RPGamer Feature - Chris Avellone Interview

Acclaimed RPG writer and developer Chris Avellone has been a "mercenary developer for hire" since leaving Obsidian in 2015. We have reached out to him to follow up on his adventures after going solo, and to see what is in store from him in the future.

Johnathan Stringer (RPGamer): You left Obsidian around two years ago now, could you catch readers up on what you have been up to since then?
Chris Avellone: Sure also, wow, two years so Ive been doing a lot of things, a good amount which got announced this year all at once, even though Id been working on them for a while.

I helped Arkane Studios with Prey although to clarify, I didnt write the story, I helped with the supporting cast, lore, history, and other parts Ricardo Bare was the lead writer and lead designer, and hes a great designer to work with. Also, the FTL folks (Subset Games) reached out to me to ask if Id help with world lore and pilot personality design/voices for their new title, Into the Breach, which is promising to be at least as fun as FTL, even at an early stage.

I worked with Larian on Divinity: Original Sin 2. My work with them is largely done, but Id definitely work with Swen again, hes very driven, and his energy is contagious. In addition, Beamdog reached out to me to help with the Planescape: Torment: Enhanced Edition, and they gave me a chance to fix a lot of my stupid errors I couldnt when the title first came out many years ago, so that was both a nostalgic and humiliating trip down memory lane.

Theres been other projects as well I still work with inXile, I also got to work on a WW2 title, Burden of Command, Ive done lore and world design for Alaloth, and the System Shock Reboot (this isnt Warren Spectors SS3, its Night Dive Studios) and they let me get to write SHODAN, so Im happy about that. Also, I get to work with a lot of ex-Obsidian folks, some who left years ago and went cross-country and others who were hit during one of the rounds of layoffs. Being able to work with them again is nice its like getting the gang back together.

I did and am still working on other unannounced projects, some big, some small, but all of them interesting. We recently finished the Kickstarter campaign for Pathfinder: Kingmaker, which was a success, and how that came about was a surprise Owlcat reached out to me to ask if Id want to work on a Pathfinder RPG, which was something Id been interested in doing for a while. Its really surprising no ones tried to make a single-player Pathfinder CRPG before, its a great franchise.

JS: I have read in interviews that it seems one of the reasons you left Obsidian was due to creative differences you had with management. First, is that correct? And if so, has going freelance helped to allowed you the creative freedom you desired?
CA: No, the departure was largely due to organizational and management aspects not anything to do with the developers and folks who worked on the games. And please don't think this is somehow implying I'm a great manager, I'm not. I don't read tons of management books, I don't hang around with agents and business development reps, and I often feel lost around managers and CEOs because I dont understand a lot of the jargon. In general, my management approach is more about establishing hierarchy, setting expectations, trusting people with the proper title and roles, giving consistent feedback (esp. positive feedback which is more important when it isn't accompanied by negative feedback), don't play favorites or hire family/friends, and recognizing that if one doesn't have enough money and one doesn't have enough time to make a good game, figure out (1) how it got to that point so you don't repeat it, and (2) what can be done right now to fix both for the sake of a project even if it means personal sacrifice of time, and your own funds to make a good game.

In terms of freedom, we did get a chance to work on a range of projects and pursue a few of our own IPs. But obviously, theres things you are never able to do while full-time at a company, there are people you aren't allowed to work with, people you can no longer work with that got laid off, companies you can't collaborate with (pretty much almost all of them), and franchises you'll never be able to contribute to including genres you can't contribute to, either, because that's not the studio expectation or specialty. Also, it was rare to have a chance to work with the same company twice (to completion), so it was difficult to build a lasting relationship.

Freelancing doesn't fix all these issues, but it fixes a lot of them there's much more power over your responsibilities, how much you can affect change, the type of work you can choose and the expectations for that work, and a wide range of people, franchises, and genres you can work with. Not only have I worked on more projects in the last two years since going freelance, but I've learned more than I ever did in the last ten years as well. And even better, companies come back to you for more work because you did a good job for them the first time.

Again, I don't have a personal problem with devs at any place I've worked at some of them I've worked with for over 15 years, and I remain in contact with many of them and see them frequently (sometimes out in the freelance world as well). I wish them all the best.

JS: How do you get involved with the projects you have been working on since going freelance? Do you reach out to companies, or do they contact you requesting your services?
CA: They all reached out to me, except for Prey, who reached out to me, I had to say no, and then I came back later and said, "so that project you mentioned," next thing I know, I'm on a plane to Austin, Texas and playing the early prototype for Prey.

But yeah, just about everyone else I can think of reached out to me, sometimes because we'd worked on something together in the past (FTL, which I worked on for free because I loved the game).

JS: Do you have any regrets going solo? Would you be open to joining another studio full-time again?
CA: Family matters preclude me from being able to join a studio full-time (it was much the same thing at the end of Obsidian, which fueled the departure). Although, honestly, while I've worked with a number of studios I admire, I'd rather try my hand at making my own first, although it'd be structured differently than most other game studios.

As for regrets going solo? None. If anything, I work with more people now than I did before, but the structure is clearer (hierarchy, responsibilities, titles, contractual awareness), and I get to choose my work based on what interests me. I'm a little disappointed in myself because I should have done it years ago. I was tempted to do it when I resigned from Black Isle (I got a very brief gig with Snowblind on Champions of Norrath, and that brief glimpse should have been a big neon sign that life's better on the other side).

It's my fault for being afraid, though, I think I had different expectations of what an owner was and also, I was too scared of not having the "standard trappings" of a job without realizing the drawbacks that come with that. In the digital age now, it's even more of a drawback, and I think it's more expensive for companies in the long run.

JS: What do you see yourself as in terms of game design? Are you a writer, narrative designer, game designer, world builder? What would you like to focus on, and what do you think you should be known for?
CA: I've done bits of everything - mostly because they're all connected, so if you want to be good at any one of them, you should work in the other design arenas whenever you can.

Still, overall, it's mostly been narrative design but now across a wider array of genres, which I think has shown me some of my limitations and where I need to improve. I've done area design, empathy mechanics (Burden of Command), helped with VR dialogue systems, done conversation scripting, cinematic scripting, and chronologies and world building (I got to help Ricardo Bare with the alternate timeline for the world in Prey, which was fun you dont usually get to rewrite "modern" history in fun ways), and more.

JS: I have heard some rumors of a Van Buren resurrection. Is this something you are wanting to pursue? I also believe you mentioned many ideas from Van Buren were utilized in New Vegas. If Van Buren were to be realized, how would that work out with those designs and narratives already in place elsewhere?
CA: I got asked not long ago what made Van Buren special to me and if theres anything I would ever carry into the future, so I made a list - the list didnt have anything that was Fallout-specific, though, strangely enough, the ideas were broader in design. If I can share the detailed analysis one day, I will, but the high points were...

Readers familiar with VB can likely skip the rest of this question - for anyone not familiar with it, "Van Buren" is the (outdated) secret code name for Interplay's attempt to do Fallout 3, which never fully came together for various reasons. I worked on the original Van Buren for many years at Black Isle, ran several pen-and-paper game sessions (which I've shared, and other bits and pieces I'm sure are on-line somewhere) and with multiple groups to try and test out the rules, locations, plots, and more.

A return to pen-and-paper roots (mostly because wed been trying out VB around a gaming table vs. computer prototypes, and I'd forgotten how much easier that can be in some respects).
A rival party (not villains, but a party like your own, which I've always thought would be far more dangerous).
Treating the interface as a game and a dungeon/exploration challenge in itself (the idea that by doing things in the environment you could unlock new functionality on your Pip Boy was key to Van Buren as well as the rivals secretly having access to your interface and eventually, youd be able to do the same).
Also, it was going to embody some elements about using "Speech" skills in RPG conversations they wouldn't be used as instant-win, but they allowed you to analyze someone you were talking to and decide how you wanted to manipulate them rather than reveal the golden path to success.

There were other things, like allowing the player to choose their own theme music from a local music folder on their computer for different effects/bonuses, the ability to program people (NPCs), and trying to portray computer intelligences in a new light. One of the things I enjoyed most about VB's first designs is you were trying to save ZAX from losing his memory before he could calculate a way to try and help save the world. It's rough watching a computer as powerful as ZAX at the mercy of his own failing construction.

So yes - I'd love to see a Van Buren resurrection, although between parts of those same designs, and characters and factions appearing in Fallout: New Vegas, and the fact there were at least two iterations of Van Buren at Interplay (the one I'd worked on for several years before departing Black Isle, and another close to that time, which wasn't the same, although they shared elements), it's sometimes hard to tell what's "Van Buren" and what's not.

JS: With all the classic-style RPGs being released lately like Pillars of Eternity, Wasteland 2, Divinity Original Sin 1 & 2, and several others on the way, we are in somewhat of a renaissance for those style of games. Do you see these games having staying power, or do you fear they may be a fad that fade out after a little while?
CA: I think the fact people still want them, and are willing to support them (even after 20+ years), is a sign they have staying power - at least a percentage of the gamer audience. Admittedly, there was a time not long ago where you didn't see many of those games, but crowdsourcing and alternate (digital) distribution methods have made it possible to fund and distribute those games outside of a traditional publisher model, which was often the biggest challenge to these games being made. Simply because the numbers didn't support it (and in all fairness, they didn't vs. other genres).

JS: Have you had a chance to play any of these games yourself? What feedback you would give for elements that could be improved on? What are they doing right?
CA: I've played all the ones you've mentioned, sure. Any challenges Divinity had from the first one are being addressed in the second and then some (gamemaster mode, party members with conflicting agendas, etc.). Their turn-based combat is smooth, by the way.

I do think the nature of isometric games carries certain challenges in terms of technical improvement, but often, I think more interesting innovations have to come in customization, setting, and systems, both mechanical and narrative if youre not doing much new in those departments, then you might want to re-examine your design.

Also, a lot of it is listening to the audience and what they want and ask for rather than dismissing things they want that have been in previous games they enjoyed. Ex: Being able to customize and mod the game as much as possible without roadblocks? Sure. (And developers should support this, as this will add longevity to the game, and see ideas you'd never even realize come to fruition.) Gamemaster mode? Sure. Multiplayer that doesnt sacrifice the single-player narrative? Sure. Deeper and more integrated companions? Sure. Other aspects are managerial the content is only part of the equation.

First, one problem ends up being that developers want to make too much content (or make too many promises they can't support financially), without realizing what that extra content does to the fun and quality of a game. I've been guilty of this, for certain, so please don't think I'm claiming otherwise. To this day, I still have to remind myself that, "I'm a game developer, I will always make games, and that means, I can still 'cut' things and they won't be lost they're there for the next game, but let's focus on making this game fun." The problem can also come when developers cling too tightly to an aspect of a game, and even when the signs are on the wall that it's very unlikely to get done, they still hold on to it, or still want to discuss it, even though it becomes more impractical by the day.

The second challenge is managing that content and that means editing, subtracting, and making game spaces and gameplay systems more convenient to play rather than filled with arbitrary filler and challenges even game systems need an editor (a content editor, not a toolset, although a good toolset helps, too). Also, in terms of management, is the ability to recognize when there's too much content, or if the nature of a developer's "fix" to get something perfect is really the province of that department, or if it's something that can easily be fixed with story and lore. It's a little hard to explain, but I am genuinely one of those people who believe that the writer can fix this; we can. But, we might need some time and trust. ;)

JS: What sorts of projects or dream projects are you still chasing? Do you think you not being attached to a studio will allow making these projects more or less likely than before?
CA: I feel like I'm already working on most of them and some are a surprise (like being able to write SHODAN, which wasn't a dream project because I didn't think it was even a possibility). It turns out just about anything is possible, and I've been invited to work on a number of franchises I never would have thought would even consider reaching out to me.

JS: Can you share what you are working on currently, or any future projects you will be attached to in the future?
CA: A lot were mentioned already in the opening, and the others I can't talk about yet to keep the secrets (even though I REALLY WANT TO). Keep the eye on the horizon, as I can guarantee that at least one of them in particular, people are going to be pleasantly surprised (probably more about the title than my presence), and it's definitely something that wouldn't have been possible if I was full-time at a company.

We thank Chris for answering another round of questions from us. We appreciate his candid and in-depth responses that help to peel the layers back from behind the scenes of game development.

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