Obsidian’s Tyranny is destined to be remembered as one of the boldest RPGs of the decade - not that anything so rote as destiny would figure into a world ruled over by an all-powerful but unseen genderless communist. It also felt uniquely timely, releasing as it did right on top of the election of a US president many believed had the potential to become a tyrant.
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But even the combination of those factors couldn’t translate into mad sales. Speaking at Paradox Con in Stockholm this weekend, the company’s top figures voiced disappointment over what they know was a brave and brilliant follow-up to Pillars of Eternity.
“Tyranny did ok,” says Paradox CEO Fred Wester.
“We’re overall ok with it, I think,” echoes Shams Jorjani, Paradox’s vice president of business development. “Everyone was hoping that it would do better.”
In fact, Tyranny’s performance at release came in just under the Swedish publisher’s expectations.
“The game’s really solid, it still has a lot of interest,” Wester expands. “A lot of people are still on the fence to buy it. I think we will see a long tail on that game with people coming in and playing later on as well. But it didn’t really meet the expectations we set for it initially, no.”
For their part, Obsidian add: “We're very happy that we've made an incredibly deep and unique RPG that players adore, and that while a better reception in the market during a packed holiday season would have been great, we think it's the kind of game that has legs and can do great over time.”
Next question, then: why didn't Tyranny meet expectations? Wester points to a tough launch window in November - a month in which other great games, including Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs 2, struggled to punch through the pre-Christmas noise. Jorjani thinks Tyranny’s timing issue goes much broader, arguing that the appetite for ‘90s style RPGs has already been somewhat sated through crowdfunding.
“Obsidian did a great job of capitalising on the timing of Kickstarter and the wave of nostalgia for these type of titles,” goes his hypothesis. “We've seen that most of the titles after Pillars of Eternity, if you look at Wasteland, Torment - they haven't been anywhere near that kind of success. So maybe it's that a lot of nostalgia fed into the initial bubble and that's why. These games have a market, but it's never gonna be that peak [again].”
Jorjani draws a parallel to revivalist point-and-click adventure games and the initial warmth for a fondly remembered genre.
“But once people started playing them, they were like, ‘I kind of know why they aren't prevalent anymore,’” he says. “This form of gameplay isn’t really working in today's environment.”
At home - although perhaps he’s exaggerating for emphasis - Jorjani plays with Netflix on one screen, a stream on another, and his phone in his hand.
“I can play Kerbal Space Program that way, or Cities: Skylines. But if it’s Tyranny, I want to read every single word and savour the words, because I know that the team over at Obsidian put a lot of effort and love into writing those words. I want to make sure that I’m paying it the right kind of respect.”
Wester shoulders the responsibility for Tyranny’s marketing, which ran with the slogan: 'Sometimes, evil wins.' It was an approach that wisely brought Tyranny’s twist on RPG morality to the fore - but didn’t touch so much on its singular world and cast.
“We might have emphasised the wrong things when we sold the game,” he says. “I don't know. It didn't really come up to what we thought it could.”
“It’s very dark,” offers Jorjani on the game’s theme. “It’s more niche in that sense, it absolutely is.”
After an existence plagued by cancelled projects, it seemed as if Obsidian had finally found in Paradox a publisher who understood them. The two companies worked together back-to-back on both Pillars of Eternity and Tyranny - and when the latter was announced, Wester said they’d “identified a partner whose development and design ideals are a perfect match for our own.”
“I would love to work with Obsidian [again],” says Wester on the subject now. “They’re a great team, super talented. Who knows? We might just work together again some time in the future.”
It’s another occasion where CEO and business developer speak practically in unison.
“We'd love to work with Obsidian,” enthuses Jorjani. “They’re incredibly, incredibly talented, they're very, very passionate.”
Jorjani does volunteer, however, that the two companies have had their “fair share of headbutting” over the course of their working relationship. It sounds as if Stockholm and California came together with a certain amount of chafing.
“I think there are slight cultural differences in how we work,” he theorises. “Sweden is consensus-driven, we try to have very flat hierarchies. It comes back to a lot of different factors but, at least at Paradox, we push a lot of major decisions down to people in the organisation. Not every company works that way. Some companies are not as comfortable with decisions being taken at that level, so they're pushed upwards. We end up with this weird situation where we can't have our CEO involved in every discussion.”
It’s important, too, to point out that Paradox aren’t in a position to publish everything Obsidian work on. Though the publisher’s profits increased 51% in the last year, they’re still small fry next to a Sega or Ubisoft.
“We talk to Obsidian all the time, we love them, but while our projects are much bigger today than they were three to five years ago, they do a lot of big projects that are far outside of the reach that we do,” says Jorjani. “That’s also a factor: what will they work on? What do we want to work on? Finding a good fit.
“But I'd definitely be open. We want to make RPGs that are the best in class. If we can get the other factors to work it will be great.”
Though Tyranny’s underperformance leaves room for questions and theories, there’s no doubt that these two companies made an exceptional game together - one where their shared penchant for replayability was able to meet in an astonishingly reactive RPG.
“In that respect we're quite happy,” says Jorjani. “It is a largely underappreciated gem. I think we see that also on the stats side of things. A lot of people have wishlisted the game, are very interested in it, but they know that they're not quite done with Pillars yet.
“I think that, hopefully, it will take off a bit more in the long-term sales. We'll see, if we get a couple of expansions out, if that changes anything.”
Jorjani does tease that Tyranny is structured in a modular fashion that makes it ideal for expansion.
“Our publishing voodoo allows us to keep the long tail going which make expansions a more viable proposition,” he notes. “We'll have a bit more news on this in the near future. But we'd love to revisit the world - it ended in a bit of a cliffhanger so there's definitely more to tell there. We'll see what people are asking for.”