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Brian Fargo Interview: Wasteland 2, Kickstarter & Unity 3D

Chris McMahon

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We catch up with Wasteland 2's Brian Fargo at Unite 2012 to find out how the game is coming along and why he chose Unity.

Published on Sep 5, 2012

You've probably heard of Brian Fargo. As a veteran games developer, this year he took to Kickstarter to have his project - a sequel to the original Wasteland - become a reality.

After smashing records and gaining million in funding, Wasteland 2 was a-go and Fargo has been a preacher of crowdsource development ever since.

3D Artist caught up with Brian Fargo at Unity's annual Unite event this year, and asked him all about Wasteland, videogames and why inXile chose Unity.

Why do you think there was so little publisher interest in Wasteland 2 when you were first trying to get it out there?

The reasons, or lack thereof, are so varied it’s hard to say. It seemed like all the publishers had a plan for what they wanted to do, and anything outside of that plan they really didn’t want to hear about.

Some publishers were like, ‘We have role-playing games. We don’t need to hear it, because we already have them’. I was often just pitching to people that they had no context to draw upon.

One of the follow-ups I would have would be to say, ‘Okay, I haven’t heard from you, so it’s probably bad news, but can you at least tell me why it’s a pass so I can learn from this?’ And got nothing.

So it was a strange process, because I thought it was just so high concept. I guess that they had their strategies, and they just didn’t match being open to an opportunity.

I guess maybe if they’d jump on Harry Potter or Pixar or something, but short of those things… I used to tell them that, everyone of these guys with their billion dollar franchises: GTA 3, that wasn’t predicted to be a billion dollar franchise. Commander & Conquer: not. Lara Croft: not. Tony Hawk’s: not.

The only franchise in this business that I think was actually specced out to be a billion dollar franchise and did it is probably Skylanders. That’s about it. Everything else they fell into it.

So, I would always try and tell them that, but I got nowhere, obviously [laughs]. But, you know what? I’m glad. Here I am. The game is better than it ever would have been because it’s been created this way. For certain.

These are the desert troopers. You don't mess with them.

How has your experience working on the game under the conditions of Kickstarter funding differed from that of working with a publisher?

Working with a publisher was abysmal. It was not a positive experience, because I have my own way of producing games that works for me. My way is different from everybody else’s, and their ways are different from everybody else’s.

But the publishers often give you a contract and they want you to adhere to their way of doing it. But that rubs up against my way.

Even though I had all of those years of experience and success, I’d still have some young 22-year-old on the case, who’s new to the business and wants to do it his way, and we’d bone right off the bat, and that was a real problem.

This, however, is different. I’ve been turned loose, and we’re delivering. We showed the concept art and they loved it, we played the first musical piece and they loved it, the in-game portraits the liked that, the first in-game screen they liked that. My writing team they love.

So we’re on one high after another. The game has absolutely been better for it. The best product is coming from the visionary people who have the power to do it their way.

Whether you’re Spielberg, Cameron, Ken Levine, Sam Houser, whoever, these guys have the ability to do it their way. When you’re not in that echelon, you’re being compromised. But this, because I’ve Kickstarted it, I’ve not had to be compromised. This product will be better for it.

The guys at Super Giant games did a great job, that’s a highly polished product, they did it all themselves. They had nobody sitting on top of them, forcing their will. They got to do it their way.

So there’s a real strong connection between quality and creative types who are allowed to do it their way. That’s why Kickstarter’s great because we’re getting that opportunity.

It’s Tim Schafer, it’s me, it’s Molyneux – we’re seeing a trend here. We’ve all been forced to compromise and we have not wanted to.

So, if Wasteland 2 came out and it was a massive success, and a publisher came to you and said here’s £20 million to do Wasteland 3…

I don’t want to do it that way. Look at me; I’m having a great time. Life’s too short. I’m having fun making it and I’d rather just keep doing it the way we’re doing it. I love this process.

This is a game with giant mecha scorpions. You have to be excited, now.

How much of an impact is this kind of funding model going to have on the future of game development? Can you foresee a future where it becomes more of a process like Bandcamp, with customers paying directly to the creators?

I think it’s happening. Look at now versus three years ago, how many independent studios are carving out businesses for themselves? And we all have different niches.

One guy might do a fly-fishing game, or a train simulator, and he’s got his audience and he sells to them and he’s got a great business for himself. We’re already seeing a lot of really talented people leaving the publishers to do what we’re doing.

We’ve never had in the past the ability to have this direct relationship with our fans, but now we can talk to them through social media, we can set up the forum, we can interact with them directly. We’re all striving to find our fanbase so we can do that same thing. So yeah, I think it is changing. Quite a bit.

You’ve mentioned before that you’re working together with developers all across the globe via the cloud. Is this global development process, and access to talent all around the world, important to you?

It’s a big part of it. I’ve got my concept artist in Sweden, I’ve got my portrait artist in China, I’ve got other people helping us with contract work in Europe, so I’m tapping into this worldwide base. 

Could you envision a future where game studios wouldn’t need a centralised location, and development could happen across the globe?

Yeah, Unity actually sets it up well. You can do stuff in browser and share it and that sort of thing. We’re doing it! My UI stuff is being done in another state. I’ve got programming and art already being done in places all around the world.

To me, it widens my palette of things I get to choose from. Before if I just had my guys in my office then I’d always just do the best I could do with my group, but now if I want a really distinctive art group, and I want to get great character portraits, I can fall in love with a guy’s work, track him down to some province in China, and then a week later I’ve got him doing work for me, and he’s doing a bunch of stuff for us and he’s fantastic!

And that was the look I wanted – I didn’t have to do the look based on the talent that was sitting in my office right outside my door. I get to look at the world, and then my guys become experts in each category and they help me harness that power. I think it’s where it’s all going.

There’s a lot of transparency involved in the development process here. How much creative input do you allow from the audience?

I wouldn’t do it any other way. The issue gets to be how transparent are you going to be, and how much input are you going to allow? Basically, it’s all the broad stroke stuff that you want them involved with.

At the very top level we give complete user choice – where do you want the camera, how do you want the palette to look, where do you want the UI to be – we let them set it the way they want it. So we allow as much of that as we can.

But then you get to another level of it – sensibilities, and look, and combat system stuff – prefer to vet that stuff every step of the way, so that when they finally see the product they can say, ‘OK so there were no surprises, it was what I was expecting,’ but I’ve just given them more of what they already like.

I think it’s super healthy, because I used to have to guess. But yes, the issue is how much. The audience is pretty reasonable about how much. I’ve got Mark Morgan doing the music and they’re not going to tell him what instruments to use, and they don’t want to tell the writers what to do. They just want to know what they’re going to get.

They don’t want day one DLC, for example. Not that I ever would have done it, but they’re very vocal about the things they hate, and the things they like. Those are big bubbles of stuff for me to operate in, and I want to know what they are.

This isn't final, but representative of how the game will look?

Why use Unity? What drew you towards that particular engine?

I think it was the perfect sweet spot for us in terms of all the different formats it supports – Mac, Linux, PC. Ours is a turn-based game, so we didn’t have huge performance requirements – not that it can’t do those some of these great things.

Being able to tap into a crowd of people who could help us create a deeper game… because you have some engines where the technical knowledge required is much higher, so you have less people you can draw down upon to help you, or some of them have no installed base in which case there’s no one.

With Unity it was the right combination. There was a lot of developers all around the world who were doing specific routines we could draw upon; art assets we could draw upon; or that we could contract them out to do things for us because they were already familiar with the engine. It was a great group of people.

I think as we go forward you need to have a small, nimble team, and you need to find a way to harness the power of all that stuff that’s out there. That way I can make a game that’s as deep and dense – or even denser – as another product that would cost three, four, five, six times more.

Are there any potential downsides to such transparency?

Well I haven’t had it happen, but you run the risk of showing something early to get feedback, and maybe the press runs with it and acts like it’s a finished product, and people get a negative from it.

We’ve put out stuff early with heavy caveats from me, but the press was great and they 99% presented it as early work. That could have been a negative.

I think that you need to be intellectually honest with the crowd at all times. The crowd is pretty sane. Part of the crowd will even say, ‘Don’t listen to all of us, because we’re crazy!’ because they want an artistic vision behind it, so you’ve got to balance it.

I’ve got a very strong vision of what I want this product to be, with the look and feel, and it’s pretty much falling into place where I thought, but with a few surprises that they’ve helped with to ensure I miss any pitfalls, so I’ve been grateful that they’ve been there.

What can you tell us about Wasteland 2 in terms of story and mechanics at the moment?

We’ve put out a thing called a vision document which is about twenty pages of detail that dives in to every subject, from story to references to combat system, it goes into great detail. So that’s out there.

The main thing is that it’s a turn-based, squad-based RPG, so you’re developing more than one character. If you want your team to be four Russian women, then you’ve got it. 

The writing is mature. Part of what made Planescape Torment and Fallout and Wasteland great is that they had a literary vibe to them. There are some things that only words can describe, and we’re trying to bring back the power of the words.

That doesn’t mean that every time you step on a square you have to read a page. It’s not like that. But we fill things in, and that sets Wasteland 2 apart from some of the more modern RPGs.

It all takes place in a super heavy cause and effect environment. The cause and effect for what you do and having a logical place in the world – you can play the game through all the way, and your friend will say what happened to him and you’re going to go, ‘I didn’t even see that.’ You won’t even know why he saw what he saw. It’s so nuanced. Every time you play you’ll get a different experience. That’s part of the fun. 

It’s interesting, because Fallout: New Vegas was incredibly impressive from a cause and effect point of view, but riddled with bugs. Given that you don’t need to worry about the graphical side of things so much, does that mean you can go much deeper with the cause and effect?

That’s what we’re doing. We don’t have cinematics and we don’t have audio issues. It’s all reading. So I can be making that change and that depth all the way to the last minute. So we’re taking that and going another level deep.

We’re taking things to their natural, crazy conclusion. That’s what makes it great. You’re not just making a choice and have it go one level deep. It’ll go deeper and deeper and affect something ten hours from there. One of the things people ask us about it permadeath, and the fact that if you can save a game anywhere it ruins the tension.

However, if you do a deep game, it doesn’t matter. If you do a bunch of stuff at one point, and it affects you five hours later, you can go restore that game but you’ve got to go back five hours.

So it is permadeath, because you’re stuck with the decisions you make. We never make it so you can’t win the game, but a whole group might be wiped out or you’ve made all these enemies or whatever, and you’re stuck with that decision. 

So: depth, depth, depth. That’s what people want. The design document looks insane. Thousands of pages of stuff. That’s only thousands of pages of changes – y’know, what happens if you talk to this person or that person, or go into this state, or that state; that’s were all the writing goes. It’s not thousands of pages of long written dialogue; it’s just the nuanced, different choices you make.

Are there any specific features of Unity that particularly drew you towards it?

We did a whole Kickstarter update where my technical director did a breakdown of the technical aspects of why we liked it. For me though, I was kind of 50,000 ft level looking at it for different reasons.

They can get into what it can do from a shader perspective and all of that sort of stuff, but for me I knew that it could graphically generate something that we wanted.

There was some concern about whether or not we could generate something that looked different, but I think we were able to illustrate that and do something that had triple-A quality standards from a graphics perspective.

What kind of assets are you taking from the Unity asset store, and how many?

We’ve used about 49 so far. Most of them, about 40, are art assets, and the rest have a programming and scripting aspect to them. We think we’ll be close to using about 500 assets once we’re done.

It’ll be mostly art but it’s also going to be programming, like particle effects, pathing routines; all the kind of drudgery stuff that we don’t want to have to re-write over and over again.

As people innovate and upload stuff, all the way to the end of development we’re looking for stuff. Someone might introduce a pathing routine one year from now that’s better than the one we’ve got so we’ll incorporate that one. We’ll stay more fluid in our process in that way.

You said recently that you believe the biggest changes to have ever happened in the videogame recently have happened in the past two-four years. What are they?

Direct access to the consumer, and getting money directly from the crowd. That threw out publishers and retail in one fell swoop. Digital distribution too. And then the ability to harness the power of a worldwide talent base rather than just the people down the street. They’re the biggest changes.

But technologically speaking, we’re on this exponential growth curve. In this century, we’re not going to have a 100 years of technological progress, we’re going to have a 1000, compared to last year. And that’ happening in our business.

We’re having this exponential curve of growth and change that’s happening so fast it’s breathtaking. Y’know, all of a sudden Nintendo’s in, they’re hot, they’re not, they’re out – you have no idea what’s going to happen next.

The changes are happening so rapidly. We’re on track with Moore’s Law. It’s crazy stuff that’s going on.

 

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