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The Burger Speaks: An Interview With An Archmage
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The Burger Speaks: An Interview With An Archmage

December 27, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 6 of 7 Next

You wanted to continue making Bard's Tale games. Why did you make Dragon Wars instead of Bard's Tale IV?

RH: EA wouldn't let us. What happened was that Bard's Tale III and Wasteland were shipping, and Interplay was a developer; EA was our publisher. So EA was getting a pretty big chunk of our revenue because that's the usual way it works with a developer and publisher relationship. We were coming out with another series of games; we wanted to do our own publishing. We wanted to use a company for our own distribution. This is where the rift began.

There was a bidding war going on, and Electronic Arts and Media Genic went to war over who would publish Interplay's products. We were coming out with Dragon Wars, Battlechess, and Neuromancer. On all these titles, we were really set to take off. The trouble was that we went with Mediagenic. EA was pissed off, to say the least.

The publishing deal we had with Bard's Tale was that even though we owned the code and the scenario and so forth, the name Bard's Tale was trademarked by Electronic Arts. So if we wanted to release a game called Bard's Tale, we had to pay a licensing fee to Electronic Arts. They wouldn't even let us do it.

They said, "Oh, you want to use the name? Publish through us." Push came to shove, and that's when Brian came to me and said, "Okay, we're calling it Dragon Wars." I looked him dead in the eye and said, "You do know there's no dragons in the story?" "Well, it's Dragon Wars now."

So I had to come up with, at the last minute, a story that had a dragon in it, and put little quips every now and then that said there were dragon wars in the past. But since the game was only a month or two away from shipping, I couldn't re-do the actual ending of the game to make a battle of the dragons. So, it's a running joke that we shipped a game called Dragon Wars with hardly any dragon it.

That sounds like a Monty Python skit.

RH: Very much so. But in spite of the critical acclaim Dragon Wars got -- I mean it got five out of five stars, it got everybody raving about it -- nobody knew what it was, and Interplay didn't have the budget to actually advertise the game properly. So, it did make money, but it wasn't a Bard's Tale runaway success.

What hurt me was that Electronic Arts was actually doing a Bard's Tale IV on their own. They had a team in Redwood Shores doing a Bard's Tale game because they owned the name. Of course they couldn't use any of my code, they couldn't use any of our art, but they could use the name. There was karma on that one, because after four years of development, they ended up killing the title.

There was a time when I had some of my team came up with a scenario for a Bard's Tale IV that I pitched to Electronic Arts, but they said the franchise was too old. Crap!

Do you think the setup with publishers and developers stifles the creativity of the designers?

RH: In many ways, yes. What most people tend to forget, and because I've worn the CEO hat with Contraband and Logicware -- this is a business. We need to make money because the paychecks I had to write to people were coming from a bank account that only had so much money. Once that money reached zero, everybody gets laid off.

Whereas many people would like the Id software model -- it'll be done when it's done -- most companies don't have that luxury, especially big companies with shareholders. They need to have profits every quarter.

The only way to do that is to minimize their risk and go formula. Formulas are sequels or licensed titles like Harry Potter the game. Those are the safest bets. Licensed properties -- EA sports -- they license NFL, NBA, NHL, NASCAR...There's your thing. Of course, lately they've been trying to branch out with new franchises like Mirror's Edge, but they still want to create a franchise they can milk over time.

One thing we actually found at Interplay, which I was raising the red flag all the time over, was that Interplay's greatest contribution to the gaming world was that we took risks. We came up with a lot of games that no one would touch because they were so off the wall -- like Tass Times in Tonetown, I mean, who in the hell would come up with that and actually ship it? We did!

Neuromancer was based on a book, but we did Battlechess. It's just chess with the pieces beating the crap out of each other. Earthworm Jim, Boogerman, Clay Fighter, all these games that Interplay did -- we had a gimmick, but a lot of the publishers said, a game with clay warriors? Why don't you just make Mortal Kombat V?

We made a lot of games that would have never seen the light of day. The trouble is that we did too many of them, and the company eventually ran out of money, which is why Interplay had to die and eventually be rebirthed as a company that was Interplay in name only -- what exists today.

Companies like Electronic Arts, if they were to do a title that was risky and didn't have some real meat to back it up -- to make people not afraid -- it's a hard sell. It would kill the person's job. How would you like to be an executive producer who green lights a game that's never been done before, and the game tanks? You're fired.

Nobody wants to get fired. So, they need to come out with NASCAR 7, then you can blame it on the NASCAR license. Oh, Need for Speed, maybe they don't like that type of game anymore, but we can still milk the franchise. It's not something innovative that's at fault, it's just the franchise is tired. Blame something else, so the executive producer can keep their job.

That's where, right now, in my opinion, indie games is where it's at for innovation. Who would do The World of Goo, Minecraft... Indie games are done by a couple of people locked up in a closet. They don't have anybody to answer to, so they can write something that's brand new and, in fact, doing something new and innovative is what gets them attention. Look at Introversion. They did Uplink, Darwinia. Those games, when you see them, are pretty out there. They made some money. Bingo! That is where the new ideas come from.

At a big company, if you were an executive producer and somebody gave you the idea for Darwinia, could you tell your CEO that Darwinia would absolutely, positively make you a million dollars? It's a hard sell. If it makes a million, you'll be a star. You'll be executive VP. If it bombs, well, the door is right there. With that kind of a choice, it really stifles the executive producer's ability to green light titles as innovative as Darwinia. Hence, the reason the vast majority of games these days are sequels, movie tie-ins, or some sort of celebrity hook.

One of my pet peeves right now is that a lot of video games these days; for example, Command & Conquer III. They have all these big name actors in the cut scenes they film at a sound stage. Does that really add to the game? Did that really make the game a better game? I thought I was buying a video game. I didn't think I was buying an interactive movie. I want to play a game.

So many games these days are supposedly a first-person shooter, but you walk around a couple corridors, kill a couple formula monsters, and the game freezes as it plays a cut scene with voice actors. Then you continue on. Why don't I just buy the DVD and watch the movie? It's less work on my part. In fact, many games like Bioshock or Dead Space -- I didn't play the game. But I pretty much did; I went to YouTube and watched people do a run through. As far as I was concerned I just watched the movie.

A game that did first-person shooter right: Portal.

One of my favorites.

RH: Where are the cutscenes? Is there a cutscene in there? The only one there is that you actually get to see the cake. Other than that, it's just listening to GLADOS taunt you and go completely mad. Otherwise, it's the game. All about the game.

So you don't think that game would've been better if every few minutes it would have taken you out of the game and shown you 15 minutes of cut scenes with some big name actors?

RH: I would have thought that they wasted a couple million dollars. Think about it, they saved a couple million dollars they could use to do Half-Life III, to be released in 2017. We hope.

Article Start Previous Page 6 of 7 Next

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