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From Torment to Eternity: Chris Avellone on RPGs

Obsidian creative director Chris Avellone talks to Gamasutra about the tension between player stories and written narrative, how players are resurrecting the past via Kickstarter, and what Project Eternity will be.

The Kickstarter phenomenon that swept the industry in 2012 has been dominated by projects from established figures who made their names in the 1980s and '90s. These projects trade on nostalgia from fans of genres and game design styles that major publishers have since come to regard as too risky to fund.

Obsidian Entertainment creative director Chris Avellone is revered among RPG fans for his work on Fallout 2 and Planescape: Torment (among many other credits). He is one of the most prolific writers working in games -- he personally penned the bulk of Torment's 800,000 words -- and is regarded by many as one of the industry's finest.

Avellone dipped his toe in the crowd-funding stream early, signing up in March to assist with Brian Fargo's Wasteland 2, on the condition that it could reach a $2.1m "stretch goal" for its funding (which was easily surpassed). Then -- following comments from Avellone that he would like to seek funding for a follow-up to Planescape: Torment (on which he acted as lead designer) -- speculation began as to when an Obsidian Kickstarter would surface.

And surface it did -- after four days of teasing on the Obsidian website, the Kickstarter for Project Eternity went live on September 14, and quickly began to break records. It reached its 1.1m target in slightly over 24 hours, before finishing with over $3.9m, overtaking Double Fine Adventure to become the most successful game campaign ever run on the site.

Gamasutra recently sat down with Avellone to discuss Project Eternity and his work more generally. This in-depth discussion touches on the specifics of Obsidian's approach to crowd-funding, Avellone's thoughts on what makes game narrative unique, and Obsidian's double-edged reputation for releasing brilliant role-playing games that are tarnished by an unacceptable quantity of bugs.

Did Obsidian start thinking about running a Kickstarter because of Double Fine's success?

Chris Avellone: As soon as Tim Schafer did his Kickstarter, we became aware of how much support there could be for products that publishers might discount. I'd pretty much lost hope that we'd ever see another adventure game that wasn't on the DS or the iPhone. And then suddenly Kickstarter happened, and I realised that "holy shit, we're going to get another adventure game because of all this." Then Brian Fargo moved really quickly, and suddenly it was pretty clear that people also wanted an old-school RPG.

And so after that, we started discussing it internally. We've always wanted to do another Infinity Engine-style game, and so we spent a good many months [planning], we talked with inXile and Brian to see how they had structured their campaign, and the lessons they'd learned from it, and we checked out a bunch of other Kickstarters that were successfully funded, and we tried to build up hype with screenshots on our website and things like that. And then we launched it, and yeah, it turned out great.

But to be honest, I was a little worried that most of the games I'd seen on Kickstarter had just barely gotten funded, and Brian and Tim Schafer and Shadowrun felt like exceptions. [The audience] either knew the franchise or the names behind them so much that it wasn't too hard for them to far exceed their goals. So when we put ours up, we weren't sure if it would actually get funded or not, but obviously the outpouring was so huge. Hitting the funding the first day was awesome and also scary at the same time, because we were like, "Oh my god, we have to figure out these stretch goals a lot faster than we'd planned for."

So, what is it about Infinity Engine games that you love so much; the reason you've wanted to go back to them?

CA: Well the first thing is -- in the Icewind Dale games, the artists were able to paint the most amazing dungeons. There wasn't a lot of worry about memory management, or how it would perform on consoles, or getting all the polygons not to slow down the game. When they were actually able to paint dungeons, they were able to make some amazingly creative spaces to explore, that I don't usually see a lot in today's games.

We had one dungeon in Icewind Dale 1 which was basically this big frozen museum, and as you were walking along you'd actually see creatures frozen in the floor and the walls, and we actually had this other dungeon which was this giant hand reaching up to the sky, and you'd actually travel up through the hand, and into each individual finger and explore that.

Secondly, we all loved playing and designing those games, we all loved Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate 2. Icewind Dale was a bit different because we were always under a tight schedule, and we could never really do the same level of companion and other interactions that Baldur's Gate did, and it was kind of a different style of game. But if we could take all those elements and make our dream Infinity Engine game, what would those things be? So we compiled a list of that stuff, and then we were like, "Let's just go do this and see if people would want to see that made". And they really do.

I loved both Baldur's Gates, and Planescape: Torment is one of my favorite games of all time.

CA: Torment was... it wasn't fun, at the time, at certain points, but I really enjoyed writing and designing that game. It was a rare moment in the industry, I will say. You don't usually get a franchise that allows you that much freedom.

That setting is incredible.

CA: I was actually surprised that it was a Dungeons & Dragons setting, because it was so freeform and had so many ideas that I'd never even seen before. It was amazing! So cool.

Philosophy-based factions.

CA: Yeah, the idea of mental real estate, and "if you think about it hard enough you can make it reality." I was like, "What? This is awesome!"


For Project Eternity, you've gone with a more traditional fantasy setting than in Torment. Was that always your intention?

CA: The way we approached it was we got Josh Sawyer, who was the project lead on Fallout: New Vegas, and we got Tim Cain, me, Feargus [Urquhart] and our other project director Adam Brennecke in a room, and we listed out all the points that we enjoyed about Infinity Engine, and notably dungeon delving, and a lot of the discussion came back to a lot of the strengths that the Forgotten Realms setting had. What they would do is they would create a lot of interesting spaces and sort of build cultures around these cool dungeons, and it was resonating with just about everybody, that they wanted a more traditional fantasy setting.

I do think that the ways that we're approaching the fantasy setting... It's not [entirely] "traditional fantasy." You'll see some similar races, but the takes on the races are going to be a bit different than people expect, so I think that'll be enough to set it apart.

When you first announced the Kickstarter, you didn't really give any details. Was that a deliberate strategy, or where you actually making it up as you went along?

CA: To be honest, we had been working on elements of the title only a short time before the Kickstarter started, so there weren't actually that many details to reveal. We did have design time over the course of the Kickstarter to discuss those design ideas, we had design meetings, proposed the classes, discussed the system stuff.

There wasn't a huge extensive design doc before we started. There were just some basic principles for the kind of game we wanted to make, and then it just kind of developed over the course of the Kickstarter.

Some people have criticised it for not having much detail, initially.

CA: That's fair. I think for a lot of Kickstarter projects, it's in their best interests to showcase gameplay and give a lot of details. It's hard to allocate the resources to get something like that up and running, but it's definitely worthwhile.

We didn't have this concern, but I think sometimes if you reveal too many details that can actually potentially hurt your presentation. I've seen some Kickstarters come out of the gate with all the wrong information, and then they don't seem willing to iterate on it. If it's not really selling with the public, then probably the idea either isn't very good or needs to be reexamined. But the cool thing about Kickstarter is that you can see within 30 days whether people are going to like your project or not. Which is much better than finding out at the end whether they like it or not.

What about the criticism that most of the bigger Kickstarters are based on nostalgia, with nothing particularly fresh or new?

CA: I think a lot of the drive does come from recognizing what games those particular [developers] created, that people remember those and respond strongly to them. I don't think, however, that that means that the end result will be solely a nostalgia-focused game. I'm sure there will be new elements about each one. I know Wasteland 2 definitely will, and Eternity, definitely.

I don't know about Double Fine -- I just want another Tim Schafer game, so I don't really care! But yeah, I think sometimes that if you don't have a bigger story around your Kickstarter, or if you don't have a really good hook for your concept, or if you don't have some sort of cult of personality to help sell the title, it can be really difficult to get a brand new idea noticed. And I can't argue with that.

So the nostalgia is more the way to sell it in the first place, and then you can build on that?

CA: With Eternity, it's going to incorporate a good chunk of those Infinity Engine elements, that's really important to us. All the companion stuff, and the narrative depth that we had in Torment. And then the dungeon stuff, that's all really important to us.

But at the same time, because we're developing a brand new world, and -- for example -- the magic system is a lot different in that world, that's going to put a refreshing take on it. The different cultures, and how they treat people with certain souls -- whether they're pure souls or fractured souls -- I think there's a whole lot of fun questions you can raise just by changing that fundamental magic principle of the world. So we're really excited about that.

I found it interesting how your stretch goals were around adding discrete things, like new characters and new locations. Is that really how the money will get allocated?

CA: Yeah. One advantage we had was that we knew, back from Black Isle, how many people it takes to make discrete content. Things like, "How much does a companion cost to make? How long does it take to build a level? How many artists are needed? How many designers are needed?" We know all the logistics for that stuff, so that's why it might have seemed so precise -- it's just because we have all the information to draw from, so that made things much easier.

Any time you make a game, obviously some people are going to like it more than others. How do you balance the concerns of all of your funders?

CA: By having an open dialogue early and throughout the process. I think people can get upset when something doesn't meet their expectations, but if you're constantly providing new information that allows them to see [where the game is at], I think that backers are pretty understanding of all the reasons that went into decisions.

And that's not normally a conversation you can ever have with players, with the traditional publisher model. I mean, for example, there's been certain design elements that other Kickstarters have had, that they've announced in their Kickstarter, where the players have just lashed back and said, "No, we don't want those things". As far as I'm concerned, that ends up being great, because you don't have to waste any resources implementing things that the player never wanted in the first place.

On the flipside, if you're communicating so much with your players, how do you stop them from being overexposed to the game? How do you avoid giving out spoilers that could diminish their experience when they play the final release?

CA: I think there's a lot of logistics that can provide information without giving spoilers. Like when Wasteland 2 is providing screenshots, showing how a game level is developed or giving an example of how the morality system would work. That's not a huge part of the game -- the actual gameplay experience. Actually showcasing how the game is made and the decisions that are going into that provides a lot of information, but it's not really spoiling anything. That's my take on it.


Are you planning to do more with Project Eternity, once this game comes out?

CA: Oh, yeah.

Assuming it's not a flop?

CA: Actually, it doesn't matter if it's a flop, although I don't believe that it will be. But the nice thing about Kickstarter is that people have already paid for the title. So anything else that happens after that is great, but we know what our budget is, and practically speaking, that's all we're really focused on: "We're going to make a game for this amount of money."

We already have the backer support. They've already paid for it. That's our end destination. If it ends up getting released and selling a lot of copies, great. If it sells enough where we can support future installments, we'll absolutely do that. If it doesn't make much of a profit, and we did want to do another installment, we'd probably take it back to Kickstarter.

Do you think that you be more likely to experiment in a sequel with changing things up from the old-school Infinity Engine setup?

CA: We'd probably keep the same isometric view and party controls, because that's what we miss. But we still think there's other stuff that we can add to that. [There are] mechanics -- like crafting systems -- that we could add, and new ways of using the classes and spells. I think there's still room to evolve all of that. But we would keep the Infinity Engine look and feel and things like that. Because that's what made those games what they were.

Why is it that this style of game became non-viable, in a commercial sense? Why wouldn't publishers support this type of project?

CA: I don't know if I have a good answer for that. I do know that there's one technical limitation: when you're developing an RPG for the consoles -- which most publishers want because it generates the most revenue -- it's often very difficult to control a party of characters, with either the PlayStation controller or the Xbox controller. So that immediately causes you to change the dynamic of how you design the RPG. You can have two party members with you [the player], but you've got to recognize that that consumes a lot of memory right then and there. And you also have to set their AI states -- you're not really controlling them.

A lot of those [Infinity Engine] titles were PC-only, and that's not really an appealing pitch to any publisher. They don't really want a PC-only title, because that's not going to maximize their revenue.

It seems like the market was in a mindset where "We can only do blockbusters." Perhaps now it's fragmenting a bit, and there are more niches available?

CA: I think so. I do know that usually when we're discussing budgets for games, they can range anywhere from $20 to $30 million for development, but that doesn't account for all the marketing budget or any of the auxiliary resources like quality assurance or production support or localization, or even paying for sound effects and audio and things like that. The budgets for [triple-A] games are just insane, but they generate a lot of revenue.

Some of them do. There are plenty of flops as well. It does seem that some of the larger publishers are experimenting with smaller-scale games. LucasArts was dabbling in that area, for example, and Warner Bros. published Bastion.

CA: It's good to see that level of support. It seems like with smaller projects, and/or indie projects, that's the best time for people to experiment with new innovative mechanics that might not [be viable] on a larger, more expensive scale. And seeing them proved out in one of those smaller titles I think is healthy for the industry. You need that experimental test bed to showcase why these ideas are cool.

I've heard you talk a lot about the narrative design work that Obsidian does, which is a topic that I find isn't discussed all that widely in the industry.

CA: We've had to make a lot of mistakes in that process over the last few years. A lot of [what I've said] is just stuff that shook out as a result of that.

What kinds of mistakes have you made?

CA: There's been quite a few. Characters have delivered too much exposition, rather than just showing it in the environment. That seems like a really obvious thing, but I still catch myself doing it. Or designing companions that -- while they may be interesting -- don't lend themselves to any other game mechanic and therefore become useless and are never used.

What about in terms of the differences between narrative in film or books, versus narrative in games? It seems like there's some key differences that a lot of games don't really seem to pick up on.

CA: I think that people [in the industry] are appreciating scriptwriting talents more, especially as games become more voice-acted and cinematic. I [think that for] anyone pursuing narrative design, scriptwriting is the best way to hone your craft, because it's a lot of what you're going to be doing. It teaches you all the brevity; using the environment to communicate a situation, as opposed to just the flat-line vomit of text, like Torment had. Which we had to do at the time, but that's more of a novelistic approach to writing, which isn't necessarily the best fit for games.

Also I think comic book writing lends itself to training you to write dialogue for games, just because you have to think so visually about what's happening in the environment. I really enjoy writing comics. For Star Wars [Knights of the Old Republic II], for example, I found myself thinking about the process a lot differently. About how the shot was framed, what was being shown, and how that reinforced what the characters were saying and [their interactions].


In games, do you feel that you need to be able to let the players decide for themselves what's meaningful or important?

CA: I think it's fine to suggest a theme, and suggest a question to the player, but ultimately let them find their own answer in the environment. New Vegas obviously had one critical end point, but at the same time, the overarching goal of the game was just to find out where you stand with all these factions. Do you agree with their philosophies? All of them have good and negative points about them. Or do you feel that you have a better vision for the world? And if so, just go out and create your own story. I think that's how you have to approach the narrative of games. Sort of like an open world narrative.

It's hard, because you can't always get the pacing down right, but at the same time, I think because you're allowing the player to choose the pacing, that that actually makes it a more accommodating experience for them.

But yeah, giving up on a really strict structure is one thing that's hard to let go when you move from [other] media to games, especially role playing games. There's so much branching that can take place, and so many different paths the conversation can take and it can be difficult creating a playground for the players.

An analogy I've used is that the player is like a shaman on a spirit quest and as a narrative designer you're kind of like the spirit guide -- you have to put all things in their path that could be meaningful to them, but it's up to them to work out what is ultimately is important to them.

CA: Yeah, I think the more you can allow a player to leave their meaning on the environment, the better the game is going to be for them. Sometimes I get into an argument with designers [about whether] it's better to provide a narrative story arc, or is it better just to provide a bunch of system mechanics and let the player derive their story from that? There's been so many times where any story I've attempted to tell will get trumped by some action the player can do in the game systems, and it's a better story for that, and I can't argue with it.

Do you have an example of that?

CA: Yeah. In New Vegas, our project director used the reputation mechanics between the factions to create a pretty awesome story, and he did it unintentionally. This entire sequence would have taken probably a month of several people's time to actually try and narratively create, and I don't think would have been as strong. He used the reputation system to piss off one faction, Caesar's Legion, and once you piss them off they start sending assassin squads after you whenever you try and sleep. Then he completely reversed and started pissing NCR off. And suddenly they start sending assassin squads after him [as well].

So he's running around the wasteland like a crazy man, and then he wakes up, and both assassin squads have spawned, but because their AI makes them hate each other, they started exterminating each other rather than attacking him. So he waited until they were all dead, and then he just shot the last one. Fantastic story. And because he was able to push the world to make that happen, I think that made it stronger than if we'd tried to narratively design that situation. So I think allowing for stories like that is really important.

That's fantastic! There's a lot of games around now that use procedural generation to try and create situations like that. Do you play that kind of game?

CA: Not necessarily, although I do try and pay attention to what causes those [situations] in games. Usually I find that anything that changes the AI state of enemies is what generates the best stories. For example, I noticed I was able to create a lot of fun situations in Dead Island because they have a lot of tools and tricks that will change the AI states of various opponents. Like when you drop the meat jar on the ground, and suddenly you can make all the zombies move to a certain area. And from there you can start staging all sorts of fun stuff. And also usually anything that causes damage remotely in the environment, like fire or water, or even like in New Vegas where you can set up explosions from a difference. That can [bring about] all sorts of interesting stories. But I do wish there were more ways of doing [these things] that didn't necessarily involve violence or damage.

Most of Obsidian's games have received a huge amount of praise for the storytelling and characters, but you've often been criticized for releasing games that are buggy and in some cases not quite finished.

CA: Yeah. No developer ever wants to release a buggy or unfinished game, and we certainly never have wanted to do that. And it's not fair to any consumer to have to spend any amount of money for a game like that. The only thing [I can say to that is] that we have to be better about that, and Dungeon Siege III was our first effort, I think, where it clearly showed that our new pipelines are paying off in that respect.

Is that going to come across to Project Eternity, do you think, or is it going to be a whole new learning experience because this is the first game you've built using the Unity engine?

CA: I believe there are actually tools and functionality from Dungeon Siege that we can apply to Unity. I don't actually know the specifics of that, because I don't come from a programming background. Our tech director will be handling most of that stuff. But there is a lot of bug-reporting software and ways of tracking and killing crashes that I think could work with Eternity.

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