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

November 30, 2012 Page 1 of 4

The Kickstarter phenomenon that swept the industry in 2012 has been dominated by projects from established figures who made their names in the 1980s and '90s. These projects trade on nostalgia from fans of genres and game design styles that major publishers have since come to regard as too risky to fund.

Obsidian Entertainment creative director Chris Avellone is revered among RPG fans for his work on Fallout 2 and Planescape: Torment (among many other credits). He is one of the most prolific writers working in games -- he personally penned the bulk of Torment's 800,000 words -- and is regarded by many as one of the industry's finest.

Avellone dipped his toe in the crowd-funding stream early, signing up in March to assist with Brian Fargo's Wasteland 2, on the condition that it could reach a $2.1m "stretch goal" for its funding (which was easily surpassed). Then -- following comments from Avellone that he would like to seek funding for a follow-up to Planescape: Torment (on which he acted as lead designer) -- speculation began as to when an Obsidian Kickstarter would surface. And surface it did -- after four days of teasing on the Obsidian website, the Kickstarter for Project Eternity went live on September 14, and quickly began to break records. It reached its 1.1m target in slightly over 24 hours, before finishing with over$3.9m, overtaking Double Fine Adventure to become the most successful game campaign ever run on the site.

Gamasutra recently sat down with Avellone to discuss Project Eternity and his work more generally. This in-depth discussion touches on the specifics of Obsidian's approach to crowd-funding, Avellone's thoughts on what makes game narrative unique, and Obsidian's double-edged reputation for releasing brilliant role-playing games that are tarnished by an unacceptable quantity of bugs.

Did Obsidian start thinking about running a Kickstarter because of Double Fine's success?

Chris Avellone: As soon as Tim Schafer did his Kickstarter, we became aware of how much support there could be for products that publishers might discount. I'd pretty much lost hope that we'd ever see another adventure game that wasn't on the DS or the iPhone. And then suddenly Kickstarter happened, and I realised that "holy shit, we're going to get another adventure game because of all this." Then Brian Fargo moved really quickly, and suddenly it was pretty clear that people also wanted an old-school RPG.

And so after that, we started discussing it internally. We've always wanted to do another Infinity Engine-style game, and so we spent a good many months [planning], we talked with inXile and Brian to see how they had structured their campaign, and the lessons they'd learned from it, and we checked out a bunch of other Kickstarters that were successfully funded, and we tried to build up hype with screenshots on our website and things like that. And then we launched it, and yeah, it turned out great.

But to be honest, I was a little worried that most of the games I'd seen on Kickstarter had just barely gotten funded, and Brian and Tim Schafer and Shadowrun felt like exceptions. [The audience] either knew the franchise or the names behind them so much that it wasn't too hard for them to far exceed their goals. So when we put ours up, we weren't sure if it would actually get funded or not, but obviously the outpouring was so huge. Hitting the funding the first day was awesome and also scary at the same time, because we were like, "Oh my god, we have to figure out these stretch goals a lot faster than we'd planned for."

So, what is it about Infinity Engine games that you love so much; the reason you've wanted to go back to them?

CA: Well the first thing is -- in the Icewind Dale games, the artists were able to paint the most amazing dungeons. There wasn't a lot of worry about memory management, or how it would perform on consoles, or getting all the polygons not to slow down the game. When they were actually able to paint dungeons, they were able to make some amazingly creative spaces to explore, that I don't usually see a lot in today's games.

We had one dungeon in Icewind Dale 1 which was basically this big frozen museum, and as you were walking along you'd actually see creatures frozen in the floor and the walls, and we actually had this other dungeon which was this giant hand reaching up to the sky, and you'd actually travel up through the hand, and into each individual finger and explore that.

Secondly, we all loved playing and designing those games, we all loved Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate 2. Icewind Dale was a bit different because we were always under a tight schedule, and we could never really do the same level of companion and other interactions that Baldur's Gate did, and it was kind of a different style of game. But if we could take all those elements and make our dream Infinity Engine game, what would those things be? So we compiled a list of that stuff, and then we were like, "Let's just go do this and see if people would want to see that made". And they really do.

I loved both Baldur's Gates, and Planescape: Torment is one of my favorite games of all time.

CA: Torment was... it wasn't fun, at the time, at certain points, but I really enjoyed writing and designing that game. It was a rare moment in the industry, I will say. You don't usually get a franchise that allows you that much freedom.

That setting is incredible.

CA: I was actually surprised that it was a Dungeons & Dragons setting, because it was so freeform and had so many ideas that I'd never even seen before. It was amazing! So cool.

Philosophy-based factions.

CA: Yeah, the idea of mental real estate, and "if you think about it hard enough you can make it reality." I was like, "What? This is awesome!"

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