It sounds like a video game: our heroes are Davids, up against Big Gaming's Goliaths. In order to survive, they must race against the clock, raise serious cash, and innovate within an inch of their lives. Can...they...do it?!
When Torment: Tides of Numenera, went up on Kickstarter, inXile Entertainment was looking for $900,000. They raised that in six hours and reached $1.5 million by the end of the day. The project has now surpassed $3 million, making it one of most successful Kickstarted games so far, and there are still 10 days to go. But it isn't the fact they exploded on Kickstarter that is important. It's why they took off. Our story begins in the year 1983...
That's when Brian Fargo created Interplay and began developing such venerable role-playing games, such as The Bard's Tale in 1985 and post-apocalyptic Wasteland in 1988. Interplay later published Bioware's seminal Dungeons & Dragons computer games, the Baldur's Gate series. Interplay's own internal group, Black Isle, developed several games, including Wasteland follow-up Fallout and an unorthodox D&D game called Planescape: Torment.
But all of Interplay's success may not have been for the better. The company went public in 1998 and expanded with new teams taking on new genres. Interplay ballooned to over 500 employees and founder Fargo decided he had to make a change. Fargo says that he "couldn't get close to product anymore. So I looked forward to starting a smaller company and getting closer to game development. That, more than anything, motivated me."
Fargo left Interplay in 2002 and formed inXile Entertainment. The company's first project was a new take on The Bard's Tale. This version was something of a parody of role-playing games (RPG) and was an action RPG molded for video-game consoles, instead of PCs. Afterwards, Fargo wanted to go another way for his next game. "There was a certain kind of PC role-playing game that was more predominant in the mid- to late '90s, and there hasn't been much of a selection in that category for people to play anymore," said Fargo.
Fargo decided to make Wasteland 2, a sequel to his original post-apocalyptic RPG. So he approached the big game publishers. "I went out and pitched different publishers to see if I could get a Wasteland sequel going. There was zero interest, at any level and at any price. I talked about how I would travel around the world, and I would be in Asia or Europe, and people would always ask me about Wasteland. I would communicate that, but I just wouldn't get any traction on it. "
Fargo wanted to get back to what could be considered old-school RPGs. These feature an overhead graphical interface that favored thoughtful strategy over the twitchy action of modern-day first-person RPGs like Skyrim or even Fallout 3, which Bethesda made after they bought the franchise from Interplay. Kevin Saunders, inXile's project manager, said, "Fallout 3 was a great game but a very different kind of game. There were fans of Fallout who wanted Fallout 3 to be like Fallout 1 and 2. So Wasteland 2 fulfills that desire."
Fargo saw the success of Double Fine's Kickstarter project and decided to make a go of publishing it himself. Fargo and inXile launched Wasteland 2 on Kickstarter. It reached its $900,000 goal in two days, and ultimately had a total of $2.9 million. It's easy to get wrapped up in those impressive numbers, but it's the fans behind those numbers that are important. There were thousands of players looking for that kind of experience again, a nostalgia for a type of game that isn't made anymore. "It's a certain kind of role-playing game. It's one where you use your words as weapons, that combat is not the primary thing that you do," said Fargo.
Fargo also believes the inXile appeals to fans because of the trends in gaming over the last few years. "They are missing the style of game play that they used to play. I think that it is also driven by frustration over some of the new business models of in-app purchases and monetization," said Fargo. "Players feel that the publishing models are not respecting the integrity of a storytelling game and trying to sell them things. I think there is a certain amount of angst that we are tapping into, with people that are frustrated."
With the creation of Wasteland 2 underway, InXile reached the point on the project where all of the writers, artists, and game designers were done and the game was in the hands of programmers. Fargo needed a new game for his creative team. And so it was time to revisit another classic RPG from his past, Planescape: Torment. They gathered many of the people from the original Torment game and partnered with tabletop RPG creator Monte Cook for his new world Numenera. Torment: Tides of Numenera was born.
"One of the things people liked about Planescape is that it was a very unusual setting, letting you explore things you usually didn't in a role-playing game. Numenera, which is Monte's game that he crowdfunded last fall, provides another exotic location that has inherent in it a lot of the themes that we want to explore." said Saunders, now managing Torment: Tides of Numenera. "It has a strong mystery component. There are a lot of things in the world that are wondrous and you don't know why; maybe you will never know why. It gives us a lot of creative freedom."
Torment is widely considered one of the best written computer games ever made, so the fact that it topped Wasteland 2 in Kickstarter cash is perhaps not that surprising. (The cultlike followings of Fargo and Cook didn't hurt, either.) To keep up with the fresh success and growth, inXile recruited additional writers to contribute, which brought a bigger fan base and more money for higher stretch goals. But it all stems from the following and reputation of the original Planescape: Torment.
The Torment name has come to mean a richness of character, a maturity of subject matter, and a depth of story not found in most video games. The original game was focused on an amnesiatic immortal seeking info about his past, with the theme, "What can change the nature of a man?" The new Torment features a god who reincarnates himself into multiple bodies, from one into another, with the player controlling one of the cast-off bodies, and the theme, "What does one life matter?" Saunders said, "What people enjoyed about that game, and what we enjoyed, is the deep, philosophical, and personal story. Having the game make the player think, both in the context of the game but also about their own lives."
And while inXile is a smaller team with a smaller budget—a staff of 30 or so compared to the big companies' hundreds of employees—that middle ground is where they can thrive. "There's small, indie developers doing free-to-play games on iOS or Android and then there's the large productions. There's not a lot for those in between," said Fargo. "Kickstarter allows companies like us who make a certain kind of product. You couldn't make a Torment or a Wasteland with three people. It's a bigger production and Kickstarter allows us to do it."
Depending on your players so much instills a closer relationship between the game developer and the fans. "There's this symbiotic relationship that gives me greater confidence that I am going to be able to deliver the exact game they want," said Fargo. "When people put their money in something and get behind it, they get more energized to be part of the process." Beyond valuing the Kickstarter backers as a de facto sales force, inXile has even turned to the fans to contribute ideas on how to expand the game with its Kickstarter stretch goals.
Fargo believes others should take note. "I think what a publisher should learn from us is how we treat the fans and how we communicate with them," said Fargo. "I don't think publishers are going to go to Kickstarter to raise money. But I think they can learn a lot about how we interact with people."
Saunders said, "There's nothing more inspiring than having the players put their faith and trust in you. On top of your own motivation to do great work and make a good game, you have this obligation to them and this feeling that you need to fulfill their expectations."