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Chris Avellone's departure from Obsidian Entertainment, a company he co-founded back in 2003, was one of the most notable RPG-related news of 2015. For a long time we had no idea of what exactly provoked the split, but finally the man himself decided to offer a few comments as part of an interesting interview with GameInformer. It's still not clear what exactly went on behind the scenes, but Avellone offers at least a number of factoids and different perspectives on his time at Obsidian and his current freelance position.
I'd be very careful on drawing conclusions based on this answer, but it's still worth reporting:
Your shift away from Obsidian came as a surprise to many. You were a founder, after all. Can you speak on how that came about and why?
I was indeed one of the founders. I'm still surprised I got the opportunity, and I'm grateful to Obsidian for it.
There's a few things to say here, none of it negative or scandalous or sensationlist, just food for thought. I want to make cool games of any size, any genre with cool people. Anything else (example: money, the best company car) is not important to me. I still think back fondly working with Subset Games, for example. Low ego, high humility, and I loved working on FTL. And I did it for free because I loved it so much. Guess what? I look back on it, and my soul is happy. Perfect.
Obsidian had cool people, but there were a lot of projects that Obsidian wouldn't consider or couldn't consider both internally and externally. There were even ones that Obsidian didn't know it couldn't do, some of which I discovered to my surprise after my departure (hypothetically, something with "Old" and "Republic" in the title). Hey now I know, but I never would have known otherwise.
My role was often a question mark, one that I attempted to get answered a few times. I've said this before in other interviews, but while creative director can give a lot of advice and thoughts, they may not have any decision making power at a company - they can't enforce a design philosophy or even tell any other employee what to do, even project directors and lead designers. I don't think this is unusual, but I don't know how the role is at other companies yet. It's certainly different at Larian, where the position has an incredible amount of authority, and it definitely shows on Divinity: Original Sin II.
So while in the role, I found it was easier to take on a specific role on a studio project instead to achieve definition (creative lead, project director, lead designer) or fill in when another employee departs (which was more common). As an example: I was asked to fill in as lead designer on Alpha Protocol when the previous lead departed - the reason for this was because there was no one else to fill the role, and as Alpha Protocol proved, the role and its place in the hierarchy (answering to the Alpha Protocol project director, Chris Parker) couldn't be left vacant.
Most creative director vision came from codifying the philosophy of all the owners, including management practices for achieving that vision and trying to ensure it was being followed and championed. You can't enforce it, though you usually need to ask someone else to, but that's the job. It is a collaborative effort, and it often requires asking a lot of questions so that the design philosophy can be agreed upon, since anything else is confusing for the employees, and there's nothing worse than two owners telling an employee different things. It can snap a brain in half. And that is a very expensive medical bill.
So I don't know if enforcing that common design vision equates to freedom, but it's worth saying that most collaborative efforts require that degree of compromise, especially in games, and it's a group effort from top to bottom. The most freedom I've ever gotten in all the companies over the years is when no one above really cared much about the game I was working on until it was far along. Fallout 1, for example, I think had a huge advantage in being seen as a B-product before it came out, or when you strike out on your own and start kicking around ideas that only need approval from yourself. I've had conversations with a number of devs who I worked with on Torment, and they agree with the caveat that you should listen to the players when exposed to the system you're presenting, which is why I love Early Access and beta testing so much.
In the end, life's short, and there's a lot of cool ideas out there that are begging to be explored... or equally satisfying, you can help other people explore those ideas because you've been on the other side of production so long you know the rungs of the ladder they need to climb, they just need to be pointed to where the ladder is and given a leg up, or even help them with introductions and support when you think their idea deserves to be heard. And that's fulfilling. I guess that's mostly what it comes down to you can move forward, create, and help others create. I never got into this industry to get rich, I got into it so I could live my hobby, and I'm content with that.
Furthermore, while replying to some questions asked by folks on the RPG Codex forums, the veteran RPG designer and writer confirmed he's not currently looking for a full-time position because of family matters:
Immortal: Leaving Obsidian: It was time, I'll miss the devs, and life's short. Money's not important to me, it's not why I got into this business - entertaining, learning, and evolving is what matters, and I just want to make fun games with cool people. I'll do it for free (and already have since Obsidian) if the project's interesting enough (VR dialogue design, or working with a developer I really enjoy) or if I think I can help things along with advice or introductions.
Anthedon: Pursuing a Full-Time Position: Family matters preclude this, unfortunately, and it was hard enough to cope with dealing with this while at Obsidian, which is part of the reason for the departure.
I also recommend reading the full GameInformer interview for Avellone's opinion on Christmas sweaters, crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, his current freelancing work, his start in the industry, and a few more things.