Kickstarting the future of game publishing: An interview with Brian Fargo

Wasteland box art
When I was 12 years old, my days mainly consisted of one thing: playing games on my Commodore 64. I would set my alarm early to get some gaming in before school, think about the games all day during school, then come home and play as much as I could before my parents made me stop and do homework or chores. Aside from TSR's Gold Box series, the two games that molded my childhood and my love for gaming were Wasteland and The Bard's Tale. Both of these games were made by Interplay Productions, a company founded by Brian Fargo in 1983.

Fargo has always been an iconic figure to me. I regularly name my MMO characters Faran Brygo (a name he used for an NPC in the original Wasteland). I'm certainly not alone in my love for Wasteland (which I have labeled for years as my all-time-favorite RPG), but I think it's safe to say that many gamers who enjoyed Wasteland always wondered why there was no sequel. Fallout 1 and 2 were "spiritual successors" to the game, but for copyright reasons, they were never actually labeled as true sequels. Fargo tried to make a true sequel for 20 years but was always met with brick walls from publishers who weren't interested in resurrecting such an old game.

Enter Kickstarter. After the wild success of Tim Schafer's Double Fine crowdfunding campaign, Fargo got the idea to try it out for himself. The timing was right with the current nostalgic gaming scene, the popularity of the post-apocalyptic genre, and the fact that most of Interplay's original fans are now in a position of making a tad more income than allowance money from childhood chores.

We sat down with Brian Fargo to discuss his views on the potential of Kickstarter, the future of Big Brother game publishers, and Wasteland 2.

Massively: Tell us about how you first learned of Kickstarter. Was it from Tim Schafer's Double Fine funding campaign?

Brian Fargo: I had only vaguely heard of Kickstarter in the past, but it didn't hit my radar until after Double Fine raised a million dollars in a short period of time. Schafer was as surprised as the rest of us when it brought in such a large amount and over-funded his request. Before I could speak to my guys, I had people sending me messages via Twitter and Facebook that this could be perfect for Wasteland 2. I then threw the idea out there, and it gained traction pretty quickly. But even then I was afraid to get excited about it for fear of the disappointment of not being able to make the game once again.

You'd been working on getting a true sequel to Wasteland out for the last 20 years. Can you give us any examples of the resistance you faced when you brought this idea to publishers?

In the beginning, it was just a matter of having rights to do so. When we released Wasteland, we were one of the top developers in the world and had several number-one successes with Bard's Tale, yet we really were not making much money. I tried to re-negotiate terms, but I was offered but a small increase from what we were getting. It would have been crazy to stick with the same business model if a number-one hit wasn't getting us anywhere. There were people making decent money on games in the late '80s, but they tended to be one- to two-person teams, and there was no way I could make decent RPGs with so few people. So I became a publisher to change our model, and EA wanted to pursue making a Wasteland 2 without us, which was certainly within its rights. I continued to pursue EA to license the rights since it was not producing a game, but the company wanted to hold onto them. I finally gave up and decided I would just go make a new post-apocalyptic game that shared many of the sensibilities of the first one. We had many discussions about what made Wasteland great, and through those discussions, Fallout was born.

But then I was able to work out a deal with EA that allowed me to get the rights I needed and secure the trademark. At long last, I was finally going to be able to jump back into the post-apocalyptic fray. But incredibly, I had no interest from any publisher. And then Fallout 3 became a huge success in 2008, and I thought for sure that would get me a deal, but again, zero interest. And then I brought Jason Anderson and Mike Stackpole aboard, and still nothing.

The resistance from publishers ranged from absolute indifference to not knowing what I was talking about. I would speak quite enthusiastically about how great party-based RPGs were and that there was little competition, but I might as well have been pitching 4-D Tic-tac-toe. Most times I would not even get an reason as to why the publisher didn't like the idea or it would be a very generic "moving in another direction." It was aggravating.

The time is certainly right for this project to take shape. Gamers are yearning for nostalgia, and crowdfunding is quite honestly the best way to go about something like this anyway. Had you given up on Wasteland 2 before this?

I really don't give up easily on anything, but I have to say I had pretty much given up on this one. But with a little encouragement I decided one last time to try to launch the game by appealing to the fans. I knew there was a desire for the style of game, but every time I spoke with a publisher, it just went nowhere. I had shelved the idea a couple of times because I was busy, but the last time, there appeared to be no hope. I even gave a speech at GDC China last year in which I lamented the loss of this style of game. So many of the people I have met in China, Korea, Singapore, Germany, and France (the list goes on) say how much they loved Wasteland and Bard's Tale, yet I could not get anyone to bite. This game was unlikely to ever see the light of day if not for fan-funding and digital distribution.

Tell us about the game. How true to the original do you plan to make it?

I want this game to be comfortable for either a Wasteland of Fallout 1/2 player to be able to step into like a comfortable pair of shoes. Obviously the graphics need to be updated, and it will have different combat systems, etc., but there is a tone, stats, and interface that come with the RPGs from that era. People are very clear about wanting that experience and none of this "re-imagining" business. The game will initially take place in the (American) southwest as you are controlling a band of desert rangers like in the first game. The game will have scope and scale like both Wasteland and Fallout; it will be open-world in the sense that we don't lead you around by the nose; it will have multiple approaches to most things to avoid the moralistic "right" solution; it will be skill-based; NPCs will join the group and not always behave like you want; and it will not require hand-eye coordination. Oh, and there will be tons of weapons so people can shoot their way through situations instead of charming anyone.

Will there be a way for fans to submit ideas on what they'd like to see in the game, or is the foundation already established?

We already have the forums up and will be using them primarily for the broad strokes, but if we see some clever, specific ideas, we will integrate them. Nothing is in stone yet, and the fan input is key. Some people have raised concerns that it will be a free-for-all, but my job is to act as the editor and help to harness the ideas and serve up the appropriate decisions. I have the writers and designers scoping out the locales and dialogue, but we will greatly rely on input for interface, combat system depth, and graphical tone. But once things are agreed on, we stay consistent with the consensus of direction. It is no different than when I used to make my producers create vision documents at Interplay, only this time the fans will sign off on the vision. On top of this, we will open up gameplay for feedback to make sure we are hitting the right notes.

The goal for the Wasteland 2 project is $900k to get the game started, combined with a $100k investment from you, for a total of $1 million. Amazingly enough (but not surprisingly), that $900k goal was reached after fewer than two days. Do you have plans set up for what you'll focus on expanding first if the funded amount goes to $2 million or $3 million or beyond?

Assuming we go way beyond the goal, we will continue to balance adding more content and other formats. We have already committed to Linux/Mac at $1.5 million, so I imagine there could be a tablet version after that. But the most important thing is that we don't compromise the PC version in any way shape or form for other formats. The fans have trusted us to create the right kind of game. This truly was the best way for this game to have been funded.

Do you see Kickstarter campaigns as the future for indie developers at some point or mainly for well-known and trusted names?

That is difficult to answer as a large part of it depends on the budget request. I have seen some smaller, unheard-of indies doing quite well, but once you request budgets of this size, it becomes a whole other conversation. I would assume it would be difficult for an unknown, but you never know these days. Every week I get up, there is a paradigm shift or new business model that seems to have appeared. Running Interplay was child's play compared to the knowledge base you need today.

Do you think funding campaigns like this will spell the end for big game publishers or cause them to re-evaluate their business approach in the future?

Well, it would certainly be overstating the cause to expect it to spell the end for them, but it should be some sort of wake up call. There are fans who are going unnoticed, and there is a treatment of developers that is abysmal. I hope all the talented developers find a niche audience that allows them to make games with the purity of a direct relationship with their fans.

Do you have a classic game (not developed by you!) that you'd like to see resurrected or given a sequel through Kickstarter crowdfunding?

I don't even want to hint at what other things might be interesting to me. I am laser-focused on Wasteland 2, and it is all-consuming for me... in a good way.

Thanks for your time, Brian! Massively readers, If you'd like to help Wasteland 2 become the greatest sequel to the greatest RPG of all time (in my humble opinion, of course), head over to the game's Kickstarter page for more information.
This article was originally published on Massively.