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Archive for September 4th, 2008


Penny Arcade Expo 2008 pt. 1

So this last week marked the 5th annual Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, WA. A few weeks back I was asked to demo the new Sonic Chronicles game at the show and as I had never been to PAX previously and have been loving the game since I first got my hands on it, I jumped on the opportunity. Plus, what a better excuse to kind of give the inside scoop on what PAX is all about for those who weren’t able to be there themselves. So here is the blog of my journey north to one of the coolest gaming expos going on right now.

Thursday, myself and our motley SEGA crew headed down to the San Francisco airport to begin our journey. Lucky for us, Seattle is a mere hour and a half plane flight away, so we were able to touch down early enough in the day to explore the seemingly quiet city hours before the streets would be lined with thousands of gamers, publishers, developers, and just fans of all things awesome.

First thing that stood out to me about Seattle was how nice it was. Now, San Francisco has some really nice areas (as well as some dodgy ones), and I definitely believe it to be one of the greatest cities in the world, but Seattle was so CLEAN! I was amazed. The downtown area was spotless and tidy, everything in its place. The weather was also superb for this time of year. With all the horror stories of 360 days of rain in Washington, and San Francisco just beginning our traditional Indian Summer, the fact that we were greeted with perfect skies and t-shirt temperatures was mind boggling.

We had to go out and soak it up before the show kicked off and we would be banished to the recesses of the Seattle Convention Center for the next 72 hours. My buddy Chris had just been in Seattle recently and knew of a cool little spot down by the water where we could go get good, cheap grubs, so we dropped our stuff off at the hotel and made our way west to the Pike Place market.

Remember how I was raving about how clean the city was? Well, although I could almost promise you that the 5-second rule is indeed in effect here, Chris showed me this infamous (albeit sort of disgusting) landmark at the Pike Place Market — the Gum Wall! This wall is, well, as advertised — a huge wall of gum in an alleyway in the Pike Place Market. Patrons, workers, tourists, and locals alike have over the years have been leaving traces of themselves and their journeys along this wall with their pre-chewed saliva repositories. I wasn’t too worried though as Chris and I saw a unique ‘neighborhood watch’ sign in the window of one of the nearby stores letting us know that ‘Earnie’ was taking care of business. I took a couple shots with my phone to give you a little insight as to the magnificence of this huge confectionery masterpiece.


So after our dinner and mini tour of one of the more popular Seattle tourist traps, we head back to the hotel to get some sleep and prepare for our first day onslaught of the convention. Supposedly this event is supposed to have upwards of 30,000 attendees! Thats a great deal of people to fit into a few city blocks, but should yield some pretty interesting events as well as some fantastic people watching.

Stay tuned tomorrow for my journal from Day 1 at PAX



Alpha Protocol – Round Table Discussion – Part 1

Back in June, Obsidian Entertainment took part in a large roundtable discussion with members of the press to cover topics relating to its upcoming RPG, Alpha Protocol. We’ve got the full transcript of the discussion, spread out between our blog and the Obsidian Entertainment website.  Please enjoy part one here on the blogs, then head on over to Obsidian for the remainder.  Enjoy!

Obsidian Entertainment
Executive Producer: Chris Parker
Marketing and PR Director: Matt Rorie
Senior Producer: Ryan Rucinski
Art Producer: Abia Roberts
Design Production: Nathan Davis


RPG’s are predominantly, if not exclusively, set in traditional science fiction or fantasy universes. What convinced you an RPG presented as a contemporary spy thriller was the way to go with this original material?

Chris: When we started making Alpha Protocol, we had just finished up KOTOR 2 and Neverwinter Nights 2, and both of those are pretty traditional, very rules-based RPG’s and we wanted to do something that was more action-based. A little bit more accessible. And so we just looked around and we really liked the espionage genre because nobody had really played in it. We thought it would be really cool to go from a green agent to a powerful, modern-day superhero. And so Alpha Protocol was born out of that.


Alpha Protocol is another game that lets the player shape their character. I imagine this makes the development process an extreme challenge at best. How has the character development process been going? What are the limitations in character development?

Abia: Early on in production we really focused on making this game about playing as Michael Thorton. So some of the customizations we’ve focused on have been things that Thorton would be able to do. So we didn’t really focus on the traditional “make your face” type modifications. Instead, we really focused on how you can modify glasses, beards, hair etc. We tried to stay away from “choose your nose” or any type of plastic surgery type modifications. We tried to keep it based in the real world, what an agent would really do.

How has the experience in developing games like Neverwinter Nights 2 and KOTOR II helped the development team in creating Alpha Protocol? Can we expect to see any similarities from either of those games present in Alpha Protocol?

Chris: Yeah Obsidian has a really long history but the owners all go back to Black Isle Studios. So we borrowed stuff from all the Role Playing games that we’ve made. Role playing games are pretty complicated so we definitely have a lot of systems and asset tracking and a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that we’ve learned from. But up in the front, the things that you’re really going to see a lot of are the character development aspects where you have an influence system and how you interact with different characters over the course of the game builds influence with them and that’s how they respond to you and feedback to you. We’re really on our third or fourth generation of trying to make that incredibly reactive and complex and that would be a great example of something that’s really built up from KOTOR II and Neverwinter Nights 2 and even the games we worked on back at Black Isle Studios.

Real-world settings without supernatural elements are even less common in RPGs than other game genres, perhaps partially because RPG gameplay tends to be somewhat abstracted in the first place. How are you overcoming that gameplay abstraction, and if you are indeed steering clear of elements like magic, is it difficult not to be able to fall back on them?

Nathan: We originally went for a more realistic version of gameplay and how Michael Thorton interacted with the world. However, we decided that wasn’t as exciting as having some sort of superpower-type “magical” abilities, because Michael Thorton is a “super-agent”. He’s a cut above an ordinary human being. So we have added some abstractions and some things that act like superpowers. For instance, we have an ability called “chain-shot” where you can basically stop time and line up your shot and kill a bunch of guys all at once.


Since Alpha Protocol is set in a game universe more common to FPS titles, was there any consideration for developing Alpha Protocol as a first person RPG, similar to Elder of Scrolls IV: Oblivion, as nod to the plot theme?

Chris: We actually looked at making an FPS for a long time. There’s certainly a lot of influence from other FPS games and obviously Oblivion. But we really felt that it was important to see your character because we have a lot of action elements in the game like: jumping, using cover, zip lining, talking to people. And we felt seeing Mike doing those things all the time was really important to feel what he was doing and understanding that interaction in the world. And so ultimately we went with a third person, over-the-shoulder camera.

What does Alpha Protocol mean exactly?

Nathan: Alpha Protocol is what happens when an agent has to break their ties with the government and go rogue. This is basically to protect the government. However, things often go wrong.

Character Building

Will the player be locked in to certain spy roles, or can they play out any given mission as a Bond, Bourne, or Bauer type?

Nathan: We sort of lean away from the 3JB analogy because we wanted to go with more of a classless character build system. Basically we wanted to make it so that your character can excel in what ever spy fields he wants whether that be sabotage, or killing people with guns, or killing people with your bare hands. The missions are designed to favor specific builds like stealth but you can go ahead and blast your way through any mission you like.

What could you tell us about the lead character in Alpha Protocol (Michael Thorton) that would make us believe he differs from the norm?

Chris: First off, we’re a role playing game. It almost goes against the goals of the game to really try to define the character. We want the player to decide what kind of character Mike Thorton really is in every way. From his skills to how he deals with people in the world. So we definitely wanted him to look tough and sexy, and we wanted him to look like an international secret agent, but the player is really in control of deciding everything else about the character. So we’re not really trying to develop him as some sort of great, branded, big-league character.


What is the new dialogue system all about?

Chris: The dialogue system is really an evolution of dialogue systems going way back on games that we have worked with or on. They have always been becoming more personal, the production value has been improving. Basically we’re working to improve the system that we used in Neverwinter Nights 2. We’ve ended up with something that looks very similar in appearance but ours is a little bit different. We call ours the dialogue stance system. And our dialogue takes place in real time it doesn’t tend to loop back on itself as much. I think it’s a little more cinematic in its presentation because you can pick a stance and simply let it play through and your character will continue to pursue the direction that you’ve given him. The basic idea of the system is that you are picking between different emotional stances and then your character follows those through. Other characters that you meet up with in the world respond more favorably to certain types of treatment over others. Our goal is to have it be super high production value, easy to use, but keep the same intensity that we are trying to create with the rest of the game.


On dialogue trees and choices, what is to stop the player from saving the game before many (if not all) of the choices in the game, and reloading after seeing what each style of dialogue results with?

Nathan: Right now we don’t have anything to stop the player from doing this. However, the results of those different dialogues are not always immediately felt. Often these can be seen in other parts of the game and actually in the end game in particular you’ll end up seeing a lot of reactivity to stuff that happened throughout the game.

Was the Bond/Bauer/Bourne model for attitudes in interacting with non player characters just a handy paradigm in development for the three playable personalities you’re granting Michael Thorton, or do you believe they’re almost exclusively the three archetypes for “agency operatives” in modern thriller fiction?

Chris: We used it as a paradigm and as Nathan said a little bit ago we’re trying to move away from that in our presentation of the game because it was a little too easy for people to latch on to. And our goal is for the player to create whatever type of secret agent they want to make and not feel corralled into one of these existing personalities or play style types. It’s more about open choice and making whatever type of modern day action hero you want to make.

Visual Style & Setting

In Alpha Protocol you’ve admittedly searched for inspiration from works like Syriana for gritty and “deep” aspects of the game but on the other hand you’ve also reached for the opposite of the spectrum with over the top abilities and characters. How are you going to bring these two aspects together?

Abia: To be honest we’re going to see how this all works out but the visual style we’ve focused on is Syriana and we feel like the cinematic effects bring in that cinematic language to our game. And when it comes to our story we have those hard hitting, gritty aspects. I think when you put the two together it definitely elevates the visual language that we’re going for with this game. When it comes to our characters we are going for some over the top characters. You’ve probably seen it in some of the concepts and other things that we’ve released already. We want to stay away from just guys in suits. It also helps gameplay wise when your bosses show some type of over the top characteristics. So those are the things that we’ve focused on for our visual style of the game.

Do you think you’re running a risk of being mistaken for just another game in the crowded action-shooter genre when you’re actually trying something fairly original?

Chris: We think that there is a risk there but I don’t think that if we get our message out and actually show what we are doing with gameplay and how we are doing it, I don’t think we are running a big risk there. The thing is that the way that we’ve approached the shooter and RPG aspects is really to blend them together and if people never play the game they might get the idea that it’s just another generic shooter but as soon as they actually pick it up and play it and start to see what we’ve done with the RPG elements and how well the shooter elements work and how all these things play together, they’re going to realize that this isn’t your ordinary shooter game. It really is something new and really cool. I really hope that it’s going to open up the eyes of many FPS people and get them really excited about something that they may have never played before which is a really driven, story based role playing game with these really cool action elements in it.


Because Alpha Protocol is an RPG based in the modern-day world setting, how challenging has it been trying to make the modern-day look “cool” or “exciting” compared to the traditional Sci-Fi / Fantasy settings of other RPG’s?

Chris: It’s been pretty tough for us. You know, making fantasy games or making sci-fi games you can kind of make whatever you want and people just accept it as long as it looks cool, so you don’t have to be as convincing you just have to make stuff that looks really really rockin’. So when we started making a bunch of realistic stuff we quickly realized that making realistic stuff isn’t nearly as easy as making fantasy stuff and then when you go really REALLY realistic people think it’s kind of boring so we’ve veered away from that over time. Like Abia was saying, our characters got a little more over the top to kind of spice them up a bit; we definitely embraced some cinematic styles that we saw or referenced from the movies that we thought were cool, and added a lot of emotional content to the areas we were creating. And even some of the special abilities are a bit more flashy than really realistic. We use a lot of full screen effects, post processing, we use a lot of shaders that we’ve created to make stuff look really sweet. But then just have it rooted in realism so that people will have something to latch on to.

What are some of the more unique or cooler animations you’ve seen in the game so far?

Abia: Tough question. I just want to say that we have an incredible animation team that has been working really hard on the animations. It’s kind of hard to pick which ones are my favorites but I will say that we have some great AI based animations that have gone into the game. Probably the stealth takedowns are some of my favorite animations, hit reactions…I really like watching guys on fire, that’s probably one of my favorites, I could do that all day but you know I’m demented like that so…*chuckles*. But we’ve got some really great stuff and I can’t wait until we get to show it all off to you guys.


Alpha Protocol seems to use the increasingly popular over-the-shoulder camera, which like Mass Effect adds more of an action flavor. Do you think that the direction is indicative of a trend in Western RPG’s, and do you have any other thoughts on the genre’s future?

Ryan: Finally, a question I can answer! When we were playing around with Alpha Protocol we found that the over-the-shoulder camera worked the best. You get to see your character especially when he’s sneaking around and doing that type of stuff. It feels more like you can get into it. It probably could work first person as well but when you’re trying to do cover and looking around it’s kind of more cinematic in the respect that you can see stuff coming. It just works for our game. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s becoming a trend because there are other games that don’t do it: Bioshock didn’t do it and it has some RPG elements to it. Over the shoulder just seems to work the best for our game. You get to see all the outfits and stuff.

Very few games have attempted what you’re going for in Alpha Protocol, but what titles are you drawing inspiration from? Has Deus Ex informed the game’s development at all as one of the first games to blend action and RPG elements?

Abia: There have been a lot of games that we’ve looked at during the development of this game. Deus Ex is definitely something that we looked at as a game that just shows great action RPG gameplay. More recently Mass Effect has kind of laid some great groundwork for al lot of things that we were already thinking about. When that game came out it was nice to see that we were doing some things that were on the right track and we’ve modified some other things. But it kind of confirmed where we were going. I think very early on we were looking at Resident Evil 4. That was a game that we looked at a lot. Half Life 2 is another one. And we are using the Unreal 3 Engine so a lot of Unreal games were things we were looking at on the technical side. Gears of War was a game that we looked at for a while. And very recently I know that our animation team loves Uncharted. It’s just a great, incredible game that we’ve been looking at as a great example of good, third person action gameplay.


There’s still a lot left to read and discuss, check out the remainder of this article over at Obsidian Entertainment’s website. Main points include, Game Structure, Combat and Skills, and more.

If you enjoyed the article and have questions of your own, ask them here! We’ll be taking comments from the blog and applying them into future Round Table discussions.