CHRIS AVELLONE INTERVIEW PART 1 (originally posted 10/31/16)
Chris Avellone is a legend in the gaming industry, and has worked on some of the greatest western RPG's of all time like Fallout 2, New Vegas, KOTOR 2, and more. Last fall, I had the chance to send him some questions via email. Chris was gracious enough to give me some good responses. This is Part 1 of that interview and the main topics are Chris' time at Obsidian and his thoughts on Bethesda/Fallout 4. Scroll down for Part 2 which discusses a wide array of topics including New Vegas, quest writing, and South Park: SOT . The long awaited Part 3 which will mainly be discussing Prey will be released sometime in the near future. Stay Tuned!
SB: In an interview with Inside Gaming in 2013, you mentioned that one of the locations you’d like to see a hypothetical new Fallout game from Obsidian be located is New Orleans, Louisiana. Now Obsidian has confirmed that they are working on a “Project Louisiana”. This along with Obsidian’s interest in the location as stated before, along with JE Sawyer tweeting out Lousiana “Field Notes” seems to indicate that Obsidian is working on a game set there. Now, this obviously doesn’t mean it has to be a Fallout game, but what do you think it is about Louisiana and New Orleans from your experiences with Obsidian that makes them want to set a game there?
CA: States have been publicly revealed as codenames for Obsidian projects. I can't reveal what they are actually doing.
So you know, the person who had the idea for New Orleans isn't there any longer (he left many years ago, not long after the mass layoffs), and the last person to publically advocate the desire to do a Fallout game has also departed the studio.
SB: Secondly, was “Project Louisiana” in any sort of development when you were still at Obsidian?
CA: I couldn't say even if that was the case, I'm sorry.
SB: Hypothetically, if Obsidian were to make a hypothetical new Fallout spinoff, would you hypothetically want to go back to obsidian and have some involvement with it being that Fallout is so close to your heart?
CA: No. While I like the developers and wish them all the very best, there's too many other problems at the higher managerial level to ever consider stepping back, especially when you could make a step in a direction that mattered for the franchise. Even leads at Obsidian have said as much (most after departing), and they told me they felt helpless in their roles to do what they felt was the right decision.
SB: Continuing with some things said in that interview, you said you think Fallout has “room to grow” outside of the US. Considering the heavy emphasis that the Fallout games put on Americana and American exceptionalism as a central theme of that world, do you really think a game set outside of the US (anywhere except Canada which was annexed, and isn’t much different from the US anyhow) would be able to keep that Fallout personality and theme going that separates it from other Post-apocalyptic games like Metro?
CA: I don't know. It would require a lot of research and actual developers (inc. writers and artists) for those regions to really make it sing otherwise I think it would sound false if a company largely composed of Californians (or Marylanders) did it.
SB: Now let’s get into some talk about the most recent Fallout game that we have, which is Bethesda Game Studio’s Fallout 4. Fallout 4 is probably the most polarizing main entry in the series to date, with many longtime fans taking issue with new features such as the voiced protagonist and settlement mode, along with a perceived lack of focus on the core RPG mechanics which Fallout was built on. Personally, have you enjoyed Fallout 4, and is there anything as a fan and developer of the Fallout series that you wish they did differently?
CA: I only played a little of Fallout 4, so I couldn't say. Fallout 3 I've already broken down into pros/cons elsewhere, so I won't rehash it here.
SB: How would you compare and contrast the RPG’s you’ve worked on with the RPG’s that Bethesda Game Studios has made? What do you think Fallout 2/New Vegas do better than Fallout 3-4 and vice versa?
CA: That's difficult to say from the internal perspective of then and now - and it depends on what design element you're talking about. Story-wise, I can definitely say Fallout 2 did a worse job on many fronts than Fallout 1, for example, and New Vegas did a lot of things even worse than Fallout 2, but did better on the world exploration front than F2 could hope to do based on tech alone (but which F3 and F4 did better, imo). Bethesda definitely has a better design-exploration-aesthetic than any game I've worked on.
SB: The older Fallout games, especially 2, seemed much more willing to explore darker subject matter such as rape, child killing, sex etc than Bethesda’s games do. Was there any line that you guys didn’t want to cross, and why do you think Bethesda shies away somewhat from this kind of content?
CA: Even if I knew, I couldn’t speak to Black Isle's and Bethesda's decisions. I really doubt there was much creative restrictions on F2 because no one was really at the wheel checking the content or managing the production. It doesn't matter, though, as most treatments I've seen of those subjects is for shock value, so I'm not sure anything narratively significant has been lost if they are reined in or passed over.
SB: Would you ever consider adding a voiced protagonist to any RPG you’ve worked on? Do you think it would work for the types of games you like to create?
CA: It's almost never my decision, although I do give my opinion. I prefer a silent protagonist because I feel it makes the player role-play more rather than assume a passive stance.
SB: Recently, I’ve seen many people argue over what constitutes an RPG. In your mind, what defines an RPG?
CA: It's a continuing debate. In my opinion, an RPG is an RPG due to character development, character customization, significant character choice and effect on the world, ability for growth (both stats and psychologically), and the ability to genuinely play a role, preferably the wider, the better. There's probably a lot more aspects, but those are the ones that jump to mind.
SB: Tim Cain, one of the other fathers of Fallout that you have worked with in the past, once famously said that “My idea is to explore more of the world and more of the ethics of a post-nuclear world, not to make a better plasma gun” Todd Howard and bethesda on the other hand, seemed to dedicate a lot more of their time and resources into allowing the player to create a better plasma gun (among other Minecraft-esque features) than they do exploring the ethics of a post nuclear world. Does this bother you at all? And how fine do you think the line between focusing too much on things like combat and customization, rather than not enough on them, is?
CA: I don't know, I wasn't there during the development of Fallout 1 and Fallout 3/4 and can't speak to the internal design choices made.
That said, previous games both Tim and I have worked on have definitely focused on combat to the extent of damaging the storyline, especially enforced/mandatory violent path options, and ones that had obsessive weapon design schemes that had a priority over narrative aspects.
SB: Another thing that hardcore fans of the series have been quick to point out is how little Bethesda seems to acknowledge New Vegas both in public and in Fallout 4 itself. There are very few references to anything that occurred in New Vegas or things that New Vegas established as lore such as Mr. House being a graduate of MIT, you’d think there’d be a reference to him somewhere at MIT (CIT in Fallout 4) right? Does it bother you that Bethesda seems almost unwilling to acknowledge New Vegas’ existence, and do you think the fact that many prefer it to their version(s) of the series has something to do with that?
CA: It's their license, and the two coasts are pretty far apart. Bethesda did reference San Francisco in Kellog's memory dungeon in F4, though, and it was clearly a Fallout 2 reference.
I still think it was weird to do a Vegas when we already had a New Reno, it felt like the record was skipping. Still, it's likely because Vegas is more a key (and recognizable) signature city than Reno was, but I don't know why the decision was made.
SB: You’ve said that you don’t think Fallout will leave Bethesda’s hands again, and likely not go back to Obsidian. Do you think this would have anything to do with the quarrels Bethesda and Obsidian had during and after development (specifically the metacritic thing) and like I said before, they’re worried about being showed up so to speak? Because with Bethesda’s patterns, the next Fallout game by them likely won’t come out for a long time, so they probably want to fill that gap with something, no?
CA: I doubt Bethesda worries much about what Obsidian is doing (Bethesda's likely way too busy on multiple fronts), but only they could speak to that, I have no idea.
From an outside perspective, however, it appears when Bethesda likes working with a studio or see their potential, they seem to buy them (Arkane). They didn't buy Obsidian, though, even though Obsidian is eager to be bought based on recent interviews. It might be for the best - I don't know what would happen to the devs if Obsidian was bought, but the upper management would likely come out okay with that exit strategy.
SB: Let’s say Bethesda goes and tries to fill the wait for Fallout 5 with a Fallout MMO by The Elder Scrolls Online developer Zenimax Online Studios. Do you see any potential in this idea?
CA: I think a Fallout MMO would do well. Yes, RPG Codex, light your torches, I'll send you a map to my house.
SB: One last Fallout 4 related question. Bethesda, specifically the lead BGS writer Emil Pagularo, have taken some heat for multiple lore inconsistencies found in Fallout 4. For example, according to Fallout 4, jet was available pre-war and not created by Myron in Fallout 2. Also, there is an Enclave Power Armor suit at Nuka World that was also made pre-war (when it explicitly states in the game it was created post war), among other inconsistencies. How much is making sure all the lore in your games adds up and is consistent something you focus on in your games? And do you take issue with Bethesda at all for these lore inconsistencies?
CA: Do I take issue with them? No. (And considering what jet was originally made from, that lore point should make a lot of players happy.)
Even so, when inheriting a franchise, sometimes I, too, take exception to previous decisions as well (talking deathclaws in F2, talking animals, ghosts, Wannamingoes that look like HR Giger knock-off monsters, etc, etc.), even stuff I've done that I realized later was the wrong decision for the sake of a cheap joke (esp. 4th wall-breaking jokes).
SB: Now onto New Vegas itself. Since you designed New Reno in Fallout 2, how did you and the other developers go about differentiating New Vegas from it? And what influence did you take from it (new reno)?
PART 2 (originally posted 11/18/16)
PART 2 (originally posted 11/18/16)
CA: I don't know if there were any conversations on differentiating New Vegas from New Reno, the level designers for the city might know (I don't know if they played Fallout 2).
BTW, New Reno wasn't solely mine, I inherited the design from the Troika guys before they left Black Isle, so I had that template to build on (the crime families, the Enclave, jet production, etc.) The worst parts of New Reno you can blame me for, don't blame the Troika guys.
Looking back the only thing I regret in New Reno is that I should have cut out one of the crime families (four was too many with everything else that was going on) and made Myron more systemically valuable to the party (his combat build and crafting abilities weren't helpful). Cassidy ended up being a better companion for systemic considerations, even with his heart condition. I did a post about companion design based on this learning experience a while back on the Obsidian forums, but I don't know if it's still up there (Obsidian locked me out of my profile after my departure, and they've refused to delete my account). The companion system design principles are not being used in recent Obsidian titles, so it may have been removed.
SB: For you when you look back on NV, which will be 6 years old this month, what part of the game or what particular moment are you most proud of?
CA: I enjoyed working on the DLCs, but the proudest moment isn't mine - it was when one of the level designers Jessica Johnson got the Robobrain sequence in Old World Blues where it becomes self-aware working - and it worked great. Jessica has since moved on to other things - she was part of the mass layoffs, unfortunately, along with a number of other designers I wished we could have kept.
SB: About the DLC’s, my personal favorite is Old World Blues which you were the director of. It’s definitely the most comedic and “out there” Fallout has ever really been. How did you come up with the whole concept of Big MT, and how important do you think dark humor is to the Fallout franchise?
CA: Dark humor is definitely important to Fallout (although not 4th wall breaking humor, which I was guilty of doing too much of in F2, and I regret). For Old World Blues, one of the comedy goals was that the comedy could be over-the-top, but it couldn't jump the wall - any humor had to come from within the setting.
As for the idea, Big MT came from an automated military boot camp idea that was in Fallout Van Buren (both the pen and paper game and the computer design), and I mashed it up with the Boulder Dome from Fallout Van Buren as well.
SB: Dead Money is another DLC in which you were a big part of. Although I loved the story and characters, I wasn’t huge on the design decisions. I felt that there wasn’t enough open exploration for my tastes, and that all the traps and speakers etc were an unnecessary annoyance. What was behind the decision to make this DLC more linear and difficult?
CA: Yeah, it was trying to be like The Pitt and there were other considerations I can't talk about, but I understand your reaction and I don't think it's unwarranted (not many people liked it, or liked it despite the problems). Again, there might be an Obsidian forum post about the decisions involved, but I can't check. Regardless, I accept responsibility for the lack of fun.
SB: Something that most people can agree on is that Bethesda and Godfather Pete Hines are experts at marketing. By using the hype of Fallout 4 and announcing it 6 months before release, they were able to make it one of the most profitable games in history. What were your personal experiences with Bethesdas PR/marketing department like, and how does this compare to other companies you’ve worked with in the past?
CA: Ah, a Bethesda question, I was waiting for it (Part 1 was filled with them, Monte, almost as if they were LEADING QUESTIONS HMMMM). I've been wrapped up with Prey for a while now, and I didn't have much interaction with marketing, but I doubt it's changed much - overall, I think Bethesda is one of the few companies that do marketing right. I've said this before, and I'll say it again - I have a lot of respect for Pete Hines - if you see him on the trenches at E3, he takes his job seriously and isn't fucking away on his mobile phone while journalists ask the developers shitty questions that PR should be listening to and monitoring (sorry for the tirade, am channeling past experiences).
In addition (and I've said this before, too), but he knows how to demo games he's working on, and he was always willing to take over showcasing the game and gameplay for one of the other demo folks if a developer or demo'er needed to be pulled away for an interview, and he did it without a hitch, something a lot of other PR folks I've worked with in the past wouldn't dare do or want to (and most may not even like the games, and feel that demoing is what "the developers are for").
Another thing which may be hard for non-developers to understand the full importance of, but Bethesda plans their marketing. This is rare in my experience. Bethesda is clear about messaging, they time and focus information releases, schedule demo dates properly (ask any developer, but demo deliveries should never be sprung as a surprise to any development team because demos can derail development by months), and more.
Also, if there's any doubts as to how well marketing does their jobs, I'll just say this - you can buy Fallout T-shirts in Target. Target. I still can't believe it. That never would happened at Black Isle, but Bethesda made Fallout visible to the public, which is no mean feat. Even my parents recognize the Fallout logo (and the Vault Boy) when they see it - hell, I wasn't able to do that and I'm their son, and this is my livelihood.
So, yeah, I think they do a good job with marketing. Other folks I've worked with in the past have the exact opposite opinion, however, but that's up to them to outline their grievances. I don't agree with their opinion, and their opinions were so vague/hyperbolic it was hard to argue them - and I hate hyperbole in any event, it's the equivalent of lying to make your ill-founded point.
(Oh, and to say it, LucasArts was pretty good to work with, too, they also had their shit together.)
SB: My personal GOTY of 2014 was South Park: The Stick of Truth. How involved were series creators Matt Parker and Trey Stone in its making, and how well did you guys get along?
CA: Matt and Trey were heavily involved. I wasn't, beyond a few months of production experience (no writing, no design), and I was working on other projects at the time.
I do think Trey's game critiques of games on the market are pretty spot-on (and brutally funny), and you can feel them expressed in the game itself.
My only regret about the project is that we lost one of our best designers (and one of our best writers) early on (Travis Stout, who worked with me on the Fallout DLCs and went on to other studios - he wasn't part of the mass layoffs, he resigned). Travis rocks - if you see his name of a title, pick it up.
SB: Although it was a great game, there were noticeably some things cut like the underground crab people. Obviously there is a sequel coming out soon. Do you know if any of the scrapped ideas from the 1st game are going to be in the sequel?
CA: I don't know anything about it, I'm sorry.
SB: I’m currently helping to write a Fallout 4 quest mod called “Realm of Dusk” (basically Fallout meets the Twilight Zone). I have one full length main quest written and it’s about 20 pages long. What is the process you go through when writing a quest, and how long does it usually take?
CA: That's a good question, and it depends on the game and the genre (which sounds obvious), but let's use Fallout as the template. When working on Fallout 2, we'd either create or get a bulletpoint list of quests (very brief), a list of all story ties that needed to be in the area to make other areas work, and then told to "go." It wasn't well organized (and a lot of area and quests also had to change hands for a variety of reasons - I inherited what remained of Vault City when one of our lead designers/studio head couldn't make time for it) so we had to wrangle most of it ourselves.
I found the easiest way to manage it was to focus on each NPC quest giver, start with the origin NPC or quest trigger, establish the pacing points (and when to cut them off if a gameplay loop starts going on too long), make sure that each Fallout archetype brought something to the quest (or was at least considered for the completed quest - combat, stealth, talking, and psychological and factions as well - bad karma, good karma, slaver, etc.). So 20 pages for a quest wouldn't be unheard of... well, as long as it includes dialogue. If it doesn't include dialogue, then I'd strongly suggest making your quest design no longer than a page or two, stick to bulletpoints, and get it implemented as fast as possible to start testing it out and see how it plays.
SB: When making quests, how do you balance giving the player as many options as possible to go about doing it, with making sure it all makes sense and comes together as a piece of writing?
CA: Swen Vincke (Larian/Divinity: Original Sin, and Sin 2) and I share the same opinion on this aspect of design - the best way is to sit down and go through the process a few times before you start getting the balance and tone right for the quests to come. You'll likely mess up, but by the third or fourth attempt at doing a quest (or new quest), you suddenly notice you're using a mental checklist in your head to gauge the quests and reactivity (although you can write then down, too - we had a huge quest spreadsheet for Fallout Van Buren to cover all the bases for each quest, skill, ability, end sequence, reactivity for each area to insure nothing was missed).
The fact that each quest option generally leads to a different "ending" to the quest actually helps, since the biggest problems can occur when you try and funnel the experience too much or use too many chokepoints (because you're actually robbing the player of true options, not creating them).
Some other advice - be aware when the world would make an option or lack of option jarring to the player. I sometimes call this the "drow elf rule" - to explain in the Forgotten Realms D&D campaign setting, the drow (dark elves) are super rare. They don't usually come to the surface. Everyone hates them, including themselves. This means that if you put a drow elf in your game, or if the player is playing a drow elf (we can all thank Drizzt for this, thanks, Drizzt), it's jarring if people in the world don't react to this and/or the player character isn't given a choice to bring it up in dialogue. This obviously can create a lot of options, but you should at least be aware of it.
SB: Draco Deathclaw on twitter told me something about a “penis hydra” and said you would know what it meant, please enlighten me.
CA: I sometimes offer to draw cartoons on Twitter, and when he suggested it, it would have been cowardly to back down from his challenge. The drawing still haunts my dreams. It's out there. Somewhere. Waiting. And most likely erect.
Interview by @Monte