[The veteran game developer and Interplay founder explains how game designers need to have business sense along with design sense, the risk in bringing a fantasy-themed, new IP like Hunted: The Demon's Forge to market, and why a reliance on focus groups fails the industry.]
Industry veteran Brian Fargo has been in games for around 30 years, and he says that a combination of game design sense and business savvy has been able to keep him going amid the rapidly-evolving video game landscape.
Fargo is the founder of Interplay, established in 1983, where he worked on games including The Bard's Tale and Wasteland. While at Interplay, he also led the company in the publishing of memorable games like Black Isle's Fallout and Fallout 2, and BioWare's Baldur's Gate.
In 2002, Fargo went on to found a new studio, InXile Entertainment, which largely broke away from classic PC role-playing games and has focused on publishing more mass market titles like Line Rider and Fantastic Contraption.
Currently, InXile is at work on the fantasy action game Hunted: The Demon's Forge, a title that unabashedly embraces fantasy elements like swords, spells and demons, published by Bethesda Softworks and due in spring this year.
In this wide-ranging interview, Fargo explains how game designers need to have business sense along with design sense, the risk in bringing a fantasy-themed, new IP like Hunted to the retail market, and why a reliance on focus groups in the games industry fails to recognize "the randomness of the entertainment business."
You're kind of an interesting figure. You're from this old school class of game veterans.
Brian Fargo: You know, I've always been in an interesting wedge because part of the issue is that my roots are definitely in game design and being a programmer. So, when I'm with the [creative] guys on that side, the business people in the industry see me as the creative type. And then at the same time, I've had to run a public company, I've bought companies and sold companies, and done all the things along those lines, and the creative people go, "He's a business guy." [laughs]
Many people look at me as weirdly between the two worlds.
Some people in the industry say that game designers these days can't afford not to be business-savvy. Is that something that you can relate to or agree with?
BF: For sure. I never thought of it any other way, right. Before I was into games, I was always a business guy. I was selling Amway as a kid, whatever. I just always thought about the numbers. It depends. If you're going to be trying to run your own business in any way, shape, or form, then absolutely [you need to know business]. If you say, "You know what? I don't want to deal with that business stuff. I just want to be an employee and focus on just the creative side," then not necessarily.
But if you can negotiate a deal that gets you twice as much per unit, that one little action changes everything. You only have to sell half as many to make the same amount of money. Ultimately the game quality and the business economics come together at some point. So, yeah, in order to survive, you have to have some business acumen. And then there's a lot of scenarios out there that you have to wade through to figure out what's real and what has potential to make money.
Hunted: The Demon's Forge
So then how has your own business experience and knowledge affected the design decisions in Hunted: The Demon's Forge?
BF: Well, I guess for one, I think it's more difficult than that now. Because remember, we don't just do triple-A games. We do have PSN titles. We have iPhone titles, iPad titles. We have a website with Line Rider. We have a casual games site. I've done that so I can keep myself involved in everything, so I can understand why the DLC works, why does PSN work. Because each one of the worlds is its own microcosm of economics, right? You can have the same game on one system for free and then on another for a $1.99 and on another for $9.99, and it's the exact same title.
So, it's about understanding why that happens and why it works. I try to keep myself involved in everything out of, I don't know, intellectual stimulation, to just want to stay relevant at the same time. And thank God I have.
But as far as the business decisions, on Hunted -- I've always wanted to have what can sell. I mean everybody has a creative idea. My grandma has creative ideas, but can they sell? I'm a student of the market. Looking back at all kinds of data, I read all the industry stuff. I read your website. I read everything. I keep a sense of things. So, at least when we're kicking of a title, I feel like we're making a nice educational guess as to where there might be an opportunity in the marketplace.
At one point we decided, "You know what? There isn't a great fantasy action game." Not really, right? And there's some elements of dungeon crawls that collide that the old schoolers, kind of like myself, and there's some elements we can take from that and re-introduce in a different format.
So, I look at all those things and say, "Here's what we want to build," hoping that it fits into a place within the market. Once we decided that we were going to deal with a publisher, within the business side again, which is you've got to negotiate the contract, work out the milestones and how you recoup, again, that's the business side.
But it's not affecting the game design or the quality, etcetera, other than we're going to have a budget, and we have to make a game with that budget. So you have to create a corporate culture that everybody's very cognizant of what they're spending and tracking that and things like that. But once we're underway and we know what the budget is and we know how we're going to get there, then creatively there's no day-to-day business decision from a creative standpoint, because the die has been cast before we started.