Adam Brennecke Interview: Grounded November Update

So, you mentioned that you’re a fourteen-person team, is that right?

Adam Brennecke: Yeah, so we… we definitely are a small team. That’s one thing that we’ve been wanting to do since the start of Grounded is keep it small and see what a small group of really passionate and senior developers that have all worked together on past projects [can do]. So, we’re all really familiar with how we work together, and I think that was something that we just wanted to see. Like, “Hey, what could we accomplish with a small team on a survival game?”

Even with the initial success of Grounded, with so many people playing it, we want to continue to work on the game, and everyone’s super happy with it. I think that’s great, because we can continue to just work on the game and make it as amazing as it can be. The one thing we still want to do is keep the team small, so we’re not planning on growing it to a hundred-person team or anything like that. We’re going to keep the team small and just continue to make the game how we’re making it. I think that’s been working out really well, and we don’t want to rock the boat or anything.

I imagine it must be easy to jell with so few people, but it seems like it might be difficult to work from home that way. How has that been?

Adam Brennecke: I would say a smaller team is probably easier. Well, I don’t know if it’s any easier than working in an office. I think the one thing that we’re probably missing is the organic conversation that we have in the office. Back at the studio, we have what we call the Art Pit. It’s a fairly large room, and we have I think six artists, pretty much the entire art team of Grounded, in one big office, and it was nice as the director because I could just go in there and we could chat about stuff. If I’m talking to the art director about something, maybe our lead environment artist might overhear something and say, “Hey, have you thought about this?” So, we have a lot of organic conversations in the office that we definitely are missing out on when working form home. That has been a challenge for us.

One thing we are doing is having a lot more meetings using Teams and just getting everyone on the team just talking about the game for hours at a time. That’s the way that we’ve been dealing with that.

The small team aspect has just been really great. I wouldn’t want to develop anything any other way, especially for something that’s very experimental and where you have to iterate on stuff very rapidly. That’s been a huge boon for us to have a small group of people who really, really love what they’re doing.

And as far as organic conversations in art design, it seems like you guys also have to do a lot of research and physics. Has that been more difficult being at home, or has it not changed? How does that research process look?

Adam Brennecke: The process really hasn’t changed a whole lot from working at home. We usually put up design documents on Confluence, and that’s like our wiki page where we have all our design stuff. And the designer will put stuff up there. Then, our people will go in, and if there’s specific call outs of, like, “Hey, we need this. We need this area designed. Can you do a sketch with it?”, then it’s pretty, similar to how we usually do it back in the office.

I think the one thing that we do still kind of miss is we don’t have whiteboards where we can kind of get together and just sketch stuff. That that aspect is missing. But I think, overall, it’s pretty similar from working in the office.

You mentioned this is a passion project, something that you’ve wanted to do for a while. What drew you to survival games? And then, what made you decide to set one in a backyard?

Adam Brennecke: Yeah, so that’s a good little story. So, I was a part of the Pillars of Eternity team, and we started that back in 2012. And, we were working on that for quite a long time. I was with the first person on there, and we worked on the Kickstarter, and we worked on a two-year development of that game. And then we went on to the sequel to Pillars of Eternity. And one thing that came out of that time period was the survival game. That was not really a thing, you know? I think that Minecraft really pushed that. And there’s a bunch of other awesome titles like Subnautica, The Forest, Ark, and we played a lot of those games at the studio, while we’re working on Pillars of Eternity. It was one of those things that we really had a good time playing as a cooperative experience, or even a non-cooperative experience. We played those games a lot during our lunch breaks, and just in the office after hours. And I think the the genre is really attractive to people that really like RPGs as well, just because I think it allows you to play your character that you want to play as, and you can kind of make your own story up as you go along. I think that’s a really powerful thing in games. And that’s something that we really wanted to explore as RPG developers as, “Hey, what is our own unique take on this genre?” Because it’s very similar to RPG.

We’ve been wanting to get a survival game off the ground at Obsidian for years now. At the start of Grounded, we were rolling off of Pillars of Eternity II, and we had a team ready to go. And Fergus, who’s our studio director, just gave me the opportunity to put it together. During the brainstorming for the pitch, I sat in the office with one of our other lead designers, Bobby Knoll, and we were just trying to come up with an idea for like, if we were able to make a survival game today, what would we do? What would be our unique take on that genre, because we wanted to do something different. And we sat in the office for about four hours, I think we had about 70 ideas on the whiteboard. I think we were just kind of like, just mostly goofing around. And we said, “What if you were shrunk down to the size of an ant, like in the backyard environment?” And once we set that, I think we spent another 20 minutes talking about all the ideas that you could do in that space as designers. Immediately, our minds just went wild with cool stuff that you could do.

And so we share that with a few other people in the studio. Once the artists got word of what we were thinking of, their their eyes just lit up, and they were just super excited to try it out. Fergus gave us the go-ahead to put together a prototype of that idea. And it turned out to be really cool-looking, so he told us keep going. And about a year after that, that’s what Grounded turned into. So we just worked on a little prototype for about a year, and then we had Grounded.

That’s fantastic. Were you at all inspired by movies like Ant Man and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids

Adam Brennecke: Oh, yeah. I mean, we take inspiration from everything. We’re definitely a very inspired group of people that we look at not only movies, because there’s tons of awesome movies that explore this idea, but also books. There are some good books that have cool ideas. And we have a lot of inspiration just from video games that we love. I think there’s a lot of inspiration from games like Breath of the Wild, Portal, and even other survival games like Subnautica and The Forest. We definitely consume a lot of media. The other thing that we try to do is just take joy from it and have fun with it. I think that’s important for us to not only take those inspirations but have fun with it at the end of the day.

So, I have to ask, because the spiders are terrifying. Do you have arachnophobes on the team? Was that where that came from? I know that was kind of a point of contention for a lot of people, that they wouldn’t be able to play because they were afraid of the spiders.

Adam Brennecke: Yeah, that’s a great question. You’re spot on with that; we do have some arachnophobes on the team. I’m borderline, like I can psych myself up to deal with the spider if I have to. So, if there’s a spider in the house, I’ll just bear down and deal with it. I know a couple other people on the team were definitely a lot more scared.

And that was one thing that we noticed in our first trailer that we made back about a year ago when we were at XO. And we also had a little demo that we had players play. We noticed immediately that there were a few players, when they saw the spiders, they’d just throw their hands up and walk away. (Laughing) And that to me as a game developer is something where I look at that, and I say “Hey, is there any anything that we can do to those for those players, so they can still enjoy the game?” Because it’s still a good game. And that is a part of the game, but I think there’s there might be ways for us to alleviate that initial fear for them so they can still enjoy Grounded.

That was something that is super important to us, that everyone can enjoy the games that we make, and we spent a lot of time on that. It’s something that we discussed as a team. And that’s where the Arachnophobia Mode came to be. We did a lot of research and we read a lot of studies about arachnophobia to see what things we can do to alleviate that paralyzation that people have with spiders.

I happen to be a little bit afraid of spiders myself, and it seems like every RPG has them.

Adam Brennecke: (Laughing) It’s a staple!

Switching gears, we were wanting to talk a little bit about the update, because it looks really cool. The Koi looks amazing, the different water effects, and the whole underwater world you guys have created, is beautiful. Can you tell us a little bit about some unexpected design or gameplay twists players can look forward to?

Adam Brennecke: Yeah! So, the Koi pond is definitely a unique experience in Grounded. Every game needs an underwater level, and this is our underwater level. There’s a lot of cool things to discover in the Koi pond, so the more you you dive in and are able to craft different items, the deeper you can get into the Koi pond. There’s definitely a cool hidden area at the depths of the Koi pond that you’ll need to get to. There’s some cool stuff to find down there.

The other thing that we want is to make sure that it’s fun to explore, and it’s not a punishing and frustrating thing to do. I know the reason why people don’t like the swimming level in games is because it’s different, and it’s not like the core of the game. And we’re trying to make that just a fun experience for players to really discover a new area and uncover the layers of the pond.

The breathing function was something that struck me with the underwater spiders, and players taking breaths from their webs. How did you come up with that?

Adam Brennecke: So, when we first started the development of the Koi pond, we made a big list of all the creatures and all the insects that could be in this area. And one thing that jumped out at us was that there’s actually a spider that lives down here. So we did a bunch of like, watching of videos and research on how these spiders actually behaved and functioned. And it was like, “Wow, this actually is pretty neat.” They actually swim around, and I think that’s something that’s pretty cool because, not only are you swimming around, but the dangers that you usually find walking around and now can swim as well. That adds kind of a cool little twist to it, but it’s really neat how they behave.

I think that was something that visually we really liked. So we’re like, “Hey, can we add this as a little gameplay element into the mix?” And I think it works out pretty well for the for the player, to give them an extra little boost of oxygen, if they find those little pockets of air down there.

I know that was a big thing for players for a while: build your base by the water, you’re not going to get attacked. I like that you guys have kind of thrown a wrench in that strategy.

So is there something I am not asking about the update yet that you really want players to know?

Adam Brennecke: I think the big thing for us is that we’re not done yet. So, we want to get this into players’ hands, but that’s a big thing that I want to make sure that people have a good sense about. Like with anything in Grounded we’re not done yet, and we want to keep improving. I want to make sure our fans, and people that are playing the game, understand that this is just going to get better from here. So, please give us feedback: are we hitting our marks with some of the swimming stuff? Are you finding things frustrating? Because we we definitely want to make it better. So, if there are things that you’re not enjoying, voice your opinion, and we’re listening. And the content itself, we want to continue to improve it.

There’s still a lot of ideas that we have, and we want to continue to to make the Koi pond as best as it can be. This is just the first phase of it. We want to continue to develop it, add more to it, and make it look better, add more, have new creature ideas, and add more life to it. So, this is just the beginning. And it’s pretty much a similar story to everything in Grounded. We want to continue to build on this, and this is not going to be the end of it. It’s just the start of the adventure for us.

When it comes to breathing underwater and all the new mechanics, did you guys include any new perks? Or do you plan to add more mutations to help players?

Adam Brennecke: We have a couple of mutations, yep. That’s one thing that we always look at whenever we release, and that’s going to be an ongoing thing. Whenever we release new areas, we’ll make sure that we have upgrades that you can purchase with science. There’ll be new perks that you can find.

We want to make sure that there’s enough crafting and base building options, and new things like the floating foundation just adds another dimension into base building. We want to continue to look at those things where it’s not only just a new little thing that you can build, but it actually changes how you think about how you build your base. That’s something that we want to continue to work on and look at. There’s some new tool in your toolbox, so you might even want to start all over and build your base completely differently because you have a new option that is now available to you. I think that’s something that’s really cool. We want to continue to add that stuff over the course of early access.

In terms of of tools you can use, you mentioned that big weapons aren’t going to work underwater. So, what do you recommend players do to fight off the water fleas or the spiders, or to get resources?

Adam Brennecke: Yeah, so, the weapons that do work: the spear that you can craft really early on in the game works really well. We do have a new dagger that you can make. That’s something that you can actually craft pretty early on when you’re exploring the pond area. That’s more of a short range weapon, but it’s definitely faster than the spear. So those are the two weapons that I recommend players use. The other weapons are usable, but you’ll soon regret that. You can’t really hammer your big clubs down there very well.

That makes sense. And I assume you can’t use a bow and arrow?

Adam Brennecke: (Laughing) You cannot use a bow and arrow, no.

(Laughing) That seems about right.

So, in terms of what’s next for you, I know you mentioned that you are looking to include pets to build up to Act One. Could you talk a little bit more about what kinds of pets you want to include and then what might be coming in terms of story content?

Adam Brennecke: Great things! Yeah, we definitely want to continue to develop all this stuff. I think one thing that people are eager to get their hands on – and I’m the same way – is, what do we want to do with pets? That’s one thing that I would love to have. And these are all just ideas at this point. We want to introduce the stuff over the next few months. I think everyone wants to have a little friend out there. We’re looking at having the ability to maybe capture and tame an insect and make it your own, I think that’s a really cool thing in so many different games. And honestly, if we can make our own version of that, and put our own spin on that to make it cool and interesting in Grounded. So, that’s something that we’re definitely looking at, and we’re discussing how we want to implement it, and how we want to roll that feature out.

On the flip side, the other thing I really want to try out, not necessarily with pets, is interaction with the ants and other insects. We have this fairly complex pheromone system that actually controls the behavior of the ants, and I think it would be really cool if the player could interact with that system in some way. It’d be really neat if you could control the ants and have them do things for you. So that’s something else that we’re we’re pretty excited about, to get our hands dirty on the development team and explore that feature. So, that’ll add a cool dimension to the game.

Then, your other question was about story. We’re currently building out the Act One locations right now. That includes the hedge area, the Koi pond, we already have the Haze lab, and one of the areas that we have planned for is the Sandbox. I think of these labs as almost dungeons. And the player will have to go to all these labs, and that will kind of activate the end of the Act One story. We want to revamp all the labs and add in these elements that will really make these these labs a lot cooler. We have some ideas on how to do that. That’s something that we’re going to continue to work on and roll out over to an update where players can go through the story of Act One and complete the story that kind of sets the stage for Act Two of Grounded.

I don’t want to put any undue pressure on you, but do you have an idea of when you want to launch the full version, or not yet?

Adam Brennecke: The nice thing about it is, since our initial success was so amazing, there’s a lot less pressure on the team. So, I think if we need to take our time and make things great. I’m always on the side of, “Let’s make it great and amazing.” And I think, since we’re keeping the team small, we have the luxury of doing that. That’s something we are currently discussing, but, right now, we have no plans of announcing that. We just want to make the game as good as it can be.

You saw some really big successes with concurrent players in your first 48 hours. Has that sustained itself? I know trends come and go, and Among Us is big now. Have you seen sustained growth, or at least maintenance of that level?

Adam Brennecke: Yeah, our player count is super healthy. We’re seeing a lot of success, especially on Game Pass. We still have lots of players every day coming in. And that’s something we never expected. So I think we’re just super pleased. It’s always tough whenever you’re launching a new IP, and our game is quite a bit different from a lot of other games. So we’re really, really pleased with the success. I think the cadence of releasing new content pretty frequently is also helping out quite a bit, where we do have a lot of cool new things just being added to the game on a regular basis. We want to continue that too and just continue to add stuff and make the experience better. So, even if you played the game on launch, I think if you come back a few months later, you’ll probably see a lot of new things that you’ve never seen before in Grounded. I think that’s always a fun thing too, you know, being able to jump back into the game and just seeing all these new creatures or features or things that you didn’t interact with the first time. I think that’s going to be a fun thing for players to jump back in and experience the game again.

One more question. Base building seems to be a lot of people’s favorite thing. I know you mentioned there are some new features to building in the update. What are some of your best tips for building?

Adam Brennecke: Let’s see… I think finding a good area. Your first thing is making sure that you’re building in a place you feel comfortable with. And that it’s pretty central to the yard. Because, I think if you don’t build in a good central place, you’re gonna have to probably walk a lot more.

I always like finding a resource that, depending on what my playstyle is, it’s nearby a resource that I can have easy access to. So depending on how you’re playing the game, or how you’re feeling, find that resource and maybe build your base as a starting point there.

I also suggest using ziplines. That’s a good way of zipping around the area really fast. So if you do the hedge content, you can get your ziplines on, and I think that definitely helps with getting around really quickly.

I love the zipline feature. I think more games should have that.

Adam Brennecke: I like combining ziplines with bounce pads. We have some other fun things to introduce down the line with both ziplines and bounce pads to add some more wild stuff into Grounded.

Grounded is in early access and is available for PC and Xbox One.