Jeremy Kopman joined InXile Entertainment during what I consider the most exciting time in its history — the crowdfunding chapter. He signed on shortly after the Kickstarter campaign for Wasteland 2, working on another game that the indie RPG publisher would ask its players to help fund — Torment: Tides of Numenera.
He’s now working on the series that showed InXile (and a host of indie developers) that crowdfunding could indeed be a workable path. He’s the lead level designer for Wasteland 3, the postapocalyptic RPG that InXile is releasing in early 2020 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
And just as he joined at the beginning of a new era for InXile, he’s helping finish it. Wasteland 3 will be the studio’s final game from before 2018’s Microsoft acquisition. Deep Silver is still publishing it. But Wasteland 3 is also the first to benefit from the increased support from one of the biggest game companies in the world.
I spoke with Kopman a couple of weeks ago when he brought a demo of Wasteland 3 to San Francisco. This is an edited transcript of our chat before the demo.
Small studio, big stories
GamesBeat: How long have you been at inXile?
Jeremy Kopman: I started right after the Wasteland 2 crowdfunding campaign. I’ve been here for six and a half, almost seven year.
GamesBeat: What do you like about working there?
Kopman: The freedom that each–even when I was just starting out as a regular level designer, I still had a ton of input on what the levels I was assigned would–the content of those levels, the characters, the writing. I got to contribute to all of that. That’s not something you necessarily have at other studio.
GamesBeat: Especially at bigger studios. Level designers rarely get to do narrative.
Kopman: Right. The benefit of a small studio is you get that many-hats situation. There can be times when it gets busy and stressful, but it’s worth it for the opportunity to really put your mark on the game.
GamesBeat: Did you work on The Bard’s Tale IV?
Kopman: I didn’t. I worked on Torment. Torment — I went from Torment to Wasteland, and Bard’s Tale was kind of bridged between those.
GamesBeat: There’s a little crossover with the themes of Wasteland and the themes of Torment.
Kopman: Somewhat. Although the narrative team was not–there wasn’t as much crossover. Torment, we were starting to work on it well before Wasteland 2 released. There are certain questions, big themes that are attractive because of where we are in the world and all that stuff.
Entering the wastes
GamesBeat: Bring us up to speed a bit on the story. Where is it after the events of Wasteland 2?
Jeremy Kopman: Wasteland 2 ends with a dire situation for the Rangers, where their base is gone. They blew it up in order to destroy the big bad from the last game.
GamesBeat: Which was an AI system.
Kopman: Correct. They’re scraping by in Arizona, just barely surviving, trying to rebuild, when they get a call from someone who calls themself the Patriarch of Colorado. This is a guy who offers money, supplies, weapons, what they need to get back on their feet in Arizona, if they can send a contingent and help him maintain control over this small bastion of civilization that’s been built up.
GamesBeat: Have they gone from Rangers to mercs now?
Kopman: No, it’s not — the proposition isn’t so much, I’ll just pay you to do my fighting for me. It’s, we are of a like mind. We want to maintain order in this wasteland and try to rebuild civilization. I can help you. You help me and we’ll both benefit.
GamesBeat: One of my main takeaways from Wasteland 2 was the dangers of AI. Does that carry over at all in Wasteland 3, considering how AI has become a much bigger part of our lives these days?
Kopman: I think we’re not speaking too much to the broader story of the game yet, but I actually think it’s threaded through the story, and it pops up in interesting places throughout. It’s not a straightforward “AI bad” setup. It is an important part of the world, but the story is more deeply about the Patriarch and these rich survivalist doomsday preppers of Colorado, who put away stores of weapons and food and all this stuff, and when they came out of their bunkers after the nuclear fallout from the war, they were the only people with any resources. They immediately were able to take over.
GamesBeat: I didn’t know doomsday preppers in Colorado were rich.
Kopman: Some small numbers of them are. Those are the ones who had enough resources. They may not have been super-wealthy before the apocalypse, but once they came out, they were the only ones with tons and tons of canned food and huge stockpiles of weapons and that kind of thing. He comes from the Buchanan family, which is one of the 100 families that rules the Colorado Springs area.
GamesBeat: Did you choose that name for any particular reason?
Kopman: I don’t know offhand. It almost certainly has some sort of allusion to the President. That might be–one of the narrative design people might be able to answer that question directly.
GamesBeat: In many RPGs, names are important. They have some significance. Sometimes they don’t, but especially when you draw on names in a game that takes place in an alternate U.S., that’s tied to a name in U.S. history.
[The Wasteland 3 narrative team had this to say about the Saul Buchanan, the Patriarch:
“Saul” was meant to evoke a troubled king-figure whose reign is faltering, an allusion to the Biblical Saul, obviously. For his last name, we wanted a classically American, preferably presidential name, so we looked back through the 19th century presidents and picked out Buchanan – not because of anything specifically related to James Buchanan, just because the name had the right feel to it. The Patriarch himself uses American imagery to give himself a sense of legitimacy, so that sort of name felt right.Note that all the Hundred Families – the aristocracy of Colorado – have names that are meant to evoke 19th century America –even the non-Anglo names were present in the U.S. during that time.]
No AI needed
GamesBeat: When it comes to AI, this is a very different question. More game studios use AI to help make their games, whether it’s the placement of elements, checking on bugs, and so on. Does inXile use AI in any way to help make their games?
Kopman: Not really? We’re trying to build a visually very polished, modern-looking game, but the way we make a game is still very old-school, I would say. All that narrative reactivity that’s part of Wasteland 2 and will be a big part of Wasteland 3, it’s all handled by designers manually figuring out — OK, we need to set this variable here, this variable there, and then check it over in this spot. It’s a lot of work, but it’s the way that we can get the most natural–that human work is still the best way to get that kind of reactivity.
GamesBeat: Is it hard to use AI generation with a structured RPG?
Kopman: There could be ways to do it to help with some of the systems side of things, but that’s not really the inXile style. We like to have a hand in everything and make sure it’s what we want.
GamesBeat: How has the development of Wasteland 3 changed after the Microsoft deal?
Kopman: We got some more time and a bunch more resources. We’ve been able to step up the visual quality. We were able to fully lock in on full voiceover for all dialogue in the game. It’s not a small amount of V/O. Those things were not opportunities we had before the Microsoft acquisition. It’s really opened up some of those avenues.
GamesBeat: As a design department lead, when you first heard of that, what did you think?
Kopman: We were pretty well into development on Wasteland 3. The structure of the story, the structure of the levels, was relatively well set. We were still iterating on everything. As we speak there’s designers still coming up with stuff and adding things to the game. But it definitely made it more comfortable. We knew the stuff we’d been planning in our heads — we could actually pull it off.
GamesBeat: Does the addition of more sets of eyes also help — here’s something you missed, you should fix this or do it this other way?
Kopman: Yeah, it gives us the opportunity to do some stuff — bringing in people who have a lot of experience. Microsoft has UX experts that can look at the game and say, here, these are some ways to tweak things to make sure that the experience flows better. That kind of insight is something that would have been harder. You can hire consultants for that stuff, but inXile wasn’t in a position to do that, necessarily. Now we have quick access to that stuff.
GamesBeat: Now that Obsidian is also under the Microsoft umbrella, can you two cooperate and say, you know, we’re having trouble here, how have you guys done with this in the past?
Kopman: I don’t think that’s come up yet. I think because they’re working on — they were well into Outer Worlds and we were well into Wasteland 3. We’re all head-down. I’m not sure if that’s going to happen in the future. I can’t really speak to that. But I know that — the ability to get — Microsoft has been able to offer us lots of resources and information-sharing and stuff. I think we’re all hopeful that that kind of thing can happen, but we haven’t experienced yet. It hasn’t been relevant to the projects yet.
The One Percent
GamesBeat: What does the Son of the Patriach mean for Wasteland 3?
Kopman: The overarching quest line of the game is that the Patriarch has three children, who have all rebelled and gone off to be differently nefarious. He wants you to bring them back to Colorado Springs, where his capital is, so that he can put them back under hell and prevent them from trying to grab power out from under him. You’re searching for each kid throughout the rest of the game.
GamesBeat: Who’s this one we’re chasing after?
Kopman: You’re chasing after Victory Buchanan, shortened to Vic. He’s the most outwardly sinister of the children. He’s gone off and –basically he’s known among the people of Colorado Springs as a psychopath. He’s violent and sadistic. He’s formed this gang called the Breathers that follows him and are dedicated to him because he helps provide these drugs that constantly keep them in an altered state.
GamesBeat: As in many science fiction stories where you drug out your soldiers so they perform better.
Kopman: In this case it’s partly that, but they’re not necessarily pliant. They’re just sort of nuts. They’re all just as violent and sadistic as him. It’s a very unpredictable group. You get to, in the full game, learn more about them, but in the demo they’re pretty much some baddies you’ll be fighting.
GamesBeat: But because of those breather masks and armor they’re wearing, they also look scary. Story-wise, that must have some effect on the populace?
Kopman: I don’t actually think it’s super-clear in the demo, but what you’ll learn in the full game is, the area they’ve taken over is Aspen in Colorado, and like in the current real world, Aspen is basically a resort town where the rich people from Colorado Springs go off to have their parties. They all have ski chalets up there. Vic and his Breathers, who are hiding out even higher in the mountains, have come in and kidnapped or murdered everybody in Aspen. You’re trying to reclaim the town of Aspen from this insane gang.
GamesBeat: I think it’s funny that even in the apocalypse, the One Percent have their playground.
Kopman: You’ll see that that is one of the themes that’s played on in the game, that sense of even in this crazy post-apocalyptic landscape, there is an inherent class structure that forms.
GamesBeat: Is that something, going into the game, when you started with the base narrative and advancing it — did you start out with that? Even in a world where everyone is scraping for what they can find, there are those who will always have more, and who will have access to other things? Or did that just develop out of the story you were telling?
Kopman: I don’t know exactly which direction that took, but I do know it’s baked into the game, this question of the benefits of the order that a structure can bring, versus the inhibited freedoms that that requires, in order to maintain the order. That wasn’t the best articulation. [Laughs] One of the big themes we’re playing with is, what’s the tradeoff between civilization and freedom? Control versus agency, that kind of thing.
Rocky Mountain high
GamesBeat: Going back to the original premise here, why did you decide to base this in Colorado?
Kopman: The big appeal there was to take Wasteland — [which] is very much Arizona; it’s in the desert — and just to turn that on its head and look at what it takes to survive in a civilization-less world in a very different kind. It’s still a wasteland, but it’s an icy wasteland. There’s that sense of, what are the compromises people have to make? What are the technologies they’d cobble together to survive in the cold? It’s very fruitful, I think.
GamesBeat: Is it colder because of what’s happened after the apocalypse?
Kopman: In the fiction of the game, the nuclear fallout of postwar somehow created this permanent Jupiter red spot style ice and cold storm in Colorado. The meteorology of that may not be 100 percent based on reality, but it created this fruitful element, again.
GamesBeat: Does anyone on the team come from Colorado or have an attachment to Colorado?
Kopman: I know our lead artist is either from Colorado or has lived there. That’s influenced some of the visual style. I don’t actually know if that’s part of the reason it was selected.
GamesBeat: There are plenty of areas in North America that are icy cold, after all. You could go to Alaska, but that takes a long time to get there. Canada, the same. When I think of Colorado, I think of the cold mountains, but I also think of these wonderful low areas, meadows and streams and forests.
Kopman: The world map you saw was just a tiny chunk that we carved out for this demo. But the world map itself covers everything from the high Rockies into the eastern plains. When you start the game you’re kind of in the middle in Colorado Springs. It gets colder and icier and stormier as you go up into the mountains, and it gets a bit warmer and a bit weirder as you go out onto the eastern plains. You have more radiation at play. That becomes a bigger obstacle you have to overcome. The eastern plains are the unruled country. That’s where the gangs are collecting. That’s where there are cults that have sprung up. Not exclusively, but that’s a very dangerous area, but it’s the only spot in the world of Wasteland 3 where you’ll see any grass. It’s still cold. It’s not totally summery. But it’s warmer out there. Part of the reason to use Colorado is that variety of environments in a relatively small — not small, but in a specific location. You can get that very obvious change.
GamesBeat: What’s the main takeaway you hope players get from Wasteland 3?
Kopman: I think the big thing is that we understand what people liked about Wasteland 2, and we’ve really honed in on those pillars. We have kept the DNA of the game very much the same. You’re not going to look at Wasteland 3 and feel like we upended everything and came up with a totally new kind of game. We took Wasteland 2 and what people liked about it and built on top of that. We have the choice and consequence. We have the narrative reactivity that’s the hallmark of the Wasteland franchise. Then on top of that we have the big visual upgrade. We have the full V/O. We have co-op multiplayer. The vehicle adding another element to the tactical combat. All that stuff is just in service of making something that still feels like Wasteland and is going to pay off Wasteland fans, but is just that next step up.