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Grounded: A big experimental adventure made by Obsidian's tiniest team

Game director Adam Brennecke talks about his 16 years at the studio, and how a history of RPG development led to a backyard survival game

Grounded game director Adam Brennecke has been working in the games industry for sixteen years. He's been a programmer, a designer, and a director. He's worked on numerous flavors of RPG, from licensed turn-based titles to action RPGs. And he's done it all at one studio: Obsidian Entertainment.

Brennecke joined Obsidian out of school at Digipen in 2004, when the company was still in its first year of existence -- he was its first intern. He began work as a programmer on Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2, and after that game shipped was moved to Neverwinter Nights 2 and hired full-time. He went on to work on a number of titles -- including several that were cancelled -- and eventually was given a game director role on the DLC for Dungeon Siege 3, and later pitched the Kickstarter that became Pillars of Eternity, on which he served as executive producer.

Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz, Brennecke says that, as Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire began to wrap up, Obsidian naturally began to ask internally what was coming next. The acquisition by Microsoft wouldn't finalize until later in 2018, and developers like Brennecke were eager to tackle something fresh.

Brennecke says that a group within Obsidian, including himself, had been thinking about survival games for a long time. With Deadfire in the rearview, he asked if they could finally just go for it, since they had a team ready and looking for something to work on. He got approval to start working on a pitch, which ultimately became Grounded.

"We were working on Pillars of Eternity for almost seven years," Brennecke says. "And we were playing a lot of those games that had really cool gameplay experiences, and a lot of things that I think make RPGs cool. A lot of emergent experiences, like being the character that you want to play in terms of gameplay: the type of person you want to be in a world and being able to express yourself in that way.

Grounded is a survival game where players are shrunk to the size of an insect and must survive in a backyard full of dangerous bugs

Grounded is a survival game where players are shrunk to the size of an insect and must survive in a backyard full of dangerous bugs

"And we had a couple other survival game ideas. There's a traditional one that we wanted to do as well, with our own Obsidian spin on it, but we had the opportunity to do something crazy here, to see if there's an idea that we could potentially explore as developers. And so Bobby Null, one of the lead designers at the studio, he and I got into an office and we just brainstormed ideas for like four hours about what would make the perfect survival game. And this idea of surviving in the backyard came out of that... It's so ripe for ideas. I think anyone on the team or anyone in general can see themselves in this world and come up with ideas, and we got to do it."

Grounded is Obsidian Entertainment's first survival game, but while it may be a new journey for them genre-wise, the studio has been known over the years for a wide variety of characters, settings, and tones. The studio has made games ranging from the darker, more serious Alpha Protocol to the humorous, politically irreverent South Park: The Stick of Truth, to fantasy settings like Pillars of Eternity, to outer space in The Outer Worlds.

"The team working on Grounded has a lot of experience of how to inject our style into this. It's ridiculous how much thought is put into some of this stuff"

Brennecke says that the defining factors in all Obsidian titles, including Grounded, is its focus on settings and characters.

"I think the one thing that ties everything together that is our bread and butter is just making cool worlds," he says. "Worlds that feel like they have a purpose and worlds that you want to immerse yourself in, and I think that's where we start.

"The team working on Grounded has a lot of experience of how to inject our style into this. It's ridiculous how much thought is put into some of this stuff. Even the juice box [a giant landmark] in Grounded -- who made the juice box? Where are they located? What companies do they own? We created this huge story around the juice box and you can see it when you find these objects in Grounded. I think that separates Obsidian Games from [others]. When you're playing, it feels like a real world."

Apropos to the subject matter, the team working on Grounded is small -- only 14 people in a studio composed of around 190 people. Brennecke says it's the smallest team he's ever worked on, but adds that it's also a very senior team, made up of very experienced developers.

"We just wanted to keep it tiny -- no pun there. We wanted to do it where it makes sense financially. We're doing a lot of experimental things with Grounded -- it's not our bread and butter. We're getting into something new. We're keeping the risk low, but still being able to be agile enough that we can develop really cool things quickly. And I think that's important for an early access game preview title that we're nimble, and we can adjust pretty quickly. Smaller teams are easy -- it's a lot easier to do that with a smaller team.

At the Xbox Showcase in July, Obsidian announced Grounded would launch in early access five days later. It reached one million players in the first 48 hours

At the Xbox Showcase in July, Obsidian announced Grounded would launch in early access five days later. It reached one million players in the first 48 hours

"We are able to iterate over stuff. We're gonna make mistakes. Even if you know what you're doing and have made a game before, you're gonna make mistakes. Having a smaller team, you can make those adjustments really quickly. Our thing with Grounded is to get it in fast. Prototype it, and then play it and keep playing it and keep making adjustments until it's refined and we feel really good about it. Especially when you're doing something experimental, that's the kind of process to make the game the best it can be."

With 16 years under his belt at Obsidian, Brennecke has been in a position to observe the various changes the company has undergone since its beginnings as a startup made by ex-Black Isle developers. But while the studio's grown and Brennecke's role has grown within it, Obsidian is holding tight to certain elements of its original culture that he thinks are vital to making it a comfortable place to work.

"Microsoft's been amazing at keeping that culture of the studio intact. We just have more resources at our disposal to make even better games"

"I still think making games is hard," he says. "Technology changes so quickly, and you have to be really agile in how you approach making games. I think one success of Obsidian is we always want to try to make it feel like a small startup in terms of communication. It's amazing that the founders of Obsidian are still in the trenches with us making stuff. I can go to Feargus [Urquhart, co-founder]'s office. Of course, I can't do that right now. I can call him up on the phone at any time and just have a discussion with him about anything.

"I think that personal touch of reaching out to all their employees...even with being acquired by Microsoft, it still feels the same way. Microsoft's been amazing at keeping that culture of the studio intact. We just have more resources at our disposal to make even better games."

And as Brennecke has moved into more and more leadership roles on Obsidian titles, he says he's trying to keep that culture alive in two key ways. The first is by encouraging his teammates to have fun -- because at the end of the day, they're all just making games.

"The other thing I try to encourage too is having people work on stuff that they want to work on, if that makes sense," he continues. "Especially with a small team, we can have everyone participate with the design in the game and come up with ideas and discuss those ideas at length. So every single person on the team acts as a designer on this game. And I think that's really cool. It's something that I feel like has always been at Obsidian and one reason why I'm coming from a programmer to a game director, because I liked design and I always wanted to participate in that part of the game. Even way back when working on Knights of the Old Republic 2, I was active in discussions with the design team.

"We're all trying to make a great game, and breaking down those barriers and having core collaboration discussion amongst programmers, designers, artists, animators, and producers is going to make the best game possible. On Grounded especially, we want to encourage people to break down those barriers."

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