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Chris Avellone, Game Designer

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Chris Avellone, Game Designer

Interview - posted by VentilatorOfDoom on Wed 3 November 2010, 16:26:09

Tags: Chris Avellone; Obsidian Entertainment

Something awesome happened, for the very first time someone interviewed Codex' favorite cRPG developer Magnificent Chris Avellone and asked him about his lifestory.

The story of your rise from humble teenage dungeonmaster to one of the most respected writers in the history of video games has become something of industry lore. What other early experiences do you think shaped you as a writer and guided you to the path you’re on now?

Respect” and “dungeonmaster” are two words I never thought I’d see in the same sentence in any publication, so your question has fulfilled one of my lifetime goals. As for respect, you’re usually being reviled by either your players (even as they ask when the next session is going to be, sometimes with veiled threats) or the community at large in high school, college, or in the working world, and your dating pool slowly and surely shrinks to the radius of a Lilliputian dime.

The early inspirations aren’t terribly praise-worthy. They were the twin muses of loneliness and starvation. Aside from being lonely, the biggest motivation was not having enough people willing to gamemaster a game in my neighborhood; everyone was always up for playing role-playing games, no one would ever run a game, however.

Adding insult to injury, sometimes players wouldn’t stop at not running games, they couldn’t even be bothered to flesh out their disadvantages for their character build so I had to wing those. Guess what? They didn’t like that. Guess what? Finish your character sheets next time and maybe you won’t be attacked by multiple Mysterious Hunteds at once, Captain Lazyass.

In short, I was a starving artist in the sense that I was starved for playing RPGs. If I wanted a fix, I had to run game sessions myself-drawing the maps, setting up the cinematics (we had opening vignettes to set the stage), detailing out the characters, and sometimes even drawing the characters (superhero RPGs). Oh, and all the accounting work that came after each session to dole out Experience Points.

Still, here’s why I advocate gamemastering as a training tool for game designers: one, you get immediate, direct feedback as to why your adventure sucks and why your players aren’t having fun. Two, you have to start training yourself to be prepared for any direction your players might end up taking (which is a lot like normal computer game development). Third, you start training yourself to pay attention to each character’s build, motivation for playing, and their skill sets. And you begin to look for ways to make them shine during the adventure, which again translates directly into game development (and it’s one of the things that Fallout does really well).

And another tidbit, on everyone's favorite Sith-Lord:

Tell us about your approach to creating characters. Do you take inspiration from life, or other media? How do you build quests organically from the characters you create?

When I design characters, I usually approach it in the following way (I’ll use Kreia in Knights of the Old Republic II for this example).

–Examine their role in the story. Kreia in KOTORII serves multiple purposes: companion, foil, and a means of acting as a sounding board for the game theme (the role of the Jedi and the nature of the Force in a living galaxy).

–Name them properly. This is more important than it may seem. Kreia, for example, was consciously intended as a twist on Leia with a harsher prefix-she basically acts as an ally as Leia does in Star Wars, but her life before she met you was…well…brutal.

–Set up a visual signature for the character with the concept artist. Kreia blends elements of the wise mentor (Obi-Wan’s robe) mixed with the Dark Side elements (Palpatine’s hood design).

–The character must be someone who can give voice to shit that bothers me or is something I really, really want to write about. Kreia is my mouthpiece for everything I hate about the Force, and then I let her rant.

Note that character designs all depend on the character’s function. Sometimes having a one-note or zero-note character is important to help show the contrast of a more important character in the same environment-and sometimes, a merchant should just be a merchant. At other times, you’ll want an NPC to showcase a particular aspect of the world…for example, in Fallout 3 in Megaton, the character of Nathan is clearly set up to portray how the common people of Fallout might fall under sway of President Eden’s propaganda, and that’s part of Nathan’s role in the story.

Overall, I prefer having a smaller cast and finding ways to ditch one-note or zero-note characters and just make the smaller cast more reactive (like in Alpha Brotocol).

Spotted at: GB

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