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Chris Avellone

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Blog Entries posted by Chris Avellone

  1. Chris Avellone
    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!
  2. Chris Avellone
    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.
  3. Chris Avellone
    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. Chris Avellone
    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.
  5. Chris Avellone
    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
  6. Chris Avellone
    Because Twitter would make this too fragmented:
    (Spoiler alert)
    NCR sacks Navarro in the West, recovers a bunch of tech they don't understand, as history has proven.
    They do, however, recognize the symbols (American flag, silo stencils, etc.) and recognize it might be tied to the same symbols and markings the NCR found at the Divide.
    NCR hires a Courier to take the item there. They don't for a second think that anything bad will happen as a result, and neither does the player.
    Player delivers package, leaves.
    The package is a detonator that contains missile launch codes that just needs to get within range and start chatting with launch computers.
    So it does. As Ulysses says, package "wakes up," sends the detonation signal to missiles locked in silo, earthquakes and storms result. Post-apoc wasteland because even more post-apoc.
    Fragments of package (along with everything else in Divide) scatter, are scavenged and rebuilt, package ends up in a new frame.
    History repeats.
  7. Chris Avellone
    Fallout New Vegas DLC contest this time was to suggest research projects for DLC3: Old World Blues, taking you to the technological graveyard of the Big Empty, one winner:
    I chose the one from Blinzler below, because like Old World Blues, it draws upon the history of Fallout and in this case, Blinzler's entry reminded me of the Burrows (even though the Burrows never existed, one of the goals of Old World Blues was to dig into the history of how certain inventions and critters in the Fallout universe came to be). As long as the experiments don't involve Power Armor. Or Vaults. Because both of those are taboo. Shhh. But other stuff is fine. If it's in the Mojave.
    Blinzler: FEV enhanced squirrels. To guard the mutant trees, of course. The ones with all the skeletons around them.
    If you're not familiar with the original Fallout 1 concept for the "Burrows" and the fact that it was flushed from Fallout 1, check it out. Burrows Design Doc on the Fallout Wiki
    And, of course, an Honorable Mention for Comedic Value.
    ericsiry: OWB research project: Who is Bending All Those Tin Cans?
    I have wondered the same thing, and I can see the Think Tank of the Big Empty obsessively studying such phenomenon.
    I'll think of a new contest soon before the 19th. I don't have anymore Fallout shirts, unfortunately, but we'll think of other cool Fallout-related prizes to fire over.
  8. Chris Avellone
    With Dead Money coming out for the PC and PS3 this week, I got into a discussion about how I feel about its reception and some of the design decisions. In short, my feelings concern the context of the specific design elements. Some folks understand the "why" of the challenge elements even if they don't agree with them, which is fine, as long as they get why we did it the way we did - and that may not be apparent. So: If you play the adventure and want to dig deeper into the reasons behind the content and challenges, read on (although play first and form your own opinions).
    Slight spoilers apply (although most was in trailers and interviews already). Most of this is general enough that you may be able to read safely - a lot of this concerns the overall design decisions made in the DLC, it's more a general treatment than a series of details.
    First off, Dead Money is a short story in the Fallout universe, pulp fiction style: it's a dime-store comic book (issue one in a limited series), an adventure story, a casino heist with a post-holocaust spin. It's never intended to have the length of a regular product, and being able to do a "game short story" is something that was fun to work on... usually we work on multi-year products, so doing a one with limited scope in a short time frame was gratifying in many respects. How do you create a game-equivalent ($10 vs dime store) paperback adventure? How long should it be, how should you present it?
    As it says at the outset, Dead Money's a brutal, vicious adventure that puts the player in a bad situation, and it was designed to scare the hell out of Fallout players - although it didn't, in my opinion. The Survival and tension aspects ended up trumping that, which is fine, since survival's a subset of fear in my book.
    We didn't set out to make Dead Money a Survival experience - we set out to make a Horror game that put Survival second. In terms of horror, I don't feel we succeeded, although it was a conscious effort to try and shake things up a bit with the enemies you faced to scare the player, definitely. The enemies are not only tough (which is easy to do with numbers, so I don't feel that's a real challenge), but also intended to be unpredictable when they fall, so you couldn't always count on shooting an enemy until they fall as being a guarantee that you're safe. The original hope was that the enemies couldn't simply be headshotted continuously - this is a selfish reason, as I get tired of watching people play like that non-stop (it doesn't feel like they're experimenting with limb-targeting tactics, despite the array of weapons), although the non-headshotting tactical diversion didn't turn out that way (it's just as easy to decapitate a head as a limb with the right blasts).
    So why did we choose survival? Well, the question of Survival sums up questions I've had about Fallout as its timeline advances... the post-wasteland's gotten more civilized as the decades since the nuclear war have gone on, and when I was scripting Dead Money's layout, one thing that kept coming up was that I missed the desperate "Road Warrior" feeling when I hit the wastes. I miss being in a situation where I'm scrounging for every last bullet, water's precious, and I have to fight tooth and nail for any edge I can get. That goes double for the environment, I want it to be terrifying and be something you're constantly fighting against, Vault 34-style. I confess, there's been times I wish someone would drop more nuclear warheads on the Fallout world if only to bring parts of it back to its roots, so I wanted to create an area in the Wasteland that felt just as desperate as you'd expect a post-holocaust environment to be.
    So the Sierra Madre and its surrounding Villa were designed as a reminder that some sections of the wastes are still scary, hazardous places where few can tread and survive, and while NCR may tame parts of the Mojave, there are other parts they can never hope to settle and claim as their own, and that's just the way I want it.
    Regardless, we were shooting for a Horror experience with Dead Money. As for what we tried to do with Horror, to make the game scary, we tried to do two things - one, have enemies you couldn't headshot and required a different approach (holograms, toxic cloud), and worse, they could headshot you if you weren't careful (bomb collars + radios). My experience with most horror games is that the enemies become scarier when you can't kill the adversaries (which most role-players will try and do if the enemy has any number of hit points or any measurable way to hurt them, no matter how small). So what am I happy about, even if the final result ended up veering from the intention, is watching YouTube playthrough videos where folks (1) start panicking when they hear beeping (exactly the experience we wanted), and (2) seeing players take a step back, figure out the puzzle, and then study the environment to solve it (again, what we wanted).
    As for Horror: Things get scarier and tense when you can't escape, no one's coming to help you, and your resources are limited, and Dead Money was built around this. Watching the YouTube playthrough footage where players started re-appreciating chems and Stimpaks made me happy - these things are miracles of medicine, and they should be viewed as such and appreciated for that in the world of Fallout. One issue I've always had with Fallout is it's really easy to amass a lot of chems and stims, so much so you lose the sense of wonder and relief when you get these items, and I feel situations like in Dead Money can give you a new appreciation for food, crafting (we put a higher priority on crafting and supplies to make crafting worth more in the DLC), unconventional water sources, and the joy at finding an otherwise common chem in the Mojave takes on a new level of preciousness when you're in hostile territory. One YouTube video showed someone finding Buffout - and to hear them say, "thank god" and hear genuine appreciation for finding something so rare is exactly the kind of value I want people to attach to these items... usually people seem to care less when they find Buffout, but it all depends on the environment context. I want players to attach value to them again rather than, "oh, more Buffout." It's BUFFOUT. It's a STIMPAK. Your character should be OVERJOYED to find these things, each and every time.
    We also wanted to maximize the real estate. We couldn't build a whole other world for a DLC, so we paid more attention to what we put in it and increased the gameplay density. We did a serious, quantified exploration and loot pass, included challenges that required paying attention to your surroundings (hazards above and below, hidden cache markers to encourage targeted exploration and navigation, second story adventure areas, and even putting crafting items on walls) - artists spend a lot of time fleshing out rooms and environments, and we wanted to include challenges and rewards for folks who carefully hunted through the environment - and were rewarded for their efforts. In short, make them pay attention to their surroundings.
    Dead Money's story: Narratives in games should be entertaining first, and also have a theme when possible. I wanted to make sure that despite the Survival elements and the adventure story elements, there's still something larger being told beneath the DLC's surface for people who care to delve into it. There's a thematic spine that we built the characters and the Sierra Madre which most folks appreciated, and our lead level designer put the finishing touch on (thanks, Charlie, that was brilliant). I feel when your adversary sums up his frustration with the human condition, and you get to see the results of what the bomb collars do to four (five?) individuals who would normally butcher/devour/assassinate/con each other, that's the point... but it's reflected in the design as well, notably their Perks. The idea was always intended that if you talk to them and study their abilities, you see how they can help you survive much easier as long as you cooperate and choose the right companion for the right time... a level of cooperation that would be impossible if your lives weren't wired to each other. And when Elijah snarls about that exact issue, I wanted players to realize that as much as they may hate him, he's got a point... in this situation.
    There's a few other things I'm happy with and always wanted to do, and I'm glad DLC allows for experimentation with this. Having an opening narration movie per location is something I've wanted ever since running Van Buren pen and paper games at Black Isle (and thanks to Bethesda for being on board with that), reactive end slides per DLC, having a "join the bad guy Fallout 1 style end movie" (which I missed ever since joining the Master's Army in Fallout 1, so we put it in DLC1 to allow the player to join Elijah), and being able to hook into some of the backstories in previous Fallouts as well as Mojave hooks (Veronica's relationship with her mentor, who Dean Domino really was, and Dog/God's ties back to the origins of the Nightkin and how some folks have exploited that in the present).
    A few last minor things that make me happy that doing a DLC gave a chance to experiment with - I got to finally try to write a Torment "they communicate everything via text" character for a modern-day role-playing game with Christine to see how that would be received (mixed reaction, some people thought we were lazy or cheap, and they're partly right, even if that wasn't the intention - voice acting is expensive, and if we can get more story with less voiced words, I'm fine with that). Wouldn't have gone over so well in a larger game, I suspect, so glad the DLC allowed for it.
    So while I have mixed feelings about the DLC, I'm pretty happy with it, and I like the fact the way DLCs are structured allows for some degree of experimentation. And the price of admission and the amount of gameplay Dead Money provides (including explorers, there's a lot to find even in supposedly confined world spaces), I'm more than happy with it in the end, as difficult as it can be at times for even veteran players. I always figured if folks had played F3 and FNV for 100+ or more hours total, they may be ready for the stakes to be raised.
    I also like the fact that the DLCs can have continuity, they don't need to exist in isolation. If I had to picture the DLC series, it would be it's a limited series in the Fallout universe, spiraling to its final conclusion that brings everything back to the start, so Dead Money sets a nice pattern for future FNV DLCs, especially layout and narrative-wise, which folks have picked up on - and many thanks to them.
    The Courier's adventures aren't over yet.
  9. Chris Avellone
    Couldn't fit all the entries on Twitter, so here's a selection of winners for the Fallout New Vegas perk contest.
    Broke them into Most Useful/Interesting, Most Ennio Morricone-Inspired and Most Humorous. #FNV
    Most Useful/Interesting: @ericsiry Six Million Cap Man, @Spartan3995 The New You!, @Spartan3995 Burden to Bare, @Soultaker696 Sole Survivor.
    Most Thematic and Ennio Morricone-Inspired: @ericsiry Trick Shot, @gogukaizer Evil Eye, @amoebasoid A Few Caps More.
    Most Humorous: @amoebasoid Hot Temper, @ericsiry Human Goat, @amoebasoid Nudist.
    A summary of the details:
    Trick Shot: Small chance in VATS you'll have a 100% hit chance and auto critical hit against enemies' targetable weapons.
    Six Million Cap Man: Allows you to get three implants beyond your END limit (still a maximum of 9).
    Human Goat: You can eat any Misc item in your inventory for 1 HP per pound of weight. Rounds down, not affected by Pack Rat. --> Finally, a use for Paperweights.
    The New You!: One time only. Allows you to replace all skill points, SPECIAL points, facial features, hair, and name. LvL 30
    Evil Eye: Lvl req 18; Other req LU 5, CH 6; Any humanoid wielding a weapon has a 15% chance to drop it when used against you. --> Liked it.
    'Sole Survivor' Only works when not accompanied by any follower, otherwise adds half as much for each follower.
    Burden To Bare: Armor no longer impairs movement: Strength: 8 Endurance: 6.
    Nudist (Trait, but can work as a Perk). Let it hang loose and move freely as nature intended! Fast AP regen but can't wear armor (hats are allowed). --> Can't beat nudity. I believe GURPS had a variation called "Bulletproof nudity."
    [Hot Temper] Eating multiple jalapenos will temporarily grant fire resistance + fire breathing as an unarmed special attack. --> Liked it.
    [A Few Caps More] Extra damage and faster firing rate with revolver weapons. --> Lump in revolver reload speed with this, I'd get it.
    Putting the next contest up on Twitter (@ChrisAvellone). If you want a free black FNV T-shirt, feel free to participate.
  10. Chris Avellone
    Polygamer went live with an interview I did for them a while ago (Polygamer Interview), and here's the English translation for those who don't know much beyond their high school French... like me.
    1] At Polygamer we ask ourselves many things about videogames, for example why it
  11. Chris Avellone
    Knights of the Old Republic II: Sith Lords questions from Joakim... some spoilers follow.
    1. K2 pretty much changed on how the force, the galaxy, the Jedi are portrayed. How did that work in terms that you were making a sequel to a very typical Star Wars game? (KotOR1, we have this evil dude who wants to blow up the galaxy just for the hell of it).
    A lot of it came from deep-rooted feelings and opinions about the Star Wars franchise, both positive and negative, and especially what it would feel like to be a Jedi or Sith in that universe. I've always had an issue with the Force because of its predestination aspects, and I wonder if any Jedi or Sith would ever want to rebel against it entirely... and if they'd be willing to give up their ties of the Force (and all that power) to do it. Nihilus in K2 is a being who's wholly surrendered himself to what the Force is, and the fact he's completely consumed by the self-destructive Sith technique sums up my problems with the Force.
    Don't get me wrong, though, I found a lot to enjoy in the Star Wars universe, much like the other franchises I've worked with. I do like to go into a campaign setting though and poke at the foundations a bit.
    2. The ending of the game was pretty much a buildup for a (where is?) Kotor III. I imagine that you had the details pretty much figured out - but how much details did you have in mind before the game (the time between K1's ending and K2's start).
    Not much, was mostly struggling with K2 storyline at that time. The events that were to lead into K3 came more and more as we backtracked through Revan's plotlines in K2 and wondered if we could do a Babylon 5 spin with it, where Revan had a greater plan in mind when attacking the Republic. Just thought that would be kind of cool.
    3. Where the game inspired by some real characters and/or events?
    Not really, although Kreia had some similarities to Ravel in Planescape: Torment, since there were some directions I wished I could have taken with Ravel.
    4. What would you change with KotOR 1?
    Nothing, overall, I liked it. In fact, there were a number of high points when I was playing where I almost broke the controller because I didn't see how we could possibly top some of the events or locales in K1 (like walking on the sea floor in Manaan). I wish Juhani could have been a lesbian, though, not for a crude reason, but because that seemed true to her character arc.
    5. Who do think deserves the most credit for K2? (except you)
    The whole team for different reasons. Really, we had such a small team that everyone really had to wear a lot of hats to get it all wrapped up, and everyone pitched in and pushed themselves, even those that came on at the end (Tony Evans, one of our senior designers and the lead designer for Storm of Zehir, showed up in the last part of the project, and he was instrumental in getting the game done).
    6. Would the game (K2) have turned out different (story/characters) if you would have worked on it today or five years before you did (1999) that is. (If we pretend you had the same amount of resources and technology)
    Totally - it would obviously be a much more polished experience. However, it would suffer from the fact that if it had been worked on in 1999, some of the character arcs (notably Kreia) would not have been present, since much of that was spawned from NPC ideas in Torment.
    7. Were there some things that you had to change due to disagreements with LucasArts or other Obsidian employees (not talking about cut content) If so, what - overall, are you happy about those changes or do you think the game would have turned out better without them?
    Lucas Film had about 5-6 comments on the game over the course of the title, which I'd like to think was because we "got" the universe, but might have been more because they were so swamped with making Episode III. We do try to thoroughly research the franchises we work on at Obsidian and do due diligence to the franchise holders so we can match their ideas for the license. As such, we've rarely had problems in the approval process. There are times we've asked to do things with a franchise that have been turned down (we wanted to make Gann in Mask of the Betrayer a bi-sexual, for example, because that felt true to how he perceived love).
    In the Obsidian ranks as far as K2 is concerned, I think we probably wasted time with the mini-games (we should have dumped those), done one less planet, and did less with the interface (we lost a lot of scripting and programmer time to it in exchange for not a lot of impact) and just concentrated on making a great polished adventure.
    8. How did the first draft of KotOR 2 look like, and did any ideas survive to the final product?
    The Handmaiden did, some characteristics of Kreia, and so did the planet Peragus, but almost nothing else did, which was for the best after playing K1. The original premise had the player drafted for help by the Handmaiden to free her world from matriarchs led by a figurehead reminiscent of Kreia. After playing K1, we ditched the storyline - and it sucked that we wasted 2 months on it considering how little time we had over the course of the project, but LucasArts couldn't legally give us copies of K1 to examine or play until the contract was signed, so no one's to blame, it was just circumstances.
    9. What made you go for the Exile as the main character?
    Maybe it was just that because I didn't grasp the Force (or want to, initially) that seemed a natural character to start the game with. I also had been watching Chinatown and the whole ending for that movie (that there's an event in the character's past that's never spoken about that haunts him) also seemed to be appropriate.
    2. What happened with Bao-Dur - we know that he was supposed to die near the end because of the: "make my sacrifice matter line".
    Bao-Dur - we didn't have time to finish his thread, but if I recall (it's been a while), he was supposed to die on the attack on Telos to help HK-47 get to the HK-50 factory and shut it down to save the planet.
    3. How much content did not make it into the game (such as Bao-Dur's death. Content that aren't even in the game files).
    I wanted some more unrequited romance sequences between Sion and a female Exile player (there was supposed to be more build up to Sion's obsession for the player stemming from something other than just hate), but that didn't get in. Also, obviously, the companions turning on each other at the end didn't have time to get in and polished, and I've never been happy with the final confrontation with the Jedi on Dantooine.
    One last thing - I guess what I miss most about K2 that never got in was an audio sequence where the Exile is meditating about where Nihilus and Sion are striking from, and there's a telepathic blending sequence of all the companion VO that culminates in the revelation of Malachor V. I was so sad there wasn't time to do it, because the blending just sounded soooooo good. Ah, well, I guess that just adds another brick to the Fortress of Regrets.
    ONE FINAL QUESTION. Do you have some tips and tricks to new game designers (people who already are one)? What "traps" they should avoid and what do you want them to focus on?
    Document all you can in case you're hit by a bus but don't make them so exhaustive that no one ever reads them - keep it to bulletpoints, streamline it, use mock-ups, and if a particular design runs more than 3 pages, consider fragmenting it into its own document to ease reading. Details matter. Learn scripting, make attempts to understand the tools and pipelines of other departments. Don't just play other games to get ideas - read books, graphic novels, history, non-fiction, and expose yourself to a variety of media to round out your design ideas. Learn to recognize design clich
  12. Chris Avellone
    I get a lot of questions from folks regarding narrative design and getting into the industry (especially after the Trzynasty Schron interview).
    When possible, I'll be posting the answers here as well in case anyone else has the same questions (or wants to comment or add to any of these answers).
    To start it off, here's the 1st of 3 questions from Joey 😄
    Do you feel that video game writing, and video game story creation differ from other forms of creative writing? If so, how?
    Yes, especially for RPGs, because reactivity usually requires you to tell the "story" out of sequence - and usually you have to tell several stories at once depending on how many branches you provide.
    In general, though, it's better to approach it from the game mechanics standpoint and let what the player can do in the game tell a story. Fallout's good about this - some of the best "stories" I got from Fallout 1 and 2, for example, were ones where Stealth and Combat options spoke for themselves in reactivity and quest solutions. And a lot of child pickpockets got blown up from ticking dynamite that somehow got planted on them - or through accidental repeated injections of Super Stimpaks.
    In short, the game "story" can end up being less important than the player's experience in the game, whether they are actual story events are not. It's hard to compete with a story about how a player's 3rd level dwarven fighter survived a bum-rush of 20 orcs in a narrow corridor armed only with a ball-peen hammer and smashed through them Oldboy-style with only 2 hit points to spare... and it's guaranteed to generate more passion from the player than perhaps your most tragic character with his heart-rending story to tell. It's something you just have to accept, and even better, provide opportunities for. Give the player room to breathe.
    Creative writing also carries with it the danger of subjecting the player to the story - TV, film, novels, short stories, and comics demand a more passive absorption by the reader/viewer than video games should, in my opinion - like System Shock 2, BioShock, etc. you want to give the players the freedom to move around the game world and interact with it without being forced to watch cut-scenes or be paralyzed in place to watch events play out, you need to allow for the player to interact with the experience. One could argue Breen's broadcasts in Half-Life 2 and the recordings in BioShock are technically passive absorption experiences, but they allow the player to interact with the environment and control their field of view while they're taking place - you aren't forced to absorb them.
    Also, one other important factor in game writing is details - you have to be specific in game writing, especially in organizing and scripting NPC knowledge. You need to be able to track quest states, how much an NPC knows about you, about a quest line, and about the world at any one time. You have to know what happened to X NPC at Y time and if it affects Z quest. Can you have done Z before talking to X? What if the player kills X and then stumbles across Z? Etc, etc.
    The other two questions in a future blog.
  13. Chris Avellone
    So, I generally despise writing companion romances (I think unrequited and/or doomed ones are ultimately more dramatic), but there are some techniques I've accumulated over the years that I try to incorporate into writing and designing romances in RPGs.
    A lot of these things came out while writing Gannayev-of-Dreams in Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, and I suppose it could hold true for other inter-party romances in games. What follows is a summary of some points we kicked around for how to foster romances with the PC.
    Any suggestions or examples of other techniques that work would be welcome because us Obsidian folks (or at least me) aren't the romantic types.
    Note: I'm going to cite examples from Season 1 of Lost a lot, so if the character examples below don't make sense to you, watch that and come back - although there's no spoilers below. I think. It's hard to tell with Lost what's a spoiler and what's not. Also, I haven't watched Lost past Season 2, so it's possible all the examples below are overturned in Season 3.
    Anyway, here's how to foster romance between characters - part one, and subject to iteration.
    First, the NPC romantic interest must be good in combat or contributes effectively to a mission. It is much easier to like/love someone who fulfills an effective combat role in the party (Final Fantasy VI/Final Fantasy III was always my model for this). Kate from Lost, for example, pulls this off - she's a good tracker, good with a gun, and can handle herself in a fight for the most part. The NPC is not subservient to the player, but either equal or not quite his or her equal. Kate from Lost does not feel she
  14. Chris Avellone
    Thanks to Andrew (Son of Skywalker) and EUCantina.net, part 1 of writing/designing Star Wars comics/games is up at:
    Star Wars Expanded Universe Interview Part 1
    Clone Wars Adventures (Issues 7-10) is also nominated for Best Children's Comic in the 2008 Eisner Awards! I feel incredibly stoked (I contributed stories for issues 7, 8, and 10).
  15. Chris Avellone
    I have to confess, I was pretty happy to hear the Writers Guild of America, West was giving awards for video game writing.
    Award Criteria and Submissions
    Then the fine print came out, which basically invalidates all the writing work we did at Black Isle and Obsidian for the past ten years, including:
    "Submitted games MUST have separate credit for writing (i.e. Written By, Story By, Writer, Story Designer, etc.). Writing credits must be verified by their inclusion in the game manual. If writing credits are not printed in the game manual, the publisher must fax or e-mail screenshots of the game's complete writing credits directly to Melissa Gage at the WGAW, fax no.: (323) 782-4810 e-mail: Melissa Gage. Alternate proof of writing credit will be addressed on a case-by-case basis.
    While there is no limit on the number of credited writers a particular game may have, credits not specifically tied to videogame writing are not acceptable (i.e. Lead Designer, Designed By, Produced By, etc.)"
    This is a little frustrating because we didn't employ solely writers at Black Isle or Obsidian, mostly because our writers are designers... and I believe part of being a game writer is being able to do design work that complements the story within the engine you're "writing" for. I could go on a seperate rant on how the story should express itself through game mechanics as much as possible, but I'll leave that for another blog.
    Anyway, enough venting. I'm pleased to see awards being given out, but not so much the criteria invalidates a % of writers that also do design work.
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