Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. That's how it sometimes looks for good old Obsidian Entertainment, famous followers-up of BioWare's Knights of the Old Republic and Neverwinter Nights games. But it's not exactly a bad deal. Who wouldn't want to work on Fallout: New Vegas, for example? Er, apart from Bethesda Softworks.
For all its work with other people's IP, however, it's the SEGA-published Alpha Protocol, a role-playing spy-game due out this October, that looks like one of the most interesting games on the Californian developer's slate at the moment. As you'll know if you read our recent preview, it's a bit like James Bond with dialogue trees and moral dilemmas. Or at least it says it is. We caught up with and waterboarded lead designer Chris Avellone recently and he was able to clarify.
Eurogamer: We talked to BioWare recently about creating a fantasy world and it's safe to say they go to a lot of trouble. How do you produce the same result with a real, modern-day setting?
Chris Avellone: I understand the challenge that Dragon Age had, because they had an entire world to present. What we decided to do with Alpha Protocol was just choose three locations that felt exotic, like Taipei or Rome - areas that we felt had a certain history and romance about them, and also seemed to be very focused towards the espionage genre, as a lot of drama and intrigue can be combined into those locations.
Regarding BioWare having team members read pages and pages of source material: we took a slightly different approach to communicating the storyline and location to team members. What we did was we made the game much more location and personality based, and then we made sure we introduced the 20 core characters the player meets over the course of the game and made that the focus of the presentation. We just sat down with the entire team for about an hour with PowerPoint and ran through the character cast-list, how they interact with the player, what the player's motivation was and then they would ask a lot of questions until they had a feel for the story.
Eurogamer: What are our relationships going to be like with those 20 main characters? Are they mission-dispensers or can we make friends and have them join us on our journey?
Chris Avellone: We wanted to keep the cast list much smaller than our previous games, so you can have more interactivity with them. The basis of the relationships in the game was also more spy-focused. What I mean by that is in previous games, like Knights of the Old Republic II, the morality scale and the interaction with the characters in that game was very much geared towards the campaign world, in the sense that you have the Light Side, Dark Side, it's very black and white. In the espionage and covert-ops genre things are a lot more complicated, and it's much more about how much you trust and respect the other person and what the methods of the other person are and how you feel about that.
To give that more clarity: the way we have it set up is that you can build a reputation level with the characters in this game that runs the range from animosity to friendship or respect, and each of those ranges will give you different bonuses. So actually there will be instances where having someone furious at you and hating your guts can work to your advantage.
Eurogamer: Do you ever assemble a party to accompany you, or are we all lone rangers?
Chris Avellone: You will have an opportunity over the course of the game to team up with some of the characters both physically in missions and also as handlers over your ear-piece. And by that I mean, depending on your relationships with some of the characters in the game, you can actually switch off the person who is talking to you over the radio and they will give you different advice and objectives in the mission and give it a different personality than with other handlers.
Eurogamer: Bond and Bourne films and TV shows like 24 are all heavily directed so they're exciting. Can a slow-paced RPG really emulate that successfully?
Chris Avellone: The trick with Alpha Protocol is that nothing in the game is actually slow, even the dialogue system - even that is timed. It's not like Neverwinter Nights 2. All the conversations take place in real-time. There's usually an urgency about the conversation as well so it keeps people more engaged in what's going on.
Eurogamer: James Bond famously has his charming way with plenty of women. Will Michael Thorton be doing the same in Alpha Protocol?
Chris Avellone: Absolutely.
Eurogamer: Are we going to see sex scenes?
Chris Avellone: There will be scenes of intimacy. Ha ha.
Eurogamer: Evidently you're pro-romance in videogames, then. But what are your thoughts about the issue in general?
Chris Avellone: I think it's a natural part of human relations, and as long as you present it tastefully I think there's ways to communicate it that it helps reinforce... I mean, it's part of the spy genre: it's part of James Bond, it's part of 24, it's part of the Jason Bourne movies. To not implement it would be to do a disservice to the type of game we're trying to create.
Eurogamer: So, to recap on the story of Alpha Protocol: players are Michael Thorton, who is a rookie spy whose investigation of a plane crash opens a whole can of worms (and maybe gets him involved in some hanky panky). What sort of character progression will he go through, both visually and mechanically?
Chris Avellone: Well, visually on the character we try and provide the player with a number of customisation options, like skin colour, tone, any sort of facial hair they want, hair styles, different clothing sets or armours sets that they want to wear. And that will extend to the mod upgrades for the weapons as well: you can visually see the mods on the weapons as you customise them.
For gameplay mechanics the evolution of the character takes a few routes. One is it being level-based and skill-based - you can choose to specialise in a number of different skills. In addition, after you're done with your first mission you have a chance to specialise to a number of other classes - I guess the closest analogy would be Prestige Classes in Dungeons & Dragons. So that helps you set yourself apart from other players playing the game and achieve extra skill levels and skills that other characters cannot.
Eurogamer: How do dialogue choices affect the world?
Chris Avellone: It affects the game in a number of ways. It usually affects the reputation level of the person you interact with and potentially other characters you're talking about in that conversation. You can get reputation pluses and minuses in those conversations.
The other thing that takes place is you can gain dossier pieces, and dossier basically represents the amount of research you've done on a faction or individual. Once you achieve a full dossier or you find out secret facts about a characters, that will also give you game bonuses as well.
Another aspect that comes into play is, depending on the choices you make during a conversation, you can gain new gameplay mechanic quirks. For example, if you take a very heavy Jack Bauer route through the game and you decide you don't want to leave any enemies behind you, if you'd rather not talk to people and shoot them in the knees and have them spill their guts to you - you really don't have time to figure out where the missile is - we allow you to do those options and we award you perks based on those choices in the dialogue choices.
Eurogamer: Let's say I take the James Bond route and wink my way to success, wink wink - will I get a perk for that sort of behaviour?
Chris Avellone: Absolutely.
Eurogamer: What sort of replayability is there?
Chris Avellone: There's actually a lot of reasons. I would be very, very surprised if five people playing the game have the same experience. Secondly, there's a lot of different endings in terms of the combinations of all the choices you make throughout cause some pretty significant changes in the endgame. And also when you finish the game the first time, we actually allow a certain character background to be chosen if you played on the hardest difficulty. And that will actually change some of your dialogue options and some of the gameplay mechanics within the early levels when you play the game again. People will treat you differently, you'll get new dialogue branches, and hopefully players will enjoy that and be encouraged to play the game again just for that.
Eurogamer: How different are these hubs going to be? And what sort of freedom of exploration will we have in them?
Chris Avellone: Obviously you can choose whichever mission you want to go on. But there's an added feature that when you go to each mission you actually get a choice, when you get there, of a series of missions and which order you want to tackle them in. And you can choose those based on your expertise or what missions you want to go on. So if you're playing the James Bond suave character it may be more to your benefit or interest to go talk to contacts first and find out what they know about stuff and then use that to get the critical missions in each hub. Or the commando character may go on various assault missions to try and get the information they need. We made sure the players had those optional missions to choose from to open up the core missions.
Eurogamer: Speaking of James Bond: which is your favourite spy film?
Chris Avellone: Oh, wow, that's really tough. I think the third and fourth season of 24, actually, ended up being a pretty big inspiration, mostly because I've never seen... Keither Sutherland says very little yet somehow communicates a great deal with the urgency of what's going on, and that had a big impact on the dialogue in the game and how you could go through those missions and accomplish various things. And eventually how someone who can be such a patriot, how that can go so wrong when that's your sole focus. That was an interesting moral question whenever I'm watching that series.
Eurogamer: Funny you should mention urgency, because RPGs are usually terrible at it: they present an urgent overarching plot, but let you take as much time in hubs mopping up side-quests as you like. To what extent does urgency rule in Alpha Protocol?
Chris Avellone: We try and make sure that timed urgency only happens within dialogue situations and at certain key moments. We don't make that hit you every second of the game. The only game I've ever actually seen successfully pull off a time-limit for the overall game would probably be Fallout 1, and there was a huge controversy from players about whether they actually enjoyed that or not. As a game designer I loved it. As a player I can understand the frustration. I think when you introduce that mechanic if there's a way to reset that timer then that's okay, but Alpha Protocol isn't that kind of game.
Eurogamer: How important is the IP to Obsidian? Will it run and run and run?
Chris Avellone: We would love to continue the franchise. I think everyone who's been working on Alpha Protocol, even as we're working on this stuff for the core game, we see possibilities for future titles that would be pretty exciting to pursue.
Eurogamer: Have you, like a good spy film, left the story open for that?
Chris Avellone: Er... Yes.
Alpha Protocol is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in October. Check out our recent preview for more.