Unmasking the Gamers: Chris Avellone – game designer, writer, and former ‘unlucky schlep’ – Part 1

Posted by Will Ooi | Posted in Gaming | Tags: , , , , , , | Posted on 24-06-2011-05-2008

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This is the latest part of an interview series, “Unmasking the Gamers,” humanising the people who play video games: the real character controlling that fictional character; the person behind that First Person game. Previous interviewee(s): Brendan Stapley, Andrew Doherty, Cody Winn

This particular edition of Unmasking the Gamers features the first part of an interview with a special guest.

Mr Chris Avellone, popularly known as MCA, has been the creative mastermind behind many of the highest profile Western RPGs released, with notable contributions to the Fallout series (including the creation of the Fallout Bible with help from fans), Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) II, and the classic Planescape: Torment, oft-mentioned as featuring the best RPG narrative of all time. MCA was kind enough to take some time out during development of Fallout New Vegas downloadable content at Obsidian Entertainment to answer some questions, and in Part 1 of our discussion we’ll cover various aspects of his role in New Vegas, game writing, as well as his views on the player experience and character design and development.

WillOoi: Hi Chris, thanks very much for taking time out to participate in this interview. You’re quite the hero to many RPG fans out there and your willingness to answer questions is well documented and much appreciated. So what are you up to at the moment?

Chris Avellone: Still working hard here at Obsidian, wrapping up the last bits of Fallout New Vegas DLC, Lonesome Road. We had the last narrative tasks and voice-acting session last week (Ed: end of May), it went well, and now it’s a matter of doing more run-throughs of DLC4 to get a feel for the pacing and polish what we can. It’s been a long road from New Vegas to the end of the DLCs, and now when I go home, I’m not sure what to do with myself – on NV and the DLCs, it was easy, I just didn’t go home.

As for what’s next, we still have a number of titles in development, so I’ve been playing those builds, going to design meetings, making and reviewing critiques and working on pitches for additional products. One thing I’ll say – being an independent developer gives you access to franchises I never thought possible a few years back.

WillOoi: You started out in the game industry as a game master. Could you give us a quick run through of what this role is and what it involves?

Chris Avellone: A game master (probably an easier term is “Dungeon Master”) is the unlucky schlep who designs and “referees” a pen-and-paper adventure for a group of players for Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer, Champions, whatever rule-based fantasy role-play you’re all there to play. The last one I did was gamemastering the Fallout Pen and Paper campaign(s) back at Interplay, which was a lot of fun: It involves laying out the maps, designing the NPCs, setting up the encounters and in some cases (like Fallout) testing out the game mechanics we were planning for the actual game along with the scenarios… we found that the players would often have suggestions or ways to play the scenario based on their character build that we could design into the computer game as well. It was like a sounding board session for design that everyone could play and participate in.

WillOoi: Your title at Obsidian is ‘Creative Director’. What does this involve and require from you?

Chris Avellone: You oversee the design elements on all the projects at the studio, offer feedback, critiques, and play the builds as much as possible. You also set up design standards, design position standards (“here’s the role of a junior designer, lead level designer,” etc.), design tests, interview applicants, and do what you can to foster a good development atmosphere.

WillOoi: How does this role differ from that of ‘Project Director’?

Chris Avellone: The Project Director role is focused on a single project. Over the past year or so, I’ve been Project Director on most of the DLCs for Fallout New Vegas – Dead Money, Old World Blues, and lastly, Lonesome Road.

WO: Your approach to entrenched genres or hallmarks has often been to take these established tropes and to turn them on their heads, as notably seen in KOTOR II and Planescape: Torment. Do you feel that it’s important for genres to mix things up before they get stale, and is this design philosophy perhaps a comment on the mainstream game industry?

MCA: It mostly stems from hate (Planescape). Or indignant posturing about unfair rules of life (Star Wars: The nature of the Force). While I think it’s important to mix things up, it’s important not to do it to such an extent that people’s expectations about what they’re playing is trashed (if Planescape had been turned so upside down it was no longer even a party-based fantasy role-playing game, that’s unfair to the player). I do think there’s subversions you can slip into conventional RPGs to try new elements out, however.

Since most of my life this past year has been in Fallout DLC-land, I will say that DLCs are a great proving ground for these elements… there’s a lot of latitude to play around with narratives, quests, themes, and even new level design toolbox elements to try out some new gameplay mechanics, and because the DLCs are short experiences, they become great test cases for this.

WO: For KOTOR II, you took on Star Wars’ “Force” concept and muddied both sides so that there wasn’t really a clear-cut ‘good’ or ‘bad’ side. If given the chance, what other fictional universes would you like to de/reconstruct and how would you do so?

MCA: That’s a good question. I don’t have a universe in mind – the way it usually works is the franchise finds you, and you roll with it. Planescape and Star Wars were never options from the outset, they just kind of happened, so it may be that the fictional universe will come to me, rather than the other way around.

If I can change the question and indicate TV franchises I’d love to work in, I’d say: The Wire (building an investigation and balancing the personalities of the investigators would be fun), Torchwood (I’ve always liked the premise), and Doctor Who jump out to me. As far as books, Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, Glen Cook’s the Black Company (although Bungie’s Myth did a good job), Martin’s Game of Thrones, and the Butcher’s Dresden Files would also be a lot of fun.

WO: What are some of your favourite game genres, and what have been some creative works that have stood out for you?

MCA: I enjoy survival-horror games (played Amnesia: The Dark Descent recently, loved it), but that doesn’t depend on it being FPS or more 3rd person action like Dead Space/Resident Evil perspective, I just want to see how they can scare me regardless of the game genre. I also play a lot of iPhone titles, pick-up titles (I jump onto Plants vs. Zombies every once in a while because it’s so addicting) and Nintendo DS – in terms of recent ones I’ve played, Zelda: Spirit Tracks, Puzzle Quest(s), and Dungeon Raid (when my girlfriend isn’t playing it on my phone). In terms of long-term favorites, I’ll go back to the hallmarks: Fallout 1, Chronotrigger, Ultima Underworld 1, and System Shock 2. These four probably had the biggest influence on my design approach of any titles I’ve ever played.

WO: What are some of your favourite writing or design achievements in your career? A particular character or quest, perhaps?

MCA: I like the influence system (although not its first iteration in KOTOR II) as a way of making players pay more attention to a companion’s philosophy and outlook rather than just Karma, although I prefer the individual NPC influence meters in Alpha Protocol as a more realistic and true-to-the-world feel for how others judge you based on your actions, not some internal player character moral barometer.

As for other experiments: The idea of disparate personalities being forced to cooperate under pressure when they normally would kill each other is something I’ve always liked. We used this in Fallout New Vegas, Dead Money, and it was an experiment I wanted to try ever since the Planescape days (although in Planescape, the idea would be that a group of hated enemies all had tattoos that prevented them from harming each other and straying too far from each other, and they had to cooperate to escape… sort of like the movie, Cube). Since Planescape wasn’t an option, I switched it to a collar in Dead Money and went from there.

As far as characters, I’ve loved all the characters I’ve written for different reasons. I loved writing Rose of Sharon Cassidy (FNV, although Rachel Roswell voice-acted her and took her to a new level), Dean Domino and Christine from Dead Money (who shows up in more than one of the Fallout DLCs). For Christine, it was fun to figure out how to “write” a mute character, and the fact she switches voices over the DLCs is kind of interesting as well. I also have a lot of love for Ulysses in Fallout, only because I like the idea of someone hunting my player for reasons of his own, and then hearing the reasons why… and realizing how important even the smallest of my actions are for the people of the wasteland – living or dead.

WO: The RPGs of today have taken on a far more action-oriented approach, as seen through Fallout 3/New Vegas, Mass Effect 2, and Dragon Age 2. For you, what are the essential components that make an RPG an RPG?

MCA: Honoring the player’s choices during character creation and advancement by having all choices given be viable tools to succeed in the game world, a world and its people that react and change based on your actions, and that reaction be meaningful for your characters and others. There’s a treatise I could write for this – there’s exploration, advancement, the ability to play the role you’ve built, customization, kill-and-loot feedback loop, and more, but the big points are above.

WO: You visited Australia for the Framework 09 seminar (the videos of which can be found here). One of the points you made was about fleshing out character creation via pen & paper format – how important is this process to you as a designer, and do you think all RPGs can benefit from such an approach?

MCA: It’s extremely important because it gives you immediate feedback from your players as to how they perceive the character you’ve made – is the character valuable? A threat? A worthy adversary? And it’s quick to judge why they’re lacking based on player comments, expression, and grumbles/excitement.

On the reverse end, it also let me see what character builds from a gamemaster standpoint the game needs to account for. In the Fallout pen-and-paper games, we had to account for doctor/medical specialists, combat monsters, sharpshooters, scientists, Nightkin, ghoul mechanics, pacifistic thieves, and more… and all of them had to be covered in each adventure with a role to play and an important contribution to make in the scenario. It was a good test as a gamemaster to stay true to Fallout to make sure all the character builds were being covered and felt valuable in the gameplay context.

WO: Would you say most of your pen & paper created characters have gone on to play roles in your games? Any memorable ones who didn’t make the cut?

MCA: I’ve never taken them except from Fallout (again, because that pen and paper game was designed for the computer game)… but even then, in terms of groups and factions, Caesar’s Legion, the Hanged Man/Burned Man, and more, just went on to be taken by others and re-interpreted in different ways as the years went on. They’ve mutated over time, and they’re not anything like they were initially except in name.

WO: Have you ever written a character who you personally despised, and if so is it a challenge to ensure that they aren’t wholly unredeemable? For instance in Fallout 2, the Chosen One character could be offended by Cassidy’s initial bigotry towards tribals, but then he turned out to be essential.

MCA: Well, Cassidy in point: Sure, he’s a bigot… at first. When you confront him on it in his dialogue, he apologizes, backs off, and when you ask him about it again, he does a change now that he knows you and respects you, so you have to tip your hat to the man’s willingness to change based on what life’s shown him. And it’s even better because you’re the one who caused him to re-evaluate his perspective, so from a player standpoint, that’s a double win.

I’ve never despised any character I’ve written – there’s usually always something about them that I find respectable. The Legate’s pragmatic in Fallout New Vegas and his violent appetites border on poetry which I like – even Leland from Alpha Protocol, there’s pragmatic things I respect about his approach to the world climate and I call it out during the game’s narrative – and he calls it out if Thorton (the player) shows the same attitudes in carrying out his missions.

WO: The identity of the Courier in New Vegas will likely become more fleshed out once we discover why Ulysses refused to deliver the package. How far do you think an RPG should define the player character, and how much should be left open-ended for the player to create through in-game choices and actions? The Courier seems to have a great deal more malleability than the protagonists in the Fallout series thus far, with an almost completely clean slate.

MCA: I feel you should let the player write their own history. When we set up Lonesome Road, we only knew 3-4 things for certain about the player character, and in my opinion, that’s enough to build an epic adventure around. More on that to come… or it’ll come to the player, one way or the other.

…Stay tuned for Part 2 of the interview…

Also posted on Gamasutra and the Fallout Wiki

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[...] the time, developer Chris Avellone talked about his motives behind foreshadowing the Ulysses character: ” I also have a lot of love for Ulysses in Fallout, only because I like the idea of someone [...]

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