“It lets us really lean into the things that we excel at” – Avowed’s developers on choice, consequence, Game Pass, and those early Skyrim comparisons

Back in 2020, when Avowed was first announced, the internet had a pretty specific opinion of what sort of game it was going to be. It was Xbox’s Skyrim, right?

Fans read between the lines of that first, vague cinematic trailer and drew their conclusions. It had an Elder Scrollsy look and feel. And the developer, Obsidian, of course has experience making these sorts of games – including for Bethesda with Fallout New Vegas. But when Avowed resurfaced, it was something quite different. Gamers yammered away online, speculating that the game changed shape after Microsoft, y’know, just straight up purchased the folks who made Skyrim. But Avowed survives, and thrives – and when you sit down and speak to its developers, they’re clearly happy about the game they’ve made and its place in the world.

While Avowed might be set in the world of a sprawling, open-ended and staunchly traditional CRPG (Obsidian IP Pillars of Eternity), it’s a very different game. Focused on tight first-person combat (with a third-person option), driven by melee, and with a scope that’s more like The Outer Worlds than a jaunt through Morrowind, it aims to be something fresh and familiar at once – appealing to a new audience while threading the needle to also draw and and satisfy fans of the Pillars universe.

Avowed is looking like one of the most curious games in Xbox’s rapidly expanding upcoming portfolio – at once a sequel to a beloved game and a new IP, sorta. Simultaneously a satisfying RPG from a studio known and beloved for the genre – but also an twitchy action-packed adventure. It’s a fascinating – and exciting – proposition.

I sat down for a video chat with Avowed’s game director Carrie Patel and gameplay director Gabe Paramo to discuss all this and more. From thoughts on Game Pass to building meaningful choice and consequence, to doing justice to Pillars and those early Skyrim comparisons – here’s our chat in full, with minor edits for clarity.

VG247: I guess I want to start by asking about… Avowed has quite a unique status, doesn’t it? In the sense that it’s a new IP but it’s also in some rough way like a pseudo-sequel. That strikes me as a tough needle to thread. So how did you approach things from that perspective? I’m sure you want the Pillars of Eternity fans to feel served and validated, and love what you’re doing, even if the game is a completely different genre. But it also must be so different because I assume your primary target is a new audience, so you want to ensure this is a great jumping-on point for folks who might not even like more traditional CRPGs…

Carrie Patel: Yeah, so, as you’ve noted… There are a lot of needles to thread, and a lot of balances to hit. Gabe can definitely speak to the mechanical side of that.

I think more broadly, any time you’re taking an existing IP and putting it in a new or different format you want to understand what is core to that DNA that needs to remain constant across formats and across adaptations.

For Pillars, from a narrative perspective, one thing that’s very common that we had in Pillars 1, that we had in Deadfire, that we’re continuing in Avowed, is this idea of a story that has this very grounded political layer. Nations and individuals act in this very clear sense of self-interest, there isn’t sort of an idealized sense of good and evil. Things are complicated, and they’re messy, and you can see the grit under your fingernails. Then underneath that, there’s this weirder metaphysical layer that’s all about the stories and Mysteries of the Gods. The gods in the worlds of Pillars, you know, act like people – they act in their self-interest and they represent portfolios… but they’re also someone alien and mysterious.

So those two stories weave throughout one another. They share common themes, and they affect one another in ways that the player character uncovers over time. So we’ve taken the same approach to storytelling, the same approach to quest design… looking for ways to leave things open-ended so that the player can assert themselves in the world, define themselves in their character through their role play… and I’ll let Gabe speak a bit more to the mechanical side of things.

Gabe Paramo: So for me, I wasn’t a part of like the original conversations of ‘why go from a CRPG to this’. But for me, it’s logical — it’s a logical decision based on the history of how these things go, right? You know, Fallout started out as a CRPG and then moved its way over to a more immersive experience. Obsidian’s all about ‘your world, your way’ – and so we translate that from a CRPG into the gameplay mechanics. That comes in terms of things like the load-outs that the players can choose, the companions that they want to take with them on the adventure, the abilities that they choose in their play style, and the attributes.

It’s about trying to make sure the player is able to build the player fantasy that they want, the play style that they want, and making sure that we support so that all of that is possible in the gameplay.

“Your world, your way” seems an apt approach to this kind of experience. | Image credit: Microsoft/Obsidian Entertainment

VG247: In terms of the team, how has it been in terms of… like, do the POE folks, even those who aren’t on the team… Like, do people like Josh [Sawyer, Pillars of Eternity director & lead designer] just say ‘this is your toolbox, have fun, you’re on your own’? Or are they poking their heads in and saying ‘well, this is how we envisioned the world, so make tweak that a bit’?

Paramo: From my standpoint, on the gameplay, Josh has more than poked his head in! [laughs] He’s definitely – like, he’s a great collaborator. I’ve worked with him in the last year or so, maybe even more… just trying to do exactly what you’re talking about. Look at the game, assess it from more of a Pillars standpoint and then go, ‘that was a good try on those things, but I think it would be more Pillars if we, I don’t know, added wands.’ Stuff like that. Like, how do we translate that?

Grimoires and how they turned out – there’s a lot of Josh’s imprint on that as well. So definitely he’s a great collaborator in trying to make that work, and trying to make sure that we’re really being respectful to the IP in that regard.

Patel: Yeah, I agree with Gabe 100%. And even then, on the team we have a really good mix of folks who worked on Pillars, worked on Deadfire. My first job at Obsidian was as a narrative designer for Pillars 1. So this is an IP that’s very familiar to me and to quite a few of us on the team, but we’ve got a lot of new folks as well.

I think that’s allowed us, you know, to really balance retaining retaining a sense of fidelity to the IP, understanding what’s important about it, how we carry over lore tidbits or holistic approaches to design – but while bringing fresh perspective, and realizing that the feeling of this game is going to be a bit different, as Gabe mentioned. It’s more of an immersive action-oriented experience as opposed to the super crunchy, pull out your spreadsheet CRPG.

VG247: Speaking of that balance… let’s get into that a bit. So the RPG mechanics, I know you’ve got six main stats, and your skill tree. Obsidian is a studio that’s well-known for rich and deep RPGs. But RPGs sort of run a spectrum these days more than ever, right? So where on that spectrum does Avowed actually fall?

Paramo: I try to look at our systems as somewhat of a toolbox for the player, right? Like we have a primary and an offhand slot, and then we say there are weapons that can fit in those and there are weapons that take both of those slots, and there are gears that can only work in your offhand… So we sort of offer up a toolbox of these things. The loadouts, the amount of abilities, the slots that the grimoire has associated with them… The amount of companions that you take has a certain amount and you can fill those slots, right? So, we kind of give the players a bunch of holes for them to fill in in whatever ways that they want. That’s how we try to service the player in that way.

Avowed screenshot showing a woman casting a spell using a short staff towards something offscreen.
It looks like there are plenty of options in this particular toolbox. | Image credit: Obsidian Entertainment

We still try to have some mechanics where it’s like – all weapons have the ability to power attack, but not every weapon can block – so you have the trade-off in terms of choice and consequence there. We’re just trying to create those systems that are more like a toolbox that the player can play around with in order to find their distinct play styles. But we definitely have grabbed from, you know, the fighter, the ranger, and the wizard, and we try to fulfill some of those fantasies. But even then, with the unique enchantments and unique gear, there’s actually other types of fantasies we can also fulfill through the gameplay. I’m trying not to spoil any of those, though, because we really want the players to discover those as they play through the game!

VG247: Is there a puzzle box element to how this stuff interlocks with enemy design? Will how you spec significantly change how you might approach a specific enemy – elements, damage types, things like that?

Paramo: So we have the concept of stealth grass, which you might be familiar with from Outer Worlds. So we do want to fill the space with some of those types of moments of like, letting the player anticipate, look ahead, see how they want to approach it. But we also want to have moments of surprising the player.

How we do it, how we go about designing it… we don’t want it to feel like only one place style is super viable, right? We want to make sure that all of the different weapon types have pros and cons. Back to the puzzle element, we want to make sure that we’ve given the player a suite of basic tools at all players can do, so that it feels like there’s some sort of puzzle box element between the enemies. Like, all players dodge, we’ve talked about blocking and parrying being more specialized, but all players can power attack. We try to provide enemies like blocking units where you know you can focus on their stun, as we have weapons that focus on stun, so you can stun them and break their block. But you could also use power attacks to break the block as well.

Enemies that are dodgers, you could freeze them to slow them down, since they’re really fast and nimble… or you could use tanglefoot to slow them. We’re just trying to create enemies that let the player use these kinds of puzzle pieces to have better strategies against them, while also making sure nobody feels like there’s only one way to approach any of the enemies.

VG247: You’ve started talking about a third-person mode. From where I stand that’s a tremendously difficult thing to do – having it work in both third and first-person is one thing for shooting, but for melee, it must be super difficult, right? So how has that been?

Paramo: To be honest, right – we’re a first-person game with a third-person perspective mode, and that does not change between first-person and third-person. So it’s gonna feel identical in terms of the way it controls. That’s key. We’re not going to do a thing where we switch to that perspective and it all of a sudden feels like God of War, or Devil May Cry or something, right?

It’s going to feel like a first person game but with a third person perspective… to the player, it should feel one-to-one. The goal was always to have first-person first, and then, y’know, allow for this accessibility option to exist and that those two feel in parity with each other.

Patel: As you’ve noted, there is a ton of work primarily on animation because you’re working essentially with two different character models of the player character to support all of those attacks, the dodges, and movements.

Bear this in mind when Avowed eventually releases. | Image credit: Microsoft/Obsidian Entertainment

VG247: The impression I get is that from a role-playing perspective this game is a little bit more focused on the embodying a character in the world and with their choices, rather than like you said the crunchy, mechanical stats stuff. But what I’m curious about is when those worlds intersect. So is the game built in such a way where a social relationship with a companion is going to change their skill-set, or your relationship with a faction might significantly tip how combat encounters go? Things like that.

Patel: So there’s definitely choice and consequence in terms of how your choices in one piece of content affect what you’re going to face elsewhere. One thing we do like to do in a few places is, you know, depending on how you treated a particular character or what decision you came to, what choice you made – you may have a harder fight ahead of you or an easier one – or maybe even one that you can talk your way out of!

There are a lot of different levers you can pull to show the world reacting to the players choices. Creating hostility, diminishing hostility… We’re giving players different things they can point to, or different things they can lean into in order to try to convince a character of something. That stuff is really fun to mix in there. There are definitely some characters who, you know, depending on what you do with them early in the game, their friends, their allies, their enemies – they will remember that much later and maybe make your life easier or harder accordingly.

We’ve also got – and we showed a little bit of this in our recent video – we have attributes that can play into certain dialogue options. So if you’ve got a really high might skill, you might be able to say something very intimidating. If you’ve got really high perception, you might be able to notice something that not everybody’s going to be able to. This is definitely a carryover from Pillars and Deadfire.

VG247: You think back fifteen years… choice and consequence on the scale we see now was rare in 3D games, and before then it was reserved mostly for games that were really driven by text. But now it’s a thing, and it’s a design language the audience understands and all that stuff. Obsidian is a studio that’s been at the front of all that, too. But what’s it like – how hard is it to find new levers you can pull to surprise players as opposed to, you know, leaving players going ‘oh, this is a trolley problem, I’ve seen this ten times before’… So is it difficult to find ways to sort of trick people up in that sense?

Paramo: It’s probably the easiest thing to do ever. [laughs] No, no. I’m just kidding.

Patel: I mean, I think what you’re describing is ultimately, just a creative challenge like any other. We’ve all played these games before, and we know that a lot of quests at their heart really boil down to ‘find something or kill something’. But designers the world over still find ways to dress those up through interesting narrative, through creative use of gameplay, by taking the player through engaging spaces. I think creating meaningful choice and consequence is largely the same thing.

A choice is interesting because of how you build up to it, and a choice is interesting because of how you get the player to invest emotionally in the consequences of that choice. That’s not that’s not just the work of creating that lever somewhere in your quest or in your level, that’s also the work of investing the players’ attention, building their emotional engagement, and all the moments leading up to that. I think another part of our design efforts that I think really helps us in this department is the way we embrace a lot of nuance and complexity and the morally gray.

I personally think that when choices become less interesting it’s when there is a really good clear black and white, good and evil — if I do the nice thing, the good thing will happen and everyone will be happy with me. If I do the bad thing, it’s all the opposite. I think what makes interesting choices really work is when you have something where some of the consequences you can kind of foresee but the full long-term impacts are not entirely clear. You then might encounter characters or situations later that were affected by your choice in ways that you couldn’t have foreseen, but in ways that feel earned. That is always something that takes creative work because again you’re investing the player in the world and the characters, and their role in those things. But yeah, it’s a lot of fun when it works well.

Obsidian certainly knows how to make a game with ample choices.

VG247: I wanted to ask you about Game Pass, and how that comes up for you guys specifically from an RPG design perspective. RPGs can be quite a slow burn, right? In a traditional boxed sale, if somebody has paid their money – on Pillars, someone has paid for it, or backed you on Kickstarter, and you know you’ve got a captive audience. You can take time building that universe at the onset. But now it’s like how movie trailers have little 5-second trailers at the start on YouTube. So… how do you approach that? You’ve got a limited amount of time to convert these Game Pass people who might give the game an hour or two, or three–

Patel: Oh man, two or three hours is an incredible amount of time. That’s great! So much time! [laughs]

VG247: At most! At most. [laughs] I’m being generous in the extreme.

Patel: No, you’re right. I think even before Game Pass this is something that game developers have had to contend with. You know everybody has a backlog in their Steam library, everybody has a million other things that they could be doing or playing. So you want to make sure that you get players invested and interested quickly, and show them why this game is going to be worth their time.

For RPGs, that is a special challenge because there is so much narrative context to give players, so many mechanics and systems to teach them, and you want to open the toy box for them but you don’t want to overwhelm them. So I mean, yes, it is a challenge and it’s something that we get to through a lot of iteration.

I would say that looking at the total amount of playing time to the total amount of iteration time, our prologue is probably what we’ve spent the most time on. Prologue and the player’s first moments in the initial surroundings and the first full region they step into. So yes, it does take work. We’ve had a lot of help from internal play testers, from external play testers we brought in from Microsoft’s user research laboratory, and all of that has given us a lot of really good insight about what players are noticing, what they’re really getting invested in, and also what’s confusing them that we need to smooth out.

VG247: When the game was announced… I don’t know what the intention was on your side, but from the outside, I think a lot of the fan reaction at the time was like ‘Oh, this is Xbox’s Skyrim’. Now I know you have since pushed back on that – and you’ve used The Outer Worlds as an example of what Avowed is more like. But at the same time, the Skyrim thing was the perception that was on people’s lips and trending on social media, right? And then, of course, Xbox goes and buys Bethesda. So did that actually change the game for you guys? Was that a moment where you were able to step back and say ‘well actually, we now no longer need to be an answer to that, we can be something new?’ Or was it just that people had really jumped to the wrong conclusions at that time?

Patel: So the initial trailer that people saw… in 2020, I think – whenever that was. That was the initial direction of Avowed. Probably, I think it was the January after that, the studio reevaluated the project. There had been kind of an early push towards multiplayer… and it’s not that it can’t be done, but there are obviously a lot of challenges in unifying a multiplayer experience with performance, and also with that really strong player-centric narrative approach that we take with a lot of our RPGs.

So by the time I joined the project that January we’d already undergone a shift and we were taking a new approach, taking the underlying gameplay that Gabe’s talked about and just building a new context and a new story and a new setting around it. So that was already well underway by the time Microsoft bought Bethesda. But yeah, I think taking the Outer Worlds approach – it lets us really lean into the things that we excel at. That’s quest design, having a tighter and more focused narrative, and creating a lot of very bespoke choices and consequences.

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