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For Brian Fargo, making games is all about 'finding your way through the darkness'

InXile chief Brian Fargo reflects on the development of Torment: Tides of Numenera and speaks to the importance of being able to "shuck and jive" as a game dev, especially if you're guiding a team.

Alex Wawro, Contributor

January 23, 2017

18 Min Read

If we made a list of 30 developers who have been making games for over 30 years, Brian Fargo would be on it. 

Fargo got started in games by programming them himself, but he's best known in the industry for founding Interplay (where he helped oversee development of influential games like Wasteland, Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment) and, in 2002, InXile Entertainment.

In recent years InXile has embraced Kickstarter and Early Access with games like Wasteland 2, and Fargo has become a vocal proponent of crowdfunding and open development.

Now, InXile is preparing to launch its biggest crowdfunding success to date: Torment: Tides of Numeneraa spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment that was Kickstarted in 2013 to the tune over $4 million.

After a long development cycle that included more than one delay and the late addition of Techland as a publisher, Fargo recently sat down with Gamasutra to reflect on the project. In this wide-ranging interview, he speaks to the importance of being able to "shuck and jive" as a game developer, especially if you're guiding a team.

Fellow game makers may appreciate his perspective on the intricacies of production, management, and leading a team through the "darkness" that game development can often feel like, as well as his thoughts on how playing tabletop role-playing games informed his work as a game developer.

With Tides of Numenera about to debut, I only want to know one thing...

One thing!

How did it go?

Well, here's the bad news. It seems that 50 percent of development, each time, is brand new.

And so obviously, I learned a lot of lessons over the years, in general. But unless you're doing -- like, from Fallout 1 to Fallout 2, something where all the systems are in place and you're changing little things. There are some times, like those, where it's more science and less art. But for this, we were very much sort of inventing things as we went along. So, what did I learn along the way? It seems like I'm always having to relearn lessons, because things keep changing.

It seems like we've been doing okay at educating people on the other side about what a non-linear path it is to get these things done. Games are hard. They're fun to start! They're great to start. Finishing them is...very, very difficult. So this has been like all the other projects, with just all the fighting behind the getting these things done and complete. So, to me, I don't know if there's any one particular thing I learned from this. But I'm very proud of how it came out.

That's the thing -- I'm always adjusting the priorities based upon what I think is important and what's not. Bringing people in and changing things up. When I used to be at Interplay, I could do things my way, any way. And that's why the crowdfunding has been great, because it's allowed me to go in any order I want.

Because when you're working under a contract, you do all the milestones out ahead of time, so you very much have to stick with that. Now, some publishers are more lenient, and they'll let you sort of write the rules as you go along. But internal studios, that's why a lot of the internal studios at the companies do such great work, because they don't have to work on a milestone. They don't have to worry about if they don't hit something, nobody gets paid that week. So giving us the ability to adjust our priorities and change and reinvent and rescope and do all these crazy things behind the scenes to make these things beautiful and classic, we have the latitude to be able to do that.

To me that's, the lesson there is that for a creative endeavor, we really need that if we want to achieve greatness .

A few years back, you told me you'd prefer to never work with a publisher again. Now you've brought in a publisher on Torment -- Techland. Why is that?

Well, it's under very different terms, right. I don't want to do physical goods. I don't want to do retail. There are a lot of things we don't want to do, as a company, and that's where a publisher is great for us. We also don't have marketing budget, right. When we raised the money through crowdfunding, we don't have anything for marketing. So there's a lot of other things they bring to the table.

But it's a much different conversation when I can say to the publisher hey, I'm financing most of it, or half of it, or whatever the number is, right. Versus, I need all of the money. That's a very, very different dynamic! And so when I was talking about working under a publisher, I meant under that, right. What we're doing now, they become almost like distribution deals, in a way. We're very much in charge of our destiny. They're not here telling us change this, change that; there's none of those conversations. It's just coordinating how can we get these things done. They've really been -- Techland's been wonderful, on the localization side. The localization on this will be much better than anything we've done in the past. So they're bringing things to the table that make it better. So I think my answer is pretty consistent with the way it was back then, all those years ago.


"It's really about finding your way through the darkness on these things, and finding the good."

What I would say, in terms of helping other developers think about the process, is: there's a great book, Creativity Inc .It's a book on Pixar, and it's the best book I've ever read on creativity, and the imperfectness of the process behind it.

And they said that at Pixar, every one of their movies, in the beginning, sucks. Or is lousy. I forget what word they use. And it's really about finding your way through the darkness on these things, and finding the good. My job is to know good ideas when I hear them, and know talent when I see it, and how to facilitate an environment so everyone can work together on that main goal. Keeping everyone sane, on track, and going forward, that's my most important thing. I'm like a director on the set. I'm just trying to corral everybody together, because these things, these products are so big. Thousands and thousands of pages of dialog. It's easy to wander off the reservation!

So I've got to nudge everybody back on, make sure the scope is right. We've changed so many things throughout this process; but that's the beauty of the art behind game development -- it's really about knowing what to change and what not to change. That's where I see my greatest role.

What role do you think publishers have in the game industry now, and in the future?

I think the money sources have changed the dynamic completely.

If you're getting 100 percent of your money from publishers, you're simply going to have a different environment. Now that we have crowdfunding, and we have some developers who have had some success self-publishing, they have some money in the bank and some reoccurring revenue, it sort of builds upon itself. When we ship a game now, we start making money day one. Or I should say, not from necessarily a profit perspective -- it's sunk money in, but cash flows comes in day one, I should say. Whereas when we were under the old system, you're X million dollars in the hole and you're spending months, maybe years, maybe never, just to try and get out of that hole and make a dime. Whereas because of these deals, we put a game out on Steam, and within 30 days we've got revenue coming in.

That makes a big difference. It gives us more latitude to breathe. In the past, you would be working on a project to finish it, and then you'd say to the publisher hey, what are we gonna do next? I've got my guys freeing up, what am I gonna do with them? And they'd say well, let's see how well the game does. And we'd say well, by the time we ship it and get those results, we'll be out of business. So that became the conversation. New funding sources have changed the dynamic, and gave developers some access to cash flow. Access to a back catalog generating revenue. Access to other options for financing.

And for me, when I was at Interplay, I wish there were developers that came to me with these kinds of deals -- I would have loved it. When we do these games now, we submit it to the ratings boards, we do our own QA, we oftentimes submit it to the hardware manufacturers. We do all the TRC approval. Sometimes we just hand them a gold master and we're done. I would have KILLED to have had developers, back then, that did that for me. So I think it's a healthy system.

Does the idea of being a publisher again hold any interest for you, these days?

I don't know. I enjoyed that; it was fun finding new talent. I get a little bit of that now, because I have developers ask me to support their Kickstarters. Not just by pitching in, but by giving them feedback and promotion and even through Fig, because I'm on the advisory board there. Because I'll meet developers and I'll go you guys are great, please talk to Fig. I like that part of it.

But I don't know -- I like our model right now. I'm more on the front lines with the product, and being able to make a bigger difference in terms of where the art form goes. So I sort of enjoy that. I don't know -- never say never, but it's not something I'm trying to make happen.

I can't imagine trying to localize something like this game, an RPG with a huge script that encompasses so many esoteric concepts.

You have to understand the context of what you're doing in order to localize it. It's 1.2 million words, so it's incredibly expensive to localize. Incredibly expensive.

I was talking to George [Zeits, lead area designer on Torment] and he mentioned that the game had been cut down a lot during development. As executive producer on this project, I imagine you had oversight of what was cut -- how do you decide what stays and what goes, in a game like this?

Well, ultimately I let the writers decide that. I'll extrapolate out and say well, at this rate, this thing is going to go too long by x amount, and we need to change something. I'd rather have more time in the iteration cycle, right.

I tell the guys all the time, we're either going to have more levels or more time to iterate. Which would you rather have

It's always more time to iterate, because you get to polish more, and make what you have better. So that always wins out. So I let them ultimately decide how they need to tell this really heavy, single-player narrative story, yet still remove things. And so yeah, they had to work themselves into pretzels a couple different times in order to do it. But it's fun, because at this point we're the only ones that know what's not there anymore. And at the end of the day, the game is still pretty massive -- it's probably a 40- to 60-hour game. But again, I let those guys make that decision, in terms of what makes sense.

What do you think makes a good producer? Because it seems like the expectations of what a producer is and does is a bit different for every studio.

By the way, I'm probably using the term wrongly when I say that, too. I sometimes say producer ,when now the new term is director. So my terminology might be a little bit out of date. I probably mean more game director, in this instance. But, as far as the person who is the figurehead, who's supposed to be in charge of a game, labels aside: to me, it's understanding the core vision and making sure that everyone on the team understands what it is.

You're able to move things across all fronts simultanously, all the time. You can't worry about your personal desires. Sometimes you want to dive in yourself and do stuff, right? But that's foolish. You want to get in and do a map or something yourself, but you've got forty people all moving in a line. And if you do something, that can cause three people to slip behind, and then that causes these other people to be off, and you could wind up losing two weeks or a month *snaps fingers* just like that.


"You have to be able to say no to people, and make them feel good about it. It's a lot of psychology."

So it's really a function of just -- it's like an orchestra. You have to understand where everyone is going, all the instruments are playing, and everything that is going on. You have to make sure everything is staying on point, and you have to adjust based on what's happening in real time. You have to be able to say no to people, and make them feel good about it. It's a lot of psychology, and understanding the philosophy of the products. I think it's the hardest job in the business.

There's also this satisfaction that people have in burying themselves in spreadsheets or other documents. And there are so many things that just happen in a conversation that you hear, walking down the hall, or someone asks you a question or you sit down in a meeting and you go gosh, if I hadn't been in that meeting, I don't know what would have happened here. Even with all these great, bright minds, things get off track. So having the pulse of what's going on at all times, that is what's important. That requires meetings, talking to people, hearing around corners, you know listening to what people are really saying, reading into it, and getting a sense of things. It's not about managing a spreadsheet.

Also, know your plusses and minusses. That's a huge part of it.

Like, at first I was a programmer, and then I met these other guys that were much better than me! So I said okay, I'm not chasing this, then. Because maybe I could have got close to them, but it was much easier for them, and they were already up there. So I said I have to get more guys like this, and some great artists. So I knew the things I was really good at, and what I wasn't good at. Not everyone has an aptitude for pulling something like that.

Like, I had a guy at Interplay and he was always complaining about management. Complaining, complaining, complaining. Well you know what I did? I made him a manager. And he ended up being one of the best managers. He would complain about a problem and I would say: solve it! And a year later he'd go ahhh well maybe this isn't so easy. And I'd say -- no shit!

But he became a great manager. Which is kind of the opposite of some people, who say make me a manager, make me a manager, and sometimes they're not the greatest manager. They want it for the wrong reasons. So it's really about identifying what you're good at, what you're not, and finding people to support you -- if you're managing these mid-size teams. These are different conversations if you're managing a four-person team, right, or a 200-person team. This is really about my wheelhouse, of fifteen to twenty people.

How big did the Torment team start, and how big was it at the largest point?

It was about 38 people at its biggest. Our whole company, its only a little over 50-odd people. We use contractors, too.

It was three and a half years, too, so we had a good amount of time. That's what I always want. Iteration time is the most important thing. If you told me I had 12 months to make a game, you can either plan for 9 and iterate for 3 or vice versa, I'll make a better game if you give me 3 months to plan and 9 months to tweak and play with it.

I guess that's one big lesson, is I've gotten -- I'll say tougher, at trying to get to the stage where we can iterate faster and faster on each project. Because it pays huge rewards when you do so.

I've always said, if you're working on a game, and you wouldn't launch your company with it, you shouldn't be doing it.

I mean, for a lot of indies that's just how it is. What they're working on is also their big debut game -- and potentially their last game.

Right, right. But some people are just sort of working, I don't think they're thinking about it in that context. You have to stake everything on this. And that's what we do. And these games -- you know, if we do a good job, people play it for decades. It's awesome.

If you had to give a GDC talk about this project, what would you want to tell other devs about?

Well, there's this quote, it was a Mike Tyson quote, which I love: Everybody has a strategy until they're punched in the face. So, the ability to be tactical is more important the ability to be strategic.

That's not to say you shouldn't have a plan, but just to say that it's going to go to hell many, many times over. So it's really about how quickly you can shuck and jive over those things, and make lots of really great individual daily decisions, all the time. And be able to manage people, and know how to communicate with them.

So there's just a lot of different things that go into it. I've been doing this a long time, so it's hard to say what's new -- and like I said, I relearn things -- there are so many things to do, that I get reminded of how important those things are all the time, because there are so many hundreds of nuances to managing these things. I don't think there's one particular big lesson I'd take from Torment; t's like three and a half years of just, you know, pushing this boulder up the hill and trying to get this thing done.

You used to play D&D, right?

Yeah, all the time!

Do you still play at all?

Nah, not anymore. I play computer games now.

Do you think that kind of experience, playing tabletop role-playing games with others, informs your work?

I think it helped me, because we tended to focus on the psychology of the games. More than like, being hardcore about the ruleset. So it was like, how do you set a mood for your players?

I remember I did this dungeon one time where basically, anything the player said would be summoned. So someone would say frog, and a frog would appear. Then someone else would say something worse. And then another player would say just don't say vampire! And then boom! You know? So I got the players bickering with each other, and yelling, and you'd piss them off too much and they'd say something rude and then it would appear too.

I loved that part of it. It transcended the rules, but I loved the social element. I think that's why multiplayer is interesting to me, is like, you find that people don't really want to kill their buddies, but they'd like to grief them a little bit. So I think there's a social dynamic that comes from sitting around a table and having conversations, that goes beyond just a ruleset.

So did you find that your experience as a Dungeon Master in any way impacted your ability to run a team, or run a company?

I think understanding people is the most important part of managing a project. Like I said, to fundamentally understand talent, or hear a conversation and you can go hey you guys aren't saying the same things, you know, and helping to communicate. And I've always been a communicator. I knew enough about the technical side, and the design, and the business, that I was like an interpreter -- I can marry all those sides together.

So all my time spent playing D&D was more like a sociology class than anything. Hearing how people think, how they talk, and how they tick. Because unless you know your audience and how they think, how can you possibly entertain them?

Sometimes I'll see a crowdfunding campaign pitch and I'll be bored out of my mind, and I'll think well, if they're not entertaining at all in their campaign pitch, then chances are the product's gonna be boring. So I think that part of it is always good, that as we sit behind a computer or on social media and aren't interacting with real human beings, that maybe you aren't getting a better sense of how people react to stuff.

So in that context, I would say yes.

[Front-page image captured from the trailer for Capital C, a crowdfunding documentary in which Fargo appeared.]

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