Chapter 17
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Pause Screen: Stone by Stone - How Planescape: Torment Raised the Bar for CRPGs

A few of Torment's developers look back on the title's origins and development, and why it was a watershed moment in computer roleplaying games.

8

Like journals sprinkled throughout RPGs, Pause Screens go into more detail on the people, companies, and cultures that contributed to the success of the Pillars of Eternity franchise and the Infinity Engine line of roleplaying games.

Baldur’s Gate was Obsidian’s point of reference for Pillars of Eternity with good reason: It was the progenitor of the Infinity Engine line of computer RPGs, and featured a mix of combat and storytelling—a fine balance that Josh Sawyer and Adam Brennecke aimed to strike.

Planescape: Torment was a source of influence, too. Few RPGs, Infinity Engine or otherwise, have stories and characters as layered and memorable as Torment’s Nameless One protagonist and the characters he meets along his journey.

You could make the argument that Planescape: Torment has been more influential than Baldur’s Gate on the RPG genre at large: Combat is important, but many contemporary RPGs emphasize story and character development, and Torment remains a gold standard.

Although Chris Avellone spent hours answering many of my questions for this book, the writing obligations that pay his living compelled him to bow out of answering the final slate—which, wouldn’t you know, concerned arguably his most famous title. I took that opportunity to talk with other key developers on Torment—namely Interplay founder Brian Fargo, Black Isle Studios director and Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart, Torment programmer and Obsidian senior programmer Dan Spitzley, and Torment producer Guido Henkel—about the game’s origins, its development, and why it left an indelible mark on RPGs.

Craddock: I believe Feargus was running Interplay’s RPG division, Black Isle, by the time Planescape: Torment spun up. Interplay had enjoyed great financial success by publishing and developing games based on the Dungeons & Dragons license. How did an RPG based on Planescape come about?

Planescape: Torment.

Brian Fargo: There was always a balance in running a studio between being commercial, being creative, and having your creative people be happy, and having them do things that are interesting to them. I was willing to take creative risks from time to time in order to allow those things to happen. Planescape: Torment was clearly one of those. When it came across my desk, I said, “Well, that's as high concept as you get.” But I thought that RPG players would like it, and I loved the writing and sensibility they put into the document. That got me interested in doing it.

Urquhart: There were three Planescape games going on when I took over the division. I ultimately killed all of them and then created a new Planescape game around Chris Avellone and Tim Donley, and Dan Spitzley, and a couple of other people. And when I say created, I don't mean I created that game. I gave them a box. I said, “Use the Infinity Engine. Planescape's about going to planes. Go to planes.”

It was an interesting thing in that two of them were internal, one was external. The third, the external one, wasn't so much that I killed it; it just sort of died. One of the internal projects was called Planescape PC, and the other was called Planescape PSX. What was weird was that when I took over the division, there were two or three people working on each of them, and it was unknown how any of them would get done. Then it was like, “Why are we trying to have a bunch of PS games that don't have the number of people on them it would take to complete them?”

Back then we would still have to ramp up to twenty, twenty-five people for teams to finish things as we got into the mid- to late-'90s. We needed to pare the division down to a smaller number of games that each had enough resources. In the end, with Chris Avellone's vision, it was very specific. It was a finished engine, or an engine on the way to being finished. We weren't trying to create a new engine on both the PC and the PSX. It seemed like a product that had more of a chance to really be successful.

Craddock: Planescape: Torment is known for, among other things, making Chris Avellone a household name among RPG players. How did was he appointed the creative vision-holder for this project?

Urquhart: He's got so much energy, and his writing is excellent. I was really just getting to know him in 1996, because he'd been sort of sequestered away in this weird, large, closet-like room with these other designers for a while at Interplay. This was before I took over the division, so I didn't know him super well. His writing, organization, and vision were awesome.

Planescape: Torment.
Planescape: Torment.

Craddock: Dan, were you looking to take a programming-lead role on a game like Torment?

Spitzley: Yeah. I spent a couple of years developing Dragon Dice, a computerized version of the TSR dice game, before I was asked to be a lead programmer on Planescape: Torment. In retrospect, that was a little strange. I worked a few years on a game that wasn't particularly good, and then Feargus comes up and says, “Hey, want to be lead programmer?”

Torment was much more along the lines of the type of game I wanted to be working on. I figured that the first couple of years, I'd paid my dues implementing a strategy-dice game, which really wasn't my thing, and then finally get to do what I wanted to do. I figured I'd done a good enough job, and I was one of the only programmers in-house at the time. I honestly don't remember when the rest of the team came on. I should probably count scripters separately, because I think there were at least three scripters who were not working on the C++ code directly but were instrumental to getting things done. They should be considered part of the programming team because that's pretty much what they did, even though they wrote script code.

Craddock: I understand that Black Isle had gained significant experience with the Infinity Engine after working with BioWare to create Baldur’s Gate, but what were some of the technical and creative factors that made the engine the right base for Torment?

Urquhart: In the mid- and late-'90s, this was the technology wild west. It was the start of middleware. There are some engines, such as Unreal coming up toward the end of it, and you had the Quake engine, but it was really the wild west. Games were getting more complicated, and we started to make 3D engines. My job as I saw it, when I took over the RPG division, was to get RPGs made.

When I looked at the Infinity Engine, and maybe this was just how I looked at RPGs, RPGs are about the characters and the story. They're about putting people in these worlds. So, I thought, Well, why couldn't we put a Planescape story in the Infinity Engine? We wouldn't have to go and develop this whole engine. Because it wasn't about the technology, it was about the game. RPGs are about parties, particularly D&D. The Infinity Engine was an engine made for controlling a party, and it had great dialogue [tools].

This is not something that makes people say, “This is why BioWare has been so successful,” but their tools for the Infinity Engine, a lot of them were really good. Weirdly, a lot of the early programmers at BioWare were Delphi, or database programmers. They were used to dealing with large amounts of data, and were used to writing tools to manipulate that data, which in this case was a roleplaying game. That's partly also why there are things about the engine that are easy to make. Once you get it, you can do stuff in it. That's probably why it was interesting to me.

Craddock: Dan, as Torment’s programming lead, could you give input on how the Infinity Engine was managed? BioWare created it, and licensed it to Black Isle and Interplay. What did that mean in terms of modifying the engine to work with Black Isle-developed projects such as Torment and Icewind Dale?

Planescape: Torment.
Planescape: Torment.

Spitzley: I think I was the only programmer for maybe a couple of months. The programming team all told was only something like four or five people. We didn't have a huge team, but we were using the Baldur’s Gate engine before Baldur’s Gate had actually shipped. We were getting periodic updates from BioWare, and a lot of what I ended up doing was [managing] those updates and trying to keep everything from exploding.

We would receive drops of code: All of the code for the run-time engine, and standalone utilities. We would receive all of this code, and I would essentially be using what's called a div tool to go file by file and see what has changed in the code. If you're lucky, only a couple of lines. Sometimes the entire thing has changed. For my part of it, I was going through code line by line, and trying to integrate any changes we had made to the engine for features that we needed, into the code that came from BioWare.

We were able to do that successfully most of the time, but it was a time-consuming process. There were a dozen utilities for actually making the game. I mentioned the conversation editor. There was an item editor, just more stuff that design and art teams could use to create what the game needed. When I integrated, essentially I was working with code. After all that was done, we had to make sure that our game was still running the way we expected it to. That was a pretty difficult process. We did that at least two, maybe three times, but it was worth it. We got all these features that we didn't have to implement, that BioWare did all the work on.

Urquhart: There might have been one other thing, like, ‘Make it more character focused,’ or maybe they came back and said, ‘We want to move the camera in a little bit and really render the characters out.’ You compare a character from Baldur’s Gate to a Planescape character, and the Planescape character blows them away. Now, on the flip side, Planescape characters had a lot less in some ways. Equipping [items] didn't change their appearance one hundred percent, whereas a Baldur’s Gate character you could put all sorts of crap on them and everything would show.

Craddock: What made the Infinity Engine, and specifically its tools, the right engine for the job?

Spitzley: As far as designing conversations, art, and all that, programming didn't necessarily have anything to do with that. That stuff could be organized separately than the code itself. Obviously scripters were more involved to a medium [degree]. They were working on code that was related to dialogue and quest scripting. You can make that really seems cohesive with a really awful engine.

Luckily the Infinity Engine was far from an awful engine. It was really good, but anybody who worked with it will tell you that it had its quirks. It had sections of code that could probably be improved. The good news is that if the engine works, nobody's going to know any of that. You can refactor it for the next game, make it cleaner. But if you're making a data-driven game where things can get done without code being pretty, then so much the better. BioWare really knew what they were doing with regard to making an engine that was data driven.

It felt to me, just by looking at the code, that the idea was to provide artists and designers with the tools to pump an enormous amount of content into the game without requiring programmers to have much of a hand in it. You've got a conversation editor, and all the utilities to build the tile sets that you see in backgrounds. We were using 2D animation, so the utilities included [tool such as] sprite sheet with characters and crop them all, do all this behind-the-scenes work.

When the tools worked--and they generally worked quite well--you'd see content coming into the game that you had no knowledge of as a programmer. It was great to see that, because if you're making an enormous game, you have to remove bottlenecks. To this day, we're always pushing to make tools such that design and art can just do what they need to do. When I did integrations of newer versions of the engine, I would try to get an idea of changes they had made to improve things, optimizations and stuff like that.

To me, the big takeaway was trying to get out of the way of content creators and letting them do what they need to do.

Craddock: Was that flexibility what afforded Black Isle to say, “Let’s use the Infinity Engine to make a game focused on story and character development first, combat second?”

Planescape: Torment.
Planescape: Torment.

Urquhart: Luckily, what we could do with the Infinity Engine was you could make a more combat intensive or less combat intensive game. It was always intended to be more character focused. One of the very early things we talked about was how we would zoom the camera in a little bit and focus more on the characters, render them out more so that you see companions in better detail.

Spitzley: Chris Avellone's vision for what the game was going to be about was very strong. We understood what kind of story we were trying to tell, and the source material, Planescape's campaign setting, gave us a lot of direction as far as what the visuals would be like, and that stuff was completely different than any fantasy game we had ever seen, which got artists excited. We didn't have to write an engine from scratch.

We had the Baldur’s Gate engine, so we could get revved up and start creating areas really quickly even though they wouldn't be final for a very long time. I think it was a somewhat more stable foundation to create a good game.

Craddock: How did Chris and the team at large communicate that vision?

Spitzley: We had a modeler on the game named Aaron Brown, who also worked at Obsidian for a time. He was just a machine. He could crank out incredible art in what seemed a very short period of time. If I recall correctly, I think he put together a teaser reel to give the feel of the universe we were trying to build to sell it to people in the company.

The stuff that he did--3D models of these big, moving pieces of equipment, and these character silhouettes--I don't know if he did it on his own, but either way, it turned out incredibly. That gave us all a vision of, ‘Okay, here's what we're making.’ That's opposed to the Fallout games, especially Fallout 2, where there was a lot of panicking: ‘How are we going to get this done in time?’ It felt like there was an opportunity to do something different with Torment, and I think that helped us a lot to understand what we were trying to do.

Craddock: Guido, I’d like to get into your background a bit before we go any deeper into Torment. Prior to Interplay, you’d developed the Realms of Arkania CRPG. What led to its creation?

Henkel: After completing Spirit of Adventure, another RPG, we were approached by our then-publisher, asking us to create an adaptation of the German pen&aper RPG Das Schwarze Auge [called The Dark Eye in the US]. Since they had withheld monies from us, though, and because the relationship was unsalvageable, we felt, we declined. Shortly after, the licensor of the game approached us directly and said they’d rather work with us than Starbyte. So we dug deep into our pockets, financed the development of the game ourselves and published it with the help of the original design company of the pen-and-paper game. Because the game system had never been published in English-speaking markets, we needed to give it a name and we called it Realms of Arkania.

We felt that no one had ever created a faithful adaptation of any pen-and-paper game to computer and that was the niche we wanted to fill. To have all the gritty details of a tabletop campaign in a computer game, down to the minutiae. We succeeded, but the result catered really only to the most hardcore RPG players.

Craddock: What brought you to the Black Isle Studios division of Interplay?

Planescape: Torment.

Henkel: I was moving to the US at the time and was talking to a number of companies about possible job opportunities. Most of them were companies with some sort of an RPG affinity. I knew Brian Fargo from way back so it was only natural for me to check in with him as well. Interplay offered me a job and I accepted. I was originally hoping to work in their Strategy Game division however, but was poached by Black Isle because of my RPG background. They put PST in front of me and I really dug the concept and agreed to produce the game.

Craddock: One of the most extraordinary accomplishments of the Infinity Engine line of RPGs was performing well commercially in an era when CRPGs were in decline. Guido, you had experience designing CRPGs prior to joining Interplay and Black Isle. What do you feel led for the genre’s decline while console RPGs such as Final Fantasy were quite healthy?

Henkel: Development costs and a niche audience were the reasons. RPG are expensive to develop and take a lot of time and the market is relatively small, compared to many other genres. It is just so much easier, faster and cheaper to develop a first-person shooter or action game than an RPG—as a result, publishers have traditionally always shied away from the genre. When they did enter the genre, they typically pushed for watered-down games with more of a mainstream appeal, which, in turned, turned off the actual players, who felt RPGs were no longer RPGs.

Craddock: What specific games do you feel restored the CRPG?

Henkel: Baldur’s Gate was definitely one of them but also, strange as it may seem, Diablo. Despite being an action game with an RPG cache, the game proved that there is a huge audience for this kind of sword and sorcery fantasy setting. The question then simply became, how to tap into it. A lot of publishers went down the wrong path, I felt, by oversimplifying RPGs, but then Baldur’s Gate came along and proved that you can find a healthy middle-ground.

Craddock: Guido, how would you define your role on Planescape: Torment relative to leads such as Chris Avellone?

Henkel: I was a shepherd. My job was to keep things rolling and to keep distractions away from the team. I was the grease, essentially, enabling them with what they needed, providing feedback and ideas while making sure the project stayed true to the vision.

Craddock: Planescape: Torment was initially pitched under the title Last Rites. What was that project, and how did it differ from what it became as Planescape: Torment?

Planescape: Torment.
Planescape: Torment.

Henkel: It was only a title change, nothing more. We felt [the original title] did not represent the game properly and the religious connotations were, perhaps, too strong. Virtually, all games I’ve worked on have had a working title that was eventually changed to a final title. It is part of the overall process. As you develop and learn more about the innards of your game, you realize that other titles may better represent the story, the atmosphere, the undertone, the intentions, etc.

Craddock: One of Chris Avellone’s intentions with Planescape: Torment was to discard fantasy tropes. What were your thoughts on that direction?

Henkel: I was letting out a sigh of relief. After having done five high fantasy RPGs back-to-back at the time, I was really looking forward to something different and Torment offered a unique new perspective on the genre.

Craddock: Many fantasy trappings had become cliché by the time Planescape: Torment entered development. On the other hand, tropes and cliché sells. Was that a concern?

Henkel: To be perfectly honest, retail success was never something we put a lot of coin in. We set out to develop the game we wanted to make because it fascinated us, not because we thought we would create a financial success. There was a lot of idealism floating around, which, again, was very refreshing for me. Over the 12 years I had made games before joining Interplay, I had become somewhat jaded and the team around me along with me. The Torment team consisted of a lot of developers who had just entered the industry, working on their first or second game, and it created a very energetic, we-don’t-care atmosphere. It was almost anarchic, at times.

Craddock: Dungeons & Dragons was and is ubiquitous to tabletop, pen-and-paper gaming. What was your level of familiarity with the Planescape setting, and what appealed to you about creating within it?

Henkel: The Planescape setting was fairly new to me. I knew it existed. I knew it was on the fringe of traditional fantasy but that was about it. It reminded me a lot of “World of Tiers” by Philip José Farmer, a book series that I love, and as I started to read up on Planescape in preparation for the project, the potential suddenly dawned on me and there was a knee-slap moment where I went, “This is going to be awesome!”

Spitzley: Planescape's campaign setting from TSR was very different. All of the elements of the Forgotten Realms were kind of part of it, as far as it was another universe you can access through the planes. We couldn't make any assumptions about the sorts of things we would see: elves, dwarves, and all of that comfortable fantasy stuff had to be thrown out the window.

Craddock: How much freedom did Black Isle have to modify the IE engine so that it would serve their design needs?

Henkel: We had complete freedom. BioWare gave as full access to the source code and constantly provided us with updates. Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk from BioWare always encouraged us to push the envelope. They really wanted to see what we could do with the engine. Therefore, we decided to make a number of modifications that would set Torment apart from other Infinity Engine games. One of the first things we wanted to make happen, for example, was to allow for huge animations that filled the entire screen. The Pillar of Skulls was one of the first tests we ran to see how feasible it would be, and from there we went on, making bigger and bigger animations.

Craddock: Many players describe being emotionally affected by stories in Planescape: Torment. What do you feel are some vital ingredients to writing emotionally resonant stories in characters in games, a medium where emotions can come across as embarrassing or half-baked if the underlying technology isn't up to snuff?

Planescape: Torment.
Planescape: Torment.

Henkel: The key is empathy. You need to create something that players can relate to. It doesn’t matter whether it’s happening among humans in real life, robots or orcs, some themes are simply universal and when applied properly will elicit an emotional response from people. This was, I think, one of the greatest strokes of genius that Chris Avellone and Colin McComb managed to inject into the game. The ability for players to relate and empathize with situations and force the player to make decisions that are not easy, not black-and-white. I witnessed that on a daily basis as I was reading the design and dialogues as it progressed.

Craddock: What many storytellers and players find interesting about videogame storytelling is the deep tools available: visuals, audio, text, gameplay. Planescape: Torment and RPGs like it are unique in that the game offers narrative and descriptions alongside audiovisuals. Is it tempting to rely too heavily on text, since you can always fall back on description/narrative prose? Or was it something of a necessity when designing sprawling RPGs in the '90s?

Henkel: Yes, it typically sprang from limitations—typically resources but also from technical limitations, especially in 2D games. It is just much easier to implement something in a few paragraphs of text than having to find the technical wherewithal to implement it as actual gameplay. It is very different these days where entire worlds are modeled in 3D and you can easily place your camera anywhere at any time and have your characters act out all sorts of things for you.

Craddock: Unlike in most RPGs and MMOs, rats in Planescape: Torment put up a fight. Were rats intentionally designed this way to challenge the convention of tediously grinding rats for XP in many RPGs?

Henkel: Yes. This was actually in direct response to Fallout, as a kind of in-joke.

Craddock: Planescape: Torment was unique in offering players ways to resolve quests through conversation rather than violence. What were some of the advantages and difficulties to designing a game that allowed players to take a more or less pacifistic route through to the end, if they so desired?

Henkel: The intention was to offer something that was different from traditional computer RPGs where everything revolved around combat mostly. To offer solutions through dialogue and alternative options was very appealing to me because I originally come from an adventure background where puzzles are the focus, and when Chris Avellone opted to head in that alternate direction, I was all for it.

Spitzley: We had much greater conversation leads than most other games at the time. The conversation [editor] was good, but as it came to us, BioWare's tech had some limitations we had to work around. We had to write custom script functions to do all sorts of stuff. With the exception of a few things, we weren't doing much from scratch, so it wasn't arduous work in a lot of cases to add features like that. It was just fun. You'd say, ‘Yeah, I can tap that in. Give me five minutes and I'll throw that in there.’ It kept things lively, too. We had some good turnaround for the team so they could see the features they implemented.

It's interesting when you have a game where you have so many options, but one of the problems is you have to implement all those systems. Doom didn't have a conversation system. You just blew stuff up. Our game had to have combat and conversation systems, and any other potential options. We would implement what we had to. One of the things we tried to do as effectively as possible was, when you have a system as complicated as the dialogue system in Torment, you find ways to do things with it that might not have originally been intended.

Planescape: Torment.
Planescape: Torment.

Craddock: Did working with the Infinity Engine allow you to recycle some implementation from other games to reduce your workload a bit?

Spitzley: Yeah. You leverage work you've already done to try and get more gameplay [out of it]. We could have just had simple conversations with yes and no answers, but we had to expand it to support a huge number of player responses, and not run slowly. Initially, when there were a lot of player responses, the game would bog down when you got to big conversations. Most of the combat stuff we were able to take wholesale from Baldur’s Gate.

I think it's well known that Torment's combat was probably not the best thing about it. Certainly I've heard a lot of people say they wish the battles were better, but it's still there. It's an option, so in a lot of ways, when you create an RPG [of a large scope], you're creating more work for yourself, and it all has to work and be good. Depending on the complexity of the game you're working on, you're making a super set of a bunch of other games. You've got a little bit of point-and-click adventure, a little bit of tactical strategy, maybe a puzzle game. You're aggregating all this stuff together, and you have to write the code to get it to work.

Craddock: Dan, what were some of the systems unique to Torment that you enjoyed implementing?

Spitzley: There were a couple of things that I worked on that were specific to Torment and liked messing around with: The journal and bestiary components. I don't remember if all these features went in, but we had these nice images of creatures you could find. There was the intention, whether it got implemented or not, where as you fought more of them, the information that the journal and bestiary would show you about them would increase. You'd learn more about them, and you'd get certain benefits against them in combat. I didn't recall seeing anything quite that complex in RPGs before, and I really liked playing around with getting that working.

Craddock: What interested you about exploring situations that may have more than one right or wrong answer in games? That was relatively unexplored outside of early CRPGs such as Ultima IV.

Henkel: It reminded me more of real life and pen-and-paper sessions, where players and game masters can come up with the most incredible solutions at times. Computer PRGs always suffer from a lack of variety when it comes to player actions. It’s an engine that allows this or that and there’s little gray area. Offering different, wildly varying paths was simply a design response to that limitation.

Craddock: Chris Avellone has expressed regret that Planescape: Torment's writing often encumbers other aspects of the game, namely combat. Do you agree?

Henkel: Part of me would agree, but at the same time, I think Torment became what it is, because of what it is. Had the game been more combat-oriented, who knows if it had still had the same appeal to players? I think people were drawn to its depth so despite having second thoughts, I think I would probably not want to do it any differently.

Craddock: The game’s combat and magic options were more than versatile enough for players who preferred a more physical approach to solving problems. What was the process of modifying the Infinity Engine to pave the way for integration of features such as spells?

Henkel: Robert Holloway and I spent a lot of time writing special shader code for our spell effects. We wanted to get away from the tradition lighting models and try really wacky stuff, which wasn’t easy because of the Infinity Engine graphics implementation. We had to essentially render some effects into custom buffers that were then treated like sprites when they were drawn to the screen. It was the only way for us to circumvent the technical implementation limitations of the Infinity Engine for some of the effects we wanted. It was all pretty wild but also a lot of fun.

Spitzley: We were in the same office for a long time: Chris Avellone, myself, [lead artist] Tim Donley, and [artist] Aaron Meyers. We had a big corner office with a bunch of us, and probably an enormous amount of radiation from all the computers and monitors we had running. Tim was a constant source of humor. His attitude was really great, and he was really fun to work with. There was a lot of joking about things like, ‘Oh, this development is going horribly. Cancel Christmas.’ Just all these in-jokes.

I remember the day that we put our first spell in, which I think was Ice Knife, [lead artist] Tim Donley got his hands on it and spent the day shooting people with it and loving it. He said, ‘This is now the best game ever. We can kill people with spells!’ At the end of the day, for a while we would boot up Motocross Madness or Motocross Madness 2 and make way too much noise screaming at each other. It was nice to be in an office with a bunch of people who share the same sense of humor.

At some point, Chris Avellone might have got a little sick of it. He was always trying to write and was very distracted, so he eventually got his own office. I think that was probably a good thing for his sanity.

Craddock: I've read that Interplay's management pressured the Planescape: Torment development team following Interplay's IPO. Did you experience any of that pressure?

Henkel: Yes, I did feel the pressure but it is nothing I can or want to comment on publicly. The only thing I will say is that I always saw it as my job to keep that pressure away from the team so that they could focus on building the game instead of dealing with company politics.

Craddock: I’ve found that, leading up to release, a game’s developers either can’t stop playing it or never want to play it again. Dan, how were you feeling about Torment as its release date drew closer?

Spitzley: A lot of the areas I played in, the art in particular, just struck me as so different and unique. I couldn't help but think people were going to enjoy it after years of the same fantasy stuff. It's really hard to tell, even when you're about to ship, whether a game is going to be received well or not. But you can see, as improvements come online, these incremental features that go in, they help make you think, Maybe we're doing something right.

Any sort of polish you can put in helps. On Torment, there were things we did with object highlight when you point and click that I think ended up feeling good. If you're working really hard on a project, sometimes you don't even get a chance to take stock. One of the things that is always an issue for me on the games I work on is that all I see after a project ships is the bugs that nobody else may know are there.

I think anybody who tells you they know their game is going to knock it out of the park is deluding themselves, or they're make a really, really good game and just know it. Especially to the degree that your game is huge: The bigger your game is, the harder it is to tell that it will make sense and be fun across the game. I think sometime like a shooter, where you're doing pretty much the same things over the course of the game, you might be able to get a better idea of, Are we doing a good job on the main aspect of this, which is shooting things. But when you've got an economy, when you've got reams of dialogue, a combat system, and all sorts of other stuff, I find it very difficult to see the forest for the trees.

Craddock: Upon its release, Planescape: Torment was critically successful, but not as commercially profitable. How do you balance the fact that players loved the game with the reality that it needed to hit sales numbers that, at the time, it didn't quite manage to reach?

Henkel: Story of my life. I was actually quite used to it because the same had happened to me with the Realms of Arkania games before. Since I had no vested interest in the profitability of Torment, it didn’t matter that much to me, though. Knowing that players enjoyed it was and still is satisfaction enough.

Urquhart: We were always talking about doing Torment 2. This is no one's fault, but there are these things that happen in your life, and somehow they become urban legend. This all spawned out of a conversation I had in the office with Chris. I think the conversation was going around, and we got on to the subject of [commercial success], and I think what I said was something to the effect of, “Yeah, I mean, Torment's not done as well as Baldur’s Gate II will probably do, but it's doing fine.”

That's what I said, and I think the implication of that was that it didn't do well commercially. It did fine. The industry wasn't as commercially driven back then. We barely had budgets on games. We barely knew how much a game cost to make. In my brain, I wanted to do a Torment 2, but the team wanted to go off and do something different. They had a lot of different ideas, and that eventually turned into Torn, which had some good ideas but also had some engine issues. On top of that, we got RPG of the Year, so why not [start a franchise]?

Planescape: Torment.
Planescape: Torment.

Craddock: What, specifically, do you feel accounts for Torment’s longevity?

Henkel: The game has become a genre milestone and its reputation as being singular will outlive us all. I think it was a remarkable achievement that only this particular team could have achieved. Had there been other people on the team, the game would have turned out very differently, and I will be forever grateful that we had the good fortune of having this incredible cocktail of talent throw their skills, ideas and heads together.

I think its longevity is two-fold. For one it is the uniqueness of the world, the story, but it is also the maturity of the story. Not a lot of games really aspire to reach philosophical heights. Well, we did, and it helped make the game and its themes utterly timeless.

Spitzley: This game is high on my list of favorite games I’ve made. think a lot of that has to do with the fact that I was still a pretty new programmer. That game came out around the end of '99. I'd only been a professional programmer for a little more than four years, and already I'd worked on a game that people were saying was the best ever.

You can't do much better than that. I think if it's results versus the amount of work, it's pretty high up there. But I learn something new and interesting on every single project I work on, and increase my ability to implement things where, before, I may not have had any idea what I was doing. Every single game has highlights and lowlights, but I think one of the reasons with the same people who were at Interplay back in '95, coming through to Obsidian today, is because it's worth it. We end up making great games. Sometimes we make not-so-great games, but even in those cases, I'm learning something. I'd say Torment is near the top of my list, but there's too much to rank over the course of my career. It's the amalgamation of what I've learned that's most important.

Black Isle started as Dragonplay, which was another [sub-division] of Interplay. It morphed into Black Isle when Feargus took over. I don't think anybody at the time knew that Black Isle would become a label that people would remember. We probably thought the games would be, but at the time, we didn't even know how many games we would be able to do, much less the response we would get.

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