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August 31, 2001
In 1997, the RPG division of Interplay released a relatively unheralded game that eschewed the realm of fantasy in favor of a moody post nuclear setting. The CRPG market was still very much in the doldrums, but Fallout won unanimous acclaim, garnering innumerable awards as the best RPG and even the best game of the year. It also proved to be the first in a remarkable succession of quality titles. Since then, the division, now known as Black Isle Studios, has developed Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale plus the latter's Heart of Winter expansion pack and the Trials of the Luremaster downloadable dungeon set. In addition, it has published BioWare's Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn along with their respective expansion packs, Tales of the Sword Coast and Throne of Bhaal.
In terms of quality RPGs during this period, Black Isle has been associated with far more than any other publisher. This is also true of the man who has been at the helm the entire time, Feargus Urquhart, the long-time Division Director who received the shiny new title of Black Isle Studios President earlier this year in recognition of his work. We've had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Feargus on a number of occasions, but it has been well over two years since we last did so for publication. Recently however, he was kind enough to make time in his busy schedule for this very interesting Black Isle Studios Interview, Part 1in which he talks about the formation of Black Isle, his role there and the division's exceptional track record over the past few years.
Jonric: What were the circumstances behind the formation of the RPG division within Interplay, especially at a time when the genre was at a low ebb in the market? What was your involvement at that time, and what led to your becoming the Division Director? And when it actually adopt the Black Isle name?
Feargus Urquhart: There were a number of things that all came together to have RPGs become a larger focus at Interplay, which in turn spawned a new division to produce and develop them. Chiefly amongst these reasons was that Interplay was founded on some of the best-known RPGs of the '80s, which was in no small part because of Brian Fargo's love of the genre. Coupled with the fact that we started talking with TSR about acquiring the D&D; licenses of Forgotten Realms and Planescape, and the long time development of Stonekeep, Interplay felt that a whole division should be dedicated to RPGs. So officially, the division has its roots back to 1994, and became more official in 1995 under the Dragonplay name.
However, in early 1996, the first division director, Mark O'Greene, left Interplay. I was then promoted to the position in April of 1996. It was sometime that year that we started searching for a name. After going through Digital Anvil, Monolith - both taken, and other wacky names like 12 Gauge and Colostomy Bag Food Fight (it was really on a list someone turned in to me) - we settled on Black Isle. The story is more complicated than that and involves some nasty e-mails and shouting matches - but I won't go into all of that. :) So, officially, we launched Black Isle in August of 1998, and the first title to bear the Black Isle name was Fallout 2.
Jonric: When you became Division Director, what did you see as your biggest and most immediate challenges?
Feargus Urquhart: Well, when I took over, my first challenge, as I saw it, was to figure out how 60 people were going to make eight internal products and manage about four external products. At first, I tried to keep everything going, but realized later in 1996 that 60 people just couldn't do that many projects. So, we hired some people and consolidated products throughout the later parts of 1996 and early 1997. It ended up that we then had Planescape: Torment, Fallout 1, Dragon Dice, Descent to Undermountain, Stonekeep 2, and Red Asphalt in development in early 1997. Some of those were not necessarily my choice of projects to do; however, they had started before I took over the division, so they needed to be finished.
Jonric: Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, were there other significant challenges in the early phase? And on the other side of the coin, was there anything that went better or smoother than expected?
Feargus Urquhart: What turned out to be my largest challenge was that I knew absolutely nothing about managing a division, and barely enough about producing. At the time, I had not really produced a full internal product. I had a fair amount of external production experience (producing titles that are developed by developers outside of Interplay like BioWare), but I was lacking the internal development side of things. So, a lot of the early growing pains of the division were due to my inexperience and ignorance. Luckily, Interplay is pretty forgiving and I was allowed to make enough mistakes, so that I could learn enough to get things moving forward.
The best decision I did make in those early days was to immediately start ramping up the Fallout 1 project, so that they could actually ship that decade. When I first took over the division, there were only about eight people working on the project - which I worked to ramp up to over 20 closer to launch. This actually turned out to be one of the things that went smoother than I thought. Interplay gave me a lot of freedom, as they do today, to let me move people around within the division to solve problems and get things moving forward.
Jonric: As far as the RPG division's early products, did you start work on anything else before or around the same time as Fallout?
Feargus Urquhart: Fallout started in 1994 (or there about), so there weren't many things that were started before it. Plus, many of the things that were started around that time were cancelled and never came out.
Jonric: How did Fallout actually come to be? What led to the decision to develop a serious RPG, especially a non-fantasy one, at a time when the entire genre was in a rather comatose state?
Feargus Urquhart: My recollections of the actual conception of Fallout are somewhat fuzzy. I was working on drastically different things at the time, but I did talk with Tim Cain (producer of Fallout) from time to time, so I can give a vague rendition. After Tim had finished his last game, Rags to Riches, and all the foreign versions he was given sometime to explore and come up with another project. At first, he was playing around with a voxel engine that had something to do with shooting jeeps I think, but then the idea came up for him to develop an RPG. I think it was spawned by Brian Fargo asking him to think about using a brand - which ended up being GURPs. Now, as to why we decided to do an RPG - that's a good question. I don't think anyone thought that it was the wrong thing to do.
Jonric: The game has the reputation of being developed outside of the media spotlight and of not getting Interplay management's full attention. To what extent is this accurate, and in what ways did this help or hinder the final product?
Feargus Urquhart: In a lot of ways, that is an accurate way of looking at probably most of the time that Fallout was in development. Since RPGs were not necessarily selling a lot of units, the Interplay marketing and sales force were not really interested in the title a great deal. Interplay was also a little different back in those days, where development was much more a bunch of little groups all vying for the same resources. There was not a great deal of central organization of development, which led to titles being made that not a whole lot of other people at Interplay knew about.
As for if this sort of "skunkworks" type of development helped or hindered the development of Fallout - I think it did both. It helped a great deal in the beginning, because the team had enough support and time to really create a design that they wanted to implement. However, when the team needed to ramp up, it needed to be seen as a frontline Interplay product. Since it was still in the background to an extent, it probably did not get the resources it needed, when it needed them. It also meant that Interplay may not have really gotten behind the product early enough to get the press and the consumers really excited.