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Interview with Chris Avellone

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Interview with Chris Avellone

Interview - posted by Vault Dweller on Wed 8 March 2006, 02:05:04

Tags: Chris Avellone; Obsidian Entertainment

This interview continues on from Part I.

0. What kind of music do you like?

Vince didn't really ask this question, but it's a well-known fact he hates questions like this.

The answer is, "I enjoy music I like."

1. What's your definition of RPG? What features are important to you and why?

The quick answer is that the core role-playing game formula must be present and be balanced. Nice and vague, there you go.

What the hell is the "core role-playing game formula?" Here's my take on it:

You role-play. You are given the choice of putting yourself into a role and the game allows you to act out that role, and ideally, gives you the means and game mechanics to do so - if you want to be evil, you can, and it has repercussions. If you want to Mr. Stealthy, there is a stealth skill, and it allows you to do cool things.

VINCE: Ideally? You've gotta be kidding. If a game doesn't give you means & mechanics to act a role, it's not a role-playing game, it's any game where you pretend that you are the main character. Like Quake.
You customize your character on some level. This usually involves number allocation to a variety of attributes and name, hair, and skin choices, either at the start or during the game. Paperdolling is a huge plus, and I am reminded of it every day when playing Neverwinter Nights 2 or World of Warcraft.

Your character takes action in an immersive, adrenaline pumping world. By interacting in this environment in some fashion in this world (and I use "interacting" loosely - it can be dialogue, farming, crafting, whatever), your character becomes stronger and better. This interaction is usually done by killing things that move and taking numbers, objects with numbers, or numbers of objects from them.


These objects are sometimes referred to as phat loots, which should not be confused with Proverbius.


This whole formula of environmental interaction and number accumulation (sometimes called "character development") is just challenging enough to make you feel a sense of triumph and accomplishment. This usually involves proper game mechanics and proper balance. The common flowchart I used to use for the RPG formula is:


Note that I've seen a better flowchart out there - I think Fargo did one for Gamespy which was much more accurate, but since I'm lazy, I'm not going to look for the link. If you really want to know, ask Fargo, he's a nice guy.

I feel that bragging to your friends about what you did in the game that they didn't do or bragging about how you solved something with your unique skill set is sometimes overlooked, but all you need to do is be a fly-on-the-wall for a typical Fallout or any MMO conversation, and it's an important part of any game formula, RPG or no.


Your character can do things he can't do in the real world that makes you feel cool. Nobody backtalks to you, women (or men) love you, and everything you do is something to be feared, respected, or reviled. This is called ego-stroking, and is demonstrated thusly:


Now, outside of this, a role-playing game has to have at least one choice somewhere, on some level that affects your gameplay experience. The more choice you have, the better, but there has to be at least one choice that affects the gameplay experience.

This is not as important as game mechanics, but it is still important to me - a good story, and one that should be developed in tandem with the characters and mechanics, since I think that gives the game a good sense of aesthetics.

A rich world, that allows for exploration, has good ambiance, and has a good overall aesthetic feel that allows you to loose yourself in it.

This could go on for pages, but this is the quick list. It's not prioritized, either, but I don't feel like doing that, either.

2. Let's go briefly through your career-defining moments. Fallout 2, New Reno. It's a well done town, especially from a role-playing point of view. There is only one problem, it doesn't fit into the setting. Why did you decide to do it that way?

CHRIS: Why doesn't it fit with the setting? Maybe you're right.

VINCE: It's a gangster town. Btw, you don't need to care about my opinion, feel free to explain in your answer that it fits perfectly and people who think otherwise are blind morons ;)
CHRIS: But I do care about your opinion. Come on, tell me.

VINCE: I feel that organized crime and "families" are too much for a post-apoc setting. Organized crime, in my opinion, requires a much more developed social infrastructure. In a less developed one, there is no reason for bandits and raiders to form anything higher than a gang.
CHRIS: Okay, well that's no fun. I completely disagree with that. I think if you have the organized structure for towns, cities, caravans, religious cults, water merchants, then you can either have some structure that equates to that or a predator that feeds on those structures (like Decker was in the Hub, and he was many, many years before New Reno). I was going off a one-page design outline for the area that Tim Cain had done, but I agreed with it, and I am sure Tim would still agree with it on principle, if not on execution.

VINCE: The reasons and needs for creation and development of organized settlements (towns) and religion are different than those for creation and development of organized crime. Without turning it into an essay, there is a good reason why the Sicilian Mafia, the first of the organized crime models, was developed only in 19th century due to industrialization & trade.

As for Decker, again, there is a difference between a criminal operating in a bar and mobsters running casinos and drug labs.
Secondly, I (and Tom French, now a rockstar at Pandemic) had a lot of fun working on New Reno. I think it presents a lot of fun role-playing opportunities and things to do, no matter what "type" of character you are, but does it fit in the setting? No, probably not. It's too sexually over the top, too much profanity, and the look and attitude of some of the characters is too modern-day to complement the feel of the Fallout world (the Mordino family, the fedora hats, the porn studio, the tommy guns, shivs). In that respect, I would consider it an immature design, and while I had fun with it, I don't think it was the best rendition of a section of the Fallout world. It also had horrible load times because I crammed too much stuff in there.

But I still think it was fun to play, and it was fun to design. And I think it was cool to be able to go back there after the game was over and have some fun. And killing the crime bosses in secret ways was fun. And I liked Golgotha, even if the name was inappropriate. And I liked Lenny's Dad (thanks, French).

3. Speaking of settings, how important the setting is to you when you design a game? Also, you have worked with many licensed settings: Forgotten Realms, Fallout, Planescape, Star Wars, etc. How does being forced to stick with predefined setting elements, ranging from history and events to spells and creatures, affect you, your ideas, your creativity?

It's a little confining at times. I think sometimes the parameters are welcome, but the freest licenses I've worked with are Fallout and Torment, and even those had "genre bookends" you had to work within. You can find something fun in every genre, and if you accept the limitations and know them early on, it's still fun to design.

4. Planescape: Torment - one of the best games ever made, a game that made many Top 10 lists, but never made the Top Seller list. Did it change your understanding of the gaming industry and markets? How would you evaluate PST today? Would you have done anything differently?

CHRIS: Is it one of the best games ever made? I loved working on it, but I'd dispute that in a heartbeat.

VINCE: Hard to explain, to be honest. Sure, I can write a neat review, explaining good and bad sides, building up a proof that it is indeed a great game, but that's not what you are asking. Sometimes you look at an object of art, and you know instantly that it's a masterpiece. Not because it has the right "features", but because those features form something far greater than their sum.
CHRIS: Do you have any other points?

VINCE: Another point, it was one of those games that draws you in instantly, that grabs you and won't let go, like a great book. It's like playing Civilization for the first time, and having that "one more turn" moment. Not many games do that.

Last, but not the least, I've talked to many gamers, on forums and face-to-face. They may disagree on exactly which games form the top 10 list, but PST is usually there, a permanent resident.

Does that answer your question?
CHRIS: Yep. I don't know if many people who played it had the same immersion experience you did - a number of people who played could not get past the Mortuary because it was so heavy on dialogue and not much to DO, gameplay-wise. I think it gets easier when it gets out to the Hive and suddenly the RPG elements become more open - there's a ton of little quests you can do fast and quick in any order to get more numbers. But even then, we had to stage some fights in there to break it up along with some mini-dungeons - and since then (Targos in Icewind Dale 2), I've tried to include a lot more combat at the beginning to break up the talking.

VINCE: About that "not much to DO, gameplay-wise thing". What's gameplay then and what's with the belief that a lot of combat can make everything better? I'm not sure how much PST's Mortuary was flawed in your opinion, but I don't think that combat-filled Peragus' corridors in KOTOR2 were an example of great design.
What would I do differently if I was doing Torment today? Today, I would have had more NPC responses be reflected in animation and facial expression rather than just text. I'd also like a lot of dialogue options be represented visually, instead of described.

VINCE: You are kidding, right? Anyway, why do you feel that way? Do you think that graphics - any graphics - can be more immersive, more descriptive than good writing?
I probably would have added more to Rubikon - we had more mockery quests in there (like Annah and Fall-From-Grace get "kidnapped" and you go on a "save the Princess" quest). We even had dialogue recorded for it, I wish I could find it.

There's probably more (I would have liked to go into Vhailor and Ignus' backstory more), but I can't think of it right now.

5. When KOTOR 2 was announced, many people expected a game of the Planescape: Torment caliber, especially in the story, dialogue and NPCs departments. Sadly, it didn't happen. Can you tell us why?

CHRIS: Well, not a loaded question, but how did K2 fail compare to Torment in story, dialogue, and characters?

VINCE: There was no story (there was a backstory, but that's a different element), other than find 4 Jedi masters and either collect them all like pokemon or kill them all for a secret to be revealed.

Dialogues felt empty. Well written, but empty. Again, one of those hard to explain things.

As for the characters, there was no emotional attachment to or interest in the party members or characters. In PST Pharod, Ravel were giants loaded with personalities, depth, and flaws that made them so human and alive. It was different in K2. Not because I had higher expectations - I didn't, but ... something was missing.

In PST it was hard to decide on which party members to pick. It was even harder to sacrifice Morte or sell/kill one for The Grimoire of Pestilential Thought. I played the game 3 times over the years, but I could never do that simply because the characters were so alive. In K2 I could easily sell/kill most NPCs. Why? I don't know. That's how both games made me feel.

There were some similarities between TNO and the Exile, but in PST we were shown the consequences on a grand scale - of TNO's entire life and how his choices affected people. In K2, the Exile's past didn't play an important role. It didn't matter at all.

Again, needless to say, those are just opinions, so don't take it personally. I didn't mean to offend or anything like that. Sorry if I couldn't be more specific. I believe emotions can paint a better picture here than a dry analysis.
CHRIS: I take no offense to your honesty. But stay right where you are, a missile is arcing its way toward your home right now, and there is a lightsaber-wielding Jedi on top of it.

Okay, so character resonance - I do think Kreia was a deep character, personally, but I can see how you would feel that way with some other characters... people were strangely divided on Bao-Dur, for example, and G0-T0, while I enjoyed him and I thought his voice actor was awesome (Daran Norris from Team America), he never really clicked, and that's my fault. I also tried to add more personality to T3, but I'm not sure how well that turned out, either.

I thought the Jedi Masters would be cool, solely because instead of finding objects, you're finding people you interact with, which puts a new element of diplomacy and choice in there. Ultimately, we did want the same free-range exploration as the first game, so it all came down to how you present the motivation from planet to planet. I thought the fact they all knew something of personal value to you (the trial aftermath) would make the player more motivated to find them, but I don't think it worked with some people.

VINCE: What choice? To kill them or "collect" them? I don't think there was much diplomacy there either. Comparing to the incredibly complex conversation with Ravel, for example, the execution of a good-in-theory "interacting/learning something of personal value" idea was flawed.
Also, in K2 I suppose the only consequences you see are Malachor V, Disciple, Atris, and it certainly happens nowhere near the same frequency as it does in Planescape Torment.

In the end, I do wish there had been more time and I wished I had had more time to work on the end game, and that was my fault. We did get a lot accomplished in the time we had, and I probably should have cut another planet (the droid planet got the axe). I still think it's a good RPG, we probably should have just made it shorter.

6. Isometric vs anything else. How important the camera angle is? Does it add anything to gameplay? Some people believe that a true Fallout sequel should be isometric, some say that it's not very important? What's your opinion as an ex-Fallout developer?

Camera angle is critical to gameplay. Isometric is more tactical, less immersive, but better for any game where you have to manage more than one companion.

Is it important to Fallout? Beats me. When we were doing Fallout 3, we were doing isometric just because that's the game we wanted to make. Josh can probably say more, if you wanted to ask him.

I don't think what makes Fallout great is tied to its camera angle.

7. Party-based gameplay, same question I asked David Gaider: Planescape: Torment vs Baldur's Gate 2. Both games featured strong, yet very different and distinctive party design & mechanics. What are your thoughts about BG2 party mechanics ? Did you see anything that might fit into and improve your own style?

I wished I believed in romance more than Bioware. ;) I just can't write it unless one of the pair gets impaled on a pike, set on fire, or betrays the other and then impales them on a pike or sets them on fire. Generally, I prefer unrequited, melancholy, quiet suffering whenever possible, which really doesn't go over well with a lot of the role-players out there.

Also, Torment had more freedom from the D&D ruleset than BG2 did. I will say that we designed less freedom with Torment's characters (explained by the Nameless One's powers) than BG2 did because our design staff was limited and I was lazy, so I'd keep that in mind, too. BG2's the way to go. Listen to Dave, whatever he said.

8. In KOTOR 2 you put more emphasis on party members by delegating and splitting the party a few times. How did that work out? What is the role of a party member, in your opinion? Should such a character be merely a wingman or should he/she/it be given a chance to play a more active role, make some decisions, etc? Would we see this feature in future Obsidian titles?

Well, for K2, that was more a license and "how can we get windows into this character's experience" decision. Is Star Wars, it was a key moment of the films that the heroes would split up to accomplish different goals (like when they were trying to rescue Leia from the Death Star in Episode IV), so we tried to do it in the game. Some people liked it, others didn't. I do think it presents a game challenge to suddenly alter your tactics because you're no longer using your "typical" character, but that doesn't make players happy.

A character should always have their own voice and opinion, but doing that in every situation is very resource intensive, and in some cases, I would argue it isn't always fun.

9. Linearity vs non-linearity. Both PST and KOTOR 2 are linear games (side quests and "visit planets in any order" shtick don't count). Can you comment on that design choice? Do you feel that a story would suffer if multiple plot choices are introduced?

Not at all, but it requires a larger team than we had at our disposal both times. It's mostly logistics, not desire.

10. In PST there was a number of things you could do with the party members: trade for knowledge, sell into slavery, etc. In KOTOR 2 the party members were yours forever and ever. Was that a requirement forced on you or was that your design? What are your thoughts on party dynamics and things players should be able to do with parties in a good RPG?

Actually, you couldn't do that much with your characters in PST, really. Sure, you could let some of them go, but that was pretty staged. Nordom and Vhailor were optional, sure, but really, the core cast was pretty set.

VINCE: Actually, you could trade Morte to the Pillar and sell a party member to the Curiosity Shoppe.
In K2, that was our decision. We did want them to turn on you and engage in a party civil war at the end of K2 based on their influence with you, but we ran out of time (my fault). I think people found the files for it (Visas vs. Handmaiden, Atton vs. the Disciple, HK vs. T3).

11. KOTOR 2 featured an interesting influence system to spice up your relationship with party members. Any comments on the execution, potential, flaws, ways to improve it?

I guess the system was intended to reinforce the player character's traits in K2, but the mechanic we were trying for was that "hey, you only get the life story, the depth, and chance to make people better if you actually invest some energy in them." That way you could ignore whoever you want and get bonuses from the ones you cared about, rather than having their story inflicted on you.

It probably could have used a more consistent implementation throughout the game (again, my fault), and it would have been nice to have it have more dramatic impacts at the end, but we're trying to learn from that in Neverwinter Nights II.

12. You stated that dialogues shouldn't get in the way for people who don't like them and since that's "not what they're there for, and a designer or writer shouldn't hamstring them." Do you believe that you can make two games in one: one for people who like depth and dialogues, and another for people who like blasting things with fireballs?

Fallout did. If you were a dumbass combat monster, that game was still a lot of fun. Even more so, in some respects.

VINCE: I could be mistaken, but I don't think Fallout was overly popular with the "combat monster" crowd.
I think there's a way to get both, I don't think those people are necessarily two different categories, but RPG mechanics up to this point and implementation of communicating with NPCs and others in game has made it that way. I guess my problem with dialogue is that it shouldn't have to make the action or the player's freedom stop, I think there's probably a better way to implement it in the environment that works for both types of players. I do disagree (and I have been guilty of this), that you necessarily limit a player's choice whenever you force them to endure a long dialogue, freeze them in place to watch someone else, and don't allow them to interact with people the way they want.

13. The unannounced semi-original IP "inspired by a license" project. It's the first original Obsidian project, so the expectations and pressure must be high. Without being too specific, what design decisions can we expect? What's Obsidian's vision of a successful and original project these days, when sequels seem to rule the gaming world?

This is purely hypothetical if someone takes offense at this, and since I am one of five owners, this is also solely my opinion without consultation with the other hive minds.

Vision of a successful project - the priority of these components vary, but I'll present them in the order of how I see the priority, since I am egocentric:

- Its core gameplay should be fun. Aside from our lead designer, Kevin Saunders, our third project has two of the three sub-lead designers (one Josh Sawyer, the other, Brian Heins, who were able to persuade to depart Rockstar) devoted to overseeing the two core game mechanics of the game and making sure they are as fun for the player as possible. I can't go into too much detail on the actual systems, but having someone carrying the torch for a core game mechanic is important - and it also allows it to be consistently held up throughout the entire game instead of chopped up amongst designers.

- At Obsidian, we place a high priority on story and characters. Again, with our third project, we have another sub-lead (Brian Mitsoda, who did a lot of the story work and dialogue work on Vampire: Bloodlines) devoted solely to the overall story, its presentation, dialogue, influence mechanics, and voice acting for the game.

- It should meet the consumer expectations whenever possible. There are certain expectations that the gaming community will have when the game is announced, and it is our responsibility to provide them with the experience they're looking for.

VINCE: This one sounds like generic PR bullshit to me. You just copy-pasted it from somewhere, didn't you?
- That said, the game should also meet the publisher requirements. This may not be what everyone wants to hear, but it's a reality. They pay a great deal of money and take a risk on every product, and it's the developer's responsibility to make sure that you honor that trust.

- If it's a license, it should be true to that license (this isn't saying the third project is one). The player should feel like they are playing a game set in that world - and that the game meets the aesthetics, feel, and what people perceive as "fun" about that license. Lightsaber duels in Star Wars are fun. Traveling the planes in Planescape is fun. Dungeon crawling in Faerun in a Dungeons and Dragons game is fun. It's our responsibility to deliver what's fun about that license.

- Be realistic in scope. It is much better to have a high quality game with less material in it than the kitchen sink of mediocre elements.
We'd like to thank Chris, Obsidian Entertainment, and Lucas Arts for the interview.

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