One pivotal, life-changing moment of Brian Fargo’s career almost didn’t happen. Between 1994 and 1997, a motley crew of designers, creators and QA testers were working long hours for low pay on a new Interplay IP – a roleplaying game that eschewed the traditional elves and goblins in favour of a future world savaged by gun-wielding mutants and nuclear war. Getting the game from preproduction to the shelf was an uphill struggle, with two near-cancellations and designers squabbling with marketing and executives over everything from the setting to the name. Finally, after taking an early build of this troubled-yet-promising title home for the weekend, Fargo – who founded Interplay as a programmer and game designer in 1983 – gave the game his blessing. He went to lead programmer Tim Cain and said, “You should call this Fallout.”
Fallout was a risky proposition that paid off, picking up nines and tens in reviews and spawning an equally successful sequel just a year later. But its hard-won success was more than merely a personal high point for Fargo and its designers, and Fallout became the poster child for the Interplay RPG – an expansive world in peril with plenty of backstory to uncover. “Exploration has always been the thing that motivated me in the game world,” says Fargo. “I love wondering what is around each corner, what lies inside the cave I can’t get to yet, or the meaning of a cryptic passage.”
What Fallout designers Tim Cain, Leonard Boyarsky and Chris Taylor had created chimed with Fargo’s youth spent reading comic books, watching sci-fi movies and playing Dungeons & Dragons. It clearly did the same for many others, becoming one of the best-loved series in gaming history.
But the good times did not last. Despite positive press and fan responses to Interplay’s post-Fallout RPGs, such as Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale, Fargo had no massive commercial hits to sell to shareholders. With mounting pressure to deliver success on consoles as well as PC, Interplay fell on hard times. Finally, after disagreements with the company’s investors, Fargo left in 2000. Being forced to leave the company he’d created and managed for 17 years was tough, and Fargo took it hard. “When you run a company like that, you become one and the same,” he says. “It was a shock for some time when it wasn’t part of me.”
Having put Interplay behind him, in 2002 Fargo decided to found a new studio, inXile Entertainment. Here, after ten years of making mainly smaller games for websites and smartphones, he started to toy once more with the notion of making a sequel to one of his best-loved RPGs: 1988’s Wasteland. Since the original’s release on the Commodore 64 and Apple II, fans had been in constant contact to beg for a follow-up to Fallout’s spiritual predecessor, but publishers always passed on the project – and sometimes ungraciously. “I was in one meeting, sitting there with a co-creator of Fallout, Jason Anderson, and the executive was text messaging during the entire presentation,” recalls Fargo. “The guy barely looked up. It took a lot of willpower for me to just not walk out of the meeting.”
And so finally, on March 13, 2012, Fargo cut out the middlemen and went directly to the thousands of fans who’d spent more than two decades asking for a game that publishers didn’t seem interested in. Turning to the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, Fargo and his team at inXile gambled that they could source the million dollars needed to fund Wasteland 2 by appealing to the players rather than the suits – with Fargo even offering up $100,000 of his own cash if the pool only made it to $900,000. In the end, the Kickstarter closed at three times that amount, raking in $2,933,252 in 30 days. “Ironically, I am fortunate that no publisher picked the game up,” he says, “since [it’s now] being created with the right sensibilities in mind.”
Those sensibilities will look pleasantly familiar to gamers au fait with Interplay’s back catalogue, because Wasteland 2 shares the same key ingredients as its RPG cousins from the ’90s, namely a rich universe and a deep script. And although he makes a point of playing most new games on release, Fargo regrets that this style of game-making appears to have fallen out of fashion in many current-generation RPGs.
“One sees less of this style of game [because] the newer RPGs use large cinematic pieces or spoken dialogue at every turn,” he says. “In our case, we craft these games up to the last minute… [That’s not easy] if you already have 20 million dollars’ [worth] of prerendered cutscenes.”
Gratifyingly, the game’s 60,000 backers seem to share his point of view – a relief for all involved. “You never really know the true interest until people vote with their wallets,” Fargo says.
Spurred on by the Kickstarter success, Fargo and inXile began to expand on the idea of getting fans involved in the project by asking them to contribute not just money but talent to Wasteland 2’s production. By building Wasteland 2 in Unity, Fargo’s team members have access to models from the online Unity Store, meaning they can effectively outsource chunks of the game’s development to 3D artists from around the world. After an influx of emails asking how modellers could get involved with the game, inXile set up a series of contests, tasking fans with designing, say, a water tower or gun turret. If the studio liked the results, it would buy them for Wasteland 2.
“Our experiment with Unity was based on the sheer number of people who were sending us assets for free, or asking how they could be involved in some way,” says Fargo. “This was not a strategy that we counted on to make the game, but it certainly is going to make the visual density higher than it would have been otherwise.”
It’s also a potential recruiting tool. “My bet is that we will discover some talent from this that will ultimately turn into some kind of more formalised relationship,” Fargo explains.
With high-profile crowdfunded projects such as Wasteland 2 still in their development stages, Kickstarter remains – for the moment at least – an exciting but unproven quantity for large-scale games. But as publishers race to push out safe-bet first- and thirdperson sequels to modern franchises, Fargo and the staff at inXile are picking at the stitching that holds traditional game development together. Crowdsourcing – be that of money or talent – isn’t just the future for Fargo and his team, but the end of a long and frustrating journey.
“The people here stuck through some rough times,” he concludes. “Every creative person’s dream is to be able to make their art in the fashion that works for them. My dream for the next ten years is simple: I want to be doing the same thing I’m doing now.”