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Interview with Black Isle Studios' Feargus Urquhart

Feargus Urquhart has been in the making video games for 10 years, and all of that time at Interplay. He was promoted to being an associate producer in early 1994. For the next couple of years I produced titles for the PC, Mac, 3DO, NES, SNES, Game Boy, Sega Genesis, Sega 32x, and the PSX. In this article, Urquhart shares some of the lessons he's learned over the years, discusses Black Isle's development strategies, and makes some suggestions for the future.

How many years have you been at this?

A little over 10 years, and all of that time at Interplay. I first started working for Interplay as a part-time play-tester in 1991. I then got full time job as an assistant producer in 1993 and was promoted to being an associate producer in early 1994. For the next couple of years I produced titles for the PC, Mac, 3DO, NES, SNES, Game Boy, Sega Genesis, Sega 32x, and the PSX. Then in 1996, I was promoted to being the division director for the division that would become Black Isle Studios—and that's pretty much what I've been doing ever since.

What's the most important thing anybody ever taught you about game development?

By far the most important thing that I was taught is as a game developer or designer we are not creating games for ourselves. We are making them for the people who are going to play them, and the press that is going to write about them. Taking that into account means that you have to think very seriously about how you make games, what features you include in them, and how they are presented to both the consumers and the press. As a game developer you have to take into account that the press wants to see new bells and whistles even as they are telling you that game play is all that matters. If you don't have eye candy or some "hooks" that can be communicated very quickly, they have a habit of losing interest very quickly. And while the consumers will also say that they don't care about graphics, if your screenshots don't blow them away then there is less of a chance they will type in the website that is listed on the ad.

icewind_02.JPG

If you don't have eye candy or some "hooks" that can be communicated very quickly, gamers have a habit of losing interest very quickly.

As a game developer life gets pretty rough. What would you have to say to anyone that says, "I want to do what he does"?

The biggest thing I have had to do is learn about people. The challenge is learning how to deal with the fact that pretty much everyone who makes games thinks they're right. So you need to figure out how to get five people who all think they are the right to make a decision without the use of firearms. After a while you are able to put a large bag of tricks together that gets you through the day.

The days are mixed though. I think a lot of people who run projects or development houses have days that are best explained as manic. Some days everything seems to be going right—the art is getting done, the designers are agreeing, and the game actually compiled. Other days can be filled with everyone being unhappy about who just got to make the last design decision, no one thinks they are being paid enough, the lead designer and lead artist aren't talking anymore, and the QA team says they think that your game that is due in three months isn't shipping for a year.

Different development studios seem to deal with those creative differences in different ways with apparently varying degrees of success both for the company's long-term health and productivity and the benefit to the game itself. What are some of the things that are in that bag of tricks of yours?

A lot of the things in the bag of tricks have to do with convincing people of what they are and aren't responsible. Generally if someone is given the tools to do their job, and they know that they don't have to worry about other parts of the project that may seem to be broken, they work well. When people on development teams feel that there are open issues, and that the producers are showing a blind eye to obvious problems, they start worrying about things they can't do much about. So, the "trick" I have learned is to make sure that everyone knows that the producer does know what is working and what is not working—and is either working on fixing the current problems, or has a plan as to when the problem will be dealt with.

Now, one of the more day to day "tricks" is making sure that everyone is aware of a decision the second it is made. Plus, when telling them of the decision, give them an idea as to whether it is something up for negotiation or not. Another "trick" is to make sure that everyone has a voice. One of the things that I have repeatedly heard and read is that the most effective and successful companies are those that allow the lowest ranked employee to make decisions and suggestions concerning what they do on a day to day basis, and that they also feel free to make suggestions about larger issues in the company. In Japan this is called Kaizen, and is something that can be seen in some of the larger U.S. companies like GE under Jack Welch, and the new IBM.

icewind_01.JPG

Concept art from Icewind Dale.

And the last "trick" is that everybody in Black Isle sees me almost every day. I walk around three or four times a day, and constantly ask questions about what is going well, what isn't going well, or just how they are doing. It makes them much more comfortable about management's presence and less inclined not to bring problems up or hide things.

How do you get the team to turn itself around after periods like that? Does everyone just wait for the tensions just wear off, or do you have a way of working through them?

Basically, we try to get people working. The analogy I use a lot of the time is that game development is like a train or a very large ship. It takes a hell of a lot of energy to get it moving. Then once it does, it better be the right direction, because it can be really hard to turn with all that inertia behind it. When the team starts fracturing because of open issues and creative differences the train starts slowing down and will eventually stop. It then takes a Herculean effort on the part of the producers and leads to get it moving again. The quickest way to do this is make sure that everyone knows what they need to get done and have tasks they can easily complete. The managers then need to make sure that the tasks are being completed and are showing the team that they know what is and isn't getting done. Once the team sees that the train is moving again and is picking up speed, they have a tendency to put the "bad times" in the past.


What's the key to Black Isle's success?

We try to look at what we need to do in each project and think realistically about what experience we have and the capabilities that we possess that apply to it. We are good at making RPGs—we might make horrible RTSs. So, we have consciously made the decision to continue working on projects that we know how to make. Pretty much everyone in the division touches almost every project, and it means everyone is learning a little bit more every production cycle. Each person can then take that experience on to the next projects to make them look, play, and run that much better.

Plus, we look at what we do as a business. Unfortunately there is no paycheck fairy that puts stacks of hundred dollar bills under everyone's pillows every two weeks. The reality is that everything costs money, and we need to be conscious of what we are spending our money (resources) doing. If too many people work on a project then we've spent too much money and then Interplay won't profit from the project. If Interplay doesn't profit then they will probably constrain the next project, which could make it harder for us to do our best.


bg_01.JPG

Bioware's Baldur's Gate 2, published by Black Isle Studios.

How do you create an atmosphere that's conducive to game development?

To answer somewhat tritely it is showing up every day and treating people like adults. People need to know what they are expected to do, that the person in charge has made sure that what they are doing will actually get used, and that they will only be treated like children if they've proven that they need to be.

As for the environment, we pretty much let people do what they want, when they want. Unless people are screaming at the top of their lungs when playing Quake in the middle of the day, we don't care. However, if they are playing Quake in the middle of the day and their last four tasks weren't done on time, that's a different conversation. That's not to say that people can come and go completely at will. We do need to have a certain number of hours during the day that the entire team is there—depending on the stage the project is in, we enforce this to greater or lesser degrees.

We also try to have people feel like they can talk with their producer and I about the problems they are having without it being an inquisition. There is a big difference between someone not getting something done because it was harder than they thought and taking three-hour lunches every day of the week they were supposed to be working on it.

Plus every one gets free Cokes. So it actually might be just that simple.

How long does it take for an idea/game design to get to production? At what point do you know that idea/game design is worth doing?

Hmm. That's a hard question in that I'm not sure when we have ever decided on a specific game design right at the start, or had a design that we were waiting to implement. The way we tend to do it is that we come up with a general idea for a project that we think will fit into the division that uses our technology and talents well, and has a good chance of selling around 300K units worldwide. As an example, I told one of teams in late 1996 that it would be a good idea for us to make a game using Bioware's Infinity Engine, the Planescape license, to have the game based in Sigil (an area in the Planescape world) and to have the player go to at least two other "dimensions". The product that came out of that was Torment. Torment was totally different than the game that I expected, but it fulfilled what I had suggested to them and it was commercially successful.

torment_02.JPG

Black Isle's Planescape: Torment.

As for making sure it is worth doing. I guess we try to make sure that the "high concept" for the game is something that we want to make and will sell. We then develop that idea into a game design.

What are your criteria for trying to determine in the idea stage whether or not a concept will sell well? Who contributes to that assessment?

We often look at the idea and see if it is something that we can sell to both our fans and to the press. If we can think of things that will get either group interested in the first thirty seconds of us talking about it then it's probably an idea that we should explore further. Secondarily we look at whether this is something that could possibly catch on with a wider market than just the core fans of Black Isle. With either angle, we try to think very realistically about the product and how many units it is going to sell. This determination comes from what our past products have sold and what features the new product has that could expand or contract that amount. We also take into account that if we just make the same game that we made before, we are probably looking at 25 to 35 percent less sales for the new product.

Once the producers in the division and I are comfortable with what product we want to make, I then talk it over with the rest of the company and see if it something that they are willing to get behind, or if they will need to be cajoled into backing. Depending on how that all goes, we then either go back to the drawing board, move forward, or see if we can modify the general concept of the game to make it more palatable for the other departments. If they are looking for major modifications, I often think that it is a better plan for us to come up with a completely new idea that is interesting to both development and the rest of the company.


Has Interplay's ongoing financial troubles had an effect on the quality of the games produced in Black Isle?

I think it just makes us realistic about what kind of games we can make and how to make them. Plus, we try not to go too far out on a limb with our games. We might get to make the horror-western RPG that I've always wanted to make sometime in the future, but for right now we have to bet on projects that we feel have a good chance of being successful. Now that is not to say that I personally don't like making D&D games, I actually really enjoy it.

How can you prevent not going "too far out on a limb" or games that have a "good chance of being successful" from being perceived as by players as more-of-the-same? How do you balance your creative drive with convincing higher-ups that a given idea will sell well?

In a lot of ways those are both the same question. In order for us not go too far out on a limb we have to retain brands and technology that allow us to make new games that have some connection to what people already know and are familiar with. I guess the trick is that we try to take things that people already like and add a different kind of story or a different kind of play style to keep them interested. A good example here would be the differences between the Baldur's Gate series, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment. All of the products use the same engine (the Bioware Infinity Engine), but all of them are seen as very distinctly different products. The way we think about them is along a line from adventure to hack-and-slash. Torment is almost an adventure game, Icewind Dale is almost a true hack-and-slash like Diablo, and Baldur's Gate is somewhere right in the middle.

bg_02.JPG

Black Isle's Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn.

As for the executives, if we do what I said above then this is usually what they want to hear and are often very quick to approve the new products that we suggest. And I actually don't look at market considerations as cramping our creative freedom or style. What people buy is what they will buy. We can sometimes change that with the birth of a new genre, but in general we want people to buy our games and they are only going to buy them if they can wrap their brain around what it is they are buying. Or, in the case of a new genre, they've been told how completely wonderful it is by friends, family and the press. If we understand those things and take them into account when creating our ideas, then getting ideas approved by the higher-ups becomes much easier.

Many people in the industry see Interplay as a "training ground" or an good place to start (not finish). Do you feel this is true? Do you think the accolades and Black Isle's track record is enough to make good people want to stay.

I think five or six years ago the mentality at Interplay was to pay as little for talent as possible and hope that they stay because they like the environment. That has changed a lot over the last few years, and Interplay offers the benefits and has the products that I think anyone in the game industry would be happy with.

As for whether the Black Isle track record is enough to make good people stay. I think that no matter how much pride someone has in what they are working on, if they feel they are being taken advantage of, they are not going to stay in that place for very long. So, in Black Isle we offer what we can afford to pay people and still breakeven on our projects.

If Black Isle were a separate company from Interplay, how would the way you make games change?

They probably wouldn't change much at all. We get to make the games that we think we should make. I purposefully did not say that we always get to make the game we want to make. Again, we have to be realistic about what consumers want, and make games that will appeal to enough of them.

How do you think developers who are completely independent from their publishers allocate their financial resources differently from publishers' in-house studios?

It really depends on the financial stability and experience of the developer. If a developer has the money to fund all of their products, and they are hitting all of their milestones (really hitting them, not through smoke and mirrors) then it is probably very similar to a development group that is owned or operates under a publisher. If they don't, then they are probably focusing much more on what will get them their next check, rather than what is best for the product. Outside developers also have more of an incentive to have people working on their next game idea before their current game has finished. This is because they often need the revenue from the next product to keep the money flowing after the last milestone on their current product has been paid. For better or worse, the paychecks of in house game developers keep coming after they've finished their current game.

Another difference is that as outside game developers get larger they have to start hiring more administrative staff than an in-house development group. For Black Isle, we can rely on the legal, HR, creative service, operations, audio, QA, and IS departments to take care of a lot of things that an out of house developer would have to hire staff for. When you get down to the development teams, I think the only difference that I have really seen is the use of producers. In-house game developers generally always have a producer in charge of the product, while out of house game developers generally don't. Neither of those are absolutes because I know of in-house developers that don't use producers, and external developers that do. But it is a general trend that I have seen.

The last difference that I often see in some external developers is that they are often forced, particularly on their first few products, to deal with obsolete equipment and software for longer periods of time. Since publishers, usually, have a steadier source of income then they are able to have a steadier flow of equipment and software.

Most of Black Isle's games have been critical successes, but never generated the same type of success in sales. Why do you think that is? Do you think we'll see any of Black Isle's future titles break 1 million copies sold worldwide?

Our goal in Black Isle is to steadily move towards about a million units in worldwide sales per product. Some of our products have chance to sell that much and some won't. And in some cases we will take the shot with a certain title to push it towards that goal, where with others we will be happy with 300K or 400K of worldwide sales. If we could hit a home run with a product, it would certainly give Black Isle and Interplay some financial breathing room.

Many game companies are starting to narrow their focus to concentrate on a particular "brand", what is your opinion on this? Will Black Isle continue to create original content or will it narrow its focus to sequels to games like Fallout and Baldur's Gate?

You are definitely right that most publishers are moving towards the brand or sequel mentality. I think for right now Black Isle is going to be doing mostly the same thing. However, we are also looking at ways to use our brands in more ways than just sequels. Two examples of this are TORN, and Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. TORN is an original title, however it is using the strengths of the Black Isle brand (arguably a brand in of itself) and the RPG system developed for the Fallout series. The ties to already established brands gives people more faith in the success of the product and certainly make it easier to interest the press. As for Dark Alliance, we are taking a PC brand to the console, but not as a port. The hope is that we can make the Baldur's Gate brand something that can cross platforms.

torn_01.JPG

TORN is an original title, however it is using the strengths of the Black Isle brand.

 


What's next for Black Isle?

For right now it is getting TORN done by Christmas. After that, we are going to be looking at what we can do from a console and on-line perspective for all of our titles.

Some people in the industry are saying the PC is dead. Are there any plans to port or develop games for other platforms or consoles?

I think it is a little premature for everyone to start talking about the death of the PC as a game platform. From a pure data perspective, sales of PC games were up seven percent in 2000 over 1999. If the platform were dying, the number would be going negative—much the way console numbers went last year because of the much touted "transition" year for the console companies.

I do think that publishers and developers need to be much more realistic about what games they should be putting on the PC though. Part of Interplay's current financial problems are due to betting on multi-million dollar PC product that went out and sold 10K to 20K units world wide—meaning that to break even we would have to make about $270 per copy for some of those products. Needless to say, we didn't make that much. Something very similar happened to a fair amount of the other publishers out there, and so the PC began to lose its shine as one of the top tier gaming platforms to bet on.

Now having said that the PC is not dead does not mean that Black Isle won't be working on console product. Later this year we'll be publishing our first console title, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. Dark Alliance is being developed by Snowblind Studios with some design assistance from us. We are then going to try to expand to about two console releases a year.

So far all of Black Isle's games have been sprite-based. Are there plans to do any 3D RPGs? if so what type of new technologies will you explore?

A quick answer to this is that all internally developed Black Isle products from here on out are going to be 3D.

It is kind of ironic though—one of the major reasons that we are going to 3D is not the dynamic lighting, moveable cameras, bump mapping, per pixel shaders, and the fact that the GeForce 6 will probably do your laundry for you. It really came down to the fact that our worlds have been getting bigger and bigger and we need to generate more and more content to flesh them out. With 3D content we have a lot more freedom in changing, storing and re-arranging stuff to give people new levels and creatures without burying the development team under a mountain of work. In 2D games, every time we wanted to create a new creature (other than through palette shifting) we would have to render out all of the frames of that new creature, store about a Gig of source art on the product's server, and ship another 5 to 20 Meg file with the game. In 3D a new creature may only require a single 512x512 texture map.

Many companies are creating real-time 3D RPG's, do you think there is still a market for sprite base RPG's?

Definitely, but it is a smaller market than for the 3D ones. The problem is that 2D is not seen as modern or cutting edge. In fact it is looked down upon, and many of the magazine editors will immediately be turned off by the fact that your game is 2D. Plus, after plunking down $450 for a GeForce 3, gamers want to buy games that use the card rather than not. It's not fair situation, but it's one of those things that developers should accept when they make their decisions about what engine to use or make.

How do you anticipate what will be "hot" one to two years from now?

My handy dandy Magic 8-Ball—isn't that what everyone uses? More seriously, I look at where hardware and gamers tastes are generally going. Gamers generally want 3D games over 2D games, so I think that 3D games will get hotter and hotter. They also generally want multiplayer, so you are going to see less and less single player only games on the PC or even for the console now. Neither of those takes a rocket scientist to figure out, but it's those trends that I consider.

I also see a trend towards games that we don't totally look at as games. These are products like The Sims and Black & White—which when you ask someone if they felt they had "fun" playing the game they have a hard time answering. They often say that they played the game for a long time and feel like they accomplished some things, but they're not totally sure if they had fun.

So looking at trends like that we try to move the products in the directions that gamer's tastes are going. You can see that with the progression of the features in Fallout to the Bioware Infinity Engine games (Baldur's Gate, Icewind, Torment) to TORN. We've gone from 2D single-player turn-based games to 3D multiplayer real-time ones. Interestingly though, we are pretty much making the same game -- just with a slightly different feature set and display engine.

icewind_03.JPG

Black Isle is moving from 2D single-player turn-based games to 3D multiplayer real-time ones.

With technology changing so rapidly, how will you plan a project that will not seem "dated" when it ships or aim too high with technology that won't run on the average consumers' computer?

This may sound like it is over simplifying the process, but it is to shoot for 18-month production cycles. If we don't start out behind the times, then we should be pretty close when the game ships. The game might be a few months behind the curve (supporting NV15s when the NV20 has just come out), but probably not enough to hurt its success. So, our focus becomes getting products out in eighteen months and not so much on what is the newest technology—which I think is an easier way to manage it. We then turn our eyes to what can get our products done quickly which can be anything from licensing an engine, reusing internal technology, or culling down the risky features that are in the product.

In what way do you think Black Isle changed the way developers make CRPGs?

I think the largest thing that we did was to really increase the amount of interaction that players had with the game's story. One of the driving forces behind the Fallout series and Torment was that we wanted players to be able to get through major points in the game by either talking their way through it, blowing it up, or sneaking their way past it. This has really helped those games be replayable and it is something that I think other developers (including us) have had to take into account when designing newer games.

How much does upper management influence what goes on in Black Isle?

It really depends on the issue. Day to day decisions in the division are handled almost entirely by the producers and I. For issues that may effect the division over the long term, I talk these over with the executives at Interplay. To be more specific—the division handles decisions that have to do with moving people around from product to product, buying equipment, deciding which sound contractor, etc. Decisions that have to do with what product a whole team is going to move onto next are ones that we talk with the executives of Interplay about.

Final thoughts about the future of Black Isle and the worlds they create?

The main goal that I have for the division is to keep on making the games that people have seemed to enjoy playing. I'm sure that we will make our mistakes. However, one of the things that gives me the most pride is that everyone in Black Isle always bounces back and looks at ways to make sure that the next game will fix all of those problems. And on top of that, how to give people even more than they expected.

 

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