Chris Avellone – Obsidian Entertainment
The Wasteland 2 kickstarter project recently reached an astounding 2.1 million dollars, ensuring that Chris Avellone, the Creative Director of Obsidian Entertainment, will be working on the next installment in the Wasteland franchise. Consequentially, Chris Avellone has been in the press a lot. A lot of well-established sites have been interviewing him. When I first contacted Mr. Avellone about doing an interview with us, I had no website to show him – It wasn’t online yet. At that time, we were still ironing out the site’s design. Regardless, Chris graciously agreed to the interview. I think you’ll agree that he wrote some really fantastic answers to our questions. Mr. Avellone’s credits include Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, Neverwinter Nights 2, Alpha Protocol, Fallout: New Vegas, and many others.
This interview was originally published on 4/15/2012
In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned that you’ve had to add or remove content because of a publisher’s request. One example that comes to mind is the romances and cinematic presentation of Alpha Protocol. How much control does a publisher have over a game’s design? Does this vary between projects?
It varies between projects, and to be fair, sometimes it’s an internal request – the cinematic experience and romance requests, for example, were an internal debate (for the romances in particular, it was hard enough to write three, doing four was a struggle, and I really wanted to leave the Scarlet one for another game). Other times, however, publishers have requested specific implementations of mechanics (for example, the stat-based effects of your ability to shoot in AP – we felt this hadn’t worked well in other RPGs that implemented similar systems).
That said, here’s the harsh truth: Publishers pay the bills. They want a game to feel and play a certain way. Our position demands a responsibility to listen, to digest, offer a critique if we feel the execution could be better, and if they still request the feature, it’s our responsibility to add this. Sometimes, raising the critique and getting an answer gives more insight into why they want the feature done and can prevent future conflicts once you have that knowledge.
It’s not doom and gloom, however, and I don’t feel we’ve had a bad experience in terms of content. Often, publishers have been confident in our ability to deliver on the RPG aspects (working with THQ and South Park, for example, has been very much this way), so I don’t feel we’ve been unfairly treated when it comes to our designs.
What (if anything) is wrong with the current developer-publisher relationship? How was this relationship different back when you were working at Black Isle?
Black Isle was different because we were an internal studio part of Interplay. We had access to resources, personnel, and could directly interface with our “publisher.” This gave us more latitude to draw on resources as a result – if we needed to borrow the whole QA department for a week or two while Fallout 2 was in its final stages, we could do that. If we needed to request programming help, we could do the same.
Also, when a studio is internal, the release of a product tied to that studio and that studio’s future causes the company to care more about the end product and makes fighting for it easier because they’re directly exposed to it (and the consequences) on a daily basis and after the game has shipped.
Lastly, this is much bigger than folks realize, but one thing I miss about Black Isle is the fact we could ask our QA team to move onto the same floor as us, and even have internal testers assigned to people’s offices if the tester was largely responsible for testing a certain area or mechanic that the developer was implementing. I can’t tell you how fast shit gets fixed when you have that kind of turnaround. It’s something external publishers can’t often do, however, and worse, your publisher may be out of state, so even the idea of supplying QA to work on-site is far too expensive for them to consider (to be fair, on NWN2, we were allowed to hire the QA ourselves and keep them on site, and LucasArts really came through by sending seniors to us and also hiring a local temp QA agency to supply more help).
You’ve mentioned that you are often inspired by RPG conventions that bother you. What about RPGs has been irking you lately?
Let’s see. The concept of High Fantasy bugs me. I’d love to take a high fantasy game, fuck it up and then dump the wreckage in a player’s lap to experience. This probably also explains my desire to knock cupcakes and ice cream cones out of kid’s hands.
Conversation mechanics also bore me and frustrate me. I feel like dialogues have been devolving as time goes on, and the idea of being placed in a paralyzing face-to-face conversation with limited interactivity doesn’t seem to be the way to move ahead with this system. I keep looking at shows like Sherlock for inspiration, or even mull over ways to implement interactions if you had to do it for Half-Life and keep the feel of the game, and I feel there’s a better way to do it without going the full-on cinematics route… no slam on that presentation, but that’s BioWare’s territory, they’re masters at it, let them do it best, and the rest of us should find other ways to approach it that might yield an equally cool system with less resources. I felt we had a good system going on with Aliens that didn’t take you out of environment, and I did like the time pressure that Alpha Protocol provided because it fit the spy/24 genre (not my idea, that’s all Spitzley on programming and Mitsoda on design).
Next – dialogue morality bars tied to your character’s power with no middle ground that gives you equal empowerment. It removes any interest or awareness of the conversation beyond trying to hit the button that says “choose Good side or Bad side.” When that happens, I feel like you’re in danger of losing the RPG experience because you’re not reacting like you would naturally based on the context of the situation, you’re “gaming” the system instead of role-playing it.
What else: Handholding. Quest markers that point you right to the solution, especially. At least try to make the quest markers and objectives a game (Ghostbusters did it by having you literally “hunt” and play hot and cold with your objectives, Far Cry 2 did it in a similar method with triangulation for diamonds). I realize that you are in danger of frustrating players with mechanics like those, but I feel like the level we’ve stripped out challenge for the player is perplexing sometimes.
What piece of content that you contributed to was hardest to see cut from a project?
Ulysses in Fallout: New Vegas, seeing all of Van Buren canceled after 3+ yrs of design work, and losing the EPA in Fallout 2. Who knows, maybe I can use the EPA in Wasteland 2.
Seeing some pitches get flushed is also a sad experience, since you invest a bit of your soul into each one.
Briefly describe your best and worst pitch meetings.
Pitch meetings aren’t too bad. Often, I’m selling the story and the experience, and publishers don’t seem to have an issue with those as much as “we want an RPG, so what’s next?” I wouldn’t mind if publishers would let you know the franchise slot they’re looking to fill in advance, though, if only so we could be more prepared.
Over the course of your career, you’ve gone from a designer at Interplay to the Creative Director and Co-Owner of Obsidian. Is it difficult to balance being a creative and also handling the business development challenges of your current position?
Being an owner requires that you grow some extra eyeballs to keep track of other projects at the studio. On any given day, you may be asked to speak about the status of your project to the whole company, attend and critique a checkpoint on combat design progress on another project, be in charge of hiring someone and escorting them through the interview process, finish a written interview, give advice to fans who want to get into game development, followed by a call with a potential publisher, then sit down and iterate on 20+ pages of world design that’s due at the end of the day…
…then, hypothetically, you may have to head to inXile to have a meeting with Brian Fargo and the crew for design elements for Wasteland 2. It all makes for a busy day, but considering that “work” is basically my hobby, I’m not complaining.
The development of certain projects at Obsidian has been rough. KOTOR II was pushed out early, Alpha Protocol sat in a drawer for eight months, Fallout: New Vegas failed to garner a bonus (by one measly Metacritic point), and several projects have been cancelled. How have these experiences affected the way Obsidian negotiates with publishers?
Not much has changed. Lot of travel. Lot of talking and presenting. It takes time. Both parties want the best deal, and we quietly discuss it, bringing whatever big sticks we have to the table and leaving them propped there in full view. Usually, we don’t have much leverage, and the one that we do (publisher time pressure to release X project in Y time to meet Z’s expectations) doesn’t ultimately work to our advantage, anyway, so there’s no point in trying to use that.
As for cancelled projects – project cancellation is pretty standard in the industry, I’ve been part of at least three that have been canceled (Van Buren/Fallout 3 at Black Isle, BG3 at Black Isle, and the most recent game at Obsidian, although I wasn’t working directly on that outside of reviewing design elements).
In talks with students, one of my key points is, “if you haven’t had a project canceled, it just means you haven’t been in the industry long enough.” If it happens, roll with it and take what you’ve learned and hold on to it for a future game.
What specifically about the Wasteland IP makes you excited to work on the sequel?
There’s a lot of things:
First, Wasteland is one of my top 10 games of all time.
Second, Wasteland is in my top 10 because it did some amazing things that RPGs today have yet to do. I got to venture inside an android’s brain, fight with my intelligence skill, help a railroad nomad predict the future with Snake Squeezin’s, and unmatched until recently, fight a giant robotic scorpion with my fists.
Third, no publishers. Obsidian and inXile worked out a quick, simple deal, it took little to no time, and now I’m talking directly with inXile and getting ramped up on the design. It’s. So. Easy.
Fourth, I’m able to do a turn-based, text RPG. I never get to do those anymore. I love those games. I’d love to do more. Wasteland 2 is that opportunity.
Lastly, the fact that people want us to work on a sequel and are proving it on Kickstarter. Guess some dead genres aren’t dead after all – and I hope Shadowrun gets the same support that we and Double Fine have received from the community.
What are some common mistakes people make when writing for games?
Neglect for stories that result from game systems (Fallout and pickpocketing, especially planting explosives on people, allows for great stories, and Fallout: New Vegas’s reputation mechanics provide the same fun).
Lack of scriptwriting experience and brevity when doing a voiced game.
Not being aware that “tone” and emphasis on a word can help you edit out 2-3 extra sentences of foreshadowing – or not realizing that being able to call an “eye roll” or “shrug” animation is often better than any spoken response (Uncharted and Amy Hennig is a master of this).
There’s a bunch of other stuff, but I may have to leave that for the Austin Writer’s Conference at GDC Online later this year.
You’ve had the chance to work with some big IPs. Star Wars, D&D, and Alien spring to mind. What are some other IP’s you would love to work with?
Wasteland’s already happened. The Wire, Archer, Doctor Who, Torchwood, and an IP of our own. Deus Ex or Ultima would be rad. Doing an X-Com RPG or a high school RPG would also be cool.
What’s the company culture like at Obsidian? What makes it a great, unique place to work?
Open-door policy, especially from Feargus, our CEO. People can come to him anytime and ask him whatever they want – although he usually talks to them first while doing rounds or taking them to lunch.
Also, we have company-wide meetings every 2 weeks where we invite the whole company into the conference room and give them the run down on business developments (in detail), project status, and allow everyone to ask questions. We also encourage them to ask questions afterwards as well.
I feel Obsidian’s good about listening to input. While we may not incorporate everything everyone wants into a design or pitch, I feel we’re inclusive when it comes to developing a game.
Our tools department for our Onyx engine is great. Doing Dungeon Siege 3 was much easier as a result of their efforts, and our editors and systems for generating content are well-tailored to our design philosophies. It’s harder with other engines and editors.
Lastly, I feel Obsidian is great about hiring writers and narrative designers right from the get-go of the process rather than leaving the story until the last 3 months – that’s what really makes our narratives shine.
What are the chances for a sequel to Alpha Protocol or another game using an Obsidian-created IP?
AP’s owned by SEGA, and they’ve already said they won’t do a sequel, which is too bad, because we had a lot of cool ideas for AP2.
As for other IPs, we’ve got a number of those, and we’re pitching them to publishers to see if there’s any interest… personally, I’d like to set up a Kickstarter as well and start resurrecting some of the old franchises (or at least spiritual successors) to titles that got put on the shelf or weren’t considered good fits for pitches and publishers.