Brian Fargo likes to tell a story about his dealings with a game publisher, a nasty episode that took place a few years back.
As head of development house InXile, he was making a game under contract for the publisher. "They wanted us to hit a certain date," he says. "But they had made a bunch of changes. It wasn't possible. They sent a guy down to our office while I was out of town promoting the game. The guy comes into the office and tells my people, 'Hey we need to move the date. If you don't figure it out, we'll shut this company down.' He came in and threatened to fire all my employees while I was away."
Fargo made his outrage known to the publisher. "I called them and said, get that guy out of my office. I'm not having another meeting until you kick that person out of my office."
But the damage was done. Fargo was left dealing with a nervous game development team. "Guess what? My guys start looking for jobs," he says. "If I were them, I would do the same. What happens when they leave me in the middle of a project toward the end? The product slips more. Who's going to get blamed? Me. It was outrageous behavior. I was like ... How did we get here?"
Fargo is a known critic of game publishing mores. During his Kickstarter video pitch for InXile's new game Wasteland 2, he portrayed them as children. He mocked middle-level execs who sign off on new projects and who manage developers. He said many of them do not understand video games.
The worst, he recalls, was being forced to release a game he did not consider to be up to scratch. "What do I do when I'm told to just wrap it up and we're not going to have any time for iteration?" he asks. "Of course my scores are going to suffer. But I don't have control over that. Developers take the rap for having bugs in their products. It's not their QA department. The publisher runs QA. Yet the developer is taking a hit for shipping buggy products. Forever."
These days, the number of independent developers hired to work on AAA games is dwindling. Developers like InXile are seeking to take control over their own destinies and creativity via Kickstarter projects. Or they are being bought up by publishers who can wield more control over the companies they actually own.
"I know of some publishers that will purposely try to run developers into the ground so they can buy them on the cheap," he says. "That's also a strategy. Think about that."
Damaged by years of doing business with publishers, Fargo has found a way to make games the way he wants to make them, without the approval or money of large marketing-and-distribution entities.
Two years ago, Fargo raised $3 million on Kickstarter for Wasteland 2, a sequel to an RPG he made back in the 1980s. But a good fund-raising campaign is only part of his journey back from the margins.
Fargo's greatest games
A storied history in games
In the early part of his career Fargo was a game maker turned entrepreneur. He founded and headed up game publisher Interplay Entertainment, creating a variety of hits like Fallout, Baldur's Gate and Descent throughout the 1990s PC gaming boom.
But the company expanded too quickly. It failed to transition to the burgeoning generation of consoles like PlayStation 2 and Xbox. Fargo lost control and Interplay's fortunes waned. He moved on.
For the past decade, he has been making games for other publishers and turning out the odd mobile or downloadable project like Super Stacker (2009) and Choplifter HD (2012). This has been an era of what Fargo calls "oddball successes" like ports of the online hit Line Rider. Wasteland 2 and InXile's other Kickstarter project, Torment: Tides of Numenera mark a new chapter in his career.
"I get an award just for surviving more than anything," he says. During his long time in gaming, Fargo has amassed a large contacts book. Peers who have carved out successful careers in gaming recall Fargo as a colorful character with an eye for a good game.
Bing Gordon was head of Electronic Arts' marketing team in that company's early years, going on to be the chief creative officer. He worked with Fargo in the formative days of game publishing, signing Interplay's early RPG The Bard's Tale.
"People with staying power are the exception," Gordon says. "I've met a lot of people who say, 'I'm done. I made enough. I've lost my motivation.' So I'm delighted any time I see somebody who gets initial success and retains their motivation."
Gordon met Fargo in the mid-1980s. He'd been playing a lot of Sir-Tech's role-playing adventure Wizardry and was keen to sign an RPG for EA. "Brian started talking about how Wizardry was pretty good, but he was going to be better than Wizardry," he says. "Then we started geeking out on it, because back in the early days of role-playing games, all the polish was done in the first 10 hours of the game, and the next 190 hours had no polish at all. Brian said he wanted to build the first RPG where the end was as good as the beginning.
"At the time, people were still doing stick-figure action games and two-dimensional Space Invaders falling from the sky. Bard's Tale was the first time I ever met a game person who aspired to high quality and meant it."
Wasteland brought depth and relevance to party-based RPGs.
As head of Interplay, Fargo became one of the most powerful individuals in gaming. He was also very good at spotting talent. "I gave Treyarch their first start in the business. I gave Blizzard their start. I gave BioWare their start. That's what I would do," Fargo says. "I would see talent and say, 'let's do it, make it happen.'"
Some of the people he hired in those early days are now leaders in their own right. Blizzard Chief Creative Officer Rob Pardo began his career as an Interplay tester. "He was one of the titans of the industry," says Pardo. "He was somebody that everyone at Interplay looked up to. We always aspired to be in his good graces."
Pardo recalls being invited out to Fargo's house to play Warcraft 2. "He had this whole LAN setup at his house," he says. "He played video games and really cared about them. He wasn't just some business guy. He played games all the time. You could always talk to Brian about games."
Feargus Urquhart is CEO of Obsidian Entertainment, which recently made South Park: The Stick of Truth for Ubisoft, and is working on its own Kickstarter-backed RPG, Pillars of Eternity. Like Pardo, he began his career in Interplay's QA department, rising quickly to run the company's RPG studio, Black Isle.
"[Fargo] was very in tune with the games that we were making," Urquhart says. "Particularly I remember a project review meeting on Fallout 2. We get into the meeting and I'm presenting." The presentation was not playing well to the gathered marketing execs. They made some suggestions about changing the game's art style. "We'd have to redo all the art," Urquhart says. "I wasn't as good at dealing with executives. I didn't want to just say, 'That's stupid.' Brian, he's like, 'No, it doesn't make any sense to change the art. People love the art in Fallout.' That ended it. I don't know a lot of other CEOs that would have been as understanding of the situation and the product and able to head off something like that. It could have really hurt us."
Fargo became one of the most powerful individuals in gaming.
But by the end of the 1990s, Interplay was in trouble. Fargo identifies his own mistakes in the company's decline: He failed to make the jump from PC to the newly dominant consoles.
"Other publishers had that one product that blasted them through to the other side," he says. "With Take-Two it was GTA. With THQ it was wrestling — it got them through the other side for a while. With Activision it was Tony Hawk. You could pin it to one thing. We didn't have that one thing. The only one thing we had was Baldur's Gate, but the problem with Baldur's Gate [was] it was PC. You couldn't sell five million copies."
Interplay was a manifestation of Fargo's skill for serial hit-making. He saw an opportunity and chased it. This was also its downfall.
"He was very willing to take big bets," says Urquhart. "Probably bigger bets than I would have taken. He could only do so much and work so many hours. That's how it got ahead of him. There were more products and more products and more products."
"One of the things I saw happen at Interplay was that we were just stretched too thin," says Pardo. "There were too many games in development. Before you have success you have to be really lean and mean and focused on the one or two things that are going to make you successful. Once you become successful, now every door is open, and you have to have a different sort of discipline."
"I should have stayed more focused," Fargo says. "That's the only thing I regret the most." Interplay dabbled in sports games. It bought Shiny Entertainment. It opened an office in Japan. It worked on multimedia projects. There was a public stock flotation. "It was just too much. I should have just stayed with our core audience."
Interplay was bought by a French outfit called Titus, which had a patchy creative reputation (including the widely panned Nintendo 64 Superman game). Fargo did not work well with the new owners and left soon after.
"These other guys took over," says Urquhart. "They're not bad guys, but they just did not have the vision." Today, Interplay is still owned by Herve Caen, then owner of the now defunct Titus. It mostly sells ports of games from the company's heyday.
In the post-Interplay years, Fargo launched InXile and became a supplicant, going to publishers, looking to get projects like Wasteland 2 funded. Mostly, he found frustration. He was unable to make the games he really wanted to make.
Along comes Wasteland 2
Wasteland 2 is a top-down, party-based RPG set in a post-apocalyptic world. It's a piece of nostalgia that seeks to innovate by giving players decisions with real consequences. Fargo sees his role, as head of InXile, as one of chief designer of the game, which he has been trying to publish since he secured the rights over a decade ago.
But it wasn't always that easy.
As head of InXile, Fargo spent much of the last decade going to publishers, looking to make a new Wasteland. He made the argument that what had worked for Bethesda could work for them too, especially if the game was made by many of the people behind the original. The market was excited about RPGs.
"No traction. Zero. Not even a, 'how much would that cost, Brian?'" he says. "I'd get questions like, 'How many weapons does it have?' Inane questions. Or, they'd say 'We like to create new franchises' even while they were publishing sequels all over the place."
Fargo's Kickstarter video for Wasteland 2 savaged the way publishers handle pitches from developers. He portrayed them as callous and clueless children.
How much was this an expression of his own anger and disappointment? A man who had once sat in the big chair, listening to pitches was now forced to traipse around the meeting rooms of former rivals, looking for support from execs half his age.
"I'm never angry that someone says no. That's part of it. You gotta be an adult."
"I'm never angry that someone says no. That's part of it. You gotta be an adult," he says. "But it was the treatment that me and my developer kind [of] faced — the disregard of the humanity for what we're trying to do. Yeah, that was frustrating for sure. There were people who would be text messaging in the middle of the presentation. It never used to be that way."
"We all have to do that," says Urquhart. "I have to walk into meeting rooms all the time with people who've been out of QA for four months, and have 20 less years of experience than me. I have to convince them that what I'm going to make is going to be awesome. You have to be arrogant and humble at the same time.
"But for Brian, it's a bigger difference. This is a guy who ran a successful top-10 publisher in the late '90s. To now have to cajole people into just calling him back, yeah, it's kind of humbling. But you're only as good as your last hit. That's how I think any entertainment industry works, whether it's music or movies or games or anything."
Fargo says he only gets upset with publishers when they start making decisions that negatively impact his staff. "The things that got me wound up the most were when it started affecting my guys' jobs, or me having to lay off people, or hurting my company. That upset me more than my ego in a meeting with a 22-year-old. That didn't bother me so much."
He says that game publishers now operate at a different level of expectation than game studios. "They really do look at everything in terms of 'How can we get a half a billion or a billion dollar franchise out of this?' What they're missing is that every billion dollar franchise they own began with much more modest expectations. Whether it was Tony Hawk or Call of Duty, Tomb Raider or Grand Theft Auto, you name it, not one of those was originally projected to do a billion."
Wasteland 2 is one of gaming's biggest Kickstarter success stories.
Is it possible that they had a point, that the interest in the Wasteland brand, last seen back in 1988, might be a commercial risk? "I think the Kickstarter results are proof that there had to be something to it," he replies laconically. Wasteland is the fourth-highest funded video game on Kickstarter.
Fargo says that Kickstarter and digital distribution has had a significant impact on game developers who are looking for some freedom. The relief at being released from the grind of pitching ideas to publishers, or working publisher contracts, is palpable. He is not the only one. David Braben, Peter Molyneux, Chris Roberts, Richard Garriott and Tim Schafer are just a few of the longtime creative leaders who have been liberated by Kickstarter and by direct-to-consumer distribution like Steam.
"There was this big pie with all the money in the business, and it was all going to just a very few people," Fargo says. "Now, whether it's the DayZ guys or Mojang or hopefully us, we're all starting to get our little pieces of the pie. We can have our own businesses. The net effect for the publishers is going to be that their people will look at the success that me and other guys are having and say, guess what, we'd like that. We'd rather work at a smaller company having a good time. Maybe not making as much money, but you know what? To feel satisfied and appreciated? Well worth it."
Fargo says he is able to focus his energies on pure game development. "I don't want to be in battle mode with publishers," he says. "I just want to make a game. I think about how much of my effort, as a developer, was spent trying to get paid, arguing about stuff, worrying about the next project. Seventy percent of my time was focused on everything but the product. Now, all we do is make games. I almost feel guilty. We come in and we'll talk about enemy AI for a couple hours. We'll talk about whether that's the right way to craft that scene. It's all we talk about, the creativity of making the game. That's the difference.
"Creativity and emotion are, to me, very tightly put together. If somebody's yelling at you, 'I'm gonna kick you out of your job,' good luck being creative during that particular time. As we don't have that kind of pressure, we can dare to dream and come up with ideas."
"Watching [Fargo] now, with Kickstarter, he's kind of back in those old-school days, where now, by necessity, he has to be focused again," says Pardo. "You look back at Interplay, some of their success came from that early era when they had a lot monetary constraints. Now he has them again."
Wasteland 2 and Torment brought in a total of $7 million via crowdfunding. "We spend every penny on the game," says Fargo. "Every penny. Basically, my budget for my games is less than two minutes of Blizzard's opening movie [for a World of Warcraft expansion]."
After an Early Access release last December, Fargo is working on making changes suggested by the community, including improvements to the combat system. Delayed from its original 2013 release, there is no solid launch date as yet. Fargo says that he is taking the time to get the game right, and that freedom from being forced to hit a launch date is one of the benefits of not working with a publisher.
He recently created a live-action video, made on a tight budget, that will be used at the beginning of Wasteland 2, filmed during a desert convention for post-apocalyptic cosplayers and intercut with disaster zone newsreels. "Twenty-five grand," he says proudly. "Our backers don't want us to spend a bunch of money making movies, and neither do I."
Making Fargo games
Kickstarter and digital distribution attendants, like Steam's Early Access, replace one kind of boss with another. Instead of mid-level execs, Fargo now answers to the thousands of people who backed him with their own money.
"Here's what I love about this process," says Fargo. "When you ship a game, you get all this feedback, like in the first two weeks afterward, and then you think, wouldn't I just kill to have had that before I shipped?
"People are used to betas for a narrative product where all they're really going to do is tweak the UI, add some sound effects and fix the bugs. They couldn't be more wrong here. We're making massive, wholesale changes to choice and consequence. That's why we put it out there."
Fargo says that there's a significant difference between the judgment of an exec, possibly one who has never made a game, and the statistical analysis of play patterns from thousands of gamers, along with their detailed opinions on the game.
Taking back control
Fargo's career has been about spotting opportunities. From working with a programmer friend to create The Bard's Tale, to signing the D&D license at Interplay ("other publishers laughed at me"), to creating the Mario Teaches Typing game ("kids needed someone other than Mavis to teach them how to type").
"I kind of like where my life's at right now," he says. "Would I be happy if I was running Blizzard and I had $20 million a year in bonuses rolling in and all I had to do is walk through the halls and high-five people all day? Sure, sounds good. But I like being down in the trenches and working with all the guys. It's very stimulating. If you don't adapt to change quickly, you're done."
He says that many people who work at publishing companies are good people, trying to do their best. He's keen not to come off as a whiner. But it's clear that making games without publisher oversight makes for a way better life for him and his team. The opportunity to sell games directly to consumers, before they are even made, is an economic innovation with very human benefits.
After 30 years making games, Kickstarter came along just in time for Brian Fargo. "I feel like I am getting some credit for what I've done. Maybe if I hadn't done Kickstarter, I might have been a footnote somewhere. So yeah, I have to admit that. It's nice that people say, hey, wait a second, this guy actually has done a bunch of stuff."
"It's nice that people say, hey, wait a second, this guy actually has done a bunch of stuff."