Too often, the voices of developers most critical to a game's success go unheard. David L. Craddock's Dialogue Box puts designers, artists, programmers, musicians, producers, QA testers, and other developers front and center, giving readers firsthand accounts of how classic video games were—and still are—made.
With every book I write about video games, I look for angles that have never been explored, or haven't been fully explored, and I try to shake up the structure so information is presented in a way that best serves the information. Oral histories are one of my favorite methods of delivery: unfiltered, straight from the mouths of programmers, artists, writers, musicians, producers, and other developers. – David L. Craddock
"The scale of this is amazing. Holy shit, seven months of interviews, and it just shows everywhere."– 2018 Kunkel Awards Nominee: Excellence in Feature Writing
"The master of all things documenting video games."– Shacknews Reader
Author's Note: World on Fire is a single chapter in Beneath a Starless Sky: Pillars of Eternity and the Infinity Engine Era of RPGs, a long read originally published on Shacknews in 2018.
WAR. WAR NEVER changes. Neither do the fundamentals of game development.
In March 2015, Obsidian released Pillars of Eternity as a love letter to the lineage of Infinity Engine roleplaying games of the late '90s and early 2000s. Technically, Fallout and its sequel do not belong in that lineage, but the post-apocalyptic franchise's influence on Baldur's Gate and its ilk is inarguable. Many developers who worked on Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale, and Pillars of Eternity had worked on Fallout and Fallout 2 first, bringing what they learned to bear on those later projects.
That makes the Fallout games distant relations of the Infinity Engine RPGs, and worthy of closer examination. What follows is an oral history straight from the mouths of several of the pioneers who entered a veritable wasteland of computer RPG (CRPG) development and made that fallow ground fertile once again.
By Gamers, For Gamers
Brian Fargo founded Interplay Productions on the foundation of a simple yet powerful creed: That the people he hired should be as passionate about making games as they were about playing them.
Background, experience, accolades—none of those mattered in Interplay's early, most humble days. Fargo created a workplace that blurred the line between office and home. Anyone who wasn't writing code or pushing pixels could be found holed up in an office or in an open area playing a board game. Interplay's culture was a siren's song answered by developers who, like Fargo, were eager to make their mark.
BRIAN FARGO [founder of Interplay Productions]
When I was in junior high school, they had a mainframe computer. People talk about the cloud now, but everything was in "the cloud" back then. You just had a dumb terminal talking to a mainframe. I was fascinated by computers even though there wasn't much in terms of games. The coin-op business had just gotten to the point where games like Pong and Space Invaders were emerging, and it was those games that first got me interested.
Then my parents got me an Apple II in high school, and that really opened my eyes to how you can make games, how I could go beyond just playing them. I played a lot of the older titles. I remember there were some old strategy titles where you would make a move and the computer would take two to three hours to process its turn. You'd go crazy when a game crashed halfway through because that meant you just lost three days of playing.
So I really discovered games through those means. I always had a background in reading a lot of fiction: comics, Heavy Metal magazine. Playing Dungeons & Dragons was a big part of high school for me. But the thing that I think led me to create games, which I think most people would give the same answer to, was, I looked at what was out there and thought, You know, I could do better. That's what sent me down my course.
CHRIS TAYLOR [designer at Interplay, lead designer on Fallout]
I met some people working at Egghead Software who played Dungeons & Dragons. I was looking for a roleplaying game, so I hooked up with them to play. One of the players worked for Interplay. After a few months, he told me they had a job opening, so I went down and applied.
One of my high school buddies was Michael Cranford. His parents wouldn't get him a computer, so he used to borrow mine. We made this little adventure game. I'd give him the computer over the weekend, he'd write code for a section, then he'd give it back and I'd try to finish his section and do my part, then he'd go through mine. We'd go back and forth. We did this all summer. We made this little game called the Labyrinth of Martagon. We actually put it in some baggies and probably sold five copies. That would be a very obscure, technically speaking, first game. But one that really got into distribution would be The Demon's Forge.
I was a big fan of adventure games. I loved all the [adventure games developed by] Scott Adams, all the Sierra adventures. I also liked Ultima and Wizardry, but from a coding perspective I wasn't strong enough to do that stuff, but I thought I could do an adventure game. It was a category I liked, and I liked medieval settings. As far as attracting attention, I had a budget of $5,000 for everything. My one ad in Soft Talk [magazine] cost me about 2,500 bucks, so 50 percent of my money went into a single ad.
One of the things I did was I would call retailers on a different phone and say, "Hey, I'm trying to find this game called Demon's Forge. Do you guys have a copy?" They said, "No," and I said, "Oh, I just saw it in Soft Talk. It looks good. They said, "We'll look into it." A few minutes later my other line would ring and the retailer would place an order. That was my guerrilla marketing. I was selling to individual chains of stores. There were two distributors at the time that would help you get into the mom-and-pop places. It was a store-by-store, shelf-by-shelf fight.
I interviewed well, I guess—well enough—and I beat out one other guy because I had a pickup truck, and they needed someone to take packages and stuff like that. So, I got the job because of my pickup truck and my love for D&D. I started in customer service and technical support.
There were some Stanford graduates who wanted to get into the video game industry, and they bought my company [Saber Software]. They paid off my debt and I made a few bucks, nothing much to brag about. They made me the vice president and I started doing work for them. It became one of those things where there were too many chiefs and not enough Indians, and I was doing all the work. I was with them for about a year when I quit and started Interplay in order to do things my way. I'd gotten used to running development, so that seemed like the next natural step.
With Interplay, I wanted to take [development] beyond one- or two-man teams. 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. Even with Demon's Forge, I had my buddy Michael 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."
FEARGUS URQUHART [producer at Interplay Productions, co-founder of Obsidian Entertainment]
Eric DeMilt and I went to high school together. We met when we were freshmen. It turned out Eric was a computer gamer. He had a Commodore 64, like I did, and he would play roleplaying games and stuff like that, but he wasn't as much of what we'd call the hot RPG scene of Tustin High in 1984. I mean, you know... girls. Yes.
ERIC DeMILT [producer at Interplay Productions and Obsidian Entertainment]
Feargus and I met in 1984, so I've known him for thirty-four years. I've known one of our testers here [at Obsidian] since the first grade, and my first memory of him involves Doug [QA tester at Obsidian] and a guy in a Darth Vader silverware. Anyway.
Feargus and I would write and read comic books, play games together. I think the first PC game I ever got super hooked on was a game called Wasteland which, as it turned out, was developed by Interplay Productions. Fast forward a few years, and Feargus was at University of California, Riverside, I think, and was coming back on holidays and weekends. We were still friends, and he'd gotten a job through another high school friend of ours at Interplay Productions as a tester.
I'm like, "Seriously? They'll pay you to test games?" It was super-nerdy stuff. They had the Lord of the Rings license. They were doing Battle Chess [games]. They had the Star Trek: 25th Anniversary license at the time, so it was nerd heaven for me. I said, "Dude, get me a job." That was in '92 or so.
I met a lot of people who I still know to this day and hang out with: Chris Taylor, who ended up being lead designer on Fallout; Chris Benson, who runs our IT here at Obsidian. I got a job at Interplay through Chris Taylor as a tester. Chris, Eric, and my other friend, Steve, were like, "We want to be testers." They needed testers, so I said, "Hey, these two guys are looking for jobs." They said they needed more people, so they got hired. I think that was in '92, which was the second year I was a tester.
I had a lot of diverse friends. I was big into track and field, I played football, so I had those friends, then I had friends from the chess club, the programming club, and a Dungeons & Dragons club. Michael [Cranford] was from that side. I always thought he was a pretty bright guy and one of the better dungeon masters. We played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons. We always tried to focus on setting up dungeons that would test people's character as opposed to just making them fight bigger and [tougher] monsters. We'd do things like separate the party and have one half just getting slaughtered by a bunch of vampires and see who would jump in to help them. But it wasn't really happening. It was all an illusion, but we'd test them.
I always got a kick out of the more mental side of things, and Michael was a pretty decent artist, a pretty good writer. He was my Dungeons & Dragons buddy, but then he went off to Berkeley, and I started [Interplay]. He did a product for Human Engineering Software, but then I said, "Hey, let's do a Dungeons & Dragons-style title together. Wouldn't that be great?" That's really how the game came about. He moved back down to Southern California, and I think we actually started when he was still up north. But then we worked on Bard's Tale together, kind of bringing back the Dungeons & Dragons experiences we both enjoyed in high school.
I started part-time as a tester, testing Game Boy games and PC games. The industry was in its infancy. The company that would go on to become Blizzard was a sub-contractor of Interplay's [called Silicon & Synapse]. I would come in, and there'd be a build of some random game on a PC with a sheet of paper telling me what to do. I'd break the game and leave a sheet of paper with notes for my boss, who I'd see once or twice a week.
It was the wild west.
SCOTT EVERTS [technical designer at Interplay Productions and Obsidian Entertainment]
I originally wanted to get into the TV-and-movie-effects field. I went to Cal State Fullerton and got a degree in radio, TV, and film, with a focus on film. I did a little bit of Hollywood stuff. I was a production intern on MacGyver during Season 6, and [almost] got a job as a production assistant on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 4. I was the third choice out of two. That was in 1991. I had a bunch of friends who worked at Interplay Productions. I worked at a software store and was [almost ready to] graduate. I said, "I don't want to work in software. I want to find something else."
A friend of mine said, "We're doing a Star Trek computer game. Do you want to come and play-test it?" I said, "Okay!" I went over, and I knew about half a dozen people who worked at Interplay, and there were only forty or so people there. I used to play D&D with them and video games with them; we had our little group. I went over there as a QA guy and worked on Star Trek: 25th Anniversary. CD-ROM was becoming a thing, so we did a CD-ROM version, and they needed a designer to flesh out some scenarios.
ROB NESLER [art director, Interplay Productions and Obsidian Entertainment]
When I was fourteen or fifteen, for some reason I had a Popular Science magazine with an article about home computers. I must have read that article a dozen times, dreaming about computers. They had little screenshots of games, and that started me on my way. From then on, I thought, I want to be able to draw on a computer.
I got a TRS-80 model three a year or so later, which had pixels the size of corn kernels. I immediately tried to figure out how to program on it with the goal of drawing lines and circles, making houses, spaceships, dragons.
TIM CAIN [lead programmer on Fallout, co-game director at Obsidian Entertainment]
I started playing Dungeons & Dragons when I was fourteen. My mom actually got me into it. She worked at an office in D.C. with a bunch of Navy admirals and stuff. A few of the "boys" played Dungeons & Dragons, so we went over to their house one weekend and played it, and I really got into it. She had five kids; I was the youngest. When we turned sixteen, she would give us a few hundred dollars and say, "You can buy whatever you want." I bought an Atari 800 and taught myself how to code. I got a job at a game company that was making a bridge game for Electronic Arts when I was sixteen. That's how I got into games, but I really wanted to make RPGs.
Some of my friends had an Apple II. I thought it was really amazing. The Atari 400 and 800 had way better graphics. They were way better than the Apple II, and they were also way better than PCs at the time. Part of the reason I got my job at that game company was because I knew all the graphics modes, especially all of these undocumented, special graphics modes called the Plus Threes: if you added +3 to a graphics mode, it would [display] without a text window at the bottom. This company was making games for a cable company, and they needed an art tool written. Their resolution was too high for a PC at the time, but an Atari 800 could just do it. None of their programmers knew it.
I found the original design document for Bard's Tale, and it wasn't even called Bard's Tale. It was called Shadow Snare. The direction wasn't different, but maybe the bard ended up getting tuned up a bit. One of the people there who has gone on to great success, Bing Gordon, was our marketing guy on that. He very much jumped on the bard [character] aspect of it.
At the time, the gold standard was Wizardry for that type of game. There was Ultima, but that was a different experience, a top-down view, and not really as party based. Sir-Tech was kind of saying, "Who needs color? Who needs music? Who needs sound effects?" But my attitude was, "We want to find a way to use all those things. What better than to have a main character who uses music as part of who he is?"5
LEONARD BOYARSKY [art director on Fallout, co-game director at Obsidian Entertainment]
I think when you're five years old, everyone loves to draw. Most people give it up. I never did.
I moved from QA to design and helped on the CD-ROM version. It had a short scenario at the end that we expanded. I did some production work [after that]. I worked on Star Trek: Academy, and several [products] that never got finished. We were going to do Star Trek: Battle Chess, just Battle Chess with a Star Trek theme. That one got cancelled because it was really expensive; the artwork was costing a lot of money.
We were also going to do a Stark Trek chess game with a 3D chess board, but we didn't do it because no one could figure out how to play it. There were no rules for it. It was just a visual thing for TV shows. Some fans made rules, and we found out it was impossible to play. I know there are real rules now, but at the time we decided [to table it].
I had this crazy idea that I was going to be an artist, and I never wavered from that. I pursued that all through school, and then I was having trouble getting work as a freelance illustrator at the time. That's how I found my way into the videogame industry. I was just looking for work until my illustration career took off. It didn't quite work out.
A bunch of people I went to school with were a semester ahead of me, and they were all hired by Buena Vista Software, which was a new division that Disney was starting to try and do something a little different. I was having trouble getting work, I called one of my friends who had that job and said, "Are there any jobs there?" Basically, they were freelance, but they were freelance directly for [Disney]. But there was this other project they were doing through Quicksilver Software that they hired me to work on, because I went up and I showed the art director my portfolio. I had only ever worked on Macs before, except for a basic class I'd taken in high school. So, I had no idea how to do anything on PC at that point.
That project lasted about two and a half months, I think, before it got cancelled.
One of the programmers they'd hired was a friend of mine who was three years older and had already graduated high school. He gave them my name. I just came in for an afternoon, and this was before I had a driver's license. I think my mother had to drive me out there. In a two-hour session I coded up a basic framework for the art tool they needed. You used a joystick that you plugged into the front of the Atari 800. They had an artist come in, and he said, "Yeah, I can use this, but there are a whole bunch of other features I need." I said, "Well, I can't do that right now." They asked me if I could start working after school. I did that two or three days a week. I'd do that two or three days a week, and then I'd drive there. I'd drive along the Beltway, which was crazy. My junior and senior year, two or three days a week, I'd drive out there after school.
The bridge game paid for college. I was in Virginia, and I came out here to California to go to graduate school. A few years into that, I didn't like it. I sent my resume out, and Interplay was literally three or four miles away. They were making the Bard's Tale Construction Set. I found out later that [the job was between] me and someone else, and I got the job because I had worked on a game before, and because I knew the Dungeons & Dragons rules. The questions came down to, they asked us both what THAC0 was, and the other programmer didn't know.
Some years later, I graduated high school and went into college as a graphic design major, thinking I would be able to do some illustrations on computers there. The school did not have any, so I found a program outside of the school to learn how to make art on a computer. They had some Apple Macintosh IIs, which had 19-inch displays and 256 colors. That's when I started to make art. It was graphic design, but the computer did have a 3D program that I got to play with. I built some spaceships in 3D.
From there I got a job working for an ad agency but didn't really enjoy doing logos and ads for perfumes, lady's shoes, and stuff like that, so I got a job working for CompUSA. I worked in the software department selling software. On the backs of game [boxes] in those days, the late '80s, all the publishers put their addresses on the backs of boxes. The publishers were often the developers, and I just started sending artwork to whoever would open up the envelope.
Eventually somebody at Interplay got my work. It was color bitmaps of space scenes, of robot tanks fighting, of warriors riding winged beasts, that kind of stuff. I think I had a vampire in there as well. That was all it took back then.
Buena Vista had another project on the line, which was called Unnatural Selection. We ended up cutting out claymation dinosaurs, or stop-motion, clay dinosaurs out of backgrounds. It was a really cool little project. I ended up working with one other guy on it. I'd just go to this guy's house in L.A., and we'd work in a little studio he had there.
After that was done, the thing I missed was that when I was working for Quicksilver, most of the stuff they did was for Interplay, but for some reason they had this other project that I got put on that they were doing for Buena Vista. So, through them, I had a couple of interactions with the art director at Interplay. I called him up when I couldn't find work after Unnatural Selection.
When I got hired at Interplay, I was working under the direction of Rob Nesler, who's the art director at Obsidian now. I did a month's work of work in a week, I think, so he started giving me different things to do. Eventually, I worked my way up from being a grunt artist to being a lead artist on Stonekeep. That morphed into being the art director on Fallout.