Interview – Matt Armstrong (Design Director at Radical Entertainment)


Interview – Matt Armstrong (Design Director at Radical Entertainment)
Just before PROTOTYPE 2 hit shelves last week, we caught up with Matt Armstrong, Design Director at Radical Entertainment, to discuss some of the changes and tweaks that have taken place in the PROTOTYPE world...
Click: It’s been almost three years since the original PROTOTYPE game, which is quite a long production cycle for a sequel these days. Did the team get to work on the project immediately after the first, or is it something that you came back to after a bit of a break?

MA: We actually worked on something different for around a year after the first PROTOTYPE shipped. It wasn’t until January of 2010 that a change in priorities caused us to shift focus onto PROTOTYPE 2, so the game has only really been in development for fractionally over two years.

Click: How does the PROTOTYPE 2 story fit in with the original’s?

MA: The story of PROTOTYPE 2 dovetails really seamlessly with the story of the first game. The original PROTOTYPE dealt with Alex Mercer’s quest to understand his burgeoning superpowers and his own involvement in the devastating Blacklight virus that was sweeping New York. One of the pivotal moments of the first game was Mercer’s realization that it was he who had actually unleashed the virus in the first place.

PROTOTYPE 2 picks up with a new main character – Sergeant James Heller – a native New Yorker who lost his wife and child to the virus that Mercer unleashed. This provides the spark for the story of the sequel – a spark that launches Heller on a violent quest for revenge against the man responsible for his loss.

Click: Was it always your intention to tell the story of another protagonist, rather than going back to Mercer, or was this something that happened further along?

MA: It was always our intention to move to a different protagonist for the second game. We’ve always seen the Blacklight virus as the true star of the franchise and the opportunity to constantly give new powers to new people in new parts of the world and watch them solve their own unique problems in their own unique ways is really central to the idea of PROTOTYPE.

Click: One of the most interesting things about PROTOTYPE was the fact that Mercer was neither a bad guy nor a good guy – essentially he was just a regular Joe without the usual dead-set moral compass that most other protagonists have. Does that give you more flexibility in the way you can sculpt the character’s personality and tell a genuinely interesting story?

MA: It’s a really interesting question. Allowing the player off the leash with no real moral limitations or judgements on their actions allows us to deliver a really liberating power fantasy with a very distinct identity and feel. On the flip side, it also provides some real challenges in terms of delivering a character with a clear and compelling motivation that can’t be contradicted by the player’s occasional murder sprees.

Heller is an extremely interesting character in that regard, because his single-minded quest for vengeance allows him to cross those moral boundaries with impunity. What’s been fascinating and exciting for me has been watching how focus testers apply their own moral boundaries to the experience – effectively altering their play-styles to reflect who they are and who they believe Heller to be. It shows a real connection with the game world and the character of James Heller which is incredibly rewarding.

Click: What can you tell us about Heller? What’s his story?

MA: There are really two or three James Hellers that we’re introduced to right at the start of the game. The first James Heller is a soldier in the US military, serving abroad in Iraq and desperately trying to calm his frightened wife over the phone as the virus begins to take hold in their native New York. The second James Heller is a man consumed with grief and rage as he returns to Manhattan to find his wife and child dead as a result of the virus. The third James Heller that we encounter is a broken, angry shell of a man – fixated on revenge against the man who unleashed the virus and cost him his family. It’s here that our story begins.

Click: Do you think that the switch in the main character has afforded you some flexibility in adding additional features to the game, rather than trying to explain why Mercer has developed a range of new powers and abilities in between the games?

MA: Definitely. The main reason for moving to a new protagonist was to allow us to tell new and interesting stories with each new game, but there’s also value in avoiding having to find narrative reasons to reset your protagonist’s powers each time or having them start the game as game-breakingly powerful superhumans.

Click: What new abilities does Heller have that Mercer lacked, and are there any that Mercer had that Heller lacks?

MA: Heller has a number of key new powers including his iconic new Tendrils allow him to reach out, grab tanks, cars, helicopters and pretty much anything else that’s not nailed down (along with a few things that are) and either tear them apart or slam them together, explosively. Other new powers include the Bio-Bomb ability that allows Heller to turn people into living organic grenades and his Pack Leader ability that allows him to call in mutated monstrosities to do his bidding.

Click: When you’re building a game upon a successful original like you had with PROTOTYPE, do you feel that the production cycle is easier or more difficult? On one hand you’ve got all the key elements in place from the original, but on the other you need to find ways to keep the whole experience as fresh as possible...

MA: I don’t know that it’s either easier or more difficult – it’s simply different. With the first game in a series, the challenge is keeping a 100+ person team all pointed in the same direction when they all think the game SHOULD be something else. With a sequel, the challenge is keeping a 100+ person team all pointed in the same direction with they all think the game IS something else.

Click: From what we’ve seen so far, the game appears to be a lot darker and more foreboding visually than its predecessor, was this a conscious decision and do you feel that the final game fits this description?

MA: That’s an interesting observation. There wasn’t ever a desire to make the game more dark and foreboding, but we certainly wanted to give the game a much stronger visual identity and bring the graphics up to a competitive standard. My feeling is that what we’ve delivered is a very coherent, believable and interesting world with a lot of character and personality that becomes more and more evident as you explore the world. The key, there, is that the world tells much more of a story this time around.

Click: You’ve rebuilt the original game’s engine, Titanium, from the ground up for PROTOTYPE 2. What are the major changes that gamers can expect to see, and how big an undertaking is that on the development front?

MA: The rendering engine was at the heart of our efforts, so gamers can expect to see a huge improvement in graphics compared to the first game. From a technical point of view, screen-space ambient occlusion and deferred lighting have been two major efforts along with huge improvements to particle effects, tone-mapping and colour correction. The end result for gamers is a much more filmic experience with enormously improved lighting and far more objects and geometry on screen.

Click: When rebuilding a game’s engine, does the rest of the development stall, or does everything continue together at the same time?

MA: We actually maintained the old PROTOTYPE engine during the early months of development and then ported improvements across as they became available. This enabled the team to avoid being stalled while the tech was being developed.

Click: One of the major criticisms that people had with the original game was the fact that it became quite commonplace to be overwhelmed to the point that things occasionally lost the fun factor – how have you worked to address that in the overall balancing of the experience this time around?

MA: Yeah, this was definitely one of the criticisms that came through loud and clear. We’ve actually made a large number of changes that cumulatively resulted in a much more balanced experience. It would take too long to list them all out, but some of the major ones have involved restrictions on how often enemies can attack, restrictions on how many enemies can attack at one time, better communication of when an enemy is going to attack, better defensive abilities for the player and better tutorialisation of abilities and tactics. All in all, this has allowed us to put the player in much greater control of the experience while still retaining the epic battles that were so iconic to the first game.

Click: Have you retained the full on open world structure to the game? Do you feel the open world titles have a tendency to offer players so many possibilities that it’s often possible to lose focus?

MA: Yes, we’ve definitely retained the open world structure (and improved on it, too). I don’t tend to worry too much about players losing focus in open world games. If they’re distracted from the story, it’s because they’ve encountered something else that’s really fun to do and that’s a good thing from my perspective. The key challenge, then, is to keep the cornerstones of the central story simple and memorable enough that the player never loses any sense of what they’re supposed to be doing. I’m pretty confident that PROTOTYPE 2 achieves this.

Click: How, as developers do you actively avoid the stereotypical “go here, do that, go there” style missions traditionally found in these kind of games?

MA: One of the key ways in which you can achieve this is by dangling mysteries in front of the player. Don’t tell them “go here, do that”, hint at something intriguing and then don’t disclose the truth until they arrive at their destination. This approach tends to keep players much more engaged and interested.

By far the biggest improvement in this area, however, is Heller’s new Hunting ability. This form of “viral sonar” allows players to hunt out their own targets in the world without us having to place an icon in the world or on the mini-map. The end result is a much greater level of player control over the experience and a huge sense of achievement when they successfully hunt down their prey.

Click: Finally, what major new gameplay features can we look forward to? And which of those is the team most proud of overall?

MA: Wow… that’s quite a question to end on. I would say that one of the biggest, most obvious and most entertaining features is one we refer to as Black.NET. As the player travels through the world, they will start to find communications vehicles that belong to Blackwatch – the secretive military force that is occupying the streets of New York Zero. By hacking into these vehicles, Heller can learn details of their nefarious plans and the key personnel that are involved in them.

Having acquired this information, Heller can then use his Hunting ability to seek them out, consume them and absorb their memories which then open up brand new missions in the world. By completing these missions, Heller can shut down Blackwatch’s operations and gain new abilities in the process. The sense of power and control that this gives the player along with the intriguing stories that emerge from these raids make Black.NET one of my favourite features in the game.

Interview – Matt Armstrong (Design Director at Radical Entertainment) on
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