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Codex Interview RPG Codex Interview: Chris Avellone at Digital Dragons 2016

Infinitron

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Codex Year of the Donut Serpent in the Staglands Dead State Divinity: Original Sin Project: Eternity Torment: Tides of Numenera Wasteland 2 Shadorwun: Hong Kong Divinity: Original Sin 2 A Beautifully Desolate Campaign Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire Pathfinder: Kingmaker Pathfinder: Wrath I'm very into cock and ball torture I helped put crap in Monomyth
Tags: Chris Avellone; Fallout 3 (Van Buren); Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 3; Wasteland 2

On his second day at the Digital Dragons convention in Cracow last month, Codex representative Jedi Master Radek met up with former Obsidian creative director and current freelancing man of mystery Chris Avellone, who was there to give a talk. He arrived with a big list of questions contributed by our users, and in the resulting 54 minute interview, Chris answered every last one. There's a lot to unpack here, including new information about the unique mechanics in Black Isle's cancelled Fallout 3 (AKA Van Buren) and about Obsidian's unsuccessful pitch for Knights of the Old Republic 3. I'll quote those parts:

JMR: What was the storyline for the third KotOR game? What would the player do in the Sith Empire? Was it going to be structured like the first two KoTORs: prologue, four planets and then the ending? Or something else?

MCA: So it was gonna be a little bit different. So basically, I think I've said this before, but the player would be following Revan's path into the Unknown Regions, and he goes very, very deep into the Unknown Regions and finds the outskirts of the real Sith Empire. And that's a pretty terrifying place. The intention was that it would be structured on a basic level like KotOR 1 and KotOR 2, but what would happen is you'd have a collection of hubs, but every hub you went to had an additional circuit of hubs, that you could choose which ones you optionally wanted to do to complete that hub, or you could do them all. But ultimately there was just a lot more game area in KotOR 3, just because the Sith Empire was just so fucking big. But yeah, so, on some level it was a similar structure, but it was intended to... so one of our designers, Matt MacLean, had this idea for Alpha Protocol mission structure, where what would happen is, you'd sort of go to a hub, but it wasn't really a hub, it was like a big mission you had to do as an espionage agent, but then there were like six surrounding missions, that central mission, and you didn't have to do any of them, but by doing some of those, you would cause a reaction in the main target mission that could even make your job worse or easier. Or you could choose to try and do all of them, and he let each of them like cater to like, a speech skill, or stealth mission, or shoot 'em up mission, and that would cause different reactivity. And I always liked that, because I felt like you were being given a larger objective, but you were getting a lot more freedom in how to accomplish it and how to set the stage, so it was easier for your character. And that's kind of the mission structure I would have liked to have bring to KotOR 3, because I thought it was much more intelligent design.

JMR: When you worked on Van Buren, what aspect of it did you like the most?

MCA: I liked the idea that the interface was kind of like a mini-dungeon you could explore. The idea when Van Buren was... your Pip-Boy actually didn't start out with all its functionality. Like you had some basic programs, so it acted like a normal interface, but the more you did certain things in the environment, like if you discovered, like, how to set off a fire alarms or you set a fire in a building and the fire alarms went off, suddenly a new functionality of your Pip-Boy, ”Here, let me find all the emergency exits for you!” And then suddenly all of those would be lit up on the map. And you're like, “Oh, wait a minute, I can use this as like a tracking mechanism to figure out where all the exits are.” And you could do that for things like fire suppression system, things like... like where the power sources are in buildings. You could use it to do autopsies on robots and steal their programs, and suddenly your Pip-Boy sort of became like this arsenal that you could use to sort of like navigate the environment. That was cool. And the other thing was... the adversaries in Van Buren could also use your Pip-Boy against you to both cloak their location and track where were you going, so you could actually end up in like a Pip-Boy war, where you're trying to track down each other using a Pip-Boy. So we tried to do a little bit of that in Fallout: New Vegas - Dead Money, where the Botherhood of Steel guy was trying to use the... which basically could have taken over your Pip-Boy, but that was axed, and they were like, “No, you can't do that”, so like, “Oh, shit.”

JMR: Van Buren was supposed to have another party in the world that would wander around and complete quests. Can you tell us how that was supposed to work?

MCA: Yeah, basically what they would do is they would go to alternate locations, and they had their own agenda path they were trying to follow to accomplish certain objectives. And the trick with them is each one of the rival party members actually had a separate agenda, which they didn't fully share with everybody else in the party. So sometimes they would do certain things at locations where it worked with one of their agendas but nobody else's, but the other guys wouldn't know about it, so you could use that against them, where you're like, ”Well you know that guy in that location left a note for us to follow you”, and they're like, “Oh my god! Are you a traitor?” [shooting sounds] But... it was basically a very heavily scripted NPC mechanic, where we were like, we're trying to increase reactivity and the sense the world was moving on. So, when the player characters would go to one location and do a bunch of stuff, they would be notified that something else was happening in the location and those guys would take care of the quests in an area or conquer that location, and you were like, “Oh, shit”, like, “We gotta move.” But it was all intended to give the sense that something else was happening in the world without waiting for you.​

However, as interesting as those answers are, I have a feeling they might not be the most commented on part of this interview. You'll understand when you read the full article: RPG Codex Interview: Chris Avellone at Digital Dragons 2016
 
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I think it does.
Here are the prologue and epilogue which were cut due to time constrains on editing them:

The next day I had an interview with Chris Avellone. His lecture was very interesting and I strongly recommend seeing it when it's uploaded. I said hello to Chris, then I returned to my hostel waiting for the meeting. It turned out Avellone, Crooked Bee and Brother None were having a party on the twitter and she tried to in intimidate MCA into giving better answers, but it only made him equip a Kevlar armor, take some extra grenades and clips for the interview.

We have arranged the meeting in a small park (Planty im. Floriana Nowackiego), where none of us have ever been, we found it on the google maps. Thankfully it turned out to be a very beautiful and atmospheric place. It stared to rain a warm, slow May rain when I was waiting. Then MCA came.

It would be very fitting for the rain to stop falling and the rays of sun to come out the sky and light Avellone's persona, sadly the weather proved to be indifferent to senpai. Chris cheerfully waved his hand to me. We went to the bench. We were grown up mans, so we didn't care about some soft and warm rain, we even didn't notice when it stop falling. We started the interview, during which the birds were singing, the trees were moving and a ladybug was slowly crawling on Chris shoulder(he didn't notice the foul beast).
(....)
Chris looked tired so I didn't ask him more questions. “Wow that was thoughtful. Codex should pay you for that” he said when the interview was concluded. The amazing thing about Avellone is how easy it is to speak with him, you feel like you have known him for years, words just come into your mouth naturally. When you are having a conversation with Chris, nothing feels more natural than having conversation with him.

I decided to stay in Cracow an extra day for sightseeing. And yes, you guessed it- it was very heavy raining for most of the day. But I found a great tea house, tasted for the first time a yellow tea. It had an amazing rich, bitter taste. The next day, after barely making into my train before it took off, I got quickly to the Warsaw. The train then headed into the Bialystok, the only polish city overrun by polar bears. I felt that I have leveled up a few levels during my adventure.
 

Ninjerk

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I really enjoyed this one. I don't know if that's because I'm reading some kind of... backhanded comments (not compliments mind you) for real or if I'm imagining some of the angst I'm reading here. We're definitely on the same page with regard to reservations about PoE as well as desiring more player-centric narrative.
 

ZagorTeNej

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Oh yeah! So the first problem that usually occurs is someone assumes that I'm trying to push some real world political agenda or some real world religious philosophy into a character, and I never am. All I'm doing is I try and examine the world that character lives in, and then I give him a perspective. But people always seem to want to take it to a real word philosophy or religion or political agenda kind of place, when that's not the case at all. [laughs]

:love:
 

Roguey

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I didn't do any dialogue writing for characters.

Huh, guess that convo at the end where you define your motivations wasn't his after all.

I did not want to be a lead writer at Obsidian.

No follow-up on this is shameful. :lol:

No... I worked on an area called the Refinery that I think got cut and then there was also um, another community, I think, near the end base but that also got downscaled at the end of the game.

http://www.scriptsandscribes.com/2014/09/qa-with-chris-avellone/
Designing the maps, quests, monsters, and encounters for several locations (and sometimes variations of the same location depending on reactivity): Highpool, Agricultural Center, Seal Beach, and an additional area.

:hmmm:

One is, there's a whole new group of players that enjoy the BioWare RPG, when it comes to character relationships, that never used to exist before. I think that's a good thing. The other thing that I've seen is, I think the Bethesda RPGs have gone so mainstream that a lot of people who normally wouldn't play an RPG will play a Bethesda RPG, which I think is a good thing for them.
:smug:

Interesting how he thinks it's good that people are interested in playing Bioware RPGs, yet people interested in Bethesda RPGs is good for them.
 

Mustawd

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MCA: Oh, I'm sorry, also like one other thing... like, sometimes I think, uh... some writers fall into the trap that they have to explain everything to the player. Like they just give like a huge word vomit dump about like what everyone's thinking and what my grand plan is. And you know what, players aren't dumb. Like, you can seed that stuff around and players can make the logical leaps about what people's motivations are, why they want to do things, without them having to come out and say it. And sometimes when you get faced with exposition like that... I just shake my head and want to cry. Because it would have been far more interesting if you could help interpret what their motivations were and see how they came to be, rather than them just telling you how things happened. And that's kind of irritating.

Someone give this man a fucking medal.
 

ZagorTeNej

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However, as interesting as those answers are, I have a feeling they might not be the most commented on part of this

You mean this part:

So I absolutely would be a lead writer again. It depends on the company. I did not want to be a lead writer at Obsidian. I would be a lead writer at another company.
 

Rahdulan

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That Copper Dreams plug. :incline:
 

Mustawd

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MCA: The only compromises that immediately jump to mind as being the worst is when QA is compromised. And the willingness to fix whatever QA finds as compromise, that's the first problem. Because at that point it's pretty clear that noone really cares about the end product, they just want it out. And that's a little thing I call “quality when convenient”, and the problem is there's a certain period in about every project where everybody's like, “Oh, quality! We're gonna make this the best thing ever. It's gonna be like so innovative, it's gonna be great!” And then the moment there's any hardship, everyone gives up. And they're like, “Oh god! Get it out the door. I don't care how many bugs there are.” And if you've worked for two years on a project and people around you started taking that attitude, that's death. Like, you're just like, “Why did we work so hard and put so much love in this game if you just don't care about it and you're not willing to sacrifice for it?”


Wow. This 100% describes why I left my public accounting firm. 100%. Except it's more like "Why did you make us work so many hours for 'quality' only to shortcut a bunch of shit towards the end just to get it done in time. We could have just taken shortcuts from the beginning and saved me all the late nights, horrible stress, bad health, and family members ignored!"


JMR: What's your favorite Obsidian game, and why?

MCA: [thinks for quite a while] I don't think I have one. I think my favorite game is probably... is just the ones back at Black Isle. Like, I mean, I... even though it didn't see the light of day I really loved working on Van Buren. I really liked working on Fallout 3, I liked the pen-and-paper game for Fallout 3. But there... most of the games that I liked were back at Black Isle.


:hmmm:
 

Rahdulan

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Someone give this man a fucking medal.

Yeah, he got real jabby couple of times in the interview with some pretty clear call-outs to Pillars of Eternity and New Vegas. Condemnation of Bethesda QA department in particular.
 

Ninjerk

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The really fun thing is that he's been doing this for awhile and with this I feel like it's just escalating. :love: based MCA.
 

Rev

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Great interview, Radek. Good work. :greatjob:
Only one thing, though: you should've really asked him why he didn't want to be a lead writer at Obsidian. He would've dodged the question probably, but it would've been worth to try anyway.
 

Infinitron

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Codex Year of the Donut Serpent in the Staglands Dead State Divinity: Original Sin Project: Eternity Torment: Tides of Numenera Wasteland 2 Shadorwun: Hong Kong Divinity: Original Sin 2 A Beautifully Desolate Campaign Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire Pathfinder: Kingmaker Pathfinder: Wrath I'm very into cock and ball torture I helped put crap in Monomyth
So before I go to bed, I'm going to comment on one thing that stood out to me in this interview.

I think some writer gets it into their head that they want to tell a story about the world

Ideally a computer game story very selfishly focuses on the player, and pays attention to the stuff that he does and reacts very specifically to that character

I think this is something that sets Chris at odds with the modern trend, in western RPGs in general and at Obsidian in particular, to make games about "factions" and "lore" and "worldbuilding". The truth is that the Avellonian way of design is extremely well-suited to working with existing licenses and existing worlds, and when you have to create your own, it inevitably distracts from a lot of what he likes doing.

What might be suitable for Chris is worldbuilding in the JRPG/Final Fantasy tradition. In those games, the worlds can be colorful and imaginative, but they also tend to be shallow and fungible, even disposable. They're really just a backdrop for more personal stories.
 
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Ninjerk

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So before I go to bed, I'm going to comment on one thing that stood out to me in this interview.

I think some writer gets it into their head, they want to tell a story about the world

Ideally a computer game story very selfishly focuses on the player, and pays attention to the stuff that he does and reacts very specifically to that character

I think this is something that set Chris at odds with the modern trend in western RPGs in general and at Obsidian in particular, to make games about "factions" and "lore" and "worldbuilding". The truth is that the Avellonian way of design is extremely well-suited to working with existing licenses and existing worlds, and when you have to create your own, it inevitably distracts from a lot of what he likes doing.

What might be suitable for Chris is worldbuilding in the JRPG/Final Fantasy tradition. In those games, the worlds can be colorful and imaginative, but they also tend to be fungible, even disposable. They're really just a backdrop for more personal stories.
:backawayslowly:
 

Barbarian

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The part about the would-be aliens game at the end made me quite sad. It would have been a great game then? Shit, so many abortions done with that franchise and when we get the chance for a solid sci-fi rpg it aborts.

To hell with you obsidian, to hell with you.
 
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Looks like I am responsible for one of those rare moments when Codex is enthusiastic. Achievement worthy of putting on CV :)
 

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