Chris Avellone Talks Games, Obsidian, And Christmas Sweater Etiquette
Chris Avellone is known across the industry for his visionary work on PC role-playing games while at companies like Interplay and Obsidian. His resume includes impressive titles like Icewind Dale, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, Neverwinter Nights 2, Fallout II, and Pillars of Eternity. Avellone has recently gone rogue, leaving Obsidian to take on new adventures with Divinity: Original Sin II.
The PC RPG scene is coming back in a big way – do you have any insight on why this is happening now after years of decline? Is crowdfunding responsible for the resurgence?
Partly. It felt like there was a perception that some PC games simply weren't... well... worth publishing, and if so, only as a SKU of a primarily console title. Even if not expensive, it wasn't worth a larger publisher's time to bring them to market because many small games versus a few larger games is a bit easier for a publisher to wrap their head around, especially from the ROI angle. Plus, having a few larger games ends up being less distracting. If I was to make a poor example of why, it's like having to count a hundred pennies vs. counting four quarters. They might be the same value in the end, but the larger titles "chunk" together easier without needing to expand your QA and marketing teams to deal with all the noise.
But PCs are now pretty easy for most developers, especially indies - there's Steam, Unity, digital distribution, and while it can be a challenge to get noticed, at least you can bring your product to market on the PC with a lot less fuss than other avenues, so that's made the channel stronger.
What do you think of the crowdfunding push over the last few years, such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, The Fig? Have these been a wholly positive shift in the gaming landscape?
I've been a Kickstarter fan since way back (that's where I go for games, Indiegogo feels more for other media, although they're trying to branch out). Crowdsourcing has been excellent for giving a voice to creators and allowing them to pitch directly to (potentially) interested fans - and it also lets you see if your idea has any appeal as well. If it does, then Kickstarter has the added benefit of allowing a continuous conversation with the backers as well as allowing them to decide what level of goods and special items they want with the game, things that would normally be cost prohibitive to cater to in a larger publisher model. I like being able to spend more for cloth maps, bound manuals, and items that I used to always love when purchasing titles when I was younger.
Your work has largely defined an entire genre of games. What have been some of your major and minor influences over the years?
Me define a genre? God, I hope I haven't. It's only recently that I feel that I've been propagating a number of bad habits (unfun companions, reinforcing archaic dialogue systems, and being on titles where reactivity was simply a lot of special cased scenarios to test rather than true systematic reactivity). Part of this is due to the titles and engines themselves, but I needed to step back before I fell even further into a rut.
In terms of influences: The Hero System defined me with point-building freedom in characters. I don't care for class-based systems, since I feel classes are ultimately an obstacle to role-playing – Fallout taught me that. And speaking of Fallout and influences, Tim Cain and the Fallout crew taught me the best innovations don't have to be technological, you just have to approach a convention with a twist (stats affecting dialogue options). Without having played the Fallout series and designed for it (Fallout 2), I also think Planescape: Torment would have been a weaker product, but Fallout opened my eyes to what systems could do if you looked at them from the right perspective.
What drew you into the industry and how did you get your start?
So I kind of fell into the industry. I wanted to play RPGs. I thought they were fascinating – it was make-believe with rules, which felt "fair" to me. My friends enjoyed gaming as well, but they never wanted to be the GM. So, to have the vicarious thrill of being a player, I became a GM – and discovered that being an entertainer was largely fulfilling. Except for the times I royally screwed the pooch and pissed my players off. You know, things like revealing their superhero secret identities, or having their artifacts they'd fought over 10 sessions to get stolen in the next session. Or trapping them in areas with poison gas and time limits. Or... well, you get it.
Still, I loved it. And I wanted to keep doing it – first, writing modules (or repurposing and polishing ones I had done), until I realized what a horrible career move that was, since it's not possible to make a full-time living at it, especially if you're new to the scene. Still, with the help of Steve Peterson,who's now a senior editor at the Gamer Network, I moved to Interplay, and ended up being a virtual GM from then on. No regrets! And thanks, Steve!
Your shift away from Obsidian came as a surprise to many. You were a founder, after all. Can you speak on how that came about and why?
I was indeed one of the founders. I'm still surprised I got the opportunity, and I'm grateful to Obsidian for it.
There's a few things to say here, none of it negative or scandalous or sensationlist, just food for thought. I want to make cool games of any size, any genre with cool people. Anything else (example: money, the best company car) is not important to me. I still think back fondly working with Subset Games, for example. Low ego, high humility, and I loved working on FTL. And I did it for free because I loved it so much. Guess what? I look back on it, and my soul is happy. Perfect.
Obsidian had cool people, but there were a lot of projects that Obsidian wouldn't consider or couldn't consider – both internally and externally. There were even ones that Obsidian didn't know it couldn't do, some of which I discovered to my surprise after my departure (hypothetically, something with "Old" and "Republic" in the title). Hey – now I know, but I never would have known otherwise.
My role was often a question mark, one that I attempted to get answered a few times. I've said this before in other interviews, but while creative director can give a lot of advice and thoughts, they may not have any decision making power at a company - they can't enforce a design philosophy or even tell any other employee what to do, even project directors and lead designers. I don't think this is unusual, but I don't know how the role is at other companies yet. It's certainly different at Larian, where the position has an incredible amount of authority, and it definitely shows on Divinity: Original Sin II.
So while in the role, I found it was easier to take on a specific role on a studio project instead to achieve definition (creative lead, project director, lead designer) or fill in when another employee departs (which was more common). As an example: I was asked to fill in as lead designer on Alpha Protocol when the previous lead departed - the reason for this was because there was no one else to fill the role, and as Alpha Protocol proved, the role and its place in the hierarchy (answering to the Alpha Protocol project director, Chris Parker) couldn't be left vacant.
Most creative director vision came from codifying the philosophy of all the owners, including management practices for achieving that vision and trying to ensure it was being followed and championed. You can't enforce it, though – you usually need to ask someone else to, but that's the job. It is a collaborative effort, and it often requires asking a lot of questions so that the design philosophy can be agreed upon, since anything else is confusing for the employees, and there's nothing worse than two owners telling an employee different things. It can snap a brain in half. And that is a very expensive medical bill.
So I don't know if enforcing that common design vision equates to freedom, but it's worth saying that most collaborative efforts require that degree of compromise, especially in games, and it's a group effort from top to bottom. The most freedom I've ever gotten in all the companies over the years is when no one above really cared much about the game I was working on until it was far along. Fallout 1, for example, I think had a huge advantage in being seen as a B-product before it came out, or when you strike out on your own and start kicking around ideas that only need approval from yourself. I've had conversations with a number of devs who I worked with on Torment, and they agree – with the caveat that you should listen to the players when exposed to the system you're presenting, which is why I love Early Access and beta testing so much.
In the end, life's short, and there's a lot of cool ideas out there that are begging to be explored... or equally satisfying, you can help other people explore those ideas because you've been on the other side of production so long you know the rungs of the ladder they need to climb, they just need to be pointed to where the ladder is and given a leg up, or even help them with introductions and support when you think their idea deserves to be heard. And that's fulfilling. I guess that's mostly what it comes down to – you can move forward, create, and help others create. I never got into this industry to get rich, I got into it so I could live my hobby, and I'm content with that.
What’s it like being a story-hired gun after working at Obsidian and other major companies for so long? We know you’re working on Divinity: Original Sin II – was there something that drew you to Larian and its upcoming game? Are there other upcoming games that you’ll be attached to?
It's liberating. I've learned more in three months across a variety of genres (both in game genres – FPS, RTS, other RPGs – and also the surrounding ambiance of the genre – sci-fi, post-apoc, fantasy, and more), alternate development pipelines, and management practices, task tracking, and some eye-opening procedures to speed up production I never would have exposed to otherwise. And also, it's given me a perspective on my own past work. For example, Beamdog's Siege of Dragonspear reminded me what the touchstones of fun companions should be and what it takes to create a great adversary, not just a villain. Divinity: Original Sin II I wasn't even sure was a possibility, but then the internet community (RPG Codex) pushed Larian founder Swen Vincke and I to get in touch, so we met for dinner at PAX Prime, traded design philosophy, and it was a great fit, so it all worked out. It's the first time I've ever had the internet push for me to get a game writing gig and then make it happen, so kudos to them. And now I get to Divinely Sin. Originally. Twice.
In many ways, you’ve been involved in “core” PC RPGs since their inception. What are some of the differences crafting one of these experiences today as opposed to the Icewind Dales of yesteryear?
I wouldn't use Icewind Dale as a baseline. It's a good series. I've mentioned this in other interviews, but I thought IWD was largely a step backward for the Infinity Engine games except in terms of art locales, and the idea of forming a party of your own, which I loved. Beyond that, it felt like a stripped down car with some new cosmetic engine parts. It was a fun ride, but it's hard to set it on equal footing with the other Infinity Engine titles. Granted, it was a purposeful attempt to make more of a Diablo-like dungeon crawl experience, but I don't know if that's what all the fans were hoping for, especially after the love for Baldur's Gate.
But if we were to go back to Baldur's Gate as a comparison between the writing of RPGs today and yesteryear... the amount of writing hasn't changed, the interface largely hasn't changed (unfortunately), but the amount of surrounding work that goes into dialogues (voice acting and cinematics) has forced more precision in the writing, if only because you know that edits will be incredibly difficult to make after the recording and be re-translated into other languages. Furthermore, the more voiced a game is, the more you need to approach dialogue nodes like a screenplay instead of a prose description. Planescape: Torment was big on describing the animations an NPC would be doing since we didn't have the budget or interface to show it, but now those animations would be key in larger AAA games.
Also, overall, the writing process itself has become more polished, including technically. I've had to write numerous style guides for RPGs over the years. And this guide is extensive, it boils down formatting of journal entries, pronunciation guides, how to spell specific inventory items and laying out stats, when to use first person, second person, and third person in text, how to include voice actor direction hidden in the lines, and more. It's a lot more work than just the prose on the screen, but laying out the specs is worth it – and needed, especially for large writing teams.
What’s your favorite game right now and what’s your favorite PC RPG of all time?
Until Fallout 4 arrives, I'm playing Dying Light because I loved Dead Island, and at the end of the day, I want to bash the *** out of zombies. Fallout 4 is likely to usurp that, though.
My favorite PC RPG of all time? That's tough, since there are some console titles in the mix (usually SNES), and some of my top 10 games were for the Commodore 64. I have a special love Chrono Trigger, Wasteland 1, Final Fantasy III, but my favorite PC RPG is actually a tie between Fallout 1 and Ultima Underworld, although System Shock 2 came so close to being an RPG, it could have been a contender.
What’s your favorite Dungeons & Dragons monster?
I'm not sure Jubilex counts, so I'll say "Gibbering Mouther."
Walk me through a “typical” Chris Avellone day (and night).
Phew. Get ready!
Dreams die as I awaken. I resist the urge to look at email lest more dreams die. Back when I worked in an office, I would often awaken at night, check work email, then cease to dream until morning.
After I wake up, I drink coffee, Monster, and Coke Zero (possibly in the same cup) and write while my brain is clear (re: buzzing) and I can hear my characters. I write until I can write no longer. Then try to do at least five minutes more, but I usually fail.
Then I stare at the screen, fiddle with text for 10-30 minutes, then give up, hop on my rowing machine in the living room in front of the TV and row while watching a movie related to the genre I might be writing for. When I was working on Wasteland 2, for example, I was rewatching the Road Warrior, Day of the Triffids (all variations), and so on and so on.
I let the endorphins take hold as I have lunch. I ride the endorphin wave and keep writing... until I can write no more.
I go lift weights, pray for more endorphins. They resentfully show up, with forced smiles.
Intermixed with the day, I sometimes have Skype and Google Hangout meetings for new projects or existing projects all over the world. The world never sleeps. Never. I've come to appreciate Google Docs as a design doc storage mechanism and for doc sharing. It's pretty convenient.
After I work out, I come back, write. About an hour or two into this, I usually can't be creative anymore, so I switch off to more technical writing tasks – editing, critiquing a friend or colleague's work or story, writing system docs, maybe scripting inventory items or uh, replying to a Game Informer interview? –so my brain can switch gears.
At this point, it's probably 1am or 2am, so I look up pictures of Felicia Day looking fancy on the internet, and whisper, "One day. One. Day." Then I go to sleep in my shrine composed of Felicia's hair and fingernails, bought off the internet for reasonable sums. It turns out Felicia sells them as a sideline business and as a way of getting the address for future stalkers for police review. Who knew?
I wake up the next morning to find police at my door.
So after writing this X-Files joke (I love the "Irresistible" episode, down to the hair and fingernails), I got to the chapter in Felicia Day's book You're Never Weird on the Internet where someone actually tried to purchase her hair and fingernails. For real. The timing of this revelation was bizarre. This person wasn't me, I swear. But if it was Donnie Pfaster from the X-Files, then we are all in a lot of trouble and everyone should lock their doors. Even all of you in Canada.
Does war ever change?
Yep. I have confronted the original Fallout designers and have told them that it's a misleading and untrue statement. The reasons may not change (which I believe was the intention of the statement, according to their defense of the statement), but war? War itself definitely changes. Hearing the phrase taken literally makes me grumpy, with all due respect to Ron Perlman.
What’s your favorite Final Fantasy game and why?
Final Fantasy III because the world blew up and made me realize when it comes to writing a game story, I am coward – I don't think big enough about "what if."
What’s the weirdest thing you have in your house and how did it get there?
The weirdest thing? Hnh. (I'm looking around right now.) Well, there's a cartoon of Ken Levine smiling, which we all know is impossible. He smiles only in his dreams. The cartoon is on an official bottle of BioShock: Infinite "Undertow" vigor. Which they sell. I don't know if it works. It's near my Torment alcohol flask and my Fallout 4 beer mug (seeing the pattern?). It's okay, though, I don't have a problem.
Is a Christmas sweater ever an acceptable gift?
When used to wrap a reindeer corpse, yes.
Are modern monetization models hurting game design? As free-to-play fare and other microtransactions become even more pervasive, is the industry creating psychologically exploitative models?
No. I've been playing Fallout Shelter and Monster Boss and Best Fiends, and none of those feel like they exert an unnecessary pressure that I can't resist. It's only an issue for me when the transaction affects game balance.
What do you think of the new virtual reality push? Is this going to be yet another fad that fizzles or is it here to stay this time? Are you eager to work with games that support the VR experience?
Production folks I've spoken to say it's a fad, I don't know if I agree. While movement in VR and camera-out-of-player-control-making-players-dizzy-and-vomiting-out-their-lunch are still design challenges, I still think immersion is where the industry is headed, and the feeling of presence that occurs when someone is next to you in virtual space – it makes dialogues and interactions feel so much different.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Hopefully doing another interview for Game Informer. In virtual reality. As we fight ninjas. Riding dinosaurs.
But seriously? RPGs and stories will always be in my blood. As the years march on, I'm sure I'll still be writing characters that rage across the multiverses – but they always do so in an attempt to help the hero stand out as even more of a hero than they would if the world was silent.