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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 Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

Has Interplay's ongoing financial troubles had an effect on the quality of the games produced in Black Isle?

I think it just makes us realistic about what kind of games we can make and how to make them. Plus, we try not to go too far out on a limb with our games. We might get to make the horror-western RPG that I've always wanted to make sometime in the future, but for right now we have to bet on projects that we feel have a good chance of being successful. Now that is not to say that I personally don't like making D&D games, I actually really enjoy it.

How can you prevent not going "too far out on a limb" or games that have a "good chance of being successful" from being perceived as by players as more-of-the-same? How do you balance your creative drive with convincing higher-ups that a given idea will sell well?

In a lot of ways those are both the same question. In order for us not go too far out on a limb we have to retain brands and technology that allow us to make new games that have some connection to what people already know and are familiar with. I guess the trick is that we try to take things that people already like and add a different kind of story or a different kind of play style to keep them interested. A good example here would be the differences between the Baldur's Gate series, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment. All of the products use the same engine (the Bioware Infinity Engine), but all of them are seen as very distinctly different products. The way we think about them is along a line from adventure to hack-and-slash. Torment is almost an adventure game, Icewind Dale is almost a true hack-and-slash like Diablo, and Baldur's Gate is somewhere right in the middle.

Black Isle's Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn.

As for the executives, if we do what I said above then this is usually what they want to hear and are often very quick to approve the new products that we suggest. And I actually don't look at market considerations as cramping our creative freedom or style. What people buy is what they will buy. We can sometimes change that with the birth of a new genre, but in general we want people to buy our games and they are only going to buy them if they can wrap their brain around what it is they are buying. Or, in the case of a new genre, they've been told how completely wonderful it is by friends, family and the press. If we understand those things and take them into account when creating our ideas, then getting ideas approved by the higher-ups becomes much easier.

Many people in the industry see Interplay as a "training ground" or an good place to start (not finish). Do you feel this is true? Do you think the accolades and Black Isle's track record is enough to make good people want to stay.

I think five or six years ago the mentality at Interplay was to pay as little for talent as possible and hope that they stay because they like the environment. That has changed a lot over the last few years, and Interplay offers the benefits and has the products that I think anyone in the game industry would be happy with.

As for whether the Black Isle track record is enough to make good people stay. I think that no matter how much pride someone has in what they are working on, if they feel they are being taken advantage of, they are not going to stay in that place for very long. So, in Black Isle we offer what we can afford to pay people and still breakeven on our projects.

If Black Isle were a separate company from Interplay, how would the way you make games change?

They probably wouldn't change much at all. We get to make the games that we think we should make. I purposefully did not say that we always get to make the game we want to make. Again, we have to be realistic about what consumers want, and make games that will appeal to enough of them.

How do you think developers who are completely independent from their publishers allocate their financial resources differently from publishers' in-house studios?

It really depends on the financial stability and experience of the developer. If a developer has the money to fund all of their products, and they are hitting all of their milestones (really hitting them, not through smoke and mirrors) then it is probably very similar to a development group that is owned or operates under a publisher. If they don't, then they are probably focusing much more on what will get them their next check, rather than what is best for the product. Outside developers also have more of an incentive to have people working on their next game idea before their current game has finished. This is because they often need the revenue from the next product to keep the money flowing after the last milestone on their current product has been paid. For better or worse, the paychecks of in house game developers keep coming after they've finished their current game.

Another difference is that as outside game developers get larger they have to start hiring more administrative staff than an in-house development group. For Black Isle, we can rely on the legal, HR, creative service, operations, audio, QA, and IS departments to take care of a lot of things that an out of house developer would have to hire staff for. When you get down to the development teams, I think the only difference that I have really seen is the use of producers. In-house game developers generally always have a producer in charge of the product, while out of house game developers generally don't. Neither of those are absolutes because I know of in-house developers that don't use producers, and external developers that do. But it is a general trend that I have seen.

The last difference that I often see in some external developers is that they are often forced, particularly on their first few products, to deal with obsolete equipment and software for longer periods of time. Since publishers, usually, have a steadier source of income then they are able to have a steadier flow of equipment and software.

Most of Black Isle's games have been critical successes, but never generated the same type of success in sales. Why do you think that is? Do you think we'll see any of Black Isle's future titles break 1 million copies sold worldwide?

Our goal in Black Isle is to steadily move towards about a million units in worldwide sales per product. Some of our products have chance to sell that much and some won't. And in some cases we will take the shot with a certain title to push it towards that goal, where with others we will be happy with 300K or 400K of worldwide sales. If we could hit a home run with a product, it would certainly give Black Isle and Interplay some financial breathing room.

Many game companies are starting to narrow their focus to concentrate on a particular "brand", what is your opinion on this? Will Black Isle continue to create original content or will it narrow its focus to sequels to games like Fallout and Baldur's Gate?

You are definitely right that most publishers are moving towards the brand or sequel mentality. I think for right now Black Isle is going to be doing mostly the same thing. However, we are also looking at ways to use our brands in more ways than just sequels. Two examples of this are TORN, and Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. TORN is an original title, however it is using the strengths of the Black Isle brand (arguably a brand in of itself) and the RPG system developed for the Fallout series. The ties to already established brands gives people more faith in the success of the product and certainly make it easier to interest the press. As for Dark Alliance, we are taking a PC brand to the console, but not as a port. The hope is that we can make the Baldur's Gate brand something that can cross platforms.

TORN is an original title, however it is using the strengths of the Black Isle brand.


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