Interview with Chris Avellone

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Today, we have an interview with a very special person in the world of RPG development: Chris Avellone. Among other things, Chris was lead designer on Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, as well as on Planescape: Torment (widely considered to be one of the most artistically significant–if not simply the best–RPGs ever created).

Aside from his pedigree as an RPG designer, Chris has been in a good position to observe first-hand some of the sweeping changes that crowdfunding has heralded in his corner of the industry over the past year or so. I caught up with him to pick his brain about RPG design, the Kickstarter revolution, and what it means to be independent from publishers.

Hey Chris, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions!

First, for those who may not know you by name, can you introduce yourself?

I’m Chris Avellone, Creative Director of Obsidian Entertainment and one of the five studio owners. I’m currently a level designer on Wasteland 2, working with inXile, and a narrative designer on Project: Eternity.

What got you interested in developing RPGs?

Introversion and a game of catch with a neighboring friend, which don’t seem to mesh now that I write about it. While we were throwing a baseball back and forth, he told me about Dungeons and Dragons and how it worked, and my brain suddenly got curious about the idea of a game of imagination with rules where you could explore dungeons and fight monsters. It sounded amazingly cool. So I went out, got the books, and tried to make sense of them. From there, I learned it was almost impossible to get anyone to run a Dungeons and Dragons game for me, so to get my fix, I started creating and running my own adventures all the way into college. At that point, after many, many rejections, I started getting my character books published (Underworld Enemies for Hero Games was my debut), and then adventure after adventure. Eventually, I applied to Interplay Productions and started work as a junior designer.

Let’s talk about Planescape: Torment for a bit. One thing I love about that game is how utterly bizarre everything is. It’s a fantasy game that takes the time to actually be fantastic, rather than just rehashing the plot and setting of Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time. How did you come up with the premise for the game?

We already had the Planescape campaign setting to draw upon, so much of the visuals, slang, and character races/looks were developed for us. Our challenge (and a fun challenge) was to develop a story for it, and from there, I just listed out all the things I loved and hated about RPGs and built a framework around that.

Could you elaborate on the things you loved and hated about RPGs that formed the game’s framework?

I’d played a lot of fantasy games (computer and pen-and-paper) over the years before Torment came along and gave me the opportunity to vomit out all my hate for RPG clichés in one game. There were a lot of common RPG elements that I’d been exposed to again and again, and once you can start predicting a game world and seeing where it was leading, the idea of continuing to feed those all-too-familiar concepts was unappealing. Common clichés like elves and dwarves and how they interacted, quests for magic swords to kill evil wizards, the conceit of many games of trying to force you to care about a situation, a nation, a family member, or a princess or king when it flew in the face of the experience of every role-player I knew, which was to keep the focus on their player character and make them the thing that mattered. Torment was a very selfish game, a very personal quest (with larger repercussions), and that was intentional. I didn’t care about anything external to the player’s experience, and I didn’t think other games should try to bother, either, because at the time, they weren’t doing such a great job to the point of insulting my intelligence and taking me out of the experience.

I also was disappointed in several computer interface mechanics – the idea of saving and reloading, for example, struck me as pointless and nothing more than an excuse to stop playing the game rather than continuing to have fun. Why not short-circuit that choice and make it part of gameplay in a new way? Make it a challenge and part of the exploration process instead.

Also, I was tired of many actual RPG mechanics. The idea that you should choose your alignment and your outlook on the world (which D&D required you do) before you actually immersed yourself in the world never clicked with me – again, I’ve seen a lot of players create characters who they felt would make excellent paladins or the most vicious psychotic assassins, and within a single play session, discover that the class of character and alignment didn’t suit them when they tried to actually role-play the character for the first time. So the idea of amnesia and immortality in Torment lent itself to a “blank slate” kind of RPG mechanics where you could slowly shape your alignment over time, rather than decide it at the outset.

That’s really interesting what you say about players primarily caring about their own hero characters. (And in fact, that ties rather neatly into what you’ve said recently about designing companion characters to be useful and pleasant to the player.) I think you’re right: it’s practically a bedrock principle of design that the player is going to end up hating any unhelpful character that you make them responsible for. Still, I have to wonder if there’s some way to successfully make a game about learning to care about someone helpless or difficult. Do you think it can be done in an RPG? Is it the right genre for it?

(1) Yep, (2) it’s one of the best genres to do it in, and (3) that was Annah’s arc (being difficult) in Torment and the ego-stroking there is you can turn someone who hates and resents you into someone who deeply cares about you – and perhaps you are one of the few people in the planes she cares about. In terms of caring for a helpless character, I think there’s a way to do it, but even the best example I’ve seen to date (Clementine in Walking Dead, at least in Episode 1), still is useful, helpful, and assists in some respects enough so you don’t view her so much as helpless, but as an ally. You could also argue that Eco pulls off the helpless role quite well (and makes you care), so there is that. I do feel that, however, that if a companion is a member of a combat tactical party, you have to be careful about their use. Everyone needs to carry their weight in a party-based game, or else it becomes a frustrating escort mission.

You mentioned recently that you had to massage both the D&D rules and the Planescape license in order to get the mechanical and narrative results you wanted when you were making Planescape: Torment. What did you change, and why?

The class leveling structure and memory gains, the removal of the priest class (we purposely decided to ignore the theology of Planescape because we were worried we were throwing too much at the player already), and new spells and abilities (plus githyanki-specific spells and philosophy) among others. Obviously, the player had a number of intrinsic powers that were unique, but some of those were built on existing D+D foundations (raise dead).

Did you ever have a moment where Wizards of the Coast or Hasbro came in and vetoed a design decision? How hands-on were they?

There was one example on the design side – we wanted to have one of the companion characters be bisexual (along with his romance options), and we couldn’t convince them to allow us to do it, which was unfortunate. Other than that, they were pretty hands-off with the design and they trusted us to do our job, since we’d done so many titles in the past. As for the other departments, they may have had a different experience.

Who was the companion character that you originally wanted to give bisexual romance options?

It was Gann in Mask of the Betrayer.

Back in March, Brian Fargo mentioned a pretty depressing example of Obsidian’s treatment by Bethesda, the publisher of Fallout: New Vegas. In your experience working with publishers, do you find that sort of behavior unusual?

No comment.

That whole model concerns me, the idea that a publisher can pay the costs of developing a game, then leave the developer with no additional source of revenue the second the game comes out. Are royalties ever on the table in your negotiations with publishers?

They are, although it’s difficult to negotiate. We always try to fight for royalties, we just aren’t always successful.

Given that you’re now working on Wasteland 2, do you see any differences so far between working independently versus working with a publisher?

There’s more sharing (design docs, vision docs, early area creation, more fan feedback and idea exchanges). Also, the willingness of other companies doing Kickstarters to help each other has been a nice change of pace – there’s a feeling like “we’re all in this together.” Brian Fargo and inXile, for example, gave us a lot of budget and backing feedback, shared the post-mortems and takes on their process, and all of that really helped with our campaign and getting things rolling.

You recently mentioned that you were tempted to crowd-fund a spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment. It wasn’t long thereafter that Obsidian launched Project Eternity on Kickstarter. Is this the aforementioned spiritual successor?

No, Project: Eternity is something different. We had considered doing a Planescape: Torment successor, and that seemed like a waste considering the powerhouses we already had in the studio – why not have them come together and collaborate on something? In my opinion, that would actually be more interesting to the public than a Planescape title, and that seems to have proved itself out.

Why did you go with Kickstarter?

It seemed like the best way to get an Infinity Engine-style game funded. It’s already worked better than we’d ever thought (well, except for our Art Director, Rob Nesler, who knew we’d be that successful and hasn’t been shy about telling us so).

What do you see as the advantages of the crowd-funding approach, generally?

A few things – one, you’re getting financed directly by the people that like and want to play the game, and often, these same players are so passionate that they’re willing to carry the load of 4 to 5 to even 100x the amount of a conventional title just to see it get funded and see the light of day.

Also, you know the target audience from the outset, and you know if your idea resonates with them or not early on. If you can’t gain an audience in 30 days, that means you need to re-evaluate your idea and see what worked and what didn’t.

Plus, you get to keep and own what you make, and the idea of being able to keep a hold of the lore and world of Project: Eternity is wonderful.

Given the outpouring of interest in Project: Eternity, do you see Obsidian continuing to make games in the classic Infinity Engine style?

Yes, as long as its viable to do so – considering the success the Project: Eternity Kickstarter has had, I don’t have much doubt that players want them and are willing to support them. We’ve certainly always wanted to make games like that, it’s just been hard to find a business model that allowed us to do so. Then Kickstarter came along and everything changed.

Why real-time with pause; why not turn-based combat? How do you respond to critiques like this one from the CRPG Addict?

It’s how Infinity Engine combat is set up, and we’re fine with it if it makes it feel more like an Infinity Engine game.

Assuming it’s not too early to ask: beyond real-time-with-pause, what sort of mechanics are you looking to implement in Project Eternity? (For instance: are you planning to go with a class-based system modeled on Dungeons and Dragons, as in Baldur’s Gate, or are you planning to do something a little more open-ended a la Arcanum?)

More on this to come in future updates (Josh and Tim should have more to add on this).

[Note: shortly after this question was asked, Obsidian revealed a lot of details. –Ed.]

Are you familiar with any of the work being done on RPGs in the indie space? Have you seen anything there that interests you?

Mostly the more prominent titles (Grimrock, Age of Decadence, Bastion, and more). All of them have interested me, and I don’t confine the indie research to just to RPGs (example: I like some games that tell a story rather than a play experience, like Dear Esther). I love all the Chinese Room games and am eagerly awaiting Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs.

Do you have any advice for indie developers looking to make RPGs?

Ask known developers to stomp on your game if they have time and be willing to offer their thoughts (and if they like the game, speak out about them).

Since I have you here, I’m going to ask four more questions that have nothing to do with anything. First: what’s been going on with the South Park RPG? First I heard it was canned and the team laid off, and now I hear that it’s happening again and due for release next year with a brand-new subtitle. Can you talk about what happened?

I can’t speak to South Park, except to say everything above is wrong. It’s been running along ever since South Park Digital Studios called to say “hey, want to do an RPG?”

Second: what ever happened to that Aliens RPG Obsidian was announced to be working on in 2006? Did the project leads get ambushed by face-huggers?

I can’t speak to that, either, unfortunately, except to say that everything above is also wrong, we weren’t ambushed by face-huggers, either.

Third and fourth: I remember reading through the Planescape Vision Statement after it was made public. It was interesting, since it presented the game as much less thoughtful than it actually turned out to be. In particularly, I was deeply surprised to see these two bullet points in there: (1) “‘Babes,’ as in ‘Truckloads Of'” and (2) “And More Babes”. Was this something you felt you needed to have to motivate the design team? Or was this actually part of the original vision?

There was a lot of marketing hype and speak in it, and that worked for the audience at the time, which wasn’t solely the team. The goal was to get the project into production, and there were elements about it that were part of the vision, yes – as an example, Morte’s outlook didn’t change from the vision doc, and yes, it was important to me that both Annah and Fall-From-Grace be extremely good-looking in their own way even if the player character wasn’t. Sue me. :)

Any final thoughts?

If you enjoy making RPGs, then go ahead and use the existing tools out there to make them – that’s the first thing we look for in people wanting to break into the industry; they’re already out there creating fun on their own.

Thanks for your time, Chris.

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