armchair developer – prototype

Alex Mercer

Open world games have a habit of closing off much of the world and revealing it bit by bit as an indicator of progress. We’ve seen it with GTA’s islands and Assassins’ Creed’s horrible glowing blue walls. As we talked about in our last podcast, this is counterintuitive in a game where there’s so much joy in sandboxing. Prototype gets it right by giving you the whole city straight away. Then there’s an issue with keeping the player’s interest in the environtment. Prototype’s shifting influence structure provides an answer to this, you don’t unlock new environments, you change the existing one.

It doesn’t go quite far enough. Currently there’s a few changes that you’ll notice in the infected areas. There’ll be infected running around and causing havoc and there’s a fierce bit of colour correction turning the skies a suitably apocalyptic blood red. The actual geometry of the city changes little, which seems like a missed opportunity to properly warp the world.

The quest design is really uninspired as well. Kill X number of hunters. Destroy X number of water tankers, out of which Hunters will appear. Disable X number of viral detectors. Absorb this target. The objectives feel as though they have nothing to do with plot progression, character progression, and nothing to do with the territory system which goes for the most part completely unused. The story is pretty weak too. Cutscenes interject every now and then with no relevance to the missions that surround them. The web of intrigue montages are for the mmost part devoid of real information.

So, the task is to properly utilise the territory system to incorporate it with the story and create a more unified experience. This is going to involve a fairly heavy rehaul of the game. here goes.

Let’s say hello to the diagram. Ignore the little round things, those are hangovers from the way things were. You won’t be finding glowing collectibles and contrived sidequests in this shiny new setup.

prototype map altered

Main Objectives

Alex begins as a neutral character. Over the course of the game you side with the infected or humanity and lead one of them to complete control of the island.

Initially, as in the actual Prototype, most of the map is neutral with small pockets belonging to the military and infected. This provides a lot of non threatening space for the player to learn the controls and get to grips with the city. As the tutorial missions progress the infected and military presence grow and comes into conflict.

Eventually each block of the island will be under either military or infected control, the blocks adjacent to both zones will be purple warzones where the two forces are clashing. By taking objectives in the purple zone you give that territory to the infected or the military, gaining affinity with the side you aid. The more affinity you have with a given side the less aggressive they are towards you. Once you’ve taken territory you won’t be able to take it back for a set amount of gametime. Seizure of territory gets XP which can be spent freely on skills of your choice.

There’ll always be players who want to help both sides and remain neutral and see what would happen. That’s what I’d do, but as you can’t take territory for yourself there has to be a way to stop players from playing this way. So, If you try to support both sides both will recognise you as their enemy, and in fact go out of their way to hunt you down. This is the equivalent of the five start police chase in GTA, a quick route to carnage and violence, which is fun, but doesn’t really let you progress.  As soon as you take a few consecutive territories the allied side will stop actively hunting you.

Taking a certain number of territories in favour of one side will trigger story events. You’ll be encouraged to take certain patches of territory containing New York’s greatest landmarks. These landmarks will undergo specific changes based on the occupying force. Story events will then happen dynamically around these structures meaning that you will have a big dramatic scrap in Time Square, some sort of King Kong battle with a giant mutant on top of the Empire State building, completel with a fleet of helicopters buzzing like flies above.

The story varies dramatically depending on the side that you choose. Alex’s choice to give in to the virus or retain his humanity would lie at the heart of the story. It’s hard to say why Alex does anything in Prototype’s current state. His apparent willingness to save Manhattan is completely at odds with his complete disregard for human life when the player is in control.

Infected Deep Zone

Side Missions

The side mission in Prototype are pants. Drop into green circles to activate races and violent free-for-all challenges. Wins get you XP. In the new setup I’d always want sidequests to feel as though they’re contributing to the main narrative, the war between the military and the infected.

Deep in each territory there will be a ‘Deep Zone’, indicated by a darker colour on the map.These areas will have been severely changed by the occupying force. The infected Deep Zone will see skyscrapers turned into alien spires, vast egg sacks hanging over the streets. Here the largest and most dangerous enemies reside. Wondering through infected heartland will see you periodically attacked by a defensive Elizabeth  Green. You can dust her down and send her packing for a big experience hike. Each time you face her she is stronger as, like Alex, she is discovering new abilities. To cap the amount of XP you can gain this way and to maintain Green’s sense of threat she will become basically unbeatable. At that stage instead of hunting her you’ll be running.

Dark blue areas will be heavily fortified with military bases and infection sensors. Deep in military territory you will find experimental superweapons which can be disabled for experience. We’re talking tanks as wide as the street with giant lazers on them. Sometimes these weapons will be dormant, if you’re unlucky, they won’t. In the finale these weapons will be rolled out against Elizabeth Green and the hordes (or against Alex, if he’s taken the infected path and absorbed Green).

Other side missions come in the form of raids where you joing a mustering friendly force and rampage into the heart of enemy territory to destroy an objective. Disguise yourself as a commander and order a raid, join the tank column and helicopters as they charge out to a location in the deep red zone to destroy an egg sack. This kind of mission encourages the mental levels of carnage that Prototype does so well, and it’s a lot better than running over some rooftops collecting glowing balls.


Prototype is full of characters who you are told are important but you know more or les nothing about.  Mostly scientists and military types who need absorbing to reveal the location of the next person you need to eat. The aim would be to reduce the number of significant characters and make each of them more meaningful. At the story’s core would be Elizabeth Green and Dana Mercer at opposite ends of the infected/human spectrum.

Elizabeth Green

Dana Mercer

Firstly: there’s a special kind of frustration that occurs when the character you’re supposed to be controlling does something obviously stupid that you would never do. In Prototype it’s breaking into a military facility and releasing the all powerful queen of the Infected Elizabeth Green. Mistake. Elizabeth Green is perfectly capable of escaping all by herself. So this time around she escapes at the very beginning of the game, and is the reason for the outbreak. Also, instead of having such a dangerous individual curiously housed in the middle of New York, Green will break out of the mobile prison container taking her to a secret fortified location out at sea. She’ll wipe out the military escort and instinctively head towards the largest population centre she can quickly reach. Alex is a scientist studying Green and becomes infected during her escape. The resilience he gains from the infection lets him survive his ordeal and he goes after Green, hoping to stop her. Even as he arrives in New York he can feel himself changing and he goes to his sister for help.

The infection begins to spread. In this setup Elizabeth Green acts as a kind of hive mind for the infected. If you ally with the infected Alex becomes more like them, and begins to experience the kind of affinity that Green does with her subjects. Ultimately Alex realises that he can kill Green and take her place as the hivemind controller of the hordes.

On the military side Dana Mercer will be Alex’s rock. As Prototype is, Alex’s sister is little more than an exposition device before she goes missing. I’d make it especially apparent that Alex’s sister is the only real link he has to humanity, and one of the few things he has left to care about. There should be a crucial choosing point where you can choose whether or not to abandon your sister who is caught in an infected sector of the city. This will define the line between the infected and human storylines. In the military storyline the aim is to save your sister and destroy Green, helping the military to wipe out the mutant scum.

Alex Mercer Redesign

Our protaganist will need quite a redesign. Alex doesn’t have amnesia. He’s not a faceless entity in a leather jacket. He knows as much about Green as he’s managed to study during his time assigned to her case, and he has a past, which means he has a character. Of course he’s still incredibly powerful. Whatever side you choose Alex’s powers aren’t entirely selective, allied units will still die during the game as you unleash your abilities. The military will never entirely trust you and will not let you into their deep zone, but in this time of crisis they need any help they can take, even if it comes in the form of Alex Mercer.

Oh, another thing: Prototype takes a cynical worldview that pretty much everyone is evil. The military created the infection as a biological weapon and are trying to cover it up, ultimately threatening to blow up the whole of Manhattan to achieve their aims. The infected are animals, Alex is indifferent. There’s no good in the world. You can never really care about anything in a story world which only shows the grimmest facets of humanity. This time round Green is a freak occurence in need of study, a naturally occuring animal whose origin is a source of mystery throughout the game. The government seeks to contain her by moving her to a secure location for study, but underestimate her abilities. The military spend the rest of the game desperately trying to contain something they don’t understand. The protection of civilians and containment and destruction of the infection are their main aims, not the development of supersoldiers and an effective bio weapon.

Mercer Powers

There’s more to be said about Prototype. There’s another post worth of  tweaks that could be made to the powers and general mechanics, but the combat and in particular the motion abilities are already strong, so to prevent this post from becoming too bloated I’ll sign off here. This has been a general sketch of how Prototype could have been executed. If you have any better ideas, or ways to tweak these ideas to improve them then feel free to comment and let me know!


Ludo out.


2 Responses to “armchair developer – prototype”

  1. July 19, 2009 at 4:59 am

    I don’t get your need to make the military into the “good” side. They seem to work as-is; a collection of complex human beings, some of whom have the best of intentions (as inhuman as their actions seem) while others delight in, say, shooting down a civilian airliner. Picking whether to do a “good” or “evil” playthrough is one of gaming’s biggest cliches; how does it improve the game experience to make the player choose a side in order to reach the endgame?

  2. 2 Ludo
    July 19, 2009 at 10:20 am

    I didn’t really find the military to be a complex group of human beings at all. The Black Watch especially seemed like quite straightforward bad guys. The commanders that you consume behind each scene are carbon cutout evil scientists and power mad generals. They gas large sectors of the city just to get Alex, they try to blow up Manhattan, they’re kinda nuts.

    In a bad guys versus bad guys situation in which the protaganist isn’t especially likeable you have nothing in the game to really get behind. As a result I didn’t care in the slightest bit what happened to Alex or the Generals, or anyone in the game.

    The good/evil battle for the city thing came from my experiences with the gameplay. Playing through Prototype I found the most exciting areas were those where the military and infected territory crossed over and there was all-out war, I wanted to move more of the gameplay into that space, and having Alex helping to take territory for one side or the other seemed like a good way of doing that. Prototype also suffers from having a prescriptive cutscene-driven linear story in an open world. I wanted to try and change it to something that meant the player felt more engaged in the battle for the city.

    I take your point that it does create a good guys versus bad guys situation, but it’s a useful cliche in a game like Prototype which, as a balls out action game, shouldn’t really be trying to subvert cliches and be too clever. The player might feel more engaged when they’re actually gaining territory and fighting for something, rather than just getting to the next cutscene.

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