An Interview with Chris Avellone of Obsidian - Prima Games

An Interview with Chris Avellone of Obsidian

by Prima Games Staff

As one of the guys involved in both of the two most recent Fallout games, Chris Avellone might strike you as the ideal man to ask about what’s happening in the Fallout: New Vegas development. Unfortunately he is frustratingly tightlipped about their newest development, but can Prima games jedi mind trick him into being a little more revealing with questions about his new years, and overactive complements of one of his previous creations? These are not the droids you are looking for…

Prima: So, personal question: how did you spend the New Year?

Chris Avellone: Well, it was a mixed bag. I spent most of the time at Obsidian just playing either Fallout 3 or catching up on some of the other builds we have here. But I did have time to catch up with some friends!

Prima: So what did you think of Bethesda’s take on Fallout 3, given you worked on the original attempt?

Chris Avellone: I enjoyed it quite a bit. Some of the things I really liked about it were… Well, in Fallout 1 and Fallout 2, a lot of the special skill structure they had for the game system actually either ended up being only useful in special cases, like Repair. That, or they had a time limit involved with them, like Doctor. Doctor worked in Fallout 1 because the game had a time pressure, and it was faster to use the skill than buy Stimpaks. But when they took the time limit away in Fallout 2 – and they did the patch that removed it from Fallout 1 – that skill wasn’t really balanced anymore. I like very much how Fallout 3 took a lot of skills that had issues before and made them relevant – like, Repair is pretty damn important in Fallout 3!

The only drawback I can think of so far is that I made the mistake of starting out with a four-strength character during my first playthrough, and the amount of stuff you need to carry around … I was constantly using mailboxes to store stuff, and hopping back and forth between Megaton and my little safehouse to sell it all! I wish I’d made my strength higher.

Prima: You need strength to survive in the Wasteland, Chris.

Chris Avellone: Well, I wanted to bump up my intelligence and charisma as high as possible, because I wanted all the speech options. Generally, whenever I go into an RPG, I want to see every single possible way of interacting with someone, so I chose, for example, the Black Widow perk – I think that’s the name – and the Child at Heart perk, too, because I wanted to see all the dialogue options with the kids and the opposite sex, and things like that.

Prima: Do you think Bethesda carried on in the spirit of the series?

Chris Avellone: Yeah, absolutely. I guess my critique would be that Bethesda’s always gotten the openworld game mechanic down pretty well. They have a tradition of it; they understand the design mechanics involved with that, and I believe very much that the Fallout world, by design, all the way from the first one, was always intended to be a go-anywhere-you-want-and-do-anything open world. And I think that Bethesda’s design methodology and the Fallout world have always been pretty complementary.

Prima: I always felt that, prior to Bethesda’s game, Troika’s Arcanum was probably the closest thing to a Fallout sequel.

Chris Avellone: Umm… Well, the weird thing is, of all the games I’ve …

Prima: You’ve never played Arcanum?!

Chris Avellone: Well, look, in all the conversations I’ve had with Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky, we’ve never discussed it. It’s always been that way.

Prima: The RPGCodex would be pretty cross with you, Chris.

Chris Avellone: I think they’re going to be cross with me no matter what I do, and I’ve learned to live with it as long as they provide me with detailed critiques, because past all the profanity they’ll spit out, they’ve actually got some good information on why certain systems are broken, and which ones aren’t. Those are actually worth paying attention to, so I value those guys.

Prima: So you read it, then?

Chris Avellone: Oh, yeah, sure. The two sites I usually follow are RPGWatch and RPGCodex. And there’s one other site I follow, but it escapes me right now …

Prima: Prima?

Chris Avellone: [Silence.]

Prima: Right. Well, anyway, so here’s a big one: what defines an RPG these days? It seems to change a lot.

Chris Avellone: Well, I have a personal definition. Of the RPGs I’ve played recently, I’ll be honest: I’ve been pretty much immersed in Fallout 3. But it seems to me that the most important parts of an RPG are that, in terms of all the character-building you can do in the opening screens, all those skill choices and background choices need to matter in the gameworld.

That may sound kind of self-evident, but there’s a lot of game balance that needs to go into making sure that each skill, trait, and attribute score is valuable, and an RPG has to deliver on that. If you’re going to give the player a chance to specialise in or improve a certain aspect of their character, there needs to be value for that in the gameworld.

The other thing that’s important is that there has to be a lot of reactivity to the player’s actions within the environment, either in terms of quests, faction allegiance, even physical changes in the environment. The player making an impact is incredibly important.

Prima: “Choice and Consequence” now tends to be discussed as a separate, defined gameplay mechanic. Is that something you take into account with everything – every quest – you design?

Chris Avellone: It comes down to this: depending on the rules for the gameworld, the player has to be given a series of options on how to solve each problem. For Fallout, for example, it was easy: you always want to know that, as the bare minimum, you have a Combat Boy, Stealth Boy, and Speech Boy option for solving each quest. And then you go into consequences: for each option, what’s the reactivity in the world and possible long-range consequences, and how does it factor into the endgame? Or does it not factor into the endgame at all, or just the area, or just the one person who gave you the quest? That’s our process.

Prima: Why do you think the RPG genre itself provokes such fierce discussion? I mean, you don’t have a FPSCodex where people complain about John Carmack all the time.

Chris Avellone: There’s a lot of discussion about what constitutes an RPG, as you said. And the defining game, for me… Well, it’s System Shock 2. Let me explain: System Shock 2 was almost a role-playing game. Almost. They had the character stuff down, the skill stuff down, but you never really made a choice, in my opinion. The ending was set; your path was set. If, at one point, there was a moment where you could’ve made one decision that changed the ending, that would’ve made it a barebones role-playing game, and a good one.

Prima: So BioShock surely made the cut, then, because of the Little Sisters…

Chris Avellone: Well, yeah, it did have a meaningful choice. Granted, it was the two endings, which may be a bit low compared to Fallout standards where you get a ton of ’em, but at the same time, you’re allowed to make a basic moral choice, and I still think that’s important for an RPG.

Prima: What do you think of Japanese RPGs? Do they fit into your definition of RPGs, on the whole? Or are they just adventure games with random battles and depressed, gorgeous teenagers?

Chris Avellone: They’re role-playing games as long as some choice you make causes some change in the environment, so not everyone has the same experience. Like, a character’s attitude may change, or something. Chrono Trigger was clearly an RPG to me – one of the best ever, even. And the amount of choices and consequences you had in that game, like within the first hour, was just excellent. So if that falls under the umbrella of Japanese RPGs, which I’m guessing it would, then yes, they absolutely do.

Prima: Moving onto Alpha Protocol, do you feel like you’re breaking new ground with this one? Beyond the spy setting?

Chris Avellone: Yeah, because we tried something different with it that I’m really happy about: we had less talking characters, which is a huge resource investment, and we just made them more reactive. I think the nice thing is that rather than just try and dump it into hundreds of different voice-acted parts, we chose a small selection of characters that you could more deeply interact with, and I know that from a narrative design standpoint, that ended up being far more satisfying to me.

Prima: Are there any particular games that have inspired you vis a vis designing Alpha Protocol?

Chris Avellone: Deus Ex had some influence. A lot of the system design stuff is probably better answered by our systems sub-lead, but… I don’t know. Actually, just, really, the spy genre itself. That ended up being more of a reinforcement to me than any other actual games.

Prima: There have been comparisons to Mass Effect, though. Is that just because they use the same engine?

Chris Avellone: It might be. I think there’s a lot of similarities in the presentation – you look at the screenshots and you see the, for example, layout of the dialogue system. At first glance, it appears very similar.

I think Alpha Protocol, however, takes a little bit of a different track in terms of exactly how you approach conversations. We tried to make sure that it didn’t follow the RPG convention of always being able to go back and ask everybody everything. It was very much, like, “You’re going to have one conversation; the timing of your responses is very important, and the attitude you take with each person is important, too.”

You will want to have done your research, and you’re going to want to pay attention to everything they’re doing in dialogue, so you can figure out what their motivation is, so you can basically play them to get your mission accomplished.

Prima: Planescape: Torment, like Fallout, was praised for allowing the player to get through the whole game with a diplomatic, non-combat, or at least minimal-combat, approach – not that I’ve ever managed it, of course. How well will one fare trying the same strategy in Alpha Protocol?

Chris Avellone: In Alpha Protocol, you can get through the game without killing anyone. And I want to make the distinction there that there may be times where you can use non-lethal gadgets to subdue people, or to distract them so you can move around them.

I do not believe it’s possible to get through the game without taking some sort of offensive action. Basically, you’re going to need to do some offensive, non-lethal actions to get through certain areas. I’d be very surprised if people could get through it without firing a single shot or totally stealthing it.

But it was important to us and SEGA that you had the option of non-lethal force and stealth. A lot of the adversaries you face in Alpha Protocol are there for a variety of reasons in the mission, and to just go in there with guns blazing and murder everybody… Well, we wanted to make sure that for people who were trying to be, like, a professional, or a paladin-type character, they can just go through an area, quietly subdue everyone, get the mission done, get out, and do that without murdering anybody.

Prima: But you do play a specific character in Alpha Protocol.

Chris Avellone: That is correct.

Prima: So…

Chris Avellone: Well, there are advantages. You can give the character a voice. And – how do I put this? – when we choose a specific character like Mike Thorton for Alpha Protocol, we can give him a specific voice in the game, and that was the intent of Alpha Protocol: to provide a cinematic role-playing experience. And, to that extent, Michael Thorton has to interact with people cinematically in the game.

Prima: One of the criticisms levelled at Mass Effect was that you could have different, inconsistent extremes of dialogue – you know, come on all Rush Limbaugh in one conversation, and Ralph Nader in the next, and you could use that to your game-breaking advantage. Is that something you’ve addressed for Alpha Protocol?

Chris Avellone: Well, there’s two things we’re doing. One, because of how the dialogue system was designed, because there’s only one path through the conversation and no leaping back and forth, it’s very easy to tell what the antecedent line is, and therefore govern the NPC’s responses accordingly.

Also, there’s a tracker in Alpha Protocol – as much as you can do research on the various NPCs in the game, they’ll also do a lot of research on you. They do their homework. So when they meet you, they’re already going to know about the choices you’ve made and the attitude you’ve taken when making those choices. So if you’ve been an aggressive American asshole, when you’re in the international arena, that does not go over well.

We’re able to predict that stuff – it’s easier to do that in this game than one where you can double-back in the conversation.

Prima: What happened with that cancelled Aliens game you guys were doing?

Chris Avellone: I can’t say much – you should ask SEGA about it – but I will say this: I think it ended up being a good thing, overall. And I will take that opinion with me to my grave.

Prima: New Vegas, then. What’s your role in the team?

Chris Avellone: I can’t say.

Prima: Not your job title?

Chris Avellone: I can’t say!

Prima: Okay. But so, like, if I, for example, were making a game called Fallout: New Vegas, and I was using the Fallout 3 engine, and I had my own development studio, and I was just going around asking people for advice, what would you tell me?

Chris Avellone: I could not even speculate on that. I would be shot in the head.

Prima: It was worth a try. Okay, so, how has working with Bethesda been – in general, I mean?

Chris Avellone: I probably can’t speak about that either.

Prima: You’re kidding!

Chris Avellone: Dude, you know what, if you could be a fly on the wall for some of these conversations…

Prima: Alright, alright. Would you say that all this work in the field of spies and post-apocalyptic wastelands has given you pangs for the world of obscenely large shoulderpads, weightless gold pieces, and chainmail bikinis?

Chris Avellone: It’s definitely made me want to go back to… Well, actually, I really enjoy writing and designing real-world quests, honestly. They have more of a punch to them. I certainly enjoy working on a fantasy game – like, for example, I would love to go back to the Planescape universe. But I did love working on Fallout, and the chance to work on it again is fantastic. And I enjoy working on Alpha Protocol, because it’s been so long since I’ve been able to write a character and design quests and interactions for a real-world environment. It was such a huge relief.

Prima: But – but Planescape! Any chance?!

Chris Avellone: I’m not sure. I don’t know who holds the rights to it now, or even if they’re licensing it out. Those are some questions I’d have to answer first. But I certainly enjoyed working with it. It was brilliant.

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