Spying On Spies: Alpha Protocol Interview

Come get some.

Alpha Protocol is so close that if you go outside and look to the horizon you’ll just see the tip of its hat. In a strange reversal of fortunes it reaches Europe on the 30th May, not making it to its native US until 1st June. We grabbed this chance to talk with producer Matt Hickman about the development, balancing role-playing and combat, and moral ambiguity.

RPS: When you began development of a brand new IP, what was the process for deciding the direction you’d like to head in? Did the Alpha Protocol idea come fully formed, or was it more of a process, a series of decisions that perhaps deliberately took you in directions you’d not headed before?

Matt Hickman: I’m not sure any product ever truly comes out fully formed the way one imagines it, but that’s an intrinsic part of the development process. As a new IP on an engine that we hadn’t worked on before, there were a lot of things in Alpha Protocol that were firsts for us as a studio. Our initial vision of a modern-day spy RPG is intact, though it’s a given that things are going to change and evolve during the development cycle. There were obviously cuts and additions as we moved through development and we branched in new directions when it came to combat and dialogue delivery. When everything is in pieces at the beginning it’s hard to be sure it’s all going to come together the way you’ve imagined so you just take the path that feels right and keep forging ahead even if it’s new ground.

RPS: What’s surprised you the most about Alpha Protocol as you’ve developed it? Is there a feature, an aspect, that you never had in mind that’s come to stand out?

MH: We’ve been really pleased with the way that Alpha Protocol’s conversation system turned out. By rooting Alpha Protocol’s dialogue system in a system of simple responses and giving players a limited time to respond, we’ve made conversations within the game tense but fun. Because decisions made within conversations often have important effects, it makes the role-playing going on feel urgent and exciting. It’s honestly surprising how well it works to keep the pacing and excitement up.

Beyond that, the combat system has gone through a lot of changes over the years and we settled in a really great spot that blends RPG stats and pure shooter. When we got through with balancing and tweaking critical hits and the like, we stood back and we’re really proud of where it ended up.

RPS: How have you found the process of combining real-time combat with an RPG format?

MH: Finding the right balance between action and RPG was a constant throughout the development process. As a new IP we built the rules of the game from the ground up, and wanted to combine the two aspects in a way that felt right for the game. We could have designed an RPG in which every move you made was determined by a secret dice dice-roll, but nobody wants to line up a perfect headshot and have it ruined by a random behind-the-scenes calculation. It’s been a pretty organic process, finding ways to give characters benefits for investing in certain skills, while not penalizing players in a way that makes them feel like the action in the game is unfair completely random. In the end it’s been a fun creative process finding what “feels” right as gamers as well as game designers.

RPS: There appears to be a movement away the binary “good or bad” nature of RPG choices in the last couple of years. Both you and BioWare are looking to create more nuanced, more ambiguous morality. What has driven this change, and what do you think is both gained and lost by moving in this direction?

MH: We looked at the story we wanted to tell and frankly it makes the character and the plot easier to identify with and his world easier to recognize if his decisions and the consequences of those decisions aren’t all yes or no, good or bad. Especially considering the setting of Alpha Protocol, it just doesn’t make sense to have rigid choices, or meters that gauge Thorton’s alignment between good and evil. Sure, Alpha Protocol is based in the spy genre, and has certain trappings because of that, but because the game is based basically in the modern day, we wanted to reflect the ambiguity real world decisions. There are very rarely clear-cut good and bad decisions in real life, and as a modern day RPG, we wanted to reflect that.

RPS: You’ve said that it’s possible to get through the game without killing anyone. Beyond the technical aspects of creating the game such that this can work, what drove the desire to offer this? Is it simply a choice of style – how you want your spy to work – or is there a philosophy behind creating a game with such options?

MH: How the player decides to deal with opposing characters is really an extension of the role playing experience. Just as there are often not any clear cut good or bad decisions in other aspects of the game, how players should deal with opponents can also be ambiguous. In certain areas of the game, your opponents may be anything from US agents to security guards to terrorists. We set a precedent very early on that you’re never really sure who your enemies are and who are your friends, so it makes sense to be careful who you kill. With this in mind we figured there are going to be players out there that don’t want to kill anyone just in case. It’s also just a fun challenge for players to test themselves with.

RPS: We’ve heard a lot that decisions or conversations early on can affect experiences later in the game. Has it been a challenge to balance this, to ensure the player doesn’t feel like they’re living with regrets that might spoil their fun, but still having to face the consequences of their actions?

One of the goals of implementing the real-time dialogue system was to make players react instinctually to choices, as they would have to were they actually in the situation themselves. Many of these decisions are minor, and may only marginally effect how NPC’s react to you, but yes, some of the decisions do have a larger impact on the game and may even leave some people regretting their decisions. I’d encourage people to make the best decision they can at the time, and live with the consequences, which will force players carefully consider the ramifications of their actions. So to a degree we want you to ask yourself “what if?” but by that same token you can almost always change things. In the end you may just have to play through again, it is just a game after all.


  1. Kieron Gillen says:

    As much as I’m looking forward to Alpha Protocol, I wish it featured battlesuited sci-fi warriors instead of spies. That would be amazing.


    • Alec Meer says:

      I do look forward to Vanquishing Alpha Protocol.

    • Zaphid says:

      I thought that battlesuited scifi warriors are modern day spies, I mean who wouldn’t overlook a tight suit covered in LED.

    • Mr_Day says:

      Biggest disapointment: Section 8 wasn’t Terra Nova SFC multiplayer.

      Er. I’ll shush.

    • Azhrarn says:

      The Mass Effect series provides for that particular desire in my opinion.

      I’m quite looking forward to Alpha Protocol, it looks rather promising.

    • Wednesday says:

      I dunno, I kinda like that we have an RPG set in the modern day. One of my(and apparently many folks) peeves with the second Deus Ex is than it went from farily gritty nearish future with some higher sci-fi stuff later on, to a Genero Future Land.

    • Kryopsis says:

      Those Vanquish screenshots really made Alpha Protocol’s visual style look bland by comparison. In fact, it’s rather anticlimactic to see the article updated with the correct screenshots.

  2. jackflash says:

    So, Mass Effect 2?

  3. CLD says:

    I don’t like the dialog system. It was bad in Fahrenheit, so i’m expecting to be the same in Alpha Protocol. Everything else looks good.

    • jeremypeel says:

      Obsidian have a far better track record with dialogue than Quantic Dream, and personally I have quite a lot of faith that they’ll be fairly successful with trying something new.

  4. Danny says:

    Where is the picture with the battlesuited sci-fi warriors instead of spies? :(

  5. Jesse says:

    I was going to be flippant and say I canceled my preorder based on the first screenshot of the protagonist throwing his back out while spin-kicking a guy (a random subway commuter?), but you won me back with the second shot of the protagonist throwing his back out while spin-kicking a guy (clearly an evil [camo pants] hacker [bald with trendy glasses]). I don’t know, it just started to grow on me suddenly.

    Now I’m going to be serious and say the sub-par level of animation and graphical quality (good lord look at the face in the header image – the hair, the beard!) really puts me off. I can look past that for a good game, but these ‘ambiguous choice’ bullet points aren’t helping to sell me. I’ve heard this all before, and so what? It generally just means you choose between two no-win options. The Bond-Bourne-Bauer dialogue choice system seems limiting as well. From what I’ve heard you’re supposed to pick your response among this array of spy personalities in order to most effectively manipulate the character you’re talking to. So the things you say won’t, in those cases (probably most cases) be a function of your personality, they’ll reflect your ability to pander to the other speaker. And in case that’s too hard for you, I think I heard that you can read each character’s file for a hint at the best way (Bond, Bourne, or Bauer) to talk to them. I’m not hopeful. I would like to be! But I’m sensing a lack of…I don’t know, depth, here.

  6. Unaco says:

    I don’t get the jokes about Battlesuited Sci-Fi Warriors (maybe because I didn’t finish Mass Effect 1, and, so, have avoided anything to do with ME2 so as not to spoil it, incase I ever do play them). But, I had to post, just to say how awful the beard in the top image looks. It looks like one of those cardboard Burger King hats painted brown and wrapped around his chin. Is this as far as visual depiction and simulation of facial hair in the video game industry has come? I, for one, am disappointed that developers are not pushing to overcome this hurdle to immersion and believability with more vigour, veracity and pizazz (that is fun). Unless the image is of some sort of Super-Scientifical-Secret-Spy disguise… in which case, it had me fooled. Good job.

    On a more topical note… I did read a preview about this, at least a year ago, and was actually quite encouraged, and quite optimistic about it. I haven’t read or watched anything about it since… so I don’t know if my enthusiastic expectations have been borne out or not.

    • westyfield says:

      I’ve played through both Mass Effect games twice and I don’t understand the joke either. Though Shepard’s armour in ME2 is significantly beefier than in the first, I wouldn’t call it a battlesuit.

      Also: you really should finish Mass Effect. Then maybe try Portal or Deus Ex afterwards.

    • Vinraith says:

      @Unaco and westyfield

      It’s got nothing to do with Mass Effect and everything to do with the image John incorrectly attached to this interview when he originally posted it.

    • Sarlix says:

      So basically what you’re saying is, your expectations of this game are determined by the quality of the facial hair?

      Fallout 3 had some nice facial hair. It was best observed using the vanity mirror at the char creation screen. A nice selection of beards too if I remember. I always went for the handle bar mustache.

      I can understand what you’re saying though, the above beard is sub-par. Kind of like someone has glued a section of carpet to his face.

      Lets just hope the exposure to said monstrosities is limited.

    • Sarlix says:

      That was @ Unaco btw.

      Reads back kind of strange without context.

    • AndrewC says:

      You’ll find that that is actually a spy-mask, deliberately lower rez to fit in with the backward specs of the country he is infiltrating. It’s really very clever.

    • Unaco says:


      No… I was just trying to be funny… and that beard does look a little lack-lustre. It looks like an alternative flash-sideways Jack Shepard-as-International-Drug-Lord character that the LOST writers rejected. Like I say, I did read something about this a while back, and it was encouraging… it was about the choice system, morality, dialogues or whatever it’s called these days. Haven’t seen much else about it since then, except the Bond-Bourne-Bauer thing (just the three names, don’t know if there’s a video or similar), and some friends saying it will suck, or be mediocre at best.

    • Sarlix says:


      Your Burger King hats theory did make me lol, although I think you can extend that to his entire face, not just the beard. If we are to believe AndrewC, then this is all part of his disguise anyway >.>

      Right now I’m more concerned with why that man in screenshot six is crapping out a box of ammunition.

    • RedFred says:

      Burger King has should be mandatory for all spies. No one would ever suspect the King.

  7. Mattwivs says:

    I just hope it’s as ambitious (even if ugly and flawed) as Vampire: The Masquerade. In some ways, that game achieved something (once patched by the community) that still has yet to be matched.

    • Auspex says:

      I’m in total agreement with you in regard to Vampire, but I suspect if your hopes are that high for Alpha Protocol you’re going to be rather disappointed.

      Hope I’m wrong!

    • Mr Labbes says:

      With the dialogue system in AP as it is, it seems you are always playing the Malkavian.
      Count me in.

    • Zwebbie says:

      Ironically, VtMB’s lead writer was working on Alpha Protocol, but Obsidian has since scrapped all his work and he’s now working on his own indie game.

    • Vinraith says:


      Considering how action-oriented AP looks to be, that might be for the best. I’ve no doubt it’ll be a fun ride, but it doesn’t look like the ideal platform for telling an involving story or providing a deep role-playing experience.

    • Michael D says:

      @Zwebbie I’m not entirely sure that’s a real loss. The story of the game wasn’t particularly inspiring. It was the dialog and incidental detail that really made VtMB memorable.

    • Michael D says:

      ^and just did an imdb search to figure out who you were talking about. I’m surprised he left Obsidian.

      Disregard the above statement. Brian Mitsoda wrote the talking Stop Sign. Man’s got some talent. I do not believe he was the “lead writer” though. Do you happen to have a link?

  8. Jon says:

    I’m amazed how many people forget that this is Obsidian of KOTOR, Fallout 1 & 2, Planescape Torment and other awesomely written games. I will be astounded if the writing in this is poor and the not-top-tier graphics I kinda interpret as them getting their priorities straight. It may be buggy, the combat might not be 100% balanced but I just can’t see them doing a sub-par role-playing part.

  9. Tei says:

    * blind eyes *

    Alpha Protocol, please be awesome, please be awesome!

    I have preorder it eons ago based on it made by Obvsidian. I can trust these people to make a game with heart, brain and fists (maybe uncompleted, rushed and buggy.. but.. Is the price, I am ready to pay it for the awesome to visit my own harddisk )

  10. laikapants says:

    As excited as I am for this, I’ll be giving it until I’ve read a handful of reviews and (hopefully) an insightful Wot I Think before I pull the trigger on whether or not to wait until it gets a nice Steam sale.

    Also, it has been said before but I’d really like an option in Mass Effect to be less mass murder-y. I know they love showing off their new guns, but I always love being non-lethal when it is possible. So kudos to Obsidian for putting it in here.

    • nil says:

      No killing as an optional constraint can be a hell of a lot of fun – especially when the game explicitly supports it as a mechanic (qv. Thiefs, and at least Splinter Cell Chaos Theory.) Guns just make things too easy :\

  11. archonsod says:

    I pre-ordered it yonks ago, based on the fact that the last semi-modern spy game without some hideous Japanese attempt at storytelling I remember was NOLF.

  12. Kyle says:

    I am definitely a fan of the beardy spy. The beardier the better, I’ve always said.


    • Sarlix says:

      Surely there has to be a cutoff though? I mean you can’t just have spies walking around with ZZ-Top style beards, it would draw to much attention. plus it would be too much of an occupational hazard, what with it getting caught in doors and desk draws and things.

      I think something bushy enough to conceal small firearms in, possibly the odd hostage. Anything else is just overkill.

  13. Jimbo says:

    I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for now. They are Obsidian after all.

    In fact, I think I might have pre-ordered this about 18 months ago for mega-cheap, but I have no idea where from.

  14. The Dark One says:

    From what I’ve seen in other interview, the way they want to get around you regretting your past choices is to give you interesting perks either way. So even if you didn’t intend to screw up some relationship by killing the wrong person, if opens up something positive for you anyway. I guess we’ll see it in practice when the game comes out, but I’d welcome the death of “ask for nothing, get magical item/threaten the questgiver with bodily harm, get money” outcome.

  15. ChaK_ says:


    NAO §

  16. Lukasz says:


    this is obsidian game and dialogs, storyline and characters… they matter! That would make the game great.

    *you read that in Uncle’s voice.

  17. Magic H8 Ball says:

    Anonymous Coward said:
    I’m amazed how many people forget that this is Obsidian of KOTOR, Fallout 1 & 2, Planescape Torment and other awesomely written games.

    What the fuck?