The lights are on
We caught up with Interplay co-founder and Wasteland 2 mastermind Brian Fargo recently to get his thoughts on the evolution of the game industry, post-apocalyptic hellscapes, and Kickstarter’s strengths and weaknesses.
When you’re done with this, be sure to check out our Classic GI section from the recent July book, which features much more from Fargo on the original title itself.
How did we get to this point, where what was once a successful franchise is ignored by publishers and has to go to Kickstarter to get funded?
We were doing these products for Electronic Arts. We were surviving, but we weren’t making much money…. We had had hit after hit after hit, and I said I had to change my business model, because this was as good as it gets at the time. So I decided to become a publisher, and one of my first games was Battle Chess. I went to Electronic Arts and said, “I’d like to keep doing Wasteland.” They said, “Well, it’s our trademark, and if you want to do it you have to do it for us.” I wasn’t making money doing that, so it really made no sense. I then got Interplay rolling as a standalone publisher…and I continued to pester them, asking if there was any chance they’d let it go. The answer was pretty consistently “no.” So finally, I said, “Fine. We’ll just do our own Wasteland.” And that’s when I kicked off Fallout.
Then finally in the early 2000s I left Interplay, and now I had neither Fallout nor Wasteland, and so I was a man without a post-apocalyptic world. I was able to work a deal out where I got the trademark to Wasteland. I said, “Okay, I’m finally going to do this thing!” I went out and pitched the idea, and I didn’t really get anywhere, and I was surprised. And then Fallout 3 came out and sold four or five million copies. So I went and hired one of the co-creaters of Fallout, Jason Anderson, I got Mike Stackpole aboard again, and I [personally] had produced both products. I went out, and I went into my pitch meetings and said, “Okay guys, this pitch is as good as it gets. I will never come to you with a better one.”
I got nowhere. I didn’t even get to a point where people would question the budget or anything; it was just a complete pass for different reasons. They wanted to do their own properties, or they didn’t want to do a role-playing game and compete against BioWare, or whatever. Every excuse was completely different. I was surprised; I was a publisher once and I thought, “If someone came to me with this I’d do it in two seconds.” But over the years I continued to hear from fans that wanted it made.
Kickstarter had been around, but I’d never focused on it because of the size of the deals. But then boom, Tim Schafer does a million dollars in 24 hours, and that got me thinking. The fans were right in sync with me, saying, “Hey Brian, this could be the chance to do a Wasteland sequel finally.” I pretty much dropped everything at that point because I saw an opportunity with Kickstarter that this could be the thing that saves the middle-size developer.
You’ve got this huge gap now. You’ve got the big triple-A developers, who typically have these housekeeping deals with the publishers where they’ll keep feeding them these 10-30 million-dollar projects and keeping them alive. Then you’ve got the small little indies doing their stuff, which is great, but they’re just two or three or four or five people. When I say mid-sized, I mean 15-20 people. I’m not talking about a huge company. I saw [Kickstarter] as a way to save the mid-sized developer, us included, so I dropped everything and jumped on it.
I worked with the fans day one. The way we made this happen is a microcosm of how the product is going to happen. I didn’t just invent the tiers and throw it out there; I set up a whole bulletin board system and forums and then threw the tiers at them and said, “What do you guys think?” I went back and forth with the fans, triangulating on what the right tiers were. And thank god I did, because there are a lot of counter-intuitive things that you wouldn’t see coming if you hadn’t worked with the fans…It’s been successful, and I’m going to continue that same communication throughout the entire process.
For the last decade or so, European studios have largely been the caretakers of the legacy of Western RPG design. Now we're seeing more American developers going back to their roots. Why do you think that is?
It’s been bubbling under the surface for some time. There’s been a lot of frustration about where the genre has been going. The console is a different kind of experience, and a lot of effort in my opinion has been on dumbing things down. I find on the PC side there’s no effort dumbing things down [laughs]. The audience likes to be treated like they’re intelligent, and I’ve always tried to take that approach. Even when we used to do Wasteland or Bard’s Tale – our audience was much younger then than it is now, but we would always treat them like they were smart. They always figured things out. We’d find people that could go through our games the first time faster than we could having played them a hundred times.
Are we seeing a renaissance in so-called old-school games, like the long list of indie PC titles and things like Dark Souls and the XCOM reboot, as well as Wasteland 2?
I think people are sick of the “re-imagining.” Where there’s a classic title and it gets re-imagined. It becomes a first-person shooter, for example, where it had been a tactical top-down game. People pretty consistently have said that they don’t want that. There was something about that earlier product that they loved, and they want that back. They don’t want it re-imagined in any way.
Do you worry about being perceived as Fallout Junior, as ironic as that would be?
One of the best thing about doing a Kickstarter project is [people ask me], do I worry about attracting the new audience, the young audience, the mass audience. And my answer is always the same, which is, “I don’t care.” Because my fans have told me what they want. I’m making this game for them. These backers who gave me the money – I know what they want, and I’m going to be communicating with them throughout. We’re going to make a kick-ass top-down, isometric, turn-based game with cause and effect, post-apocalyptic, gritty, mature-rated, warped sense of humor. If I do a good job of that, I believe the new people will find me. Whether they think I’m Fallout Junior or not – it’s ironic – but let them think what they want. To me, I just have to create this core experience and let the chips fall where they may.
Do you worry at all about the vision of the designers and the developers getting distorted by this audience participation in the development cycle?
That is another very common question I get, and no, I don’t. Because we all have versions of it, you know. Even doing the tiers, right? I’ll give you an example which was early on we said, “How about we give the backers a special ability that non-backers don’t get?” Well that sounds pretty good on paper, right? Isn’t that cool? Guess what? They hated it! They hated it. They want the same experience for everyone and they don’t want to change for them or for anyone, even if it gives them a benefit. Now to me, that is slightly counter-intuitive, but I understood where they were coming from. And we didn’t do it, and I am glad we didn’t do it. Now if you take that extrapolation to the game design there are lots of things like that which are minor in the details which they have a very strong reaction to. I think as long as you are working with them on broad strokes type stuff, they kind of know what the product is, but if I was going to introduce something new or radical or go for a graphic look that is completely different than what they are expecting, then we need to be in communication with them.
Now once we have established those key points, we’ll go silent for a little while, but then we go into beta test, right? Well what is beta test? It is just audience participation. I don’t think Blizzard is afraid to do beta test. I don’t think Valve is afraid to do beta test. And they have to make changes based upon that input. So we’re not going to get in there in the beginning and say "Do you like the way this sentence reads?" you know? "Do you like the way this music sounds?" We’re not going to go there. We’re not going to go into every nuance of the detail. But they are going to get their input on the first pass, which is the broad-stroke vision of it all, and then on the second pass they are going to get in on the specifics of the game and majority rules. You know, if I put a – even if it is a song and 85 percent of people chime in and go, “We hate that song,” well, why fight it, right? There is no point. But I find that when I work with the fans as a whole, they are pretty smart. There are always the outliers that say things that you can’t do, but as a whole I find them to be very smart and they tend to fall in the places where I think they are. I’d say 80 to 90 percent of the time my instincts are kind of in line with where I thought they’d be, but then there’s the things like I mentioned earlier about “Don’t give us something extra,” little things like that which catch me off-guard. And again, I don’t think that affects the experience negatively in anyway.
Are there any modern RPG player expectation that are counter to the core of Wasteland?
That’s so hard for me, because I’ve been so in tune with this crowd that they haven’t been chiming in on some of the newer stuff. I know that, for example, I hear a lot of negative things about focusing on relationships. I think that is something that is more popular now, and it certainly was not popular back then, and there is kind of a negative backlash to focusing on the relationships. There can be a lot of ways of describing what that means, but my audience is saying don’t do it. So, I don’t know what thing I have to think of that they do today, because again, you know I’ve really been trying to stay close to the street on this.
Sure, that makes sense. The last question I have for you on this is when I will be able to give you my money for the Bard’s Tale Kickstarter for a proper Bard’s Tale game?
You know what, for now, we don’t want to put even one ounce of our effort into thinking about anything else yet, because you know, I feel more responsibility and pressure to deliver on this game than anything I have ever done before. So not only does how it fares affect me personally, but also for other people. Because me and Tim [Schafer] are very high profile on this and if we do a great product it is going to make it easier for people down the road to succeed on their Kickstarter project. We don’t want to be the guys that people point to and go, “Well, look what happened there.” That would be bad for everyone.