Tag Archives: design

Design By Example: Infiltration’s Security Tracker

In Infiltration (a game within the Android Universe of Fantasy Flight Games) players take on the role of criminals breaking into and stealing data from the CyberSolutions, Inc. facility. Uncovering each room in turn as they move deeper into the complex, their aim is to obtain the highest quantity of Data File tokens and escape before the CyberSolutions security forces arrive. The proximity of these security forces is determined by the Security Tracker; it is this that gives Infiltration its sense of increasing tension, and provides players with a means of altering the pace of the game to dramatically affect other players.

An image of the box for Infiltration.

Infiltration, an Android Universe game from Fantasy Flight Games.

The Security Tracker is made up of two parts. The upper portion ranging from -1 to 8 is the Alarm Dial, initially starting at 0 this serves as an indicator of the number of alarms that have been activated within the CyberSolutions, Inc. facility. The bottom section includes two dials that both range from 0 to 9 for a combined range of 00 to 99; together they form the Proximity Dial which indicates how far the security forces are from reaching the facility. The Proximity Dial operates on an inverse scale with 99 indicating that the security forces have arrived, that the game is over and any player still within the facility have been captured.

At the start of play both dials are set to 0, at the conclusion of each round 1D6 is rolled and that number is added to the number on the Alarm Dial, the result is then added to the Proximity Dial, causing it to increase at a steady if inconsistent rate.

Proximity Dial: Current Value + (Alarm Dial + 1D6).

Every round the Proximity Dial increases based on the current value of the Alarm Dial. During the later stage of the game the Alarm Dial could be as high as 8 meaning that every round the Proximity Dial will increase by 9 (the Alarm Dial value plus the lowest number possible on 1D6).

The Security Tracker from Infiltration.

As the current value on the Alarm Dial is always added to the Proximity Dial at the end of each round, any increase in the Alarm Dial increases the speed at which the CyberSolutions, Inc. security forces approach the facility.

Randomly selected from a deck of thirty two cards the facility is split into thirteen rooms, with six on the first floor and six on the second floor; the thirteenth room is a secret room that, depending on the other rooms, may or may not be accessible in any given game. As players move further into the facility revealing certain rooms or performing specific actions within those rooms can cause the Alarm Dial to be increased.

First Floor Room Cards:

  • 1 x Alarm Dial +2.
  • 2 x Alarm Dial +1.
  • 1 x Proximity Dial +10 (Action performed within this room, one time only.)

Second Floor Room Cards:

  • 1 x Alarm Dial +3.
  • 2 x Alarm Dial +2.
  • 1 x Alarm Dial +1.
  • 1 x Alarm Dial -2 (Action performed within this room, one time only.)
  • 1 x Proximity Dial +10.
  • 1 x Proximity Dial +2 (Each time the room is entered.)
  • 1 x Proximity Dial +10 (Action performed within this room, one time only.)
  • 1 x Proximity Dial -10 (Action performed within this room, one time only.).

Those rooms on the first floor generally have smaller rewards and present a correspondingly smaller risk; only three of the possible fifteen first floor cards will cause the Alarm Dial to increase, and another can cause an increase in the Proximity Dial. Once players reach the second floor however the risks become much greater, four cards out of a possible fourteen will increase the Alarm Dial, with another three having the potential to increase the Proximity Dial directly.

In this way the Security Tracker has a number of effects upon the play of Infiltration. Because players not only have to gather the highest value Data File tokens but also escape the facility, the deeper into the facility they explore the greater their risk of not escaping. It is not uncommon for Infiltration games to end with rooms still yet to be revealed.

The randomness of the room selection and ordering, along with the element of chance introduced by using 1D6 to modify the Alarm Dial, means that although games of Infiltration have a natural progression in pace, and associated tension, that progression is different each game. This ensures that even superficially similar facility layouts can play out at a dramatically different pace.

Two room cards from Infiltration, one from the first floor one from the second.

An example of room cards from the first floor (blue edge) and second floor (yellow edge), showing the difference in DF Token availability: 5 on the first floor verses 8 (4 + 4 for performing a specific action) on the second room. Note also the different effect revealing each room has on the Alarm Dial.

Each player has a hand made up of four (or five depending on the specific rule variation in play) action cards, and four items cards; the latter are unique cards from a pool of thirty five. Though they may have items within their hand that will allow them to slow down other players, or prevent them from obtaining Data File tokens for one or more rounds, players have no means of directly harming each other. Two cards, “Secretaries” and “Call for Backup”, enable players to alter the Alarm and Proximity Dials respectively. These item cards not only allow the player to decrease the dials but can also be used to increase them by the same amount.

These cards, in addition to the other means of affecting the Security Tracker within certain rooms, serve not only to vary the pace of the game but also open up the potential for forward planning and deliberation. Given that it is necessary not only to steal the highest value of Data File tokens, but also to escape the facility with them, there reaches a point where retreat is the more desirable course of action. Under those circumstances, increasing the Alarm and Proximity Dials can serve to disadvantage players deeper within the facility as they may now be unable to escape in time. If you are close to one of the exits it may be more immediately beneficial to raise the Alarm Dial dramatically even if you don’t have the greatest number of Data File tokens, as doing so could lead to other players becoming trapped, automatically losing the game. Such plans can still backfire, as the items available to the other players is unknown and what might seem like too little time to escape for one player might be more than enough for another; betrayal might come back to haunt you.

The Alarm Dial increases slowly and only as the result of actions on the part of players, the Proximity Dial increases every round though at an inconsistent rate determined by the Alarm Dial and 1D6. The connection between the two means the steady increase in the former ratchets up the rate at which the security forces approach. The Proximity Dial controls the pacing of each game while its connection to the Alarm Dial ensures that no two games are paced identically. Half-way between an explicit timer and a detection meter, the Security Tracker creates a sense of increasing tension and in the later stages of the game becomes one of the determining factors in player decision making.

By providing players with the means to alter the Security Tracker, Infiltration grants them a means of formulating long-term plans based on the manipulation of the Alarm and Proximity Dials. Given the element of chance built into the Security Tracker, player can still find these plans backfiring, creating an additional layer of tension, uncertainty and drama.

Design By Example: Half-Life 2′s Poison Headcrabs

Each enemy type within Half-Life 2 fulfils a role, its behaviour designed to provide a different form of threat. Standard Headcrabs present a minor threat, with weak attacks and low health they are relatively easily dispatched. Fast Headcrabs are slightly more threatening due to their increased movement speed and the difficulty that creates for targeting them. Overall, Headcrabs serve to provide light harassment during periods of exploration or puzzle solving, with one exception.

Larger and slower than their brethren, the squat black Poison Headcrabs nonetheless pose a unique threat that alters the dynamic of any situation in which they are encountered.

Like others of their species, Poison Headcrabs leap to attack and though their standard bite causes twice the damage of other Headcrabs, it is the secondary effect of this attack that makes them stand out among the fauna of City 17. The bite of the Poison Headcrab administers a powerful neurotoxin that immediately causes your health to drop to one. Though the anti-toxins supplied by your HEV suit will counteract these effects, restoring you to health (minus that caused by the initial attack) this process is not instant; during this period even otherwise minor damage from additional attacks or environmental hazards can be enough to kill you.

A screenshot of Half-Life 2 showing two Poison Headcrabs about to attack the player.

Even in groups Poison Headcrabs are not able to kill you outright, initial attacks after the first will not take you below one health.

Along with their increased size and slower movement speed, Poison Headcrabs are differentiated further by their distinct black colouration, and the unsettling rattlesnake like noise they emit when searching for prey; nothing else in Half-Life 2 sounds like a Poison Headcrab. This differentiation is so strong that upon hearing their distinctive audio cue players in playtest sessions would abandon their current priorities to immediately search for and kill the Poison Headcrabs.

This aspect of player behaviour is exploited within certain parts of Half-Life 2 to create spikes of tension in situations where there is little or no direct threat. Despite their inability to kill you themselves a single Poison Headcrab can increase tension even when not supported by other enemy types.

The threat presented by Poison Headcrabs is augmented by the existence of the shambling Poison Zombies, a bloated shambling figure with multiple Poison Headcrabs clutching its back. These passengers will leap to attack when they perceive a threat and though they cannot kill you themselves they will distract and disorientate you, potentially allowing the Zombie itself to close the distance and use its slashing melee attack, which can easily kill you if you are recovering from the venomous bite of a Poison Headcrab. Poison Zombies can take three times as much damage as other types of Zombie making encounters with them some of the most tense in the game.

Distinctly identifiable by sound, shape, animation and colour the presence of even a single Poison Headcrab alters the dynamic of play. More than simply a means of harassing the player, Poison Headcrabs serve as amplifiers, creating a spike in tension and increasing the danger posed by other enemies. Evoking a sense of fear and panic out of proportion to their ability to inflict damage, the knowledge that one or more are nearby causes a shift in priorities, making even an otherwise low risk encounter tense and threatening.

Design By Example: Licence Progression in Burnout Paradise

The first of the series to situate all its events within a single open-world environment, Burnout Paradise uses the structure of its progression system to foster a sense familiarity with the streets of Paradise City while also encouraging players to move beyond their comfort zone.

Indicated by stoplights at 120 intersections throughout Paradise City there are five main types of event you can compete in, each divided into two types. The majority of the events (Race, Marked Man and Burning Route) are point-to-point events that task you with driving from the starting intersection to one of eight possible finish points—one for each of the cardinal and ordinal compass points. The remaining events (Road Rage and Stunt Run) are free-form contests that require you to achieve a specific target within a time limit.

A screenshot of Burnout Paradise showing a car racing past a Gas Station.

Knowing the location of Gas Stations and Auto Repair Shops can mean the difference between winning and losing on the streets of Paradise City.

Completing these events forms the basis of the progression system within Burnout Paradise, indicated by your Licence. Starting with a Learner’s Permit and upgrading through the Burnout Licence to the ultimate Criterion Elite Licence, they serve as an indication of how many events you have completed. It is necessary to win two events in order to achieve the first upgrade, to the Class D Licence, from there an additional seven wins are required for the Class C Licence. The first five Licence upgrades are awarded after the following wins: 2nd, 7th, 15th, 26th and 40th.

Once you have obtained the Burnout Licence you will need to complete all 120 events in order to upgrade to the next Licence.

A screenshot of the start of a race in Burnout Paradise detailing the starting and end locations.

With only eight possible finish points across the whole of Paradise City you’ll soon become familiar with the best ways to reach each.

The notable aspect of this progression is that once a new Licence has been reached all events are reset allowing you to return to previously completed events (albeit with more challenging opponents or increased scoring thresholds) and have those wins count toward your total for the next Licence. With one hundred and twenty events available it’s not necessary to complete the same events again though doing so means you can focus on the specific event types you are strongest at or on those routes where you have already uncovered the best shortcuts.

For each licence from Learner’s Permit to Burnout Licence, players are required to complete three more new events than was necessary for the proceeding Licence. This steady increase in the number of required new events encourages players out of their comfort zone while still allowing them to focus the majority of their time on events and event types they are already familiar with, allowing them to turn their growing familiarity with the streets of Paradise City into direct progress toward their next Licence.

Burnout Paradise was developed by Criterion Games and published by Electronic Arts in 2009. It’s currently available for PS3, Xbox 360 and Windows platforms.

Design By Example: Intelligence Dossiers in Alpha Protocol

Alpha Protocol is fictionally a game about being an Intelligence Operative, a spy. Separate from the aesthetic trappings culturally associated with espionage, the way in which it deals with information itself reinforces this theme of intelligence gathering and exploitation.

In-game fictional collectibles are not uncommon. From books to audio logs, these collectibles often exist to provide context, or to help with specific puzzles. An audio log in one level can detail the code to a locked door or foreshadow an ominous plot reveal in several hours’ time; they are either explicitly useful or narrative colour, occasionally both.

A screenshot from Alpha Protocol, showing the timed conversation system.

Events in Alpha Protocol can play out differently depending on your actions and your relationship with particular characters; knowing how to placate or off-balance others is an important skill.

In Alpha Protocol one of the resources you can collect are Intelligence Dossiers. Obtained either by talking to other characters or finding them in the world, each Dossier unlocks additional information on a particular individual or organisation. This information is presented in the game as contextual narrative: descriptions of characters, their history and relationships. Where these Dossiers differ from similar collectible information in other games is in the influence it can have upon your actions. A particular character’s Dossier will rarely state explicitly how they prefer to be spoken to, though by reading between the lines you can ascertain their likely reactions to particular conversational approaches or actions.

Organisations that you can find yourself in conflict with over the course of Alpha Protocol are differentiated by their clothing, weapons, and tactics. All of these things can be learnt from their Dossier, allowing you to identify potential enemies and friends through observation. With this knowledge you can determine their likely allegiances and goals, and the most beneficial way in which to interact with them. Even if you chose to always take the same approach to each situation knowing how particular individuals and organisations are liable to react can allow you to prepare for the consequences of your actions.

A screenshot of Alpha Protocol showing the Dossiers screen, this one contains information about the CIA.

Dossiers can give you intelligence on the appearance and tactics of a given organisation allowing you to plan your interactions with them, or react to their sudden appearance.

The decision to search a room or hack a computer is one that occurs at the moment-to-moment level, though because of the information you can obtain these low-level choices can have a substantial impact on your high-level plans. Choosing to explore an area and hack a computer hidden in the basement might provide you with the specific piece of intelligence you need avoid getting into a gunfight with somebody several hours later, because you know exactly what to say or what not to say.

Intelligence Dossiers in Alpha Protocol are beneficial not simply as collectibles but for the options they offer you. In Alpha Protocol “intelligence gathering” is more than a fictional justification for your actions, intelligence itself is one of the most useful and valuable resources you can obtain.

Design By Example: Vertical Movement with Dishonored’s Blink

In Dishonored, the first power granted you by the Outsider—the only one which you have no choice over—is the short distance teleport ability, Blink.

What Blink offers is more than simply the ability to instantaneously move forward. If that was the extent of its power it would still be useful but it wouldn’t be as disruptive as it is. Rather than being restricted to directly ahead, the destination of your Blink can be anywhere within a sphere around your current location: the roof of a building, the floor behind an NPC, or the middle of the air. Provided there is a straight line between your current position and the destination, you can Blink there.

The elegance of Blink comes from the few restrictions placed upon its use. It is not context dependant; there are no specific “Blink-able” locations. It can be used to move through any space that you could normally occupy, so you cannot move through solid surfaces or active Walls of Light. Finally, it uses the same amount of Mana as is automatically replenished, making it readily available. With so few restrictions, the decision of when, where, and even if, to use Blink is left up to the player.

A screenshot from Dishonored illustrating the options for traversal afforded by the Blink ability.

If the destination of your Blink is on the edge of a scalable surface, Corvo will automatically climb up allowing you to reach the top of objects, even if you can only target part of them.

Instantaneous movement between two points on the same horizontal plane is useful; the effect Blink has on your perception of, and engagement with, vertical space is where it becomes truly transformative.

By not being limited to the horizontal, Blink changes the usable topography of a level. Normally in a first person game it is possible to jump onto higher surfaces and in so doing alter your vertical position. Given a standard model of gravity the path to these higher spaces is slower than the path down, though it is also much safer. From a high point you can leap off and will likely take damage when you land. With Blink you can teleport up to a roof and back down with the same expenditure of time and Mana. You can move as rapidly and safely in the vertical dimension as the horizontal one.

A screenshot from The Knife of Dunwall illustrating Daud's enhanced Blink ability.

The ability to Blink while time is frozen ensures that falling holds little fear for the assassin Daud.

The Knife of Dunwall DLC changes the core Blink ability, further enhancing its strength as a tool for vertical movement. When initiated time will freeze provided you are not manually moving in any direction. This means you can fall from a great height and at the last moment initiate a Blink and have as much time as necessary to target a safe landing spot. The reverse is also possible; you can perform a Blink at the top of a jump and use it to reach even greater heights.

One of the constants of first person games is movement through space, by providing you with a power that allows for near instant movement between two points in any dimension Dishonored disrupts the standard model of movement and succeeds in making vertical movement almost as safe and rapid as horizontal movement, changing the way players perceive and interact with the space around them.

Groping the PDF: Deus Ex Freebie

Those of you familiar with Justin Keverne’s work (via his Groping the Map blog or his Design By Example column right here on RJF) are no doubt aware that he’s currently locked in away in a broom closet working on his Groping the Map book.

As a taster of things to come, Justin is now offering a series of freebies, starting off with a 10,000 word analysis of Deus Ex’s Liberty Island level.

Enjoy his fine work and stay tuned for additional freebies covering Thief 2′s Life of the Party and BioShock 2′s Pauper’s Drop.

Design By Example: Organic Resupply in Super Metroid

Following Ridley and the last surviving Metroid down to the surface of Zebes, bounty-hunter Samus Aran finds, amid the scattered remains of Chozo civilisation, a planet teeming with life. The statues left behind by the Chozo provide upgrades to Samus’ suit, altering its capabilities and allowing her to continue her explorations into once inaccessible areas. In addition to these character-altering modifications, other rooms through Zebes offer Samus the opportunity to resupply her Energy and Missile reserves, while returning to her ship will enable a complete resupply of Energy and inventory.

Alongside these explicit means of resupply the fauna of Zebes, when killed, may leave behind a pick-up that can restock a limited quantity of one of her expendable resources. What, if anything, the creature will provide upon death is dependent upon Samus’ current status; if any of her resources is at maximum a pick-up of that type will not be dropped.

Most creature types respawn when Samus re-enters an area, allowing them to be farmed to keep her Energy tanks topped up. One exception to this are the pipe based creatures that spawn every few seconds and travel horizontal across the screen. Because these creatures continually respawn without any action on the part of the player they provide a means of returning to full Energy and inventory without the need to exit and return to an area; they can be easily farmed for Energy capsules and other resources.

Super Metroid: Samus encounters a pipe creature deep in the caverns of Zebes.

The organic nature of the pipe enemies allows them to be placed in organic areas where an Energy recharge station would look out of place.

The various forms of pipe creatures make use of at least three separate but related mechanics and it is the relationships between these which allow them to function in the way they do. They are a classic example of dynamics at work, a change to any of the underlying mechanics would alter the way you interact with these pipe creatures. If they spawned in the same manner as other creatures, their use as a form of resupply would be no more effective than any of the other fauna found throughout Zebes. If the pick-up left behind upon death wasn’t related to Samus’ current status there would no longer be the certainty that every time they were killed they would provide something immediately useful, the act of farming them would become a gamble. Additionally, if firing beam weapons drained Energy, or if the creatures could only be killed by Missiles or Super Bombs, the benefits of killing them would be counterbalanced by the cost of doing so.

Super Metroid: Samus returns to her ship on the surface of Zebes to resupply.

Another way to perform a complete resupply is to return to Samus’ ship on the surface of Zebes, though this is only possible at certain points and once you descend into the depths of the planet it can be a long time before you are able to return.

The function of the pipe based creatures is particularly interesting in that they allow the expenditure of time for resources. The ending of Super Metroid depends on the time taken to complete the game so utilising the resupply dynamic of the pipe creatures can get you out of a difficult situation at the cost of time which will affect the ending witnessed.

These pipe creatures are organic resupply points, where time can be sacrificed for a complete replenishment of resources. This dynamic is never explained, the act of discovery is a sign that you have developed an understanding of the underlying systems. You are rewarding for showing this understanding of how the game systems functions in a way that is entirely in context and non-patronising.

Design By Example: Cover in Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Deus Ex: Human Revolution, like its forebears, allows players to vary their approach, from direct combat to stealth, based on personal expression rather than the requirements of a specific set-piece. The mechanics and level design combine to allow the player to engage in any encounter (excluding boss fights) through the use of stealth, combat, or some combination of the two. Key to this is the cover system around which stealth and combat are built.

In order to allow stealth-focused players to traverse an area successfully, levels need to be designed to allow those players to move between important locations while remaining concealed. In an occlusion-based stealth model this means providing occluding geometry, cover, in a pattern that allows players to move from one location to another while keeping the object between themselves and any NPCs. The combat-focused player is in a similar position, though they will not need the complete path through any encounter space; the more cover available the greater their range of tactical movement options. The same distribution of cover that provides concealed movement can be used by the combat focused player to reposition and potentially outflank the hostile NPCs.

In certain locations cover geometry is also used as part of an environmental puzzle, such as these moving Lasers protecting the server room of Tai Yong Medical

In certain locations cover geometry is also used as part of an environmental puzzle, such as these moving Lasers protecting the server room of Tai Yong Medical

This spatial arrangement of geometry is enhanced by the switch from first- to third-person once players take cover. If the game remained in first-person when Adam Jensen took cover behind a lab bench or crate it would be difficult to maintain situational awareness. For both the stealth and combat focused players an accurate mental model of where NPCs are within a given area is important; for the former it’s necessary to ensure that you keep some form of solid object between you, for the latter you need to know where somebody is before you can shoot them.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution does provide a radar display that can serve as a guide to the relative position of hostile NPCs in the environment, however it operates at a level of abstraction and therefore using it becomes a two stage process. Instead of looking at the world and seeing exactly where NPCs are positioned players relying exclusively on the radar will need to mentally overlay the information provided onto what they remember about the spatial layout of the level. Where the radar excels is in its ability to provide information on NPCs outside your immediate field-of-view, helping you to avoid being flanked.

Sneaking past or lining up a shot? From here either is possible and the choice is left up to the player.

Sneaking past or lining up a shot? From here either is possible and the choice is left up to the player.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution uses its cover system for both combat and stealth and in doing so has managed to enable the two to coexist in a way that allows both to be utilised within a single encounter. The same occluding geometry that provides concealment from detection also provides protection from incoming fire. Instead of making the stealth-focused player weak by forcing them into the darkness and away from enemies, the cover system of Deus Ex: Human Revolution ensures that stealth-focused players are in just as strong a position as combat-focused players when in cover.

By requiring both stealth- and combat-focused players to relate to the spatial layout of a level in the same way Deus Ex: Human Revolution is able to create a hybrid system where mastering the core abilities of movement and positioning are beneficial to all types of player. Furthermore, when the same layout of cover is beneficial to multiple approaches it makes it easier to switch between styles, even within the same encounter.