Monday, November 21, 2016

Directed Sandbox (Planet Coaster)

Let's talk about Planet Coaster's gameplay. Let's really, deeply examine it, and analyze its place within the overall genre of "games where you build stuff".

First things first: Frontier Developments is a company that has been pumping out literal theme park games for decades. Most of their dozens of games are about either zoos or roller coasters. Because of that, I'm going to assume they crafted Planet Coaster exactly as they wished: no accidental elements.

The core gameplay of Planet Coaster is quite straightforward. In the first phase, you build a park out of canned rides and shops. This involves laying things out, hiring and training people, balancing the budget. There is a fair amount to learn: it took me five hours before I realized you could train people.

This "early game" of Planet Coaster is a logistical challenge, but it's largely pass/fail. Once you understand enough of how the park works to get a reasonably good layout, balance of canned rides, and sufficient employees, you're done with the early game and move into the late game.

In the late game, the park runs itself. You have a steady stream of income and no distractions. This is typically the phase where you start to build coasters and track rides, although you might build one or two small ones earlier on. Since you have no particular constraints, you are free to slowly work out your coasters and express yourself.

Moreover, the progress you make on your coasters doesn't much change the dynamics of your park. You don't need to change the number of shops or the number of trash cans or any of that stuff. Minor tweaking, at most. There's no distractions such as fires breaking out or Godzilla attacking. You can do as you like.

I call this a "directed sandbox".

The directed sandbox lets you do as you like, but also comes with some useful time-based constraints. This means you're likely to build low-tech coasters first, then grow into more advanced coasters. I think this is a good progression. Even when I'm familiar with the range of options and how the high-performance coasters work, I still like "warming up" by pushing the constraints of the starter coasters and the initial layout constraints.

Planet Coaster has caught a little bit of flak because of its easy late game. This contrasts with classics like Sim City, where as the game progresses more concerns are introduced. Requirements such as police, pollution management, and outright disaster response are phased in to keep the challenge alive.

It is true, Planet Coaster does not do that. Fundamentally, the game is not about managing a park: it's about creating a park. Expressing yourself.

However, if you simply hand someone a toy like that, most people aren't going to be inspired. They'll feel lost, like what they're doing is pointless.

So Planet Coaster gives you some friction up front. Plan the park. Tend to the employees. Make the park feel like it exists, even though it's basically busywork. This will get you interested in the nature of your park, deciding on a theme, building a virtual experience you can feel in your bones.

Then, when the time comes to express yourself freely, you'll have a foundation to build on.

You won't be faced with a blank page. You already have a sketch.

Planet Coaster does have a pure sandbox mode. I don't really like it, the unstructured construction ends up with an untextured park whenever I try. Nothing wrong with that, but the directed sandbox is actually more freeing for me.

I think we can learn a lot from this. Games like Kerbal and Space Engineers are directed from the other side - they have goals you work towards instead of foundations you build on. I think both approaches are viable.

But I would like to talk about one of the big weaknesses in Planet Coaster - one shared by many base-building games. Decoration.

Decoration is a big part of making things feel lush and lived-in, but left on their own, players will focus on mechanical elements and leave decoration aside. Some games try to embed decoration into the mechanical elements to insure the end result is decorated. For example, in Evil Genius not only are the various rooms automatically decorated, but adding decorations creates a stat boost in a radius around them.

Planet Coaster does this by simply making everything have a decoration rating. The rides are the most obvious example, since they have a rating stapled on their summary, but under the surface the characters constantly think about it everywhere they go. Their thoughts reflect this if you click on them.

My issue with Planet Coaster is that this short-circuits. The now-famous "surround everything with flamethrowers" approach is the fastest and easiest way to make this max out, and so many players simply have a theme park that looks like hell, both literally and figuratively.

Clearly they made this choice on purpose. I'm sure they tested other methods. The fact that flamethrowers are cheaper than a ratty old cart shows they clearly wanted to make them dominant, for some reason. But let's talk about some other methods.

One of the things that goes into actual theme park engineering is theming. Much like a roller coaster, the experience of moving through a theme park involves a variety of experiences paced to pull you in. The actual beats are different, and it's not as linear, but it's a well-understood arc. They build casinos using the same methodology.

It would be possible to allow the player to construct a theme park experience in a more explicit manner, where the themes in each area and the experience of walking through it are combined into a final "feel". Rather than theming the whole park as "pirate", there's a lot of ways you can refine that. This area is about high-seas battles. This one's about shipwrecks. This one's about desert islands and searching for buried gold. This one's about the scurvy port town. This one's about being in a prison. This one's about pirate ghosts.

It would be relatively easy to spam through these as well. "Oh, I want to get the points for a pirate sub-theme, so I'll just stick ten thousand cannons here in a huge pile." This is why I might recommend that the experience unfold in much the same way as a roller coaster's arcs do. People are moving through the area. Things that are close have a greater weight, things that are far away matter based on their height and visibility. This can be simplified or made complex as you like, but the point is that the actual walking along a path has an emotional pattern to it.

It sounds nitty-gritty and annoyingly obsessive-compulsive, but that's what designing a real theme park is like. Yes, they agonize over whether to use gray brick cladding or red brick cladding. They agonize over whether to use real-world branding for their food services, or just put up a sign saying "grog". This is what it's about.

There are a lot of different things you can do with this, things that are every bit as deep as a roller coaster. For example, you can use a monorail to move people from one area to another, but you can also use the monorail to reset their expectations and rest them up, so they're ready to tackle the new area. Correspondingly, you can put the energetic and terrifying rides beneath the monorail, in the area the monorail skips. Excited teens will ignore the monorail and move into the high-energy area, while tired families will hop on the monorail and get rested up.

Anyway, Planet Coaster's pretty good if you understand that it's a directed sandbox and not a game with a beginning, middle, and end.

What do you think about their approach?

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Soft Sci Fi is Hard

This is about Mass Effect.

There's a lot of ways to portray science fiction. In most people's minds, you can split it into two categories - "hard" sci fi and "soft" sci fi. And they theoretically judge this based on whether the science in the fiction is sciencey enough.

In practice, the situation is not about how sciencey the science is, but about how much it overshadows the people.

"Hard" sci fi is usually about lives buried beneath machinery. The technology is typically shown to be big and clunky - obvious mechanical arms, giant ventilation systems, big explosions, death any time a machine hiccups. It's easy to be "sciencey" when the machines are so clunky, because you can dedicate so much of your story to them.

On the other hand, "soft" sci fi is usually about lives lifted up by machinery. The technology is typically almost invisible, appearing or disappearing at need. The stories that get told tend to be about how people live when they are allowed to be who they are.

Neither of these approaches is inherently more or less valid, more or less sciencey. And there are a lot of other variations that can be analyzed in this way, like the ever-more-popular military sci fi. It's not particularly realistic, but it does talk about people living lives buried beneath machinery.

Because of this, rather than "hard" and "soft", I might prefer "heavy" and "light".

Clearly, oldschool Star Trek is king of "light" sci fi. You need healing? Here's a smartphone and an injector the size of your thumb, all better. Need to go from A to B? Here's a patch of floor to send you wherever. Need an epic space battle? Turns out your house is armed with lasers and shakes delightfully when struck. While there are massive pieces of science, their impact on daily life is either invisible or entirely supportive: the cool space station lets people do super-cool science, but is otherwise basically an office building.

Mass Effect is a prince of "light" sci fi.

Well, no surprise. Mass Effect was an attempt to modernize 60s pulp, and it largely succeeded. Computers literally appear and disappear out of thin air. Space stations and ships all have artificial gravity and huge windows. Healing is even faster and easier than in Star Trek, and guns fire magic bullets.

The clean curves and crisp edges of the designs highlight this. While there is a lot of detailing, there's no clutter. This is true of interiors, exteriors, clothes, armor, even guns.

The stories are about people living lives enabled by technology. Sure, there are still desperate people, dangers and evils. The technology is used to highlight and isolate those stories so they can be told crisply and cleanly, unburdened by the expectations of the real world or the forced clutter of heavy science fiction.

Those things can be introduced. Whenever it'd be useful. But we can use the freedom of soft science fiction to tell the stories exactly as we want to.

Moreover, this affects the ambiance of the civilizations we find. Things like armor or even jackets are likely to be rare, and we're likely to meet a lot of people delving into their own interests instead of being desperate to make enough money to survive. There are still likely to be poor and desperate people, but those elements tend to be downplayed. In ME, even the destitute colonists are portrayed as hopefuls building a new life.

People usually live a rather minimalist lifestyle in soft sci fi. They don't need clutter, not unless the story demands it. They don't need pockets, not unless the story demands it. They don't need medical conditions, not unless the story demands it.

Whichever angle the devs choose, it's supported by the soft technologies. If we need the colonists to be worried about the power supply, here's a box they are fussing with, and here's the side quest where you help them in some arbitrary way. If there's monsters attacking, here's as many or as few automated defenses as the story needs. If someone is corrupt, here's a technology that highlights and enables that. If someone's sick, here's an arbitrarily convoluted technology for treating them.

And... this is something authors simply don't understand.

They inherit a great story, and they want to tell more stories in that universe. They want to punch it up a notch, even. So they take the supporting elements that people will remember, and they make them permanent. They begin to clutter up the stories even when they aren't needed. The whole series trends towards "harder" sci fi, more and more clutter, and the genre changes.

I call this "calcification". Turning "soft" sci fi into "hard" sci fi - or light into heavy, if you prefer.

This happens all the time. It happened in Star Trek, which gradually became military sci fi. Hell, it even happened with Batman and Superman.

It's happening right now with Mass Effect.

I think this is why science fiction IPs tend to become grimmer and grittier. Not because everyone thinks grimmer and grittier sells better, but because if you let your stories build up clutter, you have to start telling stories about people being crushed by that clutter.

Don't fall for it. You can keep your stories uncluttered. You can even tell grim and gritty stories.

Keeping soft sci fi light and flexible is difficult, but it's key. When your science fiction can't touch its own toes any more, you've calcified and need to limber up again.

Monday, October 31, 2016

A New Sci Fi Game Genre

Games like Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic are fantastic games. I've replayed most of them a few times. Each time I do, I get drawn to something that's not quite in the games, something I can almost taste.

Not sensawunda or nostalgia, but a whole missing genre.

Let's design a Mass-Effect-style game with Star-Trek-like ideals.

Old Star Trek was about being a mature civilization in a universe full of amazing marvels. Basically the opposite of a coming-of-age story, Star Trek was about adults finding the universe contains unending wonders. This is not the theme of any RPG I know of, but it could be. We have the power.

Wonders
First let's focus on "wonders". To be honest, we already create wonders for the player in these kinds of games. We just don't play them up enough to have it register.

An example of this is Mass Effect. In this series you'll visit dozens of different hostile environments, hundreds of different classes of ships and space stations and planetary settlements. You'll see caves, plant monsters, psychics, ancient alien hive-minds driven mad by abuse, creatures so old they eat a galaxy of life forms in one bite, artificial intelligences struggling to work out how and if they should live, and so many more things.

Most of these sci fi RPGs and many horror games use the close-third-person camera. This tool is so powerful that I don't even think they know why they chose it. They chose it just because it always worked before... but there's a reason it's evolved to be such a core part of these games. It's the most powerful camera for showing us wonders and immersing us in amazing places.

1) We can see our window character. Both how they look in comparison to the area, and how they interact with the area/are interacted with by the area. Because we can see how our avatar compares, we know how to feel about the area.

2) We are still zoomed in pretty close. This allows us to make out all the details, as well as get a real sense of scale. When your camera zooms out too far, it's hard to feel like you're inside this wondrous place, and you can't make out any details of how other people feel about being there.

3) We can use standard cinematic techniques to draw focus and change mood. Slow pans, zooms, depth-of-field, shaking, tilt, and many more cinematic conventions can be flat-out stolen, and they'll work fine. Moreover, the camera is flexible enough that it can become first-person or bird's-eye as needed, giving us the best of all worlds.

By understanding the advantages the close-third-person camera gets us, we can play those up to create a more powerful and distinct sense of place, scale, and wonder.

For example, if we land on a world full of toxic electrical mists, our main character wears a heavy suit. We know it's a toxic environment because we can see our character plonking around in this heavy suit. Even the dialog has a tinny radio sound, and we can hear the KKkzzsshshhhh of sand blasting against our visor. We can punch it up by making the sound vary depending on the direction you turn, since the wind is blasting in one direction. When the electrical mist gets bad, we can see the flickering purple sparks on the skin of our suit, hear the radio break into static. We can even adjust the camera to a lower, hunched-down angle when the wind picks up.

Virtually every "amazing new thing" can be done using similar methods. If we discover a new species, how our avatar physically interacts with them will tell us how to feel about them. We can see how the locals react to us as we wander around in various costumes and deal with places built for creatures of alien proportions. If we find an ancient, damaged space station, we'll watch our avatar duck and crawl through shattered hallways, float across zero grav areas.

This is more work than just using the same walking animation all the time and simply making each level with new arrangements of the same meshes, but I feel like it's worth the price. A lot of the techniques can also be re-used - for example, the wind-blast sound pattern can be reused in the vents of a space station, or during a hull breach, or in a dock when a ship fires retro-thrusters, or even in a humorous way when your admiral is chewing you out for blowing something up.

Basically: if we radically increase the immersion of each new place, we can make each new place feel more amazing and new.

Adults
Those optimizations need to be backed up with some serious changes to how the game lets us interact with the location/have our interactions moderated by the location. This is where the "adults" half of "adults discovering wonders" comes into play.

We can argue over what being mature means, but for the sake of this design, let's say it means appreciating peace and life, and accepting that nothing is perfect. That is at the heart of a lot of my favorite Star Trek episodes, so that's what I'll be using as my measuring stick here.

That doesn't mean having a pacifist game. It might be possible to make one, but for now let's assume the game is still largely like Mass Effect or Knights of the Old Republic: you are fundamentally gonna get in a lot of fights.

How can we make maturity part of the game, despite that?

It's about allowing the player to appreciate the complexities of the places and situations they are in, and taking actions which take place within that complexity rather than just cutting everything apart.

1) Show people living in these places, show their joys and hardships, let them do things besides just sit around and repeat one line. It doesn't have to fit into a large algorithm or anything, it can be pretty basic, but focus on their concerns and their joys. Nearly all dialog, subquests, and exposition can be made part of some NPC's life, so obviously do that.

2) Show that things falling apart is bad. As lumpy as local society might be, anarchy would be worse. Ideally, show it in reaction to the player's choices: if the player takes too heavy a hand, chaos forms in the vacuum they leave. Many of the player's missions might be to try and help in places where this has already happened, which will keep it from being too blunt.

3) Party members. Have several party members along, or even have them comment over the radio. If each party member embodies one particular theme of the game (as is pretty common), they can comment on the things they see and the player will be able to easily understand the context of the comment. Of course, they can also drag the player into the local mess.

4) Recurring NPCs. Other mobile NPCs can visit many places and can bring their own nuanced chaos into the mix. Working with or around these NPCs and their factions can add a solid foundation to build on for the player's own nuanced interactions.

5) Refining choices. This one's a bit complex.

Basically, the first time you encounter a choice, you don't have much complexity to your response. But you keep revisiting the situation, and each time your options get more refined.

For example, a seedy space station has a problem as to whether it's being run by the locals or by the barely-inhabited planet below. When you first arrive, you can choose to side on one side or the other, or neither. You'll learn more as the situation unfolds, and your choices get more nuanced: you can try to put pressure on one side or the other to implement reforms or switch people of power in and out. You can gather intelligence and make surgical strikes or robust defenses. You can choose who gets a captured warship... even who gets to pilot it.

Writing these kinds of nuanced trees can be a little daunting, but there's methods that can help us out. We can lean heavily on either algorithmic or re-usable plot events, especially if we're making an open-world game.

We have to be careful, though: it's easy to end up feeling flat and formulaic if you lean too heavily on those approaches, and that would completely kill the tone we're going for.

In the end, the tone we want is one where the player can go anywhere in our universe, stop, and just enjoy the ambiance. Whether that means their squad of three is hanging out on top of a methane glacier, in the heart of their starship engineering section, or in a bar on any given space station. We want the player to think "this is a place worth protecting".

Or, at least, "it could be worse!"

Summary
There's nothing fundamentally new about these suggestions. Really, I'm just hoping to punch up specific facets that already exist in most sci-fi RPGs.

When those elements get punched up enough, a new genre might emerge. One about existing in a sci fi world, rather than murdering your way through one. But I can't see the end product right now.

I can see making wonders feel wonderful and adults feel mature, though.

I think that'd be a fun start.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Video Game Endings

So, I read this Gamasutra article by Jason VandenBerghe, and I basically want to argue the exact opposite.

Endings are extremely powerful. Arguably the most powerful part of any story, with the only close competitors being the opening and the main twist. A good ending can leave your audience in stunned silence for minutes, or screaming and bouncing off the walls. It leaves a deep and indelible mark in your brain.

Not all games need endings, but if your game has an ending, it should probably have a good one.

That said, Jason's article is not wrong. Most players don't finish games. And most games have shit endings. And... I know this will be a shocker... most games are just badly written.

For example, Bioshock is brought up. Bioshock and its successors have fantastic art direction, great voice acting, and a powerful sense of place. They are good places to be. But, in terms of writing, they're barely high-school level. "Would you kindly" is a shadow of a twist, and the ending is a few still images and a narration.

I won't say that the writers are bad. The problem is not how skilled they are, but in how the games are written. Budget constraints, convoluted development schedules, and boardroom interference can turn an excellent script into porridge... or a festering garbageheap into porridge. Either way, you get porridge.

Jason was right to enjoy the play of Bioshock and not give a shit about the ending, because that's how the game was built. But it's not how games must be built. We can use endings.

This is a two-step process.

1) Have a good ending.

2) Increase the percentage of players that reach the ending without making the game "too short".

Good End
Having a good ending is obviously a bit of a challenge. There are a lot of classes and tutorials about how to write one, but in our case we need to focus on techniques which allow the ending to retain its power even through the chaos of an ordinary development cycle.

The chaos of how a player plays your game is a similar concern. Some players pay more or less attention to different aspects of the story, or have different maturity levels. They may be in a good mood or a bad one. Maybe their kid starts crying halfway through your lead-up. All of this chaos!

How can you build an ending on sand?

Well, I can't recommend a twist ending.

Twists are easy to screw up. A twist is something the audience doesn't see coming, but when it happens they feel like it was both inevitable and mind-blowing. That requires a lot of lead-up to set the stage, and that lead-up will be ruined. Players won't notice, or they'll be smarter than you expect and notice it way ahead of time. The dev cycle of the game will cut a level out and exclude a critical clue. Someone will post a spoiler on Reddit and it'll get a billion reshares before the game even goes live...

Now, you can put twists into a game. But I would put them near the middle of the game and make them simple progression twists instead of a perspective twist. By these standards, killing Crono or letting Kefka blow up the world were good twists. You can't misunderstand them, you can't overly predict them, and it doesn't matter if the level leading up to them is cut or badly damaged during the dev cycle because there's no critical info in it.

For an ending, I recommend thematic echoes, a straightforward epic setpiece involving sacrifice, and a post-ending wind-down.

Thematic echoes are good because they don't require any one plot point to exist and don't require the player to be consciously paying attention. The easiest thematic echo is to look at what the player accomplished and then leverage that for catharsis or drama.

For example, if the player spent the game gathering squadmates, now the player must spend those lives to protect the world... or let the world rot to protect the squadmates. If the player has protected the townsfolk, now those people show up to protect the player. If the player killed a bunch of slimy aliens, now the player has to protect a bunch of slimy aliens - or be one, who knows. The point is, the player has been doing stuff, and they'll have an attachment to that stuff even if they don't consciously remember it in detail.

Epic setpieces are an obvious element of a good ending, but you'll need to add an element of sacrifice to really show that this is not just another boss. This is the end. You want that tingle to crawl down the player's spine when they suddenly realize that the story is going to end here. Things fall apart. People die. The main character loses an arm. These losses need to be of the sort where the story cannot continue as it was. This is the last stand.

The wind-down is also critical. Too many people just put up the ending and then ditch to credits or a pop song or something. It takes a little while for a good ending to finish crushing people's brains, so leave that ending scene uncut for at least ten more seconds than you might think you should. Nobody's in a hurry to see your end credits or hear you pitch your next YouTube video or whatever. Let them process what you've just given them.

Good wind-downs may also serve as follow-ups. For example, in Suikoden and Fire Emblem, the wind-down tells you how each character spends their life. It's very well-done.

These are just my suggestions, but I hope you can see how an ending built around these principles can survive the chaos of development and a wide variety of erratic players.

The End
You want players to see your ending.

To me, the ending is like a tattoo needle, and the rest of the game is like ink. Yes, players will end up randomly covered in ink as they play, and it'll leave a mark. But the needle is what gets it under their skin forever.

The problem is clearly explained in the article Jason wrote: games are long. People have different amounts of time, investment, and interest.

Fortunately, there are a lot of methods we can use to deal with this.

One way is to move content to after the ending. Post-ending content is a fun tradition, and there are three basic varieties.

1) The game continues. Somehow you continue to run around the world doing stuff even after the end.

2) Last-save options. You can always load up that save just before you commit, and go play in the Gold Saucer for a decade.

3) New game plus. Things unlock if you play again.

Just be sure not to make people think new game plus is required to get the "true ending". Crono Trigger did this right: you get the true ending when you play it through. The endings you find in new game plus mode are just fun alternatives. The ending they get is a tattoo. Don't let them think you gave them a shitty tattoo.

Another method is to use "multiple endings". Rather, you should think of major arc events as things that will be "endings" for players that stop early, and the next hour or so of play would be the wind-down from those endings.

A good example of this is Final Fantasy 6. Kefka blows up the world in the midgame, and you spend the next few hours seeing how your friends are surviving in this new world of ruin. From a story perspective, this is an excellent midgame twist. From our perspective as game designers, this is simply "ending A". People get to see the epic setpiece where the world is destroyed and everything comes undone, then get to wind down. It's a "downer", but that's not bad. It's just a skull tattoo instead of a heart tattoo.

It's not the "true ending", but you didn't do a bait and switch so it should be okay. It's just a memorable moment that can serve as an ending for rushed players.

Another method is to use "stretch content".

Most of the time we think of optional content as "completionist fodder". Like, do you collect every Pokemon? Take every picture? Level every item? Find the secret smooglesboogs?

But it's so much more flexible than that. Optional content is an incredibly powerful way to let the player tell you how much time they have, how tense they are, and what they care about.

For example, loyalty missions in RPGs. A lot of players will only do one or two loyalty missions for their favorite party members. Others will do all of them.

Why not just... extend that?

Major characters in these kinds of games usually represent a core story aspect or theme. So the story elements you planned to put in the main game to stretch it out... stick them in the appropriate character's repertoire. Not one loyalty mission per character, but maybe one loyalty mission per character per world, or perhaps a loyalty mission for every given pairing of characters.

Since your ending is built with our resilient approach, how much of this stretch content the player uses is largely unimportant. As long as that ending is still the "true" ending - too many games require you to do the side quests to get the "true" ending, and that's the opposite of what we want.

Content like Disgaea's item dungeons or Final Fantasy's optional bosses can also extend play time. It's not thematically integrated very well, though: I prefer the character-driven side missions, since the characters are thematically integrated.

Either way, the point here is to be vultures rather than tour guides. We push the player to feel things and control the tension, but we allow the player to tell us how they feel and how tense they actually became. The chaos of a game is impossible to predict, so we need to allow the player to control their own experience with a bit more adaptability.

Anyway, those are my thoughts:

Endings are powerful. They take the raw experience of the rest of the game, and push it under the player's skin. A good ending will use that ink to draw something cool, and the player will remember the game forever.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Building From the Inside

Base-building, on my mind again.

Recently, I was playing Fallout 4. One of the expansions gives you access to this massive underground space where you can build a vault using vault modules. There are a lot of weird limitations and missing pieces, but the idea is interesting enough: build a vault yourself!

This is something I am really interested in, since building a vault and building a space base are fundamentally similar. So I set about with gusto!

It's a shallow mechanic, since it's not the focus of the game. But sometimes you can learn the most from stuff that's just hacked together.

Most base building games are from bird's-eye view. You can cleanly and clearly build the base, manage the little ant people as they wander around, and so on. This gives you a lot of visibility, so you can expose the complexity of designing these systems. Which, in turn, means you can increase that complexity and create some serious depth.

Fallout 4 is kind of the opposite. Just like other first-person construction games (like Medieval/Space Engineers, Minecraft, etc), you can't see the whole base. Since you can't see well, the systems have to be simplified.

And so I dismissed the idea.

I was wrong. There is a lot of power in limiting the player.

Free to Fly
Not being able to see very far makes basic layout a huge issue. Verticality becomes a fun challenge and opportunity.

Normally, verticality is poison in a base-building game, almost impossible to track. Most people prefer to build out rather than up, simply because they can still see the whole base when they do. Building vertically obscures the lower floors, and dealing with that is a huge annoyance.

But now the base is already obscured. Being on another floor isn't any more or less obscured than being down a hall. Managed correctly, it's less obscured: rather than a maze of twisty passages, just go upstairs in the sunny atrium and walk ten feet. Suddenly, verticality is a powerful shortcut and grounding feature instead of a serious problem.

Basics Aren't
Infrastructure that was easy from above is very challenging when you can't see it. Radically dumbed-down infrastructure provides just as much grist as more complex infrastructure in a bird's-eye game.

I think this is a place where much better visibility wouldn't hurt. Rather than trying to hide the infrastructure outside of the visible space (exterior piping, buried power cords, etc), I would run it inside. Along the ceiling, the floor. This gives the player the ability to easily track it, makes it obvious how it's serviced, and also introduces some much-needed floor height alterations (IE, running floor piping underneath a raised area breaks up the flatness of the facility).

There's always an urge to introduce complexity, but with this kind of setup the opposite is better: simplicity is king. You don't need to worry about if you have enough air pressure in your vents or if the load on this particular electrical line is too high. Instead, just the fact that they've been piped in is enough.

This is because the players will want to push themselves to create more epic layouts. Bigger rooms, or lots of smaller rooms. How do you provide power, air, heat, water, whatever is needed in spaces too big or small to easily run cables through? Especially if outlets take up set space: can you make a tiny bathroom if you need air, water, and power outlets taking up their required chunks of space?

More complexity can be added by having specific systems require specific supplies. Data cables, pneumatic tubes, fiber optics, high-tension lines, whatever. Just make sure there's a reason to put these better systems in shared areas, so those new cables have to share the space.

You also need to think about how those cables can be interrupted. For example, how does a door work if you're running cables across the wall? Maybe you can move them to the ceiling, but only one type of cable per meter of hall? Rules like this are easy to understand, and the player can simply walk along a cable if they're not sure what's going on.

The key is to start simple and get steadily more dense, since the limits of the visible space are what you're highlighting. Sure, run cables along both walls... but don't expect to have any doors!

Lifestyle
A lot of base-building games feature lifestyles. Like The Sims. These games use time compression to make it very expensive to do anything. Going to the bathroom takes hours. This isn't useful for a first-person base-building game, since A) you won't see it happen and B) the punishment for having to walk is having to walk.

This was a sticking point in my thoughts until I made myself a personal bedroom in Fallout 4 and tried to sleep in it.

I could clearly hear the slot machines from one level down.

Now to me, the player, that's pretty insignificant. There's no impact on my ability to choose "sleep" from the popup menu.

But for lifestyle... why not have that matter?

Rather than having the residents walk around and have that eat up their schedule, just look at where they live, where they work, and where they play. Calculate various good and bad factors based on either radius or simplified LOS. Congrats, they now live in a place and can wax poetic about it.

While things might statistically be good, bad, or ugly, I recommend having only a few things that are clearly good or bad. Make most of them just notable. This is because making notable things will give the base personality, while making them clearly good or bad will simply make the player optimize the same way as everyone else.

For example, you have an apartment above the main air filter. It goes "RRRRHMMRMRMRMMMMMMM" all night. You might want to lump this into a generic "noise is bad" set, but I think the people above it should grow to accept it. Like how people grow to be at peace with the sounds of traffic whooshing by, or hilariously loud rain on a tin roof. It's a marker of home, and if people feel at home in your base, you've built a home. That's pretty powerful.

It's much easier to show in first person than third person, because you'll experience all the things they experience. If you go there, you'll hear the RRRRRHMRMRHRRMRMMMMM. And they'll talk about it amongst themselves, so you hear about it as well as hearing it directly.

See-Through
A huge problem with building in first person is when you run up against things you can't see. For example, you can't extend that hallway because there's a rock pillar in the way, or because you have a perpendicular hallway blocking it, or whatever.

In Fallout 4, the standard is: you have to rip away the wall to build out, so you'll be able to see whatever is that way. I don't think that's good enough: there's no reason not to show a faint hologram of the rest of the base. That would allow you to build out without manually ripping things up and then putting them back down.

The hologram could even be limited to showing only in a patch near your head as you approach a wall in build mode. It wouldn't be distracting at other times.

Keeping the base in mind when building is a big deal, especially since the default method (a map) is 2D and suffers hugely from the verticality you're putting in.

Expensive People
One big issue is that people are expensive.

In bird's-eye games, your residents are pretty small. Whether 2D or 3D, they are too tiny to need much detail. But in first person, your residents can fill the screen, and they have to feel like they have personalities.

This means that you will need a pretty robust, high-quality character system that makes your residents feel very distinct and personable. This is a price we're just going to have to accept: for a base to feel lived-in, it needs to be lived in.

The upside of that is simple: you can make your base feel real and lived-in. This is something that's very hard for other games to do.

This became very clear when playing Fallout 4. In comparison to games like Space Engineers or Minecraft, the vault felt inhabited because people were wandering around doing things. Sure, the stuff they were doing didn't make a lot of sense, but it was lively.

Games like Dwarf Fortress or Rimworld feature lively characters, but because they're indistinct and small, it takes a lot of effort to feel that they are alive and personable.

While this is a cost we are forced to eat, the payoff is arguably the best reason to make this kind of game in the first place!

Other Thoughts
There are a lot of things that matter a lot more in first-person games. Decorations. Lighting. Cleanliness. Clothes.

Variation is critical, but don't limit it to the obvious things like lights and wall coverings and chairs. The shape of the interior is also critical, and you want to have that vary as well, so the player wants to strive to build more interesting, complex rooms and layouts.

For example, having large, open rooms is fun, but if the floor is flat, it'll feel really awkward. You can provide tools to break the space up: stairs intended to be placed near the center of such rooms, raised flooring, large decorations like trees or verandas. Also, walls don't have to be completely solid. Not just windows vs doors, but also open-plan halfwalls, supports, etc.

These are enough to give the player the chance to make something interesting, but it may also be worthwhile to incentivize it. Raised floors give social bonuses to those on top, and you can run cables underneath them. Columns can have cables run inside them. Open-plan halfwalls are a free standing table to hang out at.

Simply making the NPCs hang out in ways that highlight the player's constructive choices seems like it'd be incredibly powerful feedback. Even if there's no statistical benefit to a raised floor, if the NPCs gather to watch someone standing on top of it, it automatically becomes a stage.

Sim Savings
Another big advantage of this kind of base is that we don't have to simulate anything in real time. Because the player isn't watching the whole base, you can just stuff residents in wherever the player goes. There will always be NPCs hanging out or working or sleeping or whatever. This is a great way to A) save on expensive simulations and B) make the base feel densely populated even if there's only a few NPCs.

We can use these sim shortcuts to allow for other kinds of gameplay. Since we're not actually monitoring where people are at all times, we can simply track where they tend to be. In doing this, we can easily determine who they're likely to have relationships with. We can throw together convincing relationship growth by making up a situation that happened offscreen at a specific place and having both sides reference it. "Oh, we met at the pool!"

This can even be turned into sidequests or governing missions.

These people hang out in the atrium after work, when they're exhausted. But these people don't have those jobs and come to the atrium to play. So now you, the governor, must determine the rules: is the atrium intended as a party ground, or a quiet park?

... anyway, those are some thoughts I have on first person base building games. What do you think?

Monday, September 19, 2016

Adjusting the Five Phase Play

Last essay I analyzed open-world games a bit, and mentioned the "five phase play" these games rely on:

1) Approach a dangerous area
2) Scan enemies
3) Maneuver for engagement
4) Engage
5) Deal with response

As I mentioned, these provide a smooth tension curve. Each mechanic is optimized to run in a particular tension range, and to help amp the tension up to the top of that range. Players shift up and down as the situation demands, like a stick shift driver.

I'm happy to create a game that uses those steps, but I need to understand them well enough to put them together. And I have one big issue: I'm fundamentally a stealth player. In most open-world games I default to sniper (or archer) because the stealth doesn't really work. You can sneak, but the fail state for sneaking is catastrophic, leading to save-spamming and eventually deciding it's just not worth it. Moreover, stealth characters can't really secure a location unless they sneak up on every single enemy in a location and murder them in cold blood.

I've been thinking about phases 2 and 3. I think these are the problem, because they have very rigid, nasty fail states.

If you screw up scanning or maneuvering, you are dumped straight to phase 5: dealing with the enemy response. Worse, the maps are very funneled, so your ability to maneuver is very limited. Go out the door, you'll run into another enemy. Run across the parking lot, they'll shoot you from behind.

Every aspect of the encounter is massaged to make these failures less severe. We introduce several "soft fails", like the second it takes an enemy to realize there's movement worth investigating, and then the time to realize the movement is an enemy. We also introduce hilariously forgetful guards, because the player can't move freely enough to adapt to alert guards. The funneled movement also means we have to allow players to leave the mission zone entirely if they completely flub it, without having to worry too much about being hounded by enemies at range.

While these tweaks make the game playable, they create a nasty disjoint between the stealthy phases (1, 2, and 3) and the open phases (4, 5). It's easy to shift up and down within stealthy phases and open phases, but once you've gone from phase 3 to phase 4, you can't go back except by crawling into a corner and waiting a really long time.

I think we can fix this by opening up more movement routes, allowing the player to continue moving while guards are searching. More ways of moving through the area. Here's a few:

Floors
Probably the layout that makes the most sense, we can have our facilities be multiple stories tall. The key here is that floor switching needs to be easier than it normally is - not simply locked to staircases. Postapocalyptic ruins do this well, with lots of holed floors, piled-up rubble, and knocked-down walls. But you can also do this by introducing ledges and making the player athletic enough to climb them. Whether it's an atrium or porches or even just exposed windows, allowing the player to freely move up and down can help the player to find a lot of alternate paths. Keep in mind whether enemies can see the player moving up and down - even if they can, it can buy time, but you need to keep it in mind.

The biggest problem with this kind of verticality is that it's "blind". The player can't keep track of where the enemies are, and it's easy to lose your way, get lost, and forget where the objective is. Generally this is solved by a HUD of some kind marking out known enemies and destinations, but I'm not sure that's a good way to do it. Mirrored layouts might be better, and also facilitate the vertical movement. For example, if each floor is arranged around a central atrium with an asymmetric main hall, it's easy to know where you are relative to other floors, easy to move to other floors, and you can also spy down through that atrium towards the other side of the floor below.

Soft Barriers
While going to other floors is an option, it's got a lot of limitations - poor visibility, limited access, etc. An alternative is to tear the roof off. Low walls, fences, rafters, etc block movement and/or vision, but can still be climbed over or run along. In stealth mode this is good - being above an enemy makes you harder to spot. In open mode this is useful because you can navigate over/along these soft barriers faster than they can, allowing you to navigate to new areas when chased. Wire fences, pits, and hurdles are another option, creating navigation hurdles without blocking line of sight. Trees can be arranged to offer a variety of options like this.

Soft barriers are normally found in postapocalyptic games, since ruins are a great excuse to have a mostly-collapsed roof. However, even in intact worlds there are a lot of elements you can use to do this. Inside, arrange furniture into broken rows of 3-4 meters instead of islands - IE, store shelving should be long shelves, not islands. Office cubicles should be in rows, not islands. Consider making interior walls half-height open-plan walls. Kitchens should have a long counter and at least two exits.

Outside, there are many barriers, the trick is to arrange them into formations that offer cover. Streets should have cars parked bumper-to-bumper on the curb. Parking lots should be tighter and more packed than in real life. Fences around houses, parks, etc should be more common than usual. Bushes should be arranged into hedgerows. Trees can have low branches that require ducking to get under. Using these methods to introduce soft barriers should allow players to move freely away from enemies without being overly funneled.

Crawling
This deserves exploration on its own, even if it has a lot of similarities to soft barriers.

The idea is not that you can hide by crawling: it's that you can safely move through a space by crawling. This is normally useful when you're in stealth mode, as you can hide behind relatively minor barriers and then duck to the next one when an enemy looks away. To accomplish this, you can use typical soft barriers, but you can also use general-purpose debris. For example, a sofa, a chair, a table. These are "islands" that are really no use as soft barriers, but are handy for crawling.

The trick is that the player needs to be able to move freely by doing this. In enclosed spaces, exits are scarce. Interiors should be as open as possible to allow for this kind of stealth: doorways instead of doors. Doors which are open or ajar by default. Windows that are open and unscreened. Or... alternate methods of getting through walls.

The "island" approach is only useful if you're undetected. If a guard is searching for you, they can quickly and easily look behind random debris. Low soft barriers are a good alternative, as is areas where you can "open crawl". The gap under a house, or above a drop ceiling. Beneath cars and trucks and trains. These layouts are useful both when in stealth and when trying to evade guards.

Hidden Doors
All of these approaches work best in large, open areas. When we're inside a house, or office, or any other place with several enclosed rooms, we're still stuck with a funnel. There's only one or two doors, you're going to end up walking straight into another enemy if you try to leave.

Well, we can introduce a lot of "hidden doors".

Probably the most obvious one is windows. You can leave through a window, whether stealthily or loudly, and get to a more open location. Guards will have a hard time following you, too. In addition to typical exterior windows, there are interior windows that look from one room into another, or from a room out into an atrium or factory floor. Windows on the outside of a building are interesting because if you dive through you'll fall who knows how far, but if you slip through you can cling to the outside and climb on the outside of the building. Hope nobody's looking up from below!

Another option is air vents. Air vents you can slip through are quite a conceit: even if the duct was large enough for a person, you'd be hilariously loud. However, for our purposes that conceit is fine. For some reason, nearly every room needs a big air duct, and the player can slip through. Arranging air ducts is an interesting level design challenge, but as long as they are fairly open, they can de-funnel us. Guards need to be smart enough to try and both search the air ducts and arrange guards at the exits. But not so good at it that the player feels trapped - it's more that they need to move to a suboptimal exit.

There are a variety of magical solutions as well - various kinds of wall-phasing. That may not fit with your game idea, though.

And, of course, the option to simply smash down a wall. Not very stealthy, but if you're running away...

Alternate Movement Modes
Swimming, flying, bounding, gliding, phasing, grapple-hooking, sliding, teleporting - there's a lot of alternate movement modes. Some of them are built into the map in obvious ways: swimming requires water. Some are built into the map in subtle ways: gliding requires a high place and a place designed to be fun to glide into.

The problem with these modes is making them accessible while moving through a facility. How many buildings have a river running through them? How many places can you run through by gliding?

Radically enhanced fundamental mobility is possible: superhero-style jumping around. This would radically change our map design and other gameplay mechanics, but it could be fun. Not likely to be stealthy, though.

One worth investigating more carefully is grapple hooks. Being able to create overhead cables to move along might feel kind of Tony Hawky, but it could allow players a lot more freedom on how to move across terrain.

Non-Avatar
So far we've talked about ways to negate the funneling using the player avatar. We can also give the player powers outside of their avatar.

For example, calling in strike teams, assault helicopters, mortar strikes, and so on can be useful both in stealth and open mode.

Alternately, allowing the player to switch to a new avatar will allow the old avatar to lead the guards on a merry chase, or surrender and be captured to similar effect.

Clearing Zones and Engaging Enemies
Once we've destroyed funnels, we have a lot more freedom to design our maps and our enemy responses. But we still have a fundamental problem: most of these open-world games revolve around clearing areas. Other methods of clearing enemies need to be introduced, and the easiest one is to simply make it so that the enemies have a reason for being in a particular area. Resolving that reason will make them leave, whether that involves killing off their leader, stealing the treasure from under their noses, or revealing the traitor they're hunting.

Making this goal-based rather than murder-based will allow us to clear zones without requiring us to murder absolutely everyone. It also opens up opportunities to interact with enemies in other ways - bribing them, recruiting them, putting them to sleep, revealing their secrets to their team-mates, etc. Many of these can be codified rather than written special case, allowing us a lot more freedom in how we do things.

Buuuuuuut

The fourth and fifth phase involve engaging enemies and dealing with their response. If we focus too much on stealth, those will never engage. We'll be ignoring the upper 40% of our tension range.

Well, the zone clearing can require taking people out, either as a primary goal or because they're just way too in the way to avoid. We can allow nonlethal takedowns, there's no problem with that.

Classically a good take-down doesn't alert anyone, that's the point. What we need to do is create a "soft response". This is already a thing, and it's why stealth games feature body-hiding. I think all we need to do is amp that up: rather than just noticing a body, we want to have a variety of responses depending on the type of enemy.

Technologically adept enemies might have heartbeat monitors, GPS tracking, and so on. You can't generally hide the takedown, at least not without compromising their main server, but you have a certain amount of slosh. It takes a few moments to realize something's gone wrong, another little bit for someone to investigate, and so on. During that time, tension will continuously rise as you try to accomplish your main goal and escape.

Less technological enemies will stay more aware of each other. Dogs will smell when you down someone. Bandits will get curious when things get too quiet. The undead will instantly sense the re-death of another undead, etc, etc. The idea is that after a takedown, you're on the clock and you really don't have much time.

This isn't all bad. You can take someone down, then run off to do your actual goal, leaving the guards to get distracted and drawn to that location.

It also has a fun failure state: open combat or running across the map in a desperate escape attempt! Or both!

In any case, the point is simple: we absolutely have to keep our upper tension range intact.

Anyway, those are the things I've been thinking recently when making my prototypes. What are your thoughts?

Adjusting the Five Phase Play

Last essay I analyzed open-world games a bit, and mentioned the "five phase play" these games rely on:

1) Approach a dangerous area
2) Scan enemies
3) Maneuver for engagement
4) Engage
5) Deal with response

As I mentioned, these provide a smooth tension curve. Each mechanic is optimized to run in a particular tension range, and to help amp the tension up to the top of that range. Players shift up and down as the situation demands, like a stick shift driver.

I'm happy to create a game that uses those steps, but I need to understand them well enough to put them together. And I have one big issue: I'm fundamentally a stealth player. In most open-world games I default to sniper (or archer) because the stealth doesn't really work. You can sneak, but the fail state for sneaking is catastrophic, leading to save-spamming and eventually deciding it's just not worth it. Moreover, stealth characters can't really secure a location unless they sneak up on every single enemy in a location and murder them in cold blood.

I've been thinking about phases 2 and 3. I think these are the problem, because they have very rigid, nasty fail states.

If you screw up scanning or maneuvering, you are dumped straight to phase 5: dealing with the enemy response. Worse, the maps are very funneled, so your ability to maneuver is very limited. Go out the door, you'll run into another enemy. Run across the parking lot, they'll shoot you from behind.

Every aspect of the encounter is massaged to make these failures less severe. We introduce several "soft fails", like the second it takes an enemy to realize there's movement worth investigating, and then the time to realize the movement is an enemy. We also introduce hilariously forgetful guards, because the player can't move freely enough to adapt to alert guards. The funneled movement also means we have to allow players to leave the mission zone entirely if they completely flub it, without having to worry too much about being hounded by enemies at range.

While these tweaks make the game playable, they create a nasty disjoint between the stealthy phases (1, 2, and 3) and the open phases (4, 5). It's easy to shift up and down within stealthy phases and open phases, but once you've gone from phase 3 to phase 4, you can't go back except by crawling into a corner and waiting a really long time.

I think we can fix this by opening up more movement routes, allowing the player to continue moving while guards are searching. More ways of moving through the area. Here's a few:

Floors
Probably the layout that makes the most sense, we can have our facilities be multiple stories tall. The key here is that floor switching needs to be easier than it normally is - not simply locked to staircases. Postapocalyptic ruins do this well, with lots of holed floors, piled-up rubble, and knocked-down walls. But you can also do this by introducing ledges and making the player athletic enough to climb them. Whether it's an atrium or porches or even just exposed windows, allowing the player to freely move up and down can help the player to find a lot of alternate paths. Keep in mind whether enemies can see the player moving up and down - even if they can, it can buy time, but you need to keep it in mind.

The biggest problem with this kind of verticality is that it's "blind". The player can't keep track of where the enemies are, and it's easy to lose your way, get lost, and forget where the objective is. Generally this is solved by a HUD of some kind marking out known enemies and destinations, but I'm not sure that's a good way to do it. Mirrored layouts might be better, and also facilitate the vertical movement. For example, if each floor is arranged around a central atrium with an asymmetric main hall, it's easy to know where you are relative to other floors, easy to move to other floors, and you can also spy down through that atrium towards the other side of the floor below.

Soft Barriers
While going to other floors is an option, it's got a lot of limitations - poor visibility, limited access, etc. An alternative is to tear the roof off. Low walls, fences, rafters, etc block movement and/or vision, but can still be climbed over or run along. In stealth mode this is good - being above an enemy makes you harder to spot. In open mode this is useful because you can navigate over/along these soft barriers faster than they can, allowing you to navigate to new areas when chased. Wire fences, pits, and hurdles are another option, creating navigation hurdles without blocking line of sight. Trees can be arranged to offer a variety of options like this.

Soft barriers are normally found in postapocalyptic games, since ruins are a great excuse to have a mostly-collapsed roof. However, even in intact worlds there are a lot of elements you can use to do this. Inside, arrange furniture into broken rows of 3-4 meters instead of islands - IE, store shelving should be long shelves, not islands. Office cubicles should be in rows, not islands. Consider making interior walls half-height open-plan walls. Kitchens should have a long counter and at least two exits.

Outside, there are many barriers, the trick is to arrange them into formations that offer cover. Streets should have cars parked bumper-to-bumper on the curb. Parking lots should be tighter and more packed than in real life. Fences around houses, parks, etc should be more common than usual. Bushes should be arranged into hedgerows. Trees can have low branches that require ducking to get under. Using these methods to introduce soft barriers should allow players to move freely away from enemies without being overly funneled.

Crawling
This deserves exploration on its own, even if it has a lot of similarities to soft barriers.

The idea is not that you can hide by crawling: it's that you can safely move through a space by crawling. This is normally useful when you're in stealth mode, as you can hide behind relatively minor barriers and then duck to the next one when an enemy looks away. To accomplish this, you can use typical soft barriers, but you can also use general-purpose debris. For example, a sofa, a chair, a table. These are "islands" that are really no use as soft barriers, but are handy for crawling.

The trick is that the player needs to be able to move freely by doing this. In enclosed spaces, exits are scarce. Interiors should be as open as possible to allow for this kind of stealth: doorways instead of doors. Doors which are open or ajar by default. Windows that are open and unscreened. Or... alternate methods of getting through walls.

The "island" approach is only useful if you're undetected. If a guard is searching for you, they can quickly and easily look behind random debris. Low soft barriers are a good alternative, as is areas where you can "open crawl". The gap under a house, or above a drop ceiling. Beneath cars and trucks and trains. These layouts are useful both when in stealth and when trying to evade guards.

Hidden Doors
All of these approaches work best in large, open areas. When we're inside a house, or office, or any other place with several enclosed rooms, we're still stuck with a funnel. There's only one or two doors, you're going to end up walking straight into another enemy if you try to leave.

Well, we can introduce a lot of "hidden doors".

Probably the most obvious one is windows. You can leave through a window, whether stealthily or loudly, and get to a more open location. Guards will have a hard time following you, too. In addition to typical exterior windows, there are interior windows that look from one room into another, or from a room out into an atrium or factory floor. Windows on the outside of a building are interesting because if you dive through you'll fall who knows how far, but if you slip through you can cling to the outside and climb on the outside of the building. Hope nobody's looking up from below!

Another option is air vents. Air vents you can slip through are quite a conceit: even if the duct was large enough for a person, you'd be hilariously loud. However, for our purposes that conceit is fine. For some reason, nearly every room needs a big air duct, and the player can slip through. Arranging air ducts is an interesting level design challenge, but as long as they are fairly open, they can de-funnel us. Guards need to be smart enough to try and both search the air ducts and arrange guards at the exits. But not so good at it that the player feels trapped - it's more that they need to move to a suboptimal exit.

There are a variety of magical solutions as well - various kinds of wall-phasing. That may not fit with your game idea, though.

And, of course, the option to simply smash down a wall. Not very stealthy, but if you're running away...

Alternate Movement Modes
Swimming, flying, bounding, gliding, phasing, grapple-hooking, sliding, teleporting - there's a lot of alternate movement modes. Some of them are built into the map in obvious ways: swimming requires water. Some are built into the map in subtle ways: gliding requires a high place and a place designed to be fun to glide into.

The problem with these modes is making them accessible while moving through a facility. How many buildings have a river running through them? How many places can you run through by gliding?

Radically enhanced fundamental mobility is possible: superhero-style jumping around. This would radically change our map design and other gameplay mechanics, but it could be fun. Not likely to be stealthy, though.

One worth investigating more carefully is grapple hooks. Being able to create overhead cables to move along might feel kind of Tony Hawky, but it could allow players a lot more freedom on how to move across terrain.

Non-Avatar
So far we've talked about ways to negate the funneling using the player avatar. We can also give the player powers outside of their avatar.

For example, calling in strike teams, assault helicopters, mortar strikes, and so on can be useful both in stealth and open mode.

Alternately, allowing the player to switch to a new avatar will allow the old avatar to lead the guards on a merry chase, or surrender and be captured to similar effect.

Clearing Zones and Engaging Enemies
Once we've destroyed funnels, we have a lot more freedom to design our maps and our enemy responses. But we still have a fundamental problem: most of these open-world games revolve around clearing areas. Other methods of clearing enemies need to be introduced, and the easiest one is to simply make it so that the enemies have a reason for being in a particular area. Resolving that reason will make them leave, whether that involves killing off their leader, stealing the treasure from under their noses, or revealing the traitor they're hunting.

Making this goal-based rather than murder-based will allow us to clear zones without requiring us to murder absolutely everyone. It also opens up opportunities to interact with enemies in other ways - bribing them, recruiting them, putting them to sleep, revealing their secrets to their team-mates, etc. Many of these can be codified rather than written special case, allowing us a lot more freedom in how we do things.

Buuuuuuut

The fourth and fifth phase involve engaging enemies and dealing with their response. If we focus too much on stealth, those will never engage. We'll be ignoring the upper 40% of our tension range.

Well, the zone clearing can require taking people out, either as a primary goal or because they're just way too in the way to avoid. We can allow nonlethal takedowns, there's no problem with that.

Classically a good take-down doesn't alert anyone, that's the point. What we need to do is create a "soft response". This is already a thing, and it's why stealth games feature body-hiding. I think all we need to do is amp that up: rather than just noticing a body, we want to have a variety of responses depending on the type of enemy.

Technologically adept enemies might have heartbeat monitors, GPS tracking, and so on. You can't generally hide the takedown, at least not without compromising their main server, but you have a certain amount of slosh. It takes a few moments to realize something's gone wrong, another little bit for someone to investigate, and so on. During that time, tension will continuously rise as you try to accomplish your main goal and escape.

Less technological enemies will stay more aware of each other. Dogs will smell when you down someone. Bandits will get curious when things get too quiet. The undead will instantly sense the re-death of another undead, etc, etc. The idea is that after a takedown, you're on the clock and you really don't have much time.

This isn't all bad. You can take someone down, then run off to do your actual goal, leaving the guards to get distracted and drawn to that location.

It also has a fun failure state: open combat and/or running across the map in a desperate escape attempt! Or both!

In any case, the point is simple: we absolutely have to keep our upper tension range intact.

Anyway, those are the things I've been thinking recently, in making my prototypes. What are your thoughts?