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Post-Post-Nuclear Roleplaying: Fargo Talks Wasteland 2

Falling back in

Interplay founder Brian Fargo and his studio inXile Entertainment hope to be responsible for the next big Kickstarter-funded game, having recently announced plans for a sequel to Fargo's 1988 roleplaying game Wasteland - perhaps best known as the predecessor to Fallout. Wasteland 2 will be a turn-based, party-based roleplaying game in a post-apocalyptic setting - in other words, in theory what veteran Fallout fans have been crying out for. The same might be said of anyone who feels that today's RPGs have abandoned their roots in favour of big, glossy action. A few days ago, I chatted to the effusive Mr Fargo about how the project is going, why now, how far along the design is, who he's making it for, why old-school RPGs seemed to die out, how long the Kickstarter bubble can last and the importance or lack thereof of audio and cinematics to a game that's all about cause and effect.

RPS: How are things going since you announced your big news?

Brian Fargo: Everything’s good, all Wasteland all the time right now, it went from a bunch of documents that I thought were going to be in a drawer for the rest of their lives to all-consuming, every day.

RPS: (laughs) I was going to say actually, is it the main thing for InXile or this a bubble on the side of what you’re doing anyway?

Brian Fargo: It’s pretty much all guns on this I have to say, if it’s going to have a chance to be successful you’ve got to be really focused on it and I swear to you, I put the documents away like three weeks ago in a drawer, thinking ‘that’s the end of that’. It was just a little while ago that I was like ‘I give in.’ And then Schafer’s thing kicked in and I felt ‘oh that was interesting’, and then right away on Twitter some fans were going ‘ok, let’s do Wasteland’. So, if it ends up funding, it’ll be a great little story.

RPS: Yeah, and I think you’ve got a really good shot at it because you were kind of first out the gate after Schafer. We’re going to see a lot of Kickstarter projects but at least you’re in the first flush.

Brian Fargo: I think so, that and there’s been a pent up demand for not just that title but this whole genre. I think he scratched a nerve when he said ‘hey, there’s people that still like adventure games’, and same thing with real role-playing games, things that are more PC-centric kind of role-playing experiences. I love that kind of game. I did a keynote in Shanghai for GDC late last year and there was all this Q&A and I talked about the genre and said ‘unfortunately we probably won’t see those again’. I was on a phone call last night with somebody from Singapore, he says ‘I heard about your Wasteland deal’ because I’ve been doing some business with him, he says ‘You gotta get that thing funded, I’m dying to play it’. So even in Asia...

RPS: Do you think it is the herald of a whole new age of all this stuff?

Brian Fargo: Well, I think there’s an opportunity to change it up a bit for some mid-sized developers. In many ways we’ve been that developer in the middle, so I could scale down to a very small size and do smaller apps and make a nice living for myself, but I like making these kinds of games, so where do we have to turn? It wasn’t an obvious place. This has the opportunity to open it up for developers that are more mid-level because we have credibility. It’s harder for some unknowns in an unknown country to pop up and raise the kind of money they need to do something of this magnitude, people are suspect. But hey I’ve been here for thirty years, I’m not going anywhere, people know I’ll deliver. So that could open it up for a group of people that are able to carve out their niche audiences and go against it, but of course there’s always the concern that somebody abuses it, and all of a sudden things fall to the wayside and then there’s just a select few that can do this, and then every once in a while a new one will pop up that has the right credibility.

A lot of people when Schafer announced, they just threw a lot of junk on Kickstarter right away, and everybody keeps saying [to me] ‘what’s taking so long?’ Well, I want to think it through, I want to get the tiers put together, I want to get the team put together.’ I wanted to do a nice video, I think it’s pretty funny, I think you’ll get a kick out of it, and I wanted to do it right so that when we launched it was done in a professional manner, not just some knee-jerk reaction to him being successful.

RPS: Yeah, and you’ve got a responsibility to the fans, the people who really really want this, and if it comes across as a money-grab they’ll feel let down.

Brian Fargo: No, absolutely, the other things which has been really helpful is my communication with the fans through Twitter and the board we set up. I wouldn’t make a product any other way, because you’re flying in the dark otherwise and some of the things the fans have helped solidify where I thought we should be going, but other areas caught me off guard, and so it was good to hear that. Many of the fans have been lied to over the years so something which might sound like an innocuous statement they take very negatively, because they’ve been burned by marketing folks. It’s been fascinating for me to have that dialogue.

RPS: It’s fascinating as well that for instance you’ve been mailing me directly about this interview, as opposed to if I’d wanted to talk to you about Hunted: The Demon’s Forge, I’d have to go through various layers of Bethesda. Now you call all the shots yourself, you can say whatever you want - how liberating is that?

Brian Fargo: Yeah, I hated having to stay on point and all that kind of crap, you know (laughs). I’m a very blunt guy and so marketing and PR people, I rubbed all of them the wrong way up at Bethesda. I just said it the way it was and it didn’t always chime with how they wanted to position things or whatever. To me the facts are the facts and we let the truth fall where it may.

RPS: Is there any worry given in a way you might be standing on Fallout toes for this? You’ve worked with Bethesda before and they’re known for being litigious lately…

Brian Fargo: Well, I’m not, no. If anything Fallout is derivative of my product, so I’m not going to do anything that infringes copyright, but the fact of the matter is they don’t own the idea of doing post-nuclear role-playing games, right, so we’re going to do what our vision is.

RPS: That’s something that’s very different for Wasteland now compared to then, which is when it came out it was such a weird thing to have an RPG that wasn’t in a fantasy setting, but now there’s quite a lot of post-apocalyptic games. Does that change what you feel you have to do with this new one?

Brian Fargo: Well, I think the bar is set very high for expectations of what we need to do, so for that I feel an immense amount of pressure and responsibility, so yeah, but that said, there’s so much to be done in mood and texture and things that people haven’t really touched on in my opinion, so I’ve assembled this really super team of guys. I’m convinced that anyone who likes Wasteland and likes Fallout is definitely going to like what we’re doing.

RPS: Have you got references for post-apocalyptic settings in your mind for this, ‘cos at the time Mad Max was a really big one, but we’re twenty years hence, more stuff has come out now. Are there different sorts of inspirations for the world you make this time around?

Brian Fargo: I think it’s important that we bridge a little bit between what was happening then and now. The first game happened in the south west, Arizona, California, Las Vegas, this part of the world, where you’re desert rangers and you’re trying to restore law and order to a society that’s been devastated by nuclear war. So I don’t want to lose that, I want to stay with that.
I think being desert rangers in this part of the wild west kind of scratches a nerve so I don’t want to lose that, but that said, we also need to take you in some completely different directions that you haven’t seen before, because with all of these games if you feel like you’ve been there, done that, you automatically don’t want to play it, so we’re very cognisant of that.

One of the things that we never really had a chance to do with Wasteland was audio, and I think with audio there’s a tremendous amount you can do to set the mood and the tone, and create trepidation. So we’re really focused on that, and I think Fallout did a great job with that, so we want to take that to the next level where I feel like there hasn’t been a lot done there. So we want to satisfy the old but we’re not going to take it into outer space or anything crazy, we want to stay with some of what was there but show them some things they’ve never seen before.

RPS: To what extent have you got the design already, you said you had these documents you almost shelved three weeks ago, how complete were they, or are you still making it up as you go along?

Brian Fargo: We worked on it at InXile for nearly a year, and so we worked through the storyline, what the life of the ranger is, dialogue structure, social skills, party influence, character stats. We worked through quite a lot of things so we’re not starting at ground zero. We pretty much know the templates, the next step after that was to bring all the writers in, and bring the artists in, and really fill out the meat of the world. That’s the costly part and where we didn’t get anywhere.

RPS: So potentially it could happen a bit sooner than people expect I guess if you do have the nuts and bolts of the design already nailed down?

Brian Fargo: It’s still going to take a while, we’re going to spend a good five months…it’s not that it’s no money, a million dollars is a lot of money. And by the way we’re lowering it to $900, 000, and I’m going to kick in the last $100, 000 just to make sure this thing happens. That said, in order to do this and be super efficient you have to design everything up front. We’ll have a pile [of paper] a phone book high, we’ll sit around in a conference room and we’ll step through the game over, over and over again.

It kind of works like, sometimes science fiction authors all collaborate on a book, and say ‘look in my book or in your scene, make sure a plane crashes, I don’t care what else you do after that’ and so there’s a little bit of that where we will have these constant threads and let some creativity happen within the areas that we assign off to the designers. But we’ll bring that all together and step it through, and then it becomes a matter of getting it all in a.s.a.p and we’ll repeat the same monster picture a hundred times but at least we’re now playing the game, and we’ll start to fill in the assets, and that way we’re polishing, or balancing, as we go.

It’s the cause and effect that makes a true role playing game so there’s a lot of ‘what ifs’ and then we want to keep ‘hey, what happens if you walk up to this encounter and this NPC’s with you, ‘oh that’s a good one, let’s deviate that way’, or ‘how about if they’re all wearing guard costumes?’ So coming up with all these ‘what-if’s’, that’s what makes these things shine.

RPS: How prepared are you for the fans and community to offer oh so many of those what-if’s potentially, the weird little things they did in the original Wasteland and or Fallout and want to see back in there or they always wished they could do and perhaps this time around you’re more beholden to make good on what they request?

Brian Fargo: We have a bit of an advantage in that we’re not trying to do cinematics. This is a top-down game, and the cinematics are usually the most expensive parts of these products, and in addition they tend to also hamper your ability, so if I say ‘hey, what happens if this particular NPC’s a thief, is in my party and this guy hates him when we want to branch?’ Well if I did the cinematics we’d need a movie for that, we’d need to record lines for that, and all of a sudden you start stopping yourself from being able to deviate and we’re not beholden to those sort of things, so not having to do the cinematics is a double, triple bonus for us.

RPS: It’s crazy how much is spent on them considering 50% of players will be hammering escape trying to get back to the action anyway.

Brian Fargo: You know what’s interesting, and this was why I absolutely loved the forums that we have set up because we’ve been asking people what they like at certain tiers, and things we can do, and we talked about audio, and people said ‘don’t do any audio because we know you’re going to have to cut down on the gameplay if you start having to blow your budget’…. they’re telling us not to waste our money with recording actors’ voices. Forget cinematics, they were just worried about the audio of the voices. But they’re telling us loud and clear their priorities, so we need to hear that stuff. We’re going to have some audio, but I get their point that they don’t want to have us be hamstrung by having every encounter be audio so therefore they can’t get all those little quirky things like we were just talking about.

RPS: Yeah, you just want some of the barks and things spoken really but no monologues, that could get in the way potentially.

Brian Fargo: They want a deep product that they play through. It’s like the original Wasteland, people still play it today and they still discover things, we put a lot of little things in there, and that’s what makes a great world-sense, it cannot feel linear at all.

RPS: Why do you think that stuff went away? It pretty much tailed out with Baldur’s Gate 2 and Planescape and then largely stopped. Was it a commercial necessity or just random?

Brian Fargo: A couple of things. One is the demand for graphic fidelity. People wanted to see more graphics and that’s expensive and it limits the choices like we just said. Also it went to console, and then there was another kind of ‘we have to make this more mainstream’, and so their argument there is that those big visual images are what’s going to make it sell the millions of copies, and so anything that’s kind of what I’m describing might be too hardcore and not mass market enough. But sometimes I think the world is really going towards lots of niches at this point, so I’d be very happy being a big player in this niche, even though that niche could be a nice big niche.

RPS: Is there any sense that you’ve got to make up for lost time because there wasn’t a solid continuum of isometric turn based stuff being made, so there’s like ten years of development that didn’t happen, and now you’ve almost got to compensate for the work that wasn’t done to make sure you make a suitably modern game?

Brian Fargo: I don’t think we want to go too far forward from what was last done, because I want people who played those RPGs in the 90s to be able to step seamlessly into this game and get it. I don’t want to try to figure out ‘well, if there had been ten years of iteration, where would we be.’ I think I’d be asking for trouble on that, people need to feel really comfortable getting into this, and we have some things that we can do to take them in some different directions. But if we really nail from a production perspective, visually, and we know so much more that we knew back then, in terms of a good dialogue and again use of audio to create drama and things like that.

If we set the mood, if we really do a great job of setting the mood and tone, that’ll go a long way along with the extremely diverse cause and effect because that is what people want. Our users are on our boards, they are telling us what they want, and we’re going to give them what they want.

RPS: Yeah, it’s common complaint I read about stuff like Skyrim and Mass Effect - ‘I can’t do this, and then this happens, it’s so set and rigid’ which is quite an upsetting factor for people.

Brian Fargo: Yeah, they want cause and effect. To go at a higher philosophical level, you think about something like Minecraft, which also makes me think of the original Sim City. Here are two of the biggest games ever, and there was no goal to them, it was just a matter of creation and cause and effect, that’s all they are. In many ways Grand Theft Auto was that in the beginning, you could run around and do stuff and had no plot but you could see the cause and effect of your actions. It’s what makes physics games work, because they cause and effect in a realistic way. So the minute you take away people’s cause and effect they start to look down on it. We need to make sure that people feel it in an RPG.

RPS: Is there stuff that you personally feel is outdated beyond interface and graphics and the sound as you say that does need to be changed even if there are people arguing for a purist take on following up the original Wasteland?

Brian Fargo: Hmm. Something that’s outdated from the original… I think that… people loved in Wasteland, when you really killed something you exploded him like a blood sausage, that was sucha famous line. Well, that doesn’t really come across by having a graphic. Everybody’s seen a graphic blow up a thousand times, so, but do I want scrolling text? Some people would probably like that, or is there some audio where the guys are commenting ‘We exploded him like a blood sausage.’ So there’s some trickiness there that we want to bring across what people loved, but I don’t know that I want scrolling text, but who knows, the purists may be all saying ‘no, we like that.’ So I think there’ll be some interesting dialogues on things of that nature.

RPS: Presumably you could set options to try and please both camps anyway, potentially turn the dialogue off in favour of text only?

Brian Fargo: Absolutely, I don’t want to sound like I’m too far fixed on any particular approach here, because it’s still up in the air in some ways. We want the users on the broad strokes right now, the users aren’t going to be writing the storylines and doing all the minutiae of it, that’s what we do, but on the broad strokes, that’s where their input comes in.

RPS: In terms of new people, is there any risk that it could be a hard sell for those for instance who have only played the newer Fallouts and expect something very different?

Brian Fargo: I’m trying to make this game to appeal to people who like the old school roleplaying games from the 90s, not just Wasteland, so it goes beyond that, it’s Wasteland, it’s Fallout, it’s Baldur’s Gate, it’s Icewind Dale, it’s that whole genre of product. Having just party based games, good old party based games with tactical combat, I love that stuff, love that stuff. Icewind Dale was a very simple game but I had such fun with that.

RPS: It had the mechanics right, even if it wasn’t such a grand narrative.

Brian Fargo: The best storytelling, let’s say, comes from the mechanics, not from the written word, so to go way back you could say when you didn’t used to be able to save game, and you’d go back in the dungeon and then you could turn around and go back and be safe or you could kick through one more door. And you kick open the door, you get overwhelmed, and then you wish you hadn’t kicked open the door, then you’re running to the surface with them nipping at your heels, hitting you the entire way, and you get out, and you’re able to save the game with one hit point left. There’s no amount of dialogue in the world that can replace the excitement of that moment I just described.

So to me the mechanics, and there were a lot of interesting mechanics with NPCs in Wasteland, were I guess you’re talking about areas I really want to expand upon, it was simple things. Ammo’s very scarce in the wasteland, and you only start with four characters, then you bring on three NPCs, to really survive you need all seven. Well, these NPCs, they don’t always do what you tell them to do, so when the girl empties an entire Uzi clip into a rat you’re pissed (laughs), because she blew the ammo, and that’s a great mechanical moment to me where you’re getting a reaction from the player that isn’t with dialogue.

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RPS: Would you personally have been continuing to make this stuff all along if it had been possible, if the market had seemed to allow it?

Brian Fargo: Absolutely. You’ve got to remember, towards the end, with Interplay you got sort of like, between ‘stay with what you know’ and then ‘who moved my cheese…and changed the marketplace , which way is it?’ And so my competitors at the time were all taking off into the stratosphere, we were all bumping along, we were a top five PC company, EA was in a class unto themselves, with their sports and all that stuff, but here comes Activision with Tony Hawk, and here comes Take Two with Grand Theft Auto, THQ had wrestling, we didn’t have a console hit so there we were with a pretty strong PC line-up, top five.

But we weren’t making money, so production costs were going up and Blizzard was sucking up all the air in the room for PC, so we got in this funky place of ‘ok, well let’s try to do console’, we bought Shiny in to help shore that up, and they go and make a PC game. Well that didn’t help, and so it was like one thing after another.

I wish I could have just kept doing that, and had I to do it over again I would have scaled the company way back to just a handful of people and just focused on that, but you know, hindsight’s 50/50. So yes, I would have rather just stayed doing that with those kinds of titles.

RPS: But hey, now it’s kind of working. It must be pretty odd to suddenly be seeing your name in the headlines in the way that they probably wouldn’t have been for stuff like Hunted. What you wanted back then is now happening.

Brian Fargo: Yeah, it’s ironic that we’re coming full circle doing Wasteland and Bard’s Tale (laughs).

RPS: I saw on Twitter you’re struggling to get the rights to the original Wasteland out of EA, but if they let you have Bard’s Tale do you think they might eventually relent and let you make that a part of what you’re doing with the new one?

Brian Fargo: They might, and I’ve got to give credit, they’ve been very reasonable in working with me, and I got a lot of love for them.

RPS: It would certainly be nice to see the original doing the rounds again. How comfortable you are being the figurehead of this when it’s actually a team effort - are you comfortable with it being ‘Brian Fargo’s Wasteland 2’ or would you rather it was ‘InXile’s Wasteland 2’?

Brian Fargo: Well, I don’t know, I guess on one level if I hadn’t been created as a figurehead before would I even be sitting here having this conversation with this opportunity. People gravitate towards people, so I understand that. I guess I’m comfortable from that level, my job as the producer is I’m very focused on the sensibilities of products. I think people sometimes don’t always understand what a good producer does, so I’m very focused on why should this product exist, and I’ll help create the vision document, y’know, what are the sensibilities. So the team will say ‘we’re going to make it funny’ and I’ll say ‘give me an example of your humour’, right, and if they tell me something that’s stupid I’ll say ‘You guys can’t do humour…’ If you think that’s funny, or if you think we’re going to do something graphically fantastic and you show me some poor art, I’m going to say ‘that’s not going to work’.

So what I do, and I’ve done this from the very beginning, from Wasteland, through Fallout, to Baldur’s Gate, is to keep honing in until the team clicks on the most important things. Once they’re hitting on all cylinders, it starts to become bigger than me. To me a good producer doesn’t inflict his ego into it but lets it become bigger than what he would have ever done himself. He makes it stay on point all along, and it might be that they go and they get someone to be the lead actor for the voice, and I say ‘that sounds terrible, that doesn’t work’, so I’m there all the time focusing on the sensibilities of it . I think that’s the most important thing a producer can do. The worst thing producers can do is get in there, try to talk to them about their code, and just be hovering over their shoulders day in and day out, I just think that’s a mistake.

RPS: I reckon you should do some of the voice acting yourself, when you did the blood sausage line that sounded pretty good…

Brian Fargo: Listen, I’m going to make my acting debut on this video that you’re going to see next week. I was a little nervous about that.

RPS: So you’re launching the Kickstarter [this week], that’s still the plan?

Brian Fargo: Yeah, we think we’re still on track to submit today, and there’s an approval process which takes a couple of days. It’s not like I’ve done this before with them right so we need to find out how long that takes. I would say early [this] week; Monday, Tuesday, something like that. It’s imminent, that’s for sure.

RPS: Let’s just hope they don’t go for some reason ‘No, we don’t fancy it’ (laughs). That would be a sad end to this tale.

Brian Fargo: Well, we do a couple of comedy bits that are pretty funny, that are poking fun at me going out and pitching the product to people. And sadly, there’s more truth to the comedy than you’d believe. Oh my gosh, the meetings I could tell you about…

RPS: You’re going to get people speculating now when they read this, trying to work out who such and such in the video is supposed to represent.

Brian Fargo: (laughs) I know, I even have a few of the emails of the rejections for it, for later on, it’s pretty funny, if it’s a big success we’ll have some fun with those.

RPS: Will you be tempted to do a sort of ‘told you so’ email to any of these guys if the Kickstarter works out as planned?

Brian Fargo: I think they’ll come to that conclusion themselves without me calling them.

RPS: Be interesting to see the first time a publisher tries a Kickstarter - because I bet they will having witnessed it…

Brian Fargo: (laughs) I think that would be a disaster for them from every perspective.

RPS: Right, I’d better let you go, thanks very much for that. I can’t wait to see what you guys pull out the hat here, it’s incredible that this can happen.

Brian Fargo: It’s really cliché, but this honestly isn’t going to happen if it isn’t for people like yourself and just the fans and the press, not me with my 1400 Twitter followers. It’s really going to be up to people getting the word out there, but I tell you what, this I can say, this is the most excitement that I’ve had around anything I’ve talked about in the last decade, by orders of magnitude. We had a thousand likes to our Facebook page in just a couple of days, and 500 posts on our forum, and EGM’s doing a two-page spread on this, Joystiq, IGN…everyone’s sort of jumped on this, they really want this game. Everybody wants it. And we want to do it.

I think we have some really clever [Kickstater] tiers too. One thing that the people love on the tiers is the box for 50 bucks. They get an old school box with a nice manual, and a map inside, an actual disc, that kind of stuff, to bring that old school back, because I love having that stuff on my shelf and I miss not having it anymore.

RPS: Yeah, it’s definitely the downside of digital, there’s much to be said for it but there isn’t that excitement of unwrapping something, there is something very special about that.

Brian Fargo: Yeah exactly, so that’ll be fun to do.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

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