Backlog #1 – Q&A with Chris Avellone of Obsidian Entertainment

by Danny Kim 

With over 14 years of experience in the games industry, Chris Avellone is an industry veteran in every sense. Currently Creative Director and Chief Creative Officer at Obsidian Entertainment, he has played a role in shaping some of the most memorable experiences in gaming history, from the vast wastelands of Fallout 2 and Fallout: New Vegas to the countless lightsaber battles of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. In this interview, we sat down with him to pick his brains on game design and the gaming industry.

Danny Kim: Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your specific title(s) and position(s) at Obsidian Entertainment.

Chris Avellone: I’m Creative Director/Chief Creative Officer at Obsidian Entertainment. I’m involved with brainstorming and reviewing existing design content at the company, playing the builds, critiquing design documents, and assisting with the designer hiring and testing.

How did you first start working in the games industry?

I ended up working in the game industry by writing pen-and-paper game adventures in my spare time, and I was persistent enough to get them published. Once published, my boss then recommended me for a position at a game company based on his work experience with me (a positive one).

What artistic and technical background/skills do you have? How do they help you in your role as designer?

I have an Architecture minor and an English major. The Architecture minor is excellent for level design critiques and layouts in the studio as well as even building levels if I’m working on a project as a level designer. For my English degree, the skill in writing is a big help on a daily basis, and the literary curriculum at my college gave me exposure to a wide variety of writing styles and interesting themes that I could apply to video games.

What are your favorite and your least favorite/the most difficult aspects of your job? 

My favorite part is scripting characters, establishing their voice in the studio, and implementing more “narrative” elements into the game. The difficult aspects of the job are more technical – making sure the writing is translated correctly with the proper meanings, checking subtitles, and more of the grunt work involved with getting a lot of spoken text into a video game – the writing is perhaps the smallest part of the process. 🙂

Looking through your game credits, most of the games you have worked on are RPGs. What unique challenges does working on RPGs present? Are you naturally drawn to the RPG genre? Are you interested in working on games of other genres, such as FPSes?

I’ve always enjoyed role-playing games, and it’s what I spent my off-hours doing when I was growing up. If I wasn’t doing it as a career, I’d be doing it as a hobby for fun, and I think that’s a great criteria for a job. As for working in other genres, every genre is starting to introduce RPG aspects, so there are hybrids out there already – in short, RPGs can fit into any genre, and if there’s RPG elements, I want to be involved. 

Does being cofounder, co-owner, and CCO at Obsidian affect how you think and work as a designer? How is it different, if at all, from just being a designer? Please explain.  

You’re more aware of the pipeline, marketing, and production limitations of the project as well as the contractual elements. That bleeds into your work and makes you more aware of the logistics of what you’re doing – this isn’t a bad thing, but it does put a different perspective on your writing, making it more a job and contract fulfillment.

What is the most critical skill/ability for a game designer? Why?

This is tough, since the qualities apply to almost any employee: Initiative, willingness to adapt in an industry that changes very fast, collaborative personality (it’s a rare to develop a game by yourself), willingness to test and iterate, awareness of current and past game titles and mechanics, and some passion for one of the principal design specialties: technical, interface, systems, narrative, or level design. The list can be much longer, but that’s off the top of my head.

How do you resolve creative disputes during the game development process? Please provide an example scenario.

We simply discuss it. When a conflict arises between two people of the same level, then their superior breaks the tie. It rarely comes to this as long as the hierarchy is well-established and everyone is aware of who has the final say. For example, if a conflict arises with a mission in a game, and the Systems Designer, Level Designer, and Narrative Designer disagree, the systems designer is the one who can make the call over the others because they are in charge of moment-to-moment gameplay. After that, the level designer is the next highest because they take the systems and put them in the context of a level – last on the totem pole is the narrative designer, whose job it is to give context to the level in the larger world.

Please give us an idea of what your typical workday is like, when you get to work, what you do and when, and so on. How does this change during/around crunch time? 

9:30 Get into work.

10-12 Meetings, organize email, prep for the afternoon.

12-1 Lunch

12-7 Meetings, review documents, review the builds, publisher calls.

7+ Do creative quiet tasks if needed.

We actively work on preventing crunch time at the studio when possible, and unless a publisher forces us to (which they can), we don’t ever request people work on weekends, either.

As a writer, how do you overcome creative blocks?

Creative blocks can be killed by:

– Caffeine.

– Switching mental gears (going for a walk and getting away from the screen, or looking or reading a magazine you would not normally read).

– Reviewing your old brainstorming file for old ideas.

– Playing the game you’re working on.

– Going into the editor and fixing bugs or reviewing work you’ve done.

Usually, I found these can help prevent creative congestion.

What are your thoughts on the PC-console “rift”? Are you a “PC gamer” or a “console gamer”? How do the differences between the platforms affect the design process if at all?

I am both. It affects the design process mostly in terms of controls (each has a limited number of controls per platform) and memory management (memory and lag on a console needs to be carefully monitored to prevent the game content from slowing down the game).

If you start in the industry all over again, what would you do differently?

Nothing. If I had to think of something, I’d probably try to pick up a little programming, but to be honest, the industry changes so fast, I feel I lucked out by making the right choices at the outset (writing degree, architecture degree, spent a lot of time gamemastering to players and writing adventures, reading a lot for a good literary foundation, and doodling and drawing maps, people, and places whenever I could).

How has the games industry changed since its early years? How has your job changed with it?

It’s become more specialized – back when I was in High School, game designer and game programmer were the same thing. Then, 10 yrs later, “designer” became a career path… now the “designer” role is more specialized: technical, interface, systems, narrative, or level designer, and this is true for all fields (animation, concept art, environment art, character art, etc.). This has changed my job and caused me to narrow my focus on character scripting, more attention to voice-acting and Hollywood-style brevity, and more awareness of how the game can be translated into other languages.

You’ve seen franchises you’ve worked on handled by others (e.g. Fallout) and worked on franchises started by others (e.g. KOTOR). How does it feel to experience the former, and what unique challenges are presented by the latter? 

The experience is fine – when you work in the industry, I don’t expect any franchise I work on to be mine forever. When working in someone else’s franchise, though, it’s important to be aware of it and respectful of its contents… take time to learn the license, read all the source material, etc. and that generally helps your designs and the approval process with the publisher.

How do you think the games industry will change in the next 5 years? How do you think this will affect you?

 

I think the industry is steadily moving toward a Star Trek holodeck-style interface… although jacking in with a plug so you don’t have to exert yourself might be more plausible. Maybe not in the next 5 years, but total, complete visual and audio immersion is what the game industry is heading toward.

As an industry veteran, what are your thoughts on video game piracy and how has video game piracy affected you, if at all?

It’s hurt sales, but depending on how you sell and design your product, you can use that to prevent folks from pirating or selling a game back to Gamestop by adding DLC and also increasing its replay value.

How often do you play video games? How do games you play affect you in the development process of one of your own games?

About once a week, and as I do, I’m critiquing all the elements of it almost constantly to see what works and what doesn’t. If there’s an idea or feature that could apply to one of our games, I keep it in mind.

What is your favorite video game (not a game you’ve worked on)? Why?

There’s a bunch. If I had two it would be (1) Wasteland for the unique character building system and the world design, and (2) System Shock 2 literally for almost everything – skill trees, enemy design and pacing, mood, and level design.

Of the games you have worked on, which one are you the most proud of, and why?

Planescape: Torment because it moved beyond traditional narratives and was able to include philosophy and new perspectives on existing RPG themes and cliches.

What words of advice do you have for aspiring game designers?

I have a lot:

First off, if you’re interested in story and world creation, I would recommend trying to get established in the pen and paper game industry or in books or novels – game design requires a love of game mechanics, lists, and tons upon tons of rule sets. If you’re interested in computer game designing, then here’s what we look for/what you should focus on:

1. A love of RPGs.

2. A critical eye for RPGs (and preferably, other games as well), including feel, interface, pacing, weapon balance, level design, and so on. Play a lot of them and be able to tell what you like and don’t about each game. The more specific, the better.

3. Good design skills – not only do you notice the elements mentioned above, but you can also implement them well. Know and recognize game clichés.

4. Good writing skills – when not actually arguing and throwing feces at each other through our cage bars, a large portion of a game designer’s job is design documentation or writing 5000 emails. That means you need good technical writing skills and an ability to organize your thoughts. You need to be able to pass a document off to audio, QA, marketing, the programming staff, and an artist, and they should be able to find out whatever information they need just by looking at the document.

If you want to prep for a job in the game design field, I’d suggest the following:

1. Play a lot of games and analyze what you like and don’t like about them. If you interview for a game company, that’ll always be part of the interview questions, and having smart answers ready beforehand helps them determine if you’ll be a good developer or not.

2. You should play a lot of games, but just as importantly, watch a lot of other people play games. Pay attention to how the game is played, especially the interface and menus and the means by which the player interacts with the game. When you do, you’ll quickly start seeing what irritates players and what they enjoy – keep a running log in your head of successful ideas used in games and what made them work.

3. If a game comes with level or map editors, play around with them, try out levels or scenarios with your friends and use that as an acid test for your work. There are tons of editors out there, like the level editors for Oblivion, Fallout, Dragon Age, Warcraft, Neverwinter Nights, or any others you can get your hands on. Put your levels or mods up on the net, get critiques, and try to make a name for yourself as a good level or map designer before you even go to a game company – it helps when the interviewer’s already seen your work on the internet and perhaps even played one of your levels.

4. Persistence and enthusiasm mean a lot in the game industry, so if you get knocked down once, just get back up and try again. You’ll get noticed.

5. If you’re looking for college classes to take, I’d suggest some programming courses and creative writing courses, maybe a little bit of art, and any classes that deal with interface design or layout for computer programs. Learn how to write critically and technically, and become familiar with Microsoft Word. Programming classes are a bonus because it helps designers understand how computers “think,” and gives them better avenues of communication with programmers in general.

6. Game development is a very team-oriented process, so we’d also recommend taking as many college classes as possible that reinforce teamwork and communication (or if not in college, finding the opportunity to work with teams). If you have difficulty with working in teams or communication, your job in game development will end up being more difficult for both you and the people you work with.

7. A lot of designers did not start out as designers. If you want a door into the game industry, try manual writing, web design, quality assurance, or any of a bunch of other jobs in the game industry. Make your interest in becoming a designer known, and if you have the skills, somebody should give you a chance.

Then there’s the application process. A lot of this information you can find on the web, but it can’t hurt to stress it a little more:

  1. Always include a cover letter with your résumé.
  1. Spell-check and proofread anything you submit.  Ask your friends to look over your cover letter and resume, too. We have rejected numerous applicants because they don’t proof their work – in the game industry, that kind of attitude creates bugs and makes people mad.
  1. Research the company to which you are applying.  If possible address your cover letter to the specific person who will be reading it.  Customize your résumé and cover letter to suit that company and the position to which you are applying. You don’t have to know everything about the company, but know enough so you speak intelligently about what they do and why you’re interested.
  1. Carefully read and follow the company’s submission criteria.  For example, if they ask for a writing sample, be sure to include one. Again, we have rejected numerous applicants because they can’t follow directions, which again, is a bad thing in game development, since it causes bugs and makes people mad.
  1. Touch base with your references before you give their contact information out. Sometimes relationships sour – or dim with perspective. Or, in some cases, aren’t even there anymore.

In any event, hope this helps. Good luck!

Chris Avellone maintains a blog. You can also check out Obsidian Entertainment’s website.

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