courtesy Activision

Inside the 'Prototype' vs. 'Infamous' Duel for Superhero Dominance

At a glance, 'Prototype' and 'Infamous' appeared identical. Only their marketing teams could help consumers tell them apart—and choose one over the other.

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Jul 14 2017, 7:00pm

courtesy Activision

Chris Ansell's first day as Radical Entertainment's marketing director was part orientation, part synthesis. The studio was at its peak in the spring of 2006, employing roughly 420 developers spread across multiple projects. As he made the rounds of his new studio, he laid eyes on an embryonic title called Prototype.

"It showed what powers this character, Alex Mercer, would have: spikes coming out of his back, his arm transforming into a blade, all the physics, the crowd sizes," Ansell said. "It was really high-tech stuff. That was the first time I kind of had an inkling of the scope of the game, and it just seemed so cool."

Prototype was exactly the kind of thing that Radical needed Ansell, a veteran of the World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy ad campaigns, to market. It had a completely novel design that promised players a superhero experience that they'd never been able to have before. If Ansell could sell the idea, Radical could have one of the defining games of this new generation on their hands.

There was just one problem: Somebody else had the exact same idea.

Ansell wouldn't discover that for a while, when he found himself fighting a marketing duel he'd never anticipated. At the beginning, the challenge seemed much more straightforward: Introducing audiences to a new franchise with a new kind of game design. The underlying tech powering the game was derived from Titanium, Radical's proprietary engine built for 2005's The Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, a similar style of action game lauded for its state-of-the-art graphics and calamitous superpowers that let players level buildings.

But licensing Marvel's angry green hero had been relatively low risk. Players knew The Hulk; Prototype was unknown and untested. So, too, was Radical's approach to crafting a message to sell the game.

Ansell's role as marketing director called for partnership between development and marketing—divisions that historically did not see eye to eye on the subject of how best to sell games to consumers.

"Often, if you separate marketing from developers, you get different visions," Ansell explained. "I'm a strong believer that every voice should be heard, and marketing should reflect a game's strengths. Game developers live and breathe [their games] every minute of every day, so why would you not take the chance to feed off that energy and their ideas, and translate that into a strong consumer message? That was a big appeal."

For Radical, there was political dimension to Prototype as well. Vivendi had acquired Radical Entertainment one year earlier in 2005. By late 2007, news broke that Vivendi and Activision were in talks to merge, a fusion that produced a powerhouse in command of juggernauts such as Call of Duty and Guitar Hero in addition to World of Warcraft. Part of Ansell's job was to make sure Radical didn't get lost in the shuffle.

He watched them shuffle into meeting rooms, exhausted and careworn from days of attending meetings and feverishly writing game previews. Then the lights dimmed, and Prototype gameplay videos exploded onto screens.

"We were fighting for internal attention with sales managers," said Ansell. "You want to make sure you're putting your best foot forward within the organization, and that those people are thinking as much about your game as they are the big titles."

Ansell forged a marketing spear for Prototype consisting of three prongs. The first was to position Alex Mercer, the game's star, as the sort of character players would aspire to be.

"This was the start of the hoodie era," Ansell recalled, laughing. "We'd been announced around the same time as Assassin's Creed, and they had this white hoodie. We had a unique vision for making [Prototype] very on-the-street. You were an everyman: As long as you had a hoodie, you could be Alex Mercer."

Eric Holmes, Prototype's director who had helmed the well-received Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, communicated to Ansell that despite the bloody thread of violence woven through most of Alex's powers, players should feel compelled to straddle the fine line between good and evil.

"We wanted to paint the character with an air of mystery so the player could inject morality into the character," Ansell said. "You can play him how you like. We hadn't really seen many anti-heroes in games. It wasn't a popular thing yet, so we really played up that angle in the press."

The second and third prongs of Prototype's marketing were its world and the emergent gameplay that stemmed from the world's ingredients. Prototype's streets teem with crowds of enemies and NPCs that players can conscript into their pandemonium. Crowds scatter when large-scale fights broke out. Helicopter rotor blades carve up zombies and send dismembered corpses flying. All the while, players deftly move through the chaos thanks to Alex's smooth handling.

As Prototype evolved, Radical's marketing team rolled out the red carpet for higher-ups. As part of the internal campaign to win support and enthusiasm within Activision, game posters were personalized with the names of Activision's top regional sales managers. These were the people who would be making the pitch to retailers and game stores on behalf of Prototype, and their buy-in would be crucial. Within a few days, Ansell and his team would receive calls exclaiming over the posters, on full display over desks.

"That was part of it: Give your team the assets they need to help them sell, and feel super proud and accomplished by having these amazing assets they're proud to show off to retailers," Ansell continued.

By mid-2008, Prototype was generating buzz. Some of Ansell's fondest memories from his time at Radical are of journalists who booked appointments near the end of a trade show such as Gamescom and GDC. He watched them shuffle into meeting rooms, exhausted and careworn from days of attending meetings and feverishly writing game previews. Then the lights dimmed, and Prototype gameplay videos exploded onto screens.

"It was so fun to watch them slowly reach down for their pens, slowly open their backpacks and grab their notebooks, leaning forward with their eyes wide," Ansell remembered.

Ansell and Radical's developers felt confident they had created something wholly unique. But by sheer coincidence, a groundswell of anticipation was building around an uncannily similar type of game.

Bolts of Lightning

By 2006, Nate Fox was tired of slinking through shadows. A game director at Sucker Punch Productions, Fox had been developing the Sly Cooper series of stealth games for six years. The team was ready to change course, and they knew just the route to take.

"At the time, Grand Theft Auto III was super popular," Fox remembered. "It kind of redefined people's expectations of what a video game [could be]. I remember playing GTA and thinking, Man, I wish I could fly."

Donning a cape and tights seemed an exciting prospect for the Sucker Punch crew, who were as passionate about comics as they were games. In meetings, they described visions of cruising around a massive city ravaged by a disaster. They gleaned ideas from GTA III and graphic novels such as Batman: No Man's Land. However, their players would not traverse its boulevards in cars.

"When you're making a video game, you're looking for things that work well inside of a game space. Aiming and shooting work well; jumping and climbing work well," Fox explained. "That works really well in a video game because it's very physically expressive, so we made a superhero game."

Flying, Sucker Punch's designers agreed, was out of the question. Few if any superhero games had executed fun and intuitive flight. Besides, they had another idea. Teenagers in Russia had posted YouTube videos of themselves performing parkour, a style of movement where practitioners move from one point to another by running, climbing, rolling, and jumping as quickly as possible. Sucker Punch's character would incorporate parkour-style athleticism by seamlessly climbing up buildings and vaulting over obstacles.

"People had a hard time picturing an open-world game without a car, but it seemed like the right thing to do. It honors the [comic book] subject matter," said Fox.

Superpowers would complement parkour for Cole MacGrath, their leading hero. At the beginning of their game, Infamous, Cole is caught in a blast that bestows the power of electricity. Players manifest their shocking powers in myriad ways, such as firing concentrated streams of energy to snipe far-off enemies, or lobbing crackling balls of electricity that explode like grenade. When Cole comes into contact with geometry, he automatically begins to climb or leap over it, letting players concentrate more on exploring and fighting and less on pressing buttons to move.

Per a standing agreement with Sony Interactive Entertainment, Sucker Punch developed Infamous exclusively for PS3. Sony's marketing department handled promotional work, riffing off videos, concept artwork, and materials from Sucker Punch so they were able to devise messaging that suited the game.

The centerpiece of a second marketing campaign was a video titled "The Beauty of Powers," a montage of gameplay footage that showed Cole pull off extraordinary stunts using his electricity powers and his effortless athleticism.

"When we watched it we thought, 'Oh my God. That's our game?'" Fox recalled. "And it's totally our game, it's just that when you slow down time to see all the detail and see just how expressive the hero can be, man, the game just looks awesome. When we saw that video, we said, 'We need to make a game that's equal to this video.'"

Sucker Punch mined other sources for influence. Like most developers they played games as much for fun as for research. "It's not like we were the first to do an open-world superhero game," Fox said. " Spider-Man 2 on PS2 was amazing, with really amazing locomotion. Another one was Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, which was actually the game that came out before Prototype that the same team worked on."

Fox only made the connection between Prototype, Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, and Radical in hindsight. He was unaware of Prototype until one afternoon when he tuned into an episode of G4's X-Play show.

"They were interviewing the devs, and the devs were showing all these moves that the hero could do, and how smooth he looked running up walls and jumping. It was scary. It looked so good, better than what we had," Fox said.

Product Differentiation

Developers from Radical and Sucker Punch likewise had not crossed paths before finding out about the other's superhero title. But for the gaming press, the two games appeared to be direct competitors, and quickly framed them as rivals. Editors discovered Prototype and Infamous and wrote articles touting their parallels. While Radical and Sucker Punch may not have shared that assessment, they found themselves in a competition regardless.

Those who looked closer, however, picked up on variances that clearly distinguished each from the other.

"We were a little worried at first," admitted Radical's Lindsey Williamson Christy, "but then the more we saw of the game, the more we realized we were actually very different."

One seemingly minor discrepancy succinctly represented the fundamental differences between Infamous and Prototype. "You don't have a very complete picture of what another person's game is just from a trailer or small, playable demo," Fox said, "but when I did end up playing their demo, it was nice to see that their game was more of a brawler while ours was more of a ranged game. That might seem a small difference between the games, but to me it was a sigh of relief: We really weren't in the same interactive experience base."

courtesy Activision

"We were big fighting-game fans so we had a lot of combo attacks and the strategy of one-versus-one and one-versus-many melee combat," Chris Ansell added.

Ansell and the marketing team made Prototype's combat a centerpiece of the game's marketing. Alex Mercer did not just punch or kick enemies to dispatch them. He cut, carved, bludgeoned, and ripped. To shapeshift or heal wounds, Alex consumed NPCs—enemies, civilians, and anyone else within grabbing distance.

"Anything that gave a feeling of escape and a power fantasy—even if it was about doing pretty nasty things—we definitely wanted to play that up," Ansell continued. "Obviously it's a video game with simplistic graphics compared to a film, but we were keen to show the ultimate power you could unleash in this incredible sandbox, and play to the Mature rating rather than being afraid of it."

One advantage Radical had over Sucker Punch was that Prototype's marketing team was in-house. When a marketer or designer had an idea for a promotion, all they had to do was walk down the hall or turn around in their chair. To talk with someone at Sony, Sucker Punch developers had to send an email, pick up a phone, or board a plane. That communication gap sometimes led to a disconnect.

Besides Cole's electricity-based powers and the game's comic roots, Sony latched on to Sucker Punch's concept of karma. "We were originally thinking about the game as more of a sim, where there are different social levels and needs, and we would chart these around the city in Infamous," Fox said. "It kind of boiled down to treating people well or treating people poorly."

At the PlayStation conference during E3 2007, a Sony executive premiered Infamous via a trailer, describing the game as a journey where the player's actions would determine whether NPCs viewed them as a hero or a villain. While going all-in on morality was a good move in hindsight, the announcement caught Sucker Punch off-guard and forced the designers to rethink plans for their own game. "That was a feature that we hadn't really, totally decided we were going to do. But after he said it to the E3 public, we were very committed," Fox said.

courtesy Sony

Infamous' karma system did more than steer players down one narrative or another. Leaning toward the dark side unlocks powers unavailable to players who walk the straight and narrow. Evil powers are more destructive, while good powers tend to be more precise, such as sniping. Moreover, villainous Coles regenerate life by consuming civilians; their virtuous peers have to watch out for bystanders during battles or lose karma for letting innocents get hurt or killed.

"Usually we try and double down on things that we see other people, particularly people outside of the studio who have a fresh perspective, get excited about," Fox said. "Marketers are usually the first people to do that."

Changing of the Guard

In the context of the "console war" between PS3 and Xbox 360, Prototype vs. Infamous stood out as an important theater: Brands battling to be the first to plant their flag in the fertile soil of open-world, superhero-themed games. While Radical and Sucker Punch put stock in traditional marketing tactics such as trailers and magazine adverts, they were also making their first forays into emerging forms of mass communication.

Radical created a Facebook page for Prototype and reached half a million followers without spending a dime on advertising. "I think that was also when the [advertising] algorithm was a lot more friendly for getting the word out via organic posts," Ansell said. "Now you have to pay for a lot more of that."

The studio borrowed another outreach strategy from Electronic Arts. Each week leading up to the release of Dead Space, EA's team gathered questions submitted by users and posted a video of the game's executive producer answering a handful of them to social media. "Just showing that you're listening, and proving you're listening to the community has incredible cumulative effects in terms of stickiness and then recommending friends to come in," Ansell continued.

courtesy Activision

Not all information dumps from Radical were planned ahead of time. At least, that's what Ansell wanted people to believe. "It's always fun to do the, 'Oops! We may have leaked this, but we may not have' tactic with press. It's great," he said, chuckling.

The studios also found themselves vying for respect from Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, who had emerged as one of the first real stars of web video criticism thanks to his acerbic video series for The Escapist. He was one of many pundits who picked apart Infamous and Prototype leading up to their release in 2009.

Yahtzee found that he preferred the story and optional missions in Infamous but preferred Prototype's world and gameplay. Otherwise, he noted, they were nearly indistinguishable. Then, wielding both the sarcasm and the toxic sexism that were his act's trademarks, he promised to appoint a winner based on criteria equal parts extraneous and distasteful: Which developers did a better job drawing their competition's leading man in drag.

"The coolest thing about that—I'll be totally honest—is that Yahtzee knew who we were," Fox recalled. "It's weird to have somebody who you watch every week aware of the game you're working on."

Prototype even had a marketing tie-in with Chevy

Yahtzee was amazed when Radical and Sucker Punch both submitted drawings. He decided in favor of Infamous, but just barely. To his amusement, even the images submitted by the studios were similar. As for each game's marketing team, the conversation stemming from the unintentional symbiosis between Infamous and Prototype worked to their advantage. No matter which game a fan preferred, the other received a bump in exposure.

"If you like Prototype, you're probably going to like Infamous, and vice versa," Fox said. "From a marketing standpoint that's not a bad angle. It's almost like there were three press stories: there was coverage of Infamous; there was coverage of Prototype; and then there was coverage of the fact that these two games were being made in isolation, yet on such parallel tracks."

"We were certainly having a lot of fun, and I'm sure the guys at Sucker Punch were, when we did the Prototype versus Infamous campaign, because it was impossible for any Sony fan to mention Infamous without talking about Prototype and vice versa," agreed Ansell. "We kind of leaped into that existing, back-and-forth, competitive energy. That's certainly a strategy: Inserting your product into an existing conversation."

Origins and Endings

Infamous beat Prototype to market, releasing on May 26, 2009—two weeks ahead of Prototype, which landed on June 9. In July, Electronic Entertainment Design and Research (EEDAR) published a report based on early sales. The EEDAR predicted that while Prototype would outsell Infamous overall, Infamous was the clear-cut winner on PS3, where it was on track to pull ahead by as much as 50 percent.

While the contest between Prototype and Infamous became a proxy for the larger marketing struggle between Xbox 360 and PS3 through the mid-aughts, the window of opportunity that had driven both studios to pursue superhero blockbuster ambitions would also prove to be short-lived, and the threshold for success became more daunting.

Some of the internal marketing posters used on the Prototype team.

Both titles were successful in the short term, selling enough for publishers to approve sequels. Infamous 2 stormed PS3 in July 2011 while Prototype 2 released across multiple platforms the following April. In 2014, Sucker Punch released Infamous: Second Son for the PS4. Like its predecessors, Second Son was a technical showpiece that raised the bar for visual quality on Sony's then four-month-old console. The story received mixed criticism, however, and the Infamous series has lain dormant for over three years.

Although Prototype 2 outsold other Activision Blizzard titles in the month it was released, such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, it failed to measure up to the competition in the same period in 2011, namely Diablo 3 and Max Payne 3. The fate that Radical had successfully avoided thanks to Prototype—loss of corporate support and resources—finally caught up with it. In the wake of Prototype 2's underwhelming sales, Activision laid off the majority of Radical's staff. Without resources to develop homemade projects, the studio exists today to provide support for other games bearing the Activision Blizzard label.

Despite events that came later, Ansell looks back fondly on the process of developing Prototype. "That was my favorite ever job in the industry, working with Radical," said Ansell. "It has such a nice place in my heart because building a new IP is the ultimate challenge for a marketer, especially in games. I had such a ball tackling that problem."