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It's that second project, inXile Entertainment's Wasteland 2, that has truly shaken veteran CRPG players out of their role-playing shooter slump. Promising a return to the tactical, turn-based combat we grew up with, a seven-character party system, an isometric viewpoint, deep moral dilemmas filled with choice and consequence, and the same post-nuclear wasteland we first fell in love with back in 1988, there isn't a single bullet point in the game's overview that even hints of publisher influence. And so, with my excitement in check, I hit up the one and only Brian Fargo to see if he'd be willing to discuss his team's goals for the game in a bit more detail. And, thankfully, he agreed:
GB: I suspect that a vast majority of our audience understands what you're setting out to accomplish with Wasteland 2, but for those who are just stumbling upon the project, what can you tell us about your primary goals for the game? What specific feature set does the game absolutely have to have at release, in your mind, and why should fans of old-school RPGs be excited?
Brian: The hallmark of a great RPG is when the player can navigate the world the way they want to and not have it dictated by someone else's morality or confined due to graphic budgets. Much of that was lost as RPGs made their way to console or had graphical demands that were so high that the developer was making more linear narrative games. There was also quite a bit of fun in creating a party based game and having NPCs join up with you that have both hidden talents and annoying habits. We also want to get people back to using their brain to solve combat issues and not make them rely on a controller. The gamers have been making this request quite loudly for years.
GB: You've stated that you were ready to shelve the idea of a Wasteland 2 prior to Double Fine's Kickstarter success, despite the fact that inXile already has a year's worth of work clocked in on the game. How liberating is it to finally see an avenue that could make this thing become a reality?
Brian: It's pretty unbelievable and indeed exciting. I just gave a keynote address at GDC China last year and remarked how sad it was that this style of game appeared dead. And it wasn't a month ago that I took all my Wasteland documents that I had been working on for years and filed them away for what I thought was good. It was always shocking to me that publishers had ZERO interest in bringing back this kind of game.
GB: There are quite a few differences between Wasteland and Fallout, but due to the fact that the latter was a spiritual successor of the former, they oftentimes get construed as near-identical post-apocalyptic games. Do you think it's important to retain the Wasteland identity in the sequel and perhaps even try to push the game further away from the Fallout formula to ensure its uniqueness?
Brian: I think there might be varying opinions on what the formulas were for each and how they might be different. Wasteland excelled at many things like tactical combat, interesting situations that did not have clear cut correct solutions and it continued to surprise you along the way. Not only with those elements not be lost they will be expanded upon. We have the advantage of hindsight now since we can clearly see what things people reacted well to. We were flying blind while we made the first game. Fallout excelled in many of the same things but it really shined in tone and style. We need to make sure that we have an interesting art style and vibe. If there is any feeling that you have seen something a hundred times before you lose interest pretty quickly.
GB: You've mentioned previously that you're shooting for a top-down perspective for Wasteland 2 to keep asset costs to a minimum. Can you elaborate on what you mean by "top-down"? Will there be a mixture of multiple perspectives, depending on whether the player is exploring, in combat, or in dialogue?
Brian: I hesitate to give too much definitive information on this only because I don't know what our final budget will be and I need more fan input. Clearly we are going top down and that it is likely to be isometric in nature. Some game engines have you bake the assets first which can give a better look while others have you render on the fly and give more latitude with camera work, and we are looking at several options here. I would imagine we will offer some different perspectives when it comes to dialogue but again it is a bit early for me to guarantee anything yet. We will nail down all of this soon but it is critical we make the hardcore happy with this title. I'd rather make a smaller dedicated fan base ecstatic than worry too much about the larger audience.
GB: How do you envision the turn-based combat system working, exactly? Aside from the original Wasteland, are there any earlier games that you feel did turn-based right, and you might look to for inspiration?
Brian: Again I hesitate to mention other games right now for fear of overreaction to what the final decision will be. But, obviously Fallout 1/2 did some great things with turn based combat so we certainly have that reference point. And we have been getting a fair amount of feedback from the boards that people liked the way Fallout Tactics handled aspects of combat. They didn't like the game in its entirety but they seemed to respond to the depth of the systems.
GB: While a lot of us have fond memories of the CRPGs of yesteryear, there have certainly been some modern sensibilities added to video games over the years that have improved upon the experience in measurable ways. They're certainly not all welcome additions, but I'd like to hear your thoughts on whether you think mechanics like regenerating health, autosaves, a detailed quest journal, fast travel, automapping with quest objective annotations, etc. have a place in Wasteland 2.
Brian: My tendency with this game is going to be closer to the experiences we all loved during the golden age of RPGs. Part of the reason we have the excitement we do is there is this general feeling that the games have been dumbed down for the masses. Politically correct situations, linear events, being careful no one gets lost etc...it can be kind of lame. We will put the game into beta test and if a huge majority about the lack of a feature we need to consider it but in general let's recreate the wonder with modern graphics and sound.
GB: Have you given any thought to the game's difficulty, and how it will compare to the games we grew up playing vs. today's offerings? Taking a cue from Fallout: New Vegas, would you consider implementing some kind of hardcore difficulty for those of us who truly want a challenge?
Brian: I need to meditate more on that point. My first priority is to really hone in on one experience before I start thinking about ways of making it easier or harder. True game design works hard at the flow of events and creating points of difficulty to make you feel like you earned something while other areas are up for the easy kill to reward you for the power you have achieved.
GB: Unfortunately, role-playing games have lost much of their original identity in recent years, thanks in part to the popularity of first-person action RPGs. How do you convince a newer or younger RPG fan who has grown accustomed to the action-focused titles to give Wasteland 2 a shot?
Brian: Well here is the beauty of fan funding... we don't have to convince some younger RPG player of anything. I am making this game for the wonderful fans who put their money behind us and not some nebulous group of new people. Let's make the game they all expect and let the chips fall where they may. There is just no way I'm going to consider anything that could let down the core.
GB: When it comes to RPGs, I consider a deep character progression system just as important as a good story. I realize you don't have anything set in stone yet, but how would you like to see character creation and advancement handled in Wasteland 2? How will our characters evolve from the beginning of the game to its conclusion?
Brian: We don't have the same character progression from a story perspective that you might expect from a more narrative game. There is a huge difference in giving the player the ability to have any party mix they want vs. forcing them to play a particular person or group. We really won't know who will be in the party at the end of the game due the open nature of things. I had a bunch of people tell me they cloned all their guys in Wasteland 1 and that certainly wasn't covered in the story. And in Wasteland 2 we are going to have a lot of NPCs in that players will favor over one another.
GB: Over on the Wasteland 2 forums, you're kicking around the idea of doing an iOS or Android version of the game, as well. If that idea comes to fruition, what steps would you take to ensure that A) supporting multiple platforms won't spread the funds you raise too thin, and B) designing the game for tablets won't compromise the controls and general intuitiveness on the PC?
Brian: Again I like to emphasize that the core PC group has to be handled perfectly and we would not let other formats dilute it. For this reason I am not even considering console since I am afraid it could affect development decisions. Supporting Mac is pretty much the same thing from a interface and graphics perspective so I have no worry about that having an adverse effect. But keep in mind we only support these other formats IF we raise additional monies so we don't dilute the funds we have.
GB: Assuming the game reaches or exceeds its funding goal, how long do you anticipate it will be before the game is ready for release? With over a year's worth of development under your belt already, is it possible we could be playing Wasteland 2 in 2012 yet?
Brian: We are gearing everything towards a ship in October 2013.
GB: Kickstarter seems like a fantastic way to get a project like this off the ground, but there's always that worst case scenario - you raise $1 million in funding, but run out of money due to unforseeable and/or tragic circumstances when the project is only 75% complete. Do you have any sort of contingency plan to ensure that Wasteland 2 becomes a reality, even if things don't go as planned?
Brian: I have been doing this for 30 years so I have a good grasp on how to get things done but fortunately we do have other income from all our previous IOS work and Choplifter so this isn't the only income we have. I think this issue is a real consideration for others and something I'm afraid will happen to someone. But so far so good...
GB: And I have to ask... what are the chances we'll ever see a continuation of the party-based Bard's Tale series many of us fell in love with 25 years ago? If Wasteland 2 is successful, would you ever consider using Kickstarter to fund a return expedition to Skara Brae?
Brian: What do you think? ;)