Nick Horth talks all things Wasteland 2 with game director and industry legend Brian Fargo
05 August 2014 | By Import
In a bumper year for RPGs, inXile's post-apocalyptic Wasteland 2 might just be the biggest of the lot - at least in terms of content. From the noble Ranger Citadel in the middle of the Arizona desert to the cult-crazy streets of L.A, you'll travel along with your band of plucky Rangers causing just about as much chaos as you solve. That's if you don't decide to march straight into Ranger HQ and play out the hostile takeover. Interesting choices with real consequences, the developers promise, and thus a whole bunch of content you may never even see. Wasteland 2 is an ambitious game, and recently I got the chance to chat with director and inXile founder Brian Fargo about (almost) every aspect of it.
Strategy Informer: When you first began the Wasteland 2 project, what was it like getting some of the old Black Isle team back together?
Brian Fargo: Well, I think they were a little surprised to hear from me. Partly surprised and probably partly “not again”, because for a decade I'm like “okay, I got this thing, will you be involved?” and so I'd wind them up saying “I'm going to do this, I'm going to use your name, we're really going to do it”. So this goes on for around ten years with me sounding like I'm completely full of shit, right? Then I finally sent them the script I wanted to do, and they'd rewrite the script eight different ways, and it was like, as some people have said, putting the band back together – but the band was sceptical (laughs).
Strategy Informer: Was the game always going to be modernised in this way – the top-down isometric RPG?
Brian Fargo: One of the interesting things is... ranged and tactical combat were a big part of the first game, now the way we handled it we'd say “enemy in sight at forty feet, fifty feet” so you'd know where they were. Also, you could split your party up during the game – it was cumbersome to do so but you could. That whole mechanic was like a crude XCOM, you know? It wanted to be that but it couldn't. We knew this (Wasteland 2) had to be that kind of the game, because we had to do it correctly. Of course when XCOM (Enemy Unknown) came out that completely validated that, you know, it was a big success, people loved it, they took that tactical approach to combat to another level. So it seemed perfectly right. I did an interview with Matt Chat - he does kind of hardcore gamer interviews, podcast stuff, so anyway, and this was a couple years before the Kickstarter – he said “if you were to do another Wasteland game, what would it be like today?”. You can actually see me spitballing in my mind, and I actually describe pretty much what we're doing here, you know tactical combat, all that stuff. He kind of forced me on camera to think about it, and it's kind of funny that that's pretty much what we're doing now.
Strategy Informer:Wasteland 2 is a really big game, and you're promising a huge variety of possible decisions and outcomes; when you're writing, how do you make sure everything fits and doesn't contradict with everything else?
Brian Fargo: Oh, every other day we have to sit down and go over everything and talk about it. But again, we encourage and teach our guys how to create, and once they've got it they take the ball and run with it. So once we've defined that stuff they'll just come up with cool stuff all the time. If it's questionable they might say “oh is this too dark?” Answer's usually no (laughs). But they run it by us and we'll say “no, no, that's okay”, “is this too obscure?”, “no, no, probably not.” So we encourage them to take the ball and run with it, which is kind of the beauty of it. I could never do this stuff with a big publisher for one reason; they have this language in the contract which says “if you put anything in that we don't know about, we can sue you for the value of your company”. Basically they could bankrupt me, right? I could never stick to that in this, because there's nothing but stuff in this that I don't have a clue about. It's pretty funny.
Strategy Informer: What was the thinking behind having a party of four player-created characters instead of just the one?
Brian Fargo: For me that's how I grew up playing role-playing games, when we would play Dungeons & Dragons typically I would have at least more than one. I'd have like, my mage and my monk or something – each one of us would have a couple characters, very rarely was it just one person. Then, of course, Wizardry was always party-based, always with a group of people, Bard's Tale was six guys plus a guy you could summon in. I guess I've always been used to that kind of game. It's a narrative... the difference is that a single person has a very strong personality, whereas when you're a party of different characters I have no idea what you've created at all so it's a very different kind of a task. Certainly from a tactical perspective it's great, and I love that people fall in love with their characters, that's my favourite part. We try to give everyone as much personality as we can so that you feel bad when anything happens to them.
Strategy Informer:Wasteland 2 can be pretty tough, and it looks like players will hit the dirt a lot. How does death work in the game?
Brian Fargo: Yes and no. If you get knocked to below zero hit-points you start to die slowly, but you have the ability if you've got a surgeon to go and revive them. You have a period of time to revive them before they basically die. If you run out of medpacks and things that go along with your skills, that person's going to bleed out and die and that'll be it. So you do have your chance, but once they're dead they're out. Now you've still got those other guys back at Ranger Citadel who are actually hoping one of you will die so they can replace them! So in reality I know most people will restore their game and try that bit again, but still, if he dies he dies. In the old game if someone died we go okay, and we'd write it off the disk – he's really, really dead. Bang. Games were more punishing back then.
Strategy Informer: So no plans to bring that hardcore side back with an Ironman mode?
Brian Fargo: No, no. Well, I don't know exactly what the guys have there, they're working on an extreme difficulty mode called 'Supreme Jerk Mode' actually, but I don't know – there's been a lot of speculation so I shouldn't say 'never' on that, because there's still some talk about how punishing that would be. Gamers are wussies these days, you know? Back then you couldn't save game anywhere and when you died you died.
Strategy Informer: I'm ashamed to say I'm one of the wussies – my XCOM Ironman save just involved a lot of quitting to desktop every time someone I really liked died.
Brian Fargo: That's all you're doing, right? Exactly, exactly. Well you know the one thing we do here to keep you on your toes from an attention perspective, is we have these events, these 'cause' events where the 'effect' event is hours apart in game time. So you go do something, then you find out three hours later that that's what it did – what are you gonna do? Go back three hours? No, you're stuck with it. Never makes it unwinnable, but it makes you think about yourself, like you can't just reload, reload, reload. We don't let you get away with that.
Strategy Informer: Seem like that's a recurring theme, kind of messing with the player? Not in an unfair way, but punishing them if they play in a 'gamey' way.
Brian Fargo: Right, right. Well, sometimes we let them game us, like “okay you can do that if it makes you feel good and you're having a good time”, we're okay with that. Other times we say “no, no, no, you need to be punished for that” (laughs).
Strategy Informer: In terms of NPCs, how in-depth are their back-stories and quests and so on?
Brian Fargo: Well let's see. First off they all have their own personality, every one of them has a big script. Which again is tricky because if you think of the entire game, each one of them has 'barks' throughout the entire product, and we don't know which one you have. And in some cases the whole script changes. One of our characters, Vulture Cry, is a woman that talks like a Native American, like Tonto, but she's completely bullshitting you. If you catch her out on that her script changes and she just talks like a normal person. She acts like a stereotypical 'Indian', you know, but she's just trying to bullshit you which is pretty funny. So they all have their own personality, maybe not a quest per se but they all want to join you for whatever reasons, but some of them leave throughout the game also. Some of them just say “I''ve come with you this far, but I'm off now”, so they come in and out rather than that typical thing of “I'll join you if you take me on a quest”. There's a little bit of that, but it's more about getting other interesting characters in your party making it an escort mission.
Strategy Informer: Like how you get Angie joining you near the start who's a few levels higher than you. She never feels like she's just following you about, she has her own reasons instead.
Brian Fargo: Yeah, and then she leaves! After a while she says “okay, I've got to go back to the Citadel”. When she leaves, after she's been with you for fifteen hours – you miss her. Not only because she's good, but she's been talking to you the whole time and then she's just gone. You find yourself missing her.
Strategy Informer: You've talked about how you can leave the Rangers. I wondered if they only kick you out for being a psychopathic murderer, or if you can leave for ideological reasons rather than moral ones?
Brian Fargo: Well, not really. I guess you can play it how you want, but they only turn on you if act like a psychopath – they aren't going to kick you out if you failed a mission or didn't do it in the right way. Once you've gone rogue you've got to continue to go rogue, and you've got to continue... like there's other areas where you can kind of get way with it. There's one part where you don't save someone, you let him drown, and this guy just takes of running, okay? Now, you know he's a witness. You can shoot the guy in the back and no-one will know what happened. There's a couple of different places like that, so you can be an a-hole and get away with it, but you can't always get away with it.
Strategy Informer: If you do leave the Rangers you miss out Los Angeles, how does the game react to that decision apart from that change?
Brian Fargo: Well now what happens is they're now sending death squads after you, so you're now fighting a whole different group of people. So when you get random encounters now, it's a heavily armed group of Rangers out to kill your ass. You have to fight them off, and then the mission becomes 'kill or be killed'. By default it becomes “how do I take out the Rangers Citadel?”. So your goal is to take over the Citadel, kill Vargas and become the Ranger leader. There's another example in LA, that I actually like much better than the regular final ending; it's super dark and twisted, you have to be a real asshole, and the payoff is perfect. So perfect. And when you do it, if you're a normal human you're going to feel like crap about this, but if you take it all the way to its conclusion, what happened? It's so perfect.
Strategy Informer: The various weird cults you run into sound like a lot of fun– do they come into the story directly?
Brian Fargo: Oh yeah, everybody you hear on the radio you meet. Every single one. You've got to have a payoff for all that stuff, right? Two parts about the cults; so you're a Ranger, right? You're running around town trying to help people but no-one really knows who you are. Your trying to build a reputation. These cult guys, every time you do something they'll spin it into a bad thing - “oh, the Rangers just murdered someone again”, meanwhile you were trying to save someone, right? They keep twisting it, and then they get more aggressive later, they start killing people and leaving Ranger stuff at the scene. You'll get to a murder scene and there will be a Ranger star there written in blood. Just setting you up; it's completely irritating and it beats the hell out of you, because you're just trying to do the right thing. Finally knocking them off will be very satisfying. Actually I think it's very important that the bad guys... one of the things that I think games do badly is you meet the bad guy at the start, then you barely see him again until the end of the game. You're like “well he's not too bad, I didn't really see him do that much bad stuff”. That's like if in Star Wars you saw Darth Vader at the very beginning, and then you never saw him until right at then end when Luke kills him. You'd be like, “what was the point?”, right? We make sure the bad guys are constantly toying with you the whole game, so there's some real satisfaction when you finally off 'em.
Strategy Informer: Could you tell me a little about how weapon customisation works in the game?
Brian Fargo: So it's a whole mini-game unto itself. Firstly, when you shoot people they'll drop weapons they happen to be carrying, so you might find a rifle and it'll say there's a 20% chance to scrap for parts, so you can do that and maybe get a scope off of it. There's a chance you might damage or destroy the weapon, but if you get it off correctly you can then attach it to your own gun – it might give you an action point bonus or a critical hit bonus or whatever. So there's a whole crafting programme there where you need to strip and break down other weapons. Each weapon type has its own tree and you can add stuff onto it, so you can get like a bat with iron spikes, or wind it up with sticky tape to get one extra action point off it. That can be life or death sometimes, so absolutely there's loads of weapon and item customisation there.
Strategy Informer:Wasteland 2 uses a skill-based system, are all of those character skills going to come up in combat?
Brian Fargo: In combat? Well, the combat skills obviously are used automatically, but you can also use skills like computer use to reprogramme a robot to your side, you can use intimidation, there's a whole bunch of areas where you can use them in combat, we don't preclude you from using them. In reality most of it happens outside combat or before combat, but there are definitely moments where you can use those skills. You'll be using, like, your medical and surgical skills in combat guaranteed and you can run over to a door, lockpick it open and hide in there too, it's all useful.
Strategy Informer: Is there a process you use to make sure all skills are used equally throughout the game? Sometimes that doesn't happen in an RPG, and you're stuck with a useless skill.
Brian Fargo: Oh no, you can't do that. No, no all the skills are all useful, we make a very concentrated pass for each one. It'll be like 'demolitions and lockpicking week' and everybody will go through their maps and add it, we'll go through alarm disarming, safe-cracking, toaster repair, you name it. Every scripter is assigned that they have to put those skills in their levels, period. Because otherwise you'd be angry, right? You've put a bunch of points into it and it's never used. I'll tell you something funny, though. In the original Wasteland we had a skill called 'combat shooting', right? And it didn't do anything... People would ask what it did, work out that it didn't do anything. I had to eventually cop to it and admit that it was useless. It's in this game now, and it's the most powerful skill. You can't even get it until the very end, and you have this massively valuable skill that was completely worthless in the last one. That cracked us up.
Strategy Informer: How about ammo conservation? I noticed at the start that bullets are incredibly valuable items, but in a lot of games that gets thrown out of the window after a while.
Brian Fargo: We keep a bit of an eye on it, we don't want it to be where you think you can run around burning off clips one after another. No way you can do that. So it needs to be those moments when you decide to burn an entire clip have to be meaningful. That's what's funny sometimes in the game your guys waste ammo and it really pisses you off, because you know how hard it is. Angie will blast off six rounds and you'll be like “it's a rat, why'd you need to shoot it six times?”.
Strategy Informer: Or you do my thing, of trying to conserve ammo by punching flies and maggots. Didn't really work.
Brian Fargo: Oh right, yeah, there's definitely areas where I would use clubs and melee weapons to save your rounds, but then you get these pod guys who blow up when they die – then you realise all your tanks are worthless in that area. We keep you on your toes.
Strategy Informer: What about armour and weapons, how crazy do they get? Seems like, at least at the start, things don't get too ridiculous in terms of your equipment.
Brian Fargo: It gets more advanced. I mean you start with simple stuff, well you get laser weapons off the bat if you have the 'energy weapons' skill, so the way I look at the world is like... there's two parts of the world, right? One part is like the 1920s, where everything is thrown back in time and that's why they use the radios for communication. Pop culture is locked in the '80s no matter what, there's no entertainment media past that, so we've got a culture locked in the '80s with the technology of the '20s and '30s. Then, because of the singularity effect, remember this is a hundred years in the future, one group has a thousand years of technological advance and the other group have just stagnated. That's why you get these diverse things going on.
Strategy Informer: How do the basics of the game change once you travel out of the desert wastes to Los Angeles?
Brian Fargo: Well visually it feels complete different, you still have the world map but water is no longer an issue. That goes away. You still have the travel system but the play pattern is a little different - it's a little more like Fallout, you have a busier hub, more people, lots of quests and that sort of thing. With the cults there's a lot more radio chatter going on, it's weird. It's really weird. It's like LA really is, actually (laughs), super twisted and dark. Everybody's got their world-view they're trying to impress on people, so yeah, the tech and robots get more advanced – you get those huge scorpion robots there. It feels like the sequel, is what it feels like.
Strategy Informer: The radio is obviously a constant companion as you travel through the world. How many hours of audio did you record for that, and why is it important to the game?
Brian Fargo: Hours and hours. I'd have to add it up, but there's hours of stuff there. As I said, my favourite part is a lot of it is in reaction to what you're doing. That changes things, when you do something and you start to hear people on the radio talking about it, then you start to think about how you should be behaving in this world.
Strategy Informer: Last December you delayed Wasteland by a year, how has that extra 12 months been put to work on the game?
Brian Fargo: Well, you know it's funny. When people say to me “how about the game being late?” I always think, let's talk about being late for a second here. Because if you think about it, if you're a publisher, you would never give a release date before you started, right? Maybe after you hit alpha, but never before then. With Kickstarter, though, you give it up front. That's already odd. On top of that you're saying “we're going to give you a date for a game that we have no idea how big it is yet, because we don't know how much money we'll get”. So when triple the money we planned came in, we wanted the game to be even bigger, which made that initial date make even less sense than before. So yes, we're late, but what are you going to do? With that extra funding we don't want to make the same game we planned and just pocket that extra money, I don't want that, I want to do something big and ambitious. As long as you have the finance to get you there, which we had, you should try something special. So I didn't worry about that extra year, I knew we were going to create something twice as big and crazy as what we had originally. At the end of the day, when everybody gets this game I know I'll never hear about that delay again. No-one will say “oh yeah, it was brilliant but remember that delay?” That's not going to come up.
Strategy Informer: It seems like most games could probably do with a longer development time anyway.
Brian Fargo: Listen, if you gave me the choice of three months of pre-production and nine months of iteration versus nine months of pre-production and three months of iteration, you know which one I'm going to pick. It's all about the iteration – you're really not making the game until you're playing the game, that's when you know what's happening with your game. This last six months have been a great education. I've learned a lot from making a game in a sort of spectator sport environment, but I think the users have learned a lot about how much can be done in a small amount of time. We did that first update in December, and about a month later there were about a thousand things we fixed. Thousands of things have been fixed in the last six months, and when you're not working on systems any more, all you're doing is spit and polish and adding small things, it's amazing how fast things can happen. Early on you're just moulding the clay. When this latest version comes out, you know, we don't even like that they're playing the last one because this one is so much better. Our game is only as good as it is because we put it out last December, but we don't even think that version is representative at all of what we have now. That's why I think an Early Access review from six months ago doesn't even touch where we're at right now, but then that's just part of the process.
Strategy Informer: How have you found the crowd-funding process and Early Access in general? Is it a model you'd use again?
Brian Fargo: I can't even imagine not using it. The whole process has been great in terms of... when people put their money in something and say “we're going to support this and make this happen”, they get more passionate and connected in a totally different way. If you deliver they get the game at a cheaper price so that's a win for them, but the more important thing is they are totally engaged, so they helped us make this game so much better than it would have been otherwise. If I made this thing in a vacuum, with no outside help from the community, and gave me a whole other year, it still wouldn't be as good as it is now. It's all that feedback, those thousands of eyes looking for patterns and things, reminding you of the things you should do. Then I go on twitch and see people actually playing the game and watching their reactions, it's like being right there in their living room. You learn so much and there's just nothing to compare it to. It used to be you'd ship a game and then get all this feedback you wished you'd known a year ago, but now you've got it and you can react to it. For people who haven't played the game and are still waiting, their first experience will be so solid and super robust. I don't know how a studio like ours could not be thinking of using some form of this structure. It's really great.
Many thanks to Brian for speaking to us. Wasteland 2 is set to come out this year, with a recent blog post from the team suggesting a release date in the first couple of weeks of September. In the meantime Early Access users have just received a huge update for their game which fixes a bunch of bugs and adds some new features for convenience.