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After roughly two years of correspondence, the long-awaited RPG Codex interview with Chris Avellone is finally here, or at least a part of it is. Still, the currently available bits can put most complete interviews to shame. These questions, and their respective answers, touch on a lot of topics that range from Avellone's preferred studio hierarchy and his current projects to his Planescape: Torment regrets (I heard there was a fortress for that). For example:
You mention Planescape: Torment as an example of spreading yourself too thin, but don't you think it paid off?
That’s a complicated answer, and I’d say “no.” Did it pay off for story players? I hope so. Am I proud of it? Sure. Do I think it could have been better had I not spread myself too thin? Absolutely. Did I grow as a designer by doing weeks of a certain task (ex: plotting the coordinates of pathing routes)? After the first few days, not measurably.
And when we question how it paid off, that’s a good question - because who reaped the benefits of PST’s development challenges? It wasn’t Interplay, the company who had asked for the game in the first place and needed a return on its investment in the license. inXile certainly reaped the benefit, many, many years later, when the game was regarded as a cult classic that deserved (?) a sequel. Yes, I put a question mark there (not a slam against inXile, but it was good they took the general “Torment” premise vs. doing a direct sequel to Planescape Torment). I will say for crowdsourcing 13-14 years later, it definitely paid off – but that was never the intention.
I do think players who played it and enjoyed it saw the benefit, but that wasn’t a ton of folks compared to other RPGs coming out at the time. And many who bought PST didn’t finish it or want to, but I don’t begrudge them that.
Again, this doesn’t mean I’m not proud of the title or that I regret working on it, but yes, I was absolutely spreading myself too thin – I was Lead Designer and Creative Lead (and at points pseudo-Project Director). I’d argue part of the reason was it was a small team and I didn’t know any better (did I really have to map out the pathing of every Dustman on every Hive map along with every citizen in the Hive, too? Probably not. Should I have been drawing out area concepts? No, and even if I enjoyed it, that’s the artist’s job.). It’s one thing to be aware of how a system works as a lead, but that doesn’t mean it should consume weeks of your time that could be better spent overseeing the project or be a chokepoint for those tasks… and it would have meant a better project if I had been familiar with one or two instances of the process, how long it took, the demands on an implementer’s time, and at the end of the day, I hadn’t done those things.
It seemed like the project had a lot going against it: small team, short development cycle, timid marketing, terrible box cover, Lead Producer quitting after beta stage, strong competition, dead IP (Planescape), among other things. Your own lack of experience in that role was a challenge as well. All things considered, I believe it's a remarkable achievement, and the game's towering legacy is also a considerable benefit, even if it wasn't planned.
As for "who reap reaped the benefits?", I'd also add all the developers who have been inspired by it and went on to make their own games, including fellow Codexer MRY (Mark Yohalem).
The question concerns if spreading myself too thin paid off and imo, no, it would have been a better game had I not. Inspiring others to go on to make their own games as a benefit is true, it’s great (plus you get to play their games), and you do always hope for that, but in the context of the company and people and the time spent to make Torment (it was very late, even using another developer’s engine), it was problematic. Also, Interplay wasn’t doing well at the time (Fallout 2 had needed to be released to prevent layoffs) so there was that hanging fear of dread as well – not necessarily in Black Isle, but the fact your friends in other divisions could get laid off if the company didn’t start seeing a return on their games.