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Everyone's favorite RPG designer, Chris Avellone, has recently participated in a couple of insightful interviews. The one with RPGamer revolves around the “mercenary developer's” video game-making adventures since his departure from Obsidian Entertainment, his reasons for that departure, and his thoughts on the recently released isometric RPGs. An excerpt:
JS: I have read in interviews that it seems one of the reasons you left Obsidian was due to creative differences you had with management. First, is that correct? And if so, has going freelance helped to allowed you the creative freedom you desired?
CA: No, the departure was largely due to organizational and management aspects – not anything to do with the developers and folks who worked on the games. And please don't think this is somehow implying I'm a great manager, I'm not. I don't read tons of management books, I don't hang around with agents and business development reps, and I often feel lost around managers and CEOs because I don’t understand a lot of the jargon. In general, my management approach is more about establishing hierarchy, setting expectations, trusting people with the proper title and roles, giving consistent feedback (esp. positive feedback – which is more important when it isn't accompanied by negative feedback), don't play favorites or hire family/friends, and recognizing that if one doesn't have enough money and one doesn't have enough time to make a good game, figure out (1) how it got to that point so you don't repeat it, and (2) what can be done right now to fix both for the sake of a project – even if it means personal sacrifice of time, and your own funds to make a good game.
In terms of freedom, we did get a chance to work on a range of projects and pursue a few of our own IPs. But obviously, there’s things you are never able to do while full-time at a company, there are people you aren't allowed to work with, people you can no longer work with that got laid off, companies you can't collaborate with (pretty much almost all of them), and franchises you'll never be able to contribute to – including genres you can't contribute to, either, because that's not the studio expectation or specialty. Also, it was rare to have a chance to work with the same company twice (to completion), so it was difficult to build a lasting relationship.
Freelancing doesn't fix all these issues, but it fixes a lot of them — there's much more power over your responsibilities, how much you can affect change, the type of work you can choose and the expectations for that work, and a wide range of people, franchises, and genres you can work with. Not only have I worked on more projects in the last two years since going freelance, but I've learned more than I ever did in the last ten years as well. And even better, companies come back to you for more work because you did a good job for them the first time.
Again, I don't have a personal problem with devs at any place I've worked at – some of them I've worked with for over 15 years, and I remain in contact with many of them and see them frequently (sometimes out in the freelance world as well). I wish them all the best.
JS: How do you get involved with the projects you have been working on since going freelance? Do you reach out to companies, or do they contact you requesting your services?
CA: They all reached out to me, except for Prey, who reached out to me, I had to say no, and then I came back later and said, "so that project you mentioned," next thing I know, I'm on a plane to Austin, Texas and playing the early prototype for Prey.
But yeah, just about everyone else I can think of reached out to me, sometimes because we'd worked on something together in the past (FTL, which I worked on for free because I loved the game).
JS: Do you have any regrets going solo? Would you be open to joining another studio full-time again?
CA: Family matters preclude me from being able to join a studio full-time (it was much the same thing at the end of Obsidian, which fueled the departure). Although, honestly, while I've worked with a number of studios I admire, I'd rather try my hand at making my own first, although it'd be structured differently than most other game studios.
As for regrets going solo? None. If anything, I work with more people now than I did before, but the structure is clearer (hierarchy, responsibilities, titles, contractual awareness), and I get to choose my work based on what interests me. I'm a little disappointed in myself because I should have done it years ago. I was tempted to do it when I resigned from Black Isle (I got a very brief gig with Snowblind on Champions of Norrath, and that brief glimpse should have been a big neon sign that life's better on the other side).
It's my fault for being afraid, though, I think I had different expectations of what an owner was and also, I was too scared of not having the "standard trappings" of a job without realizing the drawbacks that come with that. In the digital age now, it's even more of a drawback, and I think it's more expensive for companies in the long run.
And then, SugarBombed has a spoiler-filled interview that takes a close look at the development of Arkane Studios' Prey, Chris Avellone's involvement in it, the game's ending, and the reception it got. A few sample paragraphs:
SB: What was the creative process for Prey like? Did you and lead designer Raphael Colontonio work together on the main narrative or did you work on separate aspects of the game? Any interesting/funny stories you can share?
CA: The main narrative had been established by Raphael and Ricardo (Bare) before I arrived, although they were accepting of feedback on it and were interested in my thoughts. My role was focused writing the NPC “narratives/short stories” throughout levels and the station, both with dialogue and visual storytelling – the way the process would work is Raphael and Ricardo would explain the layout of Talos I, the level flow, the NPC’s role on the level/levels and immediate threat/danger they presented, and then they let me script out the events, dialogue, and reactivity both in the introductory scene and throughout the game (esp. true with Mikhaila, Igwe, and “Will Mitchell”).
I don’t have much in the way of “funny” stories, except that Rich Wilson (Lead Level Designer) is to be given kudos for the Starbender Cycle books (which I would love to play as a Prey spin-off or a DLC like FarCry 3’s Blood Dragon), Steve Rogers (level designer) wrote a lot of great lore and NPC interactions and backstory that really helped me with Sarah Elazar and the history of the Prey universe among others, and lastly, I am sad I never got a chance to play with the neurotic sniper rifle, unfortunately.
Oh, one last thing – (spoiler) when I was playtesting and got sick of trying to save Telepath victims and started gunning them down, my murder spree came to a screeching halt when I heard a “cling” of an item dropping and discovered one of the victims I’d just murdered had dropped a wedding ring (inventory quest item). It immediately caused me to feel bad and reminded me that these people – yes, even though they were NPCs – once had lives, and didn’t deserve me murdering them. I still cite the “wedding ring” story as a simple, powerful way to remind a player of their place in the world, the NPCs’ place, and can even cause a switch in behavior – and it’s just an inventory item that tells a story and creates this effect. It’s so simple to add elements like that vs. “oh, he has a healing potion” or to tell a long expository story about the man’s marriage. The wedding ring does it. Easy to implement. Powerful. Perfect.
SB: Prey's attention to detailed fascinated me, the fact that every single person (dead or alive) had a name/background was amazing to me, along with all the hidden areas/secrets, computer logs/wall writing/audio logs, etc. Was there a concerted effort by the dev team and yourself to achieve this? And do you ever feel when working on a game that you spend too much time on little things people may never appreciate?
CA: Yes, it was a core principle in System Shock 1, and Prey wanted to maintain that feel – the employee roster (and where they are now in the station, and if they died, how they died and where) is a huge PDF Arkane made that allowed you to scroll through the station employees and broke the personnel down by departments and roles. I thought that was great (and great it was so thoroughly designed out). The dev team as a whole took steps to make sure the background of the station, the background of the Volunteers, TranStar’s economic pipeline (in humorous detail, with suitable iconography), and a detailed backstory of how the Typhon first made an impact on Earth was all laid out, and it made the universe feel coherent, and it made developing characters much easier when you have a foundation like that to work with.