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An Interview with Chris Avellone - game designer, writer, and former 'unlucky schlep' - Part 2

In Part 2 of an interview with Obsidian's Chris Avellone, we discuss the development and eventual reception for the espionage-RPG Alpha Protocol, the relationship between developers and publishers, and the process of casting voice actors for characters

Will Ooi, Blogger

August 15, 2011

16 Min Read

This edition of "Unmasking the Gamers" features part 2 of an interview with Chris Avellone. Having spoken previously about RPG design, this time round we had a look at the development and eventual reception for the espionage-RPG Alpha Protocol, the relationship between developers and publishers, the process of casting voice actors to suit written characters, as well as a bit more about Chris himself (originally posted here). 

Will Ooi: Alpha Protocol took players on a spy's journey through ambiguous political agendas and dealt with current, real-life events concerning the transparency of governments and questionable ethics of multinational corporations, amongst other things. Was one of your aims for this game to educate the player? It's not often we see Taiwan-China relations mentioned in this medium...

Mr Chris Avellone: Some of the story framework was based on the two previous iterations of the storyline. I inherited Halbech, the Taiwan angle, etc, so I couldn't speak to that. What appealed to me most about the original plot was the characters, which I always felt were strong and each had a cool visual and ego signature. In AP2, because of this, our plan was to simply make the plot more character-driven than event-driven, and cater to the characters the setting allowed for.


WO: Was the dialogue response option 'headslam' inspired by anything in particular?

MCA: I think everyone's had that moment when talking to a jackass where you imagine his face kissing the nearest concrete sidewalk/brick wall/bar counter. When writing the Alpha Protocol characters, the question you always have in the back of your mind is how Bond/Bauer/Bourne would respond, and usually, all the "actions" in Alpha Protocol are Bauer-inspired, since he doesn't have the time or patience for anyone giving him lip when lives are at stake.

WO: The game was generally lauded as being excellently constructed with a great story and immense reactivity to the actions of the player, however it was otherwise criticised for its graphics and AI. How does a developer appeal to gamer demographics who like story and those who have an expectation of graphics?

MCA: My opinion is that the two aren't mutually exclusive, they complement each other, and it's not a sacrifice to the narrative to provide great visuals along with the story. From a developer standpoint, you have to meet both.

Alpha Protocol

WO: Personally, what are your feelings on how it was received? Anything you would have done differently?

MCA: The game wasn't received well on release, and as a developer, that's never something you want when you've spent a good number of years and hours on a title. Once the price dropped, though, people seemed mostly fine with it - well, at least on Twitter. Without the Twitter feeds and user reviews, I would have thought no one enjoyed it at all, but enough folks did for me to feel good about that. As expected, all the feedback we got was being incorporated into sequel plans, although it turned out SEGA didn't want to pursue it.

In terms of internal changes we could have done, hindsight's 20-20. A lot of the changes we realized had to be done were included in the 2nd round of Alpha Protocol's development cycle (the overhaul occurred about halfway through development, and carried on until the end of the game). We broke up the story to allow for more game mechanic inclusion and reputation mechanics, allowed for more optional progression per mission and within the narrative, made sure the stealth and pacifist paths were a viable path, and overhauled the AI and inventory management.

I never liked the cinematic feel of the game, but that was the request and one of the pillars, so we did that. I would rather all the animation budget have been spent on combat, stealth, or other game mechanics rather than cinematic conversations, and I felt anything we did would be a negative comparison to current RPG titles from studios who already had a lot more experience and pipelines for delivering that cinematic experience - our animators and designers did a great job, but we definitely didn't have the same resources and budget as other developers.

Also, I'd have dropped one romance, at least. I hate them normally, and having 4 in one game, all of which I had to write, was a pain in the ass. I lobbied for killing the Scarlet romance (spoiler, though probably not a shock if you've played past the first mission) and successfully got a 5th romance kicked from the game, but the others remained like a taint. Still, it's part of the spy fantasy and it was part of the mandate, so it was time to roll up the sleeves and get to the romancin'. I confess that I enjoyed writing the "hate" sides of the romances better, between Madison losing her temper, Mina's final judgment, and... well, I always liked SIE, no matter which direction.

One aspect that we did want to include for AP2 was a system proposed by our Systems Designer, Matt MacLean - I've heard it called "honeycomb" mission structure, but that makes me think of cereal, so I'll just describe it instead (note that I'm quoting my answer in Vince Weller's Iron Tower interview below):

Honeycomb Mission Structure: It applies to a mission design where the player is given an overarching objective (to put it in Fallout New Vegas terms: "force the New California Republic to sign the treaty with the Jacobstown super mutants") and then given about 5-6 "satellite quests" orbiting the main quest, all of which can affect the set-up or success of the central mission. The player can choose which of those 5-6 missions he wants to undertake, and they all react to each other and cause a reaction in the central objective as well.

We did this to an extent in AP (optional missions, missions affecting other missions for each hub), but a lot more we could have done with this system, and all other things being equal, it's my goal that it be a focus for at least one of our titles in the future, as it's a really interesting idea.

The disadvantage is it can get extremely complex if done improperly (special casing events), the advantage is that it's a better means of giving the player reactivity without a linear quest progression... and more importantly, it gives the player choices in how they want to complete the objective. They wouldn't need to do all 5-6 missions at all, and they could accomplish these satellite missions in any order they wanted. A speech character may simply target 3 missions that cater to diplomacy (say, sowing gossip or convincing soldiers or officers that the main capital is going to be attacked), and suddenly the garrison gets a high-level order to move its troops to the capital to defend the monarch.

The competition

Lastly, in terms of what we would have done differently, one thing that definitely impacted the reception was out of our control (release date) - first off, people expected more from the delay when there was never any plans to do anything more with the title during the delay. In addition, being released after Mass Effect 2 with clearly superior cinematic sequences nor after Splinter Cell which specializes in some of the best stealth mechanics to date didn't help, either. To explain the publisher reasoning, however, I do know that there was a drive to push the "buzz" of the project so players were aware of it, and it was felt that eight months would give that lead time enough for people to be aware that Alpha Protocol existed. That said, even with this lead time, the PR efforts still came on late, so I don't know how much that helped in the end, except pushing the game at least eight months out from a more favorable release time, at least in terms of features. If it had been released much earlier (and it's rare to say this), I think the reviews would have come from a different perspective... as it stood, it defeated expectations on a number of levels in the marketplace.

There are things I think we did do well in Alpha Protocol, and I'm proud of them. There's a lot of branching, there's a lot of consequences to your choices, you can outwit the bad guy just by being clever and doing your homework, you can persuade almost all your adversaries that you'd make a better boss, the fact we didn't use speech or dialogue skills in conversations as an "insta-win" button, the character had no moral barometer, but everyone's perception of him was different was good, and I liked the fact that having negative reputation gave bonuses, so if you felt like being a jackass, the game recognized you were in a role-playing game and playing a role and didn't cut you off from content to punish you, it gave you different content and abilities. I like that I could pick and choose the personality of the weapons, Matt MacLean wrote great emails, and I did like the fact that there was a pacifistic path... and having the voice actor who did Winnie the Pooh be one of our major adversaries was a nice, bizarre little touch.


Chris Avellone

WO: Is there any character that you’ve written which has been based on you, or shared aspects of your own personality?

MCA: There's a little bit of my take on religion with Kaelyn the Dove in Mask of the Betrayer. I don't generally try to write based on my personal views outside of gaming or based on anyone I know, I feel it muddies the point of the character and doesn't help the narrative. Plus, I'd feel weird about incorporating elements of someone I knew into a character, since I feel it ends up being distracting to your evaluation of the character as you're implementing it and can sometimes feel "off" to someone who encounters the character in game.

There are a few exceptions, and these were all done in the context of questioning their world or questioning game mechanics: One is Kreia in Knights of the Old Republic 2, who captures a lot of the questions about the Force and Star Wars, another is Elijah in FNV DLC1: Dead Money, who is speaking about my frustration with hand-holding in RPGs, but considering both are franchise and/or game mechanic opinions directly related to the universes they are trapped in, I feel they get a pass. Lastly, Ulysses in Fallout New Vegas DLC4 (Lonesome Road) and his intentions there categorize how I feel the Mojave and the West should be dealt with in Fallout.

Kreia, Elijah, Ulysses

WO: Who are some of your own favourite companion characters in games you have and haven't contributed to? And have you ever worked with a voice actor who was absolutely perfect for any particular character?

MCA: So our audio department at Obsidian (Mikey Dowling, Scott Lawlor, Andrew Dearing, Justin Bell), are aware of the type of games RPGs are, how much dialogue is in them, and how important it is that that dialogue comes across well. We were also fortunate that in Fallout New Vegas, our Bethesda producer Jason Bergman, took the voice acting budget and did something new in (1) contracting Blindlight (a Hollywood production resource for the game industry), (2) spreading out the budget amongst a number of prominent actors (Danny Trejo, Felicia Day, Kris Kristofferson, Wayne Newton) for various roles rather than hooking it on to one central voice actor only.

I've also had the fortune to work with a lot of great voice directors: Chris Borders, Jamie Thomason, and most recently, with Blindlight and Wes Gleason. If we can't get a performance, they'll make it happen or get a new actor who can do what we need (although that's pretty rare).

There is one wrinkle in the process, however, and that's sometimes, once we get an audition that we really like, we will rewrite a character or change their tone because we think it'll compliment the actor better. Ulysses in Fallout New Vegas changed as soon as I heard Roger Cross's voice, and I kept his audition playing in the background while I was writing, and it helped me give direction for the character. In addition, once we got James Urbaniak for the role of Dr. O in the Think Tank in Old World Blues, I rewrote Dr. O from the frenetic, hyperactive newscaster personality I intended and had more fun with doing a scientist-whose-aware-he's-not-brilliant-or-valued, which I thought might be a nice change from the Venture Brothers, where Rusty Venture's arrogance tends to blind him to that realization 99.9% of the time.

Dr Venture & Dr O

Sometimes, we'll need to change an actor when a character's role in the story changes (which is rare) - when we did the overhaul to Alpha Protocol, this happened with a few of the roles once we needed the cast to assume different roles in the story (this was mostly Mina and Parker).

And we take chances on new talent. Veronica Belmont surprised me in Old World Blues (I don't think she'd done any voice acting up to that point). I had no idea how she'd be in the studio, but she really delivered her lines well, and we were lucky to have Roger Cross in the studio at the same time so they could do their lines between each other, which works much better (and is rare to be able to pull off). Jace Hall was brought in initially as a skit for the Jace Hall show to be bad and then fired, then we went ahead and recorded him for real, and people seemed to enjoy his character in Old World Blues a lot.

But to answer your original question: For games I haven't contributed to - some of the "companions" that jump to mind, although they're not the same type of companions we usually set up for games: Wheatley (Stephen Merchant) in Portal 2, GLaDOS (Ellen McLain), SHODAN (Terri Brosius), just about the whole cast of Arkham Asylum (we got the pleasure of working with Mark Hamill in Icewind Dale), and HK-47 from KOTOR 1 (Kristoffer Tabori).

WO: Apart from your work with the Fallout: New Vegas All Roads graphic novel, what else do you write? Are there any forthcoming novels or poetry collections?

MCA: I've written some short scripts for Star Wars: Clone Wars Adventures, and I keep in close touch with the Dark Horse guys, they've done a lot of support for our games over the years with comic tie-ins (Dungeon Siege III as well). As for other types of writing, I stink at writing poetry, I do not have a poetic soul. I do love writing comics, though. Regarding novels, I never seem to have enough time to do a long narrative before some emergency hits, so it's probably for the best - I'm usually doing a long branching narrative for some game or another, anyway.

All Roads

WO: We've heard a lot about Chris Avellone the game designer and comic book writer. Could you tell us some more about yourself? Personal values, what you get up to on the weekends, favourite holiday destinations/TV series?

MCA: I have a lot of places I want to go, and have never been - but I do want to travel more now that things have calmed down a bit. I've always wanted to the Grand Canyon (if only because of all the work we did with the canyons of the Divide in the Fallout Lonesome Road DLC), London, and I've never really been to New York. Maybe I'll do that when the next New York Comic-Con rolls around.

As for TV, I'm mostly catching up on BBC sci-fi nowadays: Torchwood (especially: Children of Earth) and Doctor Who spring to mind, with Spaced next on the radar.

I also go to the gym off and on, mostly because I'm an endorphin addict, and after nearly running myself into the ground physically on Torment, I realized I needed to take better care of myself, if only so I could stay alive longer to write and design more games.

WO: From a purely tourist point of view, how did you find your stay in Australia - did you get to travel around much?

MCA: Yes, I love Australia, and I'd love to go back - during my stay there, I was mostly in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane - although I wish I'd been there when the Mana Bar was up and running (it's a drinking establishment that's focused on gaming). Tony Reed (the CEO of the Game Developers Association of Australia) would invite me to Australia for panels and presentations on gaming, and it was a great experience - Tony and I worked together back at Interplay, and I've always had a lot of respect for him. And he's great to drink with.

WO: Have you any thoughts on the Australian game development scene?

MCA: They have a lot of talent in Australia, but it doesn't seem like there's enough studios for them all. My opinion? They should all apply to Obsidian.

WO: Any final words of wisdom?

MCA: If you love doing something enough, it'll take care of you in the long run, no matter how much you suffer up front for it. Also, don't get too comfortable, that'll kill your ability to grow and challenge yourself.

...Despite the well wishes and the final words, this isn't the end just yet - here's Part 3

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