Skip to main content

Guest Blog: Interplay's Wasteland Memories

The making of a post-apocalypse

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.

Read this next