Chris Avellone talks RPG design
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[F8L] tekadept 7th Aug 2014

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Ever wondered what it takes to build games based on iconic properties? How do you stay grounded to that concept?

We sat down with the cake-loving, potato-signing Chris Avellone at this years AVCon to ask exactly that. Chris is responsible for some of the industry’s most live properties, including Fallout and Forgotten Realms, as well as being lead designer for the acclaimedPlanescape: Torment.

“It’s a difficult process,” says Chris as we sit down privately in one of AVCon’s halls. “What we try and do is make sure that we’re correctly breaking down the themes of what made each of those properties what it was, because usually that’s what everyone responded to.”

“So for example, when we were doing Torment: Tides of Numenera (the Kickstarter-powered spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment) we were like ‘well okay, lets break down all the themes that made Planescape: Torment what it was, and what people responded to’. Well they really appreciated the depth of companion interaction. They really appreciated the large focus on narrative and the amount of narrative there was which didn’t turn off Planescape players, they really enjoyed that, that is what they loved about that game.”

“They liked more metaphysical questions, they liked the idea that a lot of your quest experience was done through narrative acts rather than murdering people. They liked all those options. Now there’s many other thematic elements to it, but being able to break those down and go ‘Okay, well these are the themes that made the game what it was and we need to be cognisant that what we’re doing in making a successor to it — or in Wasteland‘s case a sequel to it — is that we respect those elements’.

Laying the right foundations

Every word Chris speaks is fuelled with an obvious passion for gaming. He takes a deep breath before speaking about Wasteland 2, the predecessor of which is considered the entire reason the Fallout universe came into being.

“During the vision document for Wasteland 2, that pretty much was breaking down all the original themes from the first game,” says Avellone. “Like ‘hey, we need to have reactivity chains, people really appreciated that the world responded in these particular and complex ways and kept responding over time. They liked that one of the big tactical advantages was the ability to completely split up your party. The whole feel of being able to go out and do acts of justice in the wasteland, like being a desert ranger, that’s an important part of being in the world of Wasteland.”

“Having all those elements present in your initial design and preproduction, and then using that to guide the book ends for your area design, for your narrative, getting that all squared away before you start adding a lot of people into your project and start developing it, that’s kind of the approach that you want to use.”

“One of the best ways I’ve seen it done was actually done for Knights of the Old Republic, and I heard this second hand so I can’t quote them, you know I wasn’t there for the perspective on it, but what they did was they all sat in a room as I understand it and were like ‘What makes Star Wars Star Wars?’.”

“They just had a big board. They wrote down, you know okay the droids, like the R2D2 feel, like the idea of fighting an evil empire and they broke down all those individual elements and were like ‘you know what, here’s what we should incorporate into Knights of the Old Republicto make it feel like a Star Wars game’. And my belief is they fucking knocked it out of the park. They got everything just nailed down.”

“But just being able to sit down and recognise all those common themes and elements and take them as your game pillars, and you just go from there… that’s the direction you want to use.”

On old and new-school RPG design

We take a quick water break, during which I asked Chris about the difficulties in bringing old school RPGs to a modern setting, and where the perks and flaws of the generations lie.

“One of the biggest flaws I think in the older generation of RPGs is the reliance on die rolls for a lot of the decision making. Like when a player invests a certain amount of time and experience into a certain character type you want to be careful how much randomness you throw into that. If you have created a really high speech character and you’re not really good at anything else as a result and potentially 5% probability could prevent you from having the best speech solution in a narrative then suddenly I don’t know if you’re being entertained or you’re being robbed by your decisions.”

“So sometimes you have to be careful about how much randomness you throw into a situation. I think that old school RPGs probably went too far in that direction including during character creation where people would just sit all day and try to randomly roll the best character.”

“One thing I think the older RPGs did well was not quite so much handholding with quests. Which while can be frustrating at times, gives you a greater sense of accomplishment once you figure things out. With newer RPGs the handholding of quests sometimes feels like ‘I’m going exactly from point A to point B and I know exactly who to talk to and where they are at any time of the day’ Where’s the thrill of adventure anymore?”

“Do I really feel that satisfied that I knew that straight lined path to that particular next objective? I mean I guess it’s convenient, but is that really all that challenging? One thing that was really good about the older Ultima games was that ‘hey I’ve gotta go find this dude, I wonder where he is… is he somewhere in that town? I’ve gotta go exploring’ and that’s great, I love that.”

“The other thing that’s kind of a double edged concern is that I do like prose writing for a lot of the older RPG’s so that the player can imagine more about the character they are talking to, but with newer RPGs I can’t dispute the fact that a voice actor can deliver a lot more emotion in a line even if you’re not imagining what they are saying.”

“So I think both methods can work, and I’ve seen both methods work better than the other so I think I’m still undecided on that even though I personally prefer prose writing… although I can see instances where the voice acting totally and completely made a scene far better than the words ever could have.”

Last Edit: 7th Aug 2014 by tekadept
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