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Interview with Black Isle Studios' Feargus Urquhart
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Interview with Black Isle Studios' Feargus Urquhart

June 11, 2001 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

How many years have you been at this?

A little over 10 years, and all of that time at Interplay. I first started working for Interplay as a part-time play-tester in 1991. I then got full time job as an assistant producer in 1993 and was promoted to being an associate producer in early 1994. For the next couple of years I produced titles for the PC, Mac, 3DO, NES, SNES, Game Boy, Sega Genesis, Sega 32x, and the PSX. Then in 1996, I was promoted to being the division director for the division that would become Black Isle Studios—and that's pretty much what I've been doing ever since.

What's the most important thing anybody ever taught you about game development?

By far the most important thing that I was taught is as a game developer or designer we are not creating games for ourselves. We are making them for the people who are going to play them, and the press that is going to write about them. Taking that into account means that you have to think very seriously about how you make games, what features you include in them, and how they are presented to both the consumers and the press. As a game developer you have to take into account that the press wants to see new bells and whistles even as they are telling you that game play is all that matters. If you don't have eye candy or some "hooks" that can be communicated very quickly, they have a habit of losing interest very quickly. And while the consumers will also say that they don't care about graphics, if your screenshots don't blow them away then there is less of a chance they will type in the website that is listed on the ad.

If you don't have eye candy or some "hooks" that can be communicated very quickly, gamers have a habit of losing interest very quickly.

As a game developer life gets pretty rough. What would you have to say to anyone that says, "I want to do what he does"?

The biggest thing I have had to do is learn about people. The challenge is learning how to deal with the fact that pretty much everyone who makes games thinks they're right. So you need to figure out how to get five people who all think they are the right to make a decision without the use of firearms. After a while you are able to put a large bag of tricks together that gets you through the day.

The days are mixed though. I think a lot of people who run projects or development houses have days that are best explained as manic. Some days everything seems to be going right—the art is getting done, the designers are agreeing, and the game actually compiled. Other days can be filled with everyone being unhappy about who just got to make the last design decision, no one thinks they are being paid enough, the lead designer and lead artist aren't talking anymore, and the QA team says they think that your game that is due in three months isn't shipping for a year.

Different development studios seem to deal with those creative differences in different ways with apparently varying degrees of success both for the company's long-term health and productivity and the benefit to the game itself. What are some of the things that are in that bag of tricks of yours?

A lot of the things in the bag of tricks have to do with convincing people of what they are and aren't responsible. Generally if someone is given the tools to do their job, and they know that they don't have to worry about other parts of the project that may seem to be broken, they work well. When people on development teams feel that there are open issues, and that the producers are showing a blind eye to obvious problems, they start worrying about things they can't do much about. So, the "trick" I have learned is to make sure that everyone knows that the producer does know what is working and what is not working—and is either working on fixing the current problems, or has a plan as to when the problem will be dealt with.

Now, one of the more day to day "tricks" is making sure that everyone is aware of a decision the second it is made. Plus, when telling them of the decision, give them an idea as to whether it is something up for negotiation or not. Another "trick" is to make sure that everyone has a voice. One of the things that I have repeatedly heard and read is that the most effective and successful companies are those that allow the lowest ranked employee to make decisions and suggestions concerning what they do on a day to day basis, and that they also feel free to make suggestions about larger issues in the company. In Japan this is called Kaizen, and is something that can be seen in some of the larger U.S. companies like GE under Jack Welch, and the new IBM.

Concept art from Icewind Dale.

And the last "trick" is that everybody in Black Isle sees me almost every day. I walk around three or four times a day, and constantly ask questions about what is going well, what isn't going well, or just how they are doing. It makes them much more comfortable about management's presence and less inclined not to bring problems up or hide things.

How do you get the team to turn itself around after periods like that? Does everyone just wait for the tensions just wear off, or do you have a way of working through them?

Basically, we try to get people working. The analogy I use a lot of the time is that game development is like a train or a very large ship. It takes a hell of a lot of energy to get it moving. Then once it does, it better be the right direction, because it can be really hard to turn with all that inertia behind it. When the team starts fracturing because of open issues and creative differences the train starts slowing down and will eventually stop. It then takes a Herculean effort on the part of the producers and leads to get it moving again. The quickest way to do this is make sure that everyone knows what they need to get done and have tasks they can easily complete. The managers then need to make sure that the tasks are being completed and are showing the team that they know what is and isn't getting done. Once the team sees that the train is moving again and is picking up speed, they have a tendency to put the "bad times" in the past.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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