RPGamer Feature - Chris Avellone Interview

Chris Avellone is a game designer for Obsidian Entertainment. He has previously worked for Interplay and has designed or worked on titles such as Planescape: Torment, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, Fallout: New Vegas, and is currently working on Pillars of Eternity. We were able to sit down with him to discuss his career as a game designer, experiences on past projects, and what games he would love to make in the future.

Johnathan Stringer: How did you get your start in the video games industry?
Chris Avellone: I had a very early introduction to Dungeons & Dragons, roughly at about nine years old. I ended up being a game master because many of my friends were too lazy to run a session by themselves. I did that for a number of years, and I built up this huge body of work and thought I should probably get some of this published due to the large time investment. I sent several modules to Dungeon Magazine and Dragon Magazine without much success. But, I was able to get one of my character books for the super hero game Champions published called Dark Champions. And from there I did pen & paper sourcebooks for about two years or so and then talked to one of my game editors about getting into the computer game industry. He set me up with Interplay, and from there, I went from junior designer all the way up to creative director today.

JS: One of your earliest games, Planescape: Torment, has a very unorthodox, unique design. Why did you go with this design, and how did you sell the idea for development?
CA: Well in terms of selling the idea, that wasn't too difficult because Interplay had already purchased the Planescape license, but they didn't have any games coming out for it. So, when our division director, Feargus Urquhart, who is now also CEO of Obsidian, went to Brian Fargo and said we have an idea for taking the Planescape license using the Baldur's Gate engine and doing a game based on that. It logistically just made a lot of sense to get a Planescape game out. The nice thing about the unorthodox approach is that Planescape itself, to be true to the franchise, requires sort of an unorthodox mindset. So, the actual setting lended itself to a lot of the design ideas in Planescape, which was pretty darn cool. It was one of the most fun franchises I have ever had to work with.

JS: Planescape: Torment wasn't an immediate financial success, but eventually became regarded as one of the best PC games, regardless of genre, and a cult classic. Any ideas on why it was slow to gain traction, and then to be held later in such high esteem?
CA: I'd like to think that some of the game mechanics and narrative approach sort of stood the test of time, which, I think, are outside of technology constraints. So, I still think it is something that people can come back to and play today, and see how innovative those elements were, regardless of technology at the time, which I think is important. I also think, in a lot of ways, it was sort of subversive when it came to a lot of RPG mechanics and standard fantasy tropes. I tried to intentionally reverse those, and turn them on their heads, which I think people appreciated just to get a new perspective on what fantasy RPGs could be like.

JS: Were there any other gaming influences or inspirations for Planescape: Torment?
CA: I kind of looked at all the RPGs I had played up to that point, and identified all the things I was tired of seeing in those RPGs, and just looked for new ways to get around them. It just seemed like loading your game up after death was a huge waste of time. Ideally you just want the player to play until they feel like quitting, and so it occurred to me that if I made an immortal character, and made death a part of the game and mechanics, that it would be a more enjoyable experience for players instead of the standard save, die, and reload. I thought it would also be kinda cool if there were instances where dying allowed you to solve certain puzzles. I was also sick of seeing elves and dwarves and all of the standard fantasy races, and thought: "Aren't people ready for something new?" And this just seemed to be a good platform to explore the so many other good options out there for people to latch onto.

JS: What similarities will fans of Planescape: Torment find in Torment: Tides of Numenera?
CA: Well, first thing, there is a great cast of companions that will follow you around. And I think, one nice thing is that since a bunch of writers were brought in outside of game design, like Monte Cook, Mur Lafferty, and Pat Rothfuss. They all bring really interesting themes to the game. They are not your standard fantasy fare, which I think players will appreciate. There is also a lot of reactivity in the dialogues. The game itself is a very personal story, and there is a very strong theme running through the game, which was very important for the first Torment. I think all of those, players who played the first game will recognize in Tides of Numenera and will appreciate it for what it is.

JS: Changing gears to the Fallout series, you were working on Van Buren which was to become Fallout 3.
CA: Ah yes, good ol' Van Buren!

JS: Yes, there is not really a lot known about this game, how far along were you in development?
CA: Well, I should start off by saying Van Buren went through two stages. One was a very long pre-production period where I was basically the only one working on it for about three to three and a half years. Then Baldur's Gate III was cancelled at Interplay, and the entire Baldur's Gate III team moved on to Van Buren. A few months later, I left Interplay, and Josh Sawyer took over the second iteration of Van Buren. So, for the first part of Van Buren, I was doing area design, pen & paper testing, and checking out mechanics like trying to figure out how ghouls would work as a player character race and super mutants and such. So yeah, there were a lot of mechanics development, a lot of storyline development, and area development. But in terms of actual gameplay aspect, I believe that the vertical slice/demo done proving out some of the basic navigation mechanics were as far as it went, and there were a lot of area design documents. But Van Buren hadn't gone much beyond that and would probably be more of a question for Josh.

JS: Van Buren looked to have an isometric view and gameplay style as was in the first two Fallouts, were you bitter at all about how that plan was cancelled and eventually turned into a 1st or 3rd person shooter RPG? And, though it was well received, do you think the series should have stayed in that same isometric view style?
CA: I am not bitter at all. Actually, Fallout 3 wasn't ever the reason Van Buren was cancelled. Van Buren was cancelled because management didn't feel it was a viable title compared to console titles, and Van Buren was going along the lines of just being a PC only title. Which, you know, had been the case for quite some time before they decided to cancel it. So, I am a little upset they reached that decision somewhat late, but my disappointment is geared towards Interplay's decision and not anything related to future Fallout installments.

I do think Bethesda had a huge challenge with Fallout 3 because they had to remind people what Fallout was, and they had to reintroduce people to the world, which I thought they did a really great job with it. I think, for example, you growing up as a vault dweller, and how they handled that, was a good introduction to the world. I liked their open world mechanics as I think exploration is a big part of the Fallout universe and Fallout 3 did a really great job of doing that. So yeah, I played Fallout 3 and really enjoyed it a lot, and I played the DLCs and enjoyed those, and am really happy to see where they take Fallout in the future.

JS: Well you must have liked Fallout 3 as you worked on the follow up Fallout: New Vegas. Were there some elements of Van Buren that found their way into New Vegas?
CA: Yes! There were so many that crept in. And oddly enough, a lot of it came out of the pen & paper sessions that we were running at Interplay. A lot of the personal conflicts the player characters were having in those sessions that I was game mastering actually ended up as plot lines in New Vegas. Like, the whole idea of the Stealth Boy technology can drive super-mutants and nightkin insane was something we had running in the pen & paper campaign. The Big Empty that we had for Oldworld Blues, that was also a part of Van Buren, although it was more like a military bootcamp in that version. We had the Hoover Dam, and it was set up like this whole floating city that had been built around the dam on one side, and that was moved into New Vegas, although it evolved into a different fashion. We just had a whole bunch of stuff from Van Buren that we brought over into New Vegas, though it just ended up changing design-wise over time, and evolving into cooler and better things.

JS: Working at Obsidian, what are some of the benefits and drawbacks of working on sequels from other developers such as Knights of the Old Republic II and Neverwinter Nights 2, as opposed to working on brand new IPs?
CA: The benefits are that you usually have an established franchise that you are working with, which is usually leveraged off whichever toolset or engine was used in the first game. Therefore, you already have a code base to draw upon to start building content. You are usually able to start generating the actual gameplay material quickly. Also, in terms of benefits, generally whenever we work with franchises or sequels, we have a lot of publisher support in areas we could not have achieved on our own, such as audio support, quality assurance support, or if we needed to bring in extra programmers or programming help. Usually, those publishers are pretty good about getting us those resources and ultimately having that support present is very helpful.

In terms of drawbacks, sometimes the pre-conceived expectations of those original titles can be daunting to live up to. Like, when we were doing Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, it is really rough to follow the first game, because the first game is one of my favorite games. The amount of stuff they pulled off in Knights of the Old Republic just had us feeling that we have no way we will be able to top this when we started on II; this game has everything that dreams are made of in the Star Wars universe. So, that was a tough act to follow, and we aren't as large a studio as those who did the original titles, so trying to keep up with the Joneses can be kind of hard.

JS: You mentioned earlier that you grew tired with the recurring themes and tropes in RPGs. While working on these sequels, do you feel it a frustration to be stuck under these constraints or do you still find room to break the mold?
CA: No, there is room to be subversive. With the Knights of the Old Republic II especially, one of your main companions raises all the questions that I have about the Force and Star Wars that I would say in a subversive manner. And to be able to do that, and sort of be able to challenge the player's viewpoints on those things, that was something they allowed me to do in that game, which I appreciated. So, I felt like the itch there was getting scratched. This was also a lot of good narrative fuel, because it made me want to write that character even more, because I was able to ask those questions, and have the player there as a sounding board. So that was actually pretty exciting.

JS: Alpha Protocol, similar as to what happened with Planescape: Torment, seemed to suffer from some initial poor sales and critical reception. However, it has recently been building steam as another cult classic. Critics often pointed to the many technical bugs and a flawed combat system as negatives. Was this game too ambitious? And could you comment on this perception?
CA: Well, I think Torment had an advantage in that it at least did one thing very, very well. I think the narrative reactivity, and the companions, and all that, became a strong spine for that title that people could point to and say: "Hey, you know what? That game did that really, really, really well." When it came to Alpha Protocol, I don't think there was necessarily anything that really stood out quite so strongly. I think the storyline had a lot of reactivity to it but, in a lot of ways, it was much more traditional espionage approaches to stories. So, I don't know if that really stood out quite so much. And in addition, there were many other games out around the time of the game's release that did a lot of the mechanics in that game a lot better than Alpha Protocol did. Like with Splinter Cell, in terms of stealth mechanics and such, you know, Splinter Cell totally blew us out of the water because they specialize in that, and they know how to do it, and do a great job. Then Mass Effect 2, they have the whole cinematic, dialogue narrative system all down to a T. So, any attempt that we do to try and do similar sequences, they just aren't going to shine as well as Mass Effect 2, because you know guess what, BioWare has been doing that a long time. They know the pipelines, they know the process, and it shows throughout the BioWare titles. So, when it comes to things like that, Alpha Protocol couldn't stand out.

It also had a lot of design issues that occurred over the course of the project right from the outset. You don't want to put the cart before the horse when it comes to design. And what I mean by that is, Alpha Protocol was a clear example of wanting to make sure you have the player's movement set, and all of the system mechanics very clearly defined before you do any level design, and even before you do a lot of narrative design. You need to know how the player moves in the environment, and how the stealth mechanics work, because any time you are trying to develop levels based on a changing system mechanic, you are going to waste a lot of time, and do a lot of iteration. There was a lot of feedback, both internally and externally, for how those systems should work, and that just ended up prolonging the length of the title to a point I don't think it quite stood out so well compared to other titles.

JS: Why did Obsidian decide to use Kickstarter to fund Project Eternity?
CA: Pitching an isometric, old-school RPG has two adjectives, no three adjectives associated with it when you add PC only, or Windows-focused, to the front of RPG that publishers don't want to hear. They don't see a lot of profit to be made in a game like that, nor is it worth investing the resources to create a game like that. So, we recognized there was probably an audience for a game like that out there, and Kickstarter just provided the means to contact that audience, and ask them directly for support. The backers came back with an insane level of support, which made us all very, very happy.

JS: Would you say this is the future for these old-school style, PC RPGs, and the only way to get them developed?
CA: I used to think yes, but, recently I think publishers have seen how well these games are attracting an audience on Kickstarter and how much financial support they are getting. Now, I think publishers in the future would be more willing on having a conversation about making these types of games.

JS: In your opinion, why has the Western RPG been gaining in popularity while that of the Japanese RPG has seemingly been descending?
CA: You know, I have thought about this, and have no idea. I have a bunch of guesses. I think maybe, there are some elements about western RPGs that offer more freedom, in terms of how you build your character, and in terms of how you experience the storyline, as that is true in a lot of Bethesda's games. But, then there are some other games that seem to be mimicking more of the Japanese RPG model, that are some ways more constrained than a Bethesda game, and those seem to be doing well. So, maybe just the super linear path, without much deviation, gamers are having a backlash against that. And ultimately, they just want to play their own hero that they have customized, they have developed, and they don't have to worry about seeing in a cutscene necessarily. They just want to be the fantasy character they imagined, and I just think Western RPGs allow for that a lot more than Japanese RPGs.

JS: With time and money not a factor, what would be your dream game to develop or play?
CA: So, I've already worked on two. One was Fallout: New Vegas and the other was Wasteland 2. I never thought that I would get a chance to work on a Wasteland game; that totally threw me. But in terms of games beyond that, I really want to do a 1980's high school RPG. Where you can team up with party members, like one is from the nerd clique, and one is from the jock clique, and you could navigate through the four years of high school, and you know, go on quests and survive finals or prom, and things like that. All of these things would be fun to do, but then Rockstar's Bully came out and I was like eh, they already did a great job with the school experience there, and I loved Bully so...

I'd love to work on Dr. Who or The Wire, which are two franchises that would be really cool. I think Dr. Who would be pretty simple because I'd think you'd only have a few skills. You'd have the ability to run fast, your knowledge of science, and then just your sonic screwdriver skill, and you'd probably be alright.

If you set up The Wire game, which would basically just be one season of The Wire, you'd present one social underlying challenge that you would be monitoring from time to time. I think the third season, with the New Hamsterdam story-line, that entire sequence where each of the police chiefs in charge of a division would go and report to the police department about how well the crime stats were doing in their areas, I felt would be one sort of overlying macro game. But then you would have your district, where you are solving a series of crimes with investigations, piecing together contacts you'd need, and building up trust and influence. These are all things we have done in previous RPGs, but doing them in the context of The Wire, and them doing them in the context of a real-world social dilemma, that you would have different perspectives on, and different characters and companions that could comment on that, like your squad or team, could present different viewpoints, and how to approach this particular social angle. I thought that would just be a fun game to develop, and I think it would be really intriguing one for players to play.

JS: If you could do anything besides game development, what would it be?
CA: What I'd want to be doing is either writing for comic books, or doing novel or short story writing. But the irony of it is, that when I got into game design over the past few years, I've had the opportunities to do both of those because I work in games. So ultimately, I reached the same destination, but now I have the added privilege to be able to work on games as well. So, I feel I am covering a good chunk of the spectrum of writing.

We would like to thank Chris Avellone for taking time out of his busy schedule to participate in this interview. We wish Chris and Obsidian Entertainment the best of luck in their upcoming endeavors and look forward to these upcoming RPGs.

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