Why didn't Tyranny sell? Paradox on Obsidian's RPG "everyone was hoping would do better"

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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.

Related: the best RPGs on PC.

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 review

“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.

War games Tyranny

“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.

Tyranny review

“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.”

Tyranny

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.” 

Tyranny good playthrough

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.

Tyranny conquest mode

“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.”

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Orctavius avatarBen Barrett avatarMrJane avatarjimkatai avatarhahnchen avatarpanbient avatar+9
Orctavius Avatar
5
Orctavius(4 days 21 hours played)
5 Months ago

I really liked Tyranny. It's a shame it didn't do better commercially.

5
Ben Barrett Avatar
485
Ben Barrett(1 day 7 hours played)
5 Months ago

I think it's brilliant, and had all the signs of a classic Paradox quiet million-seller. Real shame.

4
jimkatai Avatar
6
5 Months ago

"“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.”

I really don't get how this guy could say this about Tyranny. First of all, Tyranny should be perfect for watching Netflix with it's pause-and-play combat and readable storyline that only advances when you press the button. If anything, I would say it is BETTER than Skylines or Kerbal Space Program because of how the game can be set up to be constantly paused and will insert stops for you, while Skylines and Kerbal will introduce real-time distractions that will bring you in just like a few lines of well-written text sitting plainly on a screen would except the mechanic doesn't also include a pause that makes sure you only advance when you're ready.

Secondly, if this Netflix mentality is what assures a game is marketable, why are our most popular games still first-person shooters and why is the most popular current game right now a first-person shooter that requires you to carefully listen for the location of enemies?

Don't mean to be too critical, the rest of the article is interesting and I love hearing the discussion. Just really flabbergasted at how that logic works. Just seems completely out of left field to say a pause-and-play isometric RPG with a text-based storyline failed because the incredible writing distracted people from their Netflix.

3
Ananym Avatar
104
5 Months ago

I found the combat very bland. This story could have practically been delivered as a CYOA book with minimal losses.

3
MrJane Avatar
2
MrJane(3 days 23 hours played)
5 Months ago

Tyranny was friggen amazing. I played it back to back three times. I'm still hoping they do an expansion.

2
panbient Avatar
206
5 Months ago

It's not that I don't want to get Tyranny. It's that it came out at a bad time for me. I don't have the spare cash, the spare time, and the empty backlog to justify adding to my Steam library. Especially not at full price.

Maybe during the Summer sale, but realistically I've got the Pillars of Eternity expansions lined up ahead of Tyranny.

Someday.

2
giantevilhead Avatar
4
5 Months ago

There were almost no advertisements for it. I didn't even know it was out until someone I followed on youtube started doing a playthrough.

2
huldu Avatar
250
5 Months ago

That's never needed the power of the word is far more powerful than any commercials. Have you already forgot Stardew Valley? Yeah. I rest my case. It had no commercials and it spread like a wildfire. Why? Because it was a *great* game.

1
TsunamiWombat Avatar
637
5 Months ago

It was stealth released during a busy season and lacked the lead up hype that PoE's kickstarter had generated

2
huldu Avatar
250
5 Months ago

It was okay and that was the problem. Okay was not good enough so I told my friends to stay away from it. It had a *lot* of issues. As I think back on it I barely even remember playing it through - that alone is a sign that something just wasn't right.

2
Stinkflipper Incarnate Avatar
269
Stinkflipper Incarnate(15 hours played)
5 Months ago

I think there are many reasons that in combination can explain it somewhat.

1. It's a kind of weird-looking game, hard to grasp.

2. It's very brown, to the point of being rather unattractive.

3. You play the bad guy, or so it seems. I think that's not as tempting as one might think.

4. The combat got a lot of negative comments.

5. Yeah, there are a fair few of these games now.

6. With Paradox there's always the fear of DLC-madness. Combine that with the apparent shortness of the actual game.

7. You can't play it while watching Netflix and doing your taxes. Just kidding. That would be a dumb thing to say.

2
hahnchen Avatar
95
5 Months ago

If Pillars of Eternity 2 sells like Tyranny does, all the equity-crowdfunders will lose money. It Pillars of Eternity 2 sells like Torment does, they'll lose money too.

Pillars 2 needs ~550,000 unit sales at full price to break even. I'm not convinced it's going to sell like the first.

https://www.fig.co/campaigns/deadfire/invest

1
Mygaffer Avatar
2
4 Months ago

It will easily outsell the first game. The first game moved a million units and everything we've seen from the follow up makes it look like it will be better in every way.

I've played both Tyranny and Pillars and Tyranny just isn't as good. There are plenty of reasons it didn't sell as well but at the end of the day that is the most important one.

1
monkeyfritz Avatar
107
5 Months ago

PoE was a "spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate" and that was all the lead up it ever needed. It was never just a CRPG back to life, it was Baldur's Gate back to life. That is a huge difference in nostalgia points.

Torment may be a cult classic, but I don't think it was ever as popular as BG I and II. I still replay those. I have them on my iPad now, it's great.

The new torment and tyrany were also reviewed in what I think is very unfavorable light. All I remember from the reviews of the first "not really about combat, can't really die." Which sounds too much like a puzzle game or a visual novel, it really only interests fans of the original. And from the tyranny reviews, "you get to be evil, or eviler. It was so much evil I had a hard time even playing it." < virtually every reviewer I remember. I don't think the desire to play the villain is quite as prevalent among core rpg fans as some would like to think.

I also have zero interest in BG III which just looks like a cash in by the same people who did the "extra content" on the enhanced editions, which are just subpar and contrast terribly with the original content. Even so, I won't be surprised if it sells better than these more niche games.

1
Rock1m1 Avatar
382
5 Months ago

I don't buy these games at launch. However, I will buy it sometime later this year when it goes on sale.

1
Mygaffer Avatar
2
4 Months ago

Pillars of Eternity is one of my favorite games and so I was planning on buying Tyranny day one.

Then I heard that they had reduced the party size to four, and that there was no friendly fire. It really made it sound simplified or streamlined, the kind of thing I hate.

So I held off and then all the reports came in of how short it was, how it ended abruptly, didn't feel finished and I decided I would only buy it once it was on a very good sale.

1
hahnchen Avatar
95
5 Months ago

If Pillars of Eternity 2 sells like Tyranny does, all the equity-crowdfunders will lose money. It Pillars of Eternity 2 sells like Torment does, they'll lose money too.

Pillars 2 needs ~550,000 unit sales at full price to break even. I'm not convinced it's going to sell like the first.

0
Sevirm Avatar
1
5 Months ago

$44.99 for a game that looks and plays like it's right out of 1998. The writing better be on par with the masters of science fiction and fantasy or no amount of nostalgia will bring me to spend 100+ hours playing that kind of game. Planescape: Torment is the only CRPG that did it for me. I'm sorry, I want to, but I just can't.

0