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Q&A: Brian Fargo On  Hunted 's Dungeon-Crawling Bite, Industry History

Q&A: Brian Fargo On Hunted's Dungeon-Crawling Bite, Industry History Exclusive

April 16, 2010 | By Chris Remo

April 16, 2010 | By Chris Remo
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Brian Fargo spent nearly two decades running Interplay, the studio he founded in 1983, and presided over the development of games like Fallout, The Bard's Tale, Wasteland, Battle Chess, as well as the publishing of numerous other developers' games.

Now, in a bit of cosmic harmony, Fargo's current company inXile Entertainment is developing the fantasy action game Hunted: The Demon's Forge for publisher Bethesda Softworks -- the company currently responsible for the Fallout license. In the works for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC, Hunted aims to reinvigorate cooperative dungeon crawling for modern audiences.

Gamasutra caught up with Fargo to discuss the impetus behind Hunted, his relationship with Bethesda, the Interplay years, and his firmly-held beliefs on the importance of sensibilities in game design and management.

How long has inXile been working on this project?

Brian Fargo: We've been working on Hunted in active production for just under two years, but going back three years, we were talking about what it might be and putting materials together, as well as pitching it to publishers.

Is there much overlap between the inXile team on this game and The Bard's Tale?

BF: We're the same company, and there are a lot of the same guys for sure. But The Bard's Tale is such a different game, for sure -- and much different technology, of course. We were feeling cheeky, and thought we would do something that poked fun. We're back to our more serious roots on this.

So the tone is very different -- what are the goals or principles you set out to achieve with this new game?

BF: I always focus very heavily on sensibilities, why products exist. Going back to Fallout, there were distinct reasons why those games were what they were. The first goal here was the great dungeon-crawling experience of yesteryear, bringing that back. There's a sense of wonder of slowly going through the dungeon, looking around, finding secret doors -- it's that experience, in a beautiful setting.

You can weave a great tale, but it's what happens along the way to the player that matters. In a lot of games there's a bad guy, and you just hear about him, and then at the end, you fight him. But he didn't do anything to you. He didn't personally affect you, which takes away from the impact of why he's bad. From a writing perspective, we're addressing that.

There's also the sense of actual puzzle-solving and exploration, of using your head to figure things out. It isn't just a run-and-gun; we wanted more to it than that. Back in the day, if you got stuck, you'd have to buy the hint guide, but that's not an acceptable way of extending gameplay. Now, we'll do those same things, but you can't get stuck, because they're all reward-based. If you want to run around without solving every puzzle, you can, but we want to have all that tricky stuff if you want to figure it out. If you do, you get a reward.

That said, it's still an action game, with all of those moments. Another main goal was accessibility. You can pick it up and play it just like that, but we slowly take it somewhere else once we hook you into the world. And it had to be a graphical showcase -- it had to be something really breathtaking, which is one reason we don't have split-screen mode. Then you need twice as many objects, and that's half as many polygons.

The dungeon crawler genre has been less vibrant recently than it has been at certain other historical points. You mentioned accessibility -- do you think the genre has struggled with that?

BF: Partially, but in some ways I think people almost forgot. The RPGs split. The most common comment I've gotten about this game is, "Why hasn't anyone done this?" Well, somebody had to be the first person to do it in a long time.

RPGs became deeper, while dungeon crawlers became more action-oriented. Then shooters came along, and the shooters went [in the action direction], and RPGs went [in the other direction], and the dungeon-crawler just ended up in the middle.

But wouldn't you say companies like Interplay were partially responsible for what you're describing, particularly on the RPG side?

BF: Yes, we were part of that. I was part of the "they." [laughs]

The other part of it is that, dungeon crawlers aside, you have an action category of games that is well represented when it comes to war, and is well represented when it comes to science fiction, but where's fantasy? [Action] is the biggest category, so why is that not represented? That's why this seemed like a natural idea.

We joke about how technology has finally caught up with our imagination, but there's some truth to that. [Interplay's 1995 RPG] Stonekeep looked better than [Blue Sky Productions/Looking Glass Studios' RPG] Ultima Underworld, but once Ultima Underworld came out, that's what players wanted. [Ed. note: Ultima Underworld featured modern-style free player movement, whereas Stonekeep was limited to single-step forward/backward/left/right.]

No matter how good Stonekeep looked, it was dated compared to that. At the time, I said, "One day, we'll be able to do what Ultima Underworld does, but with the [superior] graphics," and voila. Obviously, it's not Stonekeep; that's not representative of what this is, but that's the progression.

On the topic of Interplay, what is it like to now be working with the company that inherited the Fallout legacy, which you were heavily involved with?

BF: There's some irony there, but for me I feel like I'm working with the same family in a certain way. Obsidian [which is staffed by numerous former Fallout developers] is doing work with them, and we're doing work with them, and Fallout was one of my babies, and they're handlnig Fallout. In a way, I feel like I'm just working over at my cousin's house [laughs].

Did you play Fallout 3? What did you think of it?

BF: I did play Fallout 3, and I think they did a great job with it. Fallout is about sensibility, and you have to give Bethesda credit on that. Most people would have looked at Fallout -- 95 percent of publishers -- and its PC sell-through data, and said, "Nah. It's not that big."

But there was more to it than that. It would be unfair to just compare it to Tony Hawk, and say, "Tony Hawk! Now there's a franchise!" They had the vision to look at it and say, "There's something here. There's a world. There's a loyalty base that loves this." And they did it. They executed on the sensibility part.

You've mentioned the notion of sensibility numerous times. What do you mean exactly when you talk about that? The general design ethic and tone?

BF: Yes. Every product I've ever worked on this industry, I've started off first with a vision document. From [original 1980s Interplay series] The Bard's Tale to Wasteland to Fallout to Battle Chess -- you name it.

I haven't heard about Battle Chess in a while. I played a lot of that back in the day.

BF: That was a great game. There were a lot of Battle Chess clones, and you know what they missed? They weren't funny. They were just rote -- "Just make it kill the other person." There was no cleverness to it. Part of Battle Chess was that you could say, "Come over and look at what my Amiga can do. Isn't this funny?" That was one of its sensibilities.

So all the games I ever do have that sensibility -- whether it's humor or anything else. Then I make the team prove out what they're saying. If you're saying, "This game is going to be funny," give me an example. If you can't give me one example, it's done. It can't just be the words; you show me how you're going to execute that.

When I'm convinced people are in that zone, so to speak, I make sure it doesn't go too far astray, because that's what will happen during a creative process. I'll never be so rigid that you have to hang on to everything, but I make sure we stick to the tenets of why that project began. To me that's the most important part of managing successful products. A lot of people want to get into scheduling, which is great, but sensibility is what it comes down to.

You're saying essentially that you're less concerned about whether it's your vision, and more that there is a vision.

BF: Right. The original Fallout -- that was my baby, but I didn't come up with the Pip-Boy. They did. And when they did the opening scene, setting The Ink Spots against violence, that was brilliant.

Steve Jackson Games was so against that, that I terminated that contract [which originally licensed the "GURPS" RPG system for Fallout], because if you're offended by that, you ain't seen nothing yet. So I get behind things I think are consistent with the sensibility, and my guys end up making it greater than the whole. To me, the best creative people have their ego in check such that everybody adds to it collaboratively.

At one point there were reports that inXile acquired the Wasteland license. Do you still own that?

BF. Yes I do.

What do you plan to do with it?

BF: There'll be something there. I would love to bring that world back. It was the granddaddy that started Fallout. The only reason Fallout existed was because I couldn't get the Wasteland name. That was it. That was the only reason. I did Wasteland, and I wanted to do it again, and EA was going to do something, but then they let it go dormant. I said, "Please, can I have the rights back?" and they said no, but they never did anything with it.

During that time, I didn't want to wait any longer, and that's why we did Fallout. It was a spiritual successor to Wasteland, and that's why it exists today.

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