Earlier this month we gave you the chance to ask a question of Obsidian’s Chris Parker and Chris Avellone. The ten best were selected with the winners not only getting their question answered but also scoring themselves a copy of Alpha Protocol.
With the game launching on Thursday, let’s take a look at the full interview.
Alpha Protocol will be the first original game produced by Obsidian as a company (not counting when you were Black Isle) as opposed to a sequel or expansion for an existing game. Does this affect the development team at all in terms of enthusiasm, motivation, or pressure?
Chris Parker: The two scenarios are just different – I can honestly say I like working on both. When you are developing a sequel product you start out with a fairly well-defined sandbox in which to play. You have tech, a world, rules, and your challenge is to develop lots of awesome content vs time. On an original game you give up that security for freedom. It’s awesome in that you are creating from nothing, but that presents a glut of challenges in getting the team to see it, love it, and then make it. At the end of the day, the stress is all the same, I just want to make something I’m proud of and that people like.
Lets talk about the term “Espionage RPG” since it clearly is the driving factor of this game and is even embedded in the title. When I hear RPG, I think the more you kill the better off you are as you level up and gain currency. When I hear Espionage, I think the less you kill the better as you’re rewarded for stealth and sneakiness. Now your game clearly has both these elements. But how do you consolidate these totally conflicting reward systems? Or in other words, how does the game reward a stealth player as opposed to a run-and-gun player?
Chris Parker: The original concept for the game was that you’d be a modern-day action hero and we picked iconic characters like Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer. Those guys are stealthy sometimes, and sometimes they just kick a lot of ass. We extended that even further so our goal from the outset was to allow a spectrum from stealth to straight action. The story on the other hand is written with espionage in mind, and that’s how that sub-title or tag-line or whatever it is got added to it. That wasn’t our decision, but it certainly was much better than some tag lines that were proposed. So… to get to your question, we had to reward the player for any of those play styles, so you get experience and rewards for successfully avoiding encounters in a very similar fashion to how you get experience for killing enemies.
In the current RPG environment where players expect to be able to customise their character, name them and pick their “class” there seems a danger when you present them with something predetermined. As a role playing game they may not like that character or want to be that character. But on the other hand as a result the story could end up being bland and the character lack depth. There would seem to me to be three approaches to player engagement/role immersion and character design:
* Make the character fully customisable and let the player control every aspect of them and the story.
* Make the character generic or anonymous (eg Master Chief from Halo with his faceless helm).
* Make a strong character and let the player choose stats or other things in the story.
In designing the character Michael Thorton, and his background, how did you balance those factors so that a player could easily “identify” with him and feel he is “theirs” while still holding onto the integrity of the story? Or is there a magic option 4?
Chris Parker: This was something we battled with at times during development and ultimately we chose the third. We were looking to mimic a genre in which all the leading males have a ton of charisma and then let the player determine what their version of that character would be and do. So Michael Thorton only looks and speaks like Michael Thorton – your decisions determine his skills, stats, items, and most importantly how the story evolves.
What process went into the mapping of coversation trees and the outcomes that followed? Further, most games either run you on a path of good or bad (depending on which you do more) and sometimes entirely forget that large shade of grey… usually making “conversation choice” games linear regardless of how you play. How well does Alpha Protocol adapt to the players choices and change the overall feel/play of the game?
Chris Avellone: The dialogue system was designed to match the genre, which meant conversations needed to be fast-paced, tense, and to the point. Also to match the genre, the consequences of those decisions weren’t good or bad, either, only good or bad in the perception of specific people in the game. Often, what may seem like good or bad options are “too soon to tell” options all the way to the end of the game. The only thing that matters is that the player plays the way they want and get different rewards or consequences that suit their playstyle.
It intrigues me that game developers are moving towards realistic gameplay, don’t get me wrong personally I enjoy games with a superior grasp of the real world tactics, weapons, unarmed combat etc, (but we all know that real Intelligence Officers would have a bit more paper work :) Can you explain to me what sort testing you completed to make the weapon handling, firing effects, Kempo moves etc as realistic as possible?
Chris Parker: The weapon handling is intended to be fun over realistic. The weapons are each intended to fulfil a certain role in the game: the rifle is for longer range combat, the pistol is for stealth, the shotgun for short range anarchy, and the SMGs are your classic over-the-top lead-based movie-fantasy testosterone power-trip weapon. What you can do with those weapons, with special abilities, with special ammo, are completely unrealistic. The Kempo, however, was all motion captured from a kempo master from the Unified Studio of Self Defense. It’s right on.
In regards to the music for the game, what made you decide to bring electronica artist BT to the table for the creation of the game’s score rather than going down the path of traditional classical composition, and how has this choice impacted the overall atmosphere and presentation of the game?
Chris Parker: I think going with something more electronic fit with the tone of the game better. It works just as well hyping up combat or playing underneath cinematics, and I think it provides a sense of youth and modern-ness.
Chris Avellone: The scores vary in genre and pacing depending on the character, the boss, and their attitude.
Recent RPG’s have been met with cries from both crowds, on whether they are moving towards what some would say is a simplification or “dumbing down” of the genre, due to the lack of classic “RPG” elements. Others take the view that they are moving in the opposite direction, and becoming more of a natural role-playing experience. What can you tell us regarding Alpha Protocol’s position, and more specifically both of your thoughts on this current back-and-forth?
Chris Parker: Personally, I’m a terrible person to take sides in this particular discussion. I think some games benefit from a simple RPG scheme and yet I love other games that are more complicated. For example, I have no numerical idea what any of the upgrades in Bioshock 2 do, but I still feel like my character is growing and I’m picking how he does that (yes, that’s RPG-lite, but appropriate). In Fallout 3 there are tons of numbers for me to look at and analyze, along with a bamillion items and a gigantic open world. I love both those games, and as long as games are still being made on that broad spectrum, I’m happy.
Alpha Protocol did stay away from some “hard-core” RPG elements. We wanted you to get equipment, but have specific types of guns. And we didn’t want you to be stuck with a class but we wanted you to have skills. The story is very reactive to the decisions that you make all the way up to the end. Is it as hard-core as some of the golden oldies? Nah, but I think it’s the appropriate amount level for the game we made.
As a married early thirties time sensitive, working professional and gaming enthusiast I seem to have less time to game with every passing year. Whilst I’ve grown up with and enjoyed some brilliant RPG series such as Baldur’s Gate and Knight of the Old Republic. I find the RPG genre is becoming more and more inaccessible, as I struggle to find the thirty five to fifty hours needed to finish a title. Specifically in a timeframe that doesn’t leave the typically excellent story, a fuzzy mess. As game designers, are the needs of my demographic considered when developing an RPG or do you believe the RPG genre is a niche market targeted at a less time sensitive audience?
Chris Parker: I share your opinion (and situation) and dread starting games that I know will take forever – although I’m usually pretty stoked when I finish them. Personally, I think you can tell a story efficiently and have it be powerful and rewarding. I think there is a trap, and one that I can say we’ve fallen into sometimes, where we feel the need to make a game 45 hours when the experience would be less diluted and more powerfully finished in 25.
When a game gets such a lengthy delay from its original release date, do the added costs of extending the development cycle put added pressure on you, internally and/or externally from the publisher, in terms of the sales figures you need to hit in order to get a return on the project? If so, do these added pressures result in you having to make any compromises to your original vision for the game in order to increase its mass-market appeal in order to hit the higher sales targets?
Chris Parker: This is a fairly complicated subject and I think it varies a lot from circumstance to circumstance. Speaking personally, I want to make the best game I can given the time and resources available, even when those two things conflict.
In the case of AP I don’t think the ultimate vision for the game changed in order to massage sales forecasts. There were ideas and features that got cut along the way, even a few missions that didn’t make the grade. I guess you could say that was done to improve sales indirectly, since that was all part of making the game better. But nobody ever came to us and said “our focus testing shows our target audience wants to attack people with canes, add that to the game” or anything like that.
You are standing in a dark room, possible exits are North. There is an unaware soldier in front of you blocking your exit. You are carrying a length of rope, a stapler and a pack of gum. What do you do?
Chris Parker: What do you mean? An African or European Soldier?