For Radical Entertainment's Matt Armstrong, the studio's currently in-development Prototype 2 brings him his first outing as design director, after some 15 years in the industry. Developing a sequel to Activision's superhero-havok brand is a challenge he's ready for, after having found his own role on the team over the years.
Armstrong began as an artist, working his way up at the UK's Blitz Games over the years, where he gravitated into a design role organically. When the company started reducing staff sizes during the PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360 console transition, he sought new opportunities, and worked on Max Payne for Rockstar Vienna for a couple years until the stress of being in a foreign country where he and his girlfriend struggled to settle in got to be too much.
After years with Blitz Games and on Max Payne with Rockstar Vienna, he got hired at Radical amid an interesting transition: "I was hired for a project that got canceled the day I arrived," he reflects -- several members of that project's team left to form their own project, and everyone got shuffled onto a PS2/Xbox project, current generation in a time when Armstrong was itching to work on next-gen hardware.
He basically begged his way onto the next-gen team, which was making the game that would become Prototype: "I ended up sat by myself for about three weeks while they tried to decide whether there was value in having me on the team," he recalls. Ultimately he was made a senior designer, but had a lot of opportunities to take ownership and formulate his own role.
Prototype 2 entered development in January 2010, and now sees Armstrong helming a next-gen project for the first time. "It's been a fairly monumental learning experience," he says. The game began amid layoffs among many Activision studios, and Radical wasn't immune. Activision had decided to take Radical from being a two-team studio into a single-team studio, and Armstrong's team was taken off a prior project and brought to Prototype 2.
"The major challenge there was pretty much from day one, you had a massive team of about 70, 80 people sat on their hands and wanting answers really quickly." Armstrong describes the challenge of needing to nail down the project design quickly, as well as keep anxious talent from leaving. Managing morale and setting clear goals became crucial, and diplomacy is a role that Armstrong tends to gravitate toward naturally.
The team looked deeply into the development and reception of the original Prototype, and found that most of the feedback from media and fans was fairly consistent. "We could very quickly nail down a bunch of things that we know were broken, or weren't competitive, so we had to immediately roll out to the designers... small strike teams of multidisciplinary groups."
"We were going to have to revise these things to make them interesting and still keep them competitive and fresh," Armstrong says. "It would be true to say that a lot of the design of Prototype 2 did come from that retrospective analysis, rather than an immediate 'this is where we need to go' vision. I think most people would acknowledge that Prototype was something of a flawed gem; it was a question of to what extent the flaws impacted your experience. We ended up with a wide range of review scores because some people saw the flaws and it fundamentally ruined it for them, but other people... forgave us in favor of appreciating our ambition."
One of the flaws the team acknowledged was that "from a story point of view, it wasn't always as coherent as we would have wanted it to be," in Armstrong's words. This gives the team the opportunity to try to implement a mission structure that is more narratively tight, often a challenge in open world games.
"It was clear from the outset we needed to tell a story more people could understand, ideally with a protagonist that was more relatable as well, with a motivation clearly understandable to the player," he added. From Prototype 1 the team learned it had to present mission challenges in better context. "There was a massive missed opportunity to take the world that we've built and start to give it a lot more in the way of personality."
Although Prototype sees constant comparisons in the press to Infamous, Armstrong said he waited nearly a year after the original game had shipped to try it out, to avoid being influenced or thinking about the comparisons too much. Games like Arkham Asylum and Assassin's Creed have been far more influential on him "in terms of making very smart design decisions and making a world that feels rich and diverse, coherent and self-supporting."
The team has focused on making the world feel rich and real, and on toning up the combat -- well-liked in the first game, but in need of better balance in spots. "[Prototype] was a real power fantasy that really resonated with a lot of people, with the caveat being that we made a few design decisions that ran very much counter to that experience. Occasionally you'd get ganged up on or hit by things that were coming from offscreen, or caught in an unbreakable combo." The team's been polishing and examining these areas the better to "execute on the promise" of a power fantasy.
But the most important thing Armstrong has learned in the development of Prototype 2 is that to fill his role as design director, he has to be hands-off as regarding lower-level decisions. "The biggest problems that I've personally caused on the team have been moments when I've looked at a specific problem in the game, a specific thing and defined a solution... because I'm far enough away from the day to day that I don't necessarily understand all of the implications and design decisions."
"The biggest lesson I've learned has been to focus on reiterating the goals, explaining why something isn't working for me and then giving that problem to smart people," he adds. "It sounds really obvious, but when you've spent 14 years being on the ground floor and being responsible for defining those decisions, you think you can see the answers and it can be hard to step back."