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How RPG master Obsidian built backyard survival game Grounded with its community's help

Grounded
(Image credit: Xbox Game Studios)

Grounded was always meant to be shaped by its community - director Adam Brennecke told me as much nearly three years ago when the game was first announced. But the size of that community and the suggestions they'd bring to the (picnic) table exceeded Obsidian's expectations. In the two years it's been in Early Access, the small Obsidian team that's been working on it has learned a lot. Most of those learnings have come from a dedicated player base that's been molding Grounded since July 2020, offering suggestions on everything from gameplay additions, quality-of-life updates, and UI tweaks. 

Now, with Grounded 1.0 set to launch on September 27, Obsidian is finally ready to hand those players - and a whole host of new ones - a mostly final version of their survival game.

We're gonna need a bigger yard 

Grounded

(Image credit: Xbox Game Studios)

In February, Obsidian announced that over 10 million players had jumped into Grounded since its July 2019 launch (opens in new tab). The Grounded Discord is nearly 40,000 members strong; its subreddit has 52,000 members. "It was definitely a big surprise. Most of us are all people who really like survival games, most people on the team have played Forest, Subnautica, and a bunch of other survival games and just really enjoy the genre. So it was kind of just a bunch of people on the team really liked this genre and wanted to make a game within it." lead QA analyst Adam Taylor explains. "But I don't think any of us expected it to be as big as it is. And it's been going on two years now, which is crazy."

I hope the community feels that this game is theirs as much as it is ours

Aarik Dorobiala, Obsidian

Grounded blew up so unexpectedly that Obsidian hired former community manager Aarik Dorobiala back after he left the studio in 2019. "The team didn't really expect the game to blow up as much as it did, which is why they called me back to Obsidian to help out with the community," Dorobiala tells me. "They really wanted to build a game alongside the players in the community to make sure that it was the game that they want to play."

At this point, days before Grounded is set to leave Early Access, Obsidian is clear: this game was made with its players. "I hope the community feels that this game is theirs as much as it is ours," Dorobiala says.

More spiders, please 

Grounded

(Image credit: Xbox Game Studios)
Photo Mode

Grounded

(Image credit: Xbox Game Studios)

Grounded players also convinced Obsidian to add a photo mode to the game. "I just never thought about taking pictures in the game like that, and photo mode has been really awesome. That's definitely one of the suggestions that surprised me," Taylor says. 

But what kinds of changes has the community helped contribute to over these last two years? Obsidian says they run the gamut from some typical UI requests like changing the way items are named in storage to gameplay suggestions like allowing players to sprint while carrying furniture. An early update let players toggle on Arachnophobia Mode if they wanted to avoid scares from the eight-legged freaks in the backyard. The Arachnophobia Safe Mode slider allows players to determine how spidery the Grounded spiders look, with one end of the slider giving you traditional spiders and the other end turning them into floating balls.

However, Obsidian says some of the most popular requests from players have been for more scary bugs, not less. "What surprises me the most is the insects that the community wants to see, like the camel spider - which is massive - or a trapdoor spider. It's like… they want more spiders?" Dorobiala says laughing. "But the one that we got in that players really pushed for was - the infected insects in the game in the haze biome - they wanted the infected wolf spider, which is already one of the biggest spiders in the backyard. But they wanted an infected version, which we put in. They want more scary bugs, which is one of the most surprising things."

Grounded

(Image credit: Xbox Game Studios)

Grounded's Early Access release didn't just give Obsidian more spider work, but set the stage for players to suggest important quality-of-life upgrades that may have slipped under the radar if the game had gone straight to launch. "Early on people developed metas of how to take down big creatures that are normally really hard to take on early on in the game. Players would jump on a rock and just berate arrows on the insects until they die, which could take 40, 60 arrows. In the early days of Grounded, you'd have to go to each arrow and hit 'E' to collect them all, so player really pushed for an auto-collect system," Dorobiala says.

Players also pushed for new storage-naming conventions, a "craft many" option, and the ability to move furniture instead of destroying it. "Just simply sitting in chairs was a highly sought-after feature," Dorobiala says smiling. "We had chairs in the game, but they couldn't do anything with it."

Anti-crunch 

Grounded

(Image credit: Xbox Game Studios)

Grounded's lengthy Early Access period gave Obsidian the space and time necessary to tailor the game to its player base. "Because we're in Xbox Game Preview, we can have instant feedback from our community, especially on social media or our Discord, which is where we gain most of our player feedback. Just having that instant interaction with the players and seeing what they like and what they don't like…it's super helpful. If we had just made the game and then released it, and then tried to get feedback that way, it would have maybe been a lot harder to adapt and make changes," Dorobiala explains.

I don't think I would ever go back to a non-early access project

Adam Taylor, Obsidian

While it's clear that this dev process was beneficial for players who got to shape the game in real time, I ask if it was similarly kind to developers. In an industry all-too-often defined by crunch, how does a two-year Early Access period help the people working on a game? "I've been on three or four different projects. And I think with Grounded since it's in early access, and it's a smaller team, I think, overall, I'd much prefer the workload that we've had through this project," Taylor responds. "I don't think I would ever go back to a non-early access project."

Obsidian isn't going to abandon the survival game after it leaves Early Access. Not only is the team remaining tight-lipped on the story that will unfold during the game's full launch, but Dorobiala promises Obsidian will support Grounded for the next few years to come. Grounded 1.0 launches on September 27 for Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC.

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Alyssa Mercante is an editor and features writer at GamesRadar based out of Brooklyn, NY. Prior to entering the industry, she got her Masters's degree in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Newcastle University with a dissertation focusing on contemporary indie games. She spends most of her time playing competitive shooters and in-depth RPGs and was recently on a PAX Panel about the best bars in video games. In her spare time Alyssa rescues cats, practices her Italian, and plays soccer.