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The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep

Backing the Bard - An Audience with Brian Fargo

We discuss Kickstarter and The Bard's Tale with the InXile boss.

The Bard's Tale. It's been a while. In fact, it's been twelve years since the last game carrying the name, but for all intents and purposes it's been more than twenty-five years since there was a proper dungeon crawling Bard's Tale, and thirty years since the first game saw release. Having successfully funded Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera via Kickstarter, Brian Fargo and InXile Entertainment secured the rights (in a deal with EA) and put the development of The Bard's Tale IV in motion.

The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep

We had the opportunity for a lengthy chat with InXile Entertainment's Brian Fargo a couple of weeks ahead of the Kickstarter launch. During which he told us about his ambitious plans for the game.

"I'm taking a category that used to lead the pack and trying to bring it back in a very ambitious way. But not lose sight at all of all the things that made the first Bard's Tales so loved. And that was party-based combat. It was difficult. We're going to allow you to move both on a grid, kind of the traditional 90 degree angle - move, move, move, left, right - that sort of thing. Or for the people that aren't used to that at all you can break off the grid and you can wander more freely. But it's not an open-world game. It's not like Skyrim. Things are more finite in nature, so when you move through an area and you're mapping a dungeon and you fall down from one dungeon level to another you can kind of triangulate where you are from a grid perspective so you can really map things out properly. Cause that's something that our players love."

"It's bringing back those elements. All the puzzles and the riddles. One of the reference points I give to people is anybody who played The Room, which is a wonderful little iOS title, and they way they use the physical manipulation of puzzles in the world we also take down to the item level. You may have a sword, you've been using it the whole game and you look closely at the hilt at some point in the inventory and you notice there is a latch. And you flip the latch and your sword lights up glowing. And it's been a magic sword the entire time if you'd just inspected it a little bit closer you would have found that stuff. I like the physical manipulation of the world, both within the environment and the inventory. So it's really taking this category and making it super exciting."

The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep
The first (and only) screenshot of The Bard's Tale IV.

Going back to the Kickstarter well

"I look at the crowdfunding aspect as an ongoing part of my business, because it isn't just about the financing. But it really... from a vetting of the ideas, from a marketing perspective, and from the ability to get people in to be part of the process earlier on is something that I like."

"I guess in a broader way, the way I look at things is that there's sort of a continuum of where people can get involved with a game. And so the earliest stage of course should be Kickstarter, and it's not for everyone, but it is for a lot of people that either want to get the best pricing there or maybe, you want to get the physical goods, like we're going to do some fantastic items that you can get nowhere else, or you want to get your name in the game, or your face in the game, or you want to help design the music. Whatever it is, there's all these aspects to it that you're only going to get there. And then number two is, okay, there's the group that say Early Access is another area for people to get involved in, and there's a lot of reasons why people like to do that. And then third one is just wait for it to come out and buy it. And the fourth group says I'll buy when it's on sale. And the fifth group says I'll buy it when it's a Humble Bundle. And to me, I just sort of , there's your whole continuum, jump in wherever it's comfortable for you. In a broader way that's how I look at it."

Of course, there are further benefits to this model. The company gets some money upfront, some at launch, and then you have the boosts of sales, Humble Bundles and the long-tail effect. This means InXile Entertainment no longer has to live hand-to-mouth from project to project, and this is evident by the fact that they're putting as much money into the project themselves as they hope to get out of the Kickstarter campaign.

"As part of this campaign, so we're being clear, we're putting our own money into it too. So we're asking for $1.25 million, but we're saying right up front that we're going to put a minimum of that much of our own money on top of that to make sure the quality is as high as possible."

When InXile Entertainment first went on Kickstarter with Wasteland 2 (in April 2012), and later with Torment: Tides of Numenera (March 2013) the crowdfunding scene was still in its infancy.

"There's so many campaigns that have come since then [Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera], whether it's Exploding Kittens on down. We're always looking at what others have done in terms of ways to expand their reach outside of Kickstarter. You don't want to just do updates where you're preaching to the converted all the time. You like to get your base to spread the word and so there's a focus on that.

"We try to make sure that along the way we offer things that, or we show things or talk about things that go outside just the existing user base and isn't too narrow that it has more of a general interest. And that if we do have any kind of stretch goals that they are completely in line with what our audience actually want. Not that we're just trying to make things up along the way in order to hit some stretch goal that really isn't going to benefit the game.

"And I think the other part is to make sure we have more visual materials. If you look at Wasteland for example, I didn't have a lot to show. It was just me talking for the most part. And so I think the expectations, with this one you're going to see more materials for this in terms of in-game stuff, than you saw from the previous two."

Speaking of in-game materials, InXile has already been working hard on the game, and for some time.

"The visuals of the game are further along in terms of actual in-game footage that looks stunning than we've had in the previous titles. We'll be able to make more headway in that department so that what you're initially going to see isn't going to be so rough or so speculative."

The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows DeepThe Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep
Wasteland 2 was originally on Kickstarter in April 2012 (images from the Game of the Year Edition).

Kickstarter resurgence and picking the perfect time

Last year was a bit of a reality check for Kickstarter. There wasn't as many large projects that got funded, and perhaps one or two disappointing projects (or failed ones) put a dampener on the trend. However, this year is off to a strong start.

"I think everybody perceives it as being on fire again. For me I never thought it was going away. The offering last year just wasn't as compelling as the one before. I mean often times, you'll have years in the movie theatres where they'll talk about a summer box office over the prior, but it's usually dependant on what the slate of movies were that came out. Was there a new Iron Man or whatever? And so Kickstarter to me is no different. That there wasn't as many high-profiles titles asking for more than a million dollars last year than there were this year. And so you're seeing a reflection of the quality of what's going up."

Of course, picking the perfect time to go on Kickstarter is a science in its own right.

"Thinking about the film business again. What the weekend is that they open is always a big part of their decision, and so we have to think about what shows are going on at the time? And where it's going to fall into it. Europe is 40% of our business so we don't want to end too far into the summer, cause people start to... You see digital sales in general start to go down across the board as people start to take their vacations. So you don't want to be too far into that time schedule. Even which day of the week do you start and end on?"

"You don't want to start on a Monday, cause the press can't really talk about it on a Sunday. And you want to start in the morning early so that the Europeans can be part of the excitement of the launch too. To me there's a lot of decisions about time and of course, knowing as much as you can what your competition is doing in a good way to make sure we're not stepping on each other. Because there is going to be a significant campaign coming at least once a month, and so I'm able to... Like I communicate a lot with Sven [Vincke] at Larian, because I know he's going to be doing more with Kickstarter so I didn't want to fall right on top of his and vice versa. So I'll reach out personally to some people, and then Kickstarter sometimes will help us, advise us if there's something that looks like it could be too strong a conflict on the same week or day."

Fargo makes it sound as if the competition is a negative, but he's quick to point out the collaboration that goes on behind the scenes to ensure that campaigns pull each other along.

"I think that overall we absolutely are pulling each other to greater goals. You know that's why I work with Tim Schafer and Obsidian and everything. You'll see us co-promoting each other's games. I put up tweets about what would be considered our competition. So I see very much how us working together is absolutely the best way. I think the only time I would say I wouldn't want to go out on the same day as someone who had a role-playing game. Cause you do have those first two or three days of excitement that you like to have to yourself, just like you would with the box office. From that narrow standpoint, that's the only part where I would try to avoid being sort of point on with Larian for example."

A New Hope

The story of InXile Entertainment from 2002 - and pretty much its first decade - is one similar to that of many other independent developers. Taking what projects they can in order to keep the studio afloat, sometimes compromising their artistic vision to satisfy publisher whims, or keeping within a slim budget. But since the success of the Wasteland 2 Kickstarter, InXile has been markedly different.

"It has changed us. Kickstarter was the perfect kind of vehicle for a company our size. And I think you're going to see it transforming Obsidian and Larian and the other companies too, because we're this mid-sized sort of twenty to forty-person company that makes a certain kind of game that isn't going to get financed by a publisher, but is too big to just work out of your house with a couple of people. So it really falls right in between. And we're making a game that we love to make."

"And also it's a business model that we can actually recoup and get a couple of dollars in the bank to keep doing what we're doing. We're not, you know, starving from project to project. So it really has offered us something that we wouldn't have had. And more than anything it's offered hope. You know everybody here is so excited to be working on games that other people care about. That they want to work on. In a system that rewards us if we do a really good job. So it's changed the whole psychological and mental dynamic of the company."

How important then is the Kickstarter funding in terms of overall revenue for the titles InXile Entertainment are developing?

"The initial Kickstarter only paid for about half of [Wasteland 2's] overall budget at the end of the day. I would say that we're probably somewhere near a third of our sales came from Kickstarter, a third from selling it, and maybe a third from a sale - kind of the half-off sale, something like that."

The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows DeepThe Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep
Torment: Tides of Numenera was InXile's second Kickstarter (March 2013) and we're still waiting for it to launch. Hopefully later this year.

Bringing back the dungeon crawl in style

All this business chatter and history is nice and all, but we've got a new Bard's Tale game coming. So what is it going to be like and why did Brian Fargo want to go back and make another one.

"One thing to keep in mind is that the dungeon crawl genre, it used to be a huge category. Whether it was Bard's Tale or Wizardry, Might & Magic, you know Stonekeep, Ultima Underworld, there was a whole bunch of titles and then that category sort of lost wind over time. Much the way the isometric ones did. And so I've always loved that category. I've loved it because of my roots as a Dungeons & Dragons player and crawling around in dungeons is something that appealed to me then, and it appeals to me now, and it will appeal to me in the future. I love that stuff. I'm trying to bring back a category in a more ambitious way. And it's not that there hasn't been anything done before. It's just that we're trying to make a pretty ambitious stab at it all."

"From a personal perspective, certainly it was exactly thirty years this year that Bard's Tale shipped. 1985. So the timing is serendipitous. And it was the game that basically put me on the map in this industry. Me and Interplay. So it's kind of perfect that I'm working on it too."

Fargo mentioned more recent attempts to revitalise the genre, some that have been fairly successful like Legends of Grimrock and Might & Magic X: Legacy.

"Both those products were doing very nicely. They have great design. But I guess for me, I like to do stuff that's really ambitious. You think about the new [Mad Max] Fury Road movie that's out by George Miller. There's been lots of post-apocalyptic movies over the last thirty years. But now his is out and he's taking kind of a big approach to the genre and people are absolutely loving it. And so I think that there is always a way to push it and so I'm trying to visually push what's been done."

"In this particular case we're going to be using the Unreal 4 technology, which suits itself well to this kind of first-person game. We're not having to do multiplayer. I'm not having a bunch of things running around on the screen. And combat itself is phase-based or turn-based, so I've got a lot of horsepower from the CPU and the GPU to do a lot visually. I'm really trying to take advantage of that and do something where you... You've seen a lot of Unreal demos, but then when it gets right into the game they have to give up too much horsepower to do what you saw on the demo. This is a perfect product to do this stuff."

"I think that doing this full screen, immersive experience, is a big part of what we're doing. And from a music perspective I'm hiring Gaelic singers to provide original music to set the mood. I think it's really an ambition thing more than anything. And making it something that somebody who hasn't really played this kind of games will look at it and want to play. More of the old school ones are sort of... it's in the upper left, it's kind of a small window in the upper left that you're looking at. And just think I can get just a greater experience by going to this full screen. But once combat starts then the camera can shift back and I can do whatever I want. At a minimum that's what I'm trying to bring across with this."

Dynamic phased-based combat

What about the game mechanics then? The combat? How will this "dynamic phase-based" combat system play out?

"Party-based combat is not something that we're going to bring to the table that's unique and never done before. I think that we have some specific ideas for how to handle phase-based combat, which we think will be quite unique. We're calling it dynamic phase-based combat and I once gave an analogy to Hearthstone and it confused the hell out of people." [Brian Fargo refers to himself "a bit of a hardcore guy, a freak about it" when talking about Hearthstone]

"The original Bard's Tale and a lot of these other games you would choose all your commands - attack, attack, use item, defend - and then you would hit return and you would watch the results of what you did. Now some of them were more where you would click on a guy and you would throw a rock and it would kind of go back and forth a little bit. But I found that the play-field wasn't all that deep and dynamic as to what was going on, such that I would sort of using my brain every turn. So now, to me, if I get to my Player 1 guy and you see a wizard on the other side of the field and other things happening in the foreground, you may decide I'm going to try interrupting the guy's spell. And I tell him to do it and then something happens or doesn't happen right on the spot. And then I get to my second guy and now, based upon what happened, he may change what he was going to do. Instead of attack now he wants to heal the guy next to him, for example. You execute all of your orders, they execute all of theirs, but the variables of what's happening in the field are changing constantly so that you're going to be adapting your strategy at all times."

"To me I think that the depth of the combat that we can bring in an easy to understand fashion is something that we can make very interesting.You're constantly using your brain as opposed to your reflexes on any of this."

But naturally it wouldn't be a Bard's Tale without a bard, and InXile are naturally including this mechanic. We also learn that while the game itself is strictly single-player, the combat mechanic will be tried and iterated on via duels between the developers.

"One of the things that the first Bard's Tale did is that the bard himself would buff the party. That was kind of a cool new concept back then. The other characters working with each other was an important strategic element. That will be a big part of it too. The way we'll design this is that we're going to design a system so that I can sit with another person and go back and forth and play like a head-to-head PvP game. Just for the development cycle itself, basically stick figures. And unless that's fun, it's certainly not going to be fun you playing an AI. So we better make sure that that element of us going back and forth and the trading and that there's a real sort of deep decision making that's interesting, and then we'll start to layer on the graphics and layer on the AI."

What about that parody game?

This isn't the first time Brian Fargo has returned to The Bard's Tale. In 2004, InXile launched their first game and it was called, yeah that's right - The Bard's Tale. An action-RPG in the vein of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance (in fact, it made use of the same engine), the game was published by Vivendi on PC, PS2 and Xbox.

"In many ways it's kind of in a world all unto itself. When I did that game, and this is kind of another important element, is that I didn't have the rights to use the copyrights to Bard's Tale back then, but I do now. Now I can do a true and proper sequel, because I've struck a deal with Electronic Arts that allows me to use all the copyrighted material. So that was part of the element there. The other thing to keep in mind at that time was that there was no way that I could get a publisher to finance a straight-up RPG back then. It needed to be a console game. Existent technology. And they liked the twist to give it kind of a parody. So it wasn't a straight-up RPG."

"There was a bit of a function of what the business climate was at the time, but taking all that away, I'm actually quite over the way it came out for what it was. But it wasn't what they expected, which I get. But from a comedy [perspective] I thought the writing and everything that we did was great. And when we put it out on iOS and Android later and you'll see it's gotten fantastic reviews, but people really wanted a proper sequel so I think I'm now doing what people really wanted."

The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows DeepThe Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep
The Bard's Tale (2004).

Future support and console

The Game of the Year Edition of Wasteland 2 (given away as a free update to everyone who owns the game on PC) - is this how they envision themselves supporting these games going forward?

"I think it's an attitude difference towards the way of respecting our users and not make them feel like we're ever trying to nickel and dime them at any step of the way. If we can do things and provide it without having to charge we'll do it where we can.We saw an opportunity where we wanted to bring [Wasteland 2] to console, because we had a lot of people asking for it. And so we thought we're going to be doing the work, let's just give it to the PC people who have already supported us for free, let's not try and resell it. Since we're going to have a big head start on the work and it will be incrementally more. It wasn't free to do it, but it's not going to break us. So to me, the goodwill associated with that far outstrips the trying to get an extra chunk of money from people who have already supported us."

With Wasteland 2 set to arrive on PS4 and Xbox One, it would be natural to assume that console versions of The Bard's Tale IV could be included in the Kickstarter, but that's not the case.

"Everything is a case-by-case basis. Our bread and butter is the PC, and it's where our initial focus is. So we are not giving up any quality to make sure that the PC version is the best. But there will be times where console makes sense and times where it doesn't. So it's not a specific strategy, I guess it's more case-by-case."

So what's the case with The Bard's Tale IV then?

"We're not thinking about [Bard's Tale on console]," explained Fargo. "I mean we're using Unreal and as I get further into development and somebody says 'you know, Brian, the footprint size you're using you can get it over to console with no degradation of quality for not too much money' then that's we're going to do. If it's something that's going to affect us negatively then we wouldn't. Bard's Tale lends itself more to console, because it looks more like a console game. In terms of the first-person approach, is more console friendly than an isometric game. I expect there will probably be even more interest in this than anything, but again, we're just not putting too much effort into thinking about it right now."

The Bard's Tale IV will hit Kickstarter on June 2 (14:00 BST) and the target sum is $1.25 million - you can head over to the official website for a countdown (and once the campaign is live - more information).