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Interview with Matt Armstrong: Designing for Chaos in Prototype 2

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Posted March 15, 2012 - By Kevin Kelly


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Prototype 2

Matt Armstrong is the design director on Prototype 2 at Radical Entertainment. He worked on the first entry in the franchise as senior designer and he was responsible for a lot of different things from the metagame, to the disguise system, to the interfaces, so he basically knows the game inside and out.

But he kept himself from playing the original game after it came out, worried that he would be upset by what he felt were some of the design shortcomings. To that end, they’ve reworked Prototype 2 heavily, touching nearly every system in the game from combat to upgrades, and in his new role, he wants to be sure that everything in the game comes directly from the fiction and supports it throughout the gameplay.


Read on for our full interview with Armstrong as he opens up and talks about what went into Prototype 2, and what you can expect to get out of it.

Prototype 2

What were the biggest changes the team made to the game?


Wow, there’s a whole bunch. The super short answer would be that pretty much everything has been touched at some level to get it up to really competitive, contemporary standards. We wanted to make sure everything felt like it had a really polished feeling from a Triple-A title this time around.

But in terms of the most touched elements, there’s a couple that I would probably go to immediately, one of which would be general gameplay structure. With the idea that in the first game, all of the side missions and the side content, the collectibles and so forth, were all very abstracted. “Go out into the world and kill as many enemies as you can.” Why? Eh, because we tell you to. And the collectibles, they were just glowing orbs that have no real presence whatsoever.

So this time around, the two watchwords that I try to use are “character” and “personality.” I wanted to make sure that at every single step it was a game that felt like it had been loved, for want of a better expression. That care had gone into making sure that at every single step of the way, we were telling a story outside of cinematics. So as you’re exploring the world, you can see by looking around you, and how the NPCs are going about their lives and trying to survive in this environment, or what the bad guys are doing we don’t need to tell you what the world is about because you can see it.

And it’s the same with the side content. All of the side missions and the collectibles have a place in our world, they have a place within the fiction and they reinforce that. They give the sense of an environment that is now plausible and believable. It’s no longer a game world; it’s a plausible environment that you can explore. So that’s been at the top of the list of things to address.

On a micro-level, the other big change, which is less obvious at first glance, but once you start playing it become more obvious, is the changes that we’ve made to the combat systems. We wanted to make sure we could retain the epic scale encounters from the first game, but we also wanted to bring order to chaos. To try and make sure that the player can always read the battlefield and know which enemy is the biggest threat, and that they have the tools and the training to know how to respond to that particular threat. I feel like now we have the best of both worlds: we’ve got that chaos, but you don’t feel like you’re being overwhelmed by it or being cheated unfairly by it.

Prototype 2

The upgrade system in the original Prototype was confusing at times because it was enormous. Have you revamped that or trimmed it back?

We’ve done a little bit of both. I actually avoided playing the first game for a little while after we shipped it because honestly, there were a bunch of things about it that I was disappointed in that hadn’t hit the heights that we’d wanted to. And the last thing I wanted after shipping it was to be reminded of our shortcomings.

But when I went back to it, honestly, I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to enjoy it. But one of the first things that came across as a player was that after defeating the first boss in the game, which was sort of a bunch of brawler types inside a military base, we came outside after completing that mission and it said “21 New Moves Unlocked.” And my heart just sank, because I suddenly realized you have to be a certain type of person to go into a back-end menu and read the descriptors for 21 new moves, and then after reading to go “This one seems like the one that might give me value more than this one.” It was just overwhelming.

So what we’ve tried to do this time is externalize a lot of those and make sure we’re placing them into the world as things that you can hunt out and find as you’re doing either the main story missions, the side missions, or the collectibles. As you get them, we ensure that you have clear… not just tutorials in place, but also once we’ve introduced you to the basics of the upgrade you’ve just received, we put you in a situation that allows you to experience it in its best possible way so that you get a strong sense of ‘Okay. I feel well equipped now. I understand how I should be using this and what tactical advantages it has.’ That’s how we’ve tried to address that problem.

Like Mercer in the first game, Heller can absorb people to regain health. Ostensibly, these are purely innocent people. Is there a metric that monitors how many innocents you kill? Or is it just up to the players?

It’s certainly something that we’ve thought about, and honestly it hits upon one of the challenges of Prototype. If you have a character who has a role that is somewhat altruistic, it goes against the core of the gameplay and yet there is something from an experiential point of view that is incredibly fun about playing the bad guy, effectively. You get to run around, grabbing people, consuming them, and using their abilities. I don’t believe that, in all honesty, we’ve completely solved it. But slight disconnect does exist in there, and it is something that is of interest to us moving forward. It certainly doesn’t hurt the core experience.

One of the most interesting things I’ve seen while watching focus tests is that players actually role-play Heller. It doesn’t matter that there are no metrics or rules in place to prevent you from acting that way if you really want to. We’ve actually consistently seen players go into the world and avoid hurting civilians, just because their perception ‘That’s not Heller would do.’ From my point of view, it’s been incredibly rewarding to see that level of connection with our protagonist, that players actually want to do that because they care about him, and they care about his goals and his motivations.

 

Prototype 2 "Bio-Bomb Butt Kicker Ability" Trailer »


Heller’s Bio-Bomb ability is new to the game. Does that mean he has certain skills that Mercer doesn’t? Or is it part of the mythology now that Mercer can use that ability as well?

That’s a really good question. In all honesty it is something that is intrinsic to Heller. It’s not something that Mercer has access to at any given point. That speaks to one of the more interesting parts of the IP from my perspective, which is that the virus affects different people in very different ways. Some people it kills outright, some people it turns into horribly mutated monsters.

Presumably there is another subset of people who are not affected by it at all, you know sort of like the common cold. Then as you continue along that line, there’s going to be a lot of people that get minor superpowers: maybe they’ll only need two hours of sleep at night or whatever, or they can eat whatever the hell they like and they never gain an ounce of weight, which would be awesome by the way.

At the upper end of the virus, you get the Hellers and the Mercers who have these crazy, unstoppable superpowers. What I like about it is that the virus can express itself in so many different ways, which means that moving forward we can always look at different protagonists in different parts of the world. Different motivations, different genders, different goals, and different abilities without ever breaking with the canon of the franchise. If you push it to its crazy extremes like telekinesis or ESP, those are all options because there’s no reason why one particular character may not show that particular trait.

Heller’s background is in the military, where’s Mercer’s was not. Is that reflected in the game? Mercer could easily use weapons in the first game, but did you draw anything specifically from Heller’s military background?

Yes, there were a couple of things that came out of it. One of which was the idea that, in the first game Mercer was a little bit of a reactive character. He was constantly being told what to do by other people. We wanted a character this time around who was more determined to drive their own path through the story. Someone that, while they might have contacts in the world, they would take that information and then process it and use it to make their own decisions about what they want to do.

So, certainly from a narrative standpoint that’s produced a different character. Heller is somebody that is used to being in stressful, dangerous situations and being decisive in those moments. Also, in terms of Heller’s moves, with him being somebody that is a trained soldier, a lot of our references for how we actually express the way he uses moves draws from that. Even things like the claws or the blades, they’re quite different than how Mercer used them in the first game. He’s not making it up as he goes along.

Prototype 2

The Viral Sonar method that Heller uses for hunting is very updated from the last game. Was that a direct change in relation to the difficulty players had at times hunting down targets in the first game?

It was really a question of player agency. We wanted to get away from the idea of always having to put an icon over somebody’s head like, ‘Okay, this is the guy that you’re interested in. Go get him.’ Basically we put it into the player’s hands now, and honestly hunting is part of a substantially wider system that you’ll see hints of in the opening playthrough.

This idea that Blacknet was kind of the unifying element in the sense that you have Blacknet as the secure, encrypted communications network that Blackwatch uses to keep track of their operations in the various zones and the key personnel associated with them. When Heller gains the ability to hack into them, he starts to find out about who these people are, and that gives him the first hint that allows him to hunt them down in the world.

So instead of putting a marker over their head, we allow the player to physically find them using their abilities, which adds to that sense of empowerment. If I’ve made the decision to hack into a particular vehicle to get some information, I’m using my powers to find this particular character. When I find that person and consume them and I see their memories, that launches me into a brand-new mission that supports the core narrative. When I complete that mission, I then get an upgrade that is useful to me in progressing the story. All of those things feel like they are in the control of the player, rather than us as designers saying ‘Here, here’s what we would like you to do, or here’s what we’re insisting that you do.’ In an open world game, this seems like a very desirable element to put into the player’s hands.

Prototype 2

What was the impetus behind putting Father Guerra into the game as Heller’s contact? He’s a priest in a huge church who serves as the home base for Heller. Was that to separate it from the last game where Mercer went to his sister Dana for help?

Guerra is just one of many contacts that Heller has over the course of the story. Each one of those different contacts is effectively designed to bring out a different element of Heller’s character and express it in a different way. I think Guerra is the touchstone that keeps Heller connected with humanity on some level. He stops him, at least morally, from going too far off the rails. When he does start to do that Guerra is the character that challenges him on that.

We have other characters as well, and one of my personal favorites is a Blackwatch Captain named Rooks. The reason that he’s super-interesting to me is that he’s basically someone who is charge of a majority of the Blackwatch operations in New York Zero, and he’s constantly giving briefings to his men. In order to access those missions, what you have to do as Heller is go into the world, find a Blackwatch soldier and disguise yourself as him. Then you go to the briefing in that form and Heller takes the information from that and subverts it to use it for his own purposes.

Then, as you’re going through the game, you continue to get these opportunities as you’re going into further briefings and further interactions with this Rooks character to see the building frustration that everything he’s doing is being fucked up effectively, and he doesn’t understand the how or why of it. From a player perspective in a game that is about empowerment and power fantasy, you get that strong sense of deceiving someone; you get that nice little ‘teehee’ feeling, which is kind of cool.

Tell us about the Radnet Edition of the game. That comes with challenges that you can’t get in the normal edition, or as DLC. What was the idea behind that?

Basically what we wanted to do was to reward the fans that are early adopters and super excited about the franchise, and who have been waiting a long time for the sequel. Honestly, it started out as something much smaller. There were some elements that didn’t fit without the fiction and with my desire from the outside to make sure that everything was supporting the fiction, we got into this space where we were creating a bunch of fun things but we had no place for them in the game.

So we started we could offer them out to players as additional elements. Sort of like, this isn’t part of the fiction of the game but go have fun with it. The more of these things we started to discover, it sort of gained a life of its own. It got bigger and bigger and more involved, and then we started thinking about rewards that you could get for completing these. Little things, but cool things. New player skins, additional mutations potentially and a couple of other things that we aren’t talking about at the moment.

By fitting that into a sort of advent character that spans over seven weeks after release where there is always something new for the player, always something for them to come back to. ‘What am I going to get today?’ It’s turned out to be much more than its parts, and much more than we ever intended it to be.

Interview with Matt Armstrong: Designing for Chaos in Prototype 2
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