In Profile: Chris Avellone

In Profile: Chris Avellone

We caught up with Obsidian’s Chris Avellone during a visit to Melbourne last year, and quizzed him on Kickstarter, the Australian development scene, and what makes a game, a game.

The enthusiasm and energy that I see in the developers here, the excitement – it’s infectious, energising. It seems to be a really interesting time to be making games in Australia.”

Chris Avellone looks to be in a constant state of relaxation, even when mingling in a room of several hundred game developers. Integral to the development of games such as Planescape: Torment and Star Wars: KOTOR 2, he’s probably best known for his work on Fallout: New Vegas, and it’s his 15 years of game design expertise that he’ll be drawing on today.

He’s here in Melbourne, alongside other well-known developers such as Robin Hunicke, to deliver a “game design masterclass” at Game Connect Asia Pacific (or GCAP, as it’s more colloquially known) – and I’ve managed to tug him away from his catered lunch to answer a few questions on game design, New Vegas, and that crowdfunding phenomenon that has us all throwing our billfolds at projects aiming to revive old-school game design ideals, just like Avellone’s new Project Eternity.

In Perspective
Avellone’s masterclass charts the development of a large game, from conceptualisation and pre-production all the way through to managing a team and weaving their talents into a stunning end product. Such advice is particularly interesting to hear in the Australian games development landscape, which has undergone some huge changes in recent years and is still evolving every day.

“The people I talk to here, they have great ideas and they obviously love game development,” Avellone begins. “But it’s a bit sad that being able to get a formal job at a big company out here seems difficult to nonexistent. It seems like a lot of the big companies have shut down, and while there’s a lot of talented people, there’s not exactly a lot of opportunities left for employment.”

It was Krome ceasing its operations in late 2010 that signalled the collapse of large-scale development studios in Australia, with globally known names like LA Noire developers Team Bondi later treading the same dismal path. The losses of such studios, however, have opened new opportunities in other areas of development; developers of casual titles like Halfbrick and Firemonkey’s are some of the biggest in the international industry, and many of Australia’s newest indie development studios were formed from the broken bones of now-defunct larger studios.

Avellone works at California-based RPG development powerhouse Obsidian, and I note that his presence here in Australia is unusual – especially given that our developers take a very different approach, tending to work primarily on mobile-based games in much smaller teams.

“That must be so nice,” he says with a laugh. It’s been awhile since he was in a manageably-sized team. Large-scale development has left him frazzled in the past, worn thin trying to manage so many incredibly specific areas of gameplay and the teams managing them. “If you’re the guy rigging the character model, that often ends up being your entire job for six months. But if you’re an artist in a smaller team, you might have a bit more flexibility, more freedom. You might be able to, say, include your own weapon that you’ve personally designed, just because the team size is so small and everyone can pitch in on a whole bunch of different fronts.”

Still, in spite of the apparent room to spare for creativity, we’re not seeing that many truly resonating games come out of Australia. The majority of the games being developed are currently the sort of thing you might play while waiting for your bus at the stop. The website TwntyTwlv.com – which describes 2012 as “a banner year for indie games” – has only one Australian game on its long list, the recently released Zafehouse: Diaries (made by ex-Atomic Editor, Logan Booker, and ex PC Authority Editor David Kidd). Why is that? In a country with so many indie studios acting as potential seedbeds for innovative growth, why are we seeing so few notable games?

Avellone, whose Project Eternity is Kickstarter’s highest funded video game campaign to date, suggests that it may be because crowdfunding, the new game development funding model of choice, is not as accessible to Australians.

“It seems that there are a lot of opportunities for developers almost anywhere to be able to form a team, get crowdsourced funding, and then see about building something,” he says. “But it seems that the Kickstarter efforts here aren’t as great...”

And it’s partially true. While Australians are able to pledge money towards projects on almost any crowdfunding site you can think of, we’re barred from listing projects on Kickstarter, the most prominent crowdfunding site of all. While we have alternatives like Pozible and IndieGoGo, their presence is not as great; Avellone knew of the latter only because of a fan film project, Fallout: Lanius, that he had backed through it.

It is pretty exciting to see someone “grab the Fallout torch” and do their own take on the Fallout universe, says Avellone. “Still, I feel that we’re not really exposed to many crowdfunded Australian games, and that’s unfortunate.”

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