"We had no idea how the tech would even work...eight months of development was trying to figure out how to actually make a game that still looked like the Infinity Engine."
- Obsidian's Adam Brennecke, speaking to Rock, Paper, Shotgun about the early days of Pillars of Eternity's development.
Beginning with Baldur's Gate in 1998 and stretching on through Planescape Torment and Icewind Dale, BioWare's venerable Infinity Engine has powered a notable number of acclaimed PC RPGs.
The team at Obsidian Entertaiment (many of whom worked on those games) knew that when they launched the Pillars of Eternity Kickstarter campaign in 2012 as a game that would "pay homage to the Infinity Engine games of years past."
What they didn't fully realize, according to a new Rock, Paper, Shotgun interview with Pillars devs, is how hard it would be to actually recreate the look of a '90s isometric RPG in a modern game running on Unity.
"There were a lot of little tricks that they learned how to present the image," said executive producer Adam Brennecke, referring to the visual style of games like Baldur's Gate. "For example, especially for interior areas, the front-facing walls are all not there. You don’t draw those at all. The tops of the walls are all black. So it makes, like, where this image is sitting in a black void. Our first prototype dungeons didn’t look anything like that.”
According to Brennecke, the team ran into trouble right off the bat; it tried to replicate the sort of highly detailed pre-rendered backgrounds seen in Baldur's Gate, for example, but found that doing so at modern resolutions initially required way too much rendering time.
Even after Obsidian straightened out its rendering pipeline issues and figured out how to effectively replicate the aesthetic of early Infinity Engine games, it had to solve some very basic problems that come with trying to render an isometric game. Ramps, for example, proved to be a challenge.
"For any height difference, you need a ramp to connect those heights, and whenever you have a ramp that is sloping away from you, it ceases to read as a ramp in our mind because there is no perspective, there is no sense of depth,” added Pillars concept artist Kaz Aruga. “As you go up the image, you want to make sure it’s increasing in height, not decreasing.”
The team reportedly decided to zero in on creating one really authentic-looking environment -- the inside of a tavern -- and then worked outwards from there to create buildings, towns, and dungeons.
For more on the art design of both Pillars (including some interesting game dev tidbits about working 3D models and lighting into the game) and Obsidian's later game Tyranny (pictured) check out the full feature over on RPS.