Brian Fargo talks Wasteland 3, Bard’s Tale IV and Torment
Legendary Wasteland director, Fallout producer and CEO of inXile Entertainment Brian Fargo tells us how he plans to reclaim the RPG crown
Between Torment: Tides Of Numenera, The Bard’s Tale IV and Wasteland 3, would it be fair to say that you’re a pretty busy guy these days?
Yeah, you could say that! [laughter] Ever since we successfully crowdfunded Wasteland 2 and shipped it, well, it really changed our company and opened up opportunities for us to do more products. It has let us get back in the saddle and start doing the stuff that we love to do. I’m very fortunate.
It has now been five years since inXile launched that Wasteland 2 crowdfunding campaign, would you say the studio has changed much in that time?
Greatly so! Before the campaign we were doing some development work for publishers, as you know, and that’s a difficult thing, but that [process] allowed us to regroup. With titles that are crowdfunded, as soon as we ship them, we start to see the revenues right away. Then we can take whatever we make, put some money in the bank, and reinvest it into things like making Torment: Tides Of Numenera or The Bard’s Tale IV even better, or we can get ready for crowdfunded campaigns like Wasteland 3.
It has completely changed our business. This year should be really interesting for us because we went through 2016 without shipping a game and that’s rough; most people find it very difficult to make it through a year without shipping a new title. We are roaring into 2017 with revenues right away, so next year should be very positive for us too.
Was it a conscious decision to keep Torment out of the congested winter release window?
That was definitely a thought: whether or not we should really crank and get Torment out in December, but, to me, we’ve already worked this long on it, let’s just keep tightening it up. There’s a lot of expectations being put on Torment too, especially as Planescape: Torment (1999) was – at least for some people – considered to be one of the best role-playing games ever made. We were hyper sensitive to making this one special and to not feel like any game you’ve ever played before.
Isn’t that a pretty high bar to set for yourself?
[Laughter] It is, it is! Fortunately we did put the game out in early access and the response has been great, really positive. It’s definitely a game where you aren’t going to go, “Ugh, been here and done that.” It’s unique and strange in its own way, without being derivative, and I’m really happy with it.
Torment’s crowdfunding campaign began three years ago, back in 2013, and it then missed its original 2014 release window. Would you say that development has been particularly challenging?
Yeah it has been challenging, though I think every game that I have ever worked on has been challenging [laughter]. There’s a war story behind every single game, and that’s something that most developers will tell you. If there is any thing that we do, it’s that we tend to be overly ambitious; we shoot for the Moon and then that means I have to scale it back. [Torment] is one where the writers just went nuts!
This thing is like 1.2 million words and that was not the word count that we planned on doing, it was supposed to be half that. The writers brought double in and then it was a case of, well, how do we wrangle this thing together? It’s a lot of moving parts and these games are so big that even the leads, responsible for corralling all the writers and getting it all in – George (Ziets) and Colin (McComb) – neither of those two guys could tell you everything that is in the game, they are just that big.
InXile Entertainment seems to have a team that is as passionate and committed to making games as the fans that want to play it are, that must help?
These guys aren’t just committed to the franchise but to the craft of role-playing games. If you think about the experience that George, Colin, Gavin (Jurgens-Fyhrie) and Chris Avellone have had, I mean they go back decades. They’ve played everything; they sit around philosophising on what makes a great role-playing game and discussing writing styles; they really make an art out of it.
Crowdfunding has become a core part of inXile Entertainment’s identity, would you say you’ve learned any key lessons in terms of communicating with and updating your fans?
Yeah, we have. When you launch a Kickstarter campaign – well, any kind of crowdfunding campaign – you’re supposed know the release date before you even start or know the scope of the project, which would be nuts at a traditional company.
A publisher won’t give you a date before they are at alpha or beta, much less before they began development. And, with Wasteland 2, we learned that we would have people hammering us on the dates. So during the campaign for Torment – as the budget went up – we said, “Hey, you know that original date? Well we are making the scope of the game larger, so ignore that.” We were constantly trying to stay on top of expectations like that.
Has Early Access changed the way or timing in which you present your games to the public?
Early Access has been great for us. I would be frightened to put a game out for which I didn’t have lots of people looking at it and banging on, giving us their impressions. You begin to see patterns of things, right? There are always extreme views one way or the other, of the ways things should be, but you will start to see patterns of things that people do and don’t like. I like that, and it has been wonderful in helping us know when we are on point and when we are not.
It’s interesting, isn’t it? Not only are you now able to get broad feedback at any stage in development, but you are also able to watch players live through YouTube and Twitch.
We would actually watch people play Wasteland 2 and Torment on live streams. We would all huddle around on our computers and watch them play, it is like the best QA group ever because they weren’t being paid to do it. There isn’t anything affecting them to try to be nice or react in any particular way; we always glean a lot of value out of that.
Development has changed so much since the Nineties. Have you started taking Early Access and live streams into account when making your marketing plans?
You mentioned the Nineties, well, when we made Fallout, we sort of just threw it out there and then you hope, you cross your fingers, that you nailed it. And then you get whatever feedback you got and whatever you got it was too late to implement it. So I always described this process as I’m moving the feedback that I used get post-launch to pre-launch so that I can actually do something about it. I would feel completely naked throwing a game out there with no outside feedback, so I’ll do, at all costs, whatever I can do to get that feedback.
Torment is the first of inXile’s games to be released this year. Do you have any hopes for how it’ll be received by fans?
Oh gosh [laughter]. I mean, obviously, we are hoping it is going to be received really well. It’s a single-player role-playing game and a lot of the world has gone towards multiplayer, to create-your-own and open-world [adventures]. This is a very different game from its narrative structure to… just about everything else!
I think it will perform well, I don’t think it will do poorly. But, for us, we don’t need a huge success to survive, we just need, like, a mid-level success. More importantly, I’m hoping it raises the profile of our company as a quality game creator. That’s the most important thing, right? That people look at your company and say, “These guys did another great piece of work, we like and we trust these guys.” That’s the most valuable thing that you could have in this business, and we want that more than anything.
The reaction to Wasteland 2 seems to have established this nicely. It wasn’t just fuelled by nostalgia either; there seemed to be a lot of catharsis from the community around it too.
When I was managing Wasteland 2 I felt that there were some other crowdfunding projects that outlined whatever they were going to do and then they got it out – they checked the boxes – but that was kind of it, it was minimal. I felt like we had to do more than just check the bare minimum boxes, we just had to. I pushed on that one very hard and Torment is the same way. I don’t want anybody that backed it to say, “Yeahhh, they did it, but it isn’t very inspiring.” That is not the take away that I want.
How has the structure of the studio adapted to having multiple games in active development?
We’ve always had a game and a quarter going on and now we’ve got two-plus games going at a time, so we’ve added on some new talent. If you look at the visuals for The Bard’s Tale IV and Wasteland 3 I think we are really finally starting to show off what we are able to do – our VFX department is doing just some amazing stuff. Isometric is great, but it isn’t as immersive; that’s why we are working to bring the camera down [to first-person] in Wasteland 3 during the key moments in conversations and cut-scenes, to make the world more impactful. You’re starting to see what some of our new talent can do, we have a very passionate group of people.
Speaking of The Bard’s Tale IV, how is development progressing? InXile seems to have been keeping it close to the chest.
We’ve held back showing what we are doing with the combat system and I’m really happy with it – both from a visual style and a completely unique way to approach it. There’s a core group of people that would be very happy if it were exactly the same as the first one – attack, attack, attack, defend, defend, defend, and then you sat back and watched to see what happened. But we don’t think that exact play works in today’s marketplace; we play modern games, it’s not like we’ve been in a cryochamber since the Nineties and woke up and said, “What are we going to do?”
We sit around playing Skyrim, Hearthstone, Witcher and all of these other projects, and we want to be right there with them, but in our own unique way. But we also know that party-based combat is important, that turn or phase-based combat is important; so we take all the elements and we say those things from Bard’s Tale, those we have to do, but I wonder if we can put them in another form that moves along faster, that is visually more interesting, and that’s what we’ve done. It is very unique, we’re going to show it [soon]. When people see and understand it, when they see how much depth there is to the combat and how much thought is going to be involved, I think they are really going to appreciate it.
Is the combat the element of the game that you are the most proud of then?
Yeah, I would say so. Like I said, it is very clever. If my brain is not engaged by the systems then I’m checked out. If I end up having to do the same thing every single time, in every instance of combat, then I’m going to be checked out. I think that’s why people love Dark Souls, because you’re constantly changing your tactics to deal with stuff. Well, we are the same way. You’ll need to come at [encounters] in a different way each time because you are going to get slaughtered if you take a typical approach. When you begin to feel and think that way, I begin to feel like it is mission accomplished because now you are using your own unique strategy and your brain to combat – no pun intended – these situations.
How would you compare The Bard’s Tale IV to Wasteland 2 and what’s coming with Torment? Are they going to be of a similar size and scope?
From a purely gameplay hours perspective? It is less ambitious, because with these games – with dungeon crawls – it doesn’t have the same reading component and the same slow motion component of those products. It’s still a solid role-playing game, hour wise, but it just isn’t going to be half what those games are. It is, however, visually more ambitious than those two, because of the nature of where the camera is at, I think, and we will see what other people have to say. But I think it is right up there with some of the triple-A visuals you see out there.
Is it dangerous to begin comparing yourself to triple-A releases, considering the size of your studio and comparatively small budgets you attach to projects?
We are always really trying to push the envelope of the art of what we are doing. We’ll always talk about everything that is being done with our RPGs; the innovations, things we are doing psychologically or mechanically that haven’t been done before or things we are just barely scratching the surface of… we aren’t a factory at all.
Though I do remember one reviewer was knocking down a review score a little bit – I think it was for Wasteland 2 – because he said, “Well I have to compare it to Call Of Duty,” [laughter]. I said, “Well, you know that we are isometric and don’t spend a fraction [of the budget], right?” And he says, “Yeah, but I have no choice.” I’ll never, ever get that.
That’s a curious decision. We tend to be of the opinion that you compare games against their like…
Well, we would prefer that [laughter]. But with our new products hopefully we are closing the gap. We can debate whether it is fair or not but at least we are closing the gap.
What is your biggest ambition with regard to Wasteland 3?
I’d like the post-apocalyptic RPG crown back [laughter]. I think there is an opportunity with what we are doing with the Wasteland series to really cement our affinity to that little genre, which I grew up with and loved. I think the Fallout series has perhaps become a little too monster oriented. With me, I’m more into The Road, Swansong and The Stand; I like those aspects of civilisation breaking down and what it means from a real personal, human level, I find that fascinating. And so Wasteland 3 is more focused on that than, say, monsters – and of course we do have sci-fi elements because that’s what the Wasteland series is about. Then we have the multiplayer aspect, which is going to be great and we are going to do some super clever stuff with that.
The multiplayer in Wasteland 3 looks like it has the potential to be incredibly mischievous…
What we find is that most people, when they play with a friend, don’t want to destroy the experience for the other person, they just want to tweak it a little – maybe get them arrested or thrown in prison or something, but they don’t want to kill them off.
It would look like that RPG crown you want back is very much within your reach then?
We are really trying to deliver on [Wasteland 3] and, like I said, isometric is great for combat but it… in our reveal trailer, you’ve seen that conversation [in first-person] with Fish-Lips and it changes everything. Your connection to that guy changes everything and so when combat goes back [to isometric], that person is far more real now that you’ve seen them up close and heard their voice; that changes the dynamic and that’s what the immersion aspects of first to third person does for you.
It’s the same reason that Blizzard spends millions of dollars on those opening movies, because its characters become more real… they have a whole different vibe having seen [them] in the opening movies.
The tradition with sequels has always been to go bigger and go bolder, but is there a risk of a shortfall when you’re relying so heavily on crowdfunding to dictate a budget?
I think that a lot of things go wrong with [sequels] when they try to go bigger… I think that a lot of projects can go sideways in this [mentality]. With Wasteland 3, we aren’t making it as big as Wasteland 2; only like five per cent of players finished Wasteland 2, so I’d rather have less maps and go far more detailed and tighter than I would to go bigger and bolder, I don’t think that buys you anything. But the bigger part for us is the visuals and that is things like the camera coming down for conversations, but that’s sort of a different attack.
I think the mistake people often make is that they say,“Well now we need twice as many weapons, twice as many maps, twice as many…” But it’s the personality that you remember, it’s the moments and the charm; it’s the craft that makes these things special, not the size. We are going much narrower, tighter and smarter.
How important do you think visual fidelity actually is? It seems to be a big focus for your next three games?
[There is] a new generation of people, that’s why we need to improve the visuals. They aren’t going to be all nostalgic about it, they aren’t going to give us a pass; we better show some better stuff because all they are going to know is Witcher or Dark Souls. They will allow a certain amount of variation – visually speaking – but the closer the gap the more we are likely to get the audience to want these things. We want to sell the most units, and why do we want to sell more units? So that we can make more products!
This was one thing that happened with our crowd early on, where we asked what was important and they said, “Well we want a lot of attributes, conversations and depth, etc,” and they’ll put visuals at the bottom. But as soon as we ship the game, the first thing they complain about is any visual problems, and the graphics. It’s always there, even if people won’t really admit it.
Do you think the renewed success of classic isometric RPGs is simply a current trend in gaming or an inevitability?
I don’t see these going away; clearly we have tapped a nerve. I think Larian Studios has had the most success, I think they have sold over 1 million copies of Divinity: Original Sin, and I don’t see any end in sight. Clearly they are a fun experience and I don’t see that dropping off; the only reason they ever went away is because the publishers wouldn’t fund them, not because the audience didn’t want them – that was the whole premise for us wanting to do this. They’ve never gone away. We just had a moment where there were people like myself, and Obsidian, who wanted to make the games and we had a whole bunch of consumers who wanted the games, but then you had either a retailer or a publisher standing in our way. Thankfully, digital got rid of the retailer and crowdfunding got rid of the publisher; now we are back in business.