Interplay: A troubled history

Interplay: A troubled history
Seth Tipps

By Seth Tipps

September 14th 2012 at 10:00AM

Develop investigates how the publisher has managed to survive despite financial troubles and closures

Let me describe a studio for you and see if you know who I'm talking about.

Most thought they closed in 2005. Their last SEC filing was a year ago, after which their accountant quit. In this filing they reported a deficit of nearly $3 million against $4,000 cash. They reported only 11 employees. Now they're re-opening Black Isle Studios, which was closed in 2003.

Interplay refuses to die

But is this the same Interplay that won hearts with titles like Fallout, The Bard's Tale, Descent, and Planescape: Torment? Short answer, no.

This studio is the lone survivor of Titus Interactive, which acquired the company in 2001. In fact, the brothers who founded Titus are now president and CEO of Interplay.

Plenty of folks are asking the same questions about the new Black Isle; just what does it have to do with the original?

Not much, but all the same there is some small hope that the news of expansion at Interplay means that the company is on the mend after a decade and a half of foul weather.

So, if signs point to a studio on the rebound, what does the future hold? The answers lie in the company strategy that has kept it alive ever since the company first reappeared in 2007.

One killer backlog

Interplay, founded in 1982, developed a strong reputation with the release of legendary titles like The Bard's Tale and Wasteland. By the 90's the studio was a full-fledged publisher as well. Black Isle, Bioware, Blizzard, High Voltage, Planet Moon, Shiny, Snowblind, and Volition have all published with the company.

This gave Interplay a knockout catalog of games. Fallout, MDK, Baldur's Gate, Stonekeep, Earthworm Jim, Freespace, Descent. The list of hits is impressive by any standard, and today they've proven key to keeping a troubled studio afloat.

Interplay may be cash-strapped, but a series of profit-sharing agreements with third-party developers has given the studio a source of income that doesn't require money paid up-front.

The company opts for digital distribution so cost of income is negligible, and if a re-release strikes a chord with nostalgic gamers there is little difference between revenue and profit.

That said, the development and legal controversy surrounding the Fallout MMO came close to putting a permanent end to Interplay.

Interplay sold the rights for Fallout in 2007, but back-licensed the rights for the multiplayer online game.

From 2009 to 2011 Bethesda launched a series of lawsuits aimed at halting production on the game. The court repeatedly sided with Interplay, but a settlement was reached when the final case was set for trial by jury.

Interplay took $2 million in exchange for the rights to develop the Fallout MMO.

The settlement may have been a blow to Fallout fans, and may have seemed like a small payout to many, but for Interplay it was salvation.

$2 million in the bank wasn't the only good news for the company either. The Special Situations Fund and associated firms purchased several million shares of Interplay stock, and a deal with Beamdog brought MDK2 HD to Steam this summer, where it reportedly achieved financial success.

These successes have put Interplay in a position to draw attention to the re-opening of the Black Isle label. But what, if anything, does the new Black Isle have to do with the old?

Back in Black?

The original Black Isle wasn't just closed, it was decimated. Interplay was acquired by Titus Interactive in 2001 after several years of almost constant loss.

Titus itself was in trouble, having purchased an empire it could not support. One by one, studios were shuttered, and assets sold.

When the entire Black Isle staff were laid off in 2003, it was the final blow in a series of mishaps that scattered the talent behind one of the best-loved studios in history.

The confusion among former employees was evident when Interplay revealed that Black Isle had been re-opened.

“I know nothing about the Black Isle Studio news announcement, doesn't involve me or Obsidian… or well, anyone that I know," said Planescape: Torment creator Chris Avellone on Twitter.

Many have pointed to this as a sign that Interplay is simply using the name Black Isle to generate buzz.

Fallout is now the property of Bethesda, and all of Black Isle's other games save Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader were licensed from Wizards of the Coast, who have denied any connection to the re-launched studio.

This seems to contradict the press release which claimed Black Isle would be developing games “based on Interplay's critically acclaimed intellectual properties.”

The press release refers to Black Isle as a “label,” which highlights a key fact; Interplay claims only eleven employees, just seven of whom are listed as developers.

What's more, Interplay isn't hiring. It seems highly unlikely that Black Isle will operate as a full-fledged studio for some time.

So why even open the studio, if not to prey on the adorably impressionable press? As it turns out, there is a Black Isle connection in the Interplay office.

Something entirely forgotten in the coverage of the Black Isle reboot is that Interplay hired two veterans of the studio to work on the Fallout MMO: Mike O'Green and Christopher Taylor.

Fans of the original Fallout are most likely to remember two things that distinguished it from the crowd: the VATS combat system and the darkly humorous dialogue.

O'Green was the man behind most of the “talking heads” in the game and its sequel.

But good writing, though rare, does not build a game. Taylor, a game designer who worked on Interplay's Starfleet games, Stonekeep, and Fallout 2, is more than capable of creating mechanics to back up O'Green's chops with a pen.

Still, this is a far cry from the living walls of talent that made Black Isle great. There is a good case to be made that Black Isle is nothing more than a friendly face to slap on any RPG Interplay has in the works.

But with even two of the original team on board, the picture is a lot prettier than some have painted it.

The future?

Interplay is not the same company gamers knew and loved in the 90's. Herve and Eric Caen, the pair of brothers who co-founded Titus, are now the only managers at the California studio.

Eric, acting as president, is also listed on Linkedin as a MacDonald's executive. Herve serves as CEO, but has been forced to perform the company's financial duties as well.

Not only is Interplay hard for cash, they are short on help, and if a single employee were to leave it could set plans back by months.

While it's definitely a good sign that Interplay is once more stepping into the limelight with the release of a new label, it's no sure bet the company will continue its current bounce-back.

Perhaps most troubling is that aside from Interplay Discovery – a publishing initiative in which the company finds promising indie titles and helps them to market – there is nothing in the company language that suggests it has even considered new IP as a potential path.

This means that perhaps the most realistic expectation for the new Black Isle studios is to grant legitimacy to potential HD re-releases of any old RPGs in the Interplay catalog.

While there is little hope of Black Isle ever making another Fallout title, and no evidence to suggest an upcoming Wizards of the Coast license, there is nothing to stop Black Isle from picking up other IP from its parent company.

This is a much wider list than many realise. Interplay is the lone survivor of Titus and has inherited a good deal of property from its French cousin. The company has already launched a new Prehistorik title, and there is every reason to expect more.

Between Interplay and Titus there are plenty of chances for Black Isle to recycle old franchises into new games, and with some of the original staff on board there is a fair chance these would be quality additions to the canon.

Even so, it seems a shame that the new Interplay is so focused on its intellectual property. The studio is small, but it has a surprising amount of experience and talent at its disposal.

Any new game coming from Interplay's historic franchises would be immensely exciting, but not nearly as much as the news the studio many thought had closed was once again pioneering new territory.

But this isn't the message Interplay has sent. The new Black Isle may one day do another landmark RPG, but for now, it looks to be a fancy piece of marketing.

It's too early to say if this will ever change, but for now Interplay is focused on survival. It's far safer for a company like Interplay to bet on fans buying their old games on GOG or Steam than it is to risk it all on untested products.

At best, the Black Isle reboot means we're going to see a few of Interplay and Titus' forgotten franchises make a comeback. All things considered, that's not too shabby. Especially from a studio most people thought was closed.