Interview with Black Isle Studios' Feargus Urquhart
June 11, 2001 Page 2 of 4
the key to Black Isle's success?
We try to look at what we need to do in each project and think realistically about what experience we have and the capabilities that we possess that apply to it. We are good at making RPGs—we might make horrible RTSs. So, we have consciously made the decision to continue working on projects that we know how to make. Pretty much everyone in the division touches almost every project, and it means everyone is learning a little bit more every production cycle. Each person can then take that experience on to the next projects to make them look, play, and run that much better.
Plus, we look at what we do as a business. Unfortunately there is no paycheck fairy that puts stacks of hundred dollar bills under everyone's pillows every two weeks. The reality is that everything costs money, and we need to be conscious of what we are spending our money (resources) doing. If too many people work on a project then we've spent too much money and then Interplay won't profit from the project. If Interplay doesn't profit then they will probably constrain the next project, which could make it harder for us to do our best.
Bioware's Baldur's Gate 2, published by Black Isle Studios.
do you create an atmosphere that's conducive to game development?
To answer somewhat tritely it is showing up every day and treating people like adults. People need to know what they are expected to do, that the person in charge has made sure that what they are doing will actually get used, and that they will only be treated like children if they've proven that they need to be.
As for the environment, we pretty much let people do what they want, when they want. Unless people are screaming at the top of their lungs when playing Quake in the middle of the day, we don't care. However, if they are playing Quake in the middle of the day and their last four tasks weren't done on time, that's a different conversation. That's not to say that people can come and go completely at will. We do need to have a certain number of hours during the day that the entire team is there—depending on the stage the project is in, we enforce this to greater or lesser degrees.
We also try to have people feel like they can talk with their producer and I about the problems they are having without it being an inquisition. There is a big difference between someone not getting something done because it was harder than they thought and taking three-hour lunches every day of the week they were supposed to be working on it.
Plus every one gets free Cokes. So it actually might be just that simple.
How long does it take for an idea/game design to get to production? At what point do you know that idea/game design is worth doing?
Hmm. That's a hard question in that I'm not sure when we have ever decided on a specific game design right at the start, or had a design that we were waiting to implement. The way we tend to do it is that we come up with a general idea for a project that we think will fit into the division that uses our technology and talents well, and has a good chance of selling around 300K units worldwide. As an example, I told one of teams in late 1996 that it would be a good idea for us to make a game using Bioware's Infinity Engine, the Planescape license, to have the game based in Sigil (an area in the Planescape world) and to have the player go to at least two other "dimensions". The product that came out of that was Torment. Torment was totally different than the game that I expected, but it fulfilled what I had suggested to them and it was commercially successful.
Black Isle's Planescape: Torment.
As for making sure it is worth doing. I guess we try to make sure that the "high concept" for the game is something that we want to make and will sell. We then develop that idea into a game design.
What are your criteria for trying to determine in the idea stage whether or not a concept will sell well? Who contributes to that assessment?
We often look at the idea and see if it is something that we can sell to both our fans and to the press. If we can think of things that will get either group interested in the first thirty seconds of us talking about it then it's probably an idea that we should explore further. Secondarily we look at whether this is something that could possibly catch on with a wider market than just the core fans of Black Isle. With either angle, we try to think very realistically about the product and how many units it is going to sell. This determination comes from what our past products have sold and what features the new product has that could expand or contract that amount. We also take into account that if we just make the same game that we made before, we are probably looking at 25 to 35 percent less sales for the new product.
Once the producers in the division and I are comfortable with what product we want to make, I then talk it over with the rest of the company and see if it something that they are willing to get behind, or if they will need to be cajoled into backing. Depending on how that all goes, we then either go back to the drawing board, move forward, or see if we can modify the general concept of the game to make it more palatable for the other departments. If they are looking for major modifications, I often think that it is a better plan for us to come up with a completely new idea that is interesting to both development and the rest of the company.
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