In 1981, a young Brian Fargo created and released a small, graphic adventure game called The Demon’s Forge. He was an indie in the truest sense of the word as many legendary developers were back in those early pioneering years such as Richard Garriott and his Akalabeth sold in ziplock baggies over the counter in 1979, or Roberta and Ken Williams with The Wizard and the Princess in 1980 which was also sold in mostly the same way. And it was from these small, starting steps that designers like these would go on to forge legends.
In 1983, he founded Interplay Productions and later landed a contract with an equally pioneering company, Activision, for a graphic adventure called Mindshadow. It was also the midst of the the “Great Video Game Crash” that rocked the console world in the West to its core, toppling giants like Atari who had held the gaming globe in its hands as undisputed masters of their domain.
But the early 80s were also an exciting time for the computer revolution that was in full swing with names like Apple and IBM vying for domination using the latest in affordable tech.
It was a time when movies like WarGames thrilled audiences with the imagined potential and dangers of these, to many people, magic devices and where magazines with programs listed in their pages taught readers how to make their PCs do things other than turn on. The console world and its cartridges were sent out to pasture. But computers opened up a whole new world in terms of productivity, industry, and of course, for gaming. In 1977, it was an Apple II computer that opened those doors for Fargo, pushing him into the 80s with Interplay and his hunger for cRPGs.
Adventure games were in their infancy in the early 80s, especially those of the graphic variety, but it was games like Mindshadow and The Tracer Sanction (contracted to Interplay by Activision) that enabled the company to make a name for itself much like how the Williams’ own company, On-Line, would later become the famous adventure powerhouse, Sierra On-Line. In 1985, The Bard’s Tale was born and published by a fledgling Electronic Arts who would later become a worldwide empire.
The Bard’s Tale was a cRPG that utilized a number of innovative approaches at the time. First-person dungeons weren’t really a new concept, but The Bard’s Tale utilized the graphics capabilities of the Apple II and the Commodore 64 to create dungeons with color, monster portraits that leered at the player, and text descriptions of your party’s actions.
It was largely a hack ‘n slash game with a simple plot, but the dungeons were the true stars with devious spinner traps, vast layouts, and plenty of monsters and loot to seize the day with. It had mages, sure, but it also had a Bard whose magic was in his voice (he didn’t speak, but the game could play simple tunes) lending buffs to the party. It would be the first chapter in a trio of games, each better than the last, and iconic titles in their own right as part of the adventure to make PCs a viable dungeon master.
Although other adventure games would follow later liked Borrowed Time in 1985 and Tass Times in Tonetown in ’86, Fargo was still itching to take RPGs where they hadn’t been before. In 1988, Interplay created Wasteland, a post-apocalyptic RPG with a sophisticated system behind its characters that made them a bit more than party members to be abused.
Wasteland wasn’t first-person like The Bard’s Tale, but it was also a lot more complex in other ways from its skill system, NPC and environmental interactions, and quests offered. There had been other post-apoc games before, but Wasteland seemed to bring all of the elements together in a package that made it immediately accessible as well as immersive at the same time.
Up until 1988, however, Interplay had always been contracted by others to work on games or had to work with publishers to get their own games out into stores. By doing so, even though the games could be critical successes, the company publishing or to whom they were contracted do would always receive a cut of the profits. What Interplay and Fargo wanted to do was make themselves independent so that all of the royalties would be theirs to keep. It wasn’t a decision made from simple greed — Interplay wanted to go big and for that, they needed more control over their destiny as a developer.
But to establish themselves as independents, they needed games to do it with. That’s where two games came into the picture. One was Battlechess, a clever re-imaging of the classic game of chess, only with pieces that actually acted what they would do on the board. And then there was Neuromancer.
With Neuromancer, an adventure/RPG adaptation of William Gibson’s cyberpunk novel of the same name, Interplay would push ahead with its own independence and handle development, publishing, marketing…all of the things that companies like Electronic Arts and Activision had been doing. Only now, it would be on their own terms.
Neuromancer, in particular, demonstrated how creative Interplay could be. The game appeared to be a point ‘n click adventure game with the area of Chiba City your playground complete with characters, places, and things to do and puzzle through.
But it also had RPG elements to it. Weapons and armor were replaced with software versions and cyberwear. If you needed money for upgrades, you could even risk selling your own organs. It borrowed quotes from the novel for its own inspired take on the story, described things that the admittedly limited graphics of the time could only hint at with text, and brought the mysteries of cyberspace to players eager to crack some ICE and dig up secrets buried by the corporate masters of the world.
Interplay even considered themselves cyberpunks, inspired by Gibson’s work and excited for the future. One of the developers for the game, Troy Miles, even had a cyberpunkish nickname as related in a feature on the game by The Games Machine in their October, 1988, issue. He was “Modern Miles” around the office, though sadly the article doesn’t say if anyone else had creative nicknames.
With both of these games behind them, and adding to their success, Interplay was well on its way to fulfilling its dream as an independent powerhouse. Other games would line up in the following years such as Dragon Wars in 1989, Star Trek: 25th Anniversary in 1991, The Lost Vikings in 1992, and Stonekeep in 1995. As a publisher, they would also be responsible for titles such as Parallax Software’s Descent in 1995.
Interplay seemed to be on top of the world, but the gaming world was changing. It would be rocked, and rocked hard, by an event around the same time that Interplay declared its independence. An event called the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Almost single-handedly, Nintendo’s arrival to the West in the United States would eventually resurrect the console market, surreptitiously sneaking onto shelves as an “entertainment system” and not a “video game system” though that’s what it exactly was. With a redesigned case, new name, and marketing campaign, Nintendo would herald a storm of competition from the likes of Sega and NEC all eager to ride the tidal wave of console gaming back into everyone’s living room.
PC game developers would also see what was coming and attempt to put their foot in the door with ports of once PC-exclusive titles from Ultima III to SSI’s Pools of Radiance cRPG. Interplay’s The Bard’s Tale would even find its way to the NES thanks to FCI in 1991. Yet Interplay (and other PC-centric developers) were slow to pivot over to the new reality which was further muddied in the 90s with the dawn of hit games like id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D and Doom heralding the coming 3D revolution.
Should Interplay stay focused on PCs? Can it even leverage itself into the lucrative world of console gaming dominated by names like Capcom, Sega, Konami, Nintendo, and Squaresoft? The answer would prove to be more difficult to answer than Interplay could have anticipated.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. Interplay attempted to break into the console world with a number of games from Clay Fighter to Shiny Entertainment’s Earthworm Jim. But their library in the 90s largely consisted of a strong concentration of PC games and the standouts were few and far between on consoles. But the reasons for sticking with PC development for as much as they did were still clear even in the early 90s.
PCs had become even more viable as complex gaming systems in their own right and with the rising interest in graphics adapters, sound cards, and other performance enhancing add-ons, the experiences they could deliver would always be several steps ahead of the console market. Yet having the technology and knowing what to do with it is a riddle that not every company has had the good fortune to figure out. Even on the PC front, they were challenged by the rise in 3D gaming and the FPS genre with huge titles such as 3D Realms’ Duke Nukem 3D, id Software’s Quake series, and Lucasarts’ Dark Forces/Jedi Knight titles making huge splashes with PC audiences. While everyone was busy blasting their way through 3D worlds, Interplay had to content itself with only a few titles like Descent that catered to the exploding audience for the FPS genre.
Troubled productions such as Star Trek: Secret of Vulcan Fury which was ultimately canceled in the early 90s due to a variety of factors, the lengthy and incredibly ambitious development of Stonekeep, and Interplay’s reputed money troubles in the 90s would ultimately mark the decade as another turning point in the company’s history. It needed to find a way to raise cash, and quickly, while it still had the strength to do so as a major publisher and development studio. The answer would be on Wall Street.
In June of ’98, Interplay completed its IPO in the hopes of raising cash to help pay off debt and fund further projects with a $72 million cash infusion. It also started the company on the road to ruin. Initially, the idea was a sound one – inject money into their ailing finances and create great games. But it also opened the door for outside investors to peek in at how the company was doing and buy it up, share by share.
Interplay had been privately owned before its IPO, and there are also rules in place that demand a company declare one if it reaches a certain size. But it’s also a huge deal for a company eager to expand by bringing in a lot of investment dollars and not unusual for one to launch and IPO for itself to do just that.
The problem was not all of the games that Interplay put out experienced the same kind of commercial success that The Bard’s Tale, Battlechess, or published titles such as Shiny’s MDK and Earthworm Jim delivered. Those often seemed to be the exceptions rather than the rule. Freespace 2, despite its critical success (and which is also one of my all-time favorite sci-fi sims), barely made it past 80k units sold in ’99 thanks to a softening space-sim market, for example. Even with the wild success of BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate in 1998, it was only one studio.
Their attempts to break into the console market was made incredibly difficult by competition from established names that were already there and had tapped deeply into what their audiences wanted.
Internally, there was little else outside of their traditional CRPG offerings such as Black Isle’s Planescape. Missing out on the first wave of consoles would force them to struggle in trying to find a place in the changing market as their PC sales began to lag and became a focus of Fargo’s attempts to steer the company into the new normal that everyone wanted a piece of.
Opening itself up to Wall Street would also force it to air all of its dirty laundry such as the revelation of just how badly the then 500+ employee company was losing money each quarter. It would also make it vulnerable to other threats outside of gaming, namely a slow takeover by Titus Software over in France.
Titus had a few published hits but their catalog also creaked beneath the weight of more than a few of the industry’s worst such as Superman 64. Yet their healthy coffers allowed them to throw millions at Interplay’s stock. They also had access to the console market, something which Interplay had been trying to find its way through without much success.
Titus would go on to buy a controlling stake in Interplay by injecting millions into the company via its stock in ’98 and ’99 when it purchased enough to make Herve Caen President with Fargo staying onboard as CEO. By 2001, Titus had enough of a controlling interest, and stockholder approval, to own the once-independent developer making Caen CEO. Later, Fargo would ultimately leave the company he had founded nearly two decades ago and with which had brought Bard’s Tale, Battlechess, and Neuromancer magic to PC screens everywhere and start fresh with inXile Entertainment.
Titus’ handling of Interplay has often been cited as one of the reasons the company continued to spiral downward despite brutal cost cutting measures that involved the sale of studios like Shiny Entertainment. Black Isle, the cRPG division inside Interplay that went on to create titles such as Fallout, Fallout 2, and Planescape: Torment, also started to feel the nervous energy inside the company in the late 90s that would lead several of its own developers to leave the company and strike out on their own forming Troika Games in 1998. Black Isle ultimately shuttered in 2003.
Things continued to be challenging for the once-legendary developer turned publisher turned developer under another publisher. Even with the wild success in publishing BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate, it continued to struggle to find firm financial footing in the following months. Interplay was cited as a reason for Titus’ own stock hitting the skids after more than half of its value disappeared by 2001 and both companies continued to bleed money.
A year later in 2002, Interplay was de-listed from NASDAQ for failing to keep its stock above the traditional bottom of $1 for 180 days following an initial warning. Titus would collapse in 2004 and almost at the same time, Interplay would close its own doors. Employees would sue for months of unpaid wages and so it seemed to be another messy end of another venerable studio.
But Interplay would somehow return and, though Caen had sold off a number of IP assets to others including Fallout to Bethesda, kept the rights to a Fallout MMO which existed as vaporware for years with the occasional bone thrown to the public to show that they had been working on it. That would eventually get them into hot water with Bethesda a few years later who would finally wrest the last part of that trade from Interplay in early 2012.
Interplay is still around, but it’s far from the visionary company that it once was more than a decade ago. Looking at it now, it’s hard to believe that this was the ambitious studio that thundered across dungeons and chess boards in the late 80s and early 90s. Many of those from the ad above with everyone sitting poolside have long moved on.
BioWare’s Zeschuk and Muzyka went to with EA with their teams after having earned a respectable reputation in RPGs. Today, BioWare now has its own MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic with both Zeschuk and Muzyka having “retired” from the gaming scene to concentrate on life outside of the dungeons and adventures that had marked a generation of players.
Feargus Urquhart had left Interplay when the signs were becoming more clear that things weren’t changing for the better. He was the head of Black Isle, Interplay’s CRPG house and which was responsible for hits such as the iconic Planescape, and went on to found Obsidian Entertainment which is still around doing what it does best with RPGs. Toby Gard, godfather of Tomb Raider, has gone on to become a game consultant and comics writer.
David Perry has moved on from Shiny Entertainment to be the man behind Gaikai, a cloud gaming service making waves in the industry. And the rest have gone to other jobs in the industry as well as a few indie projects. Alan Pavlish, for example, has recently teamed up with Fargo and his crew to build Wasteland 2 after a successful Kickstarter. Others may have simply left to pursue something else.
And as for Brian Fargo, the company’s founder and decades-long developer, as noted earlier, after leaving Interplay he set up shop at his new studio, inXile, doing what he does best — making games. Wasteland 2 was released with great fanfare (I was also a backer) and turned out to be the sequel many Wasteland fans had hoped for, paving the way for more projects such as an adaptation of Monty Cooke’s Numenera.
Interplay was a company that had at its fingertips some of the industry’s best and brightest, many of whom managed to land on their feet, finding further success after the party was over. The studios were willing, the developers ready, and Interplay was an undisputed bard of tall tales and adventures aplenty during its halcyon years. But by 1999, the world had changed and Interplay was still trying its best to change with it.
In 2016, at the beginning of September, Interplay announced that it was selling its massive catalog of IP — a stable that includes iconic titles like Battlechess, Descent, Freespace, and Earthworm Jim. Eric Caen, the current president of what is left of Interplay, implied that Interplay’s catalog would find new life with those who can make the best of use of these famous names.
Edit (10.3.2016): Significantly added more info, proofreading, and history to this entry. It really needed reworking. Also added the news on Interplay selling its IP catalog.