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Codex Interview RPG Codex Retrospective Interview: Michael Cranford on Bard's Tale, Interplay, and Centauri Alliance

Discussion in 'RPG News & Content' started by Crooked Bee, Sep 27, 2013.

  1. Crooked Beegender: ⚧ wide-wandering bee Patron

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    Tags: Bard's Tale; Bard's Tale II: The Destiny Knight; Broderbund Software; Centauri Alliance; Interplay; Michael Cranford; Retrospective Interview

    In 1985, Interplay released Tales of the Unknown: Vol. I: The Bard’s Tale, their own “Wizardry killer” designed and programmed by Brian Fargo’s high school friend Michael Cranford. The game was a smashing success for the company. As Fargo said in his 2011 Matt Chat interview, The Bard’s Tale I “was the product that put us on the map, it was the thing that made us earn significant royalties so we could bring the company to the next level.” In an important way, it was Michael Cranford who kick-started Interplay’s future as RPG developer and publisher. At the same time, Cranford was unhappy about the contract Interplay offered him and left the company after The Bard’s Tale II release. In 1990, he designed his last game, Centauri Alliance, a unique sci-fi CRPG published by Brøderbund for the Apple II and Commodore 64. The choice of platforms coupled with the game’s delayed release turned out to be really unfortunate for its publicity and sales, and no further titles in the Centauri Alliance universe were made. Currently Michael Cranford is CEO at Ninth Degree.

    In this interview, Michael talks about the Bard’s Tale series, Interplay, his falling out with Brian Fargo, as well as Centauri Alliance and Brøderbund. Have an Interplay-related snippet:

    There is a story (I don’t know to what extent it is true) told by “Burger” Heineman as well as by Brian Fargo about how you held the Bard’s Tale floppy disk hostage in order to make Fargo change the terms of the deal between you and Interplay. Could you tell us your side of that story, if you feel like talking about it?

    Well, first off, Heineman wouldn’t know anything about it, except perhaps what Brian might have told him. He was a quirky guy who sat in the corner of the office and had no role in the business operation of the company. Everything that happened was between me and Brian; there was no one else ever present.

    When I first came to work at Interplay, I already had a game concept and a working prototype that looked like Wizardry. I built it when I was at Berkeley. I was debating if I should even show it to Brian, rather than just going to Brøderbund or EA or Activision on my own. Brian was a high school friend, so I decided to trust him with it, and I showed it to him. He said he could sell it, and we had a vague verbal understanding of what I would receive. I threw out some numbers and he was positive and agreeable. There were no written terms of any kind. I was a young guy without business experience, and Brian was my friend. It never occurred to me that I might be making a mistake.

    Late in the development, I realized I had made one. I had a couple nights where I couldn’t get to sleep, I was so anxious. I was not in a position to enforce our verbal understanding, and I realized that I could have easily brought this to EA on my own. It was sold based on the prototype. I had built every part of the game single handedly, with the exception of composing the music. (My friend Larry Holland did that.)

    When the game was nearly done (or maybe entirely done, actually; hard to remember now), Brian produced a contract. I do remember asking for it a number of times and feeling like I was being stalled. I had no idea what he was going to put in it. My memory is not spot-on from 28 years ago, so I am only speaking in general terms. If I am getting any part of this out of order, it’s not intentional. The rest of it is accurate.

    The contract (in its initial version) offered me a fraction of what I was expecting, and there were some conditions that would limit my earnings. I talked it through with my friend’s dad, who was the CEO of a large civil engineering firm; he thought it was unacceptable, and urged me to hire an attorney. We ended up spending a significant amount of time negotiating, and in the final equation, I think both of us thought the resulting deal was unfair. I have no doubt that Brian was doing what he thought was right, and that he felt that what he offered me was reasonable. There was a lot of emotion at the time, on my part, but he is a good guy and a smart businessman. I have no resentment against him; I’m just frustrated I wasn’t smarter about all this. I heard his rationale in this very clearly at the time, and I understood where he was coming from. If the deal that we agreed on was presented at the beginning of the process, however, I would not have brought this to him at all.

    Now, this story that I held a disk hostage to extort someone – that didn’t happen, I would never do that. Sitting on the source code until the deal I was promised was finally put in writing and honored – that is possible. I honestly can’t remember. But again, there was no pressure to change any terms. The deal I ended up accepting was not what I understood I would get, and not what I would have agreed to if I had. I am a person of my word. I didn’t make very much money from these games.

    In general, how would you describe your experience of working with Interplay and Brian Fargo? What are the moments you remember most and least fondly about it? In hindsight, do you think something could have been done for you to stay at Interplay and further develop the ideas you had in mind for the Bard’s Tale series?

    It was mostly great. A great team, led by a guy that I admired and who was a true friend to me through high school. I was doing something that I loved. Hanging with a small, tight band of programmers was fun. We did a lot of things together. Nothing in particular stands out, but I enjoyed the time, until we got to the contract negotiation and negativity that I already mentioned. It was a little personal at the time, but then I grew up and let all that go. Just a lesson in life learned. I didn’t handle my part of all that well.

    Brian asked me to leave after Bard’s Tale II, he was not happy with the process we went through to arrive at a deal. He told me he wanted me out for BT3 (which would put me at a lower royalty rate, and the fact was that with the tools and code in hand, they didn’t need me for it). The process also burnt me out, and I wanted to go back to school and do my next project on my own anyway.

    There is some regret that we didn’t work things out, and that I didn’t stay to see Interplay grow into what it eventually became. That would have been fun. But I chose another path that was fulfilling.​

    Read the full interview: RPG Codex Retrospective Interview: Michael Cranford on Bard's Tale, Interplay, and Centauri Alliance
     
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  2. Duraframe300gender: ⚧ Arcane

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    Despite Fargo ranting about publishers he still was/is very much a little one inside.

    So, nothing new under the sun
     
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  3. mindx2gender: ⚧ Codex Roaming East Coast Reporter Patron

    mindx2
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    Great respect for Mr. Cranford as I really love The Bard's Tale games but these two quotes are pretty sad actually. Just shows you how our so-called cRPG heroes help advance the :decline:

     
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  4. Crooked Beegender: ⚧ wide-wandering bee Patron

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    Lots of veteran developers really love MMORPGs because they believe online RPGs come closer to simulating reality, as is evident from this interview in particular. Personally I disagree with that, but that is also the case for Robert Woodhead, Richard Garriott and many others from the first generation of RPG designers.

    Infinitron had a good theory about that when we discussed it in the staff forum. If he feels like it, he'll post it here himself.

    So yeah, a lot of the "first wave" RPG designers went really crazy about MMOs. That is understandable from a historical perspective, even if it clashes with the Codex's stance on MMOs and MMORPGs.

    Interestingly, Cranford's actual games - both Bard's Tale and Centauri Alliance - were a far cry from "advancing the decline". So I dunno - I guess you could say that sometimes RPG design works in a rather mysterious manner?
     
    Last edited: Sep 27, 2013
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  5. mindx2gender: ⚧ Codex Roaming East Coast Reporter Patron

    mindx2
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    My statement was geared more toward how these guys think now, not disparaging what they have accomplished in the past.
     
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  6. Crooked Beegender: ⚧ wide-wandering bee Patron

    Crooked Bee
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    I know, but my point was that maybe we shouldn't separate what they think now from what they thought and accomplished in the past - perhaps they've always thought the same thing and that was precisely what allowed them to create games like Bard's Tale, Wizardry, Ultima, etc. It's just that maybe the same mindset works in the opposite direction now.
     
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  7. Make America Great Again Infinitrongender: ⚧ Trade Master Patron

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    Here's my theory from the staff forums:

    Of course, Brian Fargo seems to be an exception to this theory, my fanboy friend. +M
     
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  8. mindx2gender: ⚧ Codex Roaming East Coast Reporter Patron

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    It's still sad and part of the :decline:. Here's hoping, praying that KS will cater to my "niche" gaming...
     
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  9. Crooked Beegender: ⚧ wide-wandering bee Patron

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    Fargo is a good businessman first and foremost. That's a different thing.
     
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  10. Manticgender: ⚧ Educated

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    Well, apart from Mr Cranford's recent thoughts on "turn-based due to technical limitations" and MMO's, the idea of RPG as trying to simulate reality is something that definitely appeals to me. I think the "first wave" of cRPGs as you call them had a different feel because they weren't intentionally designed as "games" but as simulations. I don't think think it's a mistake that many cRPG's, going back to SSI's Eternal Dagger, all called themselves (proudly printed on the box's) "fantasy role-playing simulations" or variations thereof.
     
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  11. Volourngender: ⚧ Pretty Princess Pretty Princess

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    So, despite all the dick sucking, Fargo is no better than EA and other big publishers. He has no issues treating his employees like pieces of crap and throwing them in the trash once he feels they are no longer useful. Next time he whines about how EA or whoever treated him poorly, I will laugh.
     
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  12. Duraframe300gender: ⚧ Arcane

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    Not really what I'm referring to at all in regards to the interview.

    The *contract* part is what I meant. It just irks me because he constantly rants/ranted against publishers and money hats during the Kickstarter Campaign and after,...

    But he IS pretty much a business man himself. Be it with the casual games InXile produced, his thinking/methods back at Interplay, or other stuff.

    Which is why the Kickstarter Publisher-Rant thing just feels like tons of PR for me. Not saying he's a bad guy or a bad buisnessman. He isn't (Though he fell in the "company gets too big" trap. But so did others)
     
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  13. Make America Great Again Humanity has risen!gender: ⚧ Arcane Patron Repressed Homosexual

    Humanity has risen!
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    No, I think the concept appeals to them because of the PnP background, to them gaming is a social hobby. Also it allows them to connect with old or new friends, which they probably miss a lot now that they're older. Also I think the reason games are made easy is that they're too busy and have lost interest in minmaxing, but still want to feel like they have hardcore gaming street cred. It's a male mid life crisis thing.

    I expected a question about Burger Billy's allegations that Cranford's code was so bad that Heineman had to rewrite nearly all of it and almost none of his code was used in BT2. Although Brian Fargo sided with Michael on that one.

    It's kind of like Steve Jackson/GURPS and Interplay, it's hard to tell who is telling the whole truth. Probably no one, and the fault lies in everyone.
     
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  14. MichaelCranfordgender: ⚧ Developer

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    I'm not up to speed on the discussion, but I definitely want to make clear -- I am not saying that the type of online game I would envision is like anything I see out there now. The real-time and interpersonal aspects of RPGs that are possible now, through the internet, are things that have always been part of role-playing, and are the core of why it is fun. Layered onto these in contemporary MMORPGs are a philosophy and approach which detract from the core experience that made the early games, for some people, life changing and inspirational. Something was lost when we went from DMs to computer moderation; something was also gained in the process, but the trade off was questionable, and I never had the same feeling about Wizardry as I did with some of the late-night D&D sessions I led in high school. There was a great deal lacking in computer-moderated roleplaying at the time, but there was no solution to it, that I could see in light of platform limitations. There is now, it's just a question of how it is executed. If I had been handed today's technology on the backbone of the internet, back in the early 80s, what I would have come up with would not be like the MMORPGs that are out there now, I am certain. To me, they are another brand of entertainment that I think is created for (and best suited for) a mass audience. I am not personally enthralled by them (though I did play WoW at one point). Where I would take this, if I could, is something I have not thought through.
     
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  15. Crooked Beegender: ⚧ wide-wandering bee Patron

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    Thank you for the comment, Michael!

    There isn't much discussion to be aware of, to be honest. It's just that the niche that most RPG Codex users belong to - oldschool singleplayer RPG fans - often feels threatened, and justifiably so, by the kind of MMORPGs that are currently prevalent. Hence most of us are wary of the very word "MMORPG".

    Perhaps someone else can put it better than I did.
     
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  16. Make America Great Again Jack Dandygender: ⚧ Arcane

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    These retrospectives always seem to leave me in a melancholic mood.

    Very interesting read.
     
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  17. Rakegender: ⚧ Arcane

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    Not realy. Kotick is a good businessman first and foremost. How is Fargo any different?
    For us it is, because he offers us the games we want.
    But for him was a cold business decision. He hadn't luck with publisers, his action games like hunded was a dissaster, and kickstarter offered him the opportunity to make games that would earn him more money than Choplifter clones.
    His whole publisers suck was pure PR. Fargo IS a good business man after all and knows how to sell himself and his games to his target audience. But so is :hearnoevil:
     
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  18. Make America Great Again Humanity has risen!gender: ⚧ Arcane Patron Repressed Homosexual

    Humanity has risen!
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    A viable studio cannot remain a bunch of college kids in a garage, at some point it has to behave like a business because it's easy for ambition and costs to spiral out of control, and margins are paper thin. This is something that someone like Swen Vincke is always insisting upon. The reality is probably that there wasn't much of anything to spare, quite simply. Also nowadays game designers don't really get royalties, they are treated like regular employees.

    There's a big difference between that and a soulless, shareholder driven publisher like EA or Activision.
     
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  19. Cosmic Misogynerdgender: ⚧ Self-Ejected Patron

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    Awesome interview, with some disappointing things and some interesting ones. Fargo being (somewhat) a douche doesn't come as a surprise, and I certainly find his strong words against publishers in his Kickstarter pitch, conflicting with what he used to be on the old interplay. Again, something expected but it kinda erodes a little bit his image as the Pope/Prophet of this wave of Old-Skool RPG revival.

    Yeah, I know. It's just bizzness.
     
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  20. Rakegender: ⚧ Arcane

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    Well, even Obsidian had not hard feeling for Bethesda. Like it or not this is how capitalism works, and games are products first, and art/passion/whatever second.
     
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  21. MurkyShadowgender: ⚧ Glittering gem of hatred Patron

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    Bard's Tale man. Drawing the map for Mangar's Tower, that level with all the darkness and spin fields. And in the end slipping for
    one line and all was for naught. The rage. It would have been enough to fuel edginess for all time... Good times, good memories.
     
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  22. Cosmic Misogynerdgender: ⚧ Self-Ejected Patron

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    Yeah. Even as they were fucked twice by them.
     
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  23. Dorateengender: ⚧ Arcane

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    The dirty little secret about those old-school single player cRPGs is that they could just as much be enjoyed by multiple people in the same environment. A friend, a family-member sitting along side the computer desk, one taking the controls the other making maps. I wouldn't suggest a whole table-top gaming group of six getting together to huddle around the monitor. But two definitely, and three is feasible enough. So there was already the potential for social interaction.

    Within the context of MMORPGs, there was never a need for modern online connectivity to recreate this feeling. PnP was always about playing the game with your buddies, not with some anonymous strangers. (Conventions and tournaments, exlcluded, of course.) That's why the Bard's Tales, Wizardries, etc. as they are reflect a superior platform.
     
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  24. Maiandrosgender: ⚧ Learned Possibly Retarded

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    Perhaps it is age, what with gaming experiences, but i actually find hard to believe that PnP/RPG fans do -not- dream of MMORPGs done right. Who could possibly -not- envision that with the potential a computer could realise? Keeping what was in terms of the human interaction and reactivity, and adding a level of immersion, complexity and -fairness- that was before inconceivable? (no DM whims, no physical/human constraints, etc)? A dream :)

    Most people stick to the decline of the MO models recently published and are unable to think for themselves a touch further, they shut the topic off in their minds then and there. Easy to light the torches, always has been in history. Hello Codex. Others, they neglect or failed to participate in say, Star War Galaxies? Dark Age of Camelot? Won't even go back in MUDs, treasures aplenty there to make my argument, but i will purposefully keep it to post 2000.. This was not a genre totally bad, useless or lacking of promise. At all. If it became so, the blame lies both sides. You flame and flame, but i shiver imagining how many here have actively supported the decline by buying Shitstations and Dragon Age 2 Collectors Editions. Hardly a one sided flaw on the developing side. It all assumes a willing target audience, yes?

    And when considering the above, dare we take it one step further? Our side entirely this time over. Some of the torch bearers never seemed to grasp how certain limitations became self imposed, perpetuated as norms tend to, no criticism included. Imagination minimal. My view. No one said the digitised version of RPGs had to simulate my formerly PnPing with my mates by forcing me to "drag" 5 more meatbags/carrier dolls with me for the entirety of my play session. And yet, thus we did, thus was asked for -from- the developers, perpetually..yeah? Technical limitation my arse. And of course it is but one example. I could mention crit mechanics..a must when it got late and i needed the extra something to immerse me on a piece of paper, because someone else dictating what i did was a touch on the boring side, fine, but hardly a necessity when on the screen, where aiming later on and skill enters the picture. And yet, is it still not a prevalent concept? Why?

    I do link the two issues. I hope it is understood by now in what a light i am trying to do so. Call it playing the devil's advocate.
     
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  25. HiddenXgender: ⚧ The Elder Spy Patron

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    Bard's Tale 2 was the game that finally made me cRPG player and fan. I had Father Kringle and Ybarra the Mage in my party.
    I used BAYLOR'S SPELL BIND to catch them ... great times.
     
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