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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 4 of 4

What's next for Black Isle?

For right now it is getting TORN done by Christmas. After that, we are going to be looking at what we can do from a console and on-line perspective for all of our titles.

Some people in the industry are saying the PC is dead. Are there any plans to port or develop games for other platforms or consoles?

I think it is a little premature for everyone to start talking about the death of the PC as a game platform. From a pure data perspective, sales of PC games were up seven percent in 2000 over 1999. If the platform were dying, the number would be going negative—much the way console numbers went last year because of the much touted "transition" year for the console companies.

I do think that publishers and developers need to be much more realistic about what games they should be putting on the PC though. Part of Interplay's current financial problems are due to betting on multi-million dollar PC product that went out and sold 10K to 20K units world wide—meaning that to break even we would have to make about $270 per copy for some of those products. Needless to say, we didn't make that much. Something very similar happened to a fair amount of the other publishers out there, and so the PC began to lose its shine as one of the top tier gaming platforms to bet on.

Now having said that the PC is not dead does not mean that Black Isle won't be working on console product. Later this year we'll be publishing our first console title, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. Dark Alliance is being developed by Snowblind Studios with some design assistance from us. We are then going to try to expand to about two console releases a year.

So far all of Black Isle's games have been sprite-based. Are there plans to do any 3D RPGs? if so what type of new technologies will you explore?

A quick answer to this is that all internally developed Black Isle products from here on out are going to be 3D.

It is kind of ironic though—one of the major reasons that we are going to 3D is not the dynamic lighting, moveable cameras, bump mapping, per pixel shaders, and the fact that the GeForce 6 will probably do your laundry for you. It really came down to the fact that our worlds have been getting bigger and bigger and we need to generate more and more content to flesh them out. With 3D content we have a lot more freedom in changing, storing and re-arranging stuff to give people new levels and creatures without burying the development team under a mountain of work. In 2D games, every time we wanted to create a new creature (other than through palette shifting) we would have to render out all of the frames of that new creature, store about a Gig of source art on the product's server, and ship another 5 to 20 Meg file with the game. In 3D a new creature may only require a single 512x512 texture map.

Many companies are creating real-time 3D RPG's, do you think there is still a market for sprite base RPG's?

Definitely, but it is a smaller market than for the 3D ones. The problem is that 2D is not seen as modern or cutting edge. In fact it is looked down upon, and many of the magazine editors will immediately be turned off by the fact that your game is 2D. Plus, after plunking down $450 for a GeForce 3, gamers want to buy games that use the card rather than not. It's not fair situation, but it's one of those things that developers should accept when they make their decisions about what engine to use or make.

How do you anticipate what will be "hot" one to two years from now?

My handy dandy Magic 8-Ball—isn't that what everyone uses? More seriously, I look at where hardware and gamers tastes are generally going. Gamers generally want 3D games over 2D games, so I think that 3D games will get hotter and hotter. They also generally want multiplayer, so you are going to see less and less single player only games on the PC or even for the console now. Neither of those takes a rocket scientist to figure out, but it's those trends that I consider.

I also see a trend towards games that we don't totally look at as games. These are products like The Sims and Black & White—which when you ask someone if they felt they had "fun" playing the game they have a hard time answering. They often say that they played the game for a long time and feel like they accomplished some things, but they're not totally sure if they had fun.

So looking at trends like that we try to move the products in the directions that gamer's tastes are going. You can see that with the progression of the features in Fallout to the Bioware Infinity Engine games (Baldur's Gate, Icewind, Torment) to TORN. We've gone from 2D single-player turn-based games to 3D multiplayer real-time ones. Interestingly though, we are pretty much making the same game -- just with a slightly different feature set and display engine.

Black Isle is moving from 2D single-player turn-based games to 3D multiplayer real-time ones.

With technology changing so rapidly, how will you plan a project that will not seem "dated" when it ships or aim too high with technology that won't run on the average consumers' computer?

This may sound like it is over simplifying the process, but it is to shoot for 18-month production cycles. If we don't start out behind the times, then we should be pretty close when the game ships. The game might be a few months behind the curve (supporting NV15s when the NV20 has just come out), but probably not enough to hurt its success. So, our focus becomes getting products out in eighteen months and not so much on what is the newest technology—which I think is an easier way to manage it. We then turn our eyes to what can get our products done quickly which can be anything from licensing an engine, reusing internal technology, or culling down the risky features that are in the product.

In what way do you think Black Isle changed the way developers make CRPGs?

I think the largest thing that we did was to really increase the amount of interaction that players had with the game's story. One of the driving forces behind the Fallout series and Torment was that we wanted players to be able to get through major points in the game by either talking their way through it, blowing it up, or sneaking their way past it. This has really helped those games be replayable and it is something that I think other developers (including us) have had to take into account when designing newer games.

How much does upper management influence what goes on in Black Isle?

It really depends on the issue. Day to day decisions in the division are handled almost entirely by the producers and I. For issues that may effect the division over the long term, I talk these over with the executives at Interplay. To be more specific—the division handles decisions that have to do with moving people around from product to product, buying equipment, deciding which sound contractor, etc. Decisions that have to do with what product a whole team is going to move onto next are ones that we talk with the executives of Interplay about.

Final thoughts about the future of Black Isle and the worlds they create?

The main goal that I have for the division is to keep on making the games that people have seemed to enjoy playing. I'm sure that we will make our mistakes. However, one of the things that gives me the most pride is that everyone in Black Isle always bounces back and looks at ways to make sure that the next game will fix all of those problems. And on top of that, how to give people even more than they expected.


Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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