Since the early 2000s, Brian Fargo – the founder of Interplay, CEO of InXile and a driving force behind some of the most celebrated gaming titles of the 90s – had been comparatively quiet on the games front. During these years that he himself calls, ‘the dark ages of gaming’, it seems he spent a lot of time trying and failing to have intelligent conversations with large games publishers about story-driven single-player RPGs.
Then in 2012, Tim Schafer exploded on the front page of gaming news sites showing people that Kickstarter + games that people want = the money to do it. At last, sensing the opportunity to dive back into the post-apocalyptic world of his legendary 1988 RPG, Wasteland, Brian wasted (get it?!) little time in launching his own campaign for Wasteland 2. It was a massive success, gathering around $3 million. Soon after, he did it again to fund a sequel of the revered Planescape: Torment and this time brought in over $4 million. For many it was a thundering validation that there was indeed a huge demand for the types of games they’d always loved but had worried they’d never see again.
We spoke to the games industry veteran who has become an iconic of the gaming renaissance.
Strategy Informer: You dreamt of making Wasteland 2 for so long. How has your vision for the game changed over time?
Brian Fargo: When I think about all the things I’ve learned, not just from a game design perspective but from just living over the last 20 years, and I think Wasteland 2 is more mature, more nuanced and contains more philosophy and psychology than it would have if I’d made it 20 years ago.
I also think what gamers expect to see in a deep role-playing game has been ratcheted up since then. In a way, Wasteland was one of the first sandbox games where you have this narrative ripple effect. That’s been done several times since, Fallout did a great job of it, so now I feel the pressure to try and drive that state deeper into the ground in terms of how much meaningful choice and consequence we can have.
Strategy Informer: What makes a good role-playing game for you?
Brian Fargo: Choice and consequence has always been the most important thing for me, and that it has some meaning. It can’t be the magician’s trick where no matter what you choose you always end up in the exact same place; people see that quite quickly and then get let down that their choices don’t mean anything. For us it’s only a question of, ‘How deep can we go?’ You can’t take every single situation to its natural ridiculous conclusion because there are an infinite number of scenarios that could come out of any one thing, but we need to dive as deep as possible.
The other thing is that I’ve always been a big believer that the journey is the reward rather than just the conclusion. I want to have moral decisions where there is a trade off in a way that you really have to rack your brain as to whether that was the right decision or not; and then you see how those things play out.
One of the things we’re experimenting with in Wasteland 2, which I haven’t seen much of before, is thinking, ‘What does it mean for the game to end?’ I don’t mean like you die and it’s over. I mean something where the game finishes, it becomes something else and the credits roll. So we’ve been experimenting with having there be different end points depending on what you want to do.
I’m OK with there being one early ending where someone might miss another 40 hours of content and the game ends because they chose to take a particular path. We made it clear what would happen if you went down that particular line; and guess what? That’s the path you went down. The beauty of a role-playing game of course is that you get to replay it and try different things. To me, that is the fun part. I jokingly describe them as the non-heroic endings.
Strategy Informer: With all that stuff going on and all the talent you have to manage, it must be tough.
Brian Fargo: I think these complex role-playing games are amongst the most difficult to make; it’s almost like I’m in the editing room for ten movies at one time and they’re all interacting with each other. There are so many moving parts you kind of move from segment to segment because you can’t possibly keep all the information in your head at any one time. They’re extremely complex and at the same time people expect a lot of subtlety and nuance with it all. It’s definitely an art form to put these things together; I’m glad I’ve been doing it for a long time because I can’t imagine jumping in at the deep-end and making one of these things.
Strategy Informer: How different is your dev process now compared with back in the day?
Brian Fargo: The biggest difference is this transparent development process. When you hire a QA department they aren’t necessarily all hardcore role-playing gamers. But now we’re getting expert feedback from people who’ve been playing these types of games for 20 or 30 years, and it’s been very helpful. There’s no way we could have done what we have without this kind of transparent process.
We’ll get people saying that there should have been more reactivity here, this area seems a little empty, or that it’s too bad there are not two or three more quests going on here; and then we put all that stuff in. Even though we’re in beta it’s not that we’re just refining combat and balancing, we’re actually adding content. Not just isolated things like a new area you can go to, but real integrated content.
Strategy Informer: At one point during your initial Kickstarter campaign you had this super-fan come along and offer to fork up half a million dollars to insure you made it if necessary. In the end you didn’t need it. But how did it feel to get that offer?
Brian Fargo: That was surprising and fantastic. I’ve been in the business a long time and often times you would run around to pitch to the publishers and not get the respect you thought you might deserve. I was always OK with a ‘no’, but you at least expected to have an intelligent conversation – why or why not a game might work. You didn’t even get to have those conversations and that was very disconcerting.
It was incredible to go from that situation to then having people say, ‘No, no, no; we love what you’re doing’, so much so that they’re willing to put up a hundred thousand or a half million dollars. I remember thinking at that moment, ‘Oh my god, we’re going to make it.’ After trying this for twenty years, this was it!
Strategy Informer: You’ve spoken a lot about the problems with working with big publishers, one of those being that sometimes games are rushed out before they’re ready and then the devs have to take the rap for it. On the contrary, with Wasteland 2 you delayed the release date late last summer.
Brian Fargo: One of the things that makes Kickstarter unusual is that you have to put a completion date before you’ve even started production. No publisher in the world would ever announce when a game was going to come out before they’d even started it. Kickstarter forces you to do that. On top of that, we raised much more money that we asked for and by virtue of those stretch goals we made the game much bigger.
People are continually saying, ‘When’s it going to be done?’ I don’t want to just arbitrarily pick a date right now and have people say, ‘Ah look, he’s late again!’ We’re making great progress, people are already very pleased with what we’ve put up on steam and we’ve got a major update coming in at the end of this month. I can tell you, I’m not a guy that lets things linger unnecessarily long. We’ll get to finishing the game soon enough.
Strategy Informer: Games like Fallout 2 and Planescape: Torment were legendary for their depth and replayability. How will WL2 match up to that?
Brian Fargo: Wasteland 2 will be the most replayable role-playing game I’ve ever made in my life. I’ve never put this much subtlety and detail into a role-playing game. There’s lots of content many people won’t ever see and we’re ok with that. The game is so intricate that I think there’s no way you could see everything in the game no matter how many times you played it.
With Torment, the goal is to make it the deepest most reactive conversation game which has ever been done. There’s so much there with the different NPCs in your party and the different alignments. So that’s very reactive in another kind of way. They’re very different games.
Strategy Informer: Not just in styles but in the things you just talked about. That Torment is much more dialog based, but I suppose Wasteland 2 is more based on skill-use and interaction with the world and combat.
Brian Fargo: That’s exactly how I would describe it.
Strategy Informer: What part of the dev process do you find most enjoyable?
Brian Fargo: It’s all the little moments to me; the clever little ideas no matter where they came from that I get excited about. You start off the game at Ranger citadel and the other day as I walked out and now there’s three guys sitting on the ground, and I asked why we put those in there. They said that these guys are there as trainees. Then there’s a scenario later on where you can bluster these other guys into not attacking the rangers, you mention that Ranger citadel are looking for new recruits and then they immediately run out of combat. When you later go back to Ranger citadel those guys you told to run away are sitting with those three trainees.
Those reactive moments like that – I love that stuff. It’s the little subtle stuff that not everyone will see, that’s what I love the most. I love knowing that there’s this deep subtly and when it happens for people and they see it they’re really going to appreciate it.
Strategy Informer: What are you focusing on in development right now?
Brian Fargo: To me anything I can do to increase the mood is going to be a priority. I want more sound effects, and more ambient mood going on. I love the radio calls. That was always a big thing when I was pitching this, I wanted to really dial up the radio. You find that audio is really more powerful than video as a way of stimulating you emotionally. If you first hear these things going on in the world over the radio – creepy things, odd things, people crying for help – then when you get there for the first time you have a different emotional connection to them. I particularly love creepy radio stuff. People haven’t really heard a lot of that so far because we haven’t yet layered in the really weird stuff.
John Carpenter does it really well where you aren’t noticing the music you’re just sort of feeling it, and we want that same kind of vibe. We want the coming together of the ambient sounds, scratchy radio transmissions coming in, and things like that... and the music of course. In fact we just had Mark Morgan in last week talking about the music for the L.A. side of the game.
Strategy Informer: If you’re successful with these titles, could we see a golden age of sophisticated games?
Brian Fargo: I think you’re seeing it happen already! Having steam around, the indie movement, and what people like us and Obsidian are doing I think that you’re already seeing a resurgence of the golden age of being able to make games that are more fan driven as opposed to market driven.
When we sit around and have conversations about our game we don’t spend one ounce of energy about how to market it or about how to monetize it. Instead it’s all about how we make it more engaging, how we make it more interesting, it’s all about creatively how we make this thing better. We are always aiming for more choice and consequence, when you boil it down that’s what people really want in an RPG and I think that we’re able to offer that now that we’re able to make games this way.
Strategy Informer: Brian thanks so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Brian Fargo: Thanks to you!
Wasteland 2 is currently in early access beta on Steam.