games fall by the wayside. Some of this seems to be driven by the desire of developers to push graphical boundaries, but the stories of the RPG games that are on the cutting edge of graphics, physics, and visual representation of game worlds are typically poorly done. Graphics and combat are not specifically what I look for in a good RPG game. It is difficult for a studio that is pushing visual and technical boundaries to justify taking a risk with a primarily narrative-driven game, so developers of this kind lean towards safer and more commercially viable gameplay strategies. But Pillars of Eternity is not pushing graphical boundaries. It is not on the cutting edge of visual and technical representations of videogame worlds, and as the narrative is also bland, it has no leg to stand on with players.