On Saturday 10th November, Microsoft announced buying Californian role-playing game developers inXile Entertainment and Obsidian Entertainment. Two studios independent which had fought for survival for a decade-and-a-half were now under the Xbox umbrella. The message from Microsoft was reassurance: don't worry, nothing will change, we won't kill them - they'll continue to make the games you love, only they'll have more resources and support available to "fully realise" their ambitions. Nevertheless, questions remained.
Both companies are tied up in crowdfunding - particularly inXile, which has Wasteland 3 still to deliver - so what happens there? And what happens to promised PlayStation 4 versions of games - can they still fulfil those as Xbox studios? Moreover, will they leave isometric games behind in favour of glitzier projects?
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For this interview, I'm concentrating on inXile, speaking with company founder and video game veteran, Brian Fargo, about the Microsoft deal. I hope to do similar for Obsidian, and I am in contact with the studio, but it's proving trickier to organise.
How long has the deal been in the offing?
Brian Fargo: I'd have to think about when the exact day was it became very real, but the conversation started back in April, and as you might imagine with Microsoft, it's an incredible vetting process you need to go through, both as a person and a company. Yeah, it takes quite a while.
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Who approached who - what was the reasoning behind it?
Brian Fargo: I've known Noah Musler a long time [Microsoft business development bigwig who has old ties with Feargus Urquhart and Obsidian as well]. He dropped me a message one day and said, 'Hey, um, I have a crazy idea - you want to come up and talk about something?' I said, 'Sure, let's do it.'
For me, it's always... My goal is to always get my company in a safe harbour so we can spend as much time as possible working on our games and honing our craft. That can come if you sell 2 million units - that's a great way to get there which everyone hopes for. Or, a deal like this. But at the end of the day that's all I ever cared about.
What is the state of the studio - how big is inXile right now?
Brian Fargo: We're roughly 70 full-time people and probably another 15 contractors that we keep busy all the time, so we're a good size.
It's interesting if you think about 2012, when the crowdfunding revolution happened. You had myself and Double Fine and Obsidian shortly thereafter - and even Larian [Studios] for that matter. The budgets back then were $5m, $6m, so we'd raise $3m from Kickstarter, maybe do another couple of million in Early Access, throw in some more of our money, and you'd be pretty close to having your costs covered.
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But since then, the category of what we all consider to be double-A has raised from $15m to $20m in that short period of time. The landscape has changed greatly since then.
How was the studio doing before the sale - were you in good health? Could you have continued to operate indefinitely without Microsoft's involvement? Because Bard's Tale 4 didn't set the world on fire, Torment: Tides of Numenera didn't seem to do well commercially, and Wasteland 3 isn't due until next year. Were you on the rocks?
Brian Fargo: Well listen, I'm a clever guy and I'm a survivor, so I always have a plan B, C and D at all times. There were a few companies wanting to give us big contracts recently so I always had that as an option, and some of the projects were really interesting. I would have had to continue to adjust my business model; right now we're primarily crowdfunding and publishing ourselves, so perhaps I would have had to mix it up a bit and continue with things like Wasteland 3 but maybe do a work-for-hire contract at the same time.
I found with inXile I've been constantly flexing both our size and our business strategy to survive, so I would have continued doing that.
It changes things now, and I wonder what the process of becoming a Microsoft Studio is. I know in the press release it said you'd "continue to act autonomously" but... Well, let's start with Bard's Tale 4 coming to console - presumably it won't be released on PlayStation 4?
Brian Fargo: Well not necessarily. We're still working through the issues, and where we've made commitments, we want to keep them. In the short-term, I don't think a lot's going to change. People are naturally sceptical but we keep our same email addresses, we keep our same medical plans, we keep our same 401k [pension]. It's almost like if my guys didn't know we were bought, they wouldn't even realise. Everything literally remains the same. Whatever case studies they've seen where companies got hurt... I've seen companies get bought and blown apart shortly thereafter, and I don't know who's fault it was - we never know the inside story, right?
I tell you what hasn't changed: in order for us to survive we've got to do good games. Either the public is going to shut you down by not buying your product or, theoretically, the company that buys you is going to shut you down if you don't do good products. But now I have more tools at my disposal to prevent that from happening than ever before. The deck is more stacked in our favour than it ever has been.
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So, to be specific, The Bard's Tale 4 will still come to PlayStation 4?
Brian Fargo: I... believe so. I believe so. The only reason I hesitate is I can't remember what we've promised on that. I know we said it was coming to console, in which case there's an asterisk because we haven't thought about it much. If we've said it's specifically coming to PS4 then it's coming to PS4 [inXile has specified PlayStation 4 in a press release]. I'm not trying to evade your question, I can't remember what was promised. Microsoft has already been, like, whatever we promised, we do, so that's absolutely the case.
A bigger question surrounds Wasteland 3. You said in your Microsoft announcement video Wasteland 3 was unaffected -
Brian Fargo: That's right. That's coming to PS4. Absolutely.
Okay. Is there any effect from the buyout at all on the project, as in development team size, resources that will be put into the game - anything like that?
Brian Fargo: Yes - across the board that's what we're getting. We're getting more resources and potentially more time depending on what the project is.
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If you look at most of the great developers, from Blizzard to Rockstar, the thing everybody gets in those higher echelons is time. Time is the most precious thing a developer can be given.
Now, I don't expect to start working on five-year production cycles or anything crazy like that - we don't think that way. One of the reasons why Microsoft liked us is we do a pretty good job of punching above our weight. Use Bard's Tale 4 as an example: you had a 50-hour game, 350 speaking parts, 100 minutes of music - I did that with a 35-person team. That's pretty unheard of. When you start thinking, gosh, if we had another 15 people and another three months...
Most people in development know a little bit of extra time goes an incredibly long way towards the end. I know it doesn't seem like it but it's always the case. When you finally get it together, you feel it, you can really focus on iteration. Is the pacing right? Is it hitting the right messages? Do we like the arcs of difficulty? Gosh if I had 90 more days I could really tune that in. As a smaller company it's really hard to get that. That's what this gives us.
I founded Interplay in 1983, and this will be the first time in my career I will be able to focus 100 per cent of my energy on product development.
That was a year after I was born, Brian.
Brian Fargo: Hahaha. Thank you for reminding me.
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Brian Fargo: So I've been at it on the front lines, raising money by negotiating deals, chasing contacts, crowdfunding, raising equity, you name it, just to keep the lights on and keep everybody going - and in many ways keeping my guys oblivious to the chore of keeping money coming in the door. Now I get to really take a longer view and get the resources we [need].
We've always known as a small developer what our goals are, but we don't have unlimited money - and I'm not talking about going crazy, ramping up to these huge triple-A projects, that's not what we're trying to do. But we want to step it up a bit because there's this uncanny valley between the double-A and the triple-A. We could come out with a game like Bard's Tale  and we could say, 'Hey, it's a 35-person team and it's only $35,' but the people playing it are like, 'Nope. I'm just looking at The Witcher 3 and I don't really care.' We don't get to explain; we just need to close the gap.
The other thing is, with role-playing games especially, we don't get the luxury of saying, 'Well let's just do a tight, eight-hour experience,' that's just not an option. We have to do pretty large-in-scope games, so it's extra tricky when you do products of this nature.
So, to be specific again, Wasteland 3 is due at some point next year - is that still the plan?
Brian Fargo: Yes.
You also had a plan to retire after Wasteland 3 shipped. Are you still going to do that?
Brian Fargo: No, that's off the table. I'm not going anywhere; you're stuck with me.
How does this affect your involvement with Fig and inXile's involvement with Fig?
Brian Fargo: Well, on a practical level, we probably won't be crowdfunding any more.
With Fig, it remains to be seen, but right now we meet once a quarter and they review products coming through and I give my input and guidance, so I don't know if that's going to go away. We haven't really got into that conversation. I've certainly explained it's not a big time crunch but I'm not sure how that's going to play out.
Because I was looking at some numbers for Fig and it doesn't look - it looks like there's debt racking up. The future doesn't look that rosy, but I don't know if I'm seeing the whole picture?
Brian Fargo: I'm not involved in the management, I'm not on the board, I've never seen a financial statement of that company. I'm just an adviser as it relates to games; I sit there looking at product. Often people have misconstrued how involved either me or Feargus [Urquhart, Obsidian CEO] are in the inner-workings of that organisation.
You mentioned inXile probably won't do crowdfunding again. I'm sure you're downplaying it there - that's fairly certain, right?
Brian Fargo: Yeah I should probably - there will be no more crowdfunding, yes.
You mentioned moving up from double-A up to triple-A -
Brian Fargo: Hold on - I would say somewhere in between.
Sorry, yes - I don't mean like a Rockstar Games. Anyway, presumably alongside Wasteland 3, you're beefing up to make something new for Microsoft?
Brian Fargo: Yeah, we will be.
Are you working on something now?
Brian Fargo: Well, we've had a project in development for some time we haven't announced that they're quite keen on, so we'll be looking at that and saying, 'Okay, what does this product look like now we're going to be given extra time and resources?' Evaluating how we could make it better.
Was that game part of the deal? Or was it more Microsoft acquiring inXile and then looking at what you could do?
Brian Fargo: They were certainly looking at what we had in development as an indicator of where we were going. They were interested in us because we are a self-sufficient company that can do good product without hand-holding which they could see, with a little extra resource, could really be pushed up a notch. That, as a general sense, was a motivator, and then in addition they were able to look at what was in the pipe and say, 'These guys are really doing some interesting, innovative things.'
So what sort of size are you looking to bulk up to?
Brian Fargo: In the short-term we talk about increasing it 30 per cent or so. We're not trying to become multi-hundred-person teams but just filling the holes we've been desperately wanting to: having a full-time audio person, having a full-time lighting person, having a cinematics person - these things that could help us improve what we're doing.
For the last few years you've made isometric games but presumably Microsoft wants you to make something flashier? I always thought The Bard's Tale 4 was a good indication of where you could go, and what you could do in 3D with Unreal Engine. Is that the direction the one you're going in? Are isometric games off the table?
Brian Fargo: Ultimately we get to decide what we're going to make - they've been very clear on that. They've not once said 'we'd really love you to do more of this or less of that' - that's never been a conversation. Really it's going to be up to us, and very much us talking to our fans about the things they'd like to see. We're not necessarily walking away from isometric at all. There's still some great things you can do with it that haven't been done yet.
Does it mean the size of projects you'll attempt will be bigger?
Brian Fargo: Our games are pretty big as they are, in terms of hour count. Wasteland 2 was 80-100 hours for most people so I don't think we need to push 'big' in that regard. But we want to bring up our visual style and also make sure our launches are smoother.
There's a lot of things Microsoft [offers]. As an example, let's say we're doing controller support for Bard's Tale 4. They have a whole user group; let's put it in front of these psychologists and gamers they have they up there and see what they like and what they hate, and really hone it in before we release to the public. Things of that nature allow us to hone our craft.
Just to be clear, and I believe Microsoft has said something along these lines anyway, but inXile being similar to Obsidian Entertainment does not mean you're going to be lumped together, or does it?
Brian Fargo: There's absolutely no plans to lump us together or have us work in the same office or anything of that nature. What could come out of it, of course, is we're going to have a tighter relationship. We're going to be less competitive and more like brothers, and as we compare notes I'm hoping there could be some synergies so we can help each other across town. Any number of things could happen, but that will be for me and Feargus [Urquhart] to talk about, for something we think is good for both of us. But ultimately, no, we're not being merged out.
Well thank you - that's all I have to ask. I appreciate it, as always.
Brian Fargo: No problem. I would just add, as an ending, I can honestly say I have a renewed sense of enthusiasm I haven't had for a long time. I am super-excited about this.
Has it made you filthy rich? Have you bought a golden yacht to sale off into the sunset on?
Brian Fargo: Haha. No, listen, I do this because I love it. I've made money in my past; I could probably not have to do this. I do it because I love it, I really always have. When I think about the money... My whole focus has been the company and how it's going to be able to do all the things I talked about. That's all I think about on a day-in, day-out basis.
Well I'm looking forward to seeing what you're working on. It's fascinating the prospect of what a fully supported inXile can do.
Brian Fargo: Yeah, well, in some ways we've had one hand tied behind our back, and now, no longer.
No more excuses!
Brian Fargo: Exactly.