Brian Fargo interview: Torment, the RPG renaissance, and the ongoing clown war
inXile's "Leader in Exile," Brian Fargo, is doing pretty well lately. Wasteland 2 represented one of the first successes for Kickstarter games, and the studio's second such foray, Torment: Tides of Numenera, has pulled in $3.3 million, with a few days left to go. I caught up with him at GDC in a hotel named after a pirate to discuss the new Torment, the PC RPG renaissance, and why projects like this can be so successful, yet still get the upturned nose from big publishers.
PC Gamer: The Torment Kickstarter has been extremely successful. I’m sure you've been asked a million times, but how has that response compared to your initial expectations?
Brian Fargo: When we were going into Torment, I wasn’t quite sure where we were going to end up. Now, there was the, “Of course you’ll do well, it’s Torment.” But there was a certain amount of apprehension. First, there was… Two at the same time? Haven’t you heard there’s Kickstarter fatigue? You don’t have [Chris] Avellone and there’s no Planescape! With those things being thrown at me, I was thrown off. But I’ve felt like… I had to do it, because it was the way I’ve always made these kinds of games. How could I not try to do it the way it used to work for me? Which was to have a pre-production team, hone it in while there’s not a lot of overhead associated with the product, so that when the production team rolls off they can then move on to a script that’s finely honed. That’s always worked for me. How could I not try it? I felt like I had to. I didn’t know what to expect. I remember thinking, “Gosh, if we do as well as Wasteland, wouldn’t that just be great?” Clearly, after that first day, it was like, “Wow.”
How quickly did the project reach a million dollars?
Yeah, it was nice. It was six or seven hours, It was nuts. I remember I couldn't sleep the night before. Not at all. We were going to launch at like six a.m., I think. I was up at 5:30. People were sort of like, on Twitter… “When are you going live?” They knew it was coming. So I knew there was some anticipation there. But I think all the guys did a wonderful job just… I think the presentation was really strong. We went into a lot of detail. We had some great concept art. You really knew what you were getting. I think that helped propel it. I had a lot of people say, “I didn't even watch the whole video. I donated right away.” They were stopping in the middle. It was hilarious.
Let's talk about Monte Cook. He worked on Planescape—how were you able to include him on the project? Did he suggest Numenera as a setting to you? Had you seen it before and thought it might work?
I give Colin [McComb] credit for that, very much. He’d known Monte for a long time. I started working with Colin on Wasteland and that’s when I said, “Look, I’ve been dying to do another Torment. You were one of the guys. Let’s start pulling this together.” He had tried to get the Planescape license at one point. I hadn't had much success doing anything with [Wizards of the Coast] in the past. So, what should we do? He says, “You know, Monte Cook, one of the co-creators of Planescape, he has a new universe and he’s just done a Kickstarter.” It was like the stars lined up.
It took me about one second to say, “Yes, of course.” I love it. I think about… I was just telling Chris [Avellone] earlier that Monte is not just a licensor. He’s also a part of it. We’re able to move at record speeds. We've done all these great video updates and interviews with the team. We’re not having to go through that normal approval process. I would have only gotten out a fraction of the content I did during the Kickstarter campaign if I had to go through a typical larger company’s approval process. That’s just the way it is. So this has been great, that we can move so fast. We can jettison ideas we don’t like and jump on the ones we do like. The creative process moves so fast. It’s been super.
Where do you think the stumbling block is with the old publisher model, when you guys have proven so definitively—two or three times now, between you and Obsidian—that there’s a market for this stuff? Why do they have such a hard time working with you guys on that?
I think it’s a matter of perspective. If you think about… Let’s take Torment for example. Let’s say we have about 60,000 backers, roughly. We may get to 60-70,000, whatever the number is. Then let’s say we roll out and sell another 100,000 digital copies. It could be much higher, but let’s just say 100,000. That would be great for us. We’d make a nice little profit. I could have some security for my guys. We could keep doing it.
Those kind of units, for a big publisher, are not interesting to them at all. They could sit around and think about how could they sell 150,000 more units of Call of Duty or SimCity. That’s an easier thing for them to get their heads around. I just read the other day that Tomb Raider sold 3 million units and they considered that a failure.
Okay, so… Wow. So you look at my 150,000. How is that interesting to them if they aren't interested in 3 million? I think that’s what drives it.
Do you think we’re going to continue to see more of these micro-market games? Do you think that’s going to grab a bigger percentage of the sales in the industry over time?
Yeah. It’s going to start pulling away. They’re playing one of my games. Then they’re playing Obsidian’s game. Then they’re playing Minecraft. They’re playing FTL. They’re playing all these games. That’s one less game they’re buying from [big publishers]. You think about television, it’s going the same way. You see Arrested Development coming back on Netflix. It’s the same kind of bifurcation of specialist cases. That, to me, is the macro trend that’s going on here, and it goes beyond just games.
Are you guys planning to tie Torment's story in with the Numenera pen and paper RPG material?
There are going to be tie-ins. Colin and Monte are working through that. Monte is helping create one of the modules for [our game]. Our game is in the Numenera universe, so of course there are going to be ties into it all. We’re not going to sit completely outside that world. We are the Ninth World.
What's inXile's approach to writing a story? Do you have a lead writer that determines the main story, and then do you plug in other people’s sidequests and characters around it?
It’s not an exact science, any of this stuff. Creativity never is. I should preface that by saying that I’m used to working with lots of writers on a project. Whether it was Wasteland or Fallout. Each writer brings their own unique perspective to it. Then what you need to do is tie it all together. It has to be cohesive. If taking a certain action, through dialogue or an action in the game… It has to work consistently through the product. If “open door” works one way here, it better work the same way in the latter half of the game. So there’s all that kind of stuff you have to tie into.
Then we’ll have an editor who we’ll set on top of it, Ray Vallese, who’ll also help tie it in. But with that said, in all these games… Every game starts off with a blank piece of paper. You start with a map. That’s the first thing. You start dialing in the map. What does the world look like? Where can you go? Then you can start to parcel it off to the writers as you give them the locations. It tends to be very location-based. But then there’s a whole lot of extra steps to make sure that the game doesn't feel like each level is an island. There has to be a tie that goes through all of them. We want to do the same thing with Wasteland. We’ll say, “I need a guy who’s going to knock off one of the players. Who wants him?” “I’ll put him in my map!” We’ll start to tie that together. That’s part of the iteration process, making it all one, big, jumbled world.
How many writers are working on Torment? Is it more or less than Wasteland?
It’s a little bit more on Wasteland.
Is it a lot of the same people?
No, mostly new people. Let’s assume we get funded. We've got Pat Rothfuss, which is a huge deal. It’s looking good for Chris. We’re almost there. We've got Colin. We've got Monte. We've got Mur Lafferty. We've got [George] Ziets. Those are almost all new people. It’s a pretty big team. Nathan Long, though, he’s coming over. He’s from Wasteland. Tony Evans is from Wasteland. It’s probably like 60/40.
One of the big elements with Torment and with Numenera, you've teased, is mystery. Have you found it difficult to balance giving the player enough information to feel like they've accomplished something versus maintaining the ongoing enigma? It’s something shows like Lost and Battlestar struggled with, for example. You want there to be discoveries, but you don’t want Midichlorians. You don’t want to explain the Force, right?
Well, I suppose that’s always a line that we have to try to balance on. When we made Planescape: Torment, people were not that familiar with the Planescape universe. That wasn't an obvious thing. It wasn't like, “Wow, Planescape is really high concept. That’s like Harry Potter. It’s gonna really sell!” We liked it because it was strange and weird. We've got the same thing going on here in space. We like that sense of discovery, without getting into the detail you just discussed. We’re not going to explain why the Force works. But the Torment games are about self-discovery, too, in many ways. It’s the philosophical underpinning. Why are we here? What does one life matter? There’s a lot of philosophy students that get drawn to this sort of thing. We want to make you question some stuff. That’s what makes this completely different from Wasteland or even Project Eternity.
How did you guys arrive at that question of "What does one life matter?"
That’s Colin. That’s all Colin.
Was that pretty early on in the process?
Pretty early on. His background is philosophy. That’s what he graduated in.
Game storytelling that is something that's really still developing, and you guys at inXile are one of the studios kind of on the forefront of using games to tell stories. And you, specifically, have been around for a lot of the landmarks. How do you see the way you tell stories in games as having changed since the old Interplay days?
In many ways, we are trying to re-create some of the positive aspects of that, which are… There’s this incredible reactivity that’s going on that’s meaningful. You always run up against an infinite number of combinations and permutations, so you can’t literally script for every possible thing ever. But if you’re capturing a lot of the main points and things that people are going to try and accounting for them, it gets to be a very satisfying experience. I would say that we are far more sophisticated now versus then, as far as really analyzing the multiple passes we have to take a look at the design to accommodate for.
There will be an entire pass that’s just focused on, “Okay, do we want to consider the makeup of the party? Male versus female and people reacting to that. Do we have a particular NPC in the party? Let’s make an entire pass just if this guy is in the party. What does it mean?” And so we really are digging in deeper. We’re older. We’re more sophisticated than we were. I think about Wasteland 2… This Wasteland 2 will be way better than the Wasteland 2 that would have been created 20 years ago. We've all grown up. We've gotten smarter and more sophisticated.
Beyond Wasteland 2 and beyond Torment, where would you like to see games as a tool for storytelling go?
If you break a new game down, in any category, it’s always about cause and effect. That’s the most important thing you can nail. Whether it’s Minecraft or… Look at the original SimCity. It was this tremendous cause and effect. I love, like on my iPad, physics-based puzzle games. When the physics are right, the cause and effect feels right. To me, that’s the pillar of every product. It’s why Grand Theft Auto is great. So, for me, I just want to keep dialing in the cause and effect more and more, from either a story or from a moment to moment perspective, such that… I want to be to the point where you and me both play the same game, we compare notes at the end, and you say, “Are you sure you played the same game as me?” That’s what I want.
With you guys hopefully bringing Chris Avellone onto the project, and the shared heritage you guys have with the guys over at Obsidian, what’s keeping you from just forming the Ultimate RPG Dream Studio?
Oh, I don’t know. They've got their company, we have ours. We’re working in a way now where it’s one plus one equals three. I’m doing things where I can to help them that are… No payment back for it. Just back and forth. We’re working together. The market’s big enough. If we work together, we’ll both be better off. We've discovered that. We’re sharing ideas, tools. When they did their Kickstarter, I was an open book. I told them everything that worked for us or didn't work. They shared their experience. We’re just in constant communication.
When I asked Chris the same question, he said that you guys are casually dating right now.
[laughs] That’s so funny.
I was also supposed to relay the information that "The clowns have made peace with Avellone, and they’re coming for you."
[laughs] Wow. Let me tell you… Not inside Wasteland they haven’t.
No, the clowns still want Avellone.
The plot thickens. Is there anything else you’d like to add, or you’d like our readers to know about the Kickstarter?
We’re in a wonderful position, a fortunate position. I've told my guys, if we just deliver on these games, we get to make role-playing games for the next 10 years. We get to do what we've always wanted to do. We take this opportunity we've been given super seriously. We understand. There’s a lot of pressure there, but we’re going to deliver. We’re going to make sure we can continue doing this. We’re going to prove it, and then prove it for the next guy who wants to do a Kickstarter.
Thanks again to Brian for helping us answer the question, "What does one interview matter?" The Tides of Numenera Kickstarter wraps up this Friday, with the Chris Avellone stretch goal just in reach. You can read our interview with Avellone to get more info on Torment and his own Project Eternity. Check back later this week for my interview with two of the primary writers on the new Torment: Colin McComb and Patrick Rothfuss.