One of the biggest launches of 2022 for the Xbox Game Studios family is a game that has technically been available since July 28, 2020 — after two years of constant development and iteration, Obsidian Entertainment’s experimental survival title Grounded is finally releasing its final 1.0 update. On Sept. 27, 2022, players across Xbox, PC, and the cloud will be able to experience Grounded’s full narrative across the entire Backyard, and it’s looking to be one of the most exciting releases of the year.
Ahead of its launch, I had the opportunity to discuss Grounded’s development journey with its creative director, Adam Brennecke, at Obsidian Entertainment. We had a conversation about how Grounded came to be, its impact on the survival genre, what players can expect from its final update, and even a tease at what could be next for the Grounded team.
Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for grammar and clarity.
Grounded’s journey to 1.0
Grounded has been out in the wild for over two years as part of Steam Early Access and Xbox Game Preview. During that time, it has evolved significantly with regular content updates, patches and fixes, and constant support from Obsidian Entertainment and its community. Many would-be players eagerly await the game’s final release later this month to try out this interesting survival game for the first time, but Grounded has already enjoyed immense success during its early access period. Earlier in 2022, Obisidian Entertainment revealed that Grounded had already surpassed 10 million players, even before its full release.
“I don’t think anyone was expecting our initial success with Grounded,” Brennecke revealed during our discussion. “We were developing something pretty experimental for us at Obsidian Entertainment, because we’re known for making core fantasy or science fiction RPGs at the studio. Something like Grounded is definitely a big departure for us. We approached it by pushing our creativity but also pushing the technology, and trying out different things that we’ve never been able to try before. None of us really expected it to be so successful.”
The Grounded community is certainly bustling. A large part of this undeniable success can be attributed to Grounded’s transparent development process, which directly involves the community, and raises the bar for quality and support of the Xbox platform. For one, Grounded fully supports the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S consoles with graphics and performance enhancements, Quick Resume and Smart Delivery features, and much more. Grounded was also one of the first games built entirely on Xbox’s latest game development kit (GDK).
Grounded has always been in a unique position to embrace the very best that the Xbox ecosystem has to offer. On this topic, Brennecke told me, “I’ve been very proud of the team to be able to be on… the Xbox Series platform from day one… It has been really, really fun being able to work firsthand with the Xbox team… Since we’re so agile, we can really just say, ‘Hey, let’s see if we can integrate some of these new things and take advantage of the platform as much as we can.'”
For Brennecke, the advantages of the Xbox ecosystem extended beyond simply developing Grounded for the two most powerful and advanced consoles Microsoft has ever released. “This is the first time we developed a game as part of the Xbox family. We’ve been able to take advantage of all the different groups at Xbox; the accessibility group has been really helpful in fine-tuning the accessibility of the game; the Xbox User research group is very hands-on with the project, and they give us so many good tips for how to make the game better. I’m really happy that we’re able to make the game with Xbox. I think approachability and accessibility, especially, are very important to Grounded’s success, and are something that’s very unique to Grounded.”
It’s obvious that approachability and accessibility are indeed significant areas of focus for Grounded, with the game boasting a plethora of helpful settings and options that allow more people to play the game. These features include options such as Grounded’s Arachnophobia Safe Mode, which modifies the appearance of the game’s terrifying spiders into nondescript orbs. Removing barriers to play is a crucial pillar of modern game development, and it’s great to see the Grounded team embody that philosophy as a member of Xbox Game Studios.
Of course, it’s ultimately the passionate team of developers at Obsidian Entertainment that are putting in the work to breathe life into Grounded. “I’m very blessed to have an amazing team working with me and having so much fun on the project,” Brennecke said. “It’s just been a really amazing journey working with such talented developers… to make something really special.”
The team behind Grounded has always been an intimate group, working together for over two years to deliver on the supremely ambitious vision behind this quirky survival game. Because of the title’s success, however, the Grounded team has been forced to expand from its initial size of just 14 members. “We grew the team just slightly from the original team size. So, right now we’re at 20 developers. We’re still an extremely tiny team compared to everything else I’ve ever worked on,” Brennecke explained. “I think the the thing that was very important to us at the studio was keeping the culture of the team, making sure that we were able to continue working on that success, fleshing out all the ideas that we had, and working with the community.”
The rate at which Grounded has evolved is impressive for any studio, and especially so for the minuscule crew behind the scenes at Obsidian Entertainment. From Brennecke’s perspective, this comes down to a genuine passion for creating content for Grounded and a dedicated, growing community flush with ideas and feedback. “We’ve had a lot of fun developing [Grounded] with the community, like being able to put stuff out there, seeing people’s reactions, adjust and iterate the content, and just keep expanding the yard… Building the community from something small and making it much larger over the course of the Early Access and Game Preview has been a lot of fun for me.”
Grounded has been an influential and important game for Obsidian Entertainment and its community, but it has also had lasting effects on the genre it calls home. The survival genre of video games, pioneered by classic games like Minecraft, is rapidly expanding with new titles and fresh ideas. Grounded not only pulls from this ocean of innovation, it’s also actively inspiring new directions in the genre. “It’s cool to see other games being inspired by Grounded; I never thought that was gonna happen,” Brennecke said.
“The [survival] genre is so young; Minecraft was probably one of the first big successes. Being able to inspire others and be inspired by others and start really fine-tuning the genre — Grounded is kind of like the ‘second generation’ of survival games. I think it’s really cool to see the evolution of these games and see what other ideas people can add to the genre.”
Ultimately, though, Grounded is not best represented solely by the team that develops it, the community that plays it, or the genre to which it belongs. “The game is so much fun. People are having fun playing it. We’re having fun making it. I think that shows in the work, when people are having fun making the game,” Brennecke said. It’s all these respective pieces coming together that create the remarkable, particular blend that is Grounded, and it’s all about having fun.
Exploring the Backyard and its stories
Being an open-world survival game, Grounded places a ton of power in the hands of players to choose how they play. Unlike many other survival games, though, Grounded is driven by a definitive story that players can explore at their own discretion. This focus on creating a comprehensive narrative experience was core to Grounded’s development. “One of our things with Grounded was we really wanted to hit on story,” Brennecke said. “For 1.0, that’s what we’re going to deliver, because our big thing at Obsidian Entertainment is story, world-building, and characters.”
So far, players have only had access to bits and pieces of Grounded’s stories — threads that hint at the complete picture. On Sept. 27, that’s all set to change, Brennecke told me, “With the 1.0 update, we’ve been revising, changing, and tuning that [story] presentation, and making sure that all those bits come together in a really satisfying way at the end of the game — All the mysteries that players kind of keyed in on even two years ago. There are a lot of mysteries that were presented, like, ‘Why are the kids in the yard?’; ‘Who put them there?’; and, ‘How the heck are they going to get home?'”
In Grounded, players will take control of one of four teenagers that have been shrunk down to the size of insects and cast into the dangerous wilderness of a suburban backyard, bereft of their memories and a way back home. It’s up to players to unravel the mysteries of the Backyard and discover how to return home — and to their original size. This unique focus on the story led to new challenges that Obisidian Entertainment had to overcome.
“[Grounded’s story] is definitely unusual, and kind of goes back to the experimental stuff. How do you do that in multiplayer, and how do you make that a satisfying narrative?” Brennecke explained. “It’s something that we’ve been really working on, to make sure that you can play through in co-op, and that all the players are having fun with the game. We learned a lot of lessons throughout the development of Grounded, about what works and what doesn’t work, because that’s kind of new to us at Obsidian Entertainment.”
Grounded’s campaign isn’t special just because it provides an obvious narrative path for players to follow. The Backyard is packed from end to end with a divergent array of environments, areas, and life, and all of it brings something important to the table. “We want the player to tell their own story… That’s one of the reasons why we wanted to have this living, breathing yard,” Brennecke said. “All these insects are actually doing their own thing; you can encounter these battles of two insects fighting each other or an insect hunting for food, and you might follow them and see where they go. All these kinds of things organically happen… and I think that’s super powerful. That’s really shareable, and it’s something that is a unique experience to yourself.”
“Even when I play, I encounter stuff that our design team put in, like little side dungeon areas, for the very first time,” Brennecke continued. “There’s a lot of small stories that those designers can tell in those small dungeons. One of my favorite examples is… a little side story about a hamster that the Tully family had. If you’re paying attention to a lot of the visual storytelling clues, you can walk through what happened to this hamster. We have a little gravestone out there for Dan the Hamster… You can really put together the Tully family, and who these people are that own this place.” While players explore Grounded’s narrative and try to find their way back home, they’re also collecting stories of the Backyard, the Tully family, and everything else that touches upon the world of Grounded.
Exploring this vibrant and gorgeous world can also be daunting and, sometimes, genuinely terrifying. Idyllic and peaceful moments in Grounded can be suddenly interrupted by unsettling encounters, further adding to the depth of Grounded’s diverse world. When questioned about this, Brennecke was quick to agree, “[Grounded’s atmosphere] is very intentional. It’s one of those things that we talk about on the team. We have a couple of names for them, but most of the time we call them ‘spook zones,’ where we wanna create these horrifying moments, because that creates the tension that you need to make a cool experience and those memorable moments; we have the Brood Mother Den, for example, or some of those spider dens.”
“We really wanted to create that contrast between being out there in this beautiful yard with a lot of green and really cool looking insects that you can see from a unique perspective… Because you need those moments of beauty and serenity to really make that contrast feel emotional,” Brennecke finished. In Grounded, players get to choose if they simply want to survive, if they want to be challenged, or if they want to witness every scrap of story content there is to discover.
Looking ahead to the future
Grounded has seen innumerable alterations since its debut over two years ago, and it’s now a short hop away from being a fully realized game. For the Grounded team, the anticipation is palpable. “We’re just really excited about having the entire yard finished — being able to finish the storyline of Grounded and share that with the rest of the world,” Brennecke said. “We’ve been working on it for a long time… The team is really looking forward to seeing people’s reactions to the entire world and storyline that we’ve made with Grounded.”
All eyes are looking forward to Sept. 27, when the positively gargantuan 1.0 content update declares Grounded as a feature-complete game, but it’s still impossible not to wonder what the Grounded team is planning for the future. Brennecke couldn’t outright confirm anything, but the outlook is positive for Grounded players that don’t wish to see the journey end here. “Right now, we’re 100% focused on 1.0. We want to make that the best experience possible,” Brennecke cautioned.
“We’ll see what happens after 1.0; I would love to continue to work on Grounded, as long as people are playing and enjoying it,” Brennecke continued. “I know there are so many ideas that the team has, and the community has, for how to improve Grounded… We’ve seen a lot of success with our previous titles with post-launch support, so I’m sure we’re gonna be continuing to work on Grounded.”
For now, Grounded players will have their hands full exploring the full game, especially with the 1.0 update bringing an all-new area and the complete story. According to Brennecke, this is the time for players that previously joined the Backyard to return, “If you played early on, especially two years ago, the entire yard is explorable now. There are so many unique environments, such as the Pond, the Sandbox, and the whole Upper Yard — There are a lot of cool unique areas to explore up there. A lot of people that played, especially for the first couple months, never got to experience a lot of that stuff. Follow the story; there are a lot of bread crumbs that we have in the game, if you want a more story-driven experience… I think that’s a really cool and unique survival experience.”
For new players excited to dive into Grounded, or those who are interested but are on the fence, Brennecke had more words of encouragement, “Even if you’re not a survival player, check out Grounded. We pride ourselves in making sure that we have good tutorials; we have a good onboarding experience. It’s definitely a unique type of survival game with a really cool storyline, really cool characters. Play through with a friend, too, because the game is so much better with a friend. Surviving is just more fun when you do it together, and you can get in a lot of fun experiences. You can fine-tune the experience; you can fine-tune the difficulty and really make the game your own — If you want to play the game without the storyline, you can do that; if you want to play it with just base building and get all the recipes right off the bat, you can do that, too.”
There are scarcely words that can describe my excitement for Grounded’s full release, which is looking to be one of the biggest launches of the year for Xbox Game Studios. Obsidian Entertainment’s distinctive survival game has everything it needs to become one of the best Xbox games. Being a first-party Xbox title, it also stands a fantastic chance of repeating the same on Xbox Game Pass. I’ve adored following Grounded’s journey so far, and I can’t wait to dive into the complete game.
Grounded officially releases on Sept. 27, 2022 alongside its 1.0 content update, and will be available on Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC, Xbox and PC Game Pass, and Xbox Cloud Gaming. The full game will retail for $40, but players can buy the Early Access or Game Preview version for $30 and be updated to the final version for free.