Brian Fargo: Back in play
He founded Interplay and ran it for twenty years. But that was yesterday. Today, Brian Fargo is back in the game with his new company, InXile. Read on for more on his latest project.
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Brian Fargo founded Interplay Entertainment in 1983 and proceeded to make a name for both the company and himself with a stellar lineup of RPGs that included Dragon Wars, Fallout, Neuromancer, and Wasteland.
Fargo left Interplay in early 2002, not too long after the company was effectively bought by Titus Interactive. Then, not much was heard from the prolific designer and producer.
His return to the game industry was marked this week with news that his new studio, InXile Entertainment, had secured (in most markets) the right to call its first game The Bard's Tale, to be based on the popular Bard's Tale games of the past.
We spoke with Fargo about his new company, its upcoming games, and what challenges now confront him.
GameSpot: Can you elaborate on your intent to self-publish? What are the biggest risks you see in the self-publish model?
Brian Fargo: First I should clarify that we are not 100 percent self-publishing. We will have a master distributor who manages the sales, collections, shipping, etc. We are the publisher in regards to owning the goods, paying for marketing, and managing marketing and PR. The biggest risk any company has in the publisher model is that of financial risk. [But] with that risk comes reward, should the title be successful. Fortunately I have run a stand-alone publishing operation, and so I'm well versed in all the moving parts and the ability to finish a game ourselves. Our gaming public will see InXile on the front of the box, while the distribution methods will be invisible.
GS: Is there an upside for gamers in a self-publish model?
BF: I think the most meaningful upside to a gamer is that we are not a public company that needs to ship a game in a particular quarter. This gives us the freedom to ship the game when it is ready. We can focus all of our efforts on quality gameplay. We are also buffered from having a publisher change producers and potentially have that person have "new ideas" about the direction of the game.
GS: What about alternative distribution models--Steam, for example?
BF: The retail market is our number one focus, although we are looking at other models like Steam.
GS: In a GameSpot interview earlier this year you said: "One of the bigger things I learned in management is that it's better to have no person doing a job than the wrong person. Because if no one is in the position, I know the job isn't being done, instead of thinking it is because there's a warm body in the chair. It's all been a wonderful learning experience that will help shape the next great company." In that context, what are the two or three most obvious changes in the InXile organization that came directly from your experiences learned at Interplay?
BF: I was very fortunate that I was not under financial pressure to set up shop right away. I was able to spend time finding the right office, sitting down and identifying the key components of the new company, and hiring the right people slowly. Great people make great games, and knowing this I could put together a superb team of like-minded people who communicate well and truly care about what they are doing. They're a combination of seasoned industry veterans and very talented rookies. It's critical to find people that buy off on the company philosophy and product vision. I also have more time to communicate the goals, financials, and vision so we can all work as a team toward the same goal. We also put more time into preproduction than ever before.
GS: How do you financially support game development with that structure in place?
BF: It's easy to financially support game development with a heavy preproduction in place if you do it when your overhead is almost nonexistent. We had the luxury of working and reworking every piece of dialogue, location, and design thought before we added the whole team. Before we coded, we had every single piece of dialogue scripted out ahead of time, and we played through the game on paper several times with all the team members. It's much easier to be creative when you know you aren't burning through 100K-plus a month.
GS: How close to the game development process are you on a day-to-day basis?
BF: Before Interplay got too large I used to be heavily involved with all aspects of our games, from doing part of the designs myself to hands-on producing of every game. It's ironic that I became perceived as a "suit" when my background and love was in games. Needless to say I'm enjoying this a lot more, and I have been heavily involved with the design of the Bard's Tale. We split the design into thirds, and I personally designed my part of that. Currently, I'm getting the music and voice coordinated and focusing some time on the PR aspects of the game. As the game becomes playable I will be very hands-on again.
GS: What is the status of negotiations with EA on securing remaining rights to the Bard's Tale brand?
BF: Trademarks have a "use it or lose it" type doctrine, and if a mark is not being used for a certain [number] of years and there is no current production for the mark, it reverts back into the public domain. In fact, there are hundreds of marks in the industry that have reverted into the public, and we believe this is one of them. It was a clean process outside of the US, but it was still on file here, so we have to go through a legal procedure to clear it.
GS: About the game. Bard's Tale is considered a classic computer RPG, but the last game in the series was initially released in 1988. How are you addressing the challenge of bringing back a long-dormant franchise, and how will you adapt it to work for both a console and a PC audience?
BF: The Bard's Tale filled a gaping hole at the time of its release. It was the first first-person dungeon game that had color, music, and animation, and it really captured the essence of the old-school role-playing games. Obviously it is a much different world today now that we have console systems, and users have less tolerance for the need to keep copious notes, mapping out levels by hand, and only being able to save games in one location.
We love the concept of the Bard and his music, we love the area of the world that the Bard's Tale existed, and we love the good old-fashioned dungeon-delving in looking for secret doors, magic mouths, traps, etc. However, after making RPGs for nearly 20 years, I believe there is so much more to accomplish than just leveling up, getting better items, and taking on the dragon.
Of course, we will all have all those great RPG mechanics, but we need to get way beyond the shining hero who is happy to get the green key for the green door. While this will exist on console and PC both, it is a more intelligent RPG than most of the standard fare. People who play RPGs will appreciate the cause-and-effect-type situations we have created and the more human nature of the characters. We want the Bard to react to situations like a real person would, not the mindless hero who wants to save the world because he has been told to.
GS: What common threads might we expect between the old games and the new project? Are you concerned about the high expectations of those who still warmly remember the Bard's Tale games?
BF: Interestingly enough, I'm certain we will compete more with people's memories of the depth of the original Bard's Tale than we will with the actual depth itself. There is a certain console-vs.-PC debate that will always rage on, but at the end, if the game delivers an extremely high-quality, memorable, and entertaining experience, the debate tend to fall to the way side.
As I mentioned earlier, the old game was extremely light on plot or even interesting things or people to interact with. It was almost pure combat and intensive map making. Making that kind of experience today would be a disaster.
The common threads will be in the Bard using his music as a key to his magic, both outdoor and indoor exploration, some of the nasty things like invisible walls and antimagic areas, constant leveling up or increasing the Bard's abilities (though we have added feats also now), party-based combat (although you create your party through summoning), the puzzles, and the big battles.
GS: Can you briefly describe the gameplay direction that the new project is taking?
BF: In looking at the market we saw what we perceived as a lack of intelligent, nonlinear, deep, witty, non-cliché RPGs for the console systems. These very attributes are what has made some of the great PC RPGs. We saw no reason we could not take those sensibilities over to console and give them a sense of why some classic PC RPGs are so well revered today. And we believed we could create a compelling PC game at the same time for all the same reasons.
We have layered in as many small touches, music, animation, and clever twists that we could onto a pretty well-defined genre. We want a game where everything that you did was not critical to winning the game. We want a game where even the act of buying and selling in the shops was entertaining. We want a game where music and singing was part of the atmosphere. We want a game that had dialogue that made you laugh out loud. We want a game that the player is experiencing new things every 10 minutes. We want a game where you don't spend half your time running back and forth between dungeon and store just to sell items. We want a game that you have to play several times to have a chance to see it all. And we want a game that feels special and well crafted when you finish it.
GS: Are you enjoying being back in the industry in a public way?
BF: Ah yes. I love this industry and love the medium. It's creatively challenging and very rewarding. I hope I can continue to help bring fresh ideas to it.
GS: Just to get a baseline read: When was InXile formed, how many are on staff, and how many games are in development? And where did the name come from?
BF: I formed the company in late 2002 and started ramping up the team this January. We currently have 15 people of which all but one are on the development side. The Bard's Tale will come out on PS2 and PC, and we are looking at other platforms as well. We are focusing on just this one title for now but expect to broaden to a second game later and then keep it that way for a bit. Our releases must be of the highest quality possible.
It was funny how the name came about. I was attending E3 in LA and I needed to come up with a company name quickly so I could get into the show. So, I came up with the name "The Workshop," and because of all the issues with Interplay, I put down "Leader in Exile" as my title. Well it got such a great response I had people begging me for my cards because of the title. After that we got to thinking...hmm...there is something here. That's when we came up with the name InXile Entertainment.
GS: We've heard the InXile offices are just a few blocks from the break at Newport Beach. So who's closer to the foam, InXile or Naughty Dog?
BF: I'm not sure who is closer, but unless the water is lapping at their front door, I bet we have them beat.