games™ 15th anniversary interviews – Chris Avellone, RPG writer extraordinaire

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To mark 15 years since the launch of games™ we asked some of our favourite developers to reflect on the last decade and a half of their careers, the games industry as a whole and what challenges they expect to face in the future. This week we pick the brain of one of our favourite game writers, Chris Avellone, of Divinity: Original Sin II, Fallout 2, Prey, Tyranny, Pillars Of Eternity, Wasteland 2, Planescape: Torment, and Fallout: New Vegas fame (to name just a few).

games™ 15th anniversary interviews – Chris Avellone, RPG writer extraordinaireWhat would you have been up to 15 years ago (around December 2002)?

Taking a breather from the Icewind Dale 2 crunch, and moving back to Fallout: Van Buren work at Black Isle (Interplay Entertainment’s RPG division – Van Buren was the code name for Black Isle’s attempt to do Fallout 3, but was eventually cancelled). Overall, I was still doing much the same design work as I’m doing now – writing for games: quest design, area design, narrative mechanics, dialogue, companions, and more. While I still love RPGs and work on them nowadays, I’ve had opportunities to work on other game genres, systems and franchises as well (System Shock, Into the Breach by the FTL devs, and also Divinity: Original Sin II was released this year).

What would you say has been your proudest personal achievement since 2002?

I’ve enjoyed all the games I’ve worked on for different reasons, but was (and am) grateful for the chance to work with a number of game designers I admire both in and out of the freelancing world.

Also, the chance to be able to contribute (sometimes more than once) to some of my favorite franchises: Fallout (both Van Buren continuing work and New Vegas), Wasteland 2 and 3, System Shock, and others yet to be announced and even franchises I didn’t even know I would enjoy (Star Wars). The last one was a big surprise, and taught me to be more open to new franchise opportunities – maybe there’s a nice mix of your design aesthetic and the franchise to create something interesting where the two intersect.

games™ 15th anniversary interviews – Chris Avellone, RPG writer extraordinaire

Are there any team milestones that you’ve accomplished that you’re equally proud of?

May be an abrupt answer, but no, not really, but it’s more of a perspective failing on my part. I’m proud of products, certain design elements, or even new pipelines, but sometimes meeting a milestone isn’t always the same thing as being happy with the result.

It’s not unusual – game developers tend to see the flaws and the “what could have been” in their work. For things decided above you or are out of your hands doesn’t help because then you ask, “could I have pushed harder and/or stepped on toes if need be?” And you really never stop asking yourself those questions.

In the past, we’ve labored under many milestones that didn’t quite have the full results we wanted, but I’m not sure the added time or resources would have helped, it’s more a flaw of the model and how much control you have over your own time and resources – and sometimes what seems right for a milestone decided 9 months ago isn’t true after 9 months – game development can change too much, especially internally. If you add external factors to that (a product due date moves up), then it gets even more complicated, and it becomes a game of catch-up.

For example, (quoting an Obsidian mktg rep here, Eric Neigher and the CEO concerning Metacritic), it’s been said Fallout: New Vegas was overscoped and then had to be continually cut back. I don’t know if I agree with that 100%, but there’s truth in that there were certainly systems, minigames, and side content that could have been easily dropped without an impact on quality or player expectation. I believe if this had been done, it would have given additional time to address fixes that might have achieved in 85% in Metacritic review scores, get the Metacritic contract bonus (although the rise in quality is more important), and that would have helped prevent the subsequent layoffs.

The end result upon release, however (again, quoting) is the title is described as “buggy as hell,” which can do tremendous damage to a company’s reputation… especially when you have to ask customers not to return the product until the patch is up. When those things happen, it’s hard to pat yourself on the back and say, “well, at least it was done on time.”

Also, meeting milestones in that fashion don’t really help the product – my experience is even if you make the date, not only does it damage your company’s reputation, it also means you’ll have to spend more and more time after the milestone is over fixing the issues that didn’t get properly addressed in the last milestone. Most of the New Vegas core team and DLC team had to spend many months after the core game’s release fixing the core game’s issues and performance problems, and that detracted from the other projects in development and the DLC work as well – although at the time, that was absolutely the right decision, those fixes had to be done. Overall, the takeaways are – meeting the milestone is one thing, but is there any features we may need to drop or remove now to prevent trouble later on? While some people may complain about a smaller game or less features, not many complain about quality of the remaining features – and if they aren’t features the public was even expecting in the first place, sometimes that’s an easy decision – leave that material for DLC or a sequel.

I’ve been more proud of milestone where we realized a feature is better off left on the shelf (ex: vehicle combat/chase scenes in Alpha Protocol) and then you save time in the long run by not even trying to squeeze it in.

games™ 15th anniversary interviews – Chris Avellone, RPG writer extraordinaireIs there anything you wish you had done differently?

Well, as much as you question yourself on a product, the end result is “did you sacrifice enough?” If you did all you can think of, then you can sleep at night (I hope). Any errors after that point are things to put into a personal post-mortem and make sure you keep swinging the next time around – or address in a patch if you can.

Also, any product I’ve made that isn’t mod-friendly I would definitely go back and knock down all the barriers to that. Fans and modders do amazing things with the content that many companies can’t compete with and should learn from (and we have tried to, even hiring some of them – a great mod can be a great resume all in itself).

What do you think has been the biggest change in the games industry since 2002?

VR’s reared it head, but I’ve only worked in that space for a short while compared to others. Still, I’ve found it hard to gauge the success of a VR game vs. the genres I normally write for. There is a lot of financial support for VR, but I’m not sure where the tech and games will go in the next few years, although I can say I certainly love writing for them, it’s a much different interaction experience (in a good way).

Crowdsourcing was also a huge change – this, combined with digital distribution, allowed access to specific groups of fans (usually numbering much, much less than AAA fans) who were willing to support a smaller game that publishers might not see equal value in. I don’t blame publishers for this, and I understand why they wouldn’t pursue or fund such projects, but the arrival of an alternative to seeking a publisher and interacting with your players and Backers directly was big for the game industry, and especially the RPG industry (thanks to Tim Schafer and Brian Fargo for kicking it off).

How has technology changed the way you work?

Google’s work suite and Hangouts/Skype/Discord has made working with remote teams or teams composed of developers living across the world (like the FTL/Subset developers – one in London, one in Seattle) much easier. You don’t always need to relocate to an office to be hired to work on a title, and the freeform nature of that has several advantages. Some companies are often willing to hire a talented junior, but not with relocation fees or visa issues as part of the package, which can trap people in areas where there is little or no outlet for working in games – but being able to work remotely helps avoid those issues. (I work for a number of European and Asian companies via remote, and it’s pretty painless. Plus, many of those same companies have several offices across the globe as well.)

In terms of sharing technology, Google has changed the way I work a lot, I like its commenting feature, ability to assign tasks within documents for follow-up, and for Hangouts/Skype meetings, I love the ability to easily collaborate on docs while the meeting is taking place, which streamlines things. (We did this a lot on Divinity: Original Sin II.) Slack has also been a good standard for establishing “project chat” on projects, and I use that often as well.

games™ 15th anniversary interviews – Chris Avellone, RPG writer extraordinaire

What was the best game you played that was released in the last 15 years and why?

I’ll make the caveat I don’t play nearly the number of games I should, but Witcher III and the expansions were incredible – CD Projekt did an amazing job on it. 

What do you think is the next big challenge the industry faces?

A few things: Not only re-evaluate the gaming business model but re-evaluating the in-office business model as well, and (at least in my experience) establishing more respect to production and quality assurance and their roles in game development.

The QA issue has been a long-standing one. I’ve long been a proponent they should be paid just as much as other departments, and it should be treated as a long-term viable career path, not a way to move up and out. A skilled veteran QA tester is worth every dollar.

As for producers and production – the issues with production were largely in the earlier years, where the lack of training and mentoring (both in schools and on the job) prevents Producers from learning or being aware of the skills they need in their jobs every day vs. undergoing the school of Hard Knocks (which is a form of training, but often comes with too much negative reinforcement from their bosses). Design and designers had the same issue – when I first started, many companies didn’t even hire designers or recognise the title.

But for producers – I’ve worked with many developers who don’t have much respect for production. My only response is it means they likely haven’t worked with a good production team… a good producer isn’t there to check off boxes in a task list, enrol you in countless “what are you working on” meetings (which are even worse if they set up a tracking program for that already), bark orders at you, or just sort bugs – they are there to be detail-oriented, pro-active, see flaws you don’t in your process and help you with them, mitigate risk, and help the project overall. They are the people you can count on to take away the action items from a meeting, record and follow-up on decisions, and help the entire team move the project forward (among many other tasks).

For re-evaluating the in-office business model, I’ll start by saying that sharing, accessibility, and brainstorming (esp. during the pre-production and VS stages) in a pod or in an open office are good while you are establishing a game’s pillars and pre-production, but I’ve found that if a large part of your job is writing or designing (whether art, code, concepts), long periods of uninterrupted work to keep the flow going allows faster iteration. For me, freelancing has quadrupled the amount I could get done in an office, but again, a large part of that is control over one’s time, schedule, and resources – you know your schedule and what needs to get done, and the less impediments to that, the better.

Celebrate 15 years of games™ magazine, including the 10 Legends Of Our Lifetime, the gaming trends dissected and memories from former games™ staffers in games™ 194, on sale now

games™ 15th anniversary interviews – Chris Avellone, RPG writer extraordinaire