Black Isle Studios Interview

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As many gaming enthusiasts already know, Interplay has effectively shut down Black Isle Studios, let a vast majority of the division's employees go, and shelved the third chapter in the Fallout series.

Among the BIS employees let go was John Deiley, whose development track record includes some of the highest acclaimed RPGs ever produced: Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale, Icewind Dale 2, Heart of Winter, Trials of the Luremaster, and Descent to Undermountain. He also worked on a handful of games that Interplay ended up cancelling, including Fallout 3, Baldur's Gate III, TORN, and Stonekeep 2.

Why would a company let go of such a talented and experienced game developer? We had the chance to talk with John himself to learn firsthand what happened during the final days of Black Isle Studios, and what the gaming community lost with the closing of the division and the cancelling of Fallout 3, Baldur's Gate 3, and TORN. Our questions and his answers to follow:

GB: What do you feel prompted Interplay's decision to close Black Isle Studios?

John: Technically, BIS has not been shut down. Black Isle Studios is a *brand* name that is owned by Interplay Entertainment Corp. As such, Interplay has the right to put the BIS *brand* name on any product it produces.

The fact that there are no original BIS employees working for Interplay is irrelevant.

Anyway, to answer your question, it was done for purely financial reasons. The company could no longer afford to pay us.

GB: Were you aware that such a decision might be made during the final days of the studio, or was it entirely out of the blue?

John: It was always a possibility. The company was in dire financial straights. Direct payroll deposit had been canceled and employees were being paid with live checks. A few of those checks bounced but were later made good on. However, we had reason to believe that we were fine and that the company would pull out of its slump.

GB: What was the atmosphere like at BIS during its final 6 months?

John: This is going to come across quite corny, but it's true. Black Isle Studios was more than just a division. We were family and friends. We all trusted one another, respected one another, and depended on one another. We stayed with Interplay through thick and thin because of this. We knew what we could do as a development team given the support we needed from Interplay. Yes, the atmosphere was bleak at times. But we believed that we could do our part to make things work out in the end.

GB: Many people consider the Fallout series and Planescape: Torment as some of Black Isle's greatest achievements. Why did the original Fallout spawn a sequel and the start of a third chapter, yet no plans were seemingly made for further Planescape titles? Or were there?

John: To the best of my knowledge there were no plans to make a sequel to Planescape: Torment. I can only speculate on the reason why. Here are my thoughts.

Fallout was based in 1950's Americana. It was in our "backyard" so to say. I think that appealed to a lot of people. Also, it had an innocent and light hearted feel to it even though it was based on a very frightening (at the time) premise: survival after a nuclear holocaust. The story itself was simple and led to multiple endings in which the player truly shaped his world. Sales were much better than anticipated.

Planescape: Torment was a brilliant piece of work. To this day I've never encountered a story with such depth and perception in any game. I doubt that I ever will. However, I think that Torment was too radical a departure from the "norm" so to say. Our fans were used to DnD games based in typical DnD fantasy universes. As a result, initial sales were poor. However, over time the sales rivaled many of our other titles due to word of mouth. People loved the game. Unfortunately, I don't think Interplay wanted to risk development on a sequel unless they were guaranteed initial good sell through.

GB: At the time of the studios' closure, how much of Fallout 3 had been completed? How much more development time do you feel the title needed before it could have been considered "complete"?

John: The engine was about 95% done. You could create characters, use skills, perform both ranged and melee combat, save/load games, and travel across maps. We had a tutorial level done that would let you do all of the above. All areas but one had been designed. About 75% of the dialogs were done and at least 50% of the maps. We had character models and monster models.

If Interplay had supported us as they had promised and given us needed resources from other divisions we would have finished the game on time. Possibly even ahead of schedule.

GB: Although the title may or may not ever exist, can you tell us what the concept and background was behind Fallout 3? What did BIS have in store for Fallout fans in this next chapter?

John: The game would begin with the player in a prison cell. Because of this the player was given a choice. He could be an innocent that was imprisoned because of some misunderstanding, or he could choose to be a criminal and take bonus traits that would bolster some of his skills.

The player would awaken in a prison cell, but not the one he remembered falling asleep in. Suddenly the floor rocks violently from an explosion and the player is knocked unconscious. When he awakens he finds his cell door open and a hole in the wall leading outside. Leaving the prison, he is under attack by some unknown assailant. Deciding that discretion is the better part of valor, the player flees into the night to explore his new world.

Unfortunately, his new found freedom may be short lived. The player is relentlessly pursued by robots who want to return him to the prison. As he explores the world and tries to outwit his pursuers, he begins to uncover an underlying plot. Why was he in a different prison than the one he fell asleep in? Why can't he remember being transferred? What was the attack on the prison about in the first place?

The game offered a myriad of new places to discover and explore. It spanned a good portion of Utah, Colorado, and the surrounding areas. The player could repair railways and locomotives for fast travel to distant locales with train stations. Or, he could find and repair several vehicles that allowed access to areas outside the railways. Or... the player could hoof it.

There were old friends and new enemies in the game. The Brotherhood of Steel was back but fading from glory. The player could rebuild them or destroy them. There was a group of fanatics who worshiped a mad goddess and her life/death religion. Mad the goddess may be, but the genetic knowledge she turned into a religion was helping the wasteland. The player could take her down and free the people from her tyranny (and possibly weaken them in the long run) or let her religion prosper (and build a heartier stock of people that could better survive the rigors of the wasteland). These were just two of many factions in the game.

There were recognizable places to visit like Denver, Boulder, Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon, and many others. There were new places to discover like the Twin Mothers, the Nursery, New Canaan, and many more.

In size the game was somewhere between Fallout 1 and 2. We decided to go for quality of content over size of the overall game. There is so much more I could say about the game, but I'll save that for another time.