Game Observer investigates the tragic history of Alpha Protocol, an RPG by Obsidian.
In the summer of 2010, Obsidian Entertainment released their long-awaited spy RPG on Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and PC.
Alpha Protocol was intended to be the beginning of a new era for the genre. A stealth-action role playing game taking inspiration from genre defining titles such as Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell; and the popularity of film franchises like Bourne and 007, to create a spy thriller in which the choices you made truly mattered to the overall story.
Gone were the days where your protagonist was beholden to the whims of a clandestine organisation operating from the shadows, rather, players would be treated to a world of secrets and espionage where the choices they made could have huge consequences, with the announcement trailer itself claiming ‘your weapon is choice’.
Following the disappointing release of The Bourne Conspiracy, a video game adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series that received average reviews upon its release in 2008, gamers were hungry for a spy-thriller with ambition – a game that could help propel the genre into the modern day standards of huge worlds, rich character development and a grand story influenced by player decisions.
Instead, players were greeted with a visually dry, mechanically ineffective video game with a bland and uninspired story, helmed by an equally forgettable protagonist. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, and despite the game featuring some genuinely great aspects, such as its choice/consequence system, and a focus on levelling up character skills for both combat and exploration, the game received meagre 6 out of 10s across the board, failing to meet the expectations of both players and the games publisher, Sega.
So what happened to this once promising addition to the role playing genre? Join us as we explore the Tragic History of Alpha Protocol.
A Series of Cancellations
Development for Alpha Protocol took place between 2006 to 2010, during a period when Obsidian were subject to a number of cancelled projects.
Cancellations are a frequent occurrence in the video game industry, and it can be expected that many games in development will never see the light of day. However, in the case of Obsidian, the lack of any tangible releases in the mid 2000s began to take its toll on the relatively young company, who were now desperate for a release to strengthen their position in the industry.
The first of these cancellations was Dwarfs, a third-person RPG adaptation of the Disney animated classic, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which began development in 2005 and would act as a prequel to the film. The idea was promising; a dark take on the classic tale that would see the titular seven dwarves accompanying an unnamed princess on a journey to stop an evil wizard, with twists and betrayal aplenty.
Obsidian had been approached directly by Disney to develop a game based around the story, which would have also seen an accompanying home-release movie. Unfortunately, the film project was abandoned after a change of CEO at Disney, who deemed the Snow White property to be ‘untouchable’, with the game being cancelled shortly after in late 2006.
The second cancellation came in the form of Baldur’s Gate 3 in 2008. The project was not announced during the development stage, in fact, it’s existence was unknown until an interview between Kotaku’s Jason Schreier and Obsidian CEO, Feargus Urquhart, revealed the project in an Obsidian tell-all in late 2012.
Baldur’s Gate 3 had been conceptualised at the request of Atari, who owned the IP at the time and approached Obsidian to create the long-awaited sequel to the classic role playing game series. The project was cancelled following the sale of Atari Europe to Namco Bandai in early 2009, after significant resources had already been devoted to the initial development stages.
Obsidian’s third cancellation was Aliens: Crucible in 2009, an RPG set in the universe of the Aliens film franchise. Chris Avellon, an Obsidian writer at the time, described the game as “basically Mass Effect but more terrifying”. The Aliens IP was owned by Sega, who eventually cancelled the project when it was allegedly almost finished, according to Xenopedia, in favour of Creative Assembly’s pitch for Alien: Isolation.
Obsidian had devoted considerable time and resources to these projects, and their cancellations meant that they were essentially absent from the games market for most of the mid 2000s, nearly entirely skipping the 7th console generation of Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. Most of the staff involved with these projects were later moved to Alpha Protocol mid-development.
Tropes of the Genre
The story of Alpha Protocol left a lot to be desired. Although the key story concepts of an RPG story were honoured, where players could influence parts of the story through making morality choices such as sparing, killing, or joining certain main characters, the actual story content that Alpha Protocol presented was decidedly dull, and conformed to almost every trope of the spy genre.
Jim Sterling, at the time writing for Destructoid, described Alpha Protocol as having “a narrative and characters that have all the dimensions of a sheet of paper”.
The game begins by tasking the player with the assassination of Sheikh Ali Shaheed, leader of a fictional Saudi terrorist group named Al-Samad, who have gained the attention of the titular black-ops agency, Alpha Protocol, by using American-made missiles to shoot down a civilian airliner. It is later discovered that the missiles were provided by an American arms contractor Halbech; who plans to supply the enemies of America with powerful weapons in order to usher in a new World War, and reap the financial gains of a bolstered global arms market.
What follows is a global trip that sees the games protagonist, Michael Thorton, thwarting nefarious plans by Russian Mafia bosses, private security firms, Chinese assassins, and a corporate CEO who turns out to be the head of both Halbech and Alpha Protocol.
The story takes huge cues from the Bourne film series, James Bond, 24, and in some parts even reflecting the inciting incidents of the 2008 film Iron Man, to create a spy story that comes across as very tired and uninspiring. Giving players the freedom to make their own choices was a fresh opportunity for the spy genre, but ultimately it fell flat in the way the decisions to spare or kill main antagonists played out in a predictable manner in the end-game.
Alpha Protocol may have been intended to be the Mass Effect of the spy genre, but the direction in which the story developed based on player actions never took any risks beyond those already taken by the titans of the genre. Alpha Protocol, the agency, was always going to be the ultimate ‘big bad’, and that was clear from the get-go.
Why is Alpha Protocol No Longer Available?
In 2019, Alpha Protocol was removed from the Steam store without prior notice. The games publisher, Sega, reportedly removed the game due to an expiration of music rights, which may have been due to the fact that renewing the music licences for an older game that no-longer generates sales may not have been financially viable.
Alpha Protocol is still available to download on the Steam store for those that had already purchased it, and preowned physical copies can still be purchased from most second-hand gaming retailers for relatively cheap.
Will There Be an Alpha Protocol 2?
In a 2019 interview with Chris Parker, director of Alpha Protocol, Parker explained that a detailed pitch for Alpha Protocol 2 was created in-house, that would further explore the choice and combat systems of the first game.
Unfortunately, Sega still owns the publishing rights to Alpha Protocol, and have no plans to renew the licence, with Sega US boss, Mike Hayes, being quoted as saying:
“Sadly, we don’t give out awards for just having good ideas. Good games often have to be attached to them.
Let’s speak very commercially; the game hasn’t sold what we’ve expected, therefore we won’t be doing a sequel,” says Sega’s US boss Mike Hayes. “The concept was brilliant, though. You know this whole thing with Metacritic where you have to be in the high 70s to mid-80s minimum [to have any success] – well, with RPGs you have got to be in the late 80s.”
In the years since its release, Alpha Protocol has enjoyed a small cult following for the potential the game represented.
For every bad point that can be made about the state of Alpha Protocol upon its release, such as the terrible AI or generic story, there was certainly genuine heart put into the production. It could be seen more as a homage to great spy-thrillers than a cheap knock off of the biggest story tropes, and even if the story failed to impress gamers and critics alike, there is no doubt that being given the opportunity to influence even the most generic spy story was an exciting prospect.
Obsidian were on to a great idea with Alpha Protocol, and it is truly a shame that the game never managed to live up to expectations, particularly as it had to compete with the likes of Uncharted 2 and Mass Effect 2, both released in the same year. It would be interesting to see the concept revisited by the same developers, or even a completely different company in the future. Perhaps then we could see how far the idea of a spy role playing game could really go.
For now we must simply wait and see, and try to learn from the tragic history of Alpha Protocol.
If you enjoyed this article, you can also read our article about The Death of Consoles.