E3 2010: Chris Avellone Interview

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If you've never been to E3, let me just say that it's jam-packed with craziness - and lots of people. My very first appointment of the day was with Fallout: New Vegas, and Chris and I had talked about doing an interview afterward. Considering that the Bethesda booth was literally shoulder-to-shoulder by the time my hands-on time with Fallout: New Vegas had concluded, I honestly didn't expect Mr. Avellone to find time for a Q&A in between demonstrations. But he did, and so I very quickly covered a handful of subjects on both FNV and Alpha Protocol with the long-time RPG designer. Our conversation to follow:

GB: What would you say your primary goals were when approaching Fallout: New Vegas after the success of Fallout 3? What did you come in wanting to build upon and change, primarily?

Chris: To be fair, I came on Fallout about halfway through the project, so the goals were established by Josh Sawyer and our art director Joe Sanabria. But there were some key ingredients that made everything recognizable. One of the parameters for our project was that the game had to take place in the Western part of the United States. We were trying to figure out what city represented the Western half of the United States best, and so: Las Vegas.

It seemed a good fit. The design staff got excited about things to do in Vegas, the art staff got excited about the color and lighting schemes you could play around with in Vegas with signage, casino themes, and more. There were elements we wanted to tweak from Fallout 3 (some weapon skills, skill breakdowns, some system changes, more weapons, more things you can do to weapons) but we wanted to leave the Fallout 3 aspects people loved, including the open world exploration, which we felt was key to any Fallout title. We thought that we could add some of Obsidian's strengths on top of the title (expanded companion range, new ways of interacting with them, personal quests), and bring the things we enjoyed about Fallout 1, 2, and 3 to New Vegas.

GB: I saw in the demo that the game has a lot of new weapons. Named weapons were quite popular in Fallout 3 - are you implementing those in New Vegas, too?

Chris: Yes. At the least they'll have a new texture, and some have unique models.

GB: So what kind of modifications will we be able to add to a weapon?

Chris: Scopes, expanded magazines, mods for greater rate of fire, and more.

GB: Can we customize the unique named weapons to make them even more powerful?

Chris: No, they are great all by themselves.

GB: Will we be able to add modifications to any other items?

Chris: No.

GB: Where does New Vegas fall in the Fallout timeline?

Chris: It takes place 40 years after Fallout 2 and four years after Fallout 3.

GB: What made you choose that particular timeframe?

Chris: I believe we initially proposed New Vegas to take place before Fallout 3, and it was decided that we should be after Fallout 3.

GB: Will we see any cameo appearances from Fallout 1 or 2, or will we come across descendants of characters we've met in previous Fallouts? Anyone at all that we'll recognize, anyway?

Chris: If you haven't played Fallout 1 and 2 and you play New Vegas, you'll enjoy it and won't miss anything. If you have played Fallout 1 and 2, there are things that you will hear and see that you'll recognize from previous games and draw a connection to.

GB: We'll obviously be picking our character's skill tags, and I've read that they will have more of an effect on the game than just a skill boost. Can you elaborate on that?

Chris: As with the GOAT test in F3, you'll get a Q&A with Doc Mitchell in Goodsprings at the beginning of the game, and your answers will "suggest" tag skills to take. Like the GOAT test, you don't need to take the suggested skills, you can still choose whatever you want. And you can also re-choose your Tag Skills once you leave Goodsprings if you don't like your choices.

However, we made a conscious effort that (1) every weapon skill had a low level version so you didn't have to wait a long time to get energy weapons, which was a mistake we'd made in previous Fallouts, (2) you can do a lot more with skills you wouldn't expect, notably in conversations. In my opinion, some of the best conversation options you get in the game are Barter ones, when you start using economic arguments to solve quests or convince people of the wisdom of your choices. You should see an almost immediate use for all your skills in Goodsprings and onwards, it was a design mandate.

GB: Have you seen Interplay's Fallout Online? What's your take on that?

Chris: I haven't seen much of it. I know some designers from Fallout 1 are working on it (Chris Taylor, Mark O' Green), and I like those guys, so I have high hopes.
GB: Switching gears to Alpha Protocol, what are your thoughts on the reviews? They've kind of been all over the place. Some people are criticizing the technical polish and shooting elements, but then others are happily praising the RPG elements, the dialogue, the storyline, or the reputation system. Do you think some people just aren't (getting) the depth of the game?

Chris: If you know nothing about the game when you pick it up, it looks like a shooter, which is part of the problem - it doesn't naturally sell itself as an RPG at first glance, so you're fighting expectations there. I think people who enjoy RPGs found Alpha Protocol fun and recognized conventions they were familiar with (or ones they saw in new ways), I think people who enjoyed shooters found it more frustrating because of the RPG mechanics, which is fair.

GB: During the game's nine-month delay, was there anything that you guys were busy tweaking or were you pretty much hands-off at that point?

Chris: I was off the title in October 2009. Last I heard from SEGA, the delay was due to a marketing decision.

GB: I personally have never been a big fan of Mass Effect, and despite the original having a great storyline, I'd play Alpha Protocol any day over it. To me, Mass Effect put the RPG elements in the background and the shooting elements in the foreground, and Alpha Protocol did just the opposite. Alpha Protocol is more about coming up with a build for your character, purchasing the right intel for the missions, modifying your gear for the effect you're trying to achieve, and that type of thing. I just feel like a lot of people missed the point.

Chris: We tried to bring RPG mechanics from intel, rep, and all the way down to your inventory selections, and I really enjoyed going into my inventory and customizing my gear, weapons, and mods down to the type of character I was playing (in my Suave playthrough, I consciously chose weapons and mods that did less damage over silence and accuracy of shots, and I was glad I could customize my weapons accordingly and play around with the advantages and disadvantages). My loadout actually complimented my character in terms of the equipment's advantages and drawbacks.

GB: Based on the reception the game has received, is there anything you would have done differently if you could go back?

Chris: If I could go back and start on the project from the outset? Sure, absolutely - and don't take anything I say as this would somehow magically be a better game, it would just be different, and most likely have other things people hated about it. Anyway, I'd make a spy version of Kill Bill (if it had to be a spy game at all and not just a real world RPG title, which would be great), change the main character to not be a set character, screw the realism and focus on the fantastic, add more mission reactivity between missions and between cities, change the mission structure to the honeycomb mission structure our Systems Designer proposed 2 years in (and what our Exec Producer originally wanted), remove cinematic conversations, screw trying to compete with other stealth or shooter games that have already mastered those areas and look for ways to make the player feel like spies in other ways - again, assuming a spy game is what you'd want to do with a real-world RPG at all.

But that's all fantasy and wishful thinking, and again, it's easy to say that, and it would have most likely resulted in something else that people liked and disliked for different reasons. If I could go back to when I started mid-way through the project and was in the same situation? No, for logistical reasons. I'm sure the other leads felt the same way and so did our Project Director (who became Project Director at this time), and our Project Director who took on the role at this time saved this game from cancellation - or worse. We had a team that was low on morale, that felt like they didn't own the work they were doing (if you keep trading areas and design elements every other month, you can't focus on carrying something to completion), who were on the tides of iteration, and being able to go in there, give people ownership of interface, systems, an area, a Hub, make decisions, add more RPG elements, add more reactivity, restore focus and get rid of the blockages that were keeping people from moving ahead with work was satisfying. It took a while, and it was tough, and some of the decisions weren't ideal, but you can't always be in a perfect situation with development, so you do what you can. We had little to no time to redo anims, redo character models, redo locations from previous iterations, so we did what we could with what he had, and it made sense to us for the time frame (even when the time frame kept changing, we had no clue the release date would be what it became, and we didn't work toward that release date).

I'm proud of what we did during that time to help get the project going, organize the design staff, kill a lot of problems, and try to use what assets, locations, and story elements we had to work with to make a game that worked and took RPG elements in a new direction.

GB: What are the odds that we'll see an Alpha Protocol 2?

Chris: Don't know, I imagine if the sales were strong enough, SEGA might want to do a sequel, whether with us or someone else.

At that point, a knock on the interview room's door brought our conversation to a close. After expressing my appreciation, I headed off to my next appointment while Chris returned to the enormous crowd impatiently awaiting another demonstration.