It’s Grounded, a co-op survival role-playing game that takes place in a suburban backyard, not a world of magic and mythical monsters or spaceships and energy weapons. It’s coming next spring, and it’s going to be an Xbox Game Preview release for Xbox Game Pass and Early Access on Steam. Obsidian made the announcement today at the X019 event in London today. And it feels like a riff on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. You play one of four kids who are unwilling participants in an experiment. They’re now the size of ants, and they must work together to survive in a backyard-turn-laboratory.
You can play by yourself or with up to three other people (making for a party of four). As you try to survive the perils of a backyard, avoiding insects, birds, and other critters, you can build bases with stuff you find laying around. You can grab some wood and build a base around a can of beans that missed the garbage pail. You can make armor out of a nut shell, or turn some sticks into weapons so you can find some tasty grubs to eat.
This is the first game Obsidian has announced since Microsoft acquired it last November. And it’s unlike anything in the studio’s portfolio. The times it’s strayed from RPGs, it’s made either a digital adaption of a tabletop game (Pathfinder Adventures) or a multiplayer tank game (Armored Warfare, which publisher Mail.ru took over in 2016). It’s the work of a small team — 12 people.
“We always try to look at where we can add, as far back as [2010’s] Alpha Protocol, how can we add RPG elements to our games that we make,” Grounded game director Adam Brennecke said about trying new things in a recent video call with GamesBeat. “The other thing we like to do, and it’s something we pride ourselves in, is world-building. We spend a lot of time crafting a cool world to explore. There’s a lot of detail in the backstory of this game. … Everything has a purpose. It’s something we take very seriously here.”
Brennecke was the executive producer and lead programmer for the Pillars of Eternity RPGs. He started at Obsidian in 2004, and his work includes the underappreciated Neverwinter Nights 2, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, and Fallout: New Vegas. This is his first go as a game director.
Grounded also stands out because its Obsidian’s first game appropriate for younger kids.
“I’m like, ‘Yeah, because South Park: The Stick of Truth looks like it, but you know, it’s not.’ Yes, I think this is this is a kind of new territory for us,” Brennecke said. “But one thing that we we found [with Grounded] is it’s very approachable for all ages.”
Tiny people, big characters
You can play one of four teens.
- Max provides the humor. “He’s like a mix of Bart Simpson and The Fresh Prince,” Brennecke said.
- Willow is what Brennecke terms as a “typical teenager. She’s very grumpy. And she does have a sassy personality.”
- The bespectacled Pete is more like the group’s Boy Scout.
- Hoops is a basketball player, and she’s leadership material for the group.
The experiment starts; The Instructor (the person running the experiment) is telling you what to do, and they’re monitoring your vitals. These instructions are your walkthrough as you learn how to eat, drink, and survive in the wilds of a backyard. You can eat a mushroom or drink from dewdrops.
It’s a pretty nice yard. It has a fence and a house, and in the middle is a good-sized tree. It has a koi pond, flower beds, a greenhouse. Some of it is overgrown.
A bug’s life
And as you start your adventure, you notice insect life around you. “They’re curious about your presence in this area, but they’re also just doing their own routine,” Brennecke said. “So one cool thing with [Grounded] is that we are building a huge world, and it’s very hand-crafted. But we also have a lot of insect life that’s doing its own thing behind the scenes. And we call it basically a simulation of AI. So all these insects have their wants and needs, so they go hunting, and they get hungry.”
And yes, you can be their dinner. Or watch them gather their food, as with the backyard’s ant hill.
“It acts like an ant colony. One really cool thing in the game is just to observe this as a player where ants will search and send their workers to go find and hunt for food. Once they find a food object, they’ll actually communicate that back to their anthill with a pheromone system. So you can actually see a line of worker ants form when there’s a food object in the world that they find.”
If you give the ants food, you won’t be their friends, but they’re mark you as a source for food with their pheromone system. They won’t attack you, as you’re not an asset, not a threat. But build a big enough base, have a big enough fence, and the ants will view you as a threat.
And they’ll steal food from you, too. Opportunistic little buggers. And you can’t domesticate them — no pens of ants or other bugs, waiting for you to harvest them. No ant-busting, either … though Brennecke said that riding the insects isn’t in it right now, and they’re going to monitor feedback to see what players want after it goes into Xbox Game Preview/Early Access.
You’ll see ladybugs, bees, and aphids. Those are important, as they you can eat them.
And you’ll find spiders — some are hunters, and others are more passive. But they can be dangerous, and if your found the Mirkwood scene in The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug to be uncomfortable, you’d better prepare yourself for giant spiders.
With the use of insects and other creepy-crawlies you’d find in, well, maybe your own backyard, I asked Obsidian if it had consulted any entomologists on insect behavior. A representative answered over email: “Whenever we add new insect and even plant life into the game, the designers do their homework. First, we look it up on Wikipedia to see if there are interesting details about the insect. Details such as what it eats and where it lives are used to design the behavior of the creature and how it could be possible used in crafting. Our goal is to capture the feeling and flavor of the insect, but we try not to get into the nitty-gritty biological details.”
“Secondly, the team also enjoys watching insect enthusiast videos online to watch and see how insects interact with each other and through their environment. It’s great reference material for animation as well.”
The backyard has a lot of stuff in it: baseballs, juice boxes, a magnifying glass (imagine just what you could do with this), and other junk and natural materials (leaves, sticks, and so on). You use this to make what you need to survive in this suburban jungle: weapons, armor, bases, and such.
But there’s also a gaseous substance called “The Haze,” and you need to craft a gas mask to go through it. Brennecke said that getting around is kinda like a Metroid game in that you need to make certain items to reach certain places.
And anthills and spider dens are dungeon-like areas you can explore. But you’ll need to fight in these areas, and the tech tree enables you to make better weapons and armor as you fill it out.
It’s not Ark or Rust
While Grounded is a survival game, it’s not competing with the likes of Ark: Survival Evolved or Citadel: Forged With Fire (which just came out on consoles last week).
“It’s a new genre,” Brennecke said. “One thing that’s important to us is that we’re trying to make a game that you can tell is very approachable. Not only is the setting approachable … we’re paying attention to that first-day experience so that players can get comfortable with the mechanics. Most survival games are very punishing and can smack you over the head. We’re trying to make sure that everyone that plays the game can get up and going with the game mechanics before it becomes more challenging.”
Brennecke also said it’ll also have those “nitty-gritty” mechanics Obsidian’s known for in its games.
One of the big differences is that Grounded has a story. Most survival games have a rudimentary narrative, but Obsidian is doing something different here.
“I’ve spent my entire career here at Obsidian. We do things a certain way here. We like to add to the survival game and say, ‘What could we add to that,'” Brennecke said. “Not only are we adding a rich storyline to go through. We have memorable characters that we all know and love that we like to have in our games. We also like to have choice and consequence in our games
“One thing that we’re looking at is how the player can affect the story, how they can affect how they play through the game. We also have a light sprinkling of RPG things. We have tiers of armor. We have armor sets.”
Grounded doesn’t have traditional dialogue trees, like you’d find in Pillars of Eternity or Outer Worlds. “But we do want the player to affect the storyline by playing the game,” he said.
Making the pitch
Grounded is unlike anything else in Obsidian’s catalog. I asked Brennecke how this came about. He mentioned a brainstorming session with his colleague on Pillars of Eternity II, lead designer Bobby Null.
“We sat in the office together, and we listed out all our fantasies for survival games, either ones that have been done before, or ones that could be new,” he said. “We’re just going through all these different kinds of settings; what if you’re in an Indian Jones type of world or something like that. How you survive the temple, or something like that.
They talked about being in one situation or another until one of them brought up shrinking.
“What if we’re shrunk down and had to survive in basically a backyard. And the breakaway said there was something here,” Brennecke said. “We started riffing back-and-forth, ideas you could find in this world. And immediately, as game designers, we said there’s a lot of stuff here to sink our teeth into, to flex our creative muscles. We shared that idea with a lot of people at the studio and studio leadership and they said, wow, that’s a lot of cool stuff.”
And it was something just about everybody could buy into — he noted being shrunk down to the size of insects and exploring a backyard is a fantasy in which everyone could have a space and bring an idea to because it’s relatable. “We can all put ourselves into that position,” Brennecke said.
I asked if that’s because we all can feel small, dealing with the big problems in today’s world.
“I like that a lot. That’s a cool, cool way to look at the premise of the game,” he said.
Brennecke said they started working on Grounded before the Microsoft acquisition, after Pillars of Eternity II wrapped up (that game came out May 8, 2018). They put a small team to work on it after getting approval from Obsidian boss Feargus Urquhart. They got a prototype running, got some art, and everyone thought it was a good idea.
And Microsoft bought into it as well.
“They’ve been very supportive,” he said. “They checked out the game, said keep working on it, it looks really cool. They were pleasantly surprised.”
I asked if Grounded would’ve been something that Obsidian took to crowdfunding if Microsoft hadn’t acquired the studio, and a representative said this over email. “We already wanted to bring [Grounded] to fans in some form of Early Access, as the community is one of our major focus points and it’s important to us that they be a part of the development process,” the rep said.
The comparisons to the Honey, I Shrank the Kids films are inevitable. But I wondered if Obsidia had thought about asking Rick Moranis to do a voice for Grounded.
“I don’t know if I can answer that,” Brennecke said. “That would be a fun thing.”
But even if the comparisons are inevitable, Brennecke wants Grounded to stand on its own turf.
“There’s a lot of stuff in there, but we’re trying to tell a story with our own style and flair,” he said.
Even if that flair includes roasting aphids on an open fire.
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