We got in contact with a pair of Matts from Obsidian and asked them about the game.
Hooked Gamers: Hi, and thanks for participating in our interview. Can you introduce yourself to our readers and tell us what your job is on the team?
Matt MacLean: I'm Matt MacLean, lead systems designer on Alpha protocol. I've been with Obsidian Entertainment since 2006 and if I told you what I was working on these days, I'd have to kill you.
Matt Rorie: I'm The Other Matt, Matt Rorie. I've been with Obsidian since early 2008, and have served as Marketing/PR monkey boy and as a producer on Alpha protocol.
Hooked Gamers: Alpha protocol is the first RPG in the 3rd person espionage game format. How has the game’s design process been different from your previous games?
Matt Rorie: Well, we had to adapt to using a new engine when we started on Alpha protocol, and we were also responsible for designing all of the RPG systems ourselves, something we hadn't done on KOTOR2 and NWN2. Getting past all of the technical and design hurdles has been interesting
Hooked Gamers: With the exception of Knights of the Old Republic 2 you haven’t been focusing on the console market in the past. Why the change? What challenges has it put at your feet?
Matt Rorie: Sometimes it's tough to remember that it's been so long since we put out a console game, but we've been looking at that market in a big way for the past few years now. We've been developing the Onyx engine internally to enable us to create awesome games for all platforms, including the PC, and we're looking forward to showing it off.
As far as challenges go, obviously it can be...interesting to develop a game that's intended to come out on all platforms simultaneously. But we've got a talented stable of developers here at Obsidian and we're sure that PS3, Xbox 360, and PC gamers are all going to find something to enjoy in Alpha protocol.
Hooked Gamers: In Alpha protocol, there are no right or wrong decisions. Obviously a decision is only meaningful if they "come back to haunt you" at a later time. What actions did you take to ensure that players feel that their decisions are meaningful? Can you give an example?
Matt MacLean: There's a laundry list of answers to that one but I'll stick to one facet of that question. It's a lot easier to show a positive event than to call out an absence. So if you have the option to kill someone and don't, it's really easy to see how that plays out when might-have-been-dead-guy shows up later. If they're dead, it's trickier to tell the player 'this person would be here now' without having awkward, fourth-wall breaking moments. If a villain declares: "But before I engage you in this awesome, cinematic battle, let's take a moment of silence to reflect on the fact that a friend of yours could be rescuing you now if you hadn't left them for dead" then we've failed at our job.
Part of how we communicate consequence to the player is by having the characters networked amongst themselves. That's not to say every NPC knows every other NPC, but every time you close a coffin lid, you're opening another lid for someone to crawl out and reward (or punish) your action.
Hooked Gamers: Many of the player's actions will need to be made within a certain time limit. Obviously this adds a sense of urgency which helps building up tension. At the same time, seeing time tick away can also put a strain on players. What happens when time runs out and how do you ensure that the clock doesn't become a frustration?
Matt MacLean: The timed dialogue sequences can and should add urgency to the conversations in the game. Gunplay, stealth, and hand-to-hand combat aren't turn-based in Alpha protocol, neither is negotiation, seduction, or intimidation.
The dialogue choices in AP are stance-based. On just about any given decision point, your next selection is going to be either Suave, Aggressive, or Professional in nature. Everything is context sensitive (being Aggressive in an interrogation doesn't necessarily lead to the same words and actions as being Aggressive in a love scene (usually)) but those three 'flavors' of reactions stay consistent and if you want to be Suave, it's always on the same spot on the interface and (after an hour of playing) choosing to be Suave should be as instinctive an input as hitting a reload button in a shooter.
When a new decision point comes up, the game will always default to your last choice - if you were Professional last time the game asked for your input, the Professional option will be selected by default. So if the clock runs down and you haven't selected anything, we go with your last choice.
As for how we keep the clock from being frustrating? Tons and tons of playing through the conversations. Our amazing cinematics team (Shon Stewart, Joe Bulock) suffered countless emails from annoying guys like me whining that conversation Y needed another 2 seconds or that conversation Z needed 1 second shaved off the second choice and onto the first. Rest assured, there will be places were the game intentionally demands very rapid choices, but in general, dedicated team + constant playing was our tactic for making conversations playable.
Hooked Gamers: Traditionally, spy-themed games are also stealth games. Is this true for Alpha protocol? If so, what sorts of stealth related actions are available to the player?
Matt MacLean: Stealth is a major gameplay component in [I]AP[/I]. Solving things your own way is also a major gameplay component in [I]AP[/I], so one big challenge was making Stealth integral but ultimately optional throughout the game. You could play the game doing everything in your power to alert everyone of your presence and see the end of the game... I wouldn't recommend it anymore than playing the whole game never getting behind cover... but both are possible.
Sneaking in Alpha protocol has three major components: visibility, noise, and alarm systems. Your visibility and noise are kept under control by moving slowly, staying in cover, timing enemy patrols and so on. If you're discovered, enemies will alert nearby friends (so ideally, you try to neutralize them before that happens) and if the nearby friends are alerted, they'll try to raise an alarm which alerts everyone else in the area (so you really want to neutralize them before THAT happens). Once an alarm is raised, you'll need to hack a security system to reset the alarm (finding the security system may be a challenge in itself).
Your skills and equipment can help you sneak around a level. A very basic Stealth ability allows you to sense nearby enemies - which way they're facing and how aware or ignorant they are of your presence. This in turn can help you plot a run through enemy patrols. Add a few more ranks in Stealth and you can learn to run silently for brief periods of time. At higher ranks, you'll get the Evasion ability which gives you a sort of "get out of being spotted card" - an enemy sees you, the ability fires off automatically, and you have a few seconds to hide before the enemy well and truly sees you. You can also use gadgets to set traps, misdirect enemies, or call off enemy alarms. How you fight is also a factor in stealth - hand to hand combat, silencers, and sub-sonic ammunition let you dispatch enemies with minimal noise - though you'll need to take care to act quickly lest someone see you delivering knives to the neck or notice the resulting bodies.