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Chris Avellone

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Chris Avellone last won the day on September 22 2012

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About Chris Avellone

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  1. I think it's fair and a good point - companions shouldn't be (1) more powerful than the player, to the point where they can handle the combats by themselves, (2) upstage the player, and (3) seem to have used the ruleset in ways the player cannot to their advantage (ex: they're allowed to have stat allocations that no normal player could have made). All these things can breed resentment. A lot of the CNPC-initiated companion stuff makes them feel more alive, as long as the execution is handled correctly and it makes sense in the context of the situation. I probably should have mentioned that you need to have balanced companion choices based on player personality - if they are a psychotic, there should be some companions that will stick with you, and the same is true if you walk middle of the road or walk the paladin's road as well. This can depend on alignment range, karma range, or faction range. Anyway, blah blah blah words words words
  2. Character building for games isn’t easy, and it requires a lot of effort, especially when it comes to companions. I’ve had the good fortune to work on a variety of titles with strong support characters over the years, and I enjoy writing them a great deal. I still can’t believe I get paid to do this (don’t cut me off, Feargus). There are a few guidelines I try to follow when designing companions (some of these are dependent on the engine and franchise). - Combat/Challenge-viable. Any companion that can’t hold their weight and help support the home team in some fashion isn’t going to last long in the hearts of players (well, maybe a very forgiving few). This is something I learned way back in Fallout 2 when it became clear that Cassidy was far preferred over Myron, for example (and not just because Myron was an ****, which factors into another point below). It’s also a lesson I picked up while playing Final Fantasy III – every character needs to contribute to the mechanics and challenge mechanics in some fashion (whether combat or stealth or whatever the game’s challenge is). - Companions should be optional. Whenever possible, the player should never be forced to take them or in the case of true psychopaths, even let them live. The golden rule is the companion should be a support character or a walking/breathing slab of target practice if the players don’t like or want anything to do with the companion. - Next, assuming the players like the companion, the companion should serve as a sounding board for the theme of the game. It’s not mandatory, but there’s no better way to reinforce the narrative than someone who is walking beside the player for 70-80% of the game. This worked well with Kreia in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, it was the spine of most of the companions in Planescape: Torment, and it worked well with Kaelyn the Dove in NWN2: Mask of the Betrayer. - The companion needs to ego-stroke the player in a variety of ways. Sometimes this can be romance, sometimes this can be simply reactivity (either brief barks or conversations about the player’s actions), or any of a variety of methods. Ultimately, however, any companion that simply sits around bitching, complaining, and haranguing the player isn’t someone you want to drag into the nearest dungeon to help clear it out… you may simply want to throw them in the dungeon and lock the door. - A visual and vocal/audio hook. This may be the result of many, many years of comic books, but whenever possible, I try to suggest a variety of “visual ego signatures” that can be integrated into the character design, and audio hooks as well. For example, when doing the Fallout New Vegas: DLC, Dead Money, the visual signatures were Dog/God’s bear trap that was still clamped on his arm (along with his name carved in his chest so it could be seen in reverse in a mirror), Dean’s dapper lounge singer suit to contrast with his ghoulish appearance, and even something as simple as Christine’s throat scar (which we had to position carefully so the bomb collar wouldn’t obscure it). All of these things serve to tag the character and helps make them stand out. Each had their own vocal hooks as well (Dog/God’s voice would change based on his personality, Dean had the drippy smooth singer voice, and Christine’s vocal hook was she didn’t speak at all). - Speaking of Kaelyn, companions are also a great means of foreshadowing as well. Kaelyn’s relationship with her deity and his role in the Forgotten Realms ended up being a nice way to subtly build on the end game without directly hammering the player over the head with exposition. - Reactivity, not just to player’s actions but to the environment and events taking place. The Mask of the Betrayer’s barks for when companions would enter certain areas, for example, did a great job of showcasing their personality and also a bit of lore/rumors about the location you were visiting. If we’re able to do the same with game mechanics and combat, that’s an ever better bonus (“aim for the eyes!” “Knock him down again!” “Good one!” “Did Dogmeat just knock down that super mutant?!” “I’m doing the best I can with this crappy knife you gave me!”) So in terms of companions for Project: Eternity, the process works like so: - Establish the game mechanics for the title, and when possible, link that into the lore and narrative while you’re doing it. What’s the central system mechanic of the game? (For example, in Mask of the Betrayer, the soul-eating mechanic and basic combat were the two principle systems the player was interacting with.) - Design characters that support that game mechanic, and if it’s been properly integrated with the lore and narrative, make sure they discuss that angle as well, either though exchanges or reactions to it taking place in the environment. - Next up, figure out exactly where that character shines in terms of the game mechanics – why would a player bring this companion along? Are they a tank, a healer, or perfect for sniping enemies from a mile away? This shouldn’t overlap with another companion’s specialty if you can help it. - Build a barebones background. Were they once a scout, an assassin, a merchant, a Sith Lord, a smuggler, a bartender, etc.? What led them to that… and what led them to where they are today in the world? I say barebones, because I prefer to leave wiggle room for exploration and fleshing out the background while writing the character – the most likely avenue a player has to discover a CNPC’s history is through talking to them, so I let the CNPC do most of the work and try to focus on giving the details there and then. - Gather whatever reference art you can that you feel capture’s the hook of the character (for example, in Dead Money, Dog/God’s reference art often revolved around Mr. Hyde from Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman comic) and sit down and discuss the “whys” of each piece with the concept artist. I am fortunate to work with Brian Menze and he’s done a lot of the companions for Obsidian and Black Isle over the years, and seeing what he takes from the brief character descriptions and runs with them is really nice to behold (for example, Darth Nihilus). The important thing about Brian’s approach is he takes a lot of time to delve into the visuals of each franchise he works with and makes sure he’s capturing the art direction as well – and it really served us well while he was designing Kreia, Atton, and the other heroes/villains of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. - Build a tone. This starts as soon as you start writing – and sometimes, the tone surprises me once I actually start writing. The cadence of how the character talks, their slang, the subjects that interest them – I start a conversation with the character and try to imagine what I’d like to ask them about as players… and often, I try to steer the conversation into game mechanic help, gifts, new perks and skills to learn from the companion (which we used a lot in Torment, KOTOR2, and Dead Money, for example). The player should feel that they are gaining something of value from the interaction, even if the interaction isn’t mandatory – exploring a character’s personality should be as much fun as exploring a dungeon. - Keep the theme in mind. As mentioned before, I try to keep the game’s theme in mind while writing (the nature of the Force in K2, the suffering of the spirit in Torment, the idea of “letting go”/obsession/greed in Dead Money) and try to find ways to weave that into the character’s conversation and their history. You don’t want to hammer it home too much, but you want to include enough hooks so when the player thinks back on the conversation, it’ll start to sink in and all click into place once the game enters its final stages. That’s a bit about characterization – in future blogs, I’d go over a bit about constructing game stories and narratives, discuss some of the companion mechanics we’ve used over the years (influence, reputation, etc.), and anything else you guys would like to read. Thanks for reading!
  3. It's been a while - aside from Obsidian work, I've been doing quite a bit of talks here at Dragon*Con and across the sea in Spain at Gamelab on a variety of subjects, from advice to getting into the industry, to Kickstarter, and even our approach to designing characters for video games. Even better, I'll be doing the same coming up here in October at Austin GDC's narrative track concerning Obsidian's narrative approach - and going through our design process at the end of the month overseas concerning design as well (more on this as it happens). Still, it's nice to be home and back into the thick of things here. Speaking of which, for those of you who've come to visit the page, you may have noticed our countdown. Our countdown to what? It should become clear in 4 days or so -- stay vigilant.
  4. So a designer's job is to make jumping through hoops fun, and calibrating the challenge/frustration ratio of jumping through said hoops. This blog post stems from a question from the AMA Brian Fargo and I did on Reddit (long ago) concerning the issues with this in regards to one infamous piece of game design: time limits, and how two different games dealt with the challenge. From a gamemaster/game designer perspective, the idea of time limits is appealing. It creates pressure, and it creates an urgency for the player that's hard to beat. In Fallout 1, the skill system and the plot was built around the design that you only had a certain number of days to find the water chip for your vault and then defeat the mutant army or game over. If you don't recall that, then chances are you played it with the patch that removed that design element, as the mutant-hunting-your-Vault-down-time-limit was patched out of the game in 1.1 because of the outcry. So I love time limits. In Fallout 1, it was appropriate because: - It reinforced the urgency and pressure of saving your Vault. - It reinforced the brutal nature of the world you were in. - It made time-usage skills more risky for players to use. Sure, Doctor was helpful, but you had to be careful because it could consume a lot of time if used repeatedly. Players reacted negatively because: - The time limit was unforgiving. - It prevented them from exploring areas at their leisure, which undermined the non-linearity of the game -- suddenly you didn't want to go everywhere and explore everything, because the clock was ticking. - It couldn't be reset/extended beyond the time limit except in a few places in the game, and only a finite number of times. So the question becomes - if I, as a game designer, want to introduce the same level of time pressure and instill the player with a sense of urgency, what can I do? System Shock 2 had an elegant answer to this: It associated all the time limits with your inventory items. If you powered up an implant, it had X amount of time to function before you needed to recharge it. Here's the conditions: - It was forgiving. When the time limit ran out, you would be inconvenienced, not fail the game. - It could be reset. The player had some measure of control over resetting this time limit. - Yet, it STILL created a sense of urgency while exploring the environment - the loss of item functionality was enough of an inconvenience that it made you keep an eye out for recharge stations and keep an eye on the clock for when you needed to start heading back to get recharged. In any event, this was the answer promised on Reddit, and to @VipulManchala.
  5. I started playing Wasteland 1 near the end of Kickstarter to get back into the Wasteland mindset. I'm still loving it just as much as I did back in high school. One thing I wanted to vent about concerning old-school RPGs like Eternal Dagger, Wizard
  6. Obsidian gets applicants for internships all the time from schools across the States, and it may be that if you're forming a Kickstarter, you may need a lot of technical, production, and development help for tasks that students and juniors would love to do to contribute to their careers and education. If you're running a Kickstarter and would like to consider a pool of applicants to help you hit your game's mark, let us know - there may be interns/juniors in your area or could assist remotely with your tasks and help your game shine. If this is something you're interested in exploring, drop me a line at CAvellone@obsidian.net. If you're a junior or intern, this isn't a call to send a resume - only await more information. Hopefully, this "kickstarts" some job opportunities and gets folks started up the career ladder. Overall, the hope is Kickstarter may be able to provide more job opportunities to junior and intern students that may be problematic at larger studios. Chris
  7. Recently, I was asked about Wasteland, and the answer became complicated enough that I decided to respond to here. In short, I
  8. Thanks for all the responses, folks - it may take me a while to sort the ones here, Twitter, and Rock, Paper, Shotgun among others, but I want to be thorough. Any more feedback or ideas, keep 'em coming! It's encouraging to see such a strong response.
  9. In the last profile, I ended up giving general advice on seeking out development jobs, here are additional suggestions for narrative designers: - If you have the time or resources, I'd recommend attending the Game Narrative/Writer's Track in Austin GDC, TX in October (I
  10. Was going to blog this week - then a fellow Thomas Jefferson high school alum, Danny Kim, beat me to it and ended up posting an interview I
  11. Some Planescape: Torment questions from Joe Hogle, an undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh, posting the reasons for some design choices. (BTW, if you guys ever have questions you want to answer for research papers or just because you want to know, feel free to email me at CAvellone@obsidian.net, let me know when you need them by, and if it's okay to blog the answers.) In many RPGs, including the Fallout games you
  12. Some Old World Questions from Rocky Justice (thanks, Rocky): 1. What is your official title? I know in the credits it says you're a writer, but I was wondering if there was a more specific title for your job. Also, how'd you get in to your line of work? Did you study writing in college, or was it something you discovered later on? I'm Creative Director here at the studio - I'm involved with the design department, giving advice on best practices, design methodology, and helping to test and select new design candidates. I also set up designer expectations for each tier of designer as well ("here's what's expected of a Systems Sub-Lead, a Lead Designer," etc.), and also interface with the other owners and designers across the company. In addition, I attend design meetings, and actively participate in the game design process, which means I look at all the design documents, attend level reviews, reviewing scripts (usually narrative ones unless I'm scripting my characters), and I'm playing the builds and supplying feedback to the designers. Depending on the project, I also contribute content, flesh out characters, and do things like create region designs and plot arcs for the DLCs. While the managerial aspects of the job are satisfying in their own way, the ability to point to something concrete at the end of the day and say, "I designed/wrote/scripted that," is gratifying and caters to my old gamemaster instincts. I got into this line of work through my hobby - gamemastering pen-and-paper Superworld, Champions, D+D (N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God, Temple of Elemental Evil), and Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play led to me trying to get my adventures and articles published, and from there, I got a few enemies and adventure books published for Hero Games' Champions (Underworld Enemies, Dystopia, Asylum, Widows and Orphans). Once that happened, I asked my editor, Steve Peterson, if he could recommend anyplace with a steady paycheck ($50 every few months wasn't paying the bills), so he gave me a good recommendation to Interplay Entertainment in California. I was living in Virginia at the time, so I flew out for an interview, they liked me, and I started as a junior designer. Over the course of 10-15 years, I got promoted upwards until I hit Creative Director, but even in my role as Creative Director, I'll sometimes jump into specific positions on a project (Senior Designer, Level Designer, Creative Lead, or even Lead Designer). I didn't formally go to school for writing (I studied Architecture and English), but I wrote a lot and gamemastered a lot in my spare time, and that ended up being the best teacher. College helped by exposing me to certain literary works I don't think I would have found on my own (or at least quickly), and the fact that William and Mary had some brutally efficient grammar professors to hammer the rules into your skull was a plus. 2. Do you just write the dialogue for the characters, or do you also get to help design the personalities and names of the NPCs? What aspects of the DLCs did you work on (like, the plot)? I know you're known for the DLCs, but are there any parts of the base game you did? Also, I saw in the credits that J.E. Sawyer did Honest Hearts, and you did the others. Why didn't you do Honest Hearts? I do both, and I enjoy both. I love specific character narrative arcs, I like creating "emotional narrative moments" (the poor man's version of a visual vista using narrative and plot moments), and oddly enough, I like making backstories for inventory items and magic items (which I got to do a lot of back at Black Isle) - it's like telling micro-stories that help round out an item's purpose and place in the world. In terms of workflow, sometimes I'll suggest a character or general set of characters to another designer ("hey, Travis, can you make a bunch of appliances like in Transmetropolitan to round out the Sink?" - then Travis Stout ran with them and made them his own), other times I'll design the full character and write the dialogue (Dead Money, the Think Tank). In Honest Hearts, Josh did both as well - Travis wrote Follows-Chalk and Waking Cloud, among others, and John Gonzalez (Creative Lead for New Vegas who worked on DLC2) took the Happy Trails Caravan and the well-received Survivalist journals, while Josh tackled Graham and Daniel (there were other characters as well). As for the division of labor, if I recall, Josh wanted to do Honest Hearts, so he did (the theme/plot was all him), and that worked out well since we were leapfrogging DLC production at the time, so that allowed me to focus on DLC3 and then 4 while DLC2 was entering the homestretch. 3. I don't know if the creators of video games spend time thinking up their own ideas of what goes on in the game world when the player character isn't there, but I've been thinking a lot about Big MT and what is was like before the Courier, or even the other visitors' arrivals. We do both, but usually when you have a project or a pitch, they focus your ideas. It helps if there's already a direction to take the ideas in, but like I suspect most designers do, I have hundreds of pages of ideas, quips, cool lines, character names lying around on my computer that I sift through whenever I get a breather to see if I can make use of them. >> Have you ever thought about what Doctor 8's voice sounded like, or what his true personality is? I can infer from the Courier's friendly responses and the fact he carries a Meeting People magazine he is (or was) very social, but the other doctors say that they "like him better this way". Dr.8's current state in the game is the way I envisioned him in the first place - 8 being abstract was largely the point (and not that anyone ever wants to hear developer reasons for things, but it also cut down on resources and localization, since his "voice" didn't need to be localized or translated, so it was a low-impact way to get another colorful character in the mix without taxing our limits), and I think it makes him more sympathetic to be voiceless - much like ED-E and Dogmeat and other silent companions who stick with you - you can impose your own voice and personality on the little bits they give you (Seth McCaughey, one of our animators on the DLC, did all the ED-E's animations for DLC4, just like he did with the Think Tank chassis, and that did more to create emotion than anything I can write - especially the animations when Borous in DLC3 breaks down at his own memories). I feel the critiques of the other Think Tank regarding 8 are probably unfair in their negativity, and if they disliked his previous personality and voice, it may be because he was less annoying and more practical than anyone else. It's a mystery. How does Mobius remember that he wiped his own memory? Are the memories erased at the discretion of the wiper, or does the act of erasing not get erased? Also about Mobius, how does a Think Tank ingest chems like Mentats, which you have to chew? Mobius is able to reflect back on a number of his own bizarre actions that on a surface level, he can't recall easily - for example, he claims he was tripping on Psycho when he sent the threats to the Think Tank, but when questioned and queried, the real underlying logic of what he did reveals itself to him. Also, like the Think Tank, Mobius isn't a reliable narrator and what he claims to have forgotten isn't always correct when he puts his mind to it and walks back down memory lane - it's just a matter of focusing him (the more you speak to him in DLC3, the more focused he gets). Plus, in terms of reliability, he's had -many- experiments that haven't had the results he thinks they've had. As for drug ingestion, I always assumed he just plopped the Mentats directly into his biogel through a side compartment and let them dissolve like Alka-Seltzer. What did/does Dr. Dala actually do research wise? And why does the Think Tank think "formography" is so repulsive? They all seem very sexually frustrated as it is, so why are they so against this indulgence? I always saw Dala as a bizarre botanist, toxicologist, and physician/surgeon, but I left it vague because after a few hundred years, they gravitated all over the place, as evidenced by Dala's insane number of doctorates. As for "formography," the Think Tank believes that being a big brain in a tank is the highest form of evolution, since... well, it's what they are. How could that be anything more than the highest ladder of the evolutionary scale? The fact that ANYONE would be obsessed or achieve any sort of stimulation from regarding a PRIMITIVE human form is just repugnant. Bleh. And imo, the only sexually frustrated members of the Think Tank is really Dala, 8 attends to himself. Somehow. Sonically. Dr. 0 seems very incompetent with machines... but yet he managed to build Muggy, who while is a psychological disaster, is able to perform the task he was created to do. Is his lack of skill perhaps due to the memory erasing? I know that might sound like a pointless question, but he does seem very confident in the fact that he is a "zero" and is basically useless, and I was curious if this was a mere side effect of more recent events. 0 had his moments - if his greatest creation is a tiny janitor bot that can only collect dishes, that feels in-character to me. Especially considering how far he missed his original target by (figure out what makes Securitrons tick and make them better - whoops!). And lastly, what is Dr. Klein's true purpose? All he seems to do now is be the main voice, and overall boss for the Think Tank. What was his line of study? And what did he do that made him take place as "leader"? Klein served the role of the "stuffy Dean of a college." He's the head lab manager, who is the voice of authority and the threat - (he's one of the more sane members and ones able to act with some level of authority). If he wasn't there, I don't think the Think Tank would have much of a sense of menace, and that's Klein's story role - to be a big, stuffy, and potentially dangerous jerk. That was my sole goal with him - considering how bat**** crazy the others are, I needed someone with a slightly level head.
  13. Giantevilhead: To answer the Enclave question, that's unknown. In the 1st iteration of Van Buren, history was the Enclave nuked the hell out of San Francisco, assuming that the destruction of the oil rig was caused by attackers from that city (and also a way to clean the slate there). Heartbreak_Courier: To continuing the franchise and work on it again, we'd love to if the opportunity presented itself - thanks for the kind words, we enjoyed being able to take another shot at the license (and dig up the old Van Buren material as well).
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