Interview: Chris Avellone, Creative Director and Co-Owner, Obsidian Entertainment, Inc.
Interview: Chris Avellone, Creative Director and Co-Owner, Obsidian Entertainment, Inc.
A huge thanks to Chris Avellone for making time for this interview.
Mark: I imagine things have been pretty exciting for you now that you’re going to be involved in Wasteland 2. Can you tell us a bit of what you’ll be doing and what kind of role you might be playing in its development?
Chris: I’m doing a bunch of things so far, more than I expected. I’m helping with the vision doc, designing opening areas and the area design process, and helping build templates for dialogues and area specs. My contribution isn’t nearly as much as Fargo, Findley, Keenan and the rest of the inXile team, however.
When not doing physical design, I offer feedback and critiques and forward any random tidbits and elements I’ve dug out of my latest Wasteland 1 playthrough (“Remember when there used to be a West Germany?” “Hey, Reagan had a hover tank named after him!” “Needles used carrier pigeons as their communications center?!”).
Overall, I’m at inXile about 1.5-2 days during the week, either in design meetings, checking out Unity, or typing away on my headphones, and I love it.
Mark: Obsidian Entertainment has been really supportive of Kickstarter and you have mentioned it a lot on your twitter, even saying you might go for a Kickstarter project. Is there anything in the works that you can hint at?
Chris: What follows is a crappy answer, and I admit it. The answer: “Not yet.” I hope to have news soon, we’ll see, but if hopes were mutants, I’d be the Master and the wasteland would be overrun.
Mark: Speaking of post-apocalyptic survival, you did a lot in the development of Fallout: New Vegas and its DLC. Which of the add-ons were you happiest with how it came out and which one do you felt you would have wanted to give more time? Which was your favorite as a designer and as a player?
Chris: I enjoyed Dead Money and Old World Blues most as a designer, and Old World Blues most as a player. I think, against internal expectations (including mine), Old World Blues turned out better than we expected. I felt we’d be burned at the stake by including that much clown-nose-honking humor in the Fallout universe. Still, we figured after the oppressive and desperation in Dead Money and Lonesome Road, a little levity was the shift the title needed.
Mark: Old World Blues was also my favorite. I took the Wild Wasteland perk so I knew what I was getting into. Was there any add-on you wanted to put even more time on?
Chris: All of them. I suppose Dead Money was the one that felt like it didn’t have enough time whether it came across that way or not (it’s why we had many of the restrictions the DLC had in terms of equipment stripping and not being able to return). I’m not certain more time would have helped Lonesome Road, as it was a resource issue more than a more time issue. Old World Blues felt like it had enough time to cook, in my opinion, and there were very few things I wish we could have put in – I felt like we got everything we wanted in there, plus more (the appliances in the Sink).
Mark: You said there were heavy limitations put on the design team for Old World Blues, was it the most challenging to make?
Chris: Sometimes bookends and parameters are limitations, and it’s a designer’s job to make them work in their favor. Some of the best designs can come about because of tight budgets and lack of resources to do it the way you envision… but the result ends up being better than the original vision ever could have been.
Plus, not to go on a tangential rant, I’ve seen plenty of movies that have suffered from too much budget, so having the opposite problem isn’t such a bad thing.
So – we turned all the limitations to non-limitations with narrative decisions. I think I discussed this in “Plot vs. Play” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55CenBjJ7lw) but we didn’t have any time to make major new art pieces, so we looked at our toolbox (I almost wrote “toybox” here, maybe that was a faux pas), and said “take the toolbox and put the existing art in new combinations and we’ll explain it with the narrative.” The designers were told to just make fun levels in the context of being “experiments” and they went from there.
We weren’t sure how it would be received, but I’d like to believe that everyone who played it “felt” the fun the designers were having on all levels.
Mark: I felt the stories in the add-ons were all great and that The Survivalist and Vera Keyes were some of the strongest passive characters I have encountered in any game.
Chris: I feel bad for Vera, I need to stop torturing my characters. John Gonzalez did the Survivalist (based on a request from Sawyer, I believe) – John was the Creative Lead on Fallout New Vegas, and he did a great job with the character. Kudos to him.
I’m glad you enjoyed those two figures, and I’m even happier that you enjoyed both of them considering the lack of VO they both had.
Mark: For what it’s worth, I had absolutely no mercy for Dean Domino once I caught up with him.
Chris: He is a rather unsympathetic character, and his explanation for his motivations are a particular form of evil that’s equally exasperating when you encounter it in real life, too.
Mark: Who was your absolute favorite character from Fallout: New Vegas?
Chris: Dr. Mobius, followed by Christine or Dr.8. I enjoyed writing Cass a lot but Dr. Mobius had more things closer to my heart to say.
Mark: It really shows. Mobius ended up having some real depth to him. I’m guessing Chris Avellone the bounty hunter from Fallout 1 won’t be showing up in any future titles then?
Chris: I have a rule after Fallout 2 that I don’t want to ever add any “in joke” name characters named after developers in our titles, although it’s not always up to me. I feel it detracts from the gameplay experience to do so and the player always senses there’s something “off” about the character even if they don’t recognize the name. I will say that some franchises, however, are all about building characters around devs (Wasteland, Ultima), so it depends whether it’s a franchise hallmark or not.
Mark: At PAX you were on a panel with Ken Levine and David Gaider where you reluctantly put an emphasis on game mechanics and the player’s agency to tell the story. I think that approach to writing really shines with a game like Fallout. With that said though, is there anything you want to add to it that you didn’t think about when you were on the panel?
Chris: I wish I could say something more profound than “no.” I said all I wanted to say.
Mark: Hopefully the readers will check out that video (see link above) if they haven’t watched it yet.
Chris: They should keep some water nearby to splash in their eyes and be prepared to cover their ears.
Mark: With your industry experience, how great an impact would you say publishers have on a game’s final design?
Chris: Publisher impact on a game design varies. THQ, for example, trusts us to handle the RPG elements in South Park. Bethesda trusted us to handle the Fallout franchise based on our experience. SEGA left the Alpha Protocol story and branching alone (and even agreed to let it be rewritten and re-recorded), but did have requests for the more action-based game mechanics and implementation – it’s our job to listen, digest, and if we disagree, we raise a critique, and if the critique is ignored or clarified with additional information, then you move forward.
Mark: Staying with New Vegas, Obsidian wasn’t awarded a bonus from Bethesda because it didn’t meet a certain score on Metacritic (which is debatable for reliability). Unfortunately Obsidian Entertainment also had some turbulence and had to cancel a project a couple months back. With all the work and effort put in to making a game, do you feel the amount of emphasis the industry puts on reducing a game to a series of scored reviews is a fair way to judge a game’s worth?
Chris: I don’t know. I do feel that some sites use a dramatically different scale and ranking system, which makes a final score difficult to judge.
Mark: Besides the revival of “dead genres” do you think we will see a difference in games made by developers who utilize crowdsourcing like Kickstarter in contrast to developers that work with publishers?
Chris: Yes, on a high level, they’ll make more interesting designs and on a low level, they’ll be more than happy to make use of the keyboard for inputs rather than worrying about mapping it to a controller. This sounds like a minor thing, but it’s not. I can’t tell you how happy I was to be driving home from inXile one evening trying to figure out how we’d pull off a function using the controller, and it occurred to me THAT IT’S NOT OUR PROBLEM ANY MORE, and the “issue” was solved. THANK GOD.
Mark: Ha ha, It’s always great to have extra input keys. So you think this freedom is really going to open it up to new types of games that the publisher developer model would have passed over?
Chris: Yep, and it already has based on the Kickstarter line-up – some games with settings I don’t think a publisher would have accepted seem to have hit the ground running and gotten the backing they need.
Mark: Just for fun, if you had the means to make any kind of game you wanted, what kind would it be and what features would you implement?
Chris: There are a few things: Giving the player their own theme music they could customize from their own local computer soundtracks or grabbing them from the game’s music list – they could summon their theme music like a spell effect and gain bonuses while the theme music was playing (we did this in our Fallout pen and paper game at Interplay).
Also, I’d love to see more games that do design and gameplay with audio – one thing I’ve always wanted to try is have “audiomancers” who can collect SFX as audio weapons from the environment. As an example, they could attack or eavesdrop on a wolf, listen to its idle bark or dying snarl, record it, and use that SFX as pieces to create “audio spells” to attack other opponents. It would add to the exploration and sneaking in an RPG where you pay more attention to the wind rushing through the trees, the coughing/snoring of an unsuspecting guard, the crashing of the waves, or even the crunch of your feet in snow.
I’d also love the chance to do “true war” in a fantasy setting a la Black Company and the Malazan Book of the Fallen – both of those series showcase what “war” could be like in a fantasy setting in fascinating ways. The Deadhouse Gates in particular, still haunts me with some of the battles in that book.
Lastly, one of our systems designers, Matt MacLean proposed a “honeycomb mission structure” for Alpha Protocol a long time ago, and I’d love to do a game that used that structure for missions. The idea with a Honeycomb Mission Structure is that you’re presented with one central goal, and a number of satellite missions that you can optionally choose to take on that have impacts on each other and the goal mission as well, kind of like a hub of missions surrounding a central mission. You can pick and choose the missions that cater to your playstyle and then use those to achieve your objective.
Mark: Judging by the SFX idea, I’m guessing the Sonic Emitter in Old World Blues was your doing. All those concepts sound great. I already want to give you my money.
Chris: Yeah, it was a scaled-down idea of my dream above. For those not familiar with it, the Sonic Emitter was a weapon you could shape by collecting sound effects, and I thought it would be fun for the audio department. I don’t think they found it as enjoyable as I did, and the principle goal of making 5 different weapons using the same art model didn’t pan out, either, because our awesome weapon modeler, Dan Alpert, refused to let that stand and added customized sound waves on the back of each version of the Emitter. (Thanks, Dan.)
Mark: Finally, what’s next for Obsidian Entertainment? How’s it been working with the South Park Team for the South Park RPG?
Chris: It’s going great. Never thought we’d get the chance to work on South Park – when we first got the call from those guys, we thought that Red 5 in the office above was punking us.
Then we wondered how a South Park RPG would work, Matt and Trey explained it with a simple cinematic, and it all clicked. Hope to have more news soon (by the time this interview hits, that info may have already been released).
I will say that there’s nothing better than being in a room with Matt and Trey and they start getting excited enough about a questline that they’ll start acting out the quest line in the character voices. Pure gold.
Mark: Thanks again for making the time. We look forward to Obsidian’s future titles.
Chris: Thanks for the interview, I appreciate the questions. Hope they were informative!