Guest Blog: Interplay’s Wasteland Memories

By RPS on April 11th, 2012 at 8:00 pm.

The remarkable Wasteland 2 crowdsourcing wagon rolls on – it’s currently bagged itself $2.35m across Kickstarter and Paypal, and rising. We’ve already heard from Brian Fargo and Chris Avellone, but today returning Wasteland designer (and New York Times bestselling author) Michael A. Stackpole pens a guest post for us, detailing some of his more memorable experiences when working on the first Wasteland back in the late 1980s.

Read on for map design secrets, the unexpected side-effects of the anti-piracy systems of the time, why Wasteland endures, dehydrated cosplay and how Interplay used to scare old men.

I remember fielding a call from Brian Fargo, whom I did not know, asking if I’d be interested in working with Ken [St. Andre], on a computer game. (I think he’d called Ken, first, actually.) Brian told me about Interplay Productions and the work they’d already done. He sketched out a general idea of what he wanted us to work on, and since I’d designed Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes (a modern rpg with lots of guns and skills) he thought I’d be good for the project.

This was not the first time I’d gotten a call akin to that. The calls usually ended with an invite to get in touch whenever I just happened to be “in the neighborhood,” a neighborhood which was a good six hours away by car. But then Brian said the magic words, “So, we’d like to come out and talk to you about it.” If he was willing to spend money to meet, that meant he was serious, so this was good.

Brian and Alan [Pavlish, designer and programmer - and who's also rejoined the team for Wasteland 2] came out, and we all got along together like a house afire. We were definitely on the same wavelength when it came to the project, which Ken dubbed Wasteland. We agreed on a tone and direction, then started in.

One of the key reasons Wasteland innovated all over the place is because Ken and I, and to a lesser extent Alan, had never done a game like this before. From my COLECO days, and time spent at Flying Buffalo, Inc., I’d learned how to understand programmers; and Alan was up for any challenge we tossed at him. Because we were wandering into the unknown, adding skills to a game where skills had never existed before, and doing other unique stuff, there were no boundaries we couldn’t cross. There was never a “No, we can’t do that,” dictum; but a “let’s figure out how to make that work” ethic that really defined the whole project.


Michael A. Stackpole, in a Creative Commons-tagged photo by Andrew Guyton

While Alan and I were working out details of the system, other folks were coding maps. We were doing this decidedly old-school. Ken was working on a C64, I was using an old Osborne computer. We’d generate text files which Alan would turn into map code; and the maps themselves were drawn on graph paper and someone at Interplay put them together. Because we had limited space for each map, we got really tricky with spacing. Looking back I’m surprised we managed to jam as much as we did into each map.

Work fell into a normal pattern. Alan and I would work details out, I’d pass it down the line to the folks designing maps. If they had problems, they’d tell me, Alan and I would discuss things, and they’d get an answer. In this way the practical problems of scenario design directly influenced the game system and vice versa. Map designers even talked amongst themselves, sharing strategies and some of these became standard routines we all later used.

Our old school anti-piracy device was the paragraph book. We had a separate book of paragraphs to which the player had to refer to get some results. Back in those days we figured no pirate would want to go to the trouble of typing the whole thing in. I’m sure someone did do exactly that. But, as I’d known from having written solo adventures for Flying Buffalo, Inc., having red herring paragraphs to prevent someone from reading straight through the document would be useful.

So, one day I was in the Interplay offices and got plunked down in front of a word processor. I keyed in the various paragraphs designers had written up and then started generating the red herring story line. In this case it was a lot of material about a Martian invasion that hunkered back to H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. In subsequent years I did hear from a couple players that they were never able to find their way into the Martian base (which didn’t exist) and I’d just smile.

The maps I designed comprised roughly the last third of the game: everything after Las Vegas. I also did the Guardians of the Old Order maps. As a result, I was able to play through the first part of the game and really enjoyed it. It was my first experience with that whole “just one more turn” aspect of a game. The storytelling and personalities in the game, along with the multiple keys to every puzzle aspect of it, made me want to stay in the world just a little bit longer.

There were, of course, times when we got goofy because we were all exhausted as we were finishing things up. I remember sitting at a computer with Alan as we were making up titles for the higher ranks in the game. There were a lot of in-jokes there. They were achingly funny for us. We were howling as we came up with them, and I’m sure folks in the office thought we were nuts.

The first visit to the Interplay offices was fun. Brian brought Ken and me over for a week to work on coding things. He wanted us close so we could meet. Great idea, and it helped get the project rolling. The only down side was that the nearest hotel was not quite five star accommodations. Not even four or three. I don’t think the rooms had been renovated since the height of the Viet Nam war, and the only station I could get on the TV was the Trinity Broadcasting Network. I’d have killed for an iPod, but back in those days, we didn’t even have audio CDs.

I think the first time I really understood that we had something special with Wasteland was when, courtesy of Interplay, I got to attend a game developers meeting at EA. In various conversations with other game developers I learned what cool things they had going on in their games. I realized that everything each one of them was doing—their one special thing—was something we had going on in Wasteland. All of them.

Wasteland endures. Over the last two dozen years I’ve done a ton of book signings at conventions and on book tour. At every stop there’s been someone who remembers Wasteland very fondly—a number even have their old boxes to get signed. When they mention Wasteland, I can’t help but smile. It was a lot of hard work done a long time ago, but it was a fantastic experience.

Oh, yeah, I have to mention the photo shoot for the Wasteland package. Ken and I flew over to Interplay. Alan had gone to a movie costume/supply house and had picked out all sorts of cool stuff. We all got into a couple of cars, hooked up with the photographer and his assistants, and headed out into the middle of nowhere. Ken and I had flown over that desolation to go to the photo shoot, now we were driving back onto dusty, dry, hot expanses of cracked lake beds. Miserable terrain, and none of us had brought water. (Again, those were the days before water was sold in bottles.)

We got made up and costumed to look like extras from a Mad Max movie. Alan told the make-up artist to make me “look like Mel Gibson.” She did her best. All of us ended up smudges and begrimed and ragged. Smoke bombs were deployed and lit, and the shoot commenced. If we looked like we were suffering it was because we all were.

After a couple of hours we pack up and agree we’ll have lunch at a Denny’s nearby. We roll out to one, get seated, and the wait staff won’t come anywhere near us. So, we decamped to the next one a couple towns over. There we get seated, leave the photographer and his lovely assistants to hold the table, then the lot of us head off to the bathroom to clean up.


From left to right: Ken St. Andre, Michael A. Stackpole, Bill Dugan, Nishan Hossepian, Chris Christensen, Alan Pavlish, Bruce Schlickbernd.

So, there we are in the men’s bathroom, talking coding and all sorts of computer stuff. Seriously, sounded like a nerd convention. And then the toilet flushes in the only stall in the place. I turn to look as a little old man in golf togs come tottering out.

And stops dead.

Because he’s looking at Hell’s Angels when he’s expecting pocket protectors and calculators.

I thought he was going to die.

He just tugged his golf cap down to hide his eyes, and made a beeline out of there. We watched in silence, then all cracked up. Probably more because of dehydration than anything else. But when we reentered the restaurant, the old man and his party were gone.

Wasteland 2′s crowdsourced funding has just over five days left to go. If you’d like to contribute, head thee here.

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34 Comments »

  1. Moraven says:

    Been a fan of Mr. Stackpole’s writing since getting into X-Wing and Battletech (now have read nearly all his novels). I was a little too young to get into much DOS games of the 80s, but all this lookback and early history of PC gaming have been very interesting reading about from all sides.

    Also now everyone go buy the e-book version of Talion: Revenant so he will write a sequel.

    • Premium User Badge

      Bluerps says:

      I already have the hardcopy version of that. :)
      Stackpole was the first author I really liked. He wrote the best Battletech novels!

    • moustache says:

      Oh man! Talion: Revenant? That dusted off some old brain paths. My best and oldest friend still makes fun of me for all the “Star Wars Books” I used to read in high school. “Star Wars Books” was the moniker he gave any work of genre fiction because he was a snob. Screw that guy, but that was not my point. My point was that Michael A. Stackpole wrote my very favorite Star Wars Books, even the ones with Gods and Mechs and what have you. Love that guy; to hell with my friend.

    • Blackcompany says:

      Second the notion of buying an e-version of Talion: Revenant. One of the better fantasy novels I have read. Highly recommend it. Excellent characters, great delivery and a unique fantasy setting. Check it out, buy a copy so we can encourage Mr. Stackpole toward the sequel.

    • DogKiller says:

      I have a small sampling of Battletech novels. Stackpole’s ones were always my favourite. He’s a good writer.

  2. YourMessageHere says:

    I won’t pretend to have even heard of Wasteland before RPS started fussing about a sequel, but reading this makes me wonder how we went from making games in such an obviously creative and collaborative environment as described here, to the behemoth depersonalised content factories we have today. It’s so obvious that this is how to do technocreativity. I find it really difficult to imagine anything this gang did being unworthy of a big time investment.

    • LionsPhil says:

      How will the big time investment be protected without extensive market research and middle management?!?!

      More seriously, that kind of model just doesn’t really scale up to the kind of teams needed to pour in the mega-gajillions of man-hours needed to create the HD HDR 3D graphics demanded by the gaming public to avoid being crucified on Internet forums for not making SLI nVidia rigs with blinging cathodes and fake tits run hot enough.

    • LionsPhil says:

      How will the big time investment be protected without extensive market research and middle management?!?!

      More seriously, that kind of model just doesn’t really scale up to the kind of teams needed to pour in the mega-gajillions of man-hours needed to create the HD HDR 3D graphics demanded by the gaming public to avoid being crucified on Internet forums for not making SLI nVidia rigs with blinging cathodes run hot enough.

      (I hate the spamfilter.)

    • LionsPhil says:

      How will the big time investment be protected without extensive market research and middle management?!?!

    • Premium User Badge

      mechtroid says:

      Because the sad fact of the matter is, for every small team that uses this freedom to rise to glorious new heights, there’s 10 or more teams who flounder in an ocean of possibilities and go under. And if anyone could make and publish a game, it’d be nigh-impossible to separate the great games from the horrible. This is essentially what caused the whole Atari crash before the NES started anew. And I fear it’s where the iPhone app market is heading.

    • Apolloin says:

      I imagine that:

      1. Kickstarter for games is a fairly recent development.
      2. His family objected to the life of the Ronin Developer, forever sleeping in cardboard boxes and eating discarded Ramen.

    • Meat Circus says:

      What guarantees do we have that these guys will be able to recapture that glorious frontier spirit, now that they are all (charitably) middle aged men with Priuses and teenage children and equity?

      Not saying it’s not possible, but it’ll be tricky not to cruise on past glories.

    • syndrome says:

      I’ll tell you what happened:

      As soon as these kids started making hard cold cash, the SUITS happened.

      They are a parasitic subrace, born to wear suits, ties, and wave with their hands, which makes them appear larger and is useful to distract other Suits. They use their tongues to make, what they call, deals, but also to exploit those who know and apply the arts and engineering in a way that can be monetized.

      But the Suits aren’t just middlemen, they are also money drivers, bank shifters, cash shufflers, and business liaisons. They stick together, and make themselves appear unavoidable.

      Accustomed to stock market, they see everything through the lottery/chance spectacles. They gamble, and every odd can be calculated. In fact, we owe them the advancement of the computing technology. In their brain, there is no room for abstract concepts such as creativity, immersion, or fun.

      Entertainment industry is simply an intelectual property, with a stake, a risk, and a fixed outcome. There is even a stakeholder. This guy, the senior Suit, pours the money in, the middle Suit will then ritually spin the wheel — in between, the lesser Suits will steal some strategies and secrets from others — so, the expendable artist workers will create content, the expendable engineering workers will implement some cutting edge technology, they just need a little push in the right direction, and there you go.

      If the Suit fails, he probably didn’t copy the strategies good enough. He should’ve waved more expressively, using both his arms and legs. He will do better next time. Let’s just sack this expendable workforce, for now, WE ARE LOSING MONEYZ.

      Yes, our company’s environment is very creative and collaborative. That’s the company’s motto. Little artistic bastards should be paying Us for the opportunity to work here. FUCK THEM.

      AND FUCK PIRATES. THEY STEAL THE EVENTUAL BUYER TO WHICH I’M ENTITLED. ITS MY FUCKING TURF. I SELL THEM FUN, I GET THE MONEYZ. FUCK THAT FUCKING PIRATES.

      I’m so angry right now, where is my angry tie.. Ok, they stole 10M in estimated revenue, here’s 10% of that sum :’( Now, go arrest them. Go and tell everybody that pirates are bad because they steal. Hire some PR or something.

    • The Colonel says:

      “Thus is order ensured: some have to play the game because they cannot otherwise live, and those who could live otherwise are kept out because they do not want to play the game. It is as if the class from which independent intellectuals have defected takes its revenge, by pressing its demands home in the very domain where the deserter seeks refuge.” TWA

    • Groove says:

      Yeah, after all the coverage this has had I thought I was only person in the world that had never heard of Wasteland. I like to think I’m fairly up on retro games, and I certainly enjoy them, but this looks older than God.

  3. cassus says:

    Wonderful. I love reading about game development of the olden days. I think I might romanticize the whole thing, but it seems like people back then were way more playful and sort of rebellious. Like rogueish coders, swashbuckling map makers and artists. Whenever I read stories about the era I also feel like the guy writing about it gets a little misty eyed about the whole thing.

    The kickstarter movement going on gives me mad butterflies, yo. It’s like we’re in an age where the game developer equivalent of “super groups” are formed. That whole thing with obsidian really gives me that feeling.

    Aaaaaaahmmmm. Happy days.

  4. buzzmong says:

    Er, who is this mysterious Ken?

    Good read that was. I’m glad Stackpole is onboard as I’m rather fond of his writing, especially the X-Wing books.

  5. Fumarole says:

    Glad to see some love for Flying Buffalo. I love me some Nuclear War.

  6. Ninja Foodstuff says:

    I hate to say it, but I withdrew my money for the kickstarter over the weekend. After reading “update 10″ it seemed clear to me that Brian Fargo is more interested in having a soapbox than actually producing a game.

    I look forward to paying the full whack for the game when it’s out, but I can do without all the fluff in the meantime. Plus it’s not really like they need my money at this point.

    • nibbling_totoros says:

      Uh, what? You mean the update #10 where he showed a sample of the conception art? That made you pull your money out?

      Fail troll is fail.

      • Ninja Foodstuff says:

        “seeing the news today about this Jobs Bill reminded me of some of the real impact this Kickstarter will have on the lives of the people that will be working hard the next 18 months to make the game”

        and

        “Did I just hear all 43,000+ of you say ‘How can we help?’”

        and

        “Follow @BrianFargo on twitter and retweet my Wasteland related tweets”

    • PhoenixTank says:

      Go read update 11 and watch the video. If you still feel the same way afterwards, so be it.

      • Ironclad says:

        I just read the update. Care to elaborate what your issues are? Because I’m drawing a blank, honestly…?

    • Infinitron says:

      Holy solipsism, Batman!
      The “fluff” is directed at people who might consider beefing up their pledges from the bare minimum of $15. Realize that you’re not the only backer of the project, and just ignore the mails if they annoy you so much.

      • Ninja Foodstuff says:

        I also realise that it’s my money, and I’m free to “invest” it as I wish. You don’t have to agree with my reasons, obviously.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Someone got mad that he mentioned Obama in anything but a strongly negative light.

  7. Jupiah says:

    I don’t really understand why I’m so excited for this game. I never played the original, nor had even heard of it before the kickstarter, and yet after reading about it and the developers I donated my money to them. I guess I’m just a sucker for post-apocalyptic tactical rpgs.

    • Wizardry says:

      Wasteland wasn’t a tactical RPG. Whether this game will be is another matter.

  8. MinkyUrungus says:

    I first heard about him via the “Shadowrun” novels and game setting many years ago. His “Wolf and Raven” stuff was great. It was pretty damn cool finding out that he was this involved with “Wasteland”.

  9. shopshop1 says:

    http://goshoppingo.com so cool for business and earn money