Linux Gaming News

An Interview With 'Wasteland 2' Producer Chris Keenan On Kickstarter And The Future Of Games

Wasteland 2 concept art by Andree Wallin

Between Kickstarter and Paypal donations, the long-awaited sequel to the classic post-apocalyptic RPG video game Wasteland netted just over $3 million in funding – $2.1 million beyond the project’s stated goal of $900,000.

The enormous groundswell of fan support for the game means that the Wasteland 2 team will be able to make it far more expansive than they’d hoped. This includes bringing in some people from Obsidian to help with writing and development, and releasing the game on PC, Mac, and Linux.

Perhaps the most incredible thing about Wasteland 2, however, is that it almost never happened.

Publishers balked at the idea of resurrecting the title, and the project was very nearly shelved after a year of frustrating pitches. It wasn’t until another game, Double Fine Adventure, far exceeded funding expectations on Kickstarter that inXile’s CEO Brian Fargo decided to take a serious look at the crowd-funding site.

Luckily for inXile and fans of the original Wasteland (and Fallout games) Kickstarter turned out to be a really, really good idea.

I was fortunate enough to have the chance to speak with Wasteland 2 producer Chris Keenan about the game’s origins, its “dream team” and the future of crowd-funding in the video game industry.

Interview after the leap…

So to start things off, could you tell me a little bit about how the idea for Wasteland 2 originated. Why choose Kickstarter? And what prevented a sequel from being made prior to 2012?

Wasteland 2 is a game that our CEO Brian Fargo, has wanted to make for the better part of 20 years. For those who aren’t familiar with the original, it was created in 1988 and is widely considered to be one of the top PC RPG’s of all time. After the first Wasteland came out, he tried to get the rights to make a sequel but couldn’t at the time. Brian knew he wanted to push forward the post apocalyptic genre and continue on with the same themes as Wasteland so they went on to make the Fallout 1 and 2. Of course, most gamers recognize Fallout now but don’t know that Wasteland was the granddaddy of the game that’s become so popular. A few years ago, we finally got the rights for a Wasteland sequel and started putting together a core team to work on design. We hired Jason Anderson, who spent over a year designing and writing story elements. Mike Stackpole (one of the original writers and designers from Wasteland) joined up on the project and our team began crafting the next Wasteland world. Once we had a rock solid pitch, we started shopping it around to publishers. It was a bit of a disaster as many publishers thought there was no market for it. If you’ve seen our Kickstarter video, while we joke around with publisher relationships in it, you’d be surprised at how much truth there is in our satire.

After a year of meeting after meeting, we started to feel like this wasn’t going to happen. Brian had literally shelved the pitch document a week before Tim Schaefer did his Double Fine Adventure campaign. The next day after Schaefer funded, Brian immediately said that we needed to start looking into this and prepare for a Wasteland Kickstarter. We spent the next few weeks with our heads down creating our video, rewards, polling the community and getting our idea together. This way, we could see if the fans really wanted this game or if the publishers were right and there was no market. We figured it was a win/win. Either we’d get support or know to stop wasting our time. Well, I think you know which way that went…

There are many reasons we chose Kickstarter but the main reason is the relationship with our fans and being able to make the game they want. I’ve seen an interesting shift in the game industry relating to how designers tweak and polish their content. 10 years ago, you had to work on a game for 2-3 years, maybe get a focus test in and hope that what you did is what resonates with your fans. If you were lucky, you’d get to make a sequel and at least have reviews and forum comments to go off when creating the sequels design. You could find out after the fact what people loved and hated. Then with the popularity of Facebook and social mobile games, you saw companies adding in analytics hooks and studying the metrics on what their players were doing. So the team would work for 4-6 months, put the game out, then the team would study what players were doing in their game. Even though you can see the data, there is still a disconnect with the fans on this method as your only studying their actions and not motivations. Now, with Kickstarter and fan funding, they are the ones paying for it so we going to let them tell us what they want before we even write one line of code. We set up forums and great moderators to keep the conversations flowing. Our design team has been scouring the forums to see what elements people loved from the first Wasteland and what they want us to avoid. They are helping with the broad strokes of the game so we know what’s important to spend our time on. I think it’s a huge step forward in both the financing of creative games but also for gamers to be able to speak with their money on exactly what features and practices they want to see.

A lot of people are calling the Wasteland 2 team a “dream team” and are pretty excited to see at least some of the old Black Isle team getting back together. Can you tell me a little bit about who is on this project and what they’ll be doing? How did you get everyone involved?

As a grown man, I haven’t been ‘giddy’ in a while but being able to work with this team literally makes me giddy. Brian was able to get almost all of the original team back for the sequel. Mike Stackpole is on board and will be doing design and writing much of the story elements, Alan Pavlish is going to design a few areas and consult throughout the process, Liz Danforth will be doing the same. Early on, we also got Mark Morgan signed up as our composer…he is famous for setting the musical score on Fallout 1 and 2, Planescape Torment and many other great moody RPG’s from the past. Of course, Brian is leading the project every step of the way. On top of reviving the old team, we enlisted the help of Andree Wallin who has done some amazing concept art for us. Finally, RPG designer extraordinaire Chris Avellone from Obsidian has joined on to help with the project. It’s an amazing list of people to help revive a genre they had such a huge hand in starting.

Wasteland 2 concept art by Andree Wallin

How will this game be different from its predecessor? With all the changes in technology between now and the first Wasteland, will it be a challenge to keep the spirit of the first game alive?

That’s been a hot topic around the design round table. We’ve stated many times that we want to make this an old school RPG and we are sticking to that. That said, there are many elements from the original Wasteland that we can improve upon now. All combat was purely text based in the original. We will be keeping the great descriptive and colorful text but also adding more visual payoff to the combat. With the party based nature of the game, combat can be a bit slow. We want to make sure that it’s as strategic as the original without dragging each encounter to a halt. One element that we loved about the first was the literary nature of the world. Almost every square you stepped on had an amazing description of what was going on around you that made the environment larger than the art. We definitely want to keep the charm of the original Wasteland alive in the new one.

Do you think the nature and mechanics of storytelling in games has changed in the years spanning Wasteland and your current project? How can games convey that “literary nature of the world” in ways that other mediums, or perhaps even older games, cannot?

I definitely think it has and it could be due to a few things. First, the technology is getting better. With games now, we can get a ton more detail into the world that we had to describe in text before to convey these elements. That’s certainly not a bad thing. It has pushed the limits on how developers can get across the information they want to. I think we as developers also want to keep progressing the nature of storytelling in the medium. This has always been a challenge due to the non-linear nature of games. Obviously in movies it’s a single cohesive story. It will be the same for every person that watches it. Games allow people to infuse their personality into the world and play the way they would like. It certainly makes it more difficult to get across the beats of the narrative in a way that makes sense. Since we’re doing an old-school RPG, we aren’t going to shy away from descriptive world text in Wasteland 2. We get to pay homage to the old days when developers had to come up with creative ways to immerse their fans due to technology constraints.

You mention that games “allow people to infuse their personality” into the game itself. Do you think funding this via Kickstarter makes this even more true? Now gamers are also investors in a very real sense. How does that change expectations for developers and specifically, what sort of challenges do you think this raises for Wasteland 2?

Absolutely. Before we started the Kickstarter campaign, we were on our forums talking with our users about the rewards. We asked them what items they wanted to see and things they were opposed to. They helped shaped what we were doing before we even went live. I was very surprised by some of the responses we got. We thought we would give away a special talent that was only available to Kickstarter backers and nobody else. Overwhelmingly the response was, “well ok, but not if it affects gameplay”. They didn’t want any sort of unfair advantage or different experience than someone who just purchased the game outright. So we made the change and now have a quirky skill for backers that is more about personality moments than modifying strategy.

I think gamers are more emotional investors now. While Kickstarter prevents you from providing any monetary reward to backers, the fans are absolutely invested in the content and able to make recommendations like never before. We are going with a “majority rules”approach on the broad strokes of the game. We are asking our community questions on the forums constantly. Things like how they feel about voice over in the game. Is it mandatory, only for main characters or none at all. We get great information on those elements. What we won’t do is defer to the community for everything in the game. We feel we have very good sensibilities when it comes to the details and know that our fans trust us in these areas. Even though we aren’t dealing with a publisher, we are still accountable to someone…the fans. We get to skip the middleman and trust that what the fans want we can deliver.

What do you think this says about games as art? Where does the developer leave off and the fan begin? Overall, do you think this level of feedback and collaboration is healthy for the industry?

That’s interesting. An argument could be made that this is a form of crowd sourced art. We already have features on paper that came directly from the creativity and expression of our fans. There is no doubt that even this early on, our development and production plans have been impacted by our fans. We are entering into new territory here. We’ve actively made the decision to be very transparent during production of the game. Since we are opening up the forums for feedback, it only benefits us to get well informed feedback. We’re not going to just say do you want A or B but also try to educate our fans about our development philosophy along the way. While everyone won’t agree all the time, at least it will give them a window into our game development process and how we make decisions as a company. I think that will only strengthen the bond as we move forward.

The original Wasteland box art

With a lot of gamers feeling burned by pre-orders for games that were ultimately unsatisfying recently, there’s been a fan backlash and a lot of people saying gamers should quit making pre-orders. In a sense, Kickstarter is the ultimate pre-order system, with fans paying for games that aren’t even in development yet. Do you think gamers have cause for concern, or does this new crowd-funding model actually represent a net benefit for gamers?

I don’t blame gamers for these feelings. I have them as well. It’s a tough line to walk as someone who purchases games. On one hand, I enjoy supporting developers and being in the business know that this helps forecast out total shipped units but on the other, I’ve been burned many times by pre-ordering bad games. With a crowd sourced system like Kickstarter, I think it all depends on how the developer is taking on their production and if they have the experience to deliver what they’re promising. There is no doubt that some games will be a big disappointment or even fail to get made for whatever reasons. The fans are smart though. I’ve seen many Kickstarters that I’d consider questionable not get funded due to the majority of people feeling uncomfortable with the plan. You’ll see some small donations but I think the crowd sourced mind tends to weed out some projects that might have never seen the light of day.

In our case, we are getting everyone involved early. We don’t want there to be major surprises as far as what kind of game we are making. Anyone who pledged to Wasteland 2 will be given a voice on our forums.

What sort of time table does the game have? How do you think the unorthodox funding might affect the development process itself?

We are talking about a 18 month development cycle. We’ll spend the next 6 months doing a rock solid paper design. We want to be able to play through the entire game using pen and paper before we implement it into the game. In the mean time, our tech team is working on our pipeline to import assets into the different engines we’re looking at and then they’ll start to create our tools in addition to what they provide. Once the initial 6 months are up, we hit the ground running and build the game with an extended team.

The funding is going to allow us to focus 100% of our energy on the game. We have enough support that if we budget correctly will last us until the game goes out the door. This is unheard of for most independent developers. Every few months, they are at the mercy of the publishers approving their milestone. If they don’t and are cash poor, they immediately need to go into damage control mode. This can lead to a publisher saying “we aren’t going to pay you until feature X,Y and Z work like this”. Your decision is either close the doors and not pay your employees or give in and do what they say. Not exactly a best practice for the creative process. We also don’t have to do any trade shows that we don’t want to. On some previous projects, we would have to create brand new demo’s for each event. This would take down our entire project lead team for 2 months to polish the demo that the public will see. When you’re focusing 90% of your energy on these press demos, you can’t lead the regular game production. This makes it hard to keep consistent feedback loops with the team working in the trenches. With 3 to 4 major industry events a year, you sometimes feel like most of your time is spent working on these demos.

So what’s your big hope for this game? And do you think this might be a model you guys will choose to follow again with future titles?

My big hope? Don’t screw it up. We’ve got everything going in our favor. An awesome team, supportive fans, a great design, financial support now we have to build it and make it awesome. When you know that the game wouldn’t be created without help from the fans, it adds a different twist. We’re not talking about a giant publishers money that knows the reality of how many games are successful. People are sacrificing and giving up things in their life to make Wasteland 2 happen. That’s very motivating and it’s also a lot of pressure. Between our president and myself, we’ve answered every single private message that was sent to us through Kickstarter. It really makes you feel connected to the people supporting it. The general consensus is “we trust you, now deliver”. The team couldn’t be more excited and we’re going to do just that!

By Erik Kain, Contributor

Kickstarter represents a real opportunity for change in the way that games are funded and developed. One of the remarkable things I’ve noticed about Kickstarter projects is how so many games are being advertised as DRM-free. This alone shows that developers who head straight to fans for funding have their ears closer to the ground than big publishing outfits.

The fact that so many fans are willing to give their money upfront should also say something about the need for DRM in the first place. Piracy will always be with us, but building trust between fans and developers and creating simple access to games will go a long way toward ameliorating the problem.

For my part, the success of Wasteland 2 isn’t just a good thing because we get an update to the classic RPG. It will also help inspire new projects. And because the inXile team is participating in the Kick It Forward movement, 5% of everything they raise will go toward other projects on the site. The collaborative nature of all of this is a really refreshing, hopeful development in a game industry that seems too often plagued by mistrust and hostility.

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