“Black Isle Studios is back,” says the resurrected developer’s refreshed website, but it appears that that’s only technically true.
The site came online last week, along with a Twitter account and Facebook page, in advance of an official announcement from Herve Caen, the chief executive of game publisher Interplay. “It really feels like getting the band back together,” said Caen in the press release, implying that the original Black Isle team had reformed.
However, most of the developers at Black Isle transitioned to Obsidian Entertainment after Interplay laid off Black Isle’s entire staff and closed the studio in December 2003. We reached out to Obsidian to see if the developer is working with the new Black Isle. Darren Monahan, co-owner and vice president of operations at the company — and a former Black Islander himself — told Polygon that while Interplay’s announcement “[brought] back fond memories,” he had no advance notice of the news. “I can officially confirm that no one at Obsidian or the company itself is involved,” he said, adding that he’s as curious as everyone else to find out what’s coming from Black Isle.
It’s unclear if Black Isle even has any employees yet: a quick LinkedIn search reveals a total of zero individuals who list themselves as currently working at Black Isle. According to Interplay’s announcement press release, Black Isle is “inviting the best talent to join its team.” But the publisher’s careers page is blank — it isn’t currently hiring for any positions, let alone for game developers to make “new AAA innovative RPGs.” In fact, the press release refers to the new Black Isle as a “label” under which Interplay will publish RPGs; the company may not actually be developing games itself.
So what could the new Black Isle be working on? Interplay’s announcement says that Black Isle will release games “based on Interplay’s critically acclaimed intellectual properties.” But aside from Fallout, Fallout 2, and Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader, all of the games that the original Black Isle Studios developed or published were based on Dungeons & Dragons properties — Planescape, Icewind Dale, and Baldur’s Gate — that Interplay licensed from Wizards of the Coast, a branch of Hasbro.
A representative for Wizards of the Coast confirmed to Polygon that the company retains the rights to those brands, and that “Wizards is not involved with Black Isle.” Wizards of the Coast has licensed Baldur’s Gate to Beamdog for Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition, which is in development at Beamdog subsidiary Overhaul Games for PC, Mac, iPad, and Android. Beamdog co-founder Trent Oster told Polygon, “Officially, we wish Black Isle the best,” but declined to comment on whether his company is working with Interplay, except to say that Beamdog’s “recent work on MDK2 Wii and MDK2 HD” kept the publisher “in close contact with the current crew” there.
The only other companies with an active Dungeons & Dragons license from Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast are Atari, the publisher of the MMO Dungeons & Dragons Online and the Facebook game Heroes of Neverwinter, and Perfect World Entertainment, whose subsidiary Cryptic Studios is developing the MMO Neverwinter for release later this year.
Black Isle’s main non-D&D brand, Fallout, no longer has anything to do with Interplay. Bethesda Softworks acquired the Fallout rights from Interplay in 2007, then gave the publisher a conditional license to develop a massively multiplayer online game in the Fallout universe. Bethesda filed a lawsuit against Interplay in 2009, charging that Interplay had failed to uphold the terms of their original contract for the MMO. The two companies settled the suit in January 2012; the agreement returned all Fallout MMO rights to Bethesda, and in turn, the publisher paid Interplay $2 million “as consideration.”
Interplay’s existing properties don’t include any role-playing games
Interplay’s existing properties don’t include any role-playing games; most, like MDK, Descent, and Freespace, are shooters of some kind. It’s possible that the publisher will adapt one of its brands for a new Black Isle role-playing title, but the company is keeping quiet for now. Interplay CEO Herve Caen declined repeated interview requests for this story, only saying, “More news will be forthcoming of course.”
So it doesn’t appear that the new Black Isle Studios is developing new entries in its old franchises, and there’s no indication that former employees have returned to work under Interplay. “Yes, we’re back! well…. #BlackIsleIsBack,” reads the first message from Black Isle’s Twitter account. At least the company is being upfront on Twitter: the name is indeed back, but right now, that’s all there is.