Guest Author - Lisa Shea
One of the best RPGs of all time was Planescape Torment, created by Chris Avellone. Learn more about what it's like to work in the gaming industry and to have been a part of this incredibly popular and well-rated project.
The interview is broken out into two parts. The Interview by Lisa Shea has questions by a 39 year old gamer who began with text adventures such as Adventure on a mainframe back in the 1970s. This second part has questions by James, a 19 year old gamer who began with graphic games.
James: What, precisely, was your role with most of the projects that you worked on?
Chris: It usually comes down to character and area design, though it ranges from single areas and characters to groupings of areas and all major characters in a title (Neverwinter Nights 2). Concerning the "role" on projects, I've run the range from technical designer (generating asset lists early on at Interplay), to area designer, to lead creative designer, to lead designer, to Creative Director. No matter what the title, though, the work's always involved characters and area/quest design and various degrees of managing the design.
James: You've worked on a wide variety of projects for both Black Isle and for your own company, Obsidian Entertainment. What was the transition like between companies?
Chris: Surprisingly smooth, mostly because we transitioned on to a product and product structure we understood well from our work on Black Isle titles - taking the Bioware engine and then creating new content for it. Considering the low team size, though, my workdays ended up being a lot longer in the first 2 years at Obsidian, but after that, things smoothed out as we were able to hire more personnel.
James: Which game was the most fun or most satisfying to work on? Are there any specific characters or events that you preferred in that game? In terms of the games themselves, which was your favorite?
Chris: Torment and Icewind Dale 2 were the two most satisfying titles I worked on at Black Isle. At Obisdian, I think the first Neverwinter expansion: Mask of the Betrayer, was the most satisfying, mostly because the engine and toolset was relatively complete when we started, which allowed everyone to focus more on the content than actually getting the content to work, for example.
For Torment, the answer's up for Lisa's question, for Icewind Dale 2, I enjoyed doing all the quest and goblin attack structure in Targos, mostly because I'm a huge fan of Glen Cook's Black Company, and dumping the players into a mercenary war band scenario was kind of fun. It also allowed me to poke fun at a lot of fetch quests we've done in previous titles.
James: Are there any games you would've liked to work on that, for any reason, you weren't able to?
Chris: Fallout. I was too busy working on Descent to Undermountain at the time, and I just didn't have time to help out on Fallout. It was a pretty soul-crushing decision, but I don't think I would have done it differently, because DTU really needed everyone it could get at the time.
James: You worked on the groundbreaking Planescape: Torment, one of the most critically acclaimed games for writing in history. How would you say that it holds up against or compares to modern games that receive praise for their writing, like Bioshock or Half-Life 2?
Chris: Probably not as well, because Bioshock and HL2 took a better route with story presentation, and integrated the story more into the environment and scripted event placing, which I feel works much better for games than reading text.
James: What game (from any period) would you say has the best writing, outside of your own works?
Chris: Some ones that jump to mind are Phoenix Wright (the first one), System Shock 2, Bioshock, Knights of the Old Republic 1, and there's probably a ton of other ones I'm forgetting - some of the Infocom games (notably Infidel and Planetfall) were excellent, too. I thought the first Myth game had a good mission structure, although the narrator alone helped sell the atmosphere of that title extremely well.
James: What has it been like working in the gaming industry, in general?
Chris: Amazing - I didn't realize or believe you could really make a living doing something you considered a hobby, but man, was I wrong. It's also been exciting being part of a rapidly-growing industry - the parameters of your job keep changing, and RPGs continually keep visually and technically evolving as the years go on.
James: What games are you currently working on?
Chris: I was Creative Lead Designer on our Aliens role-playing game, then transitioned off to be a Lead Designer on two titles we have in development - both unannounced at this time, but stay tuned. :) It's going to be a good year for RPGs.
James: Thank you so much, Chris!
Note: You can play Planescape: Torment on Gametap if you get an account there! It plays fine on Vista, too :)