A Rocky Relationship
Chris Avellone requires little in the way of introduction. He was the lead designer and writer of Fallout 2 and Planescape: Torment, and a writer or narrative designer on most of Obsidian Entertainment's games, and more recently on a variety of titles from Prey to Divinity: Original Sin II and Into the Breach. One of the original founders and co-owners of Obsidian Entertainment after Black Isle Studios was closed down, he left Obsidian in 2015, in rather unusual circumstances that hinted at a less than amicable departure.
These circumstances led to much speculation about what happened, but until last week it was just that: speculation. Then an interview that was conducted over two years was posted on notorious RPG forum (gleefully described by its users as a 'den of scum and villainy') RPGCodex. The main interview was interesting, but things really got heated up in the comments, where Chris began answering comments... including those on why he left Obisidan and what were the issues there. We've been covering the updates in a separate article, which is important to read to get context around this interview, including Chris' issues with the other co-owners at Obsidian, especially with CEO Feargus Urquhart, the NDA, and the non-compete they tried to have him sign, among other topics.
Following up on that we reached out to Chris and asked a few questions of our own.
TechRaptor: Could you go into detail about the exact structure of Obsidian's ownership and how did it work?
Chris Avellone: There were 5 owners. Feargus had the biggest share, Chris Parker and Darren Monahan had the 2nd largest, and Chris Jones and I had a small %. The ownership was not equal. Between the owners, as long as Feargus, Parker, and Monahan agreed, that was usually the end of things (we didn't often vote on things - sometimes we'd just hear about things that had been decided). We considered them the "production triad.”
TechRaptor: When exactly did financial and managerial issues start becoming an ongoing issue between you and Feargus? Was there a particular moment or meeting, or was it more of a gradual change in perception over the years?
Chris Avellone: About a year before the split, Feargus became someone I reported to directly (aside from the leads on projects I was on that I worked for). When I did report to Feargus, more and more issues came to light about how things were done that were hard to unsee - and sometimes I didn't even know about them until after the fact.
I objected to a number of these things because they seemed wrong (they're at the Codex, but they're too many to repeat here). Even if my objections weren’t personal, I'm sure that didn't generate any goodwill, but I did bring up objections because I was genuinely surprised by the answers I was getting (I thought Obsidian’s employee review process had problems, for example, but even that was refuted).
On a personal note, I also discovered that one of the primary reasons I'd left to follow Feargus to Obsidian instead of going elsewhere) was because something he told me he later admitted that same year was untrue. And when he made the admission, I don't think he remembered he had once told me something very different, and his answer then was the source of much of my support for him during my time at Obsidian because it had seemed he had taken steps to support me and defend me at Black Isle during the Torment process. Surprised by this, I did double-check with him and ask for clarification once he told me this reversal to make sure he was saying what I thought he was saying, and he confirmed it again. I don't think he realized the importance of what he was admitting to and again, I don’t think he actually remembered what he had once told me. I was disappointed to hear that it wasn’t true, but I am happy I know now.
The biggest shock, though, 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. And when this occurred, it made me uncomfortable. At that time where our finances had become 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. That comment was met with silence by all the owners.
I repeated the concern, but this time when I brought it up again, Feargus simply said, "we never promised we'd pay the employees back," as if that excused things - it didn’t seem like a technicality to me, this was the right thing to do. He then said he wanted the matter dropped.
Fortunately, when another owner did finally admit he agreed with me sometime later (mostly because one of the unpaid employees confronted the owner on what was going on with it), 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).
TechRaptor: You mentioned de-ownering was a constant threat used whenever any of the owners disagreed on things. Obviously, this must have created a lot of troubled interaction among the owners. How much confrontation actually happened? Did the other owners try to calm things down so that nonconfrontation was the norm?
Chris Avellone: The threat was usually enough to end the conversation because there's not much to say at that point when you're being threatened that 8-10 years of your life may become worth nothing. And as bad as my finances were and family to worry about, at least I didn't have children I had to support, which would likely have made the comment more chilling.
TechRaptor: You mentioned being concerned with not being able to comment on other companies that Feargus had shares in. Was there anything in particular there that concerned you?
Chris Avellone: Yes. Aside from the distraction they caused in an already-busy company like Obsidian (to the point where these companies that provided little to no benefit to Obsidian, only Feargus), they sometimes were at the forefront of issues of the day, which could get disheartening if you were waiting for a critical response on something else. I also had no insight on any legal issues going on with these other companies, either, but it was likely Obsidian would be implicated on those if any existed.
TechRaptor: Was there similar cost padding or money manipulation going on in the development of Fallout: New Vegas and other games?
Chris Avellone: I'll have to leave it to the parties hit with the cost adjustments to speak up to it (they’re definitely aware of it and weren’t happy about it). If they do, I will back them with what I know and they can count on my testimony.
TechRaptor: Are you willing to talk more openly about your relationship with Josh Sawyer? We noticed you only seem to refer to him obliquely, by his current or past job titles, never by name directly. Any reason for that?
Chris Avellone: I'd like to reiterate I don't have any issues with the Obsidian developers or the games - my issues concern upper management and their business approach.
Josh is a good game director. I would be surprised if he knew about these issues any more than other employees did. That said, Josh already turned in his resignation a few times at Obsidian and then was threatened with being fired, I later learned. I don’t know how much leave he felt he had to speak on things, but he isn’t usually one to be silent unless ordered to. If he was aware and you asked him, like Eric, he would likely give a factual answer (Eric agreed the process I brought up on PoE was broken, although he had other issues).
Also, to clarify, I don't care about cuts to my work (that’s what being a writer is all about), and I don’t consider my words precious and unalterable - I only cared about the process that was followed, which I thought was poorly managed and wasted everyone's time. I will say that although Josh was given responsibility for the cuts, he was very quiet in all the meetings we had about the matter, but it may be because I was agreeing to do all of them – which was always the case. If anything, the only one fighting the cuts was Feargus, who didn’t understand the content, so he didn’t add much to the conversation beyond further delays.
I do know many writers at Obsidian who did go over word count (including PoE2, which is said to be double the size of internal projections) but I don’t know how many were ready to do cuts immediately when asked as I did – but I did try to set an example for how writers should react when asked to change elements by their lead or project lead because you'd want the same thing if you were a lead or project director (otherwise, you can't maintain a consistent vision).
Thanks to Chris for speaking with us for this interview, and if you're looking for some backstory for this interview - check out this story.