Planescape: Torment Interview
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Page 1 of 2Following yesterday's interview with lead designer Chris Avellone, we tracked down lead programmer Dan Spitzley to run the same questions past him and get an entirely different viewpoint on the game's development. Once again, our questions and his answers to follow:
GB: Tell us a bit about your previous work at Black Isle Studios and your role during the development of Planescape: Torment.
Dan: I started at Interplay prior to Black Isle's inception in 1995. The first project I worked on was a computer version of TSR's Dragon Dice collectible dice game. That was finally released in 1997, if I recall, after a pretty difficult development cycle. Despite being a pretty accurate simulation of the game, it suffered from an art style that was all over the map, and was, I think, just not very fun even in its dice-based form.
After that, I became lead programmer on Planescape: Torment. I've always considered the title a bit misleading since I was the only programmer on the project at the time, so I was sort of lead by default. Most of the work I did on Torment was pure feature implementation, which for a lead is pretty unusual, at least these days. I'm pretty sure I was the first programmer at Black Isle to really get his hands dirty in the Infinity Engine. Baldur's Gate hadn't even shipped at that point, so it was still undergoing some pretty major changes. It was very educational trying to add new features like floating text, map notes, and a bestiary while integrating updated builds from Bioware every couple of months.
Incidentally, during development, I was pulled off for about two months each for Fallout 1 and 2 to do scripting work on areas like the Hub, Vault City, and Broken Hills. At the time, I was concerned how that would affect Torment's development, but now I feel incredibly lucky to have been involved with the Fallout series.
GB: What was your initial reaction when you first heard that Black Isle Studios would be developing an RPG based in the Planescape campaign setting? Did you immediately realize the potential such a unique setting could have?
Dan: Initially, I wasn't familiar with Planescape. When I started on the project, however, I did a bit of research, and it was immediately obvious that we could do things that wouldn't make sense in standard fantasy RPGs. Even back then, RPGs were chock full of dwarf/elf/Foozle-style content, and it was nice to know we would have some freedom to try different things. I was especially excited to see how the architecture of the Planescape universe, Sigil specifically, would turn out, since implementing that properly would immediately set us apart from other RPGs in a big way.
GB: Before starting on Torment, how familiar were you with the Planescape setting? Did you have to do a lot of reading and other research before becoming involved with the game?
Dan: I have never really been a pen-and-paper gamer. I grew up with CRPGs and Infocom games on the Apple II. I was pretty familiar with D&D since my brother was (and is) heavily into pen-and-paper gaming. Planescape, though, was new to me when Torment started. Since I wasn't a designer, the basic Planescape handbooks were enough to give me a good idea of what direction the game would take.
GB: What was it like to be a part of the Planescape: Torment development team on a day-to-day basis and what was the general "mood" of the development team as the game progressed? Any fond memories you can share with us?
Dan: We were a pretty close-knit team. For a good period of time myself, Tim Donley (Lead Artist), Chris Avellone (Lead Designer), and alternately Aaron Brown and Aaron Meyers (Artists) all sat in a single office (aka The Love Nest). This was great for communication in the early stages of the game, and I think it helped keep us on the same page.
The mood of the team fluctuated over the course of the project, as it does on any project. I think having significant portions of the team pulled off for Fallout 1 and 2 really hurt morale a bit, but we always managed to bounce back. I think we were all in a pretty good mood after a big press event we had at the office where about half a dozen editors crammed into The Love Nest and we let them spend some time playing the game. That was quite early on, but we were already getting the idea that people were impressed with what we were doing.
I've got a number of fond memories:
- The first spell we got into the game was Ice Knife, IIRC. Tim Donley spent most of the day running through the Hive, killing innocent civilians with it and laughing maniacally. He declared Torment (the greatest game in the world) on that day.
- Aaron Meyers constantly canceling Christmas. (Oh my God! I've had enough! Cancel Christmas!) I'm pretty sure we kept track of how many got cancelled. I think I may actually get some presents this year.
- Eric Campanella had just finished rendering out the new Nameless One. Before we let him see it in the game, we replaced its head with that of Jack from the Jack in the Box commercials. A good laugh was had by all.
- Trying to come up with a name for the Black Isle division during its inception. My favorites were Colostomy Bag Food Fight and Raining Dumptrucks.
GB: Which CRPGs would you consider your favorites and how did such titles influence or inspire you during the development of Torment?
Dan: The Ultima series was always a favorite, as was the Might and Magic series. I spent too many hours playing through those from middle school through college. They gave me something to shoot for with regards to quality control. I don't recall ever running into serious bugs with any game in either of those series (no, I didn't play Ultima IX). I know Torment could hardly be called bug-free, but I think considering how complex it was, we shipped with a reasonably low bug count.