Problem: Presenting actions without explaining their consequences.
I’m a law-abiding fellow in Red Dead Redemption. But I’ve been thrown in jail twice – not because of any moral failure on my part, but because of vague context-sensitive controls.
First example: I walked up next to a stagecoach, said hello to the men sitting on it. A message pops up, “Press Triangle to Drive.” So I think, sure! This must be a mini-job. I’ll give these boys a break and earn a few dollars taking this cargo to Armadillo. So I press triangle, only to have John leap up, grab the driver by his collar, toss him to the dirt, and grab the reins.
Second example: I’m in the general store. Wandering through the aisles, a message pops up, “Press Triangle to Open Container.” Sure, let’s see what’s for sale in this chest. Maybe some jerky or something. Instead, John opens the chest, steals all the money inside, and the shopkeeper starts yelling for the law.
Solution: Create a color signal for illegal actions.
I find this problem especially clumsy after seeing how well Fallout 3 handled it. There, if an action was illegal or immoral, the context-sensitive command would appear in red. Simple, visible, and immediate.
At the very least, descriptive text would go a long way. “Steal Wagon” instead of “Drive,” and “Steal Money” instead of “Open Container.” In a game that’s all about choice, players should always be fully aware of the choices they’re making.
This one is just a nitpick, but I think it touches on a broader design issue.
Problem: Proton Pack cooldown causes dead gameplay: a few seconds where the player just has nothing to do.
Solution: Allow players to change weapon types during cooldown.
When the Proton Pack gets too hot, it needs to vent before it can be fired again. This is the reload mechanic of Ghostbusters. A manual venting shuts down the pack for a second, while an overheat-forced venting shuts down the pack for 3-4 seconds. During this time, the player has very little agency over the game, since they can’t shoot.
My instinct during these lulls in the action was to attempt to switch my proton pack to a different mode, but I had to wait until the pack cooled down before I could change its settings. This made me feel disconnected from the game, reminded me that I wasn’t really a Ghostbuster, just mashing buttons on a plastic controller. Allowing the player to switch modes during cooldown seems like a natural way to keep them connected to the game, as well as encouraging players to look at situations strategically and use a variety of weapons to overcome their foes. Cooldowns become a welcome opportunity to switch tactics, rather than an annoyance that interrupts the firefight.
The design principle here is that the player should always have something to do. This is why you see avatars in World of Warcraft jumping around when they’re running from place to place. It’s an immediate and responsive way to interact with the game. During a boring moment, it reminds the player that they have agency. The boring moments in Ghostbusters are only 2-3 seconds long, but that’s still enough to break up the gameplay flow. It’s the same reason I honk the horn when driving video game cars, or bounce the head of the King of All Cosmos around the screen during Katamari Damacy’s loading screens. Call it a short attention span, but I want to have something to interact with.
Even if there was just a button that made a light on the proton pack light up, I know I’d be playing with it while I waited for my pack to cool down.
Problem: A prevalence of one-hit kills causes the combat system to contradict the player’s expectations.
The combat system in Uncharted 2 seems to reward closing in with the enemy.
- Most of Drake’s weapons are less effective at long range.
- The cover system encourages quick movements between cover, allowing Drake to quickly and safely move forward.
- The game has a simple but fun close combat system, which makes it satisfying and effective to fight enemies at close range.
- The game allows Drake to take plenty of damage before dying, allowing the player to take some shots then dive behind cover to heal.
About halfway through the game, enemies start appearing with body armor and shotguns. These shotguns are one-hit kills at close range, and the body armor prevents the player from having enough time to defeat the enemy if they’re too close. Suddenly, the player’s entire combat strategy is invalidated – getting up close is suicidal.
It would be okay if their combat strategy was simply challenged, and close range became more dangerous. The player could take some risks and learn the right strategies for each situation. But a one-hit kill isn’t challenging or dangerous – it’s suicidal and frustrating. The player can’t even attempt the close-range strategy anymore, because there’s no margin for error. If they let these enemies pull the trigger once, they have to restart the entire battle.
The game can’t seem to decide – does it want the player to move forward and engage the enemy at action-hero close range, or hide at a distance at take carefully aimed shots? The entire combat system seems to encourage the former…then it blows Drake’s head off with a shotgun if the player actually attempts it.
So the game progresses a bit further. The player learns to remain behind distant cover, carefully lining up their shots. Then the player encounters enemies with rocket-propelled grenades and other explosives, who are an accurate one-hit kill at long range! Now carefully lining up your shots behind cover is invalidated as a strategy. Now, getting close is suicide. Hiding at range is suicide. And running around out of cover is always suicide. What is the player supposed to do?
(Get frustrated and angry at the frequent cheap kills and restarts, most likely.)
Solution: Enemies with the potential to kill the player in one hit should call attention to themselves as priority targets, and should never be heavily armored.
Enemies with instant-kill weapons should be lightly armored, and dressed in light colors. For enemies with shotguns, bands of bright-red shotgun shells should alert the player to the weapon they’re carrying. The player should be able to identify them as potentially deadly targets, and prioritize them appropriately. The player will still get killed by them if they get too close – a point-blank shot from a shotgun isn’t survivable – but at least they’ll feel like the death is their fault for not prioritizing that enemy and eliminating them before advancing, rather than the game just being unfair.
If I were running a well-funded private army, I’d definitely put my shotgun users in heavy armor, so they’d be able to survive long enough to get close to their target and use their shotguns effectively. But I’m not a Russian psychopath, I’m a game designer, and it’s okay for my shotgunners to die like punks if it’s more fun for the player.
Solution: Enemies with instant-kill explosives should be lousy shots, and have limited ammunition.
Ranged explosive attacks have a role in the game – they should shake up the player, knock them out of cover, and force them to prioritize on defeating the enemies with explosives first. They should not be a real threat to kill the player, unless the player is already wounded. Nathan Drake is an action hero, and action heroes thrive on diving away from explosions, or getting knocked to the ground with no real damage.
Enemies with explosive weapons should be terrible shots. They should be able to hit near Drake, injuring him behind cover, but it should be nearly impossible for them to score a direct hit and kill the Drake instantly. There are a few enemies near the end of the game which are particularly bad about this; if the player doesn’t stay in motion constantly, they’ll be hit right between the eyes by an overpowered explosive. These fights also feature enemies which can quickly kill Drake if he’s not behind cover…which is a frustrating combination. Hide and die, or move and die.
Lower their accuracy significantly, so that Drake can at least take a moment to hide behind a pillar and recover. The game’s health mechanic rewards hiding and catching your breath; turning that into a death sentence is unfair.
Additionally, enemies with explosives should have limited ammunition. Drake can only carry two RPG shots; why can an enemy with an RPG fire shot after shot? After they’ve fired two or three times, have the enemy switch to a pistol or close-combat weapon and move forward to engage Drake at close range.
Problem: Once players are a few levels apart, they can’t effectively play together anymore.
Borderlands offers a lot of ways to play: single-player, drop-in multiplayer, and local splitscreen, and you can take one character and level them up in any mode. Starting a new game and playing with a friend works great…but if one player plays more than another, the fun starts to break down. Once the players are more than 4-5 levels apart, one of them is going to feel useless.
One option is for the lower-level player to host the game. But then the gameplay is trivial for a higher-level player, because their enemies don’t pose a challenge. They’ll rack up tons of kills, but feel bored doing it.
Or, the higher-level player can host the game. This is even worse – the lower-level player will die in just two or three hits, and their weapons will be unable to damage the foes they meet. It’s not just that they’re weak – they’re essentially not even playing the game anymore.
The players could agree to only play with each other, and make sure they keep their levels equal. But the ability to carry one character from single player to local multiplayer to online is one of the best features of Borderlands, and it’s not fair to expect the players to abandon that feature.
Solution: Equalize the characters’ levels, but offer the high-level players the high-level rewards they deserve.
When multiple players connect, the lowest-level character automatically sets the difficulty for the game. All of the enemies the group fights will be scaled to the lowest-level member. The higher-level characters take a penalty to their health, shields, damage, and skill effectiveness to bring them in line with a character of that level. The characters keep their skills, levels, and weapons; they’re just not as effective.
The twist is, the higher-level players continue to receive higher-level rewards. If a level 45 player is playing with a level 20 character, and kills a level 20 enemy, they receive XP as if they had killed a level 45 enemy. This may sound like a huge bonus, but remember – with the level-lowering, defeating a level 20 enemy should be as difficult for this player as defeating a level 45 enemy would normally be. XP is really a reward for the player, not the character, so they should receive a reward that makes the time they spend playing worthwhile.
Loot is a bit more complicated, since every player usually sees the same items. Rather than changing the loot drops, create a new way for high-level players to use low-level items.
Place a new vending machine in various cities around the world. Players can sell items to these vending machines, but they won’t receive money – instead, they’ll receive Loot Tickets. The number of tickets is based on the difference between the item’s level and the player’s level, and the player can’t receive tickets for an item that’s within 5 levels of their own, or a higher level than themselves. These tickets can then be traded in with these vending machines.
When checking this vending machine, every player sees a unique inventory screen, customized for their character. The machines show a broad selection of weapons and items that are appropriate to the character’s level and class, as well as an option to just give the player a random level-appropriate loot item. They can trade their Loot Tickets for these items.
In this way, the player has a reason to play with lower-level characters and pick up low-level items. The game still has challenge, and they can meaningfully cooperate with their teammates instead of overpowering them. They can continue to advance their characters at a meaningful rate, and transform the low-level items into stuff they can actually use.
Problem: Conflicts self-escalate and self-perpetuate
Here’s a situation. You’re heading towards an objective, and you pass by one of the EDF Supply Crates that you’re supposed to destroy. You saunter over and take a swing at it with your sledgehammer. A trooper across the street sees you destroying their property, and starts firing. As you take cover, a car pulls up, and several guerillas jump out to ‘assist’ you. They kill the trooper. More troopers show up. They kill more. Pretty soon, the EDF is at red alert, there’s APCs climbing over each other and gunships sniping you from above, and there’s no hope of actually reaching your objective – all because you decided to take a swing at an optional target.
It’s even worse if you start shooting back. The EDF has an unending supply of troops, and as soon as you shoot one of them, they all seem to know where you are. This means that, despite the game’s title, guerrilla tactics don’t work – if you want to ‘hit and run,’ the only place you can run to is your safehouse, a minute or two away…and it’s likely that the EDF will respawn by the time you get back.
It’s not entirely uncommon in open-world games, since destroying cops rightfully tends to attract the attention of more cops. However, Red Faction: Guerrilla has two design choices that aggravate the problem. First, if the area supports you, guerrillas will arrive and fight with you during combat. That’s really cool, except that there’s no way to let the Red Faction know when to knock it off and disengage. Second, there’s no Pay n’ Spray (from the GTA series) or equivalent to allow the player to escape pursuit or lose their alert level. They can retreat to a safehouse, but there are only a handful of those scattered across the entire game world.
Solution 1: Add ‘disengage’ logic to guerrilla AI
With a few tweaks to their AI, the guerrillas can be helpful to an escaping player, rather than dragging them into further conflicts.
First, we need a way to identify when the player is attempting to evade instead of fight. It doesn’t need to be a very complicated system, though. Just keep a hidden numerical variable to track the player’s attitude. Once per second: +1 if the player doesn’t fire a weapon. +1 if they don’t cause any damage. +1 if they’re sprinting. +1 if they don’t take any damage. +3 if no enemy units have line of sight. -3 if the player fires a weapon. -5 if they cause damage. -1 if they take damage. -50 every time the alert level increases. If the number gets to 50 or above, the player is considered to be evading, rather than fighting. If they take actions to lower their number again, their status can change back to fighting.
If the player is evading, their guerrilla allies attempt to help them escape. They stop trying to kill the EDF, and start laying down suppressive fire, moving away from the battlefield, and looking for vehicles to escape in. As they disengage, the EDF assumes they’ve won the conflict, and the alert level drops rapidly.
If the player is evading and on foot, running away from the conflict, they will get a radio message that a prepared vehicle is being sent for them. Shortly thereafter, a vehicle will pull up nearby. If the player takes this vehicle and avoids any illegal behavior for a short while, their alert level will drop. (The vehicle is nondescript, radar-camouflaged, a diplomatic vehicle…any explanation is just as good as another.) This ‘pull-up-and-leave-a-vehicle’ behavior already exists in the game, so the only change that needs to be made is causing the vehicle to affect the player’s alert level.
Solution 2: Create stealth abilities the player can purchase and use
Another way to allow the player to escape is to give them more control over escaping from a conflict.
In Red Faction: Guerrilla, the player has an NPC ally, Samanya, who offers them weapon and item upgrades in exchange for salvage (currency). As an armor upgrade, Sam will offer stealth upgrades to the player’s heavy Martian coat. The player would activate these abilities by holding down the Crouch button (L3 on PS3), and the abilities would last until they draw a weapon or take damage. They can use their stealth as much as they want, although high-tech stealth solutions have a cooldown time before they can be used again. Red Faction: Guerrilla is still an action game, not stealth action, so the player shouldn’t be able to rely on stealth for offense too often.
At the beginning of the game, all the player can do is turn up their collar, hide their weapon, and try to look nonchalant. Even this can be helpful for disappearing into a crowd.
1/4 way through the game, Samanya offers the player a quick-change coat, which can rapidly be turned inside out or otherwise modified to appear as a different style of clothing.
1/2 way through the game, the player can purchase automatic camouflage, similar to Old Snake in Metal Gear Solid 4. If they crouch and move slowly, their coat will automatically change color to match the closest surface. This makes long-range attackers, especially gunships, much less likely to notice and attack the player, and allows the player to attempt evasion even with no civilians nearby.
3/4 way through the game, true invisibility becomes available. The invisibility cloak only lasts for a few seconds and has a recharge time, but it allows the player to move to a different hiding spot, climb in a vehicle unnoticed, or slip past an EDF blockade.
None of these items offer a perfect escape from a conflict, but they all allow a player to have more control over their attempt to escape. They’ll also promote more guerrilla tactics, where a player can strike at the EDF then disappear into the crowd, without being drawn into an extended conflict.
Problem: Difficulty curve based on optional exploration
The single-player mode of Brütal Legend features a number of scripted storyline battles, interspersed with periods of activity where the player can roam around the game world, earning upgrades and finding hidden statues to increase their life and power. Hidden solos also give the player new abilities that can turn the tide of battle.
However, the player is not required to explore, and may move on to the next story mission at any time. The game’s difficulty is based on the assumption that the player has explored and earned some upgrades, so moving on too quickly can throw the player in over their head, causing the storyline missions to become difficult and frustrating. This problem is compounded by the story of Brütal Legend – it’s excellent, engaging, and well-written. As a player, I found myself much more interested in advancing the main plotline than spending time improving my character.
Solution: NPCs judge the player’s strength and offer advice
Brütal Legend needs to gate the player somehow, to encourage them not to bite off more than they can chew – but without making the restriction obvious. To do so, we’ll use the strength of the existing storyline, by having the warning come from the NPCs.
When the player talks to an NPC to start a storyline mission, the game checks how many upgrades they’ve found. If they haven’t found enough Bound Serpents, Fire Tributes, or Solos, the NPC will encourage them that they need to scout out the area further.
The player then has a choice: they can attempt the storyline mission, or choose to explore more. If they choose to attempt the mission, the NPC tells them that it’s suicide, but doesn’t otherwise get in their way.
If the player chooses to explore more, the NPC mentions that they saw some kind of relic or power-up that Eddie should go check out. The location is marked on the player’s map, meaning that even the most exploration-challenged player will never be totally stuck in the game. With any luck, the player will also discover a few other power-ups while they’re out in the world.
By having the NPC give this warning, it ties the need for exploration into the main plotline. The NPCs of Brütal Legend are supposed to be experienced warriors, and it makes sense for them to give battle advice to Eddie. If the player has become invested in the storyline and respects their NPC allies, they should be more likely to heed their warnings and strengthen themselves, staying closer to the game’s intended difficulty curve.