Chris Avellone, veteran designer and writer of defunct Black Isle Studios and former CCO of Obsidian Entertainment, involved in the development of games such as Fallout 2Planescape: TormentStar Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith LordsNeverwinter Nights 2Alpha ProtocolFTL: Advanced EditionPrey and Divinity: Original Sin II, has taken to the controversial forum RPG Codex to talk about his departure from Obsidian on June 9, 2015, almost three years ago. In the comments section of a lengthy and personal interview where he even mentioned his mother’s battle with cancer, he proceeded to talk very openly about the exact terms and conditions of his departure, and, in doing so, implicates the upper management of Obsidian in a very delicate and compromising situation.

I didn’t get anything when I left Obsidian. There were no share payouts, no equity, and this was in addition to the other logistical problems around the departure – the sudden cancellation of my health insurance, problems with my 401K, errors in Obsidian’s accounting, and several existing independent contracts they refused to uphold.

Realizing my family issues and the debts therein, however, they did make an attempt to leverage that into a far more confining separation agreement that would remove my right to work on RPGs, and my silence on all issues that could pertain to Obsidian or any other company they were involved with or the CEO had a % in (Fig, Zero Radius, Dark Rock Industries, etc.). This included an inability to critique games I’d worked on – much of my critiques on my own games tend to be blunt, and not being able to speak to them felt unnatural to me.

The company involvement silence worried me more, however, as it meant that if anything illegal happened with any of those companies (these could include serious charges like accounting issues, silence on harassment issues with regards to employees, perjury related to company documents and payments), I couldn’t speak about the issue, even if I felt strongly against what was being revealed.

While all this is good for Obsidian’s upper management and is what is sometimes considered “good business,” I did feel it showed a lack of ethics.

Other tangled matters involving the nitty-gritty of character writing and editing for Obsidian’s crowdfunded RPG Pillars of Eternity, released a few months before his departure, are also mentioned. Eric Fenstermaker, the lead narrative designer of Pillars, and no longer an Obsidian Entertainment employee himself, wrote to the editor of RPG Codex to clarify some points from his end, and later also commented under a personal account, taking a more personal and hostile tone towards Avellone.

There’s been no shortage of speculation as to what led to Chris Avellone’s departure in 2015, particularly from anonymous sources in sites such as Reddit and RPG Codex, and for the most perspicacious observers there were some indications that the departure had not been friendly. Post-departure interviews with Avellone seemed to have a palpable tension when the subject turned to Obsidian or Pillars. Back in November 2017, Avellone shared some solid and suspiciously personal advice on Twitter concerning contracts and NDAs.

One of the more egregious details of his departure seems to have been the “sudden cancellation” of his health insurance, which he expands on in another comment, saying that he only had two days before the cancellation when it should have extended for a month beyond the date of departure.

Previous to his departure Avellone had been asked in an interview whether Tyranny, the game that followed Pillars, was “his baby” and he said simply “no,” which led to some internal conflicts that he tried to clarify in this comment from another thread from 2016 due to the contract with Paradox stating that it was to be referenced as his, something Avellone wasn’t informed of. There is a whole imbroglio involving his writing role in Pillars and in Tyranny that doesn’t seem yet exhausted.

One of the crowdfunding backers of Pillars of Eternity II took to Obsidian’s official forums and announced that he requested a refund. The company’s CIO, Darren Monahan (one of the original co-founders along with CEO Feargus Urquhart, VP of Development Chris Parker, CTO Chris Jones and former CCO Avellone), wrote a personal response to the request, including a placating comment about the episode.

Thank you for contacting us and I’ll be happy to take care of that for you. It may take a few days to get the refund on the Fig side as I need to have them process it, but I can refund the PayPal DLC purchase right away.

Regarding the comments from Chris, we have and still do wish him nothing but the best for him and his family’s future.

We sincerely thank you for having backed us.

Thank you again,

Darren Monahan
CIO and Co-Founder
Obsidian Entertainment

As of publication time, there has been no further statement from Obsidian Entertainment. We have reached out to them for comment on these matters and will update the article as more information becomes available.

 

Update (May 3 4PM PDT)

While there has been no official statement from Obsidian Entertainment, Avellone has left quite a few other comments in the thread since then. First of all, he confirmed not having signed an NDA. He details managerial issues and states that “the payscale at Obsidian is definitely on the low end of the industry,” and, in another comment, that “Obsidian’s success rarely translates into financial gain and job security for any employee,” which is, unfortunately, a common complaint in the games industry. He also explained that one of the reasons he took to the RPG Codex forum to talk about his departure was that he was blocked from his Obsidian.net forum account after his departure.

What stood out, in particular, was his casual announcement that he’s “been employed as a writer for Ghost Story Games (formerly Irrational) ever since my departure from Obsidian, and Ghost Story is great and their lore is amazing.” In the same comment, he resumes his assault on Obsidian’s upper management: “Get your shit together because the future is uncertain if you can’t even develop and rely on your own tech.” In another comment soon after he states that Obsidian has been practicing cost padding.

In another comment, he states that he has “set aside a legal fund to deal with any repercussions, and I will fight anything they bring to the table, tooth and nail. I welcome it.” while later saying that “Paradox has already been in touch, and they aren’t too happy with how Obsidian handled the work they asked for. Future revelations will likely be much more fun than mine.” We have reached out to Paradox for a statement on these comments and will update it when we have more information.

The latest revelation, from about two hours ago, brought up Obsidian’s CEO Feargus Urquhart directly when asked whether he had been fired.

No – after raising some questions about company finances and other issues, Feargus de-ownered me (which I didn’t have a choice in) and then told, “but don’t worry, we’ll still allow you to work on Tyranny for us,” and my response was, “that’s okay, you can work on it by yourself.”

Before this seems unusual, de-ownering was actually a common threat tossed around, so it wasn’t specific to me – if any owner raised objections to events going on, the response was often, “you don’t sound like you want to be an owner anymore” and never addressed the actual issues being brought up.

Not surprisingly, this shift in being de-ownered coincided with taking place shortly before the first royalty payments from Eternity came in, which meant that the surviving owners got a much larger share with me de-ownered (I don’t mind that, as I didn’t want royalty payments from Eternity, but I don’t think the other owners deserved royalties, either, except maybe a set amount for Darren for the Backer portal work he put in – the team deserved all of it). It was a good business decision, but not good ethics.

 

The denizens of the Codex, meanwhile, are poring over company documents to understand how Avellone could have been de-ownered, as eagerly as if they were perusing scrolls of lore in RPGs. It’s a scene to behold. In a private message, Avellone told us that there’s “likely to be more substantial stuff from my end today or tomorrow”.

 

Update (May 6)

We will confine this update to new RPG Codex comments that deal specifically with the details of his departure and his statements on the upper management at Obsidian.

He is far from done.

Friday, May 4, 12:46PM: “…what I’ve spoken about is only 30% of what transpired, along with other issues. The other amount I would, however, support, speak to, and be willing to testify to if it came to it, but it’s up to others to bring the issues up. If they do, I’m happy to help however I can, and they can count on my support.”

On nepotism.

Saturday, May 5, 9:50 AM: “Feargus did try and have both his young children added as employees at the studio during my last year there, but the other owners fought back and made it clear that (1) not only was it illegal b/c of the age requirements, (2) there was no way to defend against someone being able to prove his two children didn’t work there (obviously, Feargus’s children are far below age of employment so if it was somehow proven, there would be additional problems), but most importantly, on a higher level, it was seen an unethical and wrong thing to try and do. The conversations about this were difficult because it was an issue related to employment + family, which made an otherwise easy decision of “no” increasingly angry and complicated, which was frustrating. It was something that shouldn’t have been suggested, discussed, or brought up at all.”

More details on the separation contract he didn’t sign.

Saturday, May 5, 11:13 AM: “The de-ownering separation contract I was given was pretty strict. Among the first elements I objected to was that the contract had a “you must sign this in 10 days or else you get nothing.” […] To be fair, they were pushing for a swift resolution along with the NDA, which again is good business – and according to discussions after the departure, that clause seemed to have worked with other employees who didn’t check (they were in similar financial situations, though). What was troublesome was the fact the NDA wasn’t mutual despite the mutual separation agreement (they could say whatever they wanted, but I would have no legal recourse – not only about that, but anything), which understandably, made me uncomfortable. […] As I said, the 10 days or else did turn out not to be legally binding when confronted on and may have been dropped, but that was the specs of the contract I was hit with, and another reason I didn’t sign it. (The medical insurance time limits I couldn’t do anything about.) […] If I had signed the first de-ownering contract, however, with the non-competes, the problem would be that Tyranny would actually be the only RPG option I would have to work on (and any other Obsidian-sponsored RPGs they chose to exclude from the de-ownering agreement), so rather than being an olive branch, it was more, “here’s how we own you twice, still get you to write as always, but at a fraction of the cost.””

About his relationship with other employees.

Saturday, May 5, 7:26 PM: “I don’t have any issues with Josh [Sawyer], he’s not part of the upper management I mention here (he wasn’t even Design Director until a while after I left, I believe), and I think he’s a good Project Director. I also don’t have any issue with Tim [Cain], Leonard [Boyarsky], Charlie [Staples], Tyson [Christensen], Rich Taylor etc. and they are not part of this either – I like them all and respect their work very much. […] Josh did turn in his resignation more than once, and apparently (!) Feargus did threaten to fire him and Adam if PoE1 didn’t come out in March, which I never knew. (Yes, owners didn’t talk amongst themselves when they threatened to fire senior employees, apparently, because why would they – it was symptomatic of the poor communication at the studio. I also was never told when Feargus decided to move PoE1’s ship date from Sept to March, he didn’t mention that fact, either) I only heard about the firing threat when I read about it in Blood, Sweat, and Pixels (at least in the draft I read). I think threatening to fire Josh and Adam under any circumstances isn’t a smart move, especially since Obsidian always struggled with trying to find good leads and good programmers. I don’t ever think you should threaten employees like that, either. I also support the idea of making financial and resource sacrifices if it will make the end result better (I supported PoE2’s delayed launch), which was also apparently the crux of the threat.”

Background on CEO Feargus Urquhart.

Saturday, May 5, 7:44 PM: “Feargus went through what I feel may have been poor training as a studio lead at Black Isle. In that position, he had more control over the projects, the funding, and more importantly, outside developers – in his role at Interplay, he was very much the publisher, and he was the one who made calls on BG1, BG2, etc. He controlled the funding, could make demands, could withhold payments, and also force capitulations in features and schedules. Unfortunately, I believe this set a bad precedent for Feargus dealing with publishers in the future because we became one of the same outside developers he had formerly overseen when he was a publisher – the roles were reversed, and so was the power. Suddenly he had to experience it from the other side, and he didn’t take to it well – the control was gone, and suddenly his demands could be ignored and fought, rather than accepted. The leverage was gone.

Even more importantly, Feargus’s behavior no longer had to be ignored by the person on the other end of the phone or in discussions in the conference room: Where once if Feargus asked a developer or contractor to do something, they would largely have to swallow it or fight to be polite in order to get paid or keep their project going, the reverse was very hard for Feargus to deal with, and led to a lot of shouting matches (which you could hear down the hall), and even hanging up on publishers. We knew about this because he’d come brag to us about when he hung up on a studio head or producer, which made me even more depressed, since it meant we’d likely lose another contract with no back-up plans (he actually did the bragging rounds from owner office to owner office when he shouted at someone in the studio as well, as if he was showcasing the strength of his management style). Worse, Feargus didn’t learn from this – instead, he passed the behavior along. When Feargus was in charge of outsourcing and other remote contracts, he behaved much like the publishers he railed against, which was depressing as well. Overall, the position of having to answer to someone else didn’t often go well, and it’s much the reason I think Obsidian would be better off finding a way to completely self-publish their games because I don’t think any other option is going to work in the long-term.

It went beyond the transparency in finances – the biggest shock came when the matter arose about paying back employees (not the owners, but our employees) who had given up their paychecks to keep Obsidian from going bankrupt. When we did start getting money in the bank again after this bleak period, however, the company’s spending began accelerating again. This made me uncomfortable, so at that time where our finances became healthy again, I brought up that since we had the means to do so, we should pay back the employees who gave up their paychecks to keep us going. My comment was met with silence by all the owners. I repeated the concern, but when I brought it up again, Feargus simply said, “we never promised we’d pay the employees back,” as if that excused things – but paying the employees back didn’t seem like a technicality to me, this was the right thing to do. He then said he wanted the matter dropped. Fortunately, another owner did finally admit he agreed with me some time later (mostly because one of the unpaid employees confronted the owner on what was going on with it), he was someone Feargus would listen to, and when he brought it up (this time he asked for my support, even though he had been silent before), we were able to push Feargus into establishing a payback plan and get restitution for the employees who sacrificed for us – and this was well before any owner paychecks resumed (by this point, the owners were resolved to not getting paid back, so it wasn’t a huge shift). Overall, it seemed a shameful way to treat our employees who had sacrificed for us, and I wasn’t happy we even had to discuss compensating them – it didn’t seem to be something we should discuss, we should simply do it because it was the right thing to do.”

On Chris Parker, one of the other owners.

Sunday, May 6, 1:02 AM: “This is a very long answer, so I’ll condense it: nepotism (family and friends), works hard but often ineffectively, has poor designer skills but actively gets involved in design (Josh simply started ignoring him after a while, which became a pattern Parker didn’t even have time to notice), and in many ways, Parker is like a little Feargus except he works harder and gets more involved, which causes problems. Parker’s behavior with Feargus during the PoE KS drive final hours was soul-crushing. While usually these fights were brief, they became longer and longer between the two. He repeats a lot of the same mistakes and never seems to learn from them – and it’s embarrassing to have to remind him of them when he brings them up in front of others and asks your opinion. One very specific thing: Both Chris Parker and Feargus have a wonderful habit of giving you room to come to a solution, and then when you when you present the solution, they tell you “it wasn’t the solution they hoped you would choose” (they already had one in mind), and then tell you to go with their decision.

Here’s the thing – I don’t even care about that, but in a company where there’s never enough time and never enough money, you can’t waste so much as a day on dithering bullshit – just tell me what you want, if I have a problem with it, I’ll tell you, but chances are, I’ll agree and find a way to make it work and we won’t spend even more time arguing about how we got to this in the first place. We had this happen on KOTOR2 (I finally had to give up and give Chris the interface, which he wasted months of developer time on – and the programmers we needed – for almost no result). Feargus did something similar when Feargus asked us to decide who should be narrative lead on Eternity – and then when we said, “we should offer the job to George Ziets,” Feargus just said, “no, you should have chosen Eric.” There were tons of things like this where I wish they’d just cut to the chase, because it made you hesitant to make a call because there was always that lurking feeling it had already been decided. And it’s time you don’t get back in a company where again, there’s never enough time.

Part of my extensive post-mortem of Chris Parker (I had pages, since I was trying to learn how to be a better manager by what not to do) was at his best, he would only waste two people’s time – yours and his. At worst, he would waste entire department’s time or even the whole team’s time with feature shifts. Worse, he’d throw tantrums about his own schedules – often trashing them and throwing away promises of personnel and resources in defense of something he was doing. I don’t care about someone wanting to change the schedule, but again, that time was never given back, and the sudden nature of these changes would waste even more time and more planning that had been done with the expectation of promises to be fulfilled.

Another issue was not stopping to think before launching an action. As an example, Parker and other employees spent months trying to help someone get their immigration settled. It cost a lot of time, was distracting, and was a time sensitive matter. But as we were nearing the finish line of a months-long process, Chris Parker suddenly asked, “do we even want to keep her?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing – you’re saying this now? Didn’t you think this through? This was typical, but it’s worse when you’re playing with people’s futures here, and carelessly. On the plus side (but also echoes “repeating mistakes”) is when one of our games has gone to shit, Chris Parker is often sent in to rescue it, and it is in better shape after, even if it’s not going to be destined for the quality bin. However, it would be nice if the games hadn’t been bleeding internally in the first place (usually management-wise and staffing-wise). And it would be nice if we had someone consistent to be there who wasn’t Parker, since Parker has owner duties as well. There was one telling meeting where Chris Parker told the company they were hiring someone to replace him for his position “to do what he did”, and someone raised their hand and said, “but Chris, we don’t know what it is you do.””

More background on Black Isle Studios, where Obsidian’s owners and some employees came from.

Sunday, May 6, 1:13 AM: “Feargus kept BIS and Obsidian alive. This does not mean they were always healthy, but they were a place where RPGs could be made, that is true, and that’s a good thing. My argument is that there were many things that could be done that would make both our company and our games better. There were reasons we couldn’t build internal engines, why our developers (at BIS) didn’t get support, and why without BioWare’s Infinity Engine, BIS wouldn’t have done much successfully (we had many, many failed projects – Torn, Stonekeep 2, etc. and those projects were incredibly expensive). I did say a lot of positive things about Feargus in the ten years before and in an effort to be a good supporting owner, I did so in public even when he wasn’t doing a great job – you had to start making excuses for why he skipped meetings, why he never got back to you or anyone else, why he would suddenly back out of conferences at the last minute, and explain to everyone who tried to get a hold of him that “he’s busy at the moment, but I’m sure he’ll get back to you.” It was even worse when he’d asked you to set up the introduction, then left the person (usually a colleague of mine, or another figure in the industry) hanging.

Giving excuses I felt was part of my job to help protect my boss, since at the time, I believe he had protected me as far back at Black Isle and it was one of the reasons I joined up with Obsidian. I did have to quietly warn people I know not to count on Feargus to show up to conventions he agrees to go to, as he would often develop a sudden emergency shortly before the event (or sometimes, miss the flight entirely). It became especially shitty when they’d advertised his presence well in advance. But yes, I admit my public-facing message with Feargus was not negative – it couldn’t be. At Obsidian, however, it was a different communication process and observations that got worse the more closely you worked with him and saw how decisions were made. The last year at Obsidian I worked especially closely with Feargus, and I got to see much more of his management style than I ever had – especially how he treated other employees.”

On CIO Darren Monahan.

Sunday, May 6, 2:26 AM: “Darren and Jones are waiting for their payouts. Darren has said as much to me. Jones has said as much to me with his lack of action on anything. Longer response: While Darren at least cares about games on some level, Jones doesn’t at all and has mastered the art of saying “no” to just about everything – he’d make a great technical director at a company that doesn’t make games, because he could find a way to say “no” to everything and dismiss it out of hand. I was very surprised to see him as a lead programmer on Indiana, but not surprised to see that vanish, as Jones doesn’t tend to last long when there’s actual work to be done – he often can’t be bothered. (This was a problem as far back as KOTOR2, which I did confront him on – he also did it on Alpha Protocol before he lost interest in a few months because it was too much work.) Jones is also one of the ones I point to in Fallout 2’s troubled development = Feargus kept trying to cater to to make sure he was all right, to make sure he was happy, to make sure he was pampered – but Jones was only biding his time so he could ditch Black Isle and switch over to Troika for more money and get a bigger payout. Meanwhile, his officemate (doing actual programming) was suffering like hell with no programming relief despite an experienced programmer sitting 5 feet away who could have helped with the Studio’s workload at a time where many people were in danger of getting laid off. Jones first is the Jones’ rule. He was also threatened with being de-ownered, but the difficult issue here is that I think Feargus was right to do so – he just consumes resources with no benefit to a project (at least he was for ALL the years I was working there).

Darren’s a frustrating case b/c he’s very smart, he’s more knowledgable about game best practices than most of the owners, and has empathy, but he’s so focused on getting his cash and such an abject coward and afraid of rocking the boat, that his opinions are useless because there’s no strength behind them – he caves at the first sign of resistance. He used to try and tell me what a valiant employee fighter he was. Through email. How tough he was for employee rights. Through email. I told him to his face I thought he was too afraid to raise anything that might get him in trouble. He was at least as bad at communication and follow-up as both Feargus and Parker (probably moreso on the communication side), the biggest problem is he just seemed distracted all the time. He was, however, approachable by a lot of employees because he came across as friendly, but he often couldn’t do anything to help things except “hey, buddy, how are you?” “Buddy, tell me more.” vs. actually, really helping someone. Darren also spent forever on the PoE1 Backer Portal, providing further proof you shouldn’t ask an owner to do content work, it slows everything down – that’s not even a criticism, just the truth. No one seemed to absorb this.

Darren also had an amazing talent of both agreeing to Feargus’s requests (sort of) then not following them once he was out of Feargus’s radius… oftentimes when we had decided something at an owner meeting and agreed on a procedure, I noticed Darren would simply ignore it and not follow the procedure – even when someone needed it to be done. I asked him about it (as a precursor to a larger question as to why he hadn’t done something according to procedure). And when I asked him why, he would simply say, “well, yeah, I haven’t talked to Feargus about that yet.” But we had talked. All of us. And we had agreed. In my mind, all I could think of was this person was being a blocker for no reason that made sense. And now he wasn’t doing what we all agreed to until you talk… to Feargus… again? As he was being “buddy” with me all I could think of (and then said) was: You won’t follow the procedure until you talk to him? After we talked? When is that? And that also means you won’t actually do what was decided until that vague future date? My dinosaur brain would simply say: Do it now, Darren, for fuck’s sake, because you’re making a mess where we already decided there wasn’t one. It was frustrating, but it was also one of those situations that because Darren was one of those who nodded and said the right things and even though he completely disregarded what Feargus told him to do, he got a pass because he acted like he was falling in line. Frankly, it was garbage. Parker did the same thing – and even said as much to our publishers as early on as KOTOR2 when diminishing Feargus’s thoughts on production issues because Feargus was “out of touch and didn’t understand producers or production anymore.” Jones at least had the balls to tell Feargus he was full of shit and we shouldn’t do what he was saying (which quickly made him one of the most unpopular owners, because he could often argue with facts). It also made him the target of “well, you don’t sound like you want to be an owner anymore” discussions, which weren’t really discussions.

I will also say because Darren agrees with Feargus when pressured or frightened, that does make him very valuable when voting needs to be done, and it was good of Feargus to choose him to be one of the production triad of owners and give him a large % of shares to make that vote worthwhile. Darren rarely, if ever, spoke to me (he was afraid to). However, while we didn’t have a good working relationship on Dark Alliance 1 back at Black Isle, I realized later on it was because Feargus never told Darren that he (Feargus) was coming into my office every other day to give advice and continual dumb changes on the story, so it required a lot of iteration, which (to my error) I didn’t realize Darren couldn’t be aware of because Feargus would tell him (right?), and I’m sure it surprised Darren to find me in a frustrated mood (Feargus’ story iterations ranged from a wide variety of crap ideas, where you had to dig deep and wide to find the good in them – his craptastic story skills also caused a lot of problems on Dungeon Siege 3). This overall lack of communication continued at Obsidian. You don’t hear much about Darren, and that’s Darren’s desire – he wants to stay “off the grid,” he doesn’t want to run projects anymore (it’s too much pressure), and he wants to be everyone’s friend while helping (almost) no one until he gets his payout, serves his time for a new master for a few years, then vanishes with his gold. I respect him for his insights, but not his character, which is weak and cowardly.”

On Chris Jones, one of the other owners.

Sunday, May 6, 3:05 AM: “Jones has kept himself off the radar – and off of actual work – for many, many years. As much as it was frustrating, I have to respect that kind of dodgy talent – and plus, he’s got the privilege of remaining an owner despite threats from the CEO, so he knows how to go with the flow. “No worries, Gus, I’ll keep my mouth shut – I need my payout. Whatever you say – forget what I was saying 5 minutes ago about all the facts about how things are off the rails – if you are threatening to un-owner me, I’ll stay the course because I need that money.” What equally amazed me, however, was how quickly he would turn on programmers doing actual work and condemn them (one of our best project directors – who was a programmer, and an excellent one – was frequently hammered by him to the point where I wondered if it was because the PD was a programmer who was proving he could do far more than the baseline Jones had set, which is immediately threatening to a superior). Jones also used the word “impossible” more liberally than he should in terms of what programming could do – and would never contradict it even when he realized it wasn’t true, which was equally amazing. If you ever wonder why KOTOR2 couldn’t auto-read save files (like every other RPG on console and PC could once BioWare decided to make it so), you can thank Jones for evaluating it as “impossible.” Again, please note that he realized he was wrong, but he chose never to say anything about that. I have no idea why. The only joy I had was when Jones and Parker would go at each other’s throats (they hated each other for the simple reason that even if Parker was flawed, at least he did something – and Jones was all about not doing anything). Overall, as little as I respect Parker, at least he saw Jones for the production “oh, there’s no way to do this” blocker that he was.”

Bethesda Softworks had offered Obsidian Entertainment a bonus if Fallout: New Vegas achieved an 85 Metacritic score. It achieved an 84 score. A user asked whether there was any manipulation of the score on Bethesda’s part.

Sunday, May 6, 3:17 AM: “I don’t believe they did at all – it was our responsibility to do more to make the game better, but the people making the decisions on game quality kept getting distracted by shiny objects. It was Obsidian’s fault, and as Ferg said, Bethesda didn’t even have to offer that in the contract at all – it was up to us to manage it to a successful quality completion, and we didn’t succeed at that. Good people lost their jobs because of that. I gave a lot of thought as to why, and some of it came out in my Hierarchy presentations – don’t let the person who can enact change be distracted. Let them use their powers for good to fix the title, because they have the authority to ensure quality is achieved.”

Avellone had been the one to first bring up the Metacritic score episode a few years ago. A user pointed out that there are conflicts between his position then and his position now.

Sunday, May 6, 12:52 PM: “It is widely believed that when that statement was revealed, that it was blaming Bethesda. It wasn’t, it was recognizing we as a studio should have done better – and even a little bit better (1%) could have had huge benefits (and we could have kept people we had to let go). My feelings then are the same as my feelings now, and I stand by that. It’s an unpopular stance (the anti-underdog stance usually is compared to the underdog needs a little more training montage moments), but I believe it’s the correct one. Bethesda was trying to encourage us to do a quality job, they didn’t have to, and we missed the mark – but within the realm where it was clear we could have fixed it. I wrote post-mortems as reminders and plans to myself about how we could fix this in the future (clear hierarchy, keep the people who can make the decisions focused on reviewing the content and enacting change and finding bugs vs. adding more features/getting lost in the weeds, etc.).”

On Stormlands, one of Obsidian’s canceled projects.

Sunday, May 6, 1:05 PM: “Feargus didn’t do it to Bethesda, but he certainly painted a different picture of how the Microsoft Stormlands cancellation went down – because he had no choice. While I don’t think all of Microsoft’s requests were something we could have done (although they might have been willing to pay to have it done), there was room for discussion and middle ground, but they were repeatedly told “no,” in very forceful terms. Having got the same reactions to feedback I’ve given, I can say it makes you hesitate before doing it again. When it started becoming apparent they were going to pull away, Feargus worked very hard to try and save that relationship, but it was too late. It was definitely not something Feargus wanted, however, but after the fact, he had little choice but to highlight the nobility of the studio’s stance when the project was canceled, and arguably, the story also worked well for crowdsourcing messaging as it garnered a lot of sympathy (it’s one reason the documentary video for the KS feels disingenuous). From my view, it was not a case of a noble developer standing up to the big publisher even though that makes for a better story… the developer drove the publisher away, when that was the exact opposite of what upper management wanted to do (they wanted to do large, expensive AAA titles). The event certainly did a lot of damage to the studio, and we had to let a lot of good people go as a result of the decisions of a few, and I think it could have been handled differently if we weren’t so difficult to work with overall on multiple levels. As icing on an otherwise dismal layoff day, after I had had to go through letting people go (who were not on Stormlands and had done nothing to contribute to its failure), I came back to report to the other owners, only to hear from Feargus that one employee he was going to let go was retained – our front desk receptionist, Feargus’s sister. I still wonder to this day if that had meant I could have kept one of the employees we had who had an equivalent salary and was actually contributing to our projects, but I was too furious at the news to speak.”

Sunday, May 6, 2:05 PM: “[Stormlands] was exactly the opportunity many in the studio wanted (a good chunk of the upper management wanted to do an AAA game to make their mark and have said as much in interviews – I don’t think you need to do it via AAA to make your mark, but I don’t object to the sentiment to want to do so). The Microsoft deal seemed to be a great way to have a solid foundation for once. It might be challenging, but it was worth fighting for. However, the problems increased over time on both sides until Microsoft didn’t want to deal with it anymore, and I didn’t blame them. I wouldn’t even have minded us going our separate ways except there was no contingency plan in place for when it happened (although we were able to keep some team members – I do think a number of people who weren’t responsible for what happened, inc. the Lead Producer and Lead Programmer, didn’t deserve to be let go while others who had directly contributed to the problem got to stay). Aliens was a bit more confusing, but one fact there is it’s sometimes said the game was close to being done, which wasn’t the case: it was at vertical slice stage (and a good one, I thought), then it got cancelled, but much of the full production work had not been done, it wasn’t close to shipping or anything as some people assume.”


Editor’s Note (5/7/2018) : If you’re looking to read more, please check out our new interview with Chris here!


Richard Costa

Staff Writer

Ape meets keyboard. Hack for hire, recovering academic and RPG enthusiast who started gaming on MSX in the late 80s, then witnessed the glorious 90s on PC.