"Stay Awhile and Listen - Book I" Bonus Chapter: An Interview with Brian Fargo
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Today, I released the first eBook in the Stay Awhile and Listen series, which documents the history of Blizzard North and Blizzard Entertainment. One of my goals in writing Stay Awhile and Listen was to craft a digital monument that celebrated the era, people, and games of Blizzard Entertainment and Blizzard North -- hence the name of the e-publishing company I co-founded with my wife: Digital Monument Press. To that end, the book contains bonus chapters such as interviews with individuals who influenced the two Blizzards along the way. One such individual was Brian Fargo, founder of Interplay Productions.
During our interviews, Brian and I covered history leading up to and beyond Interplay's founding, and I did not want to scrap all that information just because it did not directly relate to Blizzard or Diablo. This chapter collects the rest of that interview and explores Brian's exposure to game programming, the guerrilla marketing tactics he used to get his early games on store shelves, and much more.
David Craddock: What led to your interest in making video games?
Brian Fargo: When I was in junior high school, they had a mainframe computer. People talk about the cloud now, but everything was in "the cloud" back then. You just had a dumb terminal talking to a mainframe. I was fascinated by computers even though there wasn't much in terms of games. The coin-op business had just gotten to the point where games like Pong and Space Invaders were emerging, and it was those games that first got me interested.
Then my parents got me an Apple II in high school, and that really opened my eyes to how you can make games, how I could go beyond just playing them. I played a lot of the older titles. I remember there were some old strategy titles where you would make a move and the computer would take two to three hours to process its turn. You'd go crazy when a game crashed halfway through because that meant you just lost three days of playing.
So I really discovered games through those means. I always had a background in reading a lot of fiction: comics, Heavy Metal magazine. Playing Dungeons & Dragons was a big part of high school for me. But the thing that I think led me to create games—which I think most people would give the same answer to—was, I looked at what was out there and thought, "You know, I could do better." That's what sent me down my course.
David Craddock: What was the first game you made?
Brian Fargo: One of my high school buddies was Michael Cranford. His parents wouldn't get him a computer, so he used to borrow mine. We made this little adventure game. I'd give him the computer over the weekend, he'd write code for a section, then he'd give it back and I'd try to finish his section and do my part, then he'd go through mine. We'd go back and forth. We did this all summer.
We made this little game called the Labyrinth of Martagon. We actually put it in some baggies and probably sold five copies. That would be a very obscure, technically speaking, first game. But one that really got into distribution would be The Demon's Forge [released in 1981].
David Craddock: Before Interplay, you created Saber Software to release The Demon's Forge, an adventure game in the vein of games like King's Quest where players typed in commands to interact with the game. What made you want to create an adventure game, and how did you attract attention in Demon's Forge as a small, one-man studio?
Brian Fargo: I was a big fan of adventure games. I loved all the [adventure games developed by] Scott Adams, all the Sierra adventures. I also liked Ultima and Wizardry, but from a coding perspective I wasn't strong enough to do that stuff, but I thought I could do an adventure game. It was a category I liked, and I liked medieval settings.
As far as attracting attention, I had a budget of $5,000 for everything. My one ad in Soft Talk [magazine] cost me about 2,500 bucks, so 50 percent of my money went into a single ad. One of the things I did was I would call retailers on a different phone and say, "Hey, I'm trying to find this game called Demon's Forge. Do you guys have a copy?" They said, "No," and I said, "Oh, I just saw it in Soft Talk. It looks good. They said, "We'll look into it."
A few minutes later my other line would ring and the retailer would place an order. That was my guerrilla marketing. I was selling to individual chains of stores. There were two distributors at the time that would help you get into the mom-and-pop places. It was a store-by-store, shelf-by-shelf fight.
From a magazine perspective, there was really only Soft Talk. There was another one at the time, but Soft Talk generated the most business, so it was all about getting their coverage. In a way, they were like the iTunes of the day. You had to have their support.
David Craddock: It sounds like Saber Software got off on the right foot. What led to your transition from Saber to Interplay Productions?
Brian Fargo: There were some Stanford graduates who wanted to get into the video game industry, and they bought my company. They paid off my debt and I made a few bucks, nothing much to brag about. They made me the vice president and I started doing work for them. It became one of those things where there were too many chiefs and not enough Indians, and I was doing all the work. I was with them for about a year when I quit and started Interplay in order to do things my way. I'd gotten used to running development, so that seemed like the next natural step.
With Interplay, I wanted to take [development] beyond one- or two-man teams. That sounds like an obvious idea now, but to hire an artist to do the art, a musician to do the music, a writer to do the writing, all opposed as just the one man show doing everything, was novel. Even with Demon's Forge, I had my buddy Michael do all the art, but I had to trace it all in and put it in the computer, and that lost a certain something. And because I didn't know a musician or sound guy, it had no music or sound. I did the writing, but I don't think that's my strong point. So really, [Interplay was] set up to say, "Let's take a team approach and bring in specialists."
David Craddock: Mindshadow was Interplay's first game. What do you feel set Mindshadow apart from other text-input adventure games of the time?
Brian Fargo: I think most other adventure games were about good versus evil or trying to survive in a hostile environment, that kind of thing. Mindshadow was about remembering who you were. It was loosely based on the original Bourne Identity. That made it a very unique approach. You would discover clues, and if somebody said, "I ran into a David Craddock," you'd say, "Think David Craddock," and if that toggled something in your mind, a memory would come rushing back.
It was all about discovering who you were after waking up on an island with amnesia. That, and I got a pretty decent artist to work on it, a guy named Dave Lowery, who eventually went on to work at Skywalker Ranch and do Willow. We didn't give him the greatest tools, but he did great work with what he had.
As a funny adjunct, I found the source code for Mindshadow about a month ago. I was searching through all my records, and the programming was done by [Allen] Adham, one of the founders of Blizzard. When he was still in high school, I had him doing contract coding for me on adventure games.
David Craddock: Text-input adventure games were a very special genre to a lot of developers and gamers. I always felt like I was reading an interactive book as I played, even when the genre started to combine graphics and text input in games like King's Quest and Mindshadow.
Brian Fargo: I remember Infocom was the big text adventure king at the time. They used to run ads talking about how graphics weren't necessary. I used to get a kick out of that. I can appreciate the cerebral nature of it all, to say that graphics weren't important. They ran ads saying something like, "We don't need graphics because the best graphics come from your brain." That certainly gives one perspective of that era.
David Craddock: In addition to Mindshadow being Interplay's first game, I believe it also marked your first opportunity to partner with a big partner, Activision. How did that partnership come about? What was it like working with Activision?
Brian Fargo: That's a good question. I think because of the work I did at the other company—it was called Boone Corporation*, the one right before Interplay—we had some awareness. Somehow we hit Activision's radar. They contacted me and liked what we were doing. They were moving from being an Atari VCS company to being a publisher for the computer, the Apple II in this case. I think we made the first floppy disk product Activision ever shipped in Mindshadow.
They liked it. They liked the plot line and what made it novel. We ended up doing a multi-product relationship with them.
David Craddock: Arguably Interplay's most popular game during the early 1980s was The Bard's Tale [Tales of the Unknown: Volume I]. The game also marked a transition from adventure games to proper role-playing games for Interplay. How did Bard's Tale come together?
Brian Fargo: I had a lot of diverse friends. I was big into track and field, I played football, so I had those friends, then I had friends from the chess club, the programming club, and a Dungeons & Dragons club. Michael [Cranford] was from that side. I always thought he was a pretty bright guy and one of the better dungeon masters.
We played a lot of D&D. We always tried to focus on setting up dungeons that would test people's character as opposed to just making them fight bigger and [tougher] monsters. We'd do things like separate the party and have one half just getting slaughtered by a bunch of vampires and see who would jump in to help them. But it wasn't really happening. It was all an illusion, but we'd test them.
I always got a kick out of the more mental side of things, and Michael was a pretty decent artist, a pretty good writer. He was my D&D buddy, but then he went off to Berkeley, and I started [Interplay]. He did a product for Human Engineering Software, but then I said, "Hey, let's do a Dungeons & Dragons-style title together. Wouldn't that be great?"
That's really how the game came about. He moved back down to Southern California, and I think we actually started when he was still up north. But then we worked on Bard's Tale together, kind of bringing back the D&D experiences we both enjoyed in high school.
I found the original design document for Bard's Tale, and it wasn't even called Bard's Tale. It was called Shadow Snare. The direction wasn't different, but maybe the bard ended up getting tuned up a bit. One of the people there who has gone on to great success, Bing Gordon, was our marketing guy on that. He very much jumped on the bard [character] aspect of it.
David Craddock: Putting a bard in a starring role was the most interesting aspect of Bard's Tale for me, plot-wise. That protagonist slot is usually reserved for meatheads and wizards.
Brian Fargo: At the time, the gold standard was Wizardry for that type of game. There was Ultima, but that was a different experience, a top-down view, and not really as party based. Sir-Tech was kind of saying, "Who needs color? Who needs music? Who needs sound effects?" But my attitude was, "We want to find a way to use all those things. What better than to have a main character who uses music as part of who he is?"
David Craddock: Electronic Arts published Bard's Tale, not Activision. What drew you to EA instead of sticking with Activision?
Brian Fargo: EA was more gamer-focused as a company. Activision's executive management was more the big business, CEO and CFO types, whereas EA, starting right up with Trip Hawkins and all his guys, they were gamers. When we would try to explain Bard's Tale to Activision, but they didn't really get it. Whereas when I would take it to EA, they got it—boom. Just like that. You want to be with somebody who gets it, and they clearly got it and were excited about it, so we moved fast with them.
One of the big things at the time was, they hated each other, Activision and EA. Just hated each other. We were maybe the only developer doing work for both companies at the same time and they would just grill me whenever they had the chance. Whenever there was any kind of leak, they'd say, "Did you say anything?" I was right in the middle, there. I always made sure to keep my mouth shut about everything.
David Craddock: While we're on the subject of Bard's Tale, I'd like to know more about the remake your post-Interplay company, inXile, put out in 2004. That one was dramatically different in tone; it was much more humorous than the original from ’85. What brought about that change in theme and direction?
Brian Fargo: I'll give you my mindset at the time. I took some time off after Interplay. I'd been working for almost two decades straight. So you take some time off. Great. But you start getting an itch after two or three months. I spent that time playing everybody's games, especially the role-playing games, and they'd always start off sending me into the cellar to kill rats and just doing this super generic stuff.
I thought, Oh my God. I've been [making RPGs] for so many years, and it's all still the same thing. So I thought—this was kind of like a comedian deciding he wants to do a drama—I just wanted to do something different. The player would play a main character who felt how I felt, about the same old dialogue and the lack of creativity.
If you want to design a role-playing game, I can sit down and bang out a design in an hour as long as it's, "Okay, here's a dragon, here's two trolls guarding a dungeon entrance." We can all sit down and do that in an hour. But if you want to do stuff nobody's heard of before or seen before, that's creativity. That takes a while. I wanted to do something that was just totally different and sort of poked fun at the RPG.
The Bard's Tale [released in 2004] is nothing like the original. For people who were dying to recapture that experience, that wouldn't be what they wanted. But for people who just took it at face value, they got it and loved it. The real testament to that was we released it on [iphone and iPad] in December 2011. It was the number one RPG on iPad and a top ten game. We were up there with Angry Birds and Words with Friends. It got all five-star, 90-percent reviews just because of all the humor in that game.
That crowd took the game for what it was. They didn't try to compare it to the original. And I understand some people were hoping for that, but it was a console game, right? Not to mention I couldn't have gotten a PC RPG funded at that point, anyway.
David Craddock: That makes me curious as to your thoughts on the MMORPG genre. Now there's a category of games in need of a different direction.
Brian Fargo: I haven't gotten into them [MMORPGs] as much, probably because I like more of a narrative structure. To me, whether it be Wasteland or Fallout where you have these morally ambiguous situations—my favorite movies are like that. I love the Guy Ritchie films where there's an edge to the story, you're making it through and hearing really witty dialogue. I love that.
Whereas MMOs are more about interacting with other human beings and not so much about story structure. I appreciate MMOs, but they are more of a grind and more formulaic. They're just a very different experience.
* Boone Corporation was owned by Stanford University graduate Mike Boone. Boone Corporation acquired Saber Software and re-released The Demon's Forge under the Boone Corporation label.