If there's a cautionary tale of late, the kind of story parents tell their children so they won't grow up to be game designers, it's the saga of Black Isle Studios. With no shortage of blame to be turned on Interplay's legendary mismanagement, the lamentations of BIS have been lavishly wept across the gaming spectrum and mostly deserved. But, and please forgive me for suggesting the blasphemous, it seems a bit naive to assume this end was either sudden or even avoidable. Black Isle may have been scraping along for the past year or two, but it was no healthier than Atari during its dark Jaguar days, and barely a shadow of its once dominant self.The series of casualties on PC gaming's once elite developers is a disturbing enough trend on its own. Many would put Black Isle's tombstone on the hallowed ground next to the likes of Looking Glass Studios, but perhaps some of our nostalgia for past successes has clouded the unavoidable issue that Black Isle Studios has been sorely lacking a solid critical or commercial hit of late. Which leads me to a statement that some might find a little shocking and others openly offensive, that being: I'm relieved that Fallout 3 isn't going to be finished?
This is not at all to say that I take pleasure or satisfaction in the jobs and livelihoods lost. Nor, that I wouldn't have wanted to see another Black Isle game, particularly one in the tradition of their best. And, I've no doubt that a great many talented people were pouring themselves into Fallout 3 with a fiery passion that I couldn't summon with incantations and a bulk supply of Viagra. But, even in the best of circumstances, without the benefit of former Fallout designers Feargus Urquhart or Tim Cain, both now departed from BIS, I'd be skeptical about the results, and these were far from the best of circumstances. Black Isle has been a sinking ship for months, if not years, certainly suffering from Urquhart's departure in early 2003, but possibly never recovering from events as far back as November 2001 when the company found itself partnered with BioWare to develop the next big CRPG.
Black Isle Studios certainly laid their own foundation of success with the Fallout franchise, but it was their association with BioWare that briefly put them in the highest echelon of production studios. Their mutual resurrection of the virtually dead CRPG genre with the sudden and surprising success of Baldur's Gate vaulted both companies to the forefront of PC gaming. Following with sequels, expansions, and Black Isle's own success with Icewind Dale, the closely tied companies looked to continue their shared success in the release of Neverwinter Nights.
If one can point a finger at the defining moment when the foundation of Black Isle Studios first cracked beyond repair, it was probably November 29, 2001 when BioWare severed their associations with Interplay. On the heels of one lawsuit accusing Interplay of sublicensing distribution of their games without approval, and another, teamed with Decent developer Parallax, of failing to pay royalties, BioWare was forced to take dramatic measures. Understandably dissatisfied and furstrated with the hapless publisher, BioWare ended its contract with Interplay. On their way out, BioWare took the Neverwinter franchise and, as would later become apparent, the rights to publish Dungeons and Dragons brand games with them.
Time has proved the departure a good move for BioWare, as time has proved many Interplay evacuations a smart decision. Despite some troubling delays, Neverwinter Nights went on to win numerous awards and sell millions of copies worldwide. Followed by the equally successful Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare has more than maintained its dominant position in the industry. Able to separate itself from Interplay, BioWare did what Black Isle could not. It managed its own destiny.
Black Isle Studios, however, found itself floundering in the deep waters suddenly adrift and directionless, its blockbuster project lost. The company quickly became a PC development house locked onto an increasingly console minded and financially unsteady publisher. It was not the first sign that the company had lived most of its life on the thin ice, it wouldn't be the last, but it may have been the most significant.
It's noteworthy that the story of Black Isle Studios is primarily told through the context of the resources that were taken away from it. The fall of Black Isle is a product of the constant forces that pulled talent, franchises, and creativity away from the company, a trend in which the loss of Neverwinter Nights is only one example. Let's speak of Troika games for a moment, an unassuming development house that has quietly released two outstanding role playing games. Arcanum, its first release, was a quirky tale of the conflict between magic and technology. Set upon a world in the throes of an industrial revolution, it blended a familiar reality with fantasy elements. It was a deep and involving game met with critical success. Temple of Elemental Evil is not quite so easy to praise, though I think it ultimately deserves a good heaping of it. A buggy game, but one that satisfies the D&D itch through a classic module.
A quick look through Troika's team reveals that many of its employees come from BIS and/or the team behind Fallout and Fallout 2. Founded by Tim Cain, Leonard Boyarsky, and Jason Anderson, Troika is the result of the first mass exodus from Black Isle Studios following the success of Fallout 1. The second exodus came early last year when Feargus Urquhart left with 17 Black Isle employees to found Obsidian Entertainment.
Black Isle is left as a development and production house married to an unsteady publisher ever flirting with bankruptcy, staffed with the remnants of Tim Cain's and, more notably, Feargus Urquhart's evacuation, beginning work on a sequel to arguably two of the best role-playing games ever produced. To complicate matters, one certainly must question how much enthusiasm publisher Interplay shared in Black Isle's pet project. With its focus squarely turned to action console titles, Interplay was more interested in doing with the Fallout franchise as they had done with Baldur's Gate in Dark Alliance. With the announcement of Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, a game to be developed in-house at Interplay without Black Isle, it was clear which direction the money was flowing, as it was also clear that support for the primarily PC developer was tragically waning. Things would only get worse for BIS and Fallout 3 with 2003's slow burn.
The year started poorly enough with Urquhart's departure, but following a dispute with Wizards of the Coast over the Dungeons and Dragons license, BIS suddenly stopped production on its next Forgotten Realms game codenamed Jefferson. The demise of Jefferson - rumored to be Baldur's Gate 3, though that rumor remains officially denied leaves the impression that Black Isle was hemorrhaging money, employees, and now projects. Jefferson became the third member in an inauspicious triumvirate of canned games for Black Isle. Sharing a place with Stonekeep 2 and TORN, Jefferson was just another casualty for a development house that's never truly been on steady ground.
Black Isle ended the summer with one remaining chance for redemption. Lionheart, developled by Reflexive Entertainment and produced by Black Isle Studios needed to be a saving grace that would invest Black Isle with both cash and a new credibility. It was, instead, met with sharp criticism and a disappointing customer response. Not quite Fallout, and not quite Diablo, Lionheart appealed to neither crowd with its often frustrating gameplay and confusing pace. Black Isle found itself hit at the most inopportune moment with a flop.
A further nail in the coffin came in November 2003 when Fallout 3 lead designer J. E. Sawyer suddenly followed in the footsteps of former Black Isle lead designers, resigning only a half day after publicly extolling the virtues of Fallout 3. Hinting at frustration and resentment, though never publicly focusing that sentiment, Sawyer's exit would be the last significant public humiliation before Interplay finally shut the doors on Black Isle. It was a heartbreaking end to a once proud developer, but anyone who was paying attention couldn't have been surprised when the day finally came. Even Urquhart has been quoted as saying he had assumed, after leaving, that Black Isle's closure was imminent.
So, looking at this sordid tale, what does it mean for me to say I'm relieved that Fallout 3 wasn't finished? It doesn't mean at all that I'm glad people lost their jobs, or lost the opportunity to follow their creative passions. On the contrary, the real tragedy of Black Isle's end is the effect it has on the employees who have invested their time, creativity, and work into the project. The entertainment of gamers, manifest in the loss of Fallout 3, is pretty insignificant when compared to the trials of Black Isle's unfortunate workers. And, I'm certainly not absolving Interplay for their gross mismanagement, which, let's be honest, is what got, and more importantly kept, Black Isle in constant dire straits.
I am saying, however, that a great many forces were aligned against the well supported development of a great title leaving only a slim chance that Fallout 3 could have lived up to expectations. Fallout 3 was certainly being developed with its lineage as a template – perhaps one reason that action-focused Interplay lost interest - but clearly not with the talent that had originally made the former games great. Without Cain or Urquhart, and to a lesser degree Sawyer, it would be hard to produce a Fallout 3 that mirrored the creative success of its predecessors. Backed by an apparently unscrupulous publisher increasingly interested in action console titles, one imagines that had the company survived, Black Isle would undoubtedly have struggled to maintain financial support from an already cash strapped Interplay. And, though it is part speculation, and part guilt-by-association, it must be noted that the quality and originality of Black Isle games has been on an exponential decrease of late culminating in the disappointing unmet potential of Lionheart. The reasons must be left to conjecture, but something has been driving the names and talent away from Black Isle for years now, and I question how an adequate Fallout 3 could be produced in that kind of environment.
What I am ultimately saying is that I can all too easily imagine a scenario where Fallout 3 would mark a dismal and disappointing postscript to a classic series. I'm saying that the desperate push of a tattered team might very well not have been enough to overcome the turmoil of Black Isle's troubles and Interplay's obvious disinterest even if it had kept its doors open. What it all comes down to is this: Fallout 3, if it is to be produced, deserves the full attention of a confident developer with a cohesive team and the well funded backing of a supportive publisher. As it stood when the axe finally fell, Black Isle Studios had none of those things.
I didn't just want to play Fallout 3. I wanted to play a great game that followed in the traditions of the previous two Fallouts. I don't know that Black Isle was capable of producing that.
- Sean Sands