Chris Avellone: Dark Knight
This is part two of our interview with Avellone; read part one here.
A Falling Out
By Torment’s release, BioWare had taken the reins as the world’s leading epic, story-focused RPG developer. Perhaps as a reaction to this, the final RPGs developed at Black Isle would take the genre in a more action-based direction. The first sign of this was 2000’s Icewind Dale. Eschewing Torment’s heavy emphasis on NPC interaction and non-linear stories, Icewind Dale was closer in structure to Diablo. For Avellone, fresh from Torment’s reams of dialogue and philosophising, the Icewind Dale games – he also worked on the expansions and the sequel – were immensely refreshing. “Icewind Dale 1, Heart Of Winter, Trials Of The Luremaster and Icewind Dale 2 were strangely liberating in that we had a good deal of freedom with areas and their content – you really felt like you owned each area you worked on.” The Icewind Dale games proved successful, but as Avellone notes, they haven’t developed the longevity seen with Fallout, Baldur’s Gate and Torment. “I’m going to be blunt,” he announces. “Icewind Dale was a fun series, but it didn’t try to set the bar for anything other than a fun romp. People may remember enjoying it, but it wasn’t trying to break any new ground or do anything revolutionary. In some respects, it was almost a step back from other games we’d done and focused more on exploration and dungeon crawls. I do think it had some of the most beautiful locations in any of our games, though.”
Avellone continued his work in the action-RPG genre with design roles on Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and the EverQuest-themed Champions Of Norrath. He also briefly worked as a senior designer on Baldur’s Gate 3 (cancelled in 2003) before taking his final role at Black Isle as lead designer on Fallout 3 (the early Van Buren version). “Before I left,” he explains, “we wanted to do two things with Fallout: reinvigorate the franchise and introduce a new RPG spin into RPG adversaries – capitalising on the prisoner’s dilemma theme, where you’re competing against a rival PC party. And we wanted to do a new type of game – something with our own tech and systems for once, rather than the Infinity Engine. When I left, it was only two-to-three months into pre-production. I was the only designer on it for a long time before Baldur’s Gate 3 was cancelled, and that team moved in en masse. I think there were some great RPG moments waiting to be born in that game, and I felt really passionate about it.”
Unfortunately, Brian Fargo (then Interplay’s CEO) left during Fallout 3’s development, and things started looking grim. “The company culture changed once Brian Fargo left,” Avellone sighs. “Whatever people could say negatively about Interplay under his guidance, he had a strong vision for where he wanted the company to go and he really put effort and playtime into Interplay’s games. The new guard displayed none of these qualities, and the company climate changed in unpleasant ways. When I resigned, they were more concerned about digging up dirt on other companies recruiting me – and bringing lawsuits against them – rather than figuring out the reasons people were leaving. When I tried to explain the issues with Baldur’s Gate 3, the HR director didn’t even seem to know what Baldur’s Gate 3 was – talk about fucked up! Baldur’s Gate 3 got cancelled because of an accounting error, and we lost the rights to the licence entirely. Having a project cancelled because the dev team is doing a shitty job is one thing, but having another department not check their math is something else.”
Most important to Avellone, though, was that Feargus Urquhart had resigned to form a new company. Once his boss and friend had abandoned ship, Avellone no longer had any desire to remain at Interplay. Obsidian Entertainment was born.
Not many new studios cut their teeth on sequels to multimillion-dollar successes, but Feargus Urquhart, now Obsidian’s CEO, was on very good terms with the right people. “Feargus and BioWare had a good relationship,” Avellone says. “They weren’t dating, but it sure felt like it sometimes. And BioWare put in a good word for us for LucasArts.”
As a result of BioWare’s support, Obsidian was given the opportunity to work on Knights Of The Old Republic II, and Avellone the chance to spearhead the project. He happily accepted the offer, having become a devout Knights fan in the interim: “I loved it. It made the Star Wars universe feel fresh again, I thought the story was good, I liked my companions, and I thought the idea of a psychotic C-3P0 was a brilliant idea.”
For the first time since 1999, Avellone was allowed to delve into the umbral philosophical territory he traversed in Torment. The resulting game was less a traditional Star Wars story – its similarities with the first Knights game were cosmetic at best – and more an exploration into the deeper meanings behind the space opera tropes George Lucas invented in the ’70s. “I saw it as an opportunity to vent some thoughts about the Force, Sith, Jedi, and more,” he adds. “And I thought it would be appropriate if we dropped hints about Darth Revan’s master plan, and maybe add some Babylon 5 feel to it. Did I mention I love Babylon 5? I do.”
While KOTORII’s story, characters, and improved morality system were praised, the game itself was generally regarded as a little rough-around-theedges. Bugs abounded, and it was obvious a significant amount of content had been cut before release. “We agreed to a tight schedule and delivered,” Avellone admits, “so it was on us. The game probably could have stood to cook for a few more months, but I should’ve been more responsible with the feature set. Looking back, I wish we’d cut minigames and one or two companions.”
Despite these shortcomings, BioWare liked KOTORII – and its sales figures – enough to entrust Obsidian with another franchise. This time, it would take Avellone back to where he once belonged: Dungeons & Dragons.
BioWare’s Neverwinter Nights, released in 2002, was an interesting game. It arrived in a time when the kind of epic, story-based RPGs on which BioWare had built its fortune had become thin on the ground. As such, NWN’s anaemic singleplayer campaign drew much less criticism than it might have if released against Torment. But a lot of this also had to do with the fact that NWN doubled as a robust RPG creator.
So when Obsidian took on NWN, it was faced with the task of having to, essentially, build two separate pieces of software – a singleplayer RPG as good as (or better than) KOTOR, and a user-friendly toolset that would incorporate all the modern graphical frills the engine was capable of. “We wanted to develop a proper sequel to Neverwinter Nights,” Avellone says, “and include more companions and more plot elements for an epic storyline. We wanted to update the visuals and the toolset.
“I know the word ‘epic’ is tossed around a lot nowadays, but that was truly one of the goals of NWN2. We wanted to present massive battles, give you the ability to outfit and defend your own stronghold, and make the consequences of failure high for both you and the Realms. We wanted the player to feel they were a major player in the fate of the Realms, and I think we succeeded.”
Avellone’s old Fallout 3 colleague, Josh Sawyer, took the lead design role. So this time, Avellone’s work consisted of “taking the character descriptions from [designers] Ferret Baudoin and John Lee, and then fleshing out all the global companion conversations, reactions and influence changes. Few characters changed from their initial premises with the possible exceptions of Grobnar and Sand, so if you liked the thematic spine of the characters, thank Ferret, not me.” Critics generally regarded the Obsidian singleplayer campaign as superior to BioWare’s. They were less kind, however, to the arcane toolset. “I think the editor could have been more user-friendly,” Avellone admits. “We erred on the side of exposing too much information to the player without proper guidance or help.”
Now Avellone is working on spy RPG Alpha Protocol for Sega. When we saw it in E190, he claimed Obsidian was getting better with every new game; if true, Avellone’s role in the modern RPG may reach even higher levels when it’s released later this year. Read more about Alpha Protocol in our preview feature here.