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Brian Fargo Interview Roundup: On hustling around and rising development costs

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Brian Fargo Interview Roundup: On hustling around and rising development costs

Interview - posted by Infinitron on Wed 1 November 2017, 00:12:04

Tags: Brian Fargo; inXile Entertainment

inXile celebrated their 15th anniversary this weekend. To mark the occasion, their entire catalog has been available at a 50% discount on Steam this week, Torment had a free weekend, and they even released a new enhanced version of their 2004 Bard's Tale action-RPG. Today the folks at PCGamesN, who are always up for an RPG interview, published an interview with Brian Fargo about the history of his studio, with a focus on its hardscrabble pre-Kickstarter years. Here's an excerpt:

Game development teams are often thrown together hurriedly around a new contract, but inXile started slowly. Fargo picked staffers he knew and trusted. Findley was one. Another was Maxx Kauffman, who he had seen do great work on Redneck Rampage.

“I brought them together,” Fargo says. “But then it became, ‘OK, what are we going to do here?’. And this struggle to find a business model took nearly a decade.”

That jokey card title was proving prophetic. In 2002, the ground was shifting beneath the feet of RPG developers. There was very little publisher interest in PC games. With Steam still years off, the digital sales business did not exist. And those contracts that did exist were mostly reserved for studios that were already well-established.

Fargo kept the lights on by “hustling around.” He attempted, without success, to win the Baldur’s Gate 3 license from Infogrames. He sold the Wizardry franchise off to Japan, where it continues to this day. For a short while, Fargo and a friend co-owned half the rights to GTA for Game Boy.

“We both did very well by selling it back to Take-Two,” he says.

[...] Fargo was itching to get back to making games - the impetus that had caused him to leave Interplay in the first place - and found out that the trademark had expired on The Bard’s Tale, the very name that had made a success of his first company. It felt serendipitous. Fargo did not own the copyright to the classic RPG series, however, so could not work on a straight-up sequel. Instead, he decided to create a genre parody.

inXile’s The Bard’s Tale, released in 2004, is very much a snapshot of the market at that time: a console-focused action-RPG and broad comedy, a world away from Tides of Numenera. It was as if there was no space for an RPG that took itself seriously. inXile licensed the Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance engine from Snowblind, and made publishing deals with Vivendi in the US and Acclaim in Europe.

“It was kinda funny,” Fargo says, though he is not laughing. “Right as we were launching, Vivendi sells the company and Acclaim goes out of business.”

[...] Sometimes, inXile would get close to making the games they wanted to make. For a while they worked on a game for Codemasters called Hei$t, which Fargo describes as a single-player version of Payday.

“It was all Quentin Tarantino dialogue, and they really wouldn’t let us finish it,” he says. “Christian Slater and Clancy Brown were in it. We had a great cast. That was a product I wish we could have finished properly and come out with.”

Even Hunted, a fantasy take on Gears of War that inXile saw through to the end, came with a dramatic comedown. At the peak of development, the company swelled to 70 people, and afterwards shrank right down to 13.​

The PCGamesN article's description of inXile's current situation is rosy, to say the least. Yet just three weeks ago Brian was interviewed at GamesIndustry.biz about the rising costs of developing mid-tier "AA" games, where he sounded considerably less optimistic. It's not hard to figure out that he's concerned with how Larian and Obsidian have outstripped his studio in terms of budget and production quality.

Ambition is a wonderful thing, and most developers have ambitious visions for their games, but then they meet the reality of what ambition costs. The double-A space is now having to invest more than is reasonable for small or mid-sized studios.

"The industry continues to get more binary between the haves and have nots," Fargo continues. "When I see something like salaries going to as high as $20,000 per man-month in San Francisco, that really only affects the smaller to mid-size companies. The big companies - take Blizzard, for example - they can drop $70 million on a project, kill it and then start all over again. Rockstar can spend five years on a game.

"The extra salaries really don't affect them, in my opinion, as much as it does the smaller to the mid-size companies. So yeah, it definitely puts pressure on us.

"Also, what I'm seeing recently is that there was the single-A and double-A indie space that was sort of ripe for opportunity for a while - us included, and we've been doing well - but that's getting more competitive. And the budgets of the double-A products are starting to approach triple-A budgets of 10 years ago."

Citing Ninja Theory's Hellblade and Larian's Divinity: Original Sin 2 as recent examples, Fargo laments that expectations for games coming out of the double-A space are rising too rapidly.

"All of a sudden double-A developers are spending in excess of $10 million," he says. "And it's only a matter of time before this rises to $20 million. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if there were some at those values already. So now what you've got is the triple-A people who are unaffected by the salaries and they're going to be spending hundreds of millions of dollars between production and marketing, and then you've got the double-A companies now starting to spend significant money. What that's going to do is to create an expectation from a user's perspective of what the visuals should look like.

"It creates a harder dynamic for even the smaller companies, because some product is at $39 or $44.95 that doesn't have a multi-million dollar marketing budget. It's still going to have production values that are incredible, and so what will people expect out of a smaller developer? That's the cascading effect of all these different things, and of course you layer on top of that the discoverability issue we've all got with an un-curated platform and it makes it very tricky."

[...] Fargo offers, "It feels like the budgets for the double-A products have doubled to tripled just in the last five years. Back in 2012 when Broken Age and Pillars [of Eternity] came out, I know what our budgets were then [for Wasteland 2] and I know what the budgets are going to now. I have a sense of what Larian and Obsidian are spending, and I know these numbers have gone up significantly.

"Curation has always been a hot topic. One might argue there's a greater risk of a game being lost in a sea of products, than that of a great game not making it through the quality bar to be in the store. The stats of more and more and more games hitting Steam have not been favorable for any of us... You've got kind of a one, two, three-punch against the smaller publishers/developers."

[...] "It depends on the genre you're in, but the scope and scale of the thing is what you really need to keep an eye on," Fargo advises. "The visual and audio expectations are rising as the budgets for the double-A games has risen... I would tell developers to keep a really close eye on the scope of the product; better to have something that's very small and tight and polished than something that's overly large... and hits a lot of different things but don't quite visually hold up to the others."
Of course, this wouldn't have been a problem if Torment hadn't bombed! I guess hustling up a new budget to replace that loss so his studio can develop a decent Wasteland 3 will be Brian Fargo's final challenge before retirement.

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