RPG Designer Hates RPGs

RPG Designer Hates RPGs
chris-avelloneAt the recent Framework conference in Melbourne, veteran RPG designer Chris Avellone – of Planescape: Torment, Fallout 2 and KOTOR 2 fame – told us all how much he hated RPGs.

Avellone kicked off his presentation by telling us that hate is a gift for design creativity. Throughout his career he’s used his hatred of role-playing cliche to defy genre conventions.

In Knights of the Old Republic 2, Avellone hated Star Wars and the Force. In particular, he hated the concept of predestination implicit within the Force. So he built the game’s story and characters around this idea. He focused on what a Jedi might gain from turning away from the Force or what they may lose when they embrace it.

planescape-torment-boxIn Planescape: Torment, Avellone felt it was the perfect setting for a guy burnt out on RPGs because it allowed him to turn everything on its head. He hated death, so he made the main character an immortal so that death became something useful rather than an impediment. He felt inspired to build a game where the death screen is just the beginning – and so Torment opens with you lying on a slab in a mortuary.

Predictable encounters were another hated aspect. Every RPG has the player killing rats in the tutorial dungeon because rats are an easy enemy. Avellone proceeded to make rats one of the most dangerous creatures you would face in Torment. Cranium rats, as they were called, would grow more powerful in greater numbers and could overwhelm you with a host of magic spells.

While at Black Isle Studios, Avellone worked on Fallout 3 on-and-off for about six years, before it was cancelled and Bethesda purchased the rights. His vision of Fallout was also built on this idea of hate, specifically that he was sick of tracking down and killing the big, evil, bad guy.

Avellone realised that in all RPGs, the most powerful bad-ass in the world wasn’t the “big bad”, but the player-character’s adventuring party. So Fallout 3 was designed around there being another party of adventurers out there in the world at the same time as you. Over the course of the game you will encounter this other party and experience how their actions have influenced the world. Along the way you’d have to decide whether to cooperate or work against them.

sega_screenshots_16316ap_screenshot_mar09_12For his current project, the modern day espionage of SEGA’s Alpha Protocol, Avellone applied his hatred to character interaction. Most RPGs give you a dialogue tree where you select branching options, but can usually return to the top of the tree and start over again. Essentially, NPCs become information kiosks rather than real people.

In Alpha Protocol, every conversation is a once-through system where there’s no opportunity to return to the top of the tree. You choose your response at each juncture and that’s it, no second chances. With no danger of repeating dialogue, the idea is to create greater immersion by ensuring each conversation feels natural and plausible.

This extends to your reputation with other characters. Avellone says that in most RPGs, you have a lesser experience when you’ve done bad deeds and become hated by everyone. This usually means people won’t talk to you or they’ll just attack you on sight. He wants to continue the idea that hatred is a “gift” and that when your character accumulates a negative reputation with other NPCs, the player still gets just as much enjoyment from the interaction as the player who has a positive rep.

For me personally, it was brilliant to listen to what Chris had to say. Not only has he worked on several of the greatest RPGs I’ve ever played, he’s clearly a guy who really thinks about his craft. I can’t wait to see how Alpha Protocol turns out when it’s released later this year.

Finally, I’d like to ask you: what genre conventions do you hate? And how would you turn them on their head to make a better game?


  • He must’ve hated quality assurance too, since a lot of the games he worked on didn’t have any…

    • @Mr Waffle

      Chris would be the first to admit KOTOR 2 and NWN 2 suffered from being rushed to release. But Obsidian worked hard to fix NWN 2 with its expansions, while LucasArts obviously didn’t support any post-release work on KOTOR 2.

  • Great write-up David. [Psst – in paragraph 6 I think you meant fallout 2, not 3 ;-)]

    One genre convention I’d like to see overturned is that of player “death” – I want a game where I can’t ever die. Seriously, why waste my time by making me replay a section of game? Surely there have to be better ways of ‘punishing’ or teaching the player than making them perform actions over and over like a trained monkey.

    • @Ben Abraham

      Chris worked on Fallout 2 then Planescape: Torment while at Black Isle Studios. After that he started designing Fallout 3 under the codename “Van Buren”. It was eventually cancelled before Bethesda picked up the rights in the Interplay collapse and made their own Fallout 3. With Obsidian now signed on to make Fallout: New Vegas, it’ll be interesting to see if Chris applies any of those original ideas to the new project…

    • Ben,
      The idea of death in a video game is tedious, but there have undeniably been attempts to remove it from video games, including Prince of Persia (2008), Fl0w and Braid. Neither game allows you to really die, with Braid even using that as a mechanic in puzzles. Prince of Persia’s difficulty suffered immensly though!

      I agree that something needs to be done about it, but in the vast majority of games today, it is a required mechanic. Without fear of death, there is no tension in the game, and in effect, no sense of achievement.

      I think that to remove the element in death in “realistic” genres like the FPS would be an interesting move, but I think instead of removal of death, bringing real consequences would help to bring some meaning to the concept. I think the idea of battle scars originally slated for Fable 2 would have been a mechanic that really did encourage players to survive, and hence maintain their pristine complexions. Another example of this is the “Be Gentle With Her” trophy/achievement in PoP, which helps to maintain the tension that games require to make an emotional impact on us.

      A convention really deserving of being toppled would have to be the almost grotesquely buff men in modern FPS. It’s like magazines with perfect women damaging young girls’ self confidence. It makes me feel insignificant! Lets see some real men in video games!

      • Good points, all of them, however I’m not really arguing that death needs to be done away with completely…

        Dare I mention… Far Cry 2 and it’s fantastic buddy system? That is more what I’m interested in – something a bit more forgiving than a simple “You fail, try again” message that we get so often.

        I’m in agreement with your comment about ridiculously proportioned men in FPS’s, though. I’d totally pay good money points to play something where the protagonist was more The Prince than Marcus Phoenix!

        • @Ben Abraham

          Glad you mentioned Far Cry 2 before I did. What I liked about the buddy system is that it’s more complex than, say, Elika returning you to the start of the section for a second chance. Instead your Far Cry 2 buddies, while still giving you a second chance, are a finite resource to manage. When you help them by opting to pursue their tougher objectives and also the side missions they offer, they return the favour by helping you with safehouse upgrades. Thus, when you call upon them to save you from death, you always run the risk of getting them killed and sacrificing those hard-earned rewards.

          • Ah, Far Cry 2, ever popular on Kotaku Au.
            The buddy system had completely slipped my mind. I agree, it provides an interesting dynamic, and I was deeply moved with the death of my buddy, after syretting him for the 7th time. However, this system too is flawed. As soon as I realised he really wasn’t getting up, I restarted my playstation, losing about an hour of play due to the tediously long save times.
            If we have the investment, both emotionally and time wise, we will go out of our way to assure it is seen through. This in effect is the same repition of a death screen. Whenever another death occurred, I did the same. I know I’m a bad sport, but when we have the power to change these events, why wouldn’t we?
            I think that in itself is an interesting observation of human behaivour.

            Another, completely unrelated note, David, this new comment system completely destroys the old one. So nice to be able to think about my comment, rather than racing the refresh!

  • Chris is one of my absolute favourite game writers / designers, and I’m looking forward to Alpha Protocol greatly.

  • How about some kind of sentient bio-suit that initially spent most of its power keeping you alive, but once you fed with the essence of dead enemies, levelled up? Could do away with the tired levelling systems in every JRPG. Getting an amount of exp bores me.
    The suit could also have a shield ala perfect dark on n64 that spent energy deflecting attacks, instead of you getting hit with a giant sword and losing x hit points.
    sorry if this happens already, DS has JRPGs only.

  • I’d like to see death used in more of a mini-game format, similar to Prey where you revived after a small period of time but had the opportunity to shoot ghosts to regain extra HP/mana when you returned to the real world.

  • Too humans take on death was a great deterrant. you lost nothing by dying, picking up exactly where you fell, however you had to sit through the 15-20 second revive cut scene everytime without any chance to skip it. certainly encouraged me to use caution.(this must be where you all start hating on too human)

  • I find it wierd that everyone wants to do away with death in video games because i thought we did years ago. With the save anywhere and anytime options that most games have i find myself yearning for a death system like in wizardry 1. I spent many a night creating a level 1 guy sneaking down to the lower levels and trying to rescue my party.
    Talk about being afraid to die in a video game, that was torture. I have’nt worried about dying in a game in a long time. I walk into battles with no fear if thing go bad simply reload my quick save. I’ve had to replay 15 min here a half-hour there, but big deal.
    With some games lasting well over 100 hrs nowadays I don’t know that even I would want a permenent death, but I wish that games made me care about keeping my characters alive. As it is i’m not afraid to walk into any battle no matter what the odds because I know I can be up and running again in realativly no time.

  • Interesting article. It comes at a time when I am finally getting into NWN2 and the expansions, and I just can’t help but hate playing as a human, elf, dwarf, etc., all over again.They have thrown in a few more interesting races such as duergar, drow, yuan-ti, the genasi’s, but it’s just not what I’m after.

    I want a D&D game where I play as a goblin or kobold, orc or gnoll or ogre, or some giant variant. And I want to be part of a horde, and the goal of the game is to raze some human settlements… A story with multiple paths dependent on how your party, and the other war parties that you don’t control, perform during the campaign.

  • I liked the idea in PS: Torment where you really couldn’t die as I liked the idea that rats were powerfull creatures in PS: Torments as well.

    The RPG genre needs a designer/writer like Avellone willing to question every cliché currently in control, turning it all upside down and topsy-turvey more times than once.

    My ‘hate’ (though hate is a vert strong word, I think) is that games with ‘ah, it is written in the stars, in a book or in whatever’ that you’re destined to be the hero….

    NWN2 did OK in that respect, I find.

    I find the idea of competing parties in a game very intriguing, a bit of comptetion is very stimulating for one’s motivation…

    It could be interesting for once to play as kobold or goblin taking revenge on the humans that without provocation just happened to slaugther your peaceful village – just for some experience points.


    Every single one of those games had a fantastic story, THE BEST of Rpg’s if I say so myself.

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!