“Thank god crowdfunding worked out for us,” says Brian Fargo, when I ask him how he's feeling about his work on Wasteland 2
. “It’s only been 20 years I’ve been trying to get here. It wouldn’t have happened if not for crowdfunding.”
Fargo has been singing the praises of crowdfunding since his company, inXile Entertainment, successfully raised more than $3 million in 2012 to fund development of Wasteland 2
But while his affection for crowdfunding hasn't changed in the years since, the landscape of crowdfunded game development has: Kickstarted projects like Divinity: Original Sin
, Shadowrun Returns
and a portion of Broken Age
have all been released to positive acclaim in that time.
Those successful launches lend credence to crowdfunding as a viable business model but also raise the stakes for inXile, which has already delayed the release of Wasteland 2
and started selling access to a portion of it via Steam's Early Access service as the studio sorts out how to efficiently develop in public.
Fargo paints crowdfunding as the ideal business model for the sort of mid-size studios that have almost disappeared in the past decade. Less than 30 people are full-time at inXile right now; the studio supplements its work on the Unity-powered Wasteland 2
with outsourced contractors and contributions from the community.
Fargo recently spoke with Gamasutra about how his studio works, and what other developers can learn from inXile's experience funding Wasteland 2
; we've taken the liberty of editing and publishing a portion of that conversation here.
How have you gone about building a game like this with a team of your size?
I can tell you there’s nobody in the office that knows everything that’s in the game. That’s a virtual impossibility. My president, he says he’s put in 800 or a 1,000 hours and every time he plays the game he finds something different that he’s never seen before.
"Ultimately, doing it this way just creates a healthier and more positive environment. There is no trust in a publisher contract, and this business is about trust."
So what I have to do is really teach people how to think. I lay out the structure and the philosophy of the game. First, you have the writers put together documents that are this thick [holds fingers up, about an inch apart] and that’s the starting ground for the game.
Then I get all the scripters, these game designers who aren’t technically writers, but they think like game makers. They take all those documents and build the baseline prototype; we get the game up to where it’s playable.
Now we’re starting to get a feel for it ourselves, our beta testers are getting a feel for it, and then they go in and they start adding and adding and we let them run free, because they kind of know the right sensibilities and the push points. They know what’s crossing the line, and they start digging into all the details.
Then we have these daily meetings where we talk about what they’ve put in, and the whole thing flowers and becomes bigger than what any one person could do. And that’s really the trick behind making something like this: it’s all about letting go.
Is there anything you miss about working on traditional projects like Hunted: The Demon’s Forge?
No, old-school PC games have always been my wheelhouse. It’s what I love to do, but nobody was gonna finance this kind of thing. So I did what I had to do, and it was a weird route to get back here, but...here I am.
I love this kind of product. They’re just so super-complex; there’s so many moving bits and sensibilities and psychologies of design -- it’s like a decathlon. You have to be good at ten different things. Whereas you’ll see some developers will focus on one thing, like they’ll do strategy games or shooters and they’ll be really tight and focused, but it’s all that they do. We have to be good in each category, and that makes it very tricky to do.
I’m fortunate because, when working with publishers I would spend 30-35 percent of my time trying to get paid or proving I knew what I was doing. It was a huge drain. Whereas crowdfunding is the opposite; it’s like “Here’s the money upfront. We trust you. Go for it.”
Now I spend 100 percent of my energy working on the game, so in that sense it’s 100 percent positive. It’s just the scope and scale is the only negative aspect of this kind of project.
Fortunately with Early Access, we’ve had people beating on the first half of the game since December of last year. We’ve gotten tens of thousands of issues reported, and we’ve been able to address so much of that -- all the compatibility testing has been done, the UI has been honed, all the system stuff has been done. It’s meant such leaps and bounds; the build that’s out now, we’re embarrassed by it compared to what’s about to come out.
For the second half we have an outside QA group that’s a lot less than those 10,000 people that’s beating on everything, but they’re implementing what we learned from watching all those people beat on the first half.
I would be terrified by the pressure if it wasn’t already such a transparent process: I know what I need to do in order to ship. If I had to operate in a vacuum -- like on the original Fallout -- where we just work on it and ship it with our fingers crossed, that would be terrifying. Fortunately, this has been a more open process.
How do you decide what is and isn’t good feedback?
I look for patterns; the rest comes down to instinct. Some of that comes from years of experience, and some of it comes from having a strong core vision of what the game needs to be. We put out a vision document early on that said what this game was gonna be, and that wasn’t changing -- you couldn’t say ‘Oh, this game needs vampires,’ for example; it’s not gonna happen.
For me it’s interesting, because the process of development now is more like a spectator sport. It’s more transparent. I’ve never cared where the ideas come from in game development -- whether it’s from my producer or a guy in QA. Now that range has been amplified out to the audience, who also have opinions, and your crew of 25 can never compete with 10,000 outside ideas. So I’ve tried to harness that power, and really listen and utilize it. We’ve got polls and other ways of reaching out; then you make editorial decisions about what makes sense.
We have a guy who spends all of his time going over the boards and forums and pulling out ideas. Every week he posts up a list of suggestions and we categorize them like, “these would be nice if we have time, these would be good,” and so on, and then we put those right into our JIRA tracker as if they were bugs and they don’t get removed until we have a conversation about them.
So where does that break down? What did you want to implement, but couldn’t?
The stealth skill. When you’re making a skill system-based game, your skills need to be meaningful. We made entire passes to make sure that 'hey, alarm disarm better be meaningful, perception better be meaningful,' just pass after pass after pass. And stealth, it just wasn’t giving enough benefit. So we dropped it. And people were like ‘we wanted stealth!’ but it was just messing with the system.
There’s always people who want Fallout
. They want every attribute of Fallout
. This isn’t Fallout
-- it’s something else. We aren’t trying to clone Fallout
. So we have legacy issues we always worry about as we put this together.
I ask because some Kickstarted developers have to learn how to go to their backers and apologize for being unable to make good on promised features.
We had that with called shots. I told everyone we could probably do called shots post-release -- even though we might be able to do a simplified version of them for launch. Because everyone wants called shots, because Fallout
had called shots.
And of course when it comes to dates you have to communicate clearly and that’s been tricky, because with Kickstarter you have to announce the delivery date before you start.
When you think about it, that’s absurd; no publisher in the world would announce the date for a game before they even started development -- much less when they didn’t even know what the scope would be. Because if you raise three time as much you’re gonna make the game three times as big, right?
So we have to go out and carefully explain that. But as a whole, the crowd is very reasonable -- if you’re being honest with them at all times. Don’t try to spin stuff.
What if they become unreasonable? Do you have any interest in working with a publisher again?
No, not at all.
What do you think that means for publishers? You’re not the first veteran developer I’ve spoken to who’s shunned the thought of working with them.
It’s interesting, having been a publisher. Can you imagine, you’re a publisher and you look at the Steam top ten list periodically, it seems like half of it is filled with indie games that are unfinished. That’s gotta kind of rock you a little bit, when you think about what you’re working on.
Now I know they get their revenue primarily from consoles, but Sony is opening Early Access soon, and so the dynamic of the industry is changing fast and you wonder about how those big
"The money has really changed things. When things went up and games started costing $50 or $100 million, people got crazy."
infrastructures will be supported. But that’s why they’ve gotta swing for the fences on each outing. It’s also why they aren’t interested in a Wasteland
-- because they’ve gotta do something like Destiny
, or Skylanders
. They just look at the world in a completely different way.
The money has really changed things. When things cost $300,000 - $400,000, there was a more healthy relationship, I think, between developers and publishers. When things went up and games started costing $50 or $100 million, people got crazy. Now it’s a very intense atmosphere, and life’s too short for that.
Now it’s very hard to recoup; someone might give you $20 - $30 million to make your game, but good luck recouping that. It becomes like slave labor, and you don’t even own the intellectual property so you’re just grinding out until the next milestone. You don’t even get the big payoff -- there are lots more indies that get big payoffs these days.
Ultimately, doing it this way [crowdfunding] just creates a healthier and more positive environment. There is no trust in a publisher contract, and this business is about trust. A publishing contract has all these horrors if you’re late or you don’t make your milestones -- they can take the work away from you, they can sue you...there’s a real lack of trust.
And unless you’re a Blizzard or an Epic, you’re not in a position to tell a publisher to get the hell out of your office. There’s not very many of those, and by no coincidence, those guys do the best stuff -- by virtue of their talent and their power.
Some developers seem to appreciate publishers because they set milestone deadlines and hold them accountable for their work.
They should make their own, though. We do that. You can also go tell the public your deadline -- bam, you just set yourself a public deadline.
Okay, but you did say that having to set dates and deadlines when crowdfunding was dangerous.
Don’t set your deadline up front. You can commit to something like ‘at the end of next month, we’re gonna have our combat system done’ or something like that. You could put a milestone out to the public, which is basically a self-enforced gun to your head. It’s like having your own public milestones.