- Tell us a little about yourself, what have you accomplished in life?
This is an unusual question, Odin, and I feel that perhaps you are being disingenuous, but I forgive you. I hope this isn’t the question you ask ALL Fallout developers on the first interview, but I suspect you do.
The short answer is this: I am Chris Avellone, I am 33, I love girls from Norway, I design computer games, I am one of the founders and co-owners of Obsidian Entertainment, who recently turned out Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords in thirteen months, and I have the scars to prove it. The happiest moments of my game design life were on Planescape: Torment, though Fallout 2 was a close second.
Now the long answer follows. If you really don’t give a shit and would rather hear what was planned for Fallout 3, skip ahead to question 5. To be honest, I don’t have much respect for questions one through four, since they’re designed as filler before you get to the stuff that No Mutants Allowed would seriously care about. I will cue the significant events that lead up to my peripheral involvement with Fallout.
I was born. Cue trumpets. Suffice to say, birth is a messy process, just ask Feargus, who’s got two kids to his name now. Christ - keep your pants on, man.
At age nine, I was playing an exciting game of throw-the-baseball-to-your-friend-he-catches-it-throws-it-back-to-you with a local neighbour, Michael, when he told me about D&D and described to me how it worked. It was the weirdest thing I had ever heard – it was like a game of pretend… with rules. But it sounded cool and there were lots of pictures in the rule books with chicks with huge boobs (thanks, Bill Willingham, Erol Otus, and whoever that artist was who drew that fighter chick “Morgan” with the nipples). This taught me that sex sells, especially if you put it in context of a dungeon filled with goblins, spiders, and orcs.
So (we’re still on age 9 here, so feel free to jump to question 5), I got the basic red D&D rulebook and spent a few weeks trying to understand how the numerical attributes actually dictated how well you could function in the imaginary world. It’s hard for a (stupid) nine year old to grasp that. I will say that later versions of the basic rulebook were a LOT better at communicating the basic gist of D&D, because the examples and the sample of play at the beginning was 10x better than what us old schoolers got. But it builds character, so whatever.
Then came the problem that all social dorks have when they learn D&D – trying to get a group together to play. Mom, Dad, and my older brother weren’t really good material (my brother kept setting fire to dice when they rolled badly, so we ran out of dice). Besides, my brother was a Gamma World fan, because he was in love with the thought of mutant animals taking over the world and devouring all the humans in their path. This may mean he wants to become a cannibal, but I have no proof of this, and the police still haven’t tracked him down yet, so there.
Anyway, I couldn’t get a group together, which is frustrating as shit. What to do?
I went over to my friend’s house one day was playing Bard’s Tale 2 on his commodore 64 and suddenly a problem solved itself (this friend was Chris, and he became a character in Fallout 2 because of a decision that Tim Cain inadvertently made) – by watching him play BT2, I realized it was possible to have a computer game master run a game for me, and that seemed like the best thing in the world. So true geekdom was born. Thanks, Brian Fargo and the BT2 team – you gave my geeky heart an outlet.
Anyway, after that, things went pretty much downhill for my social life. I finally got a group of 3-4 guys together to play role-playing games (this grew to 7-8 during our Warhammer campaign in high school, which I am still most fond of). Girls remained a mystery to me with their strange curves, the fact they smelled nice, and strange way of behaving (I later learned this was courtesy), so me and my friends played the Temple of Elemental Evil for TWO years (no shit, longest campaign I ever ran, and we played weekly), then once we got bored of fantasy, we played a bunch of Superhero games (TWO more years of Superworld – thanks, Steve Perrin) and Hero Games, which seemed a little better thought-out rules-wise, and allowed for greater character customization. Throughout high school I sent a huge number of shitty submissions to Dragon magazine, Palladium, and GURPS that were sent back with generic form letters saying I needed to grow up. Even Hero Games did this, but I wore down the will of Monte Cook and Bruce Harlick (both of whom grew to hate the fact I kept submitting, and Monte even wrote me an angry mail to that effect, shortly before he capitulated). That is when I learned the most valuable lesson of my gaming career – persistence pays off.
I wrote a few supplements for Hero Games, discovered that I loved making characters for game worlds (Underworld Enemies for Hero Games had some of my favourite characters ever – including Ashtray Art, the pyrokinetic who was REALLY in love with fire and thought it was a real woman, the Hanged Man [no relation to the Fallout 3 character concept of the same name], the emotionally vampiric Saiettas Crime Family who didn’t care as much about the crimes they committed as they could feed on the misery it caused, and Mad Billy, who got stronger and tougher the more alcohol he drank – kind of like if the Hulk was fuelled by beer). All contributed to my social retardation, but my writing and design skills grew to level 3, and I added various Geeky Feats to my character until it was time to level up to Computer Game Designer Level One.
Hero Games (or I should say, their owners, Iron Crown Enterprises) could only pay about fifty bucks every two months, which really didn’t make it much of a lifelong career path. So I asked one of my employers, Steve Peterson, if he ever heard of any real jobs in design, I’d really like to apply for them. He was in touch with Mark O’Green, who was head of Interplay’s Dragonplay division, I went out to interview with him, Mark asked me some hard questions (the answers for which ended up becoming the basis for Torment), but he figured I was worth 20K a year (maybe 22?), and that was a hell of a lot more than I was getting freelance, so I took the job from Interplay and drove cross county in my shitty white Dodge Omni that kept breaking my heart at key moments. I found out later that Steve Peterson had taken the cash bonus for finding an employee for Interplay and cashed it out for 300 bucks worth of Interplay games. I felt like a total prostitute. This was the second thing I learned about game development – you will routinely feel like a cheap hooker, except that your pimp (team lead) generally won’t physically abuse you.
Once at Interplay, I worked on a bunch of games. I made a lot of mistakes and a lot of friends. I got to meet Scott Bennie, who had worked at Hero Games before he levelled up. I met Steve Perrin, who had designed Superworld that our gaming group had played. I met Floyd Grubb and Bill Church, who took me to my first strip club. And I occasionally met Tim Cain, who I think still had that closely trimmed beard he always has, but he was too busy to tell any stories. While there, I envisioned Planescape: Torment, which I would argue was a huge mistake, but I loved doing it, so there was a period where I loved my job more than my own life, which my doctor later told me would not allow me to rise from the dead when the combination of stress and caffeine would cause my heart to stop beating (the last month of Torment was when I got this medical warning, but Annah was the last companion I had to write, so it was probably the best time for it to happen). This was the third thing I learned about game development – planting your ass in front of a computer game monitor is not conducive to your emotional and physical health.
The spiral of doom for Interplay was pretty evident around that time – Torment, Fallout, and other projects were the last of the 2-3 year development cycle within Dragonplay/Black Isle Games and the cycles became shorter and shorter as Interplay ran out of cash. I recovered from Fallout, lost some weight, gained a social life, lost more weight, actually learned more about Orange County, all against the backdrop of Interplay’s death throes. We kept laying people off. In some cases, this was a good thing. Black Isle remained relatively intact, but the demands and the pressure grew and grew until it cracked a few months after I left.
I suppose it had been time to move on for about a year, but I really enjoyed making RPGs, there was the promise of doing a brand-new engine for a fantasy game (Baldur’s Gate 3), we had a talented bunch, and I had been doing preliminary work on Fallout 3 for what felt like forever (I wrote a vision doc a few months before Fallout Tactics, which I hadn’t known was even going to happen), only to jump off onto the Icewinds and Dark Alliance when needed. I ran a pen-and-paper Fallout campaign with 4-5 guys (which eventually grew into 2 groups, since I wanted to cover more ground in the Fallout universe) to test rules, the story, and try to make the game feel more like a pen-and-paper experience. A lot of bad stuff got dropped as a result of that game, and some extra stuff was added based on player feedback – the first gaming group had already adventured through the Leavenworth Prison, the Circle Junction Train Yards (and fought the first fringe of the slaver band, Caesar’s Legion), the Denver Salvager Camp, and the Boulder Dome when we drew it to a close – the second gaming group (whose gaming experiences were in the same world at the same time) got through Leavenworth, Circle Junction and had just gotten to the Big Empty (the Big M.T.) before it drew to a close. Anyway, it was kind of cool had the two groups caused repercussions for each other in the game world (something I’ve always wanted to do in an RPG), but then Baldur’s Gate 3 (or Forgotten Realms Six, as it was called), was cancelled, and the final deathblow came.
We’d been working on a number of projects before that got cancelled, but this was the first one that felt arbitrary – the reasons for its cancellation were out of our hands, and there was a lot of design and art assets that had been done for it. I mean A LOT. It was pretty crushing for many people, alleviated only by the fact that it was replaced by a chance to do Fallout 3. For me, it only seemed like this meant that Fallout was doomed to the same fate, and I no longer had any faith in the management of the company – Brian Fargo had left long ago, and there was no support for PC games from executive row, which pretty much doomed any project in Black Isle that wasn’t Dark Alliance, so you could smell the end in the wind.
So then Ferg comes into my office, closes the door, and I figure, “great, they finally decided to fire me.” But instead, he said, “hey, I quit,” and that was it. I responded with, “so when can I turn in my notice?” Say what you will about Ferg, but he’s a good boss (and I’ve had some shitty ones) and he took us from Dragonplay all the way to Black Isle, and I think it was a good journey, and it definitely paved the way for Obsidian Entertainment being able to deal with publishers without getting ground to powder.
Despite that, leaving wasn’t an easy decision. I’d been there for 7-8 years, I’d gotten my start there, and I really liked working with all the people. It’s just frustrating to work on a project, and work hard, and then watch it all get flushed down the toilet due to circumstances beyond your control. Don’t get me wrong – this happens ALL the time in game development, but what was going on at Interplay was different.
It is very, very hard to turn away from 3-4 years of pre-production work for Fallout 3 and start from scratch, but there really wasn’t any choice. So I turned in my notice, left, then called Ferg and said, “can I work for you?” He said, “well, this is probably a mistake, but do you want to be an owner? I’m starting a new company.” I was like, “okay.” So between Darren and Parker (who had left not long after Ferg, for much the same reasons) and Chris Jones, we decided we’d hang out in Feargus’ attic, pretend to be a game company called Obsidian Entertainment, and do a game. I would just like to say that Margo Urquhart is a saint for putting up with our crap and she would bring us grapes and cookies up two flights of stairs even though she was pregnant at the time. Aaron Meyers and Dan Spitzley joined us, we got a real office in gangland Santa Ana, moved in there, and have been slowly encroaching on all available space within the building as we begin to swell. I think we have about 35 employees now, and while some are from Black Isle (about a third or fourth), it feels like a different company, and that’s a good thing. We just got the lead artist from Torment back, so I’m stoked. Thanks for coming on board, Tim.
Anyway, so what have I accomplished? I did some design, made some RPGs I’m proud of, helped found a company, and broke the heart of every girl in Orange County, including Odin’s Mom, who is totally hot and a real wildcat in the sack. Based on feedback from Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords I am also never going to do an Empire Strikes Back ending again in a game, even if they put branding irons to my feet and dunk me in scalding water. I still want to do a high school-based RPG set in the 1980s and at least one designer at Obsidian has got my back.
AND I would just like to say that I’m doing this under duress, because I’m sick of Odin hassling me all the time for this crap and watching my inbox fill up with demands for why I should do this, and drop everything and do it NOW – and even when I agree, I still get NEW messages where he tells me to ask all my co-workers for the same, since he is incapable of following through himself. I hate you, Odin, oh yes, I do – and think up better questions next time, these sucked.
- What are your favourite computer games/board games and why?
This is pseudo-chronological, old-school to new-school - Anachronox (Story, characters, humor – rarely has a game made me laugh out loud at a cut scene or dialogue), Bomberman (one of the best multiplayer games, ever), Myth 1 (made me feel like I was adventuring in Glen Cook’s Black Company series), Mario Kart (just don’t drive afterwards), Wasteland (story, setting), Ultima Underworld 1 (everything), Fallout (great characters, intelligence – among other design decisions - affecting dialogue I thought was genius), Knights of the Old Republic (even my jaded heart enjoyed this, and I felt like I was in a Star Wars movie, HK-47 was great, the story was well-done), and a bunch of others I can’t remember right now, and to be honest, if I can’t remember them, they can’t have been THAT good anyway. Maybe that’s for the best. Board-game wise, I enjoy Settlers of Cataan, Magic (old-school), Chez Geek (yeah, I know it’s a card game), Lunch Money, and Puerto Rico is fun, too, even though the learning curve can crush tiny minds and Ferg cheats like a little bitch. Also, Talisman and Illuminati are great when you want to break friendships. We also still play Dungeons and Dragons at Obsidian, which is fun, even when Ferret lets lose enemies on us armed with Fireball scrolls. Thanks, Ferret.
- What hobbies do you have besides computer games?
Lots of reading, surfing the net, playing video games, and writing when I get the chance. I would like to make sex a hobby, but there are no official clubs for that, so I have to make do. I also like to doodle and draw stick figure cartoons. I work out a lot and do “aerobics” (I don’t mean jumping around like a Frenchman, I mean cycling and rowing machine), though I’m not the emaciated wreck I used to be after Torment and I am never going to be the size of Damien Foletto, who is a man-mountain of terror and whose mere presence at the scene of impending violence is enough to convince people that it’s better to make peace, not war or he will break you into tiny pieces and scatter you to the winds.
Let’s see, what else. I like walking around in the Santa Ana winds at night (with Odin’s mom) because it’s like the air is electric. I love Southern California – and I love the sun so much, in fact, that I think I was a lizard in a past life. I tend to have lots of questions for people I meet because people are a big mystery to me. I have spent a large part of my subconscious life trying to figure out the proper way to greet cats, and am nearing a breakthrough. I spend the majority of my remaining time dating beautiful women from Norway, of which there is only one I have ever found.
- What are your favourite bands/artists (music) ?
Oh, please, I know you don’t care, Odin. The only music I love is the sound of Fallout fans roasting over an open flame, or their shrill howling chorus as you apply hot irons to their face as they desperately attempt to convince you there was no steam-powered truck ever intended for Fallout 1. Sorry, guys, you can suck it – and do it slowly, for the cameras.
What music do I like? Just about anything is cool. Except operas. If you like opera, more power to you, but they drive me bugfuck. Sitting there in the chair, watching people caterwauling while my ass starts to hurt and my mind wanders I am convinced is some kind of specially-devised torture that became an art form. Then again, I used to hate musicals until I saw Team America and South Park: The Movie, so I could be convinced otherwise if the right opera came along.
Some bands I'm currently listening to: West Indian Girl, Supergrass, Rachael Yamagata, BT, the Darkness, The Music, Tony C and the Truth, and others - it changes on a weekly basis, though. One of my friends introduced me to a band called Grandpa’s Grass that plays in Long Beach every once in a while, and they’re fun to see live. If you’re in Long Beach, check them out. I'll throw the Garden State soundtrack (Frou Frou rocks), the Postal Service and the Dresden Dolls onto the current pile, too, for this week.
Satisfied? Now let’s move on to Fallout, since that’s what this interview’s REALLY about, Odin, you muck-raking post-holocaust three-nippled whore.
- Tell us a little about your role in the making of Fallout 1/2/3 (Van Buren)/Tactics ?
I didn’t do anything for Fallout 1, although Tim Cain did invite me to work on it, and upon retrospect, wish I’d chosen to work on that instead.
In Fallout 2, I cleaned up Vault City (and added a lot of quests and interaction that wasn’t there previously and believe it or not, downplayed some pretty nasty sexuality that was too offensive even for me), did the Raider Camp (which sucked), New Reno (which I will still defend as a fun location to play), and a number of secret encounters, including the Guardian of Forever. Fallout 2 was the first hardcore RPG I got to work on (Torment was going concurrently, but we weren’t able to lay out levels or enter much dialogue yet). I will say that I wish I’d reduced the number of crime families in New Reno down to two or three rather than the original specifications for four, and then spent some extra time on the Raider Camp or ditched the Raider Camp entirely, especially that Walks-With-Shadows/Shadow-Who-Walks guy who was supposed to be Sulik’s arch-enemy, but that didn’t pan out either. It was another one of those “not enough time” projects, and Interplay was starving for cash again (it seemed like many people were going to get laid off if F2 didn’t ship, so it was ship or die).
In Fallout 3, I did about three-four years of pre-production, plus I did a pen-and-paper game for about a year and a half (with a second game being run concurrently to the first to cover more ground) and did the overarching original story, along with extensive maps and area design and layouts for Circle Junction, Fort Abandon (originally called Fort Aradesh, but the name changed after NCR’s control of the frontier receded), the “Big Empty” (“Big Mt” military boot camp, still manned by training robots – get the word twist? Isn’t that clever? Oooooh.), the Daughters of Hecate and Caesar’s Legion (the female and male polar opposites of F3, which was supposed to allow the player, depending on gender, to rule either one and use them to build an army), the Denver Salvager Camp (I thought a location that, instead of being underground, was on the top of buildings and skyscrapers would be cool), the abandoned Boulder Dome, an ancient and nearly abandoned super think-tank (a result of watching too much Logan’s Run, but all for a good cause), and the second Zax computer, and Leavenworth Prison. I also did the companion characters Corporal Christina Royce (NCR lieutenant CNPC, used to be part of the Vault 15 squatters in F2 as Christy or something, also a tribute to Wasteland), Alkaya (tribal scout from the Circle Junction tribals), Job (Mr. Handy administrative police robot in Denver, tribute to Wasteland), Xian (cute Chinese descendent scientist in Dome), the Hanged Man (the first poisonous CNPC to join the party, like having the Jinxed Dog with you), Eddie “Crazy Horse” Galenski (smuggler who drives a Mad Max truck to haul cargo around the wastes), and his “wife,” Helen Wheels (truckers, smugglers, tribute to Wasteland), and the rival ex-NCR military PC group that’s on the same mission as the players: Gen. Coleridge, Capt. Davidson, Lt. Pierce, Major Briggs, and Matthias “Huxley” (real name: Dr. Presper, co-creator of Zax). Prepser is the “bad guy” of the piece (not really, but good enough), a cryogenically frozen scientist who went into hibernation a few days before the nuclear holocaust, woke up in the Boulder Dome, and emerged into the world to discover (to his surprise) how much “civilization” survived, before he wakes up the rest of the scientists frozen beneath the Boulder Dome. Prepser, as Scientific Advisor to the pre-war president, is the only person left alive who knows all the passwords and control schemes for the Zax computer and various other super-weapons across the world, and it was intended that the player’s actions in the various towns serve to convince Presper whether he should wipe all life from the planet before waking up the rest of his colleagues. Of course, the problem becomes that Presper and his crew are carrying the virus that struck to the US shortly before the war broke out (the virus that they had to develop FEV to counteract), so as soon as Presper gets out of the Boulder Dome, the more communities he has contact with, the more people become infected and die.
I had really high hopes for the story, but then Baldur’s Gate 3 got cancelled, Feargus left, and I realized the chances of it actually happening seemed slim to none – if they were willing to ditch BG3, then Fallout was even more of a risk, and none of the execs at Interplay seemed willing to stand behind it, no matter how hard the guys worked on demonstrating they could do it.
It was really, really depressing to leave (I had been at Interplay for about 7+ years), and I loved working with the guys, but I didn’t want to waste another three years (or more) for something that was going to get flushed anyway – life’s just too short.
Anyway, the remaining questions later. They’ll be more applicable to Fallout, so buckle up.
- Fallout 2
- Fallout 3
- New Vegas
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