Tuesday, October 23, 2012

RPG Classes and Encounters

When this originally came up I wasn't provoked enough to write about it. There was one particular encounter early in the first Mass Effect Game that I had a load of trouble with. At the time I figured that I just hadn't built up my character enough, had put my XP into the wrong skills, chose to bring the wrong squad with me, or was just plain new enough to the game to have difficulty with something easy. I eventually learned that almost every Mass Effect player who chose the character class that I did died more times than they bothered to count at this encounter, not for any fault of their own, but because this encounter was almost perfectly tailored to a different class.

Here is the setup: you are locked in a relatively small to medium sized, circular room with a little cover around the edges. The room leads into another tiny cubbyhole room, from which comes an opposing squad of enemies, one of which is significantly more powerful than you. They attack. The battlemaster(you did click that link and read up on it, right?) charges you while his minions run around the edges of the room to surround you. Now depending on your class, this can be an interesting encounter. If on the other hand, like me on my first playthough, you were an Infiltrator specializing in sniper rifles, prepare for a vicious assault on your sanity.

It may not be a tiny room, but it is certainly too small to hope to use a sniper rifle in.
This screenshot is not hiding a giant room off camera. This is the full size of the room, and that from a dramatic angle which distorts its size and makes it appear bigger. The cutscene leading into this battle plunks you in the center of this room(you can actually see your squad in this shot, although they are partially obscured,) in the open, without cover, at close-medium range from a shotgun wielding biotic Krogan and a bunch of Geth. This leaves you with one strategy: pop off a sniper rifle shot or two, switch to your pistol, use all of your tech powers, and then keep shooting your pistol while trying to stay as far away as you can and be in as much cover as you can. Throwing your squad mates at the enemies to slow them down will probably be necessary. If you're lucky, you might survive long enough for some of your powers to recharge or for your rifle to cool down. If you're very lucky(usually achieved by trying 10+ times and riding the gun blammed elevator back into this encounter every borking time) you might survive long enough to kill off enough of the enemy squad to reduce them to a manageable size.

But what if you're, I don't know... a Vanguard? Then this battle is easy: hit the group with AOE before they spread out, knock the battlemaster on his face with throw, blow him to pieces with close range shotgun, and mop up remaining geth. If you screw up, you might die. This is excruciatingly annoying because every single game in the series is easier as a Vanguard, and not just because of biotic charge. The majority of the each game takes place in close-medium range corridors with chest high walls and a bunch of enemies. It doesn't take place in giant spaces where you can pick off one or two enemies efficiently from a distance and then be done, which is what the Infiltrator is built for. All of this is merely a specific example of failing to take something very important into account when designing quests and encounters that all classes must complete.

An encounter that every character class must enter should be setup so that each class can use their skills and mechanical unbalances to somehow overcome the challenge. If you want an encounter like this one, leave a way for a long range player to get an overhead angle on this arena from a longer range. Just provide some way for each class to use their specializations to succeed. I'm not saying that every encounter needs to be equally easy for every class or that the proper squad shouldn't have to be chosen, I'm merely saying that throwing a situation at a player that they are not mechanically equipped to handle as a character(even only if they choose a specific few classes) does not engage them in any way and is counterproductive unless you're trying to make an artistic statement about how sometimes you just need good luck.

This reminded me of the boss fights in Deus EX: Human Revolution. I put all of my points into perception, silence, speed, cloaking, and close and long range non-lethal combat. The game encouraged this with XP baits right up until the boss fights where it would suddenly say "Okay, for no reason you shall now have to kill this boss who is invincible to melee and non-lethal weapons," and leave me to run and stay as away as possible while trying to pick their health away using the last lethal weapon I had picked up but hadn't removed from my inventory yet. Both of these are excellent examples of how you as a designer or level designer should take the game mechanics into account and think about what kinds of characters the player might bring into the fight.


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