Rune Of Play

By Daniel Slawson

Free-to-Play and the Future of Games

Right now, players who favor free-to-play games (hereafter, “F2P”) may actually be a majority — and if not, will soon become one. Because the barriers to entry are low, F2P is widely regarded as a democratic system where willing players are helping quality games rise to the top.

That’s wonderful on paper, but we need to be more critical of a model that is poised to become so dominant. That’s why I find the amount of glowing, optimistic rhetoric defending the model unsettling. Generally, these articles seem to come in two flavors: the most common paints F2P as a tragically misunderstood innovation to be warmly embraced. The other is more objective about the model’s flaws, but tends to shrug apologetically, saying financially viable alternatives hardly exist.

They both share one theme: F2P is the next thing, and we should all get comfortable with it.

This Gamesradar piece by Lucas Sullivan is a great example of the former type of article, covering most of the common arguments. When you get beyond the finely honed optimism, it’s an interesting collection of things that could be true of a new revenue model, but not F2P as it currently exists. It’s worth reading with that specific lens, if only because everything said is technically correct — except, notably, the final paragraph:

Success in the F2P market doesn’t come from bad, formulaic, or predictable design–these games have to put forward their best content first and constantly keep you hooked, in the hopes that you’ll leave a tip by purchasing a hero skin or convenience boost.

I wish the first part were universally true, but that isn’t actually what I want to explore. I think the second part of the quote is at the heart of the matter: these developers aren’t just hoping you’ll leave a tip. If players have to pay for a convenience boost, the game isn’t putting its best content first; it’s putting it second: after the player has paid for it. This runs afoul of the definition of tipping.

It’s obviously a mischaracterization, but it shows the basic mechanism of the F2P model: the incentive for players to spend money isn’t just the promise of more content after the transaction (as in earlier models: pay-to-play, shareware, etc.). It’s the ability to make their current experience better. Put another way, it’s the strategy of offering an inferior experience to get players to upgrade to the premium one.

While $0 seems like a very liberating price point, free games aren’t sustained from tips alone. As always, there’s an exchange of value happening. This isn’t about the worst examples of players being taken for a ride, though. In a sense, the amount of value the player gets from a F2P game is a separate issue of its own (though vital in its own right). I want to talk about something else: that a price of $0 will necessarily have design repercussions.

In his first paragraph, Sullivan’s defensive rhetoric is a great starting place to examine this:

[…] I’m perplexed by the unwillingness to acknowledge the stark reality of the free-to-play market. F2P games have to try even harder to make sure you have a good time, because no one will spend money to enhance an experience that they loathe.

He’s correct: players have to find some enjoyment in the game, so they’ll want to spend rather than quitting. But what’s glossed over is that F2P can’t go too far in the opposite direction, either: if a F2P game were to offer a fully optimized experience from the start, without making players pay for it, where’s the incentive? Then it would truly be a tip-based model — and while that’s interesting, it isn’t the model mobile developers have been adopting in droves.

Mobile developers have been leading the market toward F2P for a solid reason: it’s significantly more profitable than the old (“pay to play”) model. The F2P model generates profit by letting players optimize their experience in exchange for money. Some of the game’s pleasure must be locked behind paywalls, otherwise there’s nothing to buy you don’t already have.

That is F2P’s elephant in the room: for the model to work, enjoyable gameplay has to be intentionally diluted, or segmented, before it’s made available to players. Gameplay might only be diminished a little, but it must still be diminished to give players a reason to spend.

This describes a simple rule about micropayments in general:

If a game relies on gameplay-affecting in-app purchases (“IAP”) as its primary source of revenue, the game’s default experience (or sense of flow) must be purposefully suboptimal to generate profit.

To be clear, this only applies to gameplay-affecting purchases. Shareware/expansions, or payments in exchange for vanity items etc. are fundamentally different, because core gameplay isn’t affected.

With that understood, I’m not aware of a successful F2P game that broke this rule, or could.

So What?

Of course, I’m describing the content players are getting for free; the premium gameplay could still be excellent. Making games professionally is a business, after all, and developers deserve to be paid. Asking players to pay more to access the highest tier experience isn’t beyond the pale: it’s a tried and true business model (just ask your ISP).

So what’s the big deal?

In my book, two specific aspects of F2P are problematic:

  1. The deliberate creation of inferior gameplay to be used as a monetary incentive. And to a lesser extent,
  2. Incentivizing players to pay repeatedly to avoid this inferior gameplay.

Calling these unethical is a bit dramatic: at the end of the day, acceptance of these practices comes down to preference, legality, and cultural expectations. But they rub me the wrong way. As a player and designer, I know I’m not alone in my distaste for F2P: many people draw a line at creating purposefully stunted gameplay to be used as a tool to incentivize players. And really, can you imagine a designer who prioritized the player’s experience doing either of these things?

I don’t want to see either of the above become industry standards. The billion dollar question for developers is: does rejecting them mean leaving money on the table? Is there an alternative model that’s just as financially viable, or more? That’s a tall order. Too tall, if you’re trying to aim at the same type of players F2P is.

Before you can frame a competing model, you have to understand what makes F2P so powerful in the first place. After all, if all this gameplay is getting diminished, where does F2P’s competitive advantage come from? Diminished gameplay doesn’t seem that sustainable as an industry standard… But it does work well for the right audience.

In my view, there are basically three types of players, and F2P is optimized for the wealthiest segment of two types: incidental gamers, and casual hobbyists.

Incidental Gamers

(Games as time-killers)

To incidental gamers, games are little more than enjoyable ways to kill time, stave off boredom or otherwise serve as a distraction. They are rarely primary leisure activities. Quick, convenient enjoyment and easily-grasped gameplay are mandatory. Games based on widely-known genres or templates are preferred.

When it comes to platform, incidental gamers will simply use whatever device is on hand when they want to play. Because games are regarded as a commodity, it’s logical that they should all be available on any device. Thus, the amount of incidental gamers on a given device tracks very closely with that device’s ubiquity (which explains the wide popularity of mobile games).

F2P suits incidental gamers very well: those who don’t mind being monetized are, and those who do mind get to enjoy a lesser experience for free. Because games are time-killers, the diminished gameplay isn’t really a factor (usually well-masked by a game’s addictiveness).

Casual Gamers

(Games as units of entertainment)

Casual gamers enjoy videogames as a primary mode of entertainment, and enjoy games that give them most of what they want. They’re perhaps still the largest segment of the market, but the increasing ubiquity of mobile phones is likely to change this.

Quick, convenient enjoyment and easily-grasped gameplay are important differentiators, but not mandatory. For most AAA studios, the golden standard for capturing casual gamers is:

  1. Advertising, and
  2. Making the game good enough that a wide segment of players will buy it, and still be willing to buy the sequel afterward.

This is because casual gamers are more of a mixed bag: they’re price-conscious, and it’s no wonder that they prefer freemium games when AAA games retail for $60 a pop. They have a budget for their hobby, and they have room to pick up a few games at $60 that are established safe bets to get a good value. A glut of expensive, high quality titles is simply an embarrassment of riches for the majority of this audience.

Casual gamers are pretty evenly split in terms of platform. Because it’s a primary leisure activity, these players value getting the best possible experience — but cost, ease of use, and mobility are still important factors. As the performance gap between mobile and fixed platforms grows smaller, consoles and PCs won’t be quite as popular as they once were for casual players (accounting for human-interface factors, of course: currently, mice are clearly better than touchscreens for some games).


(Games as a pasttime)

The enthusiast wants quality, and is willing to pay for it (and often able, though not always). But they also have high standards and certain preferences about what constitutes quality.

It’s important to understand that in F2P terms, not every whale is an enthusiast. Being wealthy enough to purchase entertainment at will and being a selective, dedicated fan aren’t (necessarily) the same thing.

Clearly, many niches exist: because this population is the smallest of the three, games that cater to enthusiasts are typically crafted with a very particular audience in mind, usually a loyal fanbase who aren’t regularly catered to.

Also, I suspect there’s a meaningful subgroup of enthusiasts who want games they can sink their teeth into and enjoy long term. As Daniel Cook points out, these players are the most likely to enjoy deep mechanics that support long term play, and consequently are willing (even eager) to accept a learning curve. Investing in a long-term hobby is also a very favorable value proposition for them.

Enthusiasts by platform

Mobile: There aren’t many mobile enthusiasts, but enough of a niche to be worth aiming at. This is because F2P is much better at capturing wealthy incidental gamers who respond to a game’s addictiveness; enthusiasts who favor mobile games are a bit of a niche (and largely untapped) market.

Console/PC: Enthusiasts will go where the quality games are, and currently, consoles and PCs are where most of the highest quality games live. There are more PC enthusiasts than console, because enthusiasts will tend to gravitate toward a dedicated gaming machine that provides the best experience (consoles were once ideal for this, today the PC is very competitive, if not dominant).

Before moving on, there are some important things to note about this method of categorization:

F2P’s Secret Sauce

It’s tempting to think the price-point of $0 is F2P’s defining asset. But in fact, it’s no more (or less) than the ability to compete on the mobile platform. As I mentioned before, lots of people have mobile phones: and that number is expected to grow dramatically. But the majority of people who comprise this market are incidental and casual gamers, not inclined to dig deep into the app store to spend money on games of unknown entertainment value. To attract this market, your game needs to be on (or very near) the front page.

Pricing games at $0 was a necessary adaptation to an environment where mainstream popularity is vital. It drops all barriers to entry, but in doing so, diminishes the quality of the product.

The real strength of the model isn’t just the price point, but optimal adaptation to every level of demand. Specifically, it’s the ability to efficiently capture consumer surplus: the maximum amount of money any player is willing to spend on a game.

For example: if you’re selling a game for $20 but a wealthy or dedicated player would still have bought it for $60, you’re letting $40 go. This is a major weakness of the pay-to-play model, which some try to remedy with collector’s editions and other merchandise. High spenders are more than willing to spend $60+, but there’s a limited amount of money they can spend beyond that — and the rest of the market is discouraged by that price point. By letting all players in, and incentivizing them to make multiple, optional payments (whether impulsive or planned), F2P games are exceptional at capturing all the money they can, particularly from the wealthiest players.

Responding as a Developer

But it isn’t about capturing as much consumer surplus as possible. It’s about capturing just the right amount of consumer surplus for the audience you’re aiming at. In this, F2P isn’t optimized for everyone: the model is weakest when aimed at enthusiasts. They have the highest tolerance for barriers to entry, and the lowest tolerance for inferior gameplay. For this audience in particular, there are drawbacks to capturing as much consumer surplus as possible. Taking too much takes joy away from the customer, and diminishes their sense of having received a good value. When you want to maximize short term profit, you take all the consumer surplus you can. The most long-term move is to take only what is willingly given.

Compared to other groups, enthusiasts have a unique capacity for excitement about a quality product — that “throwing money at the screen” type of enthusiasm. There’s no monopoly on this, obviously, but they are the likeliest to get into this mode when they find something truly remarkable. Delivering high quality and high value is the formula for attracting enthusiasts.

But what makes them worth aiming at? There’s an order of magnitude more casual gamers than enthusiasts, and an order of magnitude more incidental gamers than casual (or will be in the near future).

For one thing, there’s a lot of risk in aiming squarely at the largest audience. Before you can think about comparing favorably with the competition, you have to figure out how not to drown in it: you’re only going to get to the front page if you get incredibly lucky or spend huge amounts of money on advertising. Enthusiasts may be the smallest group, but there’s a lot to be said for zeroing in on an audience that knows what they want, are vocal about good games, and are eager to support them. If you can deliver, there’s a lot of stability (and sustainability) in that model, a rare commodity.

AAA studios have a perverse obligation to maximize profit, so they have to aim at the largest parts of the market — employing the budgeting calculus of huge advertising campaigns, and gradually embracing F2P’s consumer surplus capturing mechanisms. Because of their huge budgets, AAA studios have to stand on casual gamers as a foundation, no matter how many enthusiasts they have.

Indie devs don’t have this burden. And without a massive advertising budget, they have to get lucky to see significant revenue from incidental and casual gamers on the app store. So unless you’re sure you can win in that arena, the way to compete is not to play a game of scale. Indie developers need to be Ferarri, not Honda.

There are never guarantees, but outside of a salaried position, making high quality (and perhaps also niche) games for enthusiasts is the best bet there is to make a living building videogames.

How To Price for Enthusiasts

Enthusiasts should be your core audience, your bread and butter. Casual gamers are your gravy, the mark of how widely received your game is. When it comes to designing gameplay, the pleasure of enthusiasts should be your only focus. If you manage to gather a large enough group of enthusiasts, you will end up approaching casual gamers without specifically trying to, from the top of the market downward (because enthusiasts tend to be vocal advocates for what they enjoy, and that sort of acclaim tends to spread). This type of categorization is more of a spectrum: by aiming at the choosiest of players, you’re also going to attract casual gamers closer to the enthusiast pole (naturally, this is just as true on the other side of the spectrum).

When it comes to pricing, therefore, enthusiasts aren’t your sole consideration. Remember that the majority of casual gamers don’t have the budget for too many $40+ titles. So to attract them, your game has to be one of the few they decide to spend money on: either by being that amazing, or being solid and reasonably priced (or, better, amazing and reasonably priced).

Build for enthusiasts, price for casual gamers. Casual gamers blink at a price of $60, but are much more amenable to $30 or even $10. Enthusiasts don’t really mind a $60 price tag, but if you’re playing your cards right, most of the revenue from enthusiasts comes from purchases made after the base game (expansions, development of new features, developer access, community status, soundtrack, artwork, etc). This is doubly true if you’re making an experience that players can expect to enjoy long term.

Responding as a Player

Vote with your wallet. Keep doing what you’re doing, and developers will eventually adapt to you in optimal ways. The trouble is, it might not happen soon enough — or perhaps you’ll disagree with their definition of “optimal”. Realize that you don’t have to settle for suboptimal gameplay: annoying micropayments, silly vanity items, and grind are tricks to capture a particular type of consumer. There is a better way, and it exists already.

Many casual players have never had the pleasure of being catered and listened to. If you’ve never had that experience yourself, consider attaching yourself to a game or project that caters to enthusiasts, and give it a try. See what the community and gameplay are like. You may be surprised at what you were missing.

There is an alternative to F2P, and it’s where the best experiences are.

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Mass Effect 3’s Cautionary Lessons: The Power of Numbers

Mass Effect 3’s difficulty system is an unfortunate cautionary tale about how not to handle difficulty settings. Though reasonably well balanced for its default level (“Normal” in singleplayer and “Bronze” in multiplayer), the design team decided to increase the hit points of enemies to an unrealistically punitive level for higher difficulties, which I found disappointing and frustrating. This struck me as a particularly amateur decision in an otherwise strong game, and I wanted to define why.

The problem in a nutshell is twofold: first, 90% of the weapons you enjoyed using in earlier difficulties suddenly become pea shooters. The other part of the problem is really just a natural extension of the first: you can unload a full submachine gun or assault rifle clip into an enemy at point blank range (which can take up to 3+ seconds, a long time in a shooter), and anything above the weakest enemy will still be at half health.

It’s worth noting that inflating enemy hit points is something many games do, the examples are myriad. Mass Effect 3 makes an interesting case study because this turns out to be extra jarring in a real-time shooter (when it isn’t busy being a roleplaying game). The fact that I’ve logged over 335 total hours playing it doesn’t hurt either.

The Numbers

To get a better sense of what the devs were doing, here are the actual mechanics and numbers involved. This data was gleaned from two very informative threads on the Bioware forums, with more detail than I included here. Simply put, there are things that change as the difficulty level increases (whether singleplayer or multiplayer), and things that don’t change.

Things That Change:

Things That Don’t Change:

Disruption of Fairness

The core problem here is that weapon damage doesn’t scale to the increasing hit points of enemies. The most obvious effect of this is the feeling of frustration and unfairness when enemies your brain is sure you should have killed twice-over are still standing (and doing significantly more damage than you when they fire back).

Some will make the argument that this is working as intended, because it increases the challenge. It demands more of players by rewarding precision (players to need to utilize the headshot damage multiplier as much as possible) and requiring careful optimization of your character’s build. This argument is absolutely, 100% sound.

…Except for just one thing. It overlooks a mission-critical distinction: the subtle difference between challenge and frustration. Put another way, there’s something else fundamental that doesn’t change with difficulty level: players always like to be rewarded for their actions. If I get the drop on an enemy, I expect to have a meaningful advantage, regardless of my weapon. If I don’t enjoy one, the game feels unrealistic and unfair.

Players will always be rewarded for precision and careful build optimization, regardless of difficulty level; but having to “grind” through an enemy’s health isn’t fun, and fun is the ingredient that matters. Challenge is difficulty mixed with fun (or the possibility of fun); frustration is difficulty with just negative emotions.

This is blatantly apparent when fighting “boss” enemies, who have about ten times the health of average troops. These enemies act as durable force multipliers, and they’re mostly very predictable. This means that most of the time, your team is going to be taking these out last, resulting in a tedious, slow “dance” as you exploit their simple pattern. A full clip may not even deplete even one “bar” of their health (of which there are ten), so firing bolts of hot plasma actually feels like watching paint dry. With certain characters, taking out a boss solo can actually take 2 full minutes. Hard to believe someone played this and thought it worked just fine.

Disruption of Choice

The next consequence is unfortunate on a different front: higher difficulties cause the majority of available weapons to no longer be viable.

Above normal difficulty, only a few weapons have the sheer stopping power to make an appreciable dent in enemy HP; typically slower-firing weapons. This forces players toward a limited selection of weapons, which is problematic for a few reasons: firstly, because both of those weapon types tend to be heavier than many classes can comfortably use (because heavier weapons slow down the recharge rate of your powers). They also strongly encourage (if not outright force) a specific playstyle to be effective. Sniper rifles, for example, have a cumbersome, overly high magnification zoom, and the ones powerful enough to warrant using are usually single-shot with long reloads (like the classic Mantis rifle). This can be a fun style for some classes, but ill-suited to most — and the long reload animation definitely gets old fast, especially if you aren’t a crack shot.

Shotguns can be a better alternative for the classes that can survive at very close ranges, but they tend to be on the heavy side, and only a few of the more “elite” unlockable ones really deal the damage you expect on higher difficulties.

Despite the appearance of a wide selection, players are incentivized to use the few specific weapons that are optimal for their class.

Disruption of Realism

Another side effect is a major degradation of the game’s sense of realism. All game worlds, no matter how fanciful, have some measure of internal logic: a yardstick for your suspension of disbelief. Mass Effect’s science fiction setting features deadly high tech weaponry: a weapon’s design, recoil, sound effects, and firepower all enhance the immersive experience by grounding the player in the world. It feels fake when something that looks and feels so powerful does a pathetic amount of damage; it draws the player out of the immersive, moment-to-moment experience with a bit of incredulity (or worse, frustration).

The Sweet Spot

Okay, here’s where we switch gears. I’ve gone to great lengths to identify the problems, now the task is to locate solutions.

The challenge for the designers of ME3 was to offer increased difficulty levels without compromising fun. But if increasing hit points wasn’t the answer, what is?

There’s no universally appropriate answer, which is part of the charm of game design. It’s possible to come to different conclusions depending on your design sensibilities, existing constraints, and what kind of experience you want: each game calls for solutions that fit its context. While some solutions will be objectively better than others, there’s usually quite a bit of room for variance.

The important thing is to identify your variables, and then carefully adjust them to maximize enjoyable gameplay. The Mass Effect 3 designers obviously recognized and altered many variables (damage, health, speed, AI characteristics, number of enemies, etc.), they just altered them (very) suboptimally.

So what’s a good framework for doing all this? Here’s my suggestion:

In my experience, each variable in a game has a “sweet spot”, a point at which altering it too much actually introduces problems (whether frustration, imbalance, or something else) that can start to detract more than add. When that happens, a sensible designer should consider backing off and adjusting another variable instead.

Put concisely: if anything you do causes the game to be less fun, stop and try something else.

Using that framework (and without further ado), here’s my own personal sense of where the sweet spot is:

Keep everything the same as the default difficulty level (normal/bronze), except for the following:

The reasoning is straightforward: the standard difficulty level (that is, normal or bronze in multiplayer) is really the ideal place to start from a fun perspective: a “known good state” where the game offers a good experience. Weapons and powers kill enemies at the rate you’d intuitively expect them to, and (for most classes) enemy damage is neither pathetic nor too overwhelming. Players enjoy the freedom of choosing any weapon (as they’re all viable), and still enjoy the rewards of careful valuation when selecting the right one for their character.

As the difficulty increases, upping the number of enemies makes for a more frenetic experience: while each individual enemy isn’t overpowered and can be dealt with quickly, larger groups will cause the AI to advance more readily, increasing the pressure for teams trying to hold position. Cover is also increasingly vital: taking damage from too many enemies at once will still be very dangerous. The action is tense, and the level feels less scripted and more like a battlefield.

This being said, pushing any variable too far clearly has the potential to unhinge the game: increasing enemy damage too greatly, for instance, will cause very similar symptoms to increasing HP (frustration, feeling the game is too punitive). In my solution, increasing the number of enemies too much could make area-of-effect skills way too powerful, making certain classes and builds too dominant compared to others. Perhaps too many enemies in the level will be too demanding on hardware, or won’t leave anywhere for players to run to, or players might die too quickly without cover. It’s all about brainstorming, playtesting, and being willing to find the sweetest sweet spot.

In the case of Mass Effect 3, I can’t help thinking that the higher difficulties were designed with the “feature checklist” paradigm rather than the “sweet spot” paradigm, perhaps because of budget or time constraints. Only minor, selective balance adjustments were made after release, so the team clearly thought the fundamental mechanics and balance were good enough (or worse, were good). Whatever the case, it strikes me as very wasteful: if you’ve run the marathon of making the majority of the game, it’s a shame to fall down in the last mile, especially when fans were already skittish about the inclusion of multiplayer (and still others were excited by its potential). A little care and attention to detail could have gone such a long way here.

It’s an understatement to say the game did a lot right, but that doesn’t mean it did everything right. Make sure to take a close look at the mechanics of your game, and don’t let the good be the enemy of the excellent.

Flaws in the Formula: A Brief Look at the Dead Space Series

The Dead Space series is an example of horror done reasonably well; there are certainly more strengths than weaknesses. After multiple playthroughs of each game in the series, I noticed many design decisions that bugged me. This is a list of all the problems that weren’t corrected after three games, and should have been.

Time shouldn’t stop when you’re grabbed.

If there are other enemies in the room, being grabbed or knocked down should invoke a sense of imminent doom (and to the designers’ credit, it almost always does). But then your brain catches up, and realizes that the other enemies in the room are just waiting politely for the grab animation to finish. This moment of realization cuts into the realism and sense of danger. Of course, it would be too overpowered if enemies could freely damage you while you’re pinned, almost a death sentence–which is undoubtedly why the designers made the rest of the room freeze during a grab in the first place.

I would allow all necromorphs to move and attack during a grab, because I think you have to take that step to get rid of that awkward moment of unrealism. But to compensate, you can do one or both of the following:

  1. Make grabs much quicker to escape from
  2. Knock Isaac out of the grab if he’s damaged by a different enemy.

Either make stasis recharge faster, or stop it from passively recharging altogether.

Admittedly, this is a minor one, but it’s always felt awkward to me (and I’m a player who usually forgets about Stasis). After a tough battle, players can go make a sandwich to restore all charge. Even fully upgraded, though, it takes an eternity: around 80+ seconds to restore one level (of three).

Removing the recharge altogether (so it only recharges at benches or refill stations) is a viable alternative. I know I’m in trouble when the game gives me access to stasis: it tells me a boss, tough room, or stasis puzzle is in my immediate future. While slightly artificial, this makes a player feel nervous. This is a useful tool in any game, horror especially.

Another reasonable option is to admit that players can make a sandwich to restore stasis, and make it more convenient for them by lowering the time it takes. This would remove the need to artificially give the player access to stasis to make sure they can advance, and reliably give them access to about 3 shots each battle.

Its effectiveness would have to be toned down to compensate, so you’d basically be trading the ability to freeze targets for very long durations in exchange for using it more frequently. I always felt that stasis slowed down enemies a little too much anyway, so this could make sense. Something like 8-10 second recharges by default (meaning around 24-30 seconds from empty to full), to be upgraded as the player advances to around 4-5 seconds per charge (for 12-15 seconds from empty to full). In a battle, four seconds is a long time.

Less inventory space (sort of).

This may be a function of how I play, but beyond the very beginning of the game I very rarely ran out of ammo, or even worried about running out of ammo. It’s worth noting that enemies are programmed to drop ammo/health more often according to how low you’re running on each, a mechanic I respect: it gives the player a bit of momentum when needed to make the game less punishing, and taps the reward center of our brains.

Dead Space players know the iconic green of the medical gel looks even sweeter when you’re desperate for health. These moments of vulnerability are exciting and memorable, but also much too rare. What isn’t rare is having to shuffle through your inventory after opening a cache of goods, a boring exercise in book-keeping that offers little strategic depth. My solution is two-pronged:

  1. Have a separate space for miscellaneous items like upgrade chips, blueprints, frames, etc. — anything other than the three core items that actually help you in battle: medi-gel, ammo, and stasis packs. Group types of items together into stacks (3 different upgrade chips would show a chip icon with the number 3), with details on each item if the player selects the stack. This space should be compact visually, but offer almost unlimited space. This simply frees the player from book-keeping, and works just like the “important quest items” space that has always been present.

  2. Have just two rows of “regular” inventory space for ammo, medi-gel and stasis packs (rather than the 5 max you can upgrade to normally). This puts pressure on the player: they’re more vulnerable and mistakes (which really boil down to managing and preserving your health, ammo and stasis effectively) are more punishing. This is balanced out by the game giving you more items the less you have, to keep the player within that edge-of-your-chair sweet spot. Players might be able to upgrade to 3 rows over the course of the game.

More consistent weapon balance.

The weapons in Dead Space are almost all fun to use, but fun doesn’t mean viable. For every effective weapon in Dead Space 3, for example, there are maybe 1.5 more that aren’t as good. Each weapon type (or “tool” in the game’s parlance) has maybe one or two optimal choices, too often because their stats are just notably better. In all three games, too many fun weapons are left by the wayside because their numbers aren’t quite big enough, which is a shameful waste.

Another issue with Dead Space 3 in particular is that some weapons are much less ammo-efficient than others, because of the unique way the game handles ammo. Say one weapon has a clip size of 1 and another a clip of 60. If you fired a single shot from the weapon with a clip size of 1, it’s the same as depleting 60 shots from the other weapon. This means that upgrading your clip size from 1 to 2 doesn’t only give you another shot before reloading: oddly, it also makes you conserve twice as much ammo.

Therefore, weapons that deal the most damage with the least amount of ammo expended end up being much more resource efficient than they have a right to be. This is actually functional, except that it exacerbates an existing problem: it lengthens the already present gap between good weapons and the rest.

A better way to test weapons straight from any bench.

The Dead Space games have always presented the player with the (usually expensive) option of buying new weapons, without giving them any clues as to how effective or worthwhile they might be. Experimenting with different configurations is half the fun, especially in Dead Space 3. It’d be nice to be able to play with them without having to burn through all your ammo, or have the dedicated “test mode” (a welcome addition to Dead Space 3) actually throw some difficult enemies your way, and be accessible without having to flee to the main menu all the time.

More uneasiness, more subtle scares.

Too many of the series’ scary moments result in something abruptly making a loud noise and/or jumping out at you. The creepy atmosphere is generally good, but would gain so much by adding more of the small things: random skittering sounds, darkness/flashlight sequences, subtle hallucinations of small details that can’t be real, along with the final, most important detail:

Enemies spawning randomly.

I saved the best for last: to me, this is one of the core things that kept the Dead Space series from reaching true greatness (from a purely gameplay perspective, at any rate). It’s hardly a problem the first time you play through the game (unless you frequently repeat sections), but renders subsequent playthroughs stale.

The player should be left alone around benches, but should be at risk at any time nearly everywhere else, except for some scripted scenes and other rare places they’d logically be safe. Necromorphs are everywhere: the world would feel more real if it actually felt like they moved around and could find you. From the moment the player realizes there’s randomness present in the game’s environments, traversing them becomes more tense — and more meaningful. Ironically, random encounters are often more personal than scripted ones: they provide more opportunities for unexpected outcomes that the player can claim a heightened connection to.

This is clearly a pretty tall order, but there are some more manageable methods:

  1. After all scripted encounters in an area have been experienced, define a few (logical) spawning locations for enemies (perhaps 1-2 enemies have a 50% chance of spawning whenever the player enters an area).
  2. Have variable starting positions for enemies in scripted encounters. Instead of a necromorph emerging from a particular vent every time, it could enter the room from two to four different vents.

Doing both would be optimal, but it doesn’t take as much effort to implement the first option only.

If I could incorporate just one thing from this list, it would be this by a mile. But imagine how much better the Dead Space games would be with all these changes. I’d say at least 50% better — and with stronger writing, you could definitely push 100%.

Survival Mode in Dead Space 3

After finishing Dead Space 3 a few times, it began to feel stale: I’d optimized the most effective weapons, unlocked most of the goodies, and knew where all the scares were. It felt like there wasn’t much left to discover. Then I looked at the optional modes for new ways to enjoy the game.

Hardcore (which resets you to the very beginning of the game if you ever die) seemed way too punitive and frustrating to ever be fun, and Classic Mode was the same as the regular game except limiting what weapons you could craft (blueprints only). Pure Survival seemed interesting, though: enemies didn’t drop health, ammo, or stasis, but only the ingredients to make them, meaning you can only restock at benches. The default difficulty in this mode is set to “Hard”, which turned me off at first because I’d been playing on Impossible and found it very manageable.

Then I actually tried Pure Survival, and now it’s my favorite way to play the game.

I quickly realized that the “hard” difficulty was just fine for this mode: the real challenge is managing your resources to survive until the next bench. You’re constantly lacking essentials, so vulnerability is almost the default state of being. This is largely because crafting materials you’d normally spend upgrading your suit or weapons go to the dire necessity of making ammo and health packs, so you don’t have access to the finely-tuned instruments of death you’d normally enjoy. Necromorphs seem powerful because your weapons are weaker, and you will run out of medpacs early and often. This mode doesn’t ever hold your hand: if you forget to make enough ammo, you’ll be left punching necromorphs to death as you flee to the closest bench.

Ultimately, this mode is too punishing on players to recommend as the default Dead Space experience (even if it is tempting). But of all the modes, it’s certainly the best for bringing out the sense of desperation and vulnerability that fits Dead Space so well. A little bit of scarcity is a powerful thing.

Mass Effect 3 Skill Analysis: Throw

I wanted to highlight one of Mass Effect’s more interesting skills, Throw, to help show what separates good and mediocre skill design. Throw is one of those skills that could stand at the center of a lesser game and shine, but ends up standing shoulder to shoulder with any skill in Mass Effect 3’s ample roster.

You don’t need to have played Mass Effect to understand what makes this skill work: for the less familiar, Throw is basically a medium-speed projectile that does light to medium damage and displaces (or at least stuns) its target(s). Here’s a quick look at the skill in use:

(For reference, here are its in-game stats).

It seems clear this skill was made to fill two major roles:

It also adds a side of supplementary damage to sweeten the pot (both direct damage and contextual damage from the impact of whatever the target is pushed into).

In my experience, these are the situations where Throw really shines:

I find that meeting at least one of these criteria happens fairly often, making Throw a truly bread-and-butter skill for any class that has it. It’s a great skill tactically, but let’s look at the specific ingredients that make it shine:

Opportunities for mastery

Visceral pleasure

Minimal negative feedback

Skills that reliably add all this to the experience are the kind of skills you want. Imagine if Throw was designed solely for combo detonation and didn’t ragdoll or stun enemies? This is definitely a great skill to study to make sure you’re getting the most out of your gameplay.

Text and artwork copyright © Daniel Slawson 2020