Interview to Chris Avellone, from Obsidian Entertainment

chris avellone

chris avellone

Chris Avellone is a well known game designer for all fans of PC role games, as he was part of mythical study Black Isle, at Interplay. He has participated in some of the best role-playing games of all time, especially Fallout 2 and Planescape Torment, two of our favorite RPGs. Following the closure of Black Isle, he founded Obsidian Entertainment along with Feargus Urquhart, Chris Parker, Darren Monahan, Chris Jones, and he is now working as creative director for Alpha Protocol, an RPG with a very unusual theme: espionage.

Is it really that different to work as a creative director instead of being lead designer?

Short Answer: Yes. Long Answer: A lead designer allows more focus – although compared to an area designer or content designer, a lead designer has less focus than the designers working for him/her (and so on down the chain).

As a Creative Director, you examine prototypes, game builds, and documents for several projects at once. At Obsidian, it’s three projects, which is a lot to juggle when you’re lead on one of them. You’re also involved in pitches, creating campaign settings, talking to publishers about the pitches, listening to pitches, overseeing the design department and designer hiring… I’m also one of the owners, which has a time investment involving tasks that aren’t directly game-related, although Feargus and the other production owners generally have to spend a larger chunk of time on those aspects than I do. I didn’t realize it would be that much work when I started, but I’m enjoying it and definitely helps put your game designs in a larger perspective.

At the same time, being a lead designer can be more gratifying in some respects because you can do more tangible work on a daily basis and focus your energy – providing feedback as a Creative Director sometimes loses some of that edge in comparison to going in and fixing or doing design yourself, if that makes any sense. Whenever possible, I prefer doing work to doing critiques, and I definitely enjoyed working on Alpha Protocol and doing the narrative design there along with the other lead designer duties, and hopefully that love comes through in the final product.

You’re a big fan of RPGs, not only as creator but also as a player. What’s your feeling about the genre nowadays?

It depends on the presentation, really, but I think we’re seeing a lot of good RPG content coming out consistently from RPG developers over the world (BioWare, Bethesda, CD Projekt, just to name a few), that I have a lot of faith in the genre. I think BioWare’s Dragon Age and their way of taking the genre conventions and giving them a twist (elven slavery) is pretty good, and Bethesda’s really driving home exploration and open worlds in their games.

I think there’s a lot of promising stuff being delivered in the action RPG market as well – Borderlands and Torchlight seem to be generating a lot of positive buzz. I haven’t played Borderlands yet, but I’m really looking forward to Torchlight (and eventually Deathspank), if only because the art styles of those games really strike a chord in my nerdly cartoony heart.

The noticeable ambiguity of some moral decisions we had to adopt in Planescape Torment are hard to find in video games now, although technical means used today are much higher. Is it a problem for designers, for editors or for the public?

The problem is for designers. Note in some instances, the range of moral decisions complements the license (Star Wars), where morality is usually black and white. In a world like Aliens, however, the moral decisions are more psychological grey areas, since much of that franchise is about not only the presence of the aliens, but the dangers that the human psyche brings to any survival equation. Exploring that on Aliens was really fun and Josh Sawyer created some really great characters that showcased that psychological vulnerability.

I think there are titles (the Witcher) that do present that ambiguity and do it well, however. Ultimately, it’s a design issue, but the solution depends on the franchise and the game’s theme.

Our feeling is that the public turns away from complex plots or ambiguous decisions, and the whole effort is put then on spectacular graphics and simplicity, that is, as if we had gone from the “haute cuisine” to “fast food”.

I don’t think it’s an either/or thing, and I think the public would be damn happy for some moral complexity as long as strong reactivity was involved. Ultimately, they want to see the world react in cool ways, but not so much that the world’s moral system crushes them for playing the way they want to. In Alpha Protocol, we try to reward the player no matter which direction they take by giving them different consequences that make sense within the context of their actions but aren’t punishing, per se, they’re just consequences with different benefits (and disads).

Game Publishers seem to prefer simple games, even though more complex games can achieve higher sales (Witcher 1.5 million, Stalker 2.5 million) and ratings – why is that?

I’m biased because I work in RPGs, but I don’t think game publishers look for simple games – they look for specific genres to fill niches in their game portfolios, and they’re actually pretty good at recognizing that some games (notably RPGs) need to have a certain complexity to appeal to folks because, well, that’s the genre.

They want to bank on sure things and they are understandably risk-adverse because of the amount of money involved in making games, however, so whether or not to use franchises and making games similar to existing successful games definitely factors in more strongly when those discussions come up (if given the choice between a brand new sci-fi RPG versus doing a Star Wars RPG, it’s really no contest from a publisher point of view). It’s easy to criticize them for this, but I don’t personally have 20 million dollars to piss away, and if I did, I’d probably be just as careful with how I spent it and mitigate the risk accordingly.

In not many current games actions are perceived by the player as having a direct impact on – the plot, in most cases it seems it doesn’t matter what you choose in a conversation or action taking place because the plot will not vary at all. Would you like, as a player, to see more games with a stronger action-consequence relationship?

Yes. Reactivity tells me my actions are making a difference, and when I’m playing a game, that’s what I want to see.

And as a designer?

Yes. It means I’m doing my job as a role-playing game designer.

I recently read an internal document SEGA apparently leaked to the public. Among other things, it is stated there that the initial level of Alpha Protocol is too difficult for the players. Quite worrying to check that difficulty seems to be the main concern and not the quality of that level. We can notice it also in the media sometimes, when some difficult or complex games receive harder criticism; quite stupid if we think about it. Should videogames design be oriented then to amoebae and not people?

Alpha Protocol’s difficulty is as much of an obstacle as the player wants it to be, considering the settings we provide the player (as well as the Recruit class choice as well to make the game especially pain-in-the-ass-hard).

Has that leak something to do with the delay of Alpha Protocol?

Not as far as I know (or at least I strongly doubt it), but you’d have to ask SEGA about the delay.

You said that the moral ambiguity of Alpha Protocol will be closer to Fallout 1 and 2, which is very promising. Could you please explain how is this system being developed?

Alpha Protocol doesn’t attach a moral absolute to the main character – instead, we track the player’s attitude and individual NPC’s perception of the player’s morality and ethics. Basically, the player gets judged by the NPCs, but his morality isn’t a number or scale attached to him personally.

Basically, the world paints you as a saint or demon – but even that’s too simplistic for people’s attitudes in AP, since each of them has a different perception of right and wrong. Each NPC brings their own morality judgments to the table – so saint/demon can translate into sympathetic, worthy of respect, friendship, object of romance, aggressive shithead, etc., but in terms of you judging yourself? Hell, you’re just doing a job. You know why you did what you did to get the job done, the world be damned.

I’ve also read the player will be able to finish the game without fighting. Is that true?

Almost – you can finish the game without killing anyone (martial arts and tranquilizers and gadgets for the win). No need to take a life if you don’t want to, but the pacifist route isn’t easy or, ironically, for the faint of heart.

Matthew Rorie has also said Alpha Protocol will display the most typical RPG elements including NPC’s interactions, even sleeping with them. I understand player will be able to build complex relationships then. Is it correct?

True. Even your hated enemies will see value in allying with you at points depending on your personality and mutual goals, you can reason and blackmail with masterminds, and even cause several antagonists to re-evaluate their goals. You can have romances, “no”-mances (our anti-romances, and boy, can some of the women hate you), suffer loss, make friendships, and even bask in the crazy joy being completely unpredictable and fucked-up with some of the folks in the game.

Sex is often common in cinema, whether explicit or not, but in video games (in the best of cases), it’s usually portrayed in a too childish way. Doubt is whether games are lacking maturity or perhaps there is just no real interest in showing complex human relationships in a videogame. Press has a lot to do with it too, we still remember what happened to Fox News regarding Mass Effect. What is happening with sex in video games?

Hopefully, it’ll stop becoming taboo. It’s hardly the same sin as butchering cities and blowing up city blocks. Besides, sex is good for the species.

Should not designers dare to go further than they do most of the times?

If it fits the genre and it’s fun. I think it’s a stupid taboo in general – if you put Mature on a box, then I don’t understand what the big deal is. Fuck away, I say.

Film history has always shown the quality and importance of a good script, some of them made by great writers. Videogames seem to neglect the well-written texts, often because writers are not usually considered a priority in the team. Do you share this opinion?

That may not have always been the case, but I think there’s been more of a narrative design focus in recent years. Again, my perspective is from the RPG genre, where narrative design is usually a core part of the genre, so perhaps I’m biased. I do know that there are projects where narrative is marginalized, but I think the industry sees value in making sure the story, plot, and potentially cut scenes of a game are well-scripted and well-written if they want to drive home a great experience.

To what extent is important the story in Alpha Protocol?

Very. It’s not as important as the moment-to-moment gameplay and the level design, but in terms of providing context, tension, changing level goals and flow, as well as reacting to your decisions (including dialogue choices and your attitude in delivering those choices) plus how you carried out a mission, it’s a framework that ties it all together and gives it purpose. I think it does this very well, and I’m happy with it.

I’m also proud of the fact that it works not just as a story, but has actual game mechanics with tangible results in the world and to your character, which is what I think what game narratives should do. Too often I think the narrative is divorced from the systems and level design, and we took steps in Alpha Protocol to insure this wouldn’t be the case.

Spies theme is really eye-catching because it is not common at all, especially in RPGs. Will it be similar in style to the James Bond films or rather espionage films of the Cold War?

More like 24. You can play a James Bond-style character (that’s what I’m doing in the second playthrough) if you want, but ultimately it’s more grounded in its technology and interactions without going too futuristic.

It seems there are too many fantasy games out there, and many players seem quite tired of the subject. This is one of the reasons why Alpha Protocol is expected with interest. Would you say the subject itself is less important than the way it is raised? That is, the treatment of fantasy in Baldur’s Gate is not the same at all compared to the one in The Witcher, for example.

I’d have to question the premise of this question – I don’t think people are tired of fantasy at all, and I think they would be quite happy if new iterations of the same fantasy style of play kept coming out with improved graphics and new gameplay elements. Everyone loves their dwarven paladin Rulpho they’ve been playing for 30+ years in various incarnations.

I’m not saying I’d enjoy it, but I can point to a number of my gaming friends who would. Part of the role of a designer is recognizing what others find fun that you personally loathe doing (romances are my bane, for example).

Infiltration missions will be presumably a constant throughout the game. Thief, from Looking Glass Studios, created a fascinating style hard to forget. Guards pursuing the player while uttering threats, conversations behind the doors, following steps sounds, reading of notes providing clues, etc. Will we find something similar to this “Thief style” in Alpha Protocol?

This is a little difficult to answer because initially stealth wasn’t a consideration in AP, and the initial narrative design had an extremely short span on available banter for a level.

We changed this because banter is fun, and No One Lives Forever and Thief are why.

While you were in Black Isle, gameplay of some videogames could last even for dozens of hours; trend now is to make quite shorter games. Warren Spector said some time ago he preferred short games, long ones are not usually finished by a majority of players. Can we expect Alpha Protocol to be a long or a short game?

It’s your call – we give you optional ways to approach target missions, and you don’t need to do all the optional missions at all – you can skip quite a bunch and skip quite a bit of content (as well as key characters). If you’re thorough, you’ll have a much different experience with some nice twists and turns. In my first playthrough of Alpha Protocol not doing one optional mission in Moscow ended up altering my endgame considerably, and I was pretty impressed with the change.

You know well, one of the reasons for Neverwinter Nights success was the editor, thanks to which an impressive community has been raised. Such tools extend the life of the games and are not too burdensome for programmers. The obvious question is, will offer Alpha Protocol proper editing tools?

Nope, we’re using Unreal, so it’s already a tool out there. If you want to hack in and mod Alpha Protocol, feel free, I’d love to see what the mod community does with it.

Another main cause of Neverwinter success is the multiplayer. Alpha Protocol does not include this option. Why is it so difficult to find RPGs offering cooperative multiplayer?

Short Answer: It takes a lot of resources. It’s not an easy thing to do in general. Alpha Protocol has a number of elements and game systems in it, and having those complex systems interact between two or more players would require many more personnel that we have.

Ultimately, we have a ton of things we’d love to put in any game we do, but it comes down to resources and time. That was the case on Alpha Protocol.

For many multiplatform games, the PC version will usually get damaged (simplified/dumbed down) mainly because not all computer possibilities are used, and the PC audience is no taken into account either. It will not always happen, but more oftenly that we would like to. Are there any differences between consoles and PC version?

Consoles are a stable tech platform, and that’s an advantage, but we try and design our games so our build process does the PC version, the Xbox version, and the PS3 version all at once. All of our art assets are focused on the high-end (the PC) and downscaled for the console versions, although admittedly, we do have to be careful on how we lay out levels and place enemies because of console memory constraints.

In Alpha Protocol, I don’t know if there’s a primary platform focus – there certainly isn’t from the design standpoint, and I think the PC version offers many advantages for shooter players than consoles do (but real-time combat and aiming on the console has always had this challenge). In any event, most multi-platform titles aim to scale the visual quality according to the platform’s power.

Thanks a lot for your time, Mr Avellone. I wish you the best luck with your project.

Thanks for the opportunity, Santiago, this was a lot of fun. If I can answer anything else in the future, just say the word.