Sponsored By

Interview with Chris Avellone

I guess you know who Chris Avellone is. If not, he is the guy behind Planescape: Torment and Project Eternity that gathered $3,98 million on Kickstarter. He also participated in Fallout 2, Fallout: New Vegas, KOTOR 2, and in many many other games.

Anti Danilevski, Blogger

December 19, 2013

24 Min Read

I took this interview for my blog about game design, it's all on russian. But we agreed with Chris that I'll post original, english version somewhere so other people would be able to read it, too. And here it is; hard to find a place better than Gamasutra.


Anti: Hi, Chris! I know that you’re a very, very busy person, especially after the success of Eternity. So, a huge thank you for your time! Let's talk some about you. Say, are you religious? Do you believe in karma, and if you do, how deeply?


Chris Avellone: I am not religious, although I do believe what you put out in the world comes back to you, positive or negative (whether treating others as you want to be treated, whether being charitable, or treating others poorly). Don’t take this to mean I feel there is justice in the universe, however. Or that we are somehow important in the grand scheme of things. Or that there is a scheme. And it’s grand.


What about esoteric practices? Do you practice any methodologies? Yoga? Kung-fu? Meditations? Tensegrity? :)


Respect to you for making me look up Tensegrity. I used to do kung-fu as a phase when I was in elementary school. Maybe everyone did. I was terrible. If I ever got into a real martial arts fight, I would be killed mercilessly. I was so bad I accidentally kicked my instructor in the balls in the middle of class. He took it pretty well, but he was a black belt, so I guess enduring pain and discomfort of a small nerdy boy kicking you in the balls is something they have to train for.

So I have three personal “meditations” I do.

The first one is just walking. It’s simple. For me, it’s moving meditation, get the endorphins flowing, don’t think about anything, just walk and let your thoughts relax. When the endorphins hit, it’s a nice pick-me-up, too. It’s also a nice cure for writer’s/designer’s block when you can’t stare at your computer screen anymore.

Second one is writing a daily journal for the both the immediate and long-term future. Every morning, I spend 20-30 minutes focusing on the path of the day. That includes at least three big targets to accomplish that, if met, will make me feel good about the next 24 hours and any potential rewards for meeting those goals (see below). I also review the previous day’s goals to see what carried over and needs to re-evaluated. I course-correct, make new rules and goals, file away any lessons I learned from experiences the day before, then move on. It also gets the writing muscles warmed up for more creative pursuits.

During this time, I also mentally schedule myself, not just for work, but for the whole day. I’ve discovered that I can program myself into good habits just by setting the expectation early on that at “X time I will do Y,” rather than leave it up to chance. For example, I can program myself into believing that “at 4pm, you’re going to the gym.” If it’s done far enough in advance, it becomes a mental appointment in my head that is hard to break. So if it helps me be healthier or a better person, I use mental Outlook when I can.

The third thing I started doing a few years back as an experiment: I game-i-fied my life. It could loosely be called “the million jelly bean motivation.” It comes from this psychological horror movie, Cube, where the way to motivate Kazan, the autistic character, is to promise him a fictional reward to change his behavior. While it’s not a “real” bet per se (the consequences are solely my own, although I’m good about enforcing them), I bet against myself frequently, and I trade vices for virtues. If I do great workouts during the week, for example, I’m allowed to buy an unnecessary indulgence, like an action figure. If I work 5 hours straight and meet a writing goal 3 days early, I get a beer, etc, etc. This all factors into a point system I’ve been refining, and I can also lose points for bad behavior as well, at which point, certain vices are cut off to me until I get back into the positive digits. It’s a little obsessive, but it definitely works with my mindset - especially since I am a very numeric win/loss person who doesn’t like to lose points and doesn’t like to be in debt, so if there’s an opportunity to gain more points and stay positive (pushing at the gym, pushing for an extra 5 minutes in writing to punch through a problem, etc, etc), I’ll take it. I firmly believe you can always change yourself for the better every moment of your life, and this is my way of motivating myself to do it.


Wonderful trainings! Can't even imagine how much time it would take to get used to those practices. Probably it would be best to create some rewards for it, first...

But let's return to the philosophy. What do you think will happen to us after our death?


Oblivion. Not the game.

...although that would be interesting.


Steve Jobs used LSD and made an iPhone. Do you think different psychotropic substances are truly extending or opening the mind, or is it just a beautiful theory that doesn’t help in creativity at all? 


I don’t know. I mostly see the damage they cause. To explain – in the past, I’ve seen frequent cannabis users be unable to focus or worse, drift down very long irrelevant tangents even when not using, and it bleeds into critiques, design, and more. At the same time, so I don’t come across as a hypocrite here, I frequently consume tons of caffeine to motivate myself, which often does the same thing, so... yeah.

I use a number of different methods for creativity that don’t involve substances, if you’re interested. They are:

- Working out with a writing pad nearby. Once the endorphins hit, it can help with brainstorming.

- Going to see some other art form – an art gallery, a theater production, or even reading a magazine or book outside your comfort zone to spark your imagination.

- Go read interesting history. Or any history. I got this one from an old colleague of mine, Scott Bennie, because frankly, there’s so much crazy shit that’s happened in the real world, you don’t need sci-fi to make interesting quest seeds and NPC personalities.

- Going to a boring lecture with a sketchpad. This caused me to design almost all my dungeons and adventures when I was in college - some of my classes were so dull, my sketchbook and my imagination were my only escape.

There’s more, but that’s a few bits to throw out there.


Chris on lecture.


Double usefulness from the education. Not bad! And when you make games, do you think about those three questions that I've asked above? Do you feel that we are responsible for what we are doing now, for what we deliver to our players?


I think about death, and about personality themes and how the player might be challenged to think about them. For example, Planescape: Torment is very much about regret and what can cause one’s behavior to change – and the game mechanics are designed to reinforce that with the alignment shifts based on your choices. More recently, Fallout: New Vegas explored letting go of one’s obsessions in order to grow (and begin again) in Dead Money in the companions, the narrative arc, and the player. In Old World Blues, it was nostalgia, the dangers of living in the past, and our responsibility to the present – most of the NPCs in Old World Blues never stop to consider how to apply what they’ve done to make the world a better place, nor do they care. The player is in a unique perspective to question this throughout the adventure.


I remember Torment and how it impacted my mind and perception of reality. Maybe, after playing it, for the first time I've asked myself about life and death.

How do you think, if you would have unlimited resources to make ANY game in the world in one month... what it would be? Remember, here and now you can make anything. Any required device is existing.


I’d probably set up a gamification system like the virtue/vice system above and invite people to try it, especially with regards to physical fitness and health. They’d need to be aware of their own vices and virtues, though, but maybe it would give people something to strive for. A lot of the more “commonplace” game answers don’t feel like they’d be appropriate for this.


There is going to be a lot of hype about mobile games. Next will be crossplatform games. What do you think will happen after 30 years? What games will looks like?


I always envisioned the closer we get to an Star Trek: Enterprise holodeck, that’s what we’re heading toward. One of my more cynical friends told me, however (and this is probably more true to human nature), some sort of “jack in” game experience where you don’t have to do anything but sit, plug in, and let your mind wander in a virtual landscape is probably more realistic considering how much effort people tend to want to put into fun. Personally, the more active the holodeck could be, the happier I’d be with it.


I bet it would be really great to play on holodesks! How do you think, if there are any qualities of the game that are most important from moral, ethical or philosophical point of view?


Not only avoiding racial and relationship stereotypes, but challenging them. Also on a less important level, challenging conventions within each game genre, and re-examining clichés that are present just to make the player step back and see the genre from a different perspective. I think this has the potential to be a problem if you end up attacking the player for liking a genre you’re luring them into, but some of the most profound commentary I’ve seen in games has come from that (Spec Ops: The Line, for example).


During game development, what proportions of business and art is optimal? I know some companies are 99% business-oriented, other are 99% creativity oriented and forget about business. What is your proportion?


I pragmatically think about all the narrative design I do and break it into how it can be developed, not just the genesis of the idea and the “fun” parts. I’d guess it breaks down into half raw creativity (and that may be high), and the rest is devoted to “how do we get this done within resources?”


If you would be 20 years old again with all your experience, what would you do different?


Not be obsessed with formal education and grades. It was always the passions that were important, not the society ritual of climbing the career ladder.

The next thing would be, if you’re unhappy, change your place in life. Making a change is hard and uncomfortable, and it’s a struggle, but if you’re not in a place that makes you happy, if you’re not with someone who makes you happy, if you’re if you’re not doing a job that makes you happy – change. Move on. Life’s short.


We had a big discussion earlier – who IS a good game designer. How do you see it? Is it a rare thing, or anyone can be a game designer and no special talents is required?  One more thing about good game designers: what the most important perks they should have? May those perks be trained somehow?


I combined these two questions because they have a lot of similarities.

So - there’s traits to being a game designer that don’t require formal training. And some that are. If I were to break down the natural elements:

- The ability to want to entertain others before yourself. Designers recognize they are providing a service to their player, and they do what they can to make them feel good about playing the experience they’ve designed.

- To step outside yourself and take note of what other people find fun. This ties into the point above, but the willingness to listen and watch to see what makes others happy, and then craft an experience based on that is important.

- A willingness to do research in your own genre and love of your own genre of games – and a willingness to push the envelope in that space to see what else can be achieved.

- This is very true of large teams, but the ability to communicate via text, via art, via a prototype, or in person why an idea is fun, inspire others, and sell them on an idea... and carry that energy into the design itself.

- This is part of the trend above, but recognize the execution of an idea is important, not just the idea itself. If someone told me they had an idea for a man who dressed up like a bat and fights crime, that might sound pretty stupid at first... but it all depends on the execution. Give ideas a chance, don’t discount them at first mention, try and imagine how they could work.

- Give critiques, not trash talk, there’s a huge difference. “Opening doors in your game sucks” vs. “I’m used to the A button being the action button in most games I’ve played, so the fact it’s assigned to the B button in your game to open doors is something that seemed counter-intuitive to me.”

- Scope yourself. You can’t do everything you want with a game. Know when to hold back and know that the game can be much better for NOT including everything and the kitchen sink in the design.

There are more elements: the ability to critique and analyze designs, training yourself in other disciplines (environment art, animation, scripting, UI), playing your own work, constantly researching new tools, challenging your ideas with others... often, some of the best design ideas come out of debating and arguing those same ideas, and some of the worst ideas justifiably die the same way.


Thank you very much for an extended reply and explanation. And next, very important question. Free-to-play... is it evil thing or not, what is your opinion?


It is the most surprising thing for me in gaming to come along since Kickstarter. I don’t think it’s evil, I think it’s often the developer/publisher’s means of pushing the transactions (if they push them at all) that ends up making it evil or not. I feel League of Legends, for example, is really friendly with the community and the transactions feel fair to me in that title.


Chris is playing Grimrock


What about games itself: a lot of people say that games are bad, useless waste of time. But we are making games... why? What do our games give to the players (or should give)? Why they are good (if they are good)?


Games entertain, and by definition, that’s what they should do. It is possible to include themes, morals, or even a non-game interactive experience (Dear Esther), but at that point, they are not games anymore.

I feel that games are a powerful medium for giving perspective, but it enters dangerous territory when you make that more important than the reason players came there in the first place – to be entertained, not to be preached to.


Let's talk about violence in games. Do violent games really make people more evil, more violent? Do they really begins to focus on violence and care less about others topics? If so, and we are making games about killing... are we doing something really really bad for our children?


I don’t know. I kill a lot of pretend people in games, and it doesn’t give me an urge to do it in real life, so I can only speak for myself.


If you would be able to deliver one thought to every single person in the world, and they would accept it, what it would be?


It would be either (1) Do no harm. Let people be as long as they’re not hurting anyone else. Or...

(2) Follow your passions. Don’t settle, there’s a way to make a living doing something you love.


Let's switch to Obsidian. How many people are currently working in the team? Do you seek talents from outside of the USA? Probably my Russian colleagues would apply?


There’s about 120 people here. We look at resumes from all over, but with other countries, it depends on the immigration law and relocation fees. As an example, if it’s more cost effective to hire a junior designer 5 miles from our offices vs. someone equivalent from Australia, say, it’s going to be the former.


Who first got the idea to go for Kickstarter? I won't ask why, but were there argues about it? Is there any interesting story behind the curtains that nobody heard before?


I’d argue it was Brian Fargo, who’s at inXile, not here. He’s the one that proved to Obsidian a Kickstarter RPG could work. While I did bring up the idea internally and then on our website (the responses of which crashed our site), it was Brian who led the charge – and his example gave strength to ours.


Your Kickstarter campain was extremely well done (from PR and marketing point of view). I don't think it's possible to make such campaign without a good PR team, or PR partners. What was your case?


That is true. We did have a contract PR team we used. We also already knew tons of journalists already, so that did help. In addition, we had a great amount of goodwill with our community who were willing to help us push the word and were interested to see what we could come up with on our own.


Probably this question will go unanswered, but I must try. When you prepare Kickstarter campaign... how much money should you invest to make it successful? What were your investments - maybe not in money, but in people hours?


About 2 months of at least 5 people prior to the project, as a guess. I don’t have the actual numbers. The biggest investments to make are:

- Don’t skimp on a good video. That can make/break a KS.

- Your concept artist is going to be busy throughout making art for the page, for journalists, and for updates. Art will help sell your idea more than anything, and if you don’t have a gameplay prototype (or even if you do), then your artist needs to concept out why the game will be fun to the public.

- You need a community manager at all times (your KS is going around the world, and the world never sleeps).

- Customer service to handle the influx of backers and helping them with their pledges.

- Marketing drive to get the word out.


I suppose you are happy with your Kickstarter campaign. Do you plan to release Eternity and launch another Kickstarter campaign? Will you launch it even if you won't require additional funds to make the next game by yourself?


We would consider another Kickstarter, yes. If we had the funds to make a game ourselves, we absolutely would (answering only to yourself is a creator’s dream, imo – nothing’s more freeing).


Your campaign seems to go flawless and without any obstacles... but is this so? Did you meet any difficulties too and if so, what was that?


It was our first Kickstarter and while it did go well, I’m sure we could do better the second time around. We didn’t expect to hit our funding goal so early so we had to quickly clarify stretch goals, our artists were pretty heavily overloaded with requests for the site, we probably could have used a full-time community manager and producer, and a devoted web dev would have helped as well. I also think we probably could have fired off the Kickstarter earlier, but overall? It went really well, and we don’t have any complaints. We appreciate the outpouring of support, and are thankful people wanted to back the product.


Is there anything else you would like to mention to people in the community? Not about Kickstarter, about games and game development... or something else!


To budding game developers out there looking for advice, it’s simple: start making games now. There’s nothing preventing you. There’s tons of editors, and plenty of other folks like you who want to do the same thing. So if you want to make games, make games, don’t obsess over your education (not everything in high school or college prepared me for my career, for example). Focus on your passion and let that drive you.


Thank you very very much for your time.


My pleasure, and thanks for the questions.


Read more about:

Featured Blogs
Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like