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General Design Questions, Part 1.

Posted by Chris Avellone , 08 October 2009 · 1115 views

Got some general questions from Joakim, and wanted to post them in 2 parts in case folks were interested. If not, that's fine, too. Joakim had some Knights of the Old Republic 2 questions as well, and I'll post those in a few days.

1. If you couldn't be a game designer what would you be, and why? (in the game industry of course)

I would either be cartooning (I still do one-shots for the comic "Knights of the Dinner Table" from Kenzer & Co), writing game supplements (Champions/Dark Champions) or scripting comic books. My current job allows me to do a little of all of this (my last stint was doing some of the Clone Wars Adventures with Jeremy Barlow, and that was great fun, especially having a chance to write Aurra Sing). Being able to do a little bit of each is a nice break from doing computer game design full time. Still, if I could get a job as a full-time gamemaster, I'd take it - that's what got me into the industry in the first place.

2. Do you have some/a favorites people that are in the industry?

I have a lot of respect and admiration for Richard Dansky, I think he's done a lot to help aspiring game writers and has also been a strong advocate for writers and assisting with promoting game writing in the IGDA. He actually makes me feel guilty, since he makes me wonder if I could do more than answer random inquiries from students and designers. So now that I think about it, Dansky makes me feel like crap, so I guess I actually hate him.

I have a lot of respect for Tim Cain for the role-playing mechanics in Fallout (he's also a great guy, even with his obsession with pomegranates), Tim Donley and Kevin Saunders for teaching me aspects of management that a book can't teach you, David Gaider (who I hadn't met until recently) for the amount of investment he has in his writing and the way he's able to quickly and efficiently critique what's wrong with a character or story (he nails it pretty well in a lot less words than I do), Josh Sawyer and Dave Maldonado for the passion with which they express their design ideas, and Dan Spitzley and Eric Campanella for their work on Torment, which showed me what a strong work ethic combined with the "labor of love" perk can accomplish - Eric was one of the first artists I've encountered who not only read design documentation, but expounded on it in his concepts and character modeling. There are plenty of others whose work I respect, but this list is getting pretty long. Maybe I'll expound on it in another interview.

3. You have told many times that you're sick of certain stuff in certain genres... What do you think is missing from most of the games that makes them boring in the long run - or in the industry in general?

Lack of ambition in game premises. I don't think enough developers ask "what's the one thing that's going to set this game apart?" and then stick to it. I've seen pitches and proposals that don't even bother ask this question and are content to embrace being a lesser clone of a more popular game in the same genre, which makes me sad. At least choose *some* new mechanic you're bringing to the table to try and push the genre forward.

4. a) Who has been your favorite character (of all the characters you have worked on) to develop and why?

Morte and Fall-From-Grace in Torment, Myron in Fallout 2 (he was the first full companion I'd ever done) followed by Cassidy (the second), then Kreia in Knights of the Old Republic II.

Just about every character I've worked on, though, has "moments" that I've really enjoyed scripting for them (writing HK-47's definition of love, or the Handemaiden's Echani philosophy of combat, how Atton obsesses over Pazaak to prevent his thoughts from being picked up by Jedi, or Visas Marr's feelings for your character).

b) Also, what makes a good character?

Consistent, believable motivation and a believable personal agenda. A tie to the game's theme either to reinforce it or as a sounding board for exploring a different perspective on the game theme. An emotional tie to the player (either hate, envy, love, friendship, respect) and reacts appropriately to the player character's actions. Proper casting of a voice actor or, if text only, insuring that the right writer is assigned to developing that character because they understand it (some narrative designers can't write sociopaths, do reverse gender romances, or commit to doing a goodie-two-shoes character). For a computer game, I feel it's also essential that the player understand the purpose of the character and that the character fulfills that role in the game mechanics and the world (for example, companions in F2 needed to be an asset in and out of combat, which I learned in Fallout 2 - Cassidy was much more valuable and appreciated than Myron).

5. Who was your first character to design, and what has changed in your design process since then? (how you design characters now)

The first characters I designed was Myron for Fallout 2. I was given the "child genius," but I did what I could to make sure he wasn't the Wesley Crusher archetype, which I thought was pretty played out in most media forms. In the end, however, Myron had his problems - he talked too much, could get really annoying in parts (especially if you were female) and was useless in combat. I do think he succeeded in being a highly-reactive character to events in the game and things your player did, and it was pretty awesome for high Intelligence and high Science guys to argue with him about his own creations. I really like it when he gets frustrated when you keep asking him insightful chemistry and pharmaceutical questions about Jet.

6. You have said that you weren't very "happy" when you were announced to on K2 because how the force works and so on. Any other franchises you will try to avoid (if possible), and what franchises would you like to work on?

That was my reaction at the beginning of the project, and it vanished after a few weeks. Star Wars and Dungeons and Dragons were acid tests that proved to me that any franchise has room for you to express yourself within the franchise and have a great time doing so. I am fond of both now that I've been able to work with them and contribute to them.

Franchises I'd love to work on: The Dresden Files, System Shock, Wasteland, Syndicate, a Bully RTS, the Wire (don't get me started), Aliens (I love the human psychology component), and anything involving superheroes (if they did a Dark Champions game, I'd be on that in a second). There's probably some I'm forgetting, but those are the ones that jump to mind.

7. What do you find the most difficult thing with your job?

Juggling some of the co-owner stuff along with design. I like to work - so being in a position where you're not in the trenches as much as I used to be during Torment and F2, I don't always feel good about going through the day without having something to point to that I physically did in game production, even if to say "hey, I did THAT."

8. What are the disadvantages/advantages to move from a very sci-fi game such as Neverwinter Nights to something more realistic-based (Alpha Protocol)?

It depends - on one hand, it was refreshing to work with characters who use real-world speech patterns and phrases and actually reference things a player can empathize with, but you also have to keep the game within real world parameters which aren't a concern with a fantasy title.

For Alpha Protocol, we had to come up with the "bookends" of the powers, abilities, and gadgets of the character and the world, while in Neverwinter Nights, Dungeons and Dragons had set up that framework for us. Also, we'd done a number of titles with that ruleset already, so with Neverwinter Nights, we had many years of experience in area and dialogue creation to draw upon - with Alpha Protocol we were re-inventing some of these aspects, especially the one-route conversation system, the stance choices, dossier research, positive/negative reputation mechanics, and so on. I think they turned out well, and definitely complement the game's genre (just to be clear, the dialogue stance system isn't my creation, that was Mitsoda and Spitzley).

9. Is there some you would thank extra that made you come into the industry?

Scott Bennie was a colleague Id known at Hero Games, but had never met in person. He put in a good word for me at Interplay, and Ive always appreciated it. I also would thank Feargus for the amount of trust he bestowed on me at Black Isle and Obsidian, and I have him to thank for being a part of Obsidian to this day. The day he said he was leaving Black Isle was the day I wanted to resign, but he told me to wait... then not long after, he called and said, "hey, I'm starting a new studio, want to be a part of it?" So here I am.





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