An Interview with Chris Avellone, Video Game Designer for ‘Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic’

Star wars: knights of the old republic

Chris Avellone is a video game designer and script writer who has worked within the video game industry for 20 years. Chris has worked on popular titles such as the Fallout series and Wasteland 2 and has worked for various video game developers, notably interplay and Obsidian Entertainment.

Whilst working for Obsidian Entertainment, Chris was the lead designer and lead narrative designer for the second installment in the ever popular Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic series. Speaking with geekinsider, Chris discusses what it was like to work on KOTOR2, including the highs and lows of working on a Star Wars game, how a wild animal found its way into the office, who Chris’ favourite character turned out to be and the perils of working to a deadline with Obsidian entertainment.

• So, in regards to Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), were you a fan of the first KOTOR? Just how excited were you when you found out that you were set to work on the second installment of the franchise?

Chris Avellone: Actually, none of us had the chance to play KOTOR before working on KOTOR2 – all we knew about the game was what we’d seen on the net, everything else about the game was a mystery. This meant when it came to the story and narrative, there was a lot of guessing where the 2nd game should go because we had no idea what the first one was about. We actually had to pitch a story without knowing what the 1st game was about, and this led to some rapid revisions once we did play the game because our “well, let’s guess” version differed greatly from KOTOR1 (and not in a good way).

I wasn’t initially excited to work on a Star Wars game. This is because while I had been a Star Wars fan in my youth, I’d lost touch with it as I got older, and it wasn’t as appealing as it had been when I was much younger and went to see Episode IV ten times (not counting how much I watched it on TV after that). That said, part of a developer’s job is to plough ahead and find the passion for the work, so I dug into Star Wars, movies, books, comics… and within a week or two, I found I had changed my mind and had some ideas percolating on some stories to tell in that universe.

• What was your role in the development of KOTOR 2?

Chris: I was Chief Creative Officer of the company, which was a confusing title that I sought clarity on many times (fact, not a slight), but my more understandable title was Lead Designer and Lead Narrative Designer.

BTW, sorry to go on a tangent – I don’t ever recommend having more than two areas of responsibility on a game, especially if one of them is heavily content driven. It sets a bad precedent and harms quality and inevitably the game suffers, in my opinion.

• How happy were you with the final outcome of KOTOR 2? Stories have obviously circulated that the ending to the game was rushed, did it turn out the way you wanted?

Chris: I wasn’t pleased with the outcome, and there was more planned, as evidenced by the legacy files. I got yelled at internally about the legacy files (which I don’t care, I’m glad they were there). That said, the project was a lesson for me in managing scope, and I’ve taken responsibility for it before – our producers and CEO knew we had no guarantees of time going into it, and I should have ignored the pressure of “we need to add more than K1” because I’d already had evidence that by doing the exact opposite and focusing on quality (Planescape: Torment had less companions than Baldur’s Gate 1, for example), that yields better results. My motto: Don’t strive to do more, just strive to do better.

• What was it like right at the beginning when you first began to write the script for the game? How fun was it to essentially create your own Star Wars story/film? How many times did you play the original before you starting production for the Sith Lords?

Chris: It was intimidating, but eventually became fun, especially when it came down to the companions and the villains. I only had time to do a full play through of the original game once before jumping on to the sequel. There wasn’t much time in the game’s production cycle to allow for more than that, unfortunately.

• What can you remember about working on KOTOR2? Are there a few memories that stand out? What things worked and what didn’t?

Chris: It was a frantic rush, so it’s hard to recall any one thing. In terms of things that didn’t work: The mini-games I wish we’d cut, and I also wish we’d scoped down the companion list.

Also, while this part is not evident, the production staff on the team wasted a lot of time iterating on the
interface with poor results, and there wasn’t anything we could do to persuade them otherwise. It consumed the time of several key members of the design and programming team we could have used in other areas (like the end game). At the end, the disproportionate focus on the interface was admitted by internal production (and QA) to have been a focusing mistake by evidence of the end result, but it didn’t really matter – by then it was too late, and the damage had been done.

• Were there any changes you had to make that you were disappointed about?

Chris: No. Even when the droid planet was cut, we knew why it had to go, and not a ton of work had been done on it. I was disappointed we couldn’t do the Telos HK factory, and obviously, the end game sections could have used a lot more work. But on the plus side, the LucasArts approval team had few issues with the game itself, and only had 5-6 minor comments over the course of the game (one was a misspelling with one character’s name, the other was a character model’s horns were too long, stuff like that, nothing major).

• I’ve spoken to a few other game developers and script writers and they usually recall funny/strange stories that happened during their time working on a particular game, can you recall any funny or interesting anecdotes from your time working on KOTOR2?

Chris: Aside from the (literal) rat in the office that one of our programmers (Anthony Davis) built elaborate traps to catch, my moments were mostly solely on the development side. It was noteworthy that LucasArts was supportive to some of our requests, even the comical ones – it was pretty great to get Carth and Bastilla “voices” back to be replayed by HK-47 when he’s expressing his disdain for human/biological “love” and mimicking Carth and Bastilla to act out that disdain.

• Did you meet any of the voice actors for the game? What were the voice actors who played the alien characters like?

Chris: Yes, I met a few of them, but wanted to meet more – mostly because I would have preferred to be present at the studio as much as possible (a good chunk of game writing depends on voice actor delivery of the lines). The problem was the time frame didn’t allow for us to have any time to go to the studio except in small bursts, so that was unfortunate. The same thing was true for NWN2, so it’s something I worked actively to correct.
Among many of the actors, I got to meet Kelly Hu who voiced Visas Marr, and I thought she did a great job, but one regret is I never got the chance to meet Sara Kestelman (Kreia) which makes me super sad, she really made even the crappiest lines I wrote sing.

• Who was your favorite character in the game and why?

Chris: T3-M4 because he’s your fiercely loyal buddy and I like writing the player responses that interpret his beeps and boops – also, HK’s an easy favorite, but I liked him even more because he’s just fun to write.

• I’m sure you’ve been asked many times – why has there not been a KOTOR 3 – but was there ever any plans for a KOTOR 3? KOTOR 2 seemed to end on a potential cliff hanger. Did Obsidian want to make a KOTOR 3?

Chris: I always wanted to do a KOTOR3 because trilogies felt in keeping with the series. There were plans for the third installment, which involved traveling to the Unknown Regions in the Ebon Hawk in search of Revan and discovering the domain of the (ancient) Sith Lords. Obsidian couldn’t convince LucasArts to let them do a third KOTOR, however, which while unfortunate, has left other avenues open for a KOTOR3. I don’t know the reasons why Obsidian couldn’t convince LucasArts to do a third title, I’m not sure they themselves knew the full reasons for it.

• With the game industry obviously evolving, has Game development become easier or more difficult since the early/mid 2000s in terms of making a game exactly how you want it – graphics wise, gameplay, story, dynamics etc etc.

Chris: It’s changed, and it’s not necessarily more difficult – but definitely more specialized. I find I do just as much work as I used to but in a narrower field (ex: “designer” has been replaced with specialized roles such as system designer, level designer, UI designer, and narrative designer, etc.). That said, with the advances in technology, your storytelling toolkit often forces you to be aware of many more moving parts you can use to tell a story (cinematography, facial animation, character animation, SFX, VO, environment art and vistas, etc.). Not a bad thing at all – prose isn’t the best weapon in a game writer’s arsenal, usually it’s the strengths of another department.

• When you are lead writer for a game what methods do you use in order to come up with an original storyline? Are you the sort of person that does their own thing or do you ask your colleagues etc for their own opinions on how a story in a game should go?

Chris: I start by analyzing the franchise (or the new IP), learning what the player experience is, the moment-to-moment gameplay systems, and other core elements before I start writing. For the research aspect, this part of the process informs me what kind of stories have already been told, what’s appealing about those stories that has players/readers/viewers coming back. Usually after analyzing all the elements above, there’s already a story percolating that I can begin to start fleshing out.

While I do like writing stories, I always submit anything I write to team feedback and even company feedback (sometimes in company presentations). The reason is simple. It’s a game story that we all have to feel good about and want to help realize as a group, so absorbing critiques and suggestions from others and iterating on the story is key.

• Is working within the Game Industry your dream job? Is there any Game Title you would really love to work on? Do you have any original games that you would love to create and make a success of?

Chris: Yes, game development is my dream job – it’s even better now that I have more freedom. And when I say freedom, I mean this freedom also allows me to pursue game titles, franchises, or work with other developers and teams I’ve always wanted to work with – and now do.

• In terms of Star Wars again, how much has changed in regards to video game rights since Disney took charge? Can you ever see yourself working on another Star Wars game in any variety?

Chris: Yes, I can see myself working on a Star Wars game. 😉 In terms of changes in the franchise, I know a lot of the Expanded Universe was removed and/or altered, but that’s not a bad thing – even if some of the lore that was cut away was lore I created.

Also, it’s nice to see stories outside the Episode arcs as well, and I enjoyed Rogue One. I’m looking forward to other writers and directors bringing new perspectives to the Star Wars universe.

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