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From Torment to Eternity: Chris Avellone on RPGs
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From Torment to Eternity: Chris Avellone on RPGs

November 30, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

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].

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Thomas Happ
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I hadn't been aware that the Planescape: Torment designer was also on KoToR 2 and New Vegas. I own the former but never played it past the intro. I'm going to need to dig up his mobygames info . . .

Anyway, I just wanted to say that I sorta miss the "wall o' text" method of dialogue in games, as in Torment. Not to say that it's what I want in EVERY game, but it definitely added a certain cerebral element that you don't see too much anymore.

Bart Stewart
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"Usually I find that anything that changes the AI state of enemies is what generates the best stories."

Amen to that.

Some of the most fun I've had in CRPGs -- usually first-person 3D games -- has come from developers giving NPCs some ways to perceive aspects of their local environment and take some plausible action in response to that stimulus.

Sometimes that's passive. One example would be The Witcher, where villagers would scurry under cover when it started to rain... and then talk to each other about the rain. It's remarkable how much more alive the world seemed from that one feature. Another example can be seen in Skyrim: guards race to the scene when a dragon attacks a village (admittedly only one you happen to be near, but still). Afterwards, when you absorb the dragon's soul, they acknowledge their awareness of this event. Eventually that comes to feel scripted, rather than spontaneous. But it's a step in the direction of letting NPCs perceive and react to events in their world, and that's a Good Thing.

Sometimes the interaction between NPC and world is active, where I get to do something that changes the environment and then an NPC can react to that change in an interesting way. A simple example of this is in the original System Shock -- destroying security cameras (and CPU nodes) causes SHODAN to lift restrictions on useful objects like power stations. She also reacts verbally -- it's also scripted, just like GLaDOS commenting when she "sees" that you've completed a test chamber, but it still feels like environmental awareness because it's not repeated identically.

Maybe my favorite example of causing NPCs to detect an environmental change and react accordingly, though, was in DOOM. I never, ever got tired of luring cacodemons, soldiers and even other imps into the path of an oncoming fireball, then watching the damaged critter and the imp tear into each other. Why haven't more games borrowed this tactical perception/response mechanic?

A very, very few games offer both modes. The Sims comes to mind: they'll react to the quality of objects in each room of a house (sort of passive), but they'll also react to changes you cause to happen, like denying one Sim a bathroom and causing another to react in disgust at the ensuing "accident."

Where are the games that make a virtue of these behaviors? Where are the games whose worlds are highly interactive and whose NPCs can use those interactions, too?

Finally, since this interview emphasized narrative design, it's worth noting that *talking to people* is a perfectly valid way of actively changing a character's internal state. If I tell some NPC "I hate you" (or "I love you"), why shouldn't that cause them to express different -- and, one hopes, reasonably plausible -- behaviors?

Not every game needs to be a dating sim. But a game intended to be a world full of people who sort of act like people... wouldn't a little more emotional perceptiveness be satisfying?

Joshua Kahelin
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I enjoyed the epic dialog boss battles in Torment. Getting through those formidable walls-o-text was a real accomplishment and I'd argue was every bit as satisfying as dealing the final death blow to the grand foozle in any other given CRPG.

Michael DeFazio
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Kudos to Obsidian for running a very effective Kickstarter. (pre and post donation)

As a consumer, I have been overjoyed with the amount of communication between the dev team and the "donors"... (Not too little information, not too much, but just interesting bi-weekly nuggets to keep me interested and informed, but nothing too "spoilerish"...)

Interviews like this are also great to get the word out (for those who were interested... but never pulled the trigger on donating). Truth be told, I'm having a hard time trying to keep my expectations in check because everything I've seen with Project Eternity (and Wasteland 2) have me all amped up.

Bertrand Augereau
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I love what you do, Chris, but don't try to convince the hardcore RPG fans that we want a standard fantasy setting. We know this is a necessary evil to make the funding happen :)

Ramon Carroll
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I'm sure that there are many hardcore RPG fans that still appreciate a standard fantasy setting, even in a new game. I'd like to think that I'm not alone here.

Ben Strother
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I have to disagree with Bertrand Augereau. I on the other hand, am weary of all the RPGs that try so hard to be "edgy" or "hip" and end up making the setting far too modern for my tastes. At least a traditional fantasy setting has medieval elements and feels like an entirely different time period than today.

I backed the kickstarter, and I am happily awaiting another fine game from Obsidian.

Bertrand Augereau
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Is Torment "edgy" or "hip" in any way or just "more interesting than vanilla Forgotten Realms" stuff?

Luis Guimaraes
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"anything that changes the AI state of enemies is what generates the best stories."
"anything that changes the AI state of enemies is what generates the best stories."
"anything that changes the AI state of enemies is what generates the best stories."
"anything that changes the AI state of enemies is what generates the best stories."
"anything that changes the AI state of enemies is what generates the best stories."

Ben Strother
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In reply to
"Is Torment "edgy" or "hip" in any way or just "more interesting than vanilla Forgotten Realms" stuff?"

I loved Planescape Torment, but a big part of that is because it was unique, what other game is focused on philosophers with clubs? If every RPG was like Torment, that would get old too I think.

Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, and Neverwinter Nights were all great games set in the Forgotten Realms, but they are at least ten years old and we need new ones for this generation of games.

I think there is still room for both the shadowrun. steampunk or warhammer 40K type of fantasy and the traditional medieval and Arthurian fantasy, but I am sad when all I can find in new RPGs are anti-heroes like the Witcher or God of War in a setting that is more recognizable as our own modern one than anything traditional. I'm tired of the dark brooder that only saves the world because he has nothing better to do. I want old school heroes like Aragorn or Perceval.

Bart Stewart
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On heroic vs. non-heroic (or anti-heroic), it seems cyclical.

The gritty anti-heroes of the early '70s like Dirty Harry gave way to more traditional heroes by the late '70s and '80s like Luke Skywalker.

Something similar (on the non-heroic side of the curve) might be happening with RPGs now.

Ramon Carroll
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I think its best whenever we have books, movies, and games that include both types of hero archetypes, because watching how they interact and conflict with each other can be pretty interesting, like a paladin/rogue duo. Some of the best plots tend to do this, in my opinion.

Douglas Scheinberg
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I guess that party-based combat on a console works better if it's more turn-based, like in a JRPG. (I honestly think that the Dragon Quest series has a better battle system than, say, Dragon Age.)

Jeanne Burch
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"I think comic book writing lends itself to training you to write dialogue for games..."

This comment made me happy. For the past couple of years, I've been teaching typography to gaming students at my university. One of the things I do is bring in some original art boards I have of the old Silver Sable comics, pass them around the class, and ask the students to look at how the conversations are broken up in the word balloons. Even if one person is talking, the comments are split across several panels. That, I tell them, is how to avoid the Wall of Text in their video games; think of writing for a comic book. Nice to have a professional in the field say something similar!