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Obsidian shrinks its ambitions as it makes its Xbox first-party debut with Grounded

(Image credit: Obsidian/Xbox Game Studios)

What if we made a game where you shrunk down to the size of an ant?" As Roby Atadero tells it, that question is the driving force behind Obsidian Entertainment's latest experiment. The senior programmer is quick to note that the concept was born in 2018, before the Microsoft acquisition and as the team began to wrap on Pillars Of Eternity 2: Deadfire. It has only grown from there. "Once Deadfire started to wind down, we had a brainstorm session and the question was asked: 'If we did a survival game, what would we do?'"

The answer is game creation on a different scale. Grounded is smaller in scope than many of Obsidian's releases over the past decade, and it was created by a team of just 14 as the rest of the studio worked on getting The Outer Worlds out of the door. Its development timeline is shorter than the norm, moving out of incubation and into the hands of players at X019 for its reveal in little over a year. It's not an RPG, and it isn't built on a foundation of exploring choice and consequence – Grounded is an Obsidian game, but it's quite unlike anything you've seen from the studio before.

That much is clear from the moment we get our hands on an early build of the game, best described as illustrative of what's to come in the future more so than anything else. It's a co-op survival game, rough around the edges, with its most obvious influences doing much of the heavy lifting. To put it simply, Grounded is what you get when Honey, I Shrunk The Kids collides with the survival systems of Rust and Don't Starve, in an era when Fortnite reigns supreme.

Shrinking vision

(Image credit: Obsidian/Xbox Game Studios)
Crossing generations

(Image credit: Obsidian/Xbox Game Studios)

How difficult is it to build a new IP on the eve of the next generation? Obsidian isn’t just building a game outside its usual genre with Grounded; it’s also launching a game that’s designed to grow over time and onto Project Scarlett. So, how do you future-proof a concept when that future is still so uncertain? “I think our stance on that is, we find that fun is future-proofed,” says Atadero. “If we make [Grounded] really fun, then it doesn’t matter where we go with it. We’re focusing on the Xbox One platform, and we’re just trying to make that a great survival experience, and to make sure it’s fun. And if that goes forward in the future on other platforms, then we’re sure it’ll be just as fun.” You heard it here first: next-gen will be fun.

It's undoubtedly a strong confluence of ideas, even if Obsidian still has a way to go with it. Grounded shrinks you and three friends to the size of an ant. Your explorable world is a literal backyard, where all types of bugs and environmental hazards are potential enemies. With the clock ticking, it's up to you and your buddies to find and gather resources, upgrade your equipment and build a fortified base through simple crafting menus, then defend it from waves of antagonistic insects.

It's fun, albeit a little basic in its current state. The environment easily draws you in with the inevitable fascination tiny things hold. The entangled survival systems are simple and familiar, with Grounded feeling more collaborative and less combative than any directly comparable games. That said, the ability to send a sharpened stick through a teammate – simply because they insist on building a staircase in front of the only entrance to the base – is certainly enjoyable, although not necessarily in a way that Obsidian had really anticipated. "We're focused on building a core co-op survival experience," Atadero explains as we enquire about PvP leanings. "I mean, if you hate your friends, you can throw a spear at them all you like." You don't have to tell us twice.

"This was something that we've been wanting to do for a while; we thought this idea was so fun that we just couldn't say no to it. Being a big studio, it allows us to have multiple teams and to try some creative projects – we just had to try it," Atadero tells us, explaining that Microsoft has only encouraged the experiment. "We started this project before the Microsoft acquisition, so we already had our timeline set. When Microsoft came on board, they saw what we were doing and said, 'We love it! Just keep doing what you're doing.'"

And that's what Obsidian is doing, slowly and surely. The studio is planning to launch in Xbox Game Pass, Xbox Game Pass PC, Steam Early Access Game Preview on Xbox in July and, in the meantime, Obsidian is looking to involve the community in the game every step of the way. "We're going to launch on Game Preview in the spring. At that point, we want to have a regular cadence of feature updates, area updates, creatures, and new crafting items. And we want to expand the story.

Once we feel that once we have a full, completable story arc, we'll go into the 1.0 launch," says Atadero. "We are taking our expertise at Obsidian and finding which of its elements we can put into the survival genre so that Grounded will still have that Obsidian DNA." 

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