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An RPG Codex representative has recently visited the offices of InXile Entertainment and came back with a lengthy interview featuring a variety of InXile's employees, including Brian Fargo, George Ziets, Colin McComb, and David Rogers.
While some of the matters discussed are relevant only to the Codex, the majority of the interview revolves around Torment: Tides of Numenera, Wasteland 3, and The Bard's Tale IV. We also get a glimpse of what a day at InXile looks like. Here's a rather sizeable excerpt:
While ascending the stairs towards InXile’s unassuming office, I was greeted by an equally unassuming man wearing a cap, who introduced himself as Jim Redner, public relations. I recognized him as the liaison who reached out to our nefarious DarkUnderlord, to whom I owed the pleasure and pain of my visit. Jim bade me follow, and soon I was leaving behind the bright, balmy streets of Newport, California, and stepping into the sunless depths of InXile’s development studio.
As the door closed behind me, I was greeted on all sides by the soft tapping of keyboards in a rhythmic pattern, not unlike an ambient, monastic chant. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw the developers, their faces hidden by the angles of gadgets and electronics, their minds networked across a dozen GUI elements. In their trancelike state, they didn’t seem to notice my presence. Around them, a complex of digital and mechanical numenera sprouted: computer screens, crawling with algorithms and text; wires, growing like veins across desks; a rib-vault ceiling of pipes and electric lights; and the walls, blooming with posters from an era when men would decorate their rooms with the symbols of their idolatry.
It was then I realized that, though it had the appearance of a basement, InXile’s headquarters was actually a temple, a shrine to the old gods who ruled while the industry was still young. Their worship thereafter diminished, but not entirely forgotten, they have retreated to the cloisters of faithful acolytes, who continue to attend, waiting, praying for a time when their gods shall be relevant again. Here, in a fortress funded by belief and regret, the remnants of Interplay’s glorious past gathered, hoping to raise a requiem to some of the greatest video games the world has ever known…
In the throes of a religious experience, I barely heard a small voice - or was it many voices, like a hive mind? - calling out to me. A tiny red man with pointed ears whispered to me of broken promises and tainted legacies, of mediocre products, canceled interviews, and false accusations. Suddenly, I remembered who I was and what I was there to do. I turned to Jim and said that, since I was already ten minutes late, we should do the interview at once. Jim complied and introduced me to a man I recognized as none other than Brian Fargo, the founder and CEO of Interplay… oh, and of InXile.
Brian welcomed me into his office - a quaint, smallish room, of which the most prominent decorations were a library of old games in their original packaging and a Wasteland 2 poster. I recognized many of the former, including Codex favorites Fallout, Planescape: Torment, and Baldur’s Gate. It had to be explained, however, that the latter was embedded, in fine print, with the names of all the backers of the Kickstarter campaign. I squinted to read them.
What's InXile's future direction? Recent comments on Wasteland 3 suggest more focus on graphics, cinematic conversations, and streamlined mechanics. Your second studio is working on a VR title. Are these representative of the “games we would want to play ourselves?”
Brian: Well, specific to Wasteland 3, I think if you liked Wasteland 2, you’re going to love Wasteland 3. It’s just as deep, just as morally nuanced, combat system is the same, it’s party-based. The visual improvement – we know we always have to constantly improve visuals. One of the things we hear from RPG websites is that visuals don’t matter, but they really do at the end of the day. We have people complaining about the visuals in Torment, or in Wasteland 2, or in Pillars of Eternity. We always have to keep working on our visuals, but better graphics, hopefully mean better immersion. Wasteland 3 is just as deep as Wasteland 2, it’s not simplified.
George: We are not abandoning things like choices and consequences and the things we love to do. We are improving some things on the graphical side, we are talking about having the close up conversations for important NPCs, which is to give more character to the NPCs and make them a more impactful experience. But we are not giving up on interesting story - that was literally the first thing I did on Wasteland 3, which was to write the story for it. We are not giving up on choices and consequences. If anything, we’re trying to make those more impactful and less subtle.
Brian: One of the things we need to do a better job of is better selling our cause and effect mechanics. We tend to put it so deep and so nuanced that you’d need to play the game two or three times, or to be told about it, practically. We need to better telegraph it, that’s one of the things with Torment – it’s incredibly reactive, that’s why there’s so many words, but it’s really hard for you to understand unless you knew what was supposed to happen, and that’s what we need to improve on because I think we’re doing more depth than just about anybody but it’s not being recognized because we’re being too subtle about it.
In general, are you planning to continue making sequels and games in existing franchises, or are there plans to expand, develop new IPs, and so on?
Brian: We want to keep doing roleplaying games, that’s for sure, that’s our forte. Caveat: I’m not saying we’ll never do any little one-off in other genres, but roleplaying games are all we have in our plans. In terms of the future, I don’t want them all to be spiritual sequels or sequels. I like to do some original stuff also.
Kevin Saunders left before the end of production. Can you talk about why he left and how his departure affected production?
Brian: I can’t talk about an employee’s specific performance, but what I can do is to provide you with a factual history of things. Kevin left the project in late 2015, right? At that point, we were roughly two years into production. At that point, we’ve gotten the first pass of combat. The story was not yet at first pass. No abilities or weapons were in outside of the alpha systems. And so, at that time, if we had gone along that route, the game would not be done until the year 2018. I could not afford to stay on that path. I had to change what we were doing.
And, to talk about scope, the product was wildly over scoped. Even today, after we made the “cuts,” the original specification for the game was 600,000 words. You know how many we are at now? It’s 1.6 million words, probably a world record for a single player game. I think the only games that have more word count is MMOs done over a long period of time.
George: When recording, the guys who were doing the recording were saying, this is like one of those big MMOs, and they were shocked that it was a single player game.
Brian: After cuts, it ends up being several times what we wanted it to be. Planescape: Torment, the number that was thrown around a lot was 750,000 words. But when you talk to Avellone, he would say we actually double counted some sentences, so it might not even be that high. I think the Bible is like 700,000 words so that seems plenty of words to do a narrative piece, something that is as big as the Bible.
So basically, after two years in, I had to change plans. So those are the facts. I’m not trying to disparage Kevin, I don’t want to talk negatively about him in any way, but I can at least speak to the facts behind what was going on at that point.
More than a dozen promised stretch goal features were cut from the final game. You’ve already provided the reasons for many of these cuts on the Eurogamer interview, but most of the Codex disagree with the idea that the cuts made the game better, since it felt like a betrayal of donors’ trust. Why didn’t you start with a more reasonable feature list? What does one unfulfilled Kickstarter promise matter?
Brian: Well, you’re right, but let me answer that broadly and specifically. One of the things about crowd funding is that the crowd becomes our publisher, ultimately. Now, one of the things we like about industry publishers, at least the ones we work the best with, is that they are agile, that they don’t hold us to the specifics of the contract, that they kind of trust our judgment to do the right things in order to get the product complete and to hit the main beats we want to hit.
Now, we did do those things and I’m still very proud of the product, but with crowd funding, it’s different, because they get to say that we promised those things. Now, in a normal publisher relationship I bet they’d say those were the right calls to make based on all the things I’m describing to you. But again, we’ll fall on our sword for this, we have to be very careful about what we promise if we’re dealing with a crowd funding atmosphere.
We underestimated the latitude we’d be given in order to make these changes that we thought would be better or in some cases we couldn’t get into the product until the year 2018. So, in some ways, like word count, the product was much grander than we ever dreamed of or planned for. I think that goes in the plus column. But okay, we’re missing some companions, though we’re bringing out updates to put them back in.
I’d still say – but don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we should have promised what we didn’t put in – that even if we had two or three more companions, the totality of the experience wouldn’t have changed that much. You played the product, right? There’s not much combat in the game, and the few that you have, you can skip them. Does a crafting system really make sense in a game that has less than twenty combat experiences?
In the future, we will be much more careful about detailing the specifics. With Bard Tale IV, with Wasteland 3, there’s nothing in those lists that we’re not going to not do.
Jim: Actually, to add to this question, we might want to speak about communication as well.
Brian: Right, the other big mistake we made, was that we communicated poorly. If we had done a better job this would’ve been less of an issue. We were coming out of the last year, we weren’t quite sure of all that was or wasn’t going to be in. We knew about the NPCs, but we weren’t sure about the Voluminous Codex, there were some discussion points on things. We got busy with the holidays and underestimated how much we could do. I know it looked like we were hiding it, but we weren’t.
A couple of questions about Wasteland 3. Does the cinematic conversations feature imply that all conversations will be voice acted? What's budget for voice acting?
George: All the dialogue? Probably not. I don't think the intention is for us to have talking heads for everyone. Brian?
Brian: All the talking heads, no. Whether it's all going to be voice acted, I would like it to be that way but I will not guarantee it will be that way. We have this discussion all the time. My guys tell me it's impossible but I personally would like everything spoken, because I think the drama of hearing the person say the words is far greater than you reading it during a conversation. Certainly you're not going to see the faces for every conversation.
George, you are the lead designer for Wasteland 3. Are you writing the story and designing the characters? What are your main goals for improving the Wasteland experience?
George: I did write the story. I wrote up the design constraints. I came up with all the zones and got the map. Now individual zone designers are generating the briefs and I'll be reviewing that and making sure. I'm in charge of the vision and what the narrative is going to be, and now we're moving towards implementing that. I'll be involved in pretty much everything else and reviewing the game as we're implementing it. I'll be involved in every aspect. I'm not the lead systems designer.
Brian: Wasteland 3 is going to be a much tighter experience than Wasteland 2. Wasteland 2, we weren't even sure what our budget was going to be, we got the first part then we got a little bit more then we did early access and got some more. We kept layering it on. We also weren't sure how many things we should bridge from Wasteland 1. There were some things like the key word, which we wouldn't have come up with in normal circumstances, but we didn't want the Wasteland 1 people to feel they were being ignored. I think conversational systems are much better. It flows better. It's what we're used to more when you're playing other role playing games. We also didn't have a person like George at the center coming up with the totality of the story in the beginning so things should hang together much better. Wasteland 3 is going to be a much more finessed and tight experience.
David, are you happy with the reception you've gotten for the combat system in Bard's Tale IV?
David: We've been following what people have been saying online about the whole video. The three big walk away moments are: the world looks cool, the combat looks fun, and I hate how the characters keep bobbing up and down when they talk. I think people are going to be stoked when they see how involved each combat is. You can't really run the same combo again and again, because we added the positional elements. The same combo isn't going to work because that guy isn't standing in front of your warrior on turn 1. You're going to have to spend all your resources differently, and everything's going to play out slightly differently as it ripples across each turn.
So you're saying you wanted to introduce more diversity in the combat system. Will this be in the next iteration?
David: We have versions of it running now. You can set up different groups and player abilities and we have some player abilities working. So what we see when I walk into a group is - "what can I do to bring this group down without getting killed and it's sort of a different problem every time I get into combat because of where I'm positioned, where the enemy's positioned, how much damage I've taken recently, whether I've eaten or healed recently." So yeah, I think everyone's going to walk into a combat and have to come up with a strategy on the fly. So they shouldn't be running through the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or face rolling across the key board to solve the combat.
Brian: We've failed if we did that. Bard's Tale IV is the inverse of Torment. This is a game where combat is everything, so it better be fun and better be interesting. Of course, not every combat is going to be as intense as in the video. There's still going to be some combat that moves through quickly where it's just attack attack attack defend defend defend. We still need less intense combat between the intense ones so I don't want you to feel like every combat is going to be as intense as in the video.
David: We kind of have these two notes that we hit. I might be going through a dungeon and I'd have these, you could call them trash fights, but they're really more like wars of attrition, leading up to a possible boss fight. So part of what we're testing is how efficiently can you get through these one or two minutes combat on your way to the boss.