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Colin McComb was a designer at TSR best known for his work on the Planescape campaign setting and its many accessories, as well as the creation of the underappreciated Birthright campaign setting. From TSR, he landed at Interplay to help develop games based on the Planescape license, and how he's over at inXile Entertainment working as a designer/writer on Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera. We managed to catch up with Colin to briefly ask him about a cancelled PlayStation-exclusive Planescape game that he worked on at Black Isle Studios many years ago:
GB: You mentioned a PlayStation-exclusive Planescape game that you worked on at Black Isle Studios in one of your recent blog entries. Can you tell us more about that?
Colin: There's seriously not much to it, though - it was six months of me playing King's Field, talking to people, and getting a design document together. The only team members were me and Greg Christensen, the programmer. Where the expanded design doc is now is anyone's guess. I don't think we had developed any assets for the game, so it's not going to be too exciting to see.
GB: We've always thought it was a shame that Interplay only utilized the Planescape license for one game, but our understanding is that there were other Planescape pitches/projects that never made it out of Black Isle. Why were additional games never developed, and as one of the original designers of the campaign setting, what would you have liked to have seen happen with the setting in the video game sector?
Colin: The three Planescape games that were being made were:
1. Last Rites, which turned into Torment.
2. This one, which turned into a cancellation.
3. Zeb Cook's first-person Planescape, which folded into Stonekeep 2.
I think the reason Interplay folded the other Planescape titles was because they realized that they were spending a serious amount of money developing a license that was (to put it mildly) way outside the fantasy mainstream. Seriously, besides Fallout and the team coming off Rock and Roll Racing 2, I think nearly all the titles in the pre-Black Isle role-playing division were Planescape. It was the right business decision.
It was difficult for me to see all that Planescapey goodness get tossed away, I'll admit. I was proud of the work I'd done on the setting, and I thought it was something that really was a game-changer in terms of fantasy role-playing. It was also the first setting I worked on where my philosophy degree had an actual tangible use. I'd have loved to see what Zeb's team came up with; he has an amazing mind and a rich sense of story and setting, and it would have been a real treat to play in that. Obviously, I'd have loved to see my game come out, but of all the leads on the three Planescape titles, I was the one with the least amount of computer design work; it just made sense to cut mine.
GB: Were you hired by Interplay to specifically develop Planescape games?
Colin: I was hired specifically for my Planescape expertise, it's true. The first time I met Feargus, he told me how they'd love to get me in house as a resource for these titles, and I was ready to move on from TSR anyway - not from my friends or the work, I should add, but just that I was eager to try out something different after five years in Lake Geneva.
The other really interesting project out of Black Isle I was deeply involved with with the preliminary world design for the game that became TORN. I developed a brand-new world for the project, complete with accurate geology, tide patterns, a rudimentary astronomy, detailed history, multiple cultures for each of our races, and mythology anchored by a couple of very real agents of the vanished gods. The team went a different direction, though, and that world languishes on some rapidly-obsolecing storage media.
GB: Why was TORN altered from your original design direction?
Colin: I'm not sure why Black Isle went the different direction with TORN. I left the company soon thereafter, so I wasn't privy to the design decisions that resulted in the changes.
GB: Returning to the PlayStation game, you mentioned that you played a lot of King's Field as research. Isn't it somewhat barebones as far as RPGs are concerned, particularly in comparison to what you wrote in your vision document? What specifically did you find compelling about King's Field that you were looking to bring forward into your game?
Colin: King's Field was definitely bare bones for an RPG, and I should add that that direction was handed down to me with the project: "You WILL make a Planescape game, and it WILL be like King's Field." One of the aspects that I was hoping to improve was the number and types of enemies, the depth of dialogue and story, and a greater reliance on non-combat to solve puzzles. Given the hardware limitations of the PSX, I don't know that this would necessarily have been successful. That said, the puzzles, the exploration, and the real-time melee combat all seemed ideally suited to a computer D&D port, and I was very much looking forward to getting the Planescape architecture and feel implemented into an immersive visual medium.
GB: The King's Field series was also the spiritual predecessor of Demon's Souls (and now Dark Souls). It certainly looked very unforgiving and you talked a great deal about challenge. Were you looking to go that "hardcore" (for lack of a better word)? If so, what were your thoughts on preserving that level of difficulty verus the implementation of alternate solutions to problems?
Colin: The general direction, as I recall, was that this game *would* be a hardcore game. However, because another one of the tenets of Planescape is that there is always something bigger and meaner than you out there, I wanted to ensure that we could find alternate paths through the game to avoid combat. One of the great joys of the Planescape setting is that mere mortals can speak with immortal devils and angels and present them with philosophical arguments rather than physical ones, and I'd have loved to see that option presented. We could have developed a number of puzzles based on that conceit. Sadly, we never got that far.
GB: Did the target of the PlayStation have any effect on what content you were thinking about for the game? This would have been part of Interplay's attempt to break into the console market, and the lack of a breakout console title is part of what eventually doomed the company. Was there any pressure to appeal to the "mass market" or go for a particular ESRB rating unlike Torment?
Colin: I wasn't given any direction to appeal to a certain market. I think the general directive of "make this game like King's Field" was probably indicator enough. In general, though, I was given tremendous freedom to develop the game.
GB: Before we let you get back to Tides of Numenera, can you briefly sum up the main path or plot of the game?
Colin: This was about 16 years ago, so I hope you'll forgive my hazy memory on the exact details: The core of the game's story was that you took the part of a young Mercykiller recruit. It's your first day on the job and there's a riot in the Hive, the slum of Sigil. You go into the tenements with your squad, but are quickly separated from them by the press of flesh and the flames, and you need to find your way out. Clues lead you into the Lower Ward, where you discover a criminal enterprise run by (apparently) a shadowy thieving organization. Your superiors send in investigators to wrap up most of the conspirators, and they send you to Ribcage in order to pursue certain loose ends. While there, you discover that this is a much bigger conspiracy than you thought, with tendrils extending into the politics of Baator itself. You plunge into Hell to exact justice, even though it means your near-certain death.
We'd have had the politics of Sigil tied into this, which is to say lots of other factions getting involved, and some celestial hierarchy as well. I was looking forward to doing it, but I learned so much from Torment that I have to say it was really for the best.
GB: Thanks for your time, Colin!