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From Torment to Eternity: Chris Avellone on RPGs
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From Torment to Eternity: Chris Avellone on RPGs

November 30, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

For Project Eternity, you've gone with a more traditional fantasy setting than in Torment. Was that always your intention?

CA: The way we approached it was we got Josh Sawyer, who was the project lead on Fallout: New Vegas, and we got Tim Cain, me, Feargus [Urquhart] and our other project director Adam Brennecke in a room, and we listed out all the points that we enjoyed about Infinity Engine, and notably dungeon delving, and a lot of the discussion came back to a lot of the strengths that the Forgotten Realms setting had. What they would do is they would create a lot of interesting spaces and sort of build cultures around these cool dungeons, and it was resonating with just about everybody, that they wanted a more traditional fantasy setting.

I do think that the ways that we're approaching the fantasy setting... It's not [entirely] "traditional fantasy." You'll see some similar races, but the takes on the races are going to be a bit different than people expect, so I think that'll be enough to set it apart.

When you first announced the Kickstarter, you didn't really give any details. Was that a deliberate strategy, or where you actually making it up as you went along?

CA: To be honest, we had been working on elements of the title only a short time before the Kickstarter started, so there weren't actually that many details to reveal. We did have design time over the course of the Kickstarter to discuss those design ideas, we had design meetings, proposed the classes, discussed the system stuff.

There wasn't a huge extensive design doc before we started. There were just some basic principles for the kind of game we wanted to make, and then it just kind of developed over the course of the Kickstarter.

Some people have criticised it for not having much detail, initially.

CA: That's fair. I think for a lot of Kickstarter projects, it's in their best interests to showcase gameplay and give a lot of details. It's hard to allocate the resources to get something like that up and running, but it's definitely worthwhile.

We didn't have this concern, but I think sometimes if you reveal too many details that can actually potentially hurt your presentation. I've seen some Kickstarters come out of the gate with all the wrong information, and then they don't seem willing to iterate on it. If it's not really selling with the public, then probably the idea either isn't very good or needs to be reexamined. But the cool thing about Kickstarter is that you can see within 30 days whether people are going to like your project or not. Which is much better than finding out at the end whether they like it or not.

What about the criticism that most of the bigger Kickstarters are based on nostalgia, with nothing particularly fresh or new?

CA: I think a lot of the drive does come from recognizing what games those particular [developers] created, that people remember those and respond strongly to them. I don't think, however, that that means that the end result will be solely a nostalgia-focused game. I'm sure there will be new elements about each one. I know Wasteland 2 definitely will, and Eternity, definitely.

I don't know about Double Fine -- I just want another Tim Schafer game, so I don't really care! But yeah, I think sometimes that if you don't have a bigger story around your Kickstarter, or if you don't have a really good hook for your concept, or if you don't have some sort of cult of personality to help sell the title, it can be really difficult to get a brand new idea noticed. And I can't argue with that.

So the nostalgia is more the way to sell it in the first place, and then you can build on that?

CA: With Eternity, it's going to incorporate a good chunk of those Infinity Engine elements, that's really important to us. All the companion stuff, and the narrative depth that we had in Torment. And then the dungeon stuff, that's all really important to us.

But at the same time, because we're developing a brand new world, and -- for example -- the magic system is a lot different in that world, that's going to put a refreshing take on it. The different cultures, and how they treat people with certain souls -- whether they're pure souls or fractured souls -- I think there's a whole lot of fun questions you can raise just by changing that fundamental magic principle of the world. So we're really excited about that.

I found it interesting how your stretch goals were around adding discrete things, like new characters and new locations. Is that really how the money will get allocated?

CA: Yeah. One advantage we had was that we knew, back from Black Isle, how many people it takes to make discrete content. Things like, "How much does a companion cost to make? How long does it take to build a level? How many artists are needed? How many designers are needed?" We know all the logistics for that stuff, so that's why it might have seemed so precise -- it's just because we have all the information to draw from, so that made things much easier.

Any time you make a game, obviously some people are going to like it more than others. How do you balance the concerns of all of your funders?

CA: By having an open dialogue early and throughout the process. I think people can get upset when something doesn't meet their expectations, but if you're constantly providing new information that allows them to see [where the game is at], I think that backers are pretty understanding of all the reasons that went into decisions.

And that's not normally a conversation you can ever have with players, with the traditional publisher model. I mean, for example, there's been certain design elements that other Kickstarters have had, that they've announced in their Kickstarter, where the players have just lashed back and said, "No, we don't want those things". As far as I'm concerned, that ends up being great, because you don't have to waste any resources implementing things that the player never wanted in the first place.

On the flipside, if you're communicating so much with your players, how do you stop them from being overexposed to the game? How do you avoid giving out spoilers that could diminish their experience when they play the final release?

CA: I think there's a lot of logistics that can provide information without giving spoilers. Like when Wasteland 2 is providing screenshots, showing how a game level is developed or giving an example of how the morality system would work. That's not a huge part of the game -- the actual gameplay experience. Actually showcasing how the game is made and the decisions that are going into that provides a lot of information, but it's not really spoiling anything. That's my take on it.

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Thomas Happ
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I hadn't been aware that the Planescape: Torment designer was also on KoToR 2 and New Vegas. I own the former but never played it past the intro. I'm going to need to dig up his mobygames info . . .

Anyway, I just wanted to say that I sorta miss the "wall o' text" method of dialogue in games, as in Torment. Not to say that it's what I want in EVERY game, but it definitely added a certain cerebral element that you don't see too much anymore.

Bart Stewart
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"Usually I find that anything that changes the AI state of enemies is what generates the best stories."

Amen to that.

Some of the most fun I've had in CRPGs -- usually first-person 3D games -- has come from developers giving NPCs some ways to perceive aspects of their local environment and take some plausible action in response to that stimulus.

Sometimes that's passive. One example would be The Witcher, where villagers would scurry under cover when it started to rain... and then talk to each other about the rain. It's remarkable how much more alive the world seemed from that one feature. Another example can be seen in Skyrim: guards race to the scene when a dragon attacks a village (admittedly only one you happen to be near, but still). Afterwards, when you absorb the dragon's soul, they acknowledge their awareness of this event. Eventually that comes to feel scripted, rather than spontaneous. But it's a step in the direction of letting NPCs perceive and react to events in their world, and that's a Good Thing.

Sometimes the interaction between NPC and world is active, where I get to do something that changes the environment and then an NPC can react to that change in an interesting way. A simple example of this is in the original System Shock -- destroying security cameras (and CPU nodes) causes SHODAN to lift restrictions on useful objects like power stations. She also reacts verbally -- it's also scripted, just like GLaDOS commenting when she "sees" that you've completed a test chamber, but it still feels like environmental awareness because it's not repeated identically.

Maybe my favorite example of causing NPCs to detect an environmental change and react accordingly, though, was in DOOM. I never, ever got tired of luring cacodemons, soldiers and even other imps into the path of an oncoming fireball, then watching the damaged critter and the imp tear into each other. Why haven't more games borrowed this tactical perception/response mechanic?

A very, very few games offer both modes. The Sims comes to mind: they'll react to the quality of objects in each room of a house (sort of passive), but they'll also react to changes you cause to happen, like denying one Sim a bathroom and causing another to react in disgust at the ensuing "accident."

Where are the games that make a virtue of these behaviors? Where are the games whose worlds are highly interactive and whose NPCs can use those interactions, too?

Finally, since this interview emphasized narrative design, it's worth noting that *talking to people* is a perfectly valid way of actively changing a character's internal state. If I tell some NPC "I hate you" (or "I love you"), why shouldn't that cause them to express different -- and, one hopes, reasonably plausible -- behaviors?

Not every game needs to be a dating sim. But a game intended to be a world full of people who sort of act like people... wouldn't a little more emotional perceptiveness be satisfying?

Joshua Kahelin
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I enjoyed the epic dialog boss battles in Torment. Getting through those formidable walls-o-text was a real accomplishment and I'd argue was every bit as satisfying as dealing the final death blow to the grand foozle in any other given CRPG.

Michael DeFazio
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Kudos to Obsidian for running a very effective Kickstarter. (pre and post donation)

As a consumer, I have been overjoyed with the amount of communication between the dev team and the "donors"... (Not too little information, not too much, but just interesting bi-weekly nuggets to keep me interested and informed, but nothing too "spoilerish"...)

Interviews like this are also great to get the word out (for those who were interested... but never pulled the trigger on donating). Truth be told, I'm having a hard time trying to keep my expectations in check because everything I've seen with Project Eternity (and Wasteland 2) have me all amped up.

Bertrand Augereau
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I love what you do, Chris, but don't try to convince the hardcore RPG fans that we want a standard fantasy setting. We know this is a necessary evil to make the funding happen :)

Ramon Carroll
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I'm sure that there are many hardcore RPG fans that still appreciate a standard fantasy setting, even in a new game. I'd like to think that I'm not alone here.

Ben Strother
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I have to disagree with Bertrand Augereau. I on the other hand, am weary of all the RPGs that try so hard to be "edgy" or "hip" and end up making the setting far too modern for my tastes. At least a traditional fantasy setting has medieval elements and feels like an entirely different time period than today.

I backed the kickstarter, and I am happily awaiting another fine game from Obsidian.

Bertrand Augereau
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Is Torment "edgy" or "hip" in any way or just "more interesting than vanilla Forgotten Realms" stuff?

Luis Guimaraes
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"anything that changes the AI state of enemies is what generates the best stories."
"anything that changes the AI state of enemies is what generates the best stories."
"anything that changes the AI state of enemies is what generates the best stories."
"anything that changes the AI state of enemies is what generates the best stories."
"anything that changes the AI state of enemies is what generates the best stories."

Ben Strother
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In reply to
"Is Torment "edgy" or "hip" in any way or just "more interesting than vanilla Forgotten Realms" stuff?"

I loved Planescape Torment, but a big part of that is because it was unique, what other game is focused on philosophers with clubs? If every RPG was like Torment, that would get old too I think.

Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, and Neverwinter Nights were all great games set in the Forgotten Realms, but they are at least ten years old and we need new ones for this generation of games.

I think there is still room for both the shadowrun. steampunk or warhammer 40K type of fantasy and the traditional medieval and Arthurian fantasy, but I am sad when all I can find in new RPGs are anti-heroes like the Witcher or God of War in a setting that is more recognizable as our own modern one than anything traditional. I'm tired of the dark brooder that only saves the world because he has nothing better to do. I want old school heroes like Aragorn or Perceval.

Bart Stewart
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On heroic vs. non-heroic (or anti-heroic), it seems cyclical.

The gritty anti-heroes of the early '70s like Dirty Harry gave way to more traditional heroes by the late '70s and '80s like Luke Skywalker.

Something similar (on the non-heroic side of the curve) might be happening with RPGs now.

Ramon Carroll
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I think its best whenever we have books, movies, and games that include both types of hero archetypes, because watching how they interact and conflict with each other can be pretty interesting, like a paladin/rogue duo. Some of the best plots tend to do this, in my opinion.

Douglas Scheinberg
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I guess that party-based combat on a console works better if it's more turn-based, like in a JRPG. (I honestly think that the Dragon Quest series has a better battle system than, say, Dragon Age.)

Jeanne Burch
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"I think comic book writing lends itself to training you to write dialogue for games..."

This comment made me happy. For the past couple of years, I've been teaching typography to gaming students at my university. One of the things I do is bring in some original art boards I have of the old Silver Sable comics, pass them around the class, and ask the students to look at how the conversations are broken up in the word balloons. Even if one person is talking, the comments are split across several panels. That, I tell them, is how to avoid the Wall of Text in their video games; think of writing for a comic book. Nice to have a professional in the field say something similar!