|Game Design||By Shamus||Aug 1, 2013||40 comments|
I mentioned in my review of Strike Suit Zero that I quit the game at mission 9. I want to look at this in more detail and see how it could go so wrong that it made me stop liking a game.
The mission is that our forces had to board an enemy craft, and I have to guard our ships until the raid is done. There are about fifteen minutes of dogfighting and waypoint-visiting to start off with, and then we get to the segment where everything went wrong. By that stage of the mission, the battlefield looked like this:
|Note: Not to scale.|
I was up against three corvettes and two squadrons of heavy fighters. I charged in like I usually do and got quickly annihilated by the enemy forces. The corvettes had instant-hit beam weapons that I couldn’t really avoid. They didn’t do a ton of damage, but their constant jabs prevented my shields from recharging. The heavy fighters shot slower projectiles that did severe damage if they connected. All of these weapons out-ranged my own by a massive amount. So basically this was like sending a single guy with a knife over an open field to assault an entrenched enemy armed with sniper rifles and bazookas.
Not sure what I was doing wrong (other than obviously serving in a military run by loonies) I decided to hang back and see how the battle played out. Maybe it would be easier to engage once the enemy got a little closer. But they didn’t. The battlefield was completely static. We were supposedly boarding and raiding the enemy installation, but the raid was scripted to advance as I completed my goals, so they never made any progress. The enemy was supposedly trying to wipe us out, but their ships never closed in to attack. There were other fighters in my squadron, but they just flew circles around the command ship, doing nothing. My one fighter was sent out, all alone, to kill two squadrons of heavy fighters and three ships way above my weight class. My guys wouldn’t even send one of their idle fighters with me to draw some fire. If I didn’t take part in the battle, nothing would happen.
I felt like a solder sent on a suicide charge against a strategically irrelevant bunker while everyone else played cards. I know these games are notorious for having the odds stacked against you, but come on. Those odds are preposterous. I was getting my shield blown off before I got close enough to shoot at the other ships. I’d resent my commanders if I hadn’t already stopped being immersed in the game and begun resenting the developers.
You might argue that this challenge made sense because I was the only one with the strike suit, but the strike suit craft was actually a massive liability here. Its special ability is that it STOPS MOVING so it can unleash massive damage. The air was a thick cloud of enemy projectiles. Every single fighter in both squadrons was shooting at me with pinpoint accuracy. They shot giant fluffy balls of energy with huge hitboxes, which meant I had to constantly juke and dodge just to avoid being shot by everyone at once. Transforming into strike mode was basically a suicide button. I would gladly have traded the useless gimmick for an interceptor that would let me do hit-and-run, or a bomber that would let me attack at a distance. The strike suit was the worst tool for the job.
The other thing that makes this challenge annoying instead of inspiring is that the game itself doesn’t acknowledge it. Nobody says, “I know this seems impossible, but it’s our only hope!” Nobody admits the task is challenging, and it doesn’t feel like everything is riding on my pulling it off. The dialog is structured as if I was just doing another dogfight. This wasn’t even a crescendo, from a story standpoint. This wasn’t a “boss fight” mission.
I was playing the mission on easy, by the way. The rest of the game had been a complete cakewalk up until this point.
This is your first contact with the Big Bad fleet, so maybe the designers intended to show how dangerous they were. But this is a completely backwards way to accomplish that. If I fail, it feels like it’s our fault for only sending a single ill-suited craft to face such ridiculous odds when other ships are available. And if I win it sort of makes the Big Bad look like losers to have all these ships killed by a lone fighter.
Freespace did this really well. Early into the game you meet the big bad, and they completely outclass you. Your attacks are only barely effective and it takes a squadron of you to bring down one fighter. The player gets to overcome a tough enemy, and the game establishes that the humans are completely outclassed by this foe. Note that this is the inverse of mission 9.
The mission is do-able. I’m not suggesting it’s impossible. Scott Manley did it, although it looks like his Strike Suit can take a lot more damage than mine. I assume he’s gotten more upgrades, which you can earn by re-playing previous missions. I watched the video and decided I really didn’t feel like grinding old missions for a couple of hours just so I could take another crack at this stupid, unbalanced, unfair, and ridiculous task.
- Don’t introduce massive difficulty spikes in sections of normal narrative intensity. Challenge should keep pace with the stakes and the pace of the story.
- If the difficulty spike is intended, it should be telegraphed and acknowledged by the player’s allies. (Unless them being incompetent, stupid, or apathetic is what you intend.)
- Don’t spend nine missions talking up what a big, spooky foe your enemy is, and then casually ask the player to slaughter huge numbers of them.
- Don’t build a game around a gimmick or ability and then have that be a liability when the player is really in a tight spot. (Unless you’re trying to make a point that the special ability isn’t so special at all.) If the player is saying, “Curse Gordon Freeman’s stupid HEV suit and gravity gun! I would gladly trade them for a pair of swim trunks and an egg whisk!” then something has gone very wrong.
- If you ARE making a point that their special ability is now a liability, it would really help for the story to talk about this or the player will just assume you messed up.
I think in the end what really killed my interest in the game wasn’t the difficulty of this mission, but the revelation of how much the game was made of simple triggers. I realized that I was with allies that weren’t doing anything against a foe that wasn’t really attacking in order to guard a boarding party that didn’t exist. The realization that the gameworld was just an area where I shot stuff kind of obliterated my sense of immersion and my investment in the proceedings. I know this was an indie game and I know it’s murder to set up genuinely dynamic gameplay. I’m not suggesting that the team should have fully scripted the events and written AI to fully perform the scenario as presented. I am suggesting that if they had hidden the smoke & mirrors I might have stuck with it.
If nothing else, that enemy force really should have been more deliberate about attacking.