Question Time: Your Interview With Chris Avellone

Chris Avellone is a legend among RPG circles. He’s worked on Planescape: Torment, Fallout 2, KOTOR 2 and Neverwinter Nights 2. We were lucky to have Chris take a moment out from designing Sega’s upcoming spy RPG Alpha Protocol and answer a bunch of questions from you.

We fielded all your questions for Chris last Wednesday before firing them over to him. Even though we only intended to give him the ten best questions, Chris admirably volunteered to answer them all.

Well, with the notable exception of those concerning Fallout: New Vegas. Unfortunately, As the game is still under a veil of secrecy, Chris was unable to reveal anything. Not to mention the fact he’s not actually working on the title, as you’ll find out…

On with the interview! Your questions are in italics, Chris’ answers are underneath.

My question for Chris is: What did you think when you heard Bethesda were making Fallout 3? And what did you think of the game when you played it?

I was pretty pleased – Oblivion + Fallout seemed like a great combination to me. Also, I heard they gave Tim Cain some advance looks at F3, and he seemed happy with it, so I was pretty interested in playing it. I trust Tim. In a minor note, though, I was a little sad that my alcoholic drug-addicted psychopath couldn’t murder everyone in Vault 101 during the escape, but maybe that’s a good thing. I must have chased that robot and my “girlfriend” (my psychotic mind knew she’d been telling lies and plotting my murder behind my back) around for a half-hour beating them both into constant states of unconsciousness before giving up and embracing my Vault freedom. I did enjoy the opening and the exploration afterwards, though, and had fun, and even more gratifying to me was a lot of developers I knew who weren’t RPG fans were playing it and loving it as well, so kudos to Bethesda.

Your talk at Framework focused on everything you HATE about RPGs so I wanna know what it is you LOVE about the genre?

Aside from all the character creation and advancement options that come from normal role-playing game (which I do enjoy very much), I love the story and character focus. I also love all the emotional reactions you can provide in an RPG that don’t involve sticking a sword through somebody. In Torment, I like it when Morte tells you his version of how you met and you can sense it for the lie it is – and why he’s lying, I like it when you see your NPC friends stand up against certain death to protect you because they love you, and for K2, I like it when a fallen Sith Lord is willing to say she respects you so much she’d be willing to destroy the galaxy to see your philosophy triumph. Also, being a writer at heart, RPGs naturally lend themselves to stories, so I’m biased.

Elephant Fresh
Will we ever see Obsidian return to its Planescape roots, as we are seeing with Bioware and Dragon Age?

Probably not, I don’t even know who has the Planescape license now, and I’m afraid if I went back to it, I’d fuck up a good thing. Then again, we’re going full circle on Fallout now and that’s going well, but I’m not working on that project (it’s in the very capable hands of Mr. J.E. Sawyer), so that probably explains why it’s going well. 😉

All the big games you have worked on have either been licensed properties (Star Wars, D&D) and/or sequels (Fallout 2) where you’re working off of someone else’s ideas. How did the creative process differ when it came to designing Alpha Protocol, a wholly original IP?

Well, it wasn’t wholly original – I’ll blog about this sometime soon, but I didn’t come up with the vision and concept (Feargus), the characters (Mitsoda and Carlson), or the first draft of the storyline and all its story-based areas (Mitsoda); I inherited a great deal from the previous 2 years of work on the title (which is actually not an uncommon thing in the industry). So even with an original IP, there’s always parameters and bookends you have to work within. Still, working within those parameters is fun because you get to ask the question – you have a bunch of pre-made models that look like this, the following areas, here’s the premise, and less than a year to script a 24-style branching blockbuster game – go!

Simple one from me. What’s the best part of your job?

Cussing and wearing casual clothes. Oh, and get paid to be a computer game master. Almost forgot that last part.

Drew Harvey
If you could make a sequel to any game, what would you pick and what would you do with it?

Ultima Underworld III or Wasteland 2. I have no idea what I’d do with either except have fun.

I want to ask Chris about morality systems in RPGs like Fallout 3, Fable 2, KOTOR, etc. Do you think the way these moral choices are tied to character stats, powers and rewards is somehow taking away from the power such moral choices can have on a game’s narrative? For example, I find that I make choices in Fallout 3 because I’m invested in developing my character rather than feeling invested in what actually happens in the world. Do you feel the same way?

I think it makes me pay more attention to the choices… but ultimately, when I play I act how I want to act first, and then enjoy the game mechanic bonuses and rewards that come along with me playing a certain style. I can understand how it could interfere, though, and it’s a point I hadn’t considered. There’s probably some middle ground to be had (for example, in Alpha Protocol, a number of game mechanic changes are awarded after the choice, not telegraphed, and there’s been an effort to balance the rewards no matter which road you take).

Chris, you’ve worked on a bunch of games that have been cancelled (Van Buren, Torn) or had lots of content cut out (KOTOR2). How do you handle it when something you’ve worked on for months or years ends up being released in an imcomplete state or not released at all?

You drink, sigh, and move on. I actually got numb to it early on in my career (Monte Cook, an editor at Hero Games, would routinely reject my submissions I’d spent months or years on, and he was right to do so because they sucked – I also had ten module proposals to Dungeon all rejected one after the other), so it wasn’t too bad when it started happening at work. The only time it really hurt was Fallout 3, because that game felt like it had the potential to be better than Torment, and when I was working on it, I could feel the inner creativity “sing” because it felt like everything was clicking into place.

Also, as a consolation prize, you find you can usually transfer design elements from one game to the other in terms of systems or new uses for characters that you did for the “flushed” design that you can use later on.

Mr. Beast
Would you ever want to work on an MMORPG? If so, how would you do things differently?

Sure, I’d love to. What would I do differently is probably shoot for trying to pitch a Planescape-style game mechanic where the power of certain character belief and philosophies could cause effects in the landscape or open up locations. It would also depend on the MMORPG. To be honest, I’ve always wanted to do a High School RPG and having that as an MMORPG would be fun (even though Bully’s kind of already kicked ass in the single-player respect). After watching the Wire, though, I wouldn’t mind having a MMORPG that was a fantasy version of conducting investigations and doing surveillance in a fantasy city to try and expose corruption or solve crimes.

It says on your Wiki page that you went to college with Todd Howard from Bethesda. Were you guys friends? Did you play D&D together back then?

I unfortunately never met Todd at William and Mary, and I am sad. Although at the time, we were playing Champions at college instead of D+D, so maybe that was the problem. The two tribes are constantly at each other’s throats, it’s almost a religious war. Or maybe that’s how I perceive it.

Can I ask two questions? What’s your favourite game ever?

I have a lot, and they’re my favourites for different reasons: Ultima Underworld I (I loved almost everything, but the ending that asked ME how to solve the game was the bomb), Chronotrigger (hey, I’m about to solve the game and my main character is still missing), System Shock 2 (everything), Resident Evil 1 (yay, Alone in the Dark with more bullets and scariness), Day of the Tentacle, Monkey Island. They’re old school, but hey, I’m old. I also fell in love with Grim Fandango when I was in the beatnik club and the theme song played, and my heart grew three sizes.

Note that it’s entirely possible I have “Last Starfighter” syndrome and remember those games more fondly than I should.

I repeatedly use System Shock 2 and in more recent titles, Dead Space as “design doc” games for how games or functionality should be designed. I think Dead Space did so many things well technically that I keep referring to it with design.

In terms of recent games, though, I enjoyed Fallout 3, Mass Effect, and Dead Space very much, not to mention a host of DS games. I enjoy adventure games a great deal, so I’ve been exhausting my way through the Phoenix Wright/Apollo Justice series.

I was going to ask about MMORPG’s too…. do you think someone will ever over-take WOW and have more players? how would you beat blizzard?!

I do not think anyone in the next decade will make a MMORPG more popular or more well-played than Blizzard …well, except Blizzard.

The sheer amount of content and players in WoW trumps just about any MMORPG I can think of. Plus, I suspect they secretly own South Korea and China and are just waiting to spring the surprise on the rest of the world.

Andreas Jahrn
When are you going to resume the awesome stick figure show again?

When Alpha Protocol ships, I hope. It’s hard to find time right now, as you might expect. Still, the stick figures are still being done for Knights of the Dinner Table comic from Kenzer & Company, so if you need a fix, feel free to check out that fine gaming comic. My doodles show up in the back.

Didrik L.
What about the idea of “persistent worlds” in MMORPGs? Is it possible for a RPG that takes place in an online persistent world to have a storyline that is as immersive as, say, Torment? Will singleplayer RPGs and multiplayer RPGs blend together in the future?

I absolutely think so, yes, but it would require a lot of narrative designers and area designers that can help reinforce the story through the area design. The biggest challenge I think would be in managing story variables and data tracking, but it’s not an insurmountable problem. It wouldn’t just be a writing issue, you’d need a lot of area designers and environment artists who were also conscious of the story elements as well.

Sharen Thrawn
For years, KOTOR fans were speculating who, or perhaps what the ‘True Sith’, mentioned by Kreia at the end of “The Sith Lords”, were. In ‘The Old Republic’ MMO, BioWare made them be the survivors of Naga Sadow’s Empire from the Great Hyperspace War.
My question is who/what the ‘True Sith’ were in your concept? Descendants of King Adas’s ancient Sith Empire? A completly unknown and separate gropu of the Dark Side of the Force users? Or perhaps the ‘True Sith’ was not suppoused to be an organization, but rather an idea?

They were survivors of Naga Sadow’s empire. Much like the Shadows in Babylon 5, they were orchestrating the collapse of the Republic from behind the scenes, interfering with key events to cause echoes through the Force and leave it ripe for invasion – hopefully without a shot even being fired. In essence, they were changing the shape of the galaxy through manipulation of specific people and conflicts, much like Sidious did, but on an even larger scale than Episode 1 through 3.

The idea was that in Knights of the Old Republic II, Revan slowly became aware of this underlying threat (because Revan is a tactical badass) and went off to seek out the true source of the threat to the galaxy. This was why he was trying to keep the Old Republic infrastructure intact so he could use it against the Sith. Anyway. Fairy tales and legends and what might have been, but that was the intent, yes.

Thank you, Chris, for taking the time to respond to so many Kotaku reader questions. And cheers to everyone who submitted a question, even if Chris was unfortunately unable to discuss Fallout: New Vegas. Stay tuned for more Question Time next week!


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