Brian Fargo was not content to have one dream. He had two: To make video games for a living, and to run a studio where creative individuals could pursue their unique talents.
Interplay Productions was that company, and the word Interplay spoke to Fargo’s dream of diversifying production teams. “With Interplay, I wanted to take [development] beyond one- or two-man teams,” said Fargo. “That sounds like an obvious idea now, but to hire an artist to do the art, a musician to do the music, a writer to do the writing, all opposed as just the one man show doing everything, was novel.”
Fargo got his start in the games industry wearing every hat it was possible for one to wear. He wrote code, pushed pixels, produced and packaged his games in Ziploc baggies, and distributed them to stores. His first hit was The Demon’s Forge, an adventure game where players explored and interacted with the world by typing in succinct combinations of verbs and nouns: GO NORTH, SEARCH COSTUME, LEFT, FORWARD.
“Even with Demon's Forge, I had my buddy Michael [Cranford] do all the art, but I had to trace it all in and put it in the computer, and that lost a certain something. And because I didn't know a musician or sound guy, it had no music or sound. I did the writing, but I don't think that's my strong point. So really, [Interplay was] set up to say, ‘Let's take a team approach and bring in specialists.’”
Fargo sold Saber to a couple of Stanford grads only to grow frustrated at his lack of control. After Fargo left in 1983 and founded Interplay Productions, industrious developers Rebecca “Burger Becky” Heineman, Jay Patel, and Troy Worrell went along for the ride. Interplay’s early years were lean. Fargo and his team kept the lights on by taking contract jobs to port games from one platform to another. In 1985, Interplay developed The Bard’s Tale, its first original title and the best-selling roleplaying game of the 1980s.
The Bard’s Tale transformed Interplay from a port house to premiere developer of computer RPGs (CRPGs). “I saw that a lot of the people who were succeeding were companies that did one kind of product,” Fargo said. “Interplay, because we were so diverse, we weren't known for any one thing. We did everything from Mario Teaches Typing, to Virtual Pool, to Fallout. You can build a brand around your company if you do good products.”
Interplay’s diverse catalog served as an extension of Fargo’s dream. He had succeeded in building a team of specialists. The next step was to expand Interplay into divisions that functioned like music labels. Every division would share resources such as sales and marketing. Otherwise each division’s leaders would be free and encouraged to cultivate a unique culture, leadership hierarchy, and line of products.
“I wanted to break it up so that if VR Sports did well, you'd know them,” Fargo explained. “We had to do some sharing [of resources] within the company, but I was willing to absorb a little bit of inefficiency in order to have strong teams that focused on a particular category and became famous for it.”
MacPlay, Interplay’s first division, was founded in the 1990s to port PC games such as Wolfenstein 3D and Descent to Apple’s Macintosh system. Another division, Engage, concentrated in online games. Engage grew so large that its team took over an entire floor of one building on Interplay’s two-building campus. As Interplay blossomed, Fargo scooped up a third building. Dragonplay, a CRPG division, occupied half of the new building.
“Every division had its own location within the buildings,” added Chris Parker, producer. “We had sort of one big, L-shaped set of offices that were essentially all enclosed to us.”
VR Sports, Interplay’s internal sports studio, set up shop in the top half of another building in 1995. “Weirdly enough, Make-a-Wish Foundation was below us, and they hated us,” said Interplay producer Feargus Urquhart. “We were not any part of their wish.”
The connective tissue between divisions could be difficult to see. Quality assurance, or QA, constituted a single team based in one building. That team was shared across all internal divisions. Producers and directors had to cross a parking lot if they wanted to talk face-to-face with the lead tester assigned to their project. The sales, marketing, and audio teams also occupied central locations.
“All of audio worked together,” Parker said. “Any given division on any project would be asking them for support, and then you'd get some of their resources. There were managers who handled that for the publishing side of things, audio, videos, or whatever.”
Like audio and sales divisions, Interplay producers such as Chris Parker and Feargus Urquhart were agnostic, juggling half a dozen projects or more at any given time. Urquhart oversaw Shattered Steel, the first game made by a new Canadian studio called BioWare; Rock ‘n’ Roll Racing, in development at Silicon & Synapse, soon to be known as Blizzard Entertainment; and a solitaire game for Windows 95, just to name a few.
Producers juggled heavier loads as more divisions cropped up. Alan Pavlish, who had executive-produced nearly every title at Interplay, became vice president of development. All directors and senior producers reported to him. In April 1996, Tim Cain sent out an SOS. Cain was the programming lead on Fallout, a post-apocalyptic RPG where players explored a radioactive wasteland that was displayed from a top-down, isometric camera so that the tiles that made up backgrounds resembled diamonds instead of squares. Fallout’s claim to fame was its open-ended gameplay: Players could buy goods from vendors in towns, or kill them.
Fallout’s team was excited about the project, especially its weird but alluring blend of 1950s Americana and post-nuclear-war devastation. Where most publishers were putting out sword-and-sorcery fare, Fallout sported guns and power armor straight out of a science fiction movie. Fargo appointed Urquhart to Dragonplay in 1996. Urquhart took on a producer role on Fallout and gave Cain, Boyarsky, and Anderson the resources they needed.
Within weeks of Fallout’s launch in September 1997, it climbed sales charts and won over developers who embraced its setting and retro-meets-far-future aesthetic. The game, previously part of Interplay at large, was absorbed into Dragonplay.
“If you look at the box for Fallout, it says Interplay on it, it doesn't say Black Isle,” said Fallout co-creator Leonard Boyarsky. “Fallout 2 was a Black Isle project. Technically they were both made by the same division of people, and the same location in the company.”
On the Rocks
Urquhart stepped into a division in search of an identity. One problem was its name.
“There was this idea of trying to come up with a brand image for Dragonplay,” Urquhart said. “There was even a logo and all this other stuff, which I think did ship out. It was a dragon yelling. I got rid of that.”
The name Dragonplay suggested that its projects featured dragons and other ye-olde-fantasy tropes. While Interplay had licensed Dungeons & Dragons for several titles, the success of Fallout showed that Dragonplay’s developers had designs on other themes and settings.
Dragonplay’s staff debated names. Monolith had a cool ring to it, but Monolith Productions, founded in 1994, got there first. “There were all kinds of really weird suggestions, like Colostomy Bag Food Fight,” said Dan Spitzley, programmer. “I think there was Raining Dump Trucks in there somewhere.”
“There was always a lot of debate. Coming up with names for divisions and products was always a struggle,” Fargo added.
After eighteen months of debate, Fargo summoned Urquhart into his office and told him he had to pick a name—right then. “I just said, ‘Well... Black Isle Studios.’ He said, ‘Yep, that one.’ And that was it,” Urquhart recalled.
Urquhart suggested Black Isle Studios based on a region in the Scottish Highlands, part of his native Scotland. The studio’s name was also a study in contrasts. First, Black Isle a peninsula rather than an island. Second, scholars have debated the region’s “Black” descriptor for decades, suggesting that it may come from the color of its farming soil or because the peninsula appears black during winter even when the surrounding countryside is blanketed in snow.
Black Isle’s beginnings were appropriately rocky. One of its first games, published and developed under the Interplay label instead of Black Isle Studios, was Descent to Undermountain. The D&D-licensed game crossed Dungeons & Dragons with the engine that powered Descent, a first-person shooter published by Interplay where players could freely explore three-dimensional space. Fargo’s hope was that Descent to Undermountain would appeal to players who enjoyed the immersion of first-person roleplaying games such as Ultima Underworld and the six-degrees-of-freedom movement offered by Descent.
The problem was that the Descent engine was lauded for its true-3D capabilities, not its visuals. Characters and environments were blocky and muddy. Most players glossed over Descent’s blocky characters and muddy environments because the heady sensation of pitching and yawing like astronauts in zero-gravity atmospheres was a delight. Descent to Undermountain was knocked for lackluster graphics and myriad technical issues caused by the pains Interplay’s developers took to rewrite parts of Descent’s engine to suit their design.
“We had the Descent engine and said, ‘Could we do an Ultima Underworld-style game with Descent [technology]?’ Turns out the answer is no, but the concept sounded good,” Fargo admitted.
Fallout 2, the first game set to be published under the Urquhart-directed Black Isle label, held more promise until franchise creators Cain, Boyarsky, and Anderson left Interplay. Many of their reasons stemmed from Interplay becoming a publicly traded company.
Fargo had taken his company public as a gambit. A confluence of factors including rising development costs, low profits from VR Sports—renamed Interplay Sports in 1998—and a continued focus on developing PC games when more consumers were buying consoles such as Sony’s PlayStation had gutted Interplay’s finances. By the time of Interplay’s IPO in the summer of 1998, the company owed almost $27 million in debt. Universal Interactive Studios became the majority shareholder by holding 49.4 percent of shares to Fargo’s 44.9 percent.
The cost of keeping Interplay’s head above water was interference. Investors and executives elbowed their way into production schedules by demanding that team leads take a profit-driven approach to game design. Dismayed by Interplay’s concentration on bottom lines, Cain left the company. Boyarsky and Anderson had no desire to make another Fallout title without Cain and followed him out the door.
The departure of Fallout’s visionaries threw Fallout 2 into flux. Developers were tasked with cranking out content as fast as possible. Programmers and artists were uprooted from other projects such as Planescape: Torment to lend a hand. “With regard to Fallout and Fallout 2, I was not doing anything on Torment until those games were out the door. Those projects were more like vacations from Torment rather than jumping between projects,” said Dan Spitzley.
After Fallout 2 was delayed, the team kicked off a brutal crunch schedule to ship it as soon as possible. Partly as a consequence, the final game exhibits an everything-and-the-kitchen sink approach to development. It was larger and deeper than its forebearer in terms of tactical gameplay, but boiled over with pop culture references and—in the opinions of some of its development team—incongruous characters and gameplay features that made the sequel far more discordant compared to the relative cohesion that had contributed to Fallout’s success.
Fallout 2 fell short of its lofty sales expectation set by the original when it arrived in 1998. Coincidentally, the RPG that outdid Black Isle’s follow-up was another Black Isle production.
Fallout 2 was only one iron in Black Isle’s fire. Baldur’s Gate, the second game made by BioWare and the second to be published by Black Isle, had a transformative effect on both studios. The game offered rich characters and settings, and tactical combat that played out in real-time but allowed players to pause and issue orders to their party.
Baldur’s Gate sold gangbusters and paved the way for a sequel. For Black Isle, whose existence was tied to Interplay’s, Baldur’s Gate II was the CPRG equivalent of a saving throw.
"We were definitely making money, and then Baldur’s Gate II was just the hockey stick up,” Urquhart said, using a business metaphor that refers to the hockey stick-like shape of sales that steadily dip only to spike upward. “Baldur’s Gate II pretty much saved Interplay. If it had not shipped in the fall of 2000—and I've never talked to Brian [Fargo] about this—I have a feeling that things could have gotten pretty dire. It had shipped in two million units by our Christmas party in December, which was amazing."
"I would say the Baldur’s Gate franchise was that impactful," Fargo confirmed. "That product absolutely helped extend the life of Interplay, no question, but we had a heavy royalty load. We had to pay BioWare a hefty royalty, and TSR on top of that. If that wasn't an internally developed title with no royalties, boy, it would have been a way different outcome.”
BioWare had built the Baldur’s Gate franchise on the Infinity Engine, proprietary technology engineered by lead programmer Scott Greig. The Infinity Engine had several claims to fame. It incorporated the 2nd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons’ game rules and included editors that simplified design tasks such as writing dialogue for characters and editing the properties of items and spells. Its core feature was the ability to take 3D environments and convert them to pre-rendered, 2D backgrounds. Because a wider range of computer hardware could display flat imagery as opposed to complicated polygonal environments, games running on the Infinity Engine could boast sprawling areas that scrolled as players moved through the world.
BioWare co-founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk licensed the Infinity Engine to Black Isle Studios so Urquhart’s teams could build their own roleplaying games. One was Planescape: Torment. Spearheaded by Chris Avellone, Planescape: Torment emphasized character development and storytelling where Baldur’s Gate had featured a mix of stories, characters, and tactical combat. Another Infinity Engine RPG, Icewind Dale, went in the opposite direction by favoring tactical battles and dungeon crawling. It was released in June 2000, roughly six months after Torment.
The Infinity Engine games and Diablo, an action-focused RPG by Blizzard North and Entertainment, were credited with revivifying the mordant CRPG space. Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, and Icewind Dale gave players deeper combat with engrossing stories and characters, while Diablo’s simple, mouse-driven gameplay drew in audiences previously unfamiliar with computers and roleplaying games.
Brian Fargo knew what he had in Black Isle. In a 2015 interview, Fargo stated he would have fired everybody except his collective golden goose if given the opportunity to rebuild Interplay from scratch.
Urquhart knew his division’s value as well. “Internally at Interplay—and this may have annoyed some people, for me to say this—over the years, starting in '96, Black Isle made all the money. It made the most profitable games,” Urquhart stated.
“Black Isle had a lot of games that I really felt like there was a lot of love for,” said Tim Donley, a senior artist who spearheaded artwork on Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale, among other titles. “Almost an air of, 'We're the best team at Interplay.' I wouldn't go so far as to say we were or we weren't. I just know, internally, there was a sense of, 'We're doing some amazing games here.'”
“I will say we were full of ourselves,” added Scott Everts, technical artist and designer. “We were definitely egotistical, and I think that pissed people off. Yeah, I'll admit it. We felt like, hey, we're Black Isle. We had Black Isle t-shirts. We were hot stuff.”
Their knowledge of Black Isle’s status mitigated some negative aspects of the job, such as Interplay’s financial turbulence and a crunch schedule that never seemed to end. Passion was another balm. Interplay’s inception in the 1980s, few developers had treated it as a nine-to-five job. Their breaks consisted of dining out or in with coworkers and staying afterhours to play board games.
Black Isle’s shared passion moved them to demand excellence from anyone and everyone involved in their games. “We were completely unforgiving on marketing materials,” Chris Parker said. “We knew we were right about the stuff we were doing, and we weren't about to let things go out that were half-assed, or that didn’t make Black Isle look like the best thing ever. At some points, that really did rub some people the wrong way. When I meet those people now, they say, 'Man, it was great to work with you.' But at the time, I know that that was not true.”
Feargus Urquhart’s primary job was making sure Black Isle’s wants and needs were met. If his developers needed new software or equipment to make more or better games, they got it. If they wanted to play games to unwind from the rigors of making their own, Urquhart made it happen. Once, Interplay’s IT department blocked all online RPGs after management—not Brian Fargo—decreed that Anarchy Online, Ultima Online, and EverQuest were crimping productivity. Urquhart could have gone above IT’s head and complained to Fargo, but he didn’t. There was no need. Reason, and the reminder of the power Black Isle wielded, were his weapons.
“This is generally how the conversation went with IT,” Urquhart said, launching into a summary: “‘Look, this is what I want. It is not unreasonable, and you know that if you just say no, I’m going to see Brian, and Brian's going to call you into his office, and you're going to have to explain to Brian why you don't want to give me this very reasonable thing.’ I think that's what I tried to do with my people: To empower them to do what they needed to do,” he said.
“I think Feargus was always very politically savvy,” Fargo said. “He knew how to work the system well. He knew when to come to me and how to approach it, so he probably had a pretty big hit ratio in terms of approval because he played it right. I don't know that I approved 100 percent of what he asked for, but I'm sure he saved his bullets and presented in a way that [made sense].”
To Urquhart and Black Isle’s proud team, the product was everything. “Making an awesome game, shipping it awesomely, and doing right by the people who buy our games—that was always where I was going with all of those things,” Urquhart added. “But through my early actions, when I was first coming up, it came off as more arrogant and exclusionary. So, while I think I did empower our people and make their jobs easier, there were some [instances] where doing things that way made things much harder.”
Fargo was used to smoothing over ill will and striking bargains with demanding producers and directors. “Of course they had egos, but a lot of talented people do. You just have to manage that,” he said. “There were times when I had to say no, and times when I would say yes for a multitude of reasons. Everybody was fighting for resources, fighting for their products, and fighting for their people. If they were doing one type of game—which was roleplaying games, in the case of Black Isle—then nobody else in the company would know more about that [genre] than them by default. That's going to give them a certain mindset.”
Urquhart and Fargo never set out to be perfect or loved. Amid Interplay’s hits and misses came the usual—and not-so-usual—dustups with management.
Michael Cranford, an old school chum of Brian Fargo’s and the main programmer on The Bard’s Tale, claimed Fargo had promised him a cut of royalties on the game long before it put Interplay on the map. For a time, Cranford worked based only on Fargo’s word while pressing his friend to put their deal in writing. When Fargo drew up a contract that promised Cranford less than he had been expecting, Cranford kept the game’s source code to himself until Fargo increased his profits. Cranford and Fargo have since mended fences.
According to an interview Tim Cain conducted years after he had departed Interplay, interference from corporate owners had been only one of his issues. He had been just as dissatisfied with, as he saw it, Urquhart’s negligence or refusal to evaluate employees at regular intervals and promote them within Black Isle when appropriate.
Fargo and Urquhart had risen to their positions through a combination of ambition, tenacity, and smarts. Each knew that their job boiled down to getting things done. To Urquhart, that meant doing his best to look out for his team’s interests, and not just when they wanted to play online games. “The majority of time I was at Interplay, I worked at Black Isle Studios,” said Chris Parker. “In that situation, Feargus Urquhart was my boss. He felt it was his job to essentially shield us from any Interplay bullshit.”
“When management had a problem, they talked to him. He'd deal with it,” Scott Everts said. “If he needed to talk with us, he would. If not, he would just deal with it. He buffered us, and that allowed us to focus on making games. That was really important. I think that's one of his strongest attributes: Let the people who build games do what they need to do without any roadblocks.”
“He was my only manager, and certainly seemed to have had my back at key points in my life,” Chris Avellone said. “That was significant enough that I felt loyal to him more than [to] Interplay.”
Fargo had appointed Urquhart as Black Isle’s director specifically because he could be, as Fargo put it, “a pain in the ass.” Urquhart not only managed developers within his in-house studio. He had taken point in meetings with D&D license holders TSR and Wizards of the Coast on behalf of Interplay during development of Baldur’s Gate and its sequel. When BioWare had tried to go around Chris Parker or other producers, Urquhart had stepped in.
Urquhart’s frustration with Interplay’s executives boiled over on occasion. By the early 2000s, some of his senior programmers were writing code on three-year-old computers. He had submitted a request for computer upgrades so they could compile game code faster. The request had been approved, and then unapproved, and then approved, only to be unapproved again as executives tightened their hold on resources. In a catch-22, that same tightfisted management regime demanded that Black Isle put out games at a faster and faster clip.
“I went through this four times, and I remember storming over from our building to the other building,” Urquhart recalled. “I won't say exactly what I said because it involves [specific] people, but it was to the effect of, ‘Eff that guy. I'm going to take my frickin' wallet and throw it in the toilet and flush it, because that's the same damn thing as not giving us the money we need to make our games.’ Not that I had a lot of outbursts, but there was a lot of frustration on my part, which I'm sure went down to my people, who then, as they were talking with friends from other divisions, would interpret it that way.”
“He was very aggressive, but he was making things happen, so I had to respect that,” Fargo said of Urquhart. “Some people would probably say I was a pain in the ass sometimes, and that's okay. It would take a complex, hard-headed person to make all those things come together.”
“There was always the looming fear of the publishing end of the company over in the other building. We never knew what was going to be happening there. It felt like there were always financial machinations going on in the background,” said Dan Spitzley.
Urquhart was the wall between Interplay and Black Isle. Ironically, protecting Black Isle depended on the same company he tried to protect his team against. “The money problems started more after Brian was gone,” he said.
Interplay’s finances steadily worsened. Two years after the IPO, Fargo had sought additional funding from Paris-based developer Titus Software. Titus invested $25 million in Interplay, then invested $10 million more two months later. Fargo accepted Titus’s money even knowing it made his position more precarious. The terms of their deal gave Titus a controlling interest in Interplay and placed Titus chairman Herve Caen in the role of president.
“We were under tremendous financial pressure,” Fargo admitted. “In the middle of all that, we were shipping products and hustling. We got The Matrix license through Shiny. We had a large Chinese company interested in buying Interplay.”
The company in question was Pacific Century Cyber Works, an information and communications company based in Hong Kong. Fargo had negotiated with PCCW’s executives and put together what he viewed as a good deal that he believes would have saved Interplay. According to Fargo, Titus butted in and pressed for their executives to receive more money per share than shareholders outside the company’s inner circle, causing PCCW to walk away.
Fargo was incensed. He tried to explain that Interplay was unlikely to get a better offer from any American software company or conglomerate. “I'd been working the debt down. At one point we were fifty million in debt, and I'd worked it down to five. Then I had one more investor who was going to come in and invest ten million, and we were going to be debt free for the first time in years, giving us a second chance. That's when Titus said, ‘You know what? We think we can negotiate better terms than you, so we're going to turn down the ten. In fact, we're going to take over the company.’”
By that time, Titus controlled over seventy percent of Interplay. Caen dropped publishing functions and converted the company into a dedicated developer whose games would be published by French studio Vivendi, already owner of Sierra On-Line and Diablo and WarCraft developers Blizzard Entertainment and Blizzard North.
Brian Fargo was burnt out. He had remained chairman and chief executive, but had lost any power to call shots and look out for teams like Black Isle. In January 2002, he resigned. “I said, ‘You don't need to do a hostile takeover. Here are the keys. Good luck. Have at it. I've got to take a break.’ All things are meant to be,” Fargo said. “I don't look back and say, ‘Woulda, shoulda, coulda,’ but I was very close to getting Interplay into safe hands—so close—but it didn't come about. And I'm not saying it was anyone else's fault. Obviously I made mistakes that put us [in that situation], so I don't want to sound like I'm blaming others.”
Caen wasn’t ready to let Fargo walk away so easily. When Fargo gave the reduction in his duties as CEO as his reason for resigning, Interplay and Titus filed a claim with the Securities and Exchange Commission contesting that Fargo had been negligent in those duties for over four months beginning in September 2001. Furthermore, they speculated that he had attempted to poach Interplay employees for his next venture, and had delayed resigning until he could nail down a handsome severance package. Fargo responded by saying he wanted nothing, only to wash his hands of Interplay.
The spat between Fargo and the owners of his former company worsened when Interplay’s executives discovered that its finances were tangled with Fargo’s. Fargo had loaned the company out of his own pocket, and the loan was coming due. Although the two parties negotiated terms, Interplay was still in the red. Titus loaned hundreds of thousands to Interplay over 2002, and sold off Shiny Entertainment for nearly $30 million, the brunt of which went to creditors still waiting to be paid by Interplay.
With Fargo gone, Titus executives were intent on stemming Interplay’s blood flow by any means necessary. They took their pound of flesh from two dead presidents.
Up and Down
Josh Sawyer doesn’t allow himself to develop an inflated sense of self-importance when he lands a big project. Any enthusiasm he displays stem from his desire to deliver a great product for its core audience. He started as a tabletop player and designer, fell in love with The Bard’s Tale the first time he played it, and was floored by the open-ended design of Fallout.
A designer who got his start at Black Isle by designing web pages for Planescape: Torment, Sawyer talked Feargus Urquhart into giving him a shot at design and became one in a cadre of junior designers who built dungeons and wrote dialogue for Icewind Dale. Sawyer’s next project was a major get. BioWare licensed Baldur’s Gate to Interplay, and Sawyer was appointed to lead development of Baldur’s Gate III: The Black Hound.
Sawyer understood that secret projects needed to be kept secret. The problem was that Irvine, California, was a deceptively small place. Black Isle’s developers were always bumping into peers from Blizzard Entertainment and other studios over lunch. To keep their work under wraps, Sawyer suggested they couch their games in codenames coined after former presidents.
“People get really surly about naming things,” he explained. “If you give a project a name that could be a real name, it has a nasty tendency of sticking, so when you get to a point of renaming it, there are people who have become accustomed to that code name. I said, 'Look, why don't we name these projects after something that has nothing to do with games. If I say, 'Oh, yeah, Jefferson is going pretty well, we've just got some problems here and there,’ anyone overhearing won't realize it's a game.”
Internally, Baldur’s Gate III became known as Project Jefferson. Chris Parker looked past the presidential veneer and squirmed at the idea of creating another Baldur’s Gate title. He understood why keeping the title of a best-selling franchise made sense financially, but he and a few others on the team expressed interest in changing up the setting. Sawyer agreed, going so far as to label the name “misleading.” He wanted to change the game’s setting.
More to the point, Baldur’s Gate III would not run on the Infinity Engine. The engine that had rocketed BioWare and Black Isle to fame was showing its age. More problematic, the Infinity Engine was constantly being updated and, consequently, was a mess that Black Isle would have had to spend time retooling. Black Isle’s programmers broke ground on new technology: the Jefferson engine, a 3D powerhouse that would be used within Black Isle and Interplay.
There were other issues. As the publisher of the first two Baldur’s Gate titles and holder of the Dungeons & Dragons license, Interplay only had the right to distribute those games. They would have to maintain a relationship with Wizards of the Coast to use D&D settings such as the Forgotten Realms, and get BioWare’s permission to use characters they had created such as fan-favorite Minsc and his space hamster Boo.
“What I think we would have done, and what I think BioWare would have been amiable to, is I think we would have asked them if we could have cameos for some of their characters in the game. We never actually got far enough to do that, but I suspect we would have done something like that,” Sawyer speculated.
Interplay’s higher-ups shot down the suggestion for a change in setting. The Baldur’s Gate III team kept working.
Several months later, another Black Isle project hit a rather large speed bump. Torn was a roleplaying game set in an original world and created by the team that had made Planescape: Torment. Black Isle’s team designed the game around a modified version of S.P.E.C.I.A.L., Fallout’s custom rules system, and a combat system loosely based on the real-time-with-pause mechanic in Baldur’s Gate and other Infinity Engine titles.
Torn’s team labored over the game for fourteen months before Black Isle pulled back the curtain at E3 2001. Despite some positive impressions, other press outlets noted myriad technical issues in the demo. Those issues were the result of the team’s decision to switch from version 2.3 of Monolith’s LithTech engine to the 3.0 update. The team had just gotten the hang of the older version of the engine’s tools only to have to relearn and recode huge chunks of the game right before the trade show.
Around 9:30 one evening in July 2001, Scott Everts and Torn’s lead character artist were poring over six pages of instructions for integrating a character model into the engine when Urquhart walked up. “Feargus says, ‘What are you guys doing?’” Everts recalled. “We said, ‘We're trying to get this goddamn character to appear in the engine.’ He said, ‘Just go home.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Because I'm going to cancel this game tomorrow.’ We looked at each other and said, ‘Awesome.’”
The downside to no longer having to wrestle with uncooperative technology soon became apparent. Black Isle was hit with its first round of layoffs the very next day, sending five people home without jobs. That afternoon, Urquhart called Josh Sawyer into his office and told him they needed a slam dunk to make up for lost time and resources spent on Torn. That slam dunk would be Icewind Dale II. All the pieces were in place: The Infinity Engine was old, but Black Isle’s designers already knew how to make games for it.
Urquhart gave them four months to start, test, and ship Icewind Dale II. Sawyer declared such a feat impossible. Over the course of a harrowing few months, he cajoled and demanded Urquhart give him more time. Icewind Dale II shipped out to stores ten months later in the summer of 2002.
Mental and physical fatigue had caught up with Black Isle’s team. Astonishingly, their memorable run with the Infinity Engine had lasted only four years. To the developers, it felt at least twice as long. “At first, it was fun because it’s new and exciting, but then the long hours start taking their toll,” Avellone said. “It seemed we’d have a breath to recover, but then release dates started getting more and more compressed because Black Isle was one of the few who could turn over Infinity Engine games fast with the BioWare tech and by changing the content layer. Things got worse when we started losing franchises and losing studios who had been helping us.”
Icewind Dale II’s team immediately picked up where they had left off on Baldur’s Gate III. The troubled project broke any momentum they had managed to build during Icewind Dale’s ten-month sprint. “Jefferson was a two-and-a-half-year project, and it certainly had a lot of problems,” Sawyer admitted. “Arguably I had no business being lead of a project that had brand-new technology, but, oh well. There was a lot of neat stuff on it, but that's how it went down.”
In 2003, Interplay had made its biggest mistake yet. Still drowning in debt, management sold off properties and licenses to recoup costs. When Atari worked out a deal with Wizards of the Coast and Interplay to acquire the Dungeons & Dragons license and the Forgotten Realms setting where Baldur’s Gate was set with it, Project Jefferson’s bid for office ended. “We were working on Baldur’s Gate III, and it was challenging, but it looked really good,” Urquhart said. “It was 3D, and the engine we were making was really cool. We were making something that looked awesome. Then it was, ‘Well, now the game can't be Baldur’s Gate.’ That just takes the wind out of your sails.”
“I thought that Interplay should be doing anything and everything they could to hold on to that license because it had been so successful for them,” said Chris Parker. “And then it was just gone. That was it.”
“We saw a lot of divisions collapse or people get laid off,” added Chris Avellone. “There was a sense of growing uncertainty, but it was hidden from a lot of us, likely to prevent us from looking elsewhere for jobs. The Baldur’s Gate III cancellation was the death knell for me.”
Avellone and Sawyer saw a light at the end of the tunnel. Baldur’s Gate III’s cancellation freed them up to work on Project Van Buren—also known as Fallout 3, a dream game for both designers. The team salvaged the engine they had been building for Jefferson and carried it over to Van Buren. Scott Everts, a veteran artist and map designer on the first two Fallout games, set about recreating maps from the original titles in 3D to give the developers an idea of how a Fallout game running on cutting-edge technology could look.
“It looked pretty faithful to the overall look of the original games, which was really important to us. We wanted to capture that feeling,” Sawyer recalled. “We had a demo area, and we had a lot of mechanics in.”
Black Isle’s developers had learned from BioWare’s example. Scott Greig had built a robust set of tools for the Infinity Engine that made data entry and design relatively painless for artists and designers. They followed suit on their homegrown engine, coding systems for editing characters and items, writing character dialogue, and implementing visual effects. Avellone had been champing at the bit to return to Fallout and was writing quests from a stash of ideas he had saved up since Fallout 2. “Designers would take his ideas and run with them,” continued Sawyer. “They would make these crazy, crazy areas. We were really excited. So many of us had wanted to work on Fallout 3 for years, literally years.”
Feargus Urquhart liked to talk. He was good at it. His way with words had arguably been his greatest tool in his ascent up Interplay’s corporate ladder. Sometimes, though, he just liked to talk. He and a friend in the industry, Lars Brubaker, riffed on the idea of leaving their jobs and starting their own game company.
To Urquhart, the talk was just talk. One day he would start a company. Probably. Likely. But he was content at Black Isle for the moment. Brubaker walked the walk when he left his job and started a studio called Reflexive, later sold to Amazon.
Every time Interplay messed up, the possibility of striking out on his own bubbled back to the top of Urquhart’s mind. “When you were a young person in the industry back in the '90s, everyone just sort of assumed that you would eventually go and start your own studio. It just kind of was a thing. You would just start a studio with ten other people, and that was a whole game company.”
Interplay letting the D&D license go was the last straw for Urquhart. One spring morning in 2003, he went into the office of Gary Dawson, his manager at Interplay, and announced that he would be leaving. Dawson visibly deflated. The money men at Interplay didn’t understand what made Interplay tick, but Dawson knew that Black Isle was the golden goose, and needed Urquhart at its head. Even so, Dawson made no attempt to talk him into staying. What he did do was make Urquhart sign a stack of paperwork: a nondisclosure agreement; an inventions waver stating that Interplay owned any intellectual property of Urquhart’s if he had so much as scribbled down a two-word note on a company napkin; and a non-recruitment form that prevented him from poaching talent from Interplay.
Dawson wanted him to work another few months until they could find someone to replace him, and Urquhart agreed. A few days later, he got a call from another friend, Phil Adam, while he was at lunch. Adam had been president of Spectrum Holobyte before joining Interplay in 1996. When Adam asked if Urquhart was around, Urquhart told him he’d be back in twenty minutes. When he returned, Adam informed him that he had to pack his things and leave the building.
The next day, Urquhart received another call from Interplay management. They wanted him to sit at home until his contract expired and he could be formally released. When Urquhart asked how long that might be, the executive admitted he had no idea. Urquhart said he needed to think about it and hung up.
He went to his wife and ran an idea by her. What if he followed through on resigning from Interplay and started his own company? “I was talking with my wife, who was pregnant, so of course she thought this was a wonderful idea. Talking in the house we'd just bought two years earlier, by the way.”
By the early summer, Urquhart was gone. The remnants of Black Isle’s team, loyalists like Sawyer and Everts who had been around for years, had seen the writing on the wall. Icewind Dale 2’s release had been a bright patch in a dark year of layoffs, voluntary departures, empty offices, and bonehead moves by upper management such as losing licenses and cancelling promising projects. Now the wall between them and Interplay’s interference had come down.
“When Feargus left Interplay, it got a little weird. Well, really weird,” Everts said. “There was this in-fighting between the console group and the PC group. We didn't gel well together. Without him there to buffer us from all these issues, we started getting hit by these problems.”
Urquhart took a few moments to reflect. Life had moved so fast since 1996, from joining the Fallout team and heading up Black Isle Studios to shipping Infinity Engine RPGs to butting heads with management. Seven years of constant noise and motion, like a train hurtling forward at one hundred miles per hour—and suddenly, the train had stopped. Life was quiet. Empty.
He caught his breath and picked up the phone. It was time to build something new.
“I think this happens in any big organization, anything you build yourself,” Urquhart said of the end of his run at Interplay. “Eventually you leave, or you die. One of those two things. It's like anything in life.”