Brian Fargo interview: Wasteland, Torment, and the new Bard's Tale

Brian Fargo

Brian Fargo is two-for-two on Kickstarter. In 2012, his studio inXile Entertainment pulled in more than $2.9 million to make Wasteland 2, and a year later backers gave it nearly $4.2 million to make Torment: Tides of Numenera. He's done well enough with it that there's no temptation to return to the conventional publishing model, even though at this point he probably could.

Fargo said Wasteland 2 has sold around 350,000 copies ahead of the Game of the Year edition coming soon to consoles—and publishers are "so much nicer now" than they used to be. But crowdfunding is a healthier process, he said, that affords more freedom to focus on making the game rather than having to constantly "prove yourself" by hitting arbitrary milestones. It's also better for a studio's future projects: The success of Wasteland 2, both on Kickstarter and through Early Access sales, meant more money that could be invested into Torment and inXile's next project, The Bard's Tale.

The new Bard's Tale is a true sequel to the original Bard's Tale trilogy, and, title notwithstanding, unrelated to the 2004 action-RPG release. That game came about in part because Fargo had the trademark, but not the copyright; since then, he's been able to strike a deal with EA, and now he has both. "This is a proper sequel," he said. "This is what you guys are hoping for and wanting."

The Bard's Tale

The game will take place a century or so after the events of Thief of Fate, the third (and decidedly final) game in the trilogy. That temporal distance will let developers "call back" to the original games without being shackled to them: Much like Wasteland 2, prior Bard's Tale experience won't be necessary to enjoy and understand this one, but players who have it will at times have a deeper insight into what's going on.

"We recognize that there's a group of people that played these games and for them, it's like they finished it yesterday. They want to go into something where they feel like it's a continuation, to some degree, of what they've finished. So I'm very attuned to making sure we hit the right points for people who are real fans of the original series," Fargo said. "But it's a bonus for people who play. We never force that [prior] knowledge on anyone."

The Bard's Tale will be a decidedly old-school experience, but inXile is working to ensure it's flexible enough to engage and satisfy players who want a more contemporary dungeon crawling experience as well. Die-hards looking forward to a new opportunity to draw out cleanly geometric maps on grid paper will be able to do so, but it will also be possible to "break off the grid," as he put it, and look and wander freely, in real-time.

"When I'm moving through that dungeon, I want absolute, full screen, particle effects, lighting, ambient music, I want everything to be like I'm there," he explained. "That's where I differ, perhaps, from [other fans of the genre], in that I don't want to have the little window in the upper-left corner, with icons and my guys. I want that part to be fully immersive." During a combat encounter, however, the game will shift to a more conventional "phase-based" mode, with party members represented as on-screen portraits, or perhaps as models in the actual game. "You're still fundamentally in the same scene," Fargo added, "but it becomes phase-based. It doesn't stay in real-time."

The Bard's Tale IV

And it will be difficult, as befits a proper dungeon crawl, although perhaps not quite so harsh as the original Bard's Tale games, which were really hard. "I look at something like Demon Souls or Bloodborne for references of difficulty," he said. "You can have a big philosophical discussion about where that line should be on those, but the lack of a save game [in the original Bard's Tale] is really what made it difficult. Time is the ultimate variable you can play with. Am I losing five minutes, or am I losing five hours? In the original game, you could lose five hours, and that's probably too much by today's standards. It's not going to be that punishing. But it is going to be difficult."

"We play all the recent games," he added. "We're not like, 'Gosh, we've been playing 80s and 90s games our whole lives and we just raised our heads up – What should we do?' We've been playing all the latest things, just like everyone else, so we're tuned in to what's acceptable and what's not."

Wasteland 2 suffered some criticism for having relatively primitive graphics, although the recent Game of the Year update, which includes a move to Unity 5, promises to dramatically improve that aspect of the game. The Bard's Tale, on the other hand, is being built on the Unreal Engine 4, which he said offers the studio an opportunity to be "super-ambitious" and really show off its graphics chops.

"These incredible demos come out of these engine makers, but they take this tremendous amount of hardware bandwidth to do the particle effects, or the fabrics, the hair, that sort of stuff, so you end up not being able to achieve quite that level of detail in the game because you're giving it up for multiplayer, or 30 enemies running around in real-time, or heavy AI. Whatever's going on, it takes away a lot from it so you don't get that same kind of fidelity," he explained. "The beautiful part about The Bard's Tale is that it's not that kind of game. When you're wandering through this place, we have all of the hardware at our disposal to really dial up all the things that these engines do that are really so beautiful. And because combat stops and is phase-based, it's the same thing. We've got more access to the hardware, so we can do some really interesting things with it."

The Bard's Tale title

Fargo said it's too early in the process to commit to an Early Access release, although given the success inXile had with Wasteland 2 on Early Access, it seems likely. As for the Kickstarter, the team has set a goal of $1.25 million, a little higher than the $900,000 asked for in the previous campaigns. And while he's "always concerned about everything, all the time," Fargo also thinks the studio is in a good position to repeat its past successes. Despite persistent predictions of backer exhaustion, Kickstarter is still going strong—he pointed out that both Yooka-Laylee and Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night could surpass the mark set by Torment—and in fact has become a relatively mainstream part of the "continuum" of the game-buying process, which also includes Early Access backers, launch-day purchasers, people who grab it when they see it on sale, and, finally, folks who won't go near it until it turns up in a Humble Bundle. "So you can get it anywhere along those points of the line," he said. "I see Kickstarter as just another point in time to get in on the game."

In spite of everything else the studio has going on, Fargo said inXile's focus right now is squarely on Torment. There's a small team working on the Wasteland Game of the Year release, and a small preproduction team on Bard's Tale, but 90 percent of the company is working on Torment. I'm incredibly excited for Torment—Planescape: Torment was so good, and it's ridiculous that we've had to wait this long for something similar to come along—but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't just a little more hyped up for Bard's Tale. There are few things in this life better than a good dungeon crawl, and I suspect The Bard's Tale will be very good indeed.

The Bard's Tale Kickstarter goes live on June 2.

Andy Chalk

Andy has been gaming on PCs from the very beginning, starting as a youngster with text adventures and primitive action games on a cassette-based TRS80. From there he graduated to the glory days of Sierra Online adventures and Microprose sims, ran a local BBS, learned how to build PCs, and developed a longstanding love of RPGs, immersive sims, and shooters. He began writing videogame news in 2007 for The Escapist and somehow managed to avoid getting fired until 2014, when he joined the storied ranks of PC Gamer. He covers all aspects of the industry, from new game announcements and patch notes to legal disputes, Twitch beefs, esports, and Henry Cavill. Lots of Henry Cavill.