Interview with Colin McComb

Colin McComb is the man who knows role-playing games from the inside. He started his career with TSR, working on Dungeons and Dragons, a popular tabletop game. He created books for the second edition of D&D, had a hand in creating the Planescape setting, wrote a Gladiator's Handbook for Dark Sun, several rulebooks for Ravenloft and did a lot of other things in his carreer, which went into a different direction when he came to Black Isle Studios. There Colin got his first work experience with CRPGs, making Fallout 2 along with Chris Avellone and other developers, taking up this banner after the famous three's departure.

After completing his work on the sequel for an already classic series, Colin along with his colleagues started creating a new game. Once again working with Chris Avellone he created something, he had a part in back in the TSR days — Planescape: Torment, a computer role-playing game, based on the setting he created himself as a TSR employee.

Nowadays McComb works at inXile, he participated in the development of Wasteland 2 and now heads up another ambitious project — Torment: Tides of Numenera, a spiritual successor of Planescape. Some time ago we had a pleasure of talking to Colin and the result of this quite interesting conversation you can read below.

RPGNuke: Hi Colin! Let's start with some Tides of Numenera questions. A one and a half years passed since the end of kickstarter campaign. What is the status of the project now? Where there many changes to the initially planned? Did you have to cut anything out or did you manage to add anything new? As far as I know the pre-production phase now comes to its end and the prodution phase starts, how does this transition occur?

Colin: We are shifting from limited production to production. What limited production means is that we were creating content for the game, but not at the speed that we might expect during a full production period. Rather, it’s in ways that prove out our ideas and concepts, or that show where the weaknesses in our pipeline are, or that help build the best processes for the whole team.

As to whether we had to cut anything: We have! But that’s natural for any project as we assess scope and our desired impact. We’ve tightened up the story in some places, expanded it in others, and tried to make sure that we are focused exactly on delivering what we’ve promised to our backers. We’ve also managed to expand areas that were smaller in the original vision, and I’m happy with where we are as a result of our discussions.

The transition from Wasteland 2 to Torment is happening slowly and carefully under Kevin’s supervision. He wants to make sure that the newer members of the team are done with their responsibilities on Wasteland 2, or at least done enough that they can begin to devote serious attention to our project. They’ll start by getting familiar with our tools and our processes, and they can point out places where our processes and documentation need improvement. As more and more of them come over, and as people ramp up on the project, we’ll see a faster pace for production and creation of all our assets.

New Torment will have turn-based combat system. Not everyone is happy about that, though Planescape: Torment combat system is being scolded frequently too. Please tell me, did you consider to make Planescape: Torment turn-based? Do you think this variant could be viable and what do you prefer: turn-based or realtime with pause?

With Planescape: Torment, we didn’t really have a choice, as I recall. We were working with the Infinity Engine, and we were working on delivering an experience that matched (at least in part) what Bioware had done with Baldur’s Gate. We had a much broader latitude to choose turn-based or real-time with pause for this game, but even then we had a difficult decision to make. Having backer feedback was invaluable, and even then, it was a tough decision. The more we delve into the Crisis system, the more I am convinced we made the right choice.

My personal preference for games depends on what game I’m playing. I’m not an absolutist in either direction.

Torment: Tides of Numenera's central question is "What does one life matter?", were there any other variants in concideration?

From the start, it was always about the legacy we leave from the choices we make in life. The difficulty was in finding the right words to express that question. I believe it was Nathan Long who came up with this particular phrase, and as soon as he said it, we were off.

At first glance it seems that Torment: Tides of Numenera replicates a lot of ideas from Planescape: Torment. Do you think this statement is correct?

I agree with "at first glance" and "seems". That is, it might appear that way superficially, but one could say that of any number of stories. We're intentionally focusing on an intensely personal story, as PST did (though we're talking about issues of legacy and abandonment rather than regret and growth); we're in a strange, alien world, with unusual characters for an RPG. We chose all these similarities deliberately, identifying them as key parts of the Torment experience. But we are also deliberately stepping away from a number of the things that PST did, because we don't want to replicate it. Our mission is to analyze what we loved about PST, and then to make a game that will be a worthy successor to that title, a welcome peer, and hopefully a milestone for future development.

So, as far as I see, you are willing to develop Torment TM in the future. Would you like to work further in the Numenera universe or you'd like to make every new game in a different setting (for exapmple, "The Strange" looks promising), or would you like to get back to Planescape? (By the way, is there any chance for a new Planescape game to appear keeping in mind all the legal issues etc?)

I'd love to work more in the Numenera universe, or to develop a Torment game for The Strange - I hugely admire the team at Monte Cook Games, because they're consistently imaginative, evocative, and willing to take enormous creative chances. Plus, they're great licensors and very easy to work with, so the pre-existing relationship would be another huge bonus.

I loved designing Planescape materials; David “Zeb” Cook made a setting that I adored and that Monte Cook and I got to play with for years. But I can’t speak as to what the chances are for a new Planescape game – that’s up to Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro.

Before we approached MCG for the Numenera license, Adam and I were discussing another setting of our own creation, and I'd already begun to develop that when I realized that the story we were talking about was far too epic in scope. Still, I love world-building, and I'd love to take a shot at creating some insane setting as the base of a future Torment game.

If you are offered to make another Planescape-based game, about what will it be?

I'd move away from the Torment pillars and make a game less about personal exploration and back into the broad sweep and grandeur of the planes. I'd want factional intrigues, proxies of the powers, and more action on the Upper Planes. There's a wealth of material there that's waiting to be mapped and enjoyed.

I've read in one of the interviews that you were inspired by a From Software game King's Field while working on a canceled Planescape project. Did you play the most recent From games, I mean "Souls" series? What do you think about their phenomenon and do you have any thoughts how such player-unfriendly and challenging game can become so popular?

I haven't played the Souls games, sadly - but my friend Ray Vallese kept urging me to play, and Tap-Repeatedly's Matt Sakey wrote an extensive and excellent series of blog posts about them (which you can find here). They almost wore me down, but my lack of a Playstation (and the legendary badness of the PC port) prevented me. Probably just as well – the “Souls” series looks exactly like the kind of game I’d stay up til 2 am playing.

As for why this kind of game becomes so popular, I can think of a few reasons. First, modern single-player games - especially big titles - are a joke for difficulty on story-based settings. Some games literally will not let you fail, even if you actively do not participate. It's insulting and a little demeaning to require such hand-holding; the game is implicitly telling you that your actions don't matter and your input is marginal at best. In a case like that, why bother playing a game at all? From's games, on the other hand, are unforgiving. They require nerves, confidence, and the ability to persevere even in the case of frequent failure. Rather than allowing the player the cheap and easy victory, they require the player to earn a victory... and even in the cases where the player doesn't win, there's still a sense of camaraderie and shared suffering with the others who've braved the game.

Excluding praised-by-everyone-classics (like Fallout, Planescape: Torment etc) what are your favorite RPGs? Are there any modern RPG projects you are interested in/following?

So you're saying I have to skip the Gold Box D&D games and the Ultimas? Those were the formative games for me - Ultima II-VI especially - and I'd hate to rule those out. :)

For the modern projects, I plan to finish Wasteland 2 and play the final release of Pillars of Eternity. I really want to get to Divinity: Original Sin and Shadowrun, and am looking forward to seeing what Brian Mitsoda is cooking up with Dead State.

I know that you worked on a number of interesting projects, which were unfortunately canceled. What were they and on what stage they were canceled?

Let's see... there was the original Playstation Planescape game. I spent about six months on that before Interplay management realized that they were developing three separate Planescape titles and it would be a better idea to focus on a single one. As you noted above, it was to be similar to King's Field, and it didn't get anywhere beyond a storyline, some rough maps, and some pitch documents written before I'd even showed up. The next major canceled project was the world I built for Torn, a Black Isle Studios original IP that featured design work from Adam Heine and Brian Mitsoda, among others. The world was intended to have the standard fantasy touchstones that could draw in players, but each of those foundations would be twisted. For instance, the dwarves were biomancers, four or five different sub-cultures competing against one another in endless war to see who could create the most fearsome monsters. They were the creators of the elves, who in turn were beautiful but soulless killing machines who had turned on their masters. Halflings were feral prairie dogs. I wrote about 128 pages for that, creating a reasonable geology for the world before building its history, living and dead civilizations, and mythologies and gods for each.

While it was a bummer to have those projects canceled, it didn't compare to a much larger cancellation I got a few years later. Having worked in a responsible adult industry (human capital management software, if you must know), I found a new opportunity to get back into making games. The company I worked for had been acquired by a Hollywood-payroll firm, and the owners were looking to get into the game industry. When they found out that I’d been involved with games, they asked my wife and me to develop a proposal to create a game studio for them. I flew out to California to pitch to the company's primary owner, and while I was in that meeting, the entire company was in the process of being shut down and its bank accounts swept by its creditors. I walked out of the meeting feeling extraordinarily positive about the future… until I got the phone call from my wife saying that she’d just received a company-wide email saying that employees shouldn’t go into the office the next day or work on anything in our own time. That was a much rougher cancellation than the other two put together.

Getting back to Planescape: Torment - were there a lot of content which didn't make it to the final version of the game? Were there anything so awesome that you regret most of all and keep mourning up to this day?

It depends on how you'd define content, I suppose. We had quite a few ideas that we'd kicked around that didn't make it in - more faction involvement, more planes to go to, more things to do in Baator - but a lot of those were killed before we spent too much time on them, as I recall. Sorry!

How do you think: what are the defining features of Torment games (including both: Planescape: Torment and Tides of Numenera)?

We've defined a Torment game as consisting of four primary pillars:

  1. A deep, thematically satisfying story. That is, a story that revolves around a handful of themes that we tie into every aspect of design. What we chose for TTON are legacy, abandonment, and mystery.
  2. A world that is far, far different from a standard fantasy/medieval world. We want to take the player out of his or her comfort zone and make the world a fresh, new place for the PC to explore.
  3. A rich and personal narrative - that is, the story might feel like a sweeping epic, but in truth it is a very personally directed story, and one that focus specifically on the PC. We're not trying to save the world; the fate of the universe doesn't rest in the PC's hands - though at some point the PC may become responsible for the lives of many, many others, the story remains focused on the PC's personal struggles.
  4. Reactivity, real choice, and real consequences are all important for a Torment game. We don't want our choices to be cosmetic so that that we can push the PC through a predetermined story. We want to make this a story where the player chooses the path and feels like the game and the world responds to those choices. While we'll have certain signposts and chokepoints, our goal is to create a game where the player has freedom to make real choices with real consequences.

So, you are back to game development after a thirteen year "break". How do you feel: have the industry changed a lot since the times when Planescape: Torment and Fallout 2 were developed?

Back to videogame development, anyway. I did quite a lot of tabletop work with Malhavoc Press, Kobold Press, and Paizo Publishing before getting my feet wet again in video games with Wasteland 2. I paid attention to what was happening in computer games through that time, and the scope of the change was breathtaking. The massive amounts of money pouring into the industry changed almost everything. It seemed like studios, having found winning formulas, began to take far fewer risks - and ironically, this led to more failures. With certain genres being more polished and perfected (I'm looking at you, FPS and MMO), the price for risk became total studio shutdown.

Working conditions have changed: EA Spouse and others drew massive attention to the unrealistic expectations of the perpetual crunch time, and so management for the industry has had to change and improve. That's welcome to see; game developers now get to have personal lives.

But in many regards, it still feels very similar: creators love to work on these games, because it's such a tangible result when you've finished.

Albatross, 12.10.2014 23:07