The following lines contain an exclusive interview with Chris Avellone in which he talk mostly about Alpha Protocol, but also about Fallout New Vegas, SEGA, DLCs and Aliens RPG.
-You’ve worked in quite a few games now. What project are you most proud of?
Planescape and the Fallout DLCs (Dead Money, Old World Blues, and Lonesome Road) are the titles I’m most proud of – on all four, I was effectively Project Director and had the most freedom, so the fact that you own your mistakes as well as the praise generates a certain amount of pride.
Also, almost all of them were under the radar, so they didn’t come under as much scrutiny as other titles going on at the time – Torment because of Baldur’s Gate, and the DLCs because no one gives a shit about DLC as long as it can boost sales of the original, blocks rentals and sell-backs-to-the-store, and be potentially rolled into a larger edition and make more money, so you have more freedom over the narrative, release dates (digital release is sooooo much better than physical copies when it comes to putting out a game, and I’d argue it makes for a better game as well as helping the environment), game titles (there is no way we could ever named a triple A sixty-buck title “Old World Blues” and gotten away with it), themes, and playing around with game mechanics to try out new ideas.
-The ability to make decisions is one of the most important elements in an RPG, but ideally, to appreciate that fully you should play the same game a few times. Do you usually play RPG games more than once?
I played Fallout 1, Alpha Protocol, and Fallout 2 multiple times, although that’s something of a rare thing. I think the value comes in discussing the RPG experience with your friends and saying how your experience was different and just as cool as theirs.
Note that I also play the games we make as a studio, so most of my RPG playing is playing our games again and again and again and critiquing those.
-Alpha Protocol is a clear example of a game that you can enjoy even more the second and third time you play because of all the different possibilities offered to the player. Strangely enough, not a lot of people seemed to appreciate that. Do you think the game has been treated fairly in general terms?
For the most part it was fair. Some of the press went for shock reviews, sure. Others I felt had appropriate scores and criticisms, and I don’t have any ill will about that – and I know a number of people played the game and enjoyed it for as many people disliked it. In fact, if I didn’t have Twitter and been able to follow the mentions of the game, I would have thought everybody hated it. In the end, we were trying some new design concepts as a studio, and I’m proud of what we did, some of which we’re carrying into future titles.
-As the lead designer for Alpha Protocol, we guess you were heavily involved in the writing as well. Is there any character, dialogue or scene that you are particularly fond of?
During the 2nd half of the project (after we did the overhaul of the game’s pipelines, direction, and management), I effectively became the Creative Lead, and our Project Director took charge of the systems – level design was assigned to a specific lead, and he carried it from there.
I inherited a lot of the characters from the previous iteration of the story, but my favorite scene was a Moscow conversation with Sis, Albatross, and Thorton when they’re discussing how things are going to turn out in the end, and nobody’s too optimistic. The scene was based on the skeleton of a previous implementation, but I really liked working on it and fleshing it out.
Also, the scene where Madison hates Thorton and turns on him is also a favorite of mine. While I despise romances, I love “hate-mances,” and she can really come to hate you.
-What was the toughest challenge from a designer point of view during AP’s development? Was there any time where all the different possibilities that the story can take collided in a way that made you throw up your hands and scream “there’s no way out of this!”?
No, we’re used to branching storylines in our RPGs, although the cinematic nature of the ones in AP were definitely handcuffs because they relied so much on animation support to pull off (note that this was a conscious decision, not a mandate – we had a generic animation system, but our animators would work hard to put in special animations to make scenes shine). If anyone wanted to throw up their hands, it was probably the dialogue engineers and the animators, who had a lot of patience, but they were often the fiercest advocates for custom anims and making cool cinematic moments.
-Steven Heck is one of the most memorable characters in Alpha Protocol. Did you kind of expect that, or were you surprised by it? Did you like Nolan North’s work? Did you choose him specifically? Some people think he shows up too often in games, but we think this is one of his best roles yet.
So Heck was a character concept in the first iteration of the story, and Travis Stout (who wrote the Taipei arc and also was a key writer on Old World Blues) did a great job with his lines. Travis simply knows how to write crazy and funny and then wrap it up in somebody’s head. In the studio, it did seem like Nolan was enjoying the character a lot, so it seems to have paid off.
-Many players have complained about two things: Not being able to move the bodies (ala Splinter Cell) and choosing a dialogue option which doesn’t really match what the player was expecting Thorton to say. Was that a design choice to streamline the game, or were there other reasons? Do you think those two aspects could be improved in a sequel?
Sure, we had a lot of items we took from game reviews and feedback and had them in a doc for AP2 – and those two elements definitely could be refined and improved on a second iteration of the game.
-Did you have plans for any DLC that had to be scrapped after bad reviews and/or sales?
There was a discussion of DLC at one point, but SEGA didn’t want to do it (the decision was made many months before the game’s release, and we did have a chunk of work invested into the DLC as optional missions). I believe it was about 6 months before the game’s release when they made the call (or “delay/postponement” might be a better way to put it). Considering the game’s reception and the other problems with how it was being released and hyped, it was probably a good move, as I don’t believe the DLC would have addressed any of the major issues people had with the game, only provided more missions.
-Do you think the audience kind of “rejects” new IPs? On the other side, will you ever try to get your own IP owned by Obsidian for a change? Do you think it’s possible at this time to go against the tendency to market games as part of an established series or boasting some new technology? (for example, the face scan tech from L.A. Noire)
I think the public can get excited about new IPs, it’s just a matter if you’re conveying the right hooks. We always try to push for original IPs, especially ones we can own, but that’s a rare thing in today’s market. Maybe one day, we hope.
-Was it easy working with SEGA during AP’s development? Were they very involved, influencing the project, or did they just “foot the bill”? Did that experience had anything to do with the cancelation of the Aliens RPG?
They were involved more heavily toward the 2nd half, and towards the end of production, they were calling the shots and the final, indisputable word on the game’s direction and especially the mechanics (targeting, especially, jumps to mind). They didn’t care so much about the story, however, which is pretty standard with most publishers we’ve worked with. Note that none of this absolves us of any of the choices we as a studio made up to that point, so if anyone had an issue with the game, we shared equal, if not more, responsibility for all the critiques folks had.
As far as I can tell, the Aliens RPG fate wasn’t tied to AP’s fate, that seemed to be a different beast, and to this day, I couldn’t comment on why that decision was made except speculations which don’t do anyone any good. In the end, however, it financed the development of the Onyx engine and allowed us our own technology to make games, it built a team we could move on to DS3 and Fallout New Vegas, so a lot of good came out of it. I did think the Aliens RPG had a lot of promise, and I did enjoy working on it for the time I did.
-Can you tell us something about your next project without having to kill us later?
I am not on any single project now that the DLCs are wrapped up, I’m more involved with the high-level design pipelines of the company, playing builds, providing feedback, and writing new game pitches for publishers.
-Have you checked out the “Fallout 2 Restoration Project” patch? Are you happy with all the cut content finally seeing the light of day, or maybe you would have preferred it to remain unseen?
I have not, unfortunately, and if Killap was brave enough to try and resurrect any of that content, more power to him – we certainly couldn’t get to all of it, but I don’t think the game suffered from it (and we were still able to put parts of the Fallout 2 stuff in FNV and the DLCs, although it’s mutated quite a bit since when we first imagined it). I am glad that someone was able to make use of the editor we worked hard to get released a long time ago – I was worried no one would do anything with it.
-Finally, one of the guilty pleasures I’ve been enjoying since the first Fallout is creating a character based on social and mental skills, and then play the whole game as a ruthless bastard taking advantage of everyone. What’s your favorite play style?
That would be it, although I try to be the nice smooth-talking skilled professional who wanders into town and disarms everyone with witty one-liners. Which is a power fantasy, because my real life is nothing like that.
-By the way, Fallout 3 is an embarrassment to the whole series, so thanks for putting it back in its rightful place with New Vegas. No, this is not a question, but we had to say it anyway.
I’d have to disagree, and without breaking down the argument into a treatise, one thing that F3 clearly nails about the Fallout universe is open-world exploration, and I thought they did a great job with that. I’ve already given critiques on F3 previously – ultimately, I believe it was a good game for many reasons, and I learned a lot design-wise from playing it and examining the editor-mechanics they used for constructing an open-world.