Black Isle Studios Interview

As many gaming enthusiasts already know, Interplay has effectively shut down Black Isle Studios, let a vast majority of the division’s employees go, and shelved the third chapter in the Fallout series.

Among the BIS employees let go was John Deiley, whose development track record includes some of the highest acclaimed RPGs ever produced: Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale, Icewind Dale 2, Heart of Winter, Trials of the Luremaster, and Descent to Undermountain. He also worked on a handful of games that Interplay ended up cancelling, including Fallout 3, Baldur’s Gate III, TORN, and Stonekeep 2.

Why would a company let go of such a talented and experienced game developer? We had the chance to talk with John himself to learn firsthand what happened during the final days of Black Isle Studios, and what the gaming community lost with the closing of the division and the cancelling of Fallout 3, Baldur’s Gate 3, and TORN. Our questions and his answers to follow:

GB: What do you feel prompted Interplay’s decision to close Black Isle Studios?

John: Technically, BIS has not been shut down. Black Isle Studios is a *brand* name that is owned by Interplay Entertainment Corp. As such, Interplay has the right to put the BIS *brand* name on any product it produces.

The fact that there are no original BIS employees working for Interplay is irrelevant.

Anyway, to answer your question, it was done for purely financial reasons. The company could no longer afford to pay us.

GB: Were you aware that such a decision might be made during the final days of the studio, or was it entirely out of the blue?

John: It was always a possibility. The company was in dire financial straights. Direct payroll deposit had been canceled and employees were being paid with live checks. A few of those checks bounced but were later made good on. However, we had reason to believe that we were fine and that the company would pull out of its slump.

GB: What was the atmosphere like at BIS during its final 6 months?

John: This is going to come across quite corny, but it’s true. Black Isle Studios was more than just a division. We were family and friends. We all trusted one another, respected one another, and depended on one another. We stayed with Interplay through thick and thin because of this. We knew what we could do as a development team given the support we needed from Interplay. Yes, the atmosphere was bleak at times. But we believed that we could do our part to make things work out in the end.

GB: Many people consider the Fallout series and Planescape: Torment as some of Black Isle’s greatest achievements. Why did the original Fallout spawn a sequel and the start of a third chapter, yet no plans were seemingly made for further Planescape titles? Or were there?

John: To the best of my knowledge there were no plans to make a sequel to Planescape: Torment. I can only speculate on the reason why. Here are my thoughts.

Fallout was based in 1950’s Americana. It was in our “backyard” so to say. I think that appealed to a lot of people. Also, it had an innocent and light hearted feel to it even though it was based on a very frightening (at the time) premise: survival after a nuclear holocaust. The story itself was simple and led to multiple endings in which the player truly shaped his world. Sales were much better than anticipated.

Planescape: Torment was a brilliant piece of work. To this day I’ve never encountered a story with such depth and perception in any game. I doubt that I ever will. However, I think that Torment was too radical a departure from the “norm” so to say. Our fans were used to DnD games based in typical DnD fantasy universes. As a result, initial sales were poor. However, over time the sales rivaled many of our other titles due to word of mouth. People loved the game. Unfortunately, I don’t think Interplay wanted to risk development on a sequel unless they were guaranteed initial good sell through.

GB: At the time of the studios’ closure, how much of Fallout 3 had been completed? How much more development time do you feel the title needed before it could have been considered “complete”?

John: The engine was about 95% done. You could create characters, use skills, perform both ranged and melee combat, save/load games, and travel across maps. We had a tutorial level done that would let you do all of the above. All areas but one had been designed. About 75% of the dialogs were done and at least 50% of the maps. We had character models and monster models.

If Interplay had supported us as they had promised and given us needed resources from other divisions we would have finished the game on time. Possibly even ahead of schedule.

GB: Although the title may or may not ever exist, can you tell us what the concept and background was behind Fallout 3? What did BIS have in store for Fallout fans in this next chapter?

John: The game would begin with the player in a prison cell. Because of this the player was given a choice. He could be an innocent that was imprisoned because of some misunderstanding, or he could choose to be a criminal and take bonus traits that would bolster some of his skills.

The player would awaken in a prison cell, but not the one he remembered falling asleep in. Suddenly the floor rocks violently from an explosion and the player is knocked unconscious. When he awakens he finds his cell door open and a hole in the wall leading outside. Leaving the prison, he is under attack by some unknown assailant. Deciding that discretion is the better part of valor, the player flees into the night to explore his new world.

Unfortunately, his new found freedom may be short lived. The player is relentlessly pursued by robots who want to return him to the prison. As he explores the world and tries to outwit his pursuers, he begins to uncover an underlying plot. Why was he in a different prison than the one he fell asleep in? Why can’t he remember being transferred? What was the attack on the prison about in the first place?

The game offered a myriad of new places to discover and explore. It spanned a good portion of Utah, Colorado, and the surrounding areas. The player could repair railways and locomotives for fast travel to distant locales with train stations. Or, he could find and repair several vehicles that allowed access to areas outside the railways. Or… the player could hoof it.

There were old friends and new enemies in the game. The Brotherhood of Steel was back but fading from glory. The player could rebuild them or destroy them. There was a group of fanatics who worshiped a mad goddess and her life/death religion. Mad the goddess may be, but the genetic knowledge she turned into a religion was helping the wasteland. The player could take her down and free the people from her tyranny (and possibly weaken them in the long run) or let her religion prosper (and build a heartier stock of people that could better survive the rigors of the wasteland). These were just two of many factions in the game.

There were recognizable places to visit like Denver, Boulder, Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon, and many others. There were new places to discover like the Twin Mothers, the Nursery, New Canaan, and many more.

In size the game was somewhere between Fallout 1 and 2. We decided to go for quality of content over size of the overall game. There is so much more I could say about the game, but I’ll save that for another time.

GB: From your perspective as a gamer and designer, and though still early in development, did you feel Fallout 3 was headed in a positive direction when it was cancelled, and why or why not? Was it something that would have went on to make Fallout fans proud?

John: The game was going in a very positive direction. First of all, every member of the team was a Fallout fan. Second, we were all told to play both the previous games before we started work on the third. Finally, we were assigned movies to watch that depicted similar themes from the 50’s to set the mood. We reviewed every area of the game as a team and critiqued it for content, look, and feel of the original Fallout.

We think we would have done the fans proud!

GB: Was Fallout 3 merely a casualty of war from the closure of BIS, or was the cancellation of F3 more a cause of the closure of BIS?

John: Interplay was in dire financial condition. They had to make a decision as to which direction they wanted the company to go. They chose console and consolidated their employees accordingly.

Fallout 3 was a PC title. Black Isle was a PC development division. Need I say more?

GB: Do you think that Interplay should be using the Fallout universe in a console game? Do you personally feel that the Fallout franchise should be used in anything but a pure RPG?

John: There are people who predominantly play console games, people who predominantly play PC games, and a few people who play both. I think that it’s good business sense not to put all of your eggs in one basket. By transferring Fallout to the console, an entire new player base is opened to the franchise.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that the style of the game is going to change because of the very nature of consoles. However, there are people out there who like that kind of play. Why deny them the pleasure of the Fallout universe? Why deny the company more sales to increase their future productivity? There is no reason.

That being said, what I do disagree with is the elimination of the PC development of the title. Sacrificing an established player base for an unknown is not a good business decision in my opinion. There should be room for both. It’s called diversity.

GB: Would you like to see Interplay sell the Fallout franchise? If so, and you were able to once again become involved in the development of future Fallout titles, where would you like to see the Fallout franchise go over the next several years?

John: Yes and no. I’m really quite torn on this one.

First of all, I would hate to see Fallout given to some unknown. All of us at Black Isle cared deeply for that product. We took pride and ownership in it. It was the one binding force that kept us all at Interplay in those last months.

However, I would hate to see Fallout fade to nothing but a memory because I selfishly can’t let go of it. So, yes it should be passed to another developer if Interplay cannot develop it.

As for the destiny of Fallout… I would like to see Fallout 3 produced according to our design and specifications. I liked the story and I think that the fans would as well. We held to every tradition of the original Fallout with just enough tweaks and adjustments to make it feel new and streamlined but not overly altered. I would like to see a Fallout 4, 5, and so on, but to be honest with you my vision is clouded right now as to where it should go. Forgive me.

GB: This may be a hard or unanswerable question, but from your perspective, did Interplay make a financial mistake (other than the unfortunate loss of jobs to BIS employees) shutting down BIS?

John: Black Isle Studios was a division with a proven record for releasing quality titles in the least amount of time. The employees were hard working and dedicated to their trade. It is my opinion that we were a very valuable asset and could have continued to produce revenue for the company. At the very least we could have been sold as a brand name/division to an interested party much the same way that Shiny was.

GB: Fallout 3 was not the only BIS game that Interplay cancelled. Previously, the role-playing game known as TORN and the project known as “Jefferson” on the Interplay forums (Baldur’s Gate 3) were both cancelled. Whose decision was it to begin development of TORN, and how long was it in development before its cancellation? Do you feel that the game could have been another successful game for BIS if development would have continued?

John: I think that Torn would have been another Black Isle success. The design was good, the story was solid, and the game was unique in many ways. Unfortunately, I came onto the project late and can’t give any more concrete information on it. I’ll just say that I was proud to be working on it. It was a project I believed in.

GB: Can you tell us more about the circumstances surrounding the cancellation of Baldur’s Gate 3? What was the lawsuit with Atari all about?

John: I cannot comment on any legal matters that Interplay Entertainment Corp. was or is involved in.

GB: As with Fallout 3, Baldur’s Gate 3 may or may not ever exist. Can you tell us what the concept and background was behind the game? Was it going to be a continuation of the “Child of Bhaal” saga, or something altogether different?

John: It had little to do with the original Baldur’s Gate series. It was a beautiful story of the player, who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and finds himself wrapped in a web of intrigue, lies, and mysteries.

I know that’s very vague, but that’s where I’m going to leave it. Baldur’s Gate 3 was the child of Josh Sawyer, whom I respect very much. He put his heart and soul into the design of that game and its cancellation left a deep wound. If there is anything more to say about it, I leave it to him.

GB: Fans of PC games have begun noticing a disturbing trend with their favorite developers either porting games to console systems or developing games exclusively for console systems. In fact, GameSpot even reported that some of the larger retailers, including EBGames and GameStop, may start taking away much of the shelf space used for PC games and allocating it toward console games instead. Do you feel there is anything to be worried about for fans of PC games? Or do you think PC games will always have a market?

John: The development of games on console systems is, in my opinion, more costly and returns less of a profit than PC games. However, development of games for a console system is easier. You know exactly what video card, sound card, and control system a console supports and you know its memory limitations. A lot of the guesswork of PC development is removed in console development. Also, console systems cost significantly less than the average PC machine required to run today’s games. There are likely to always be more console systems in the marketplace than PC systems.

This is very attractive to developers, especially small ones, who want to get the highest return for the least amount of expenditure. I see more and more companies hopping on the console bandwagon and I think that this trend will continue. However, I don’t see the PC ever becoming a thing of the past. Or so I hope.

GB: What do you think about the issue of multi-porting games in general? Deus Ex: Invisible War for both PC and the Xbox comes to mind… and its stubborness to conform to previous PC standards and instead be a blend of console and PC gameplay for both systems. Do you think there’s a chance this process has the potential to dilute the gameplay experience for any particular platform?

John: I feel that games should adhere strictly to the standards of the platform that they are released on. I play PC games for depth and content. I play console games when I want to have quick fun that I can walk away from in a given amount of time. I think a lot of gamers feel the same way. The one thing that really annoys me about multi-platform games is the controls they use. Nothing upsets me more than buying a game for my PC and then discovering that the controls were intended for a console. I refuse to buy a game pad for my PC.

GB: What might be the future implications or impacts to the gaming industry be, due to the increasing porting to multiple platforms?

John: Once again, I think this is a matter of economics for the developer. They create a game for a console, port it over to the PC, and completely ignore the expanded capabilities and assets that a PC has to offer. It cheapens the PC market. Why bother? If you can’t do it right then don’t do it.

GB: Have you kept in contact with many of the former BIS employees? Has there been any discussion to possibly form a new game studio or even purchase rights to the Fallout franchise?

John: We’ve all been keeping in close contact with one another. We would all love to work together again. However, it all boils down to financial constraints. We can’t afford to start a game studio or purchase the rights to Fallout. If someone were to do this and they wanted a dedicated and determined team to work on the title… By all means let us know.

GB: Switching the subject a bit, which RPG do you feel has been the most influential to the gaming industry in the last 15-20 years, and why?

John: Without a doubt I would say that it would have to be Quake. I know it’s not what I would consider a true RPG but look at what it did for the industry. It gave birth to networking games which in turn gave birth to online games which in turn gave birth to online RPG’s. Online gaming is, in my opinion, the way of the future.

GB: Which three RPGs in the same timeframe have been your personal favorites, and why?

John: My three personal favorites would have to be Ultima III: Exodus, Ultima Underworld, and after that it becomes very hard to choose. Exodus was the first RPG that I ever played. It opened my eyes to a world of possibilities that I had never dreamed of and was the inspiration for me to become a game designer in the first place. Underworld because of the same reason, only it was first person instead of top down view. That was yet another ground breaking concept for me.

If you force me to choose a third… then I’d say System shock… no Thief… no Morrowind… no… doh!

We’d like to issue a sincere thank you to John for taking the time to provide the above information about the recent events concerning Black Isle Studios. The division was responsible for some of the best (if not the best RPGs) ever created, and the recent news serves as a major blow to the gaming industry as a whole. We wish John and the rest of BIS the best of luck in their future endeavors!

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