Saturday, April 10, 2010

Building a Better BioWare Game

The search for Kasumi's stolen memory has brought me back to Mass Effect 2 and back to the topic of stories in video games. I've been bemoaning the limitations of video games. BioWare, the studio behind Mass Effect and other excellent games, has been pushing against those limitations. In this post I'll take a look at the BioWare approach to game design.

I want to be able to shape a story in two different ways. I want be able to influence the plot and I want to be able to influence, and be influenced by, the characters.

BioWare provides some illusion of plot control, but this is limited. You have missions and objectives. You can skip some missions and have options regarding the order you'll undertake them. But the story is their story. Most players will end up doing the same things.

We're a long ways away from (and may never see) a game world where the consequences of all your choices have real ripple effects. The studios have a story to tell you and they don't want you to ruin it. There aren't an infinite number of writers devising an infinite number of exciting paths to follow. But they could, and should, design a few inflection points where you have real choices and deal with the consequences. Some of those consequences should be dire. The game should let you screw up and force you to fight your way back.

It's amazing BioWare games are as good as they are given the limitations of their engine. Most glaring is the absence of characters that can move outside of cut-scenes and combat. BioWare worlds are populated by people rooted to a single spot. Some mobile bystanders would make the worlds less sterile.

The engine limitations are also apparent in the combat missions. But some of the limitations maybe be just limitations of imagination. Mass Effect does a reasonable job of presenting some tactical variety and variation to its firefights and action sequences. But far too many missions devolve into corridor crawls. You move from one conveniently-placed spot of cover to another. Enemies pop-up, four at at time, to be dispatched with biotic blasts and head-shots.

Every mission should have some wrinkles. Some options:
  • Have enemies approach from all directions
  • Take away some or all of your weapons
  • Add non-combatants to be saved or imperiled
  • Have swarms of enemies
  • Have stand-off situations where combat can be avoided or risked
  • Neutralize powers
  • Add time constraints
  • Use 3-dimensions with enemies coming from above and below
  • Undertake missions alone with 1 or 3+ companions.
  • Go without Shepard
  • Tactical retreats where escape is the only option
  • More environmental dangers and effects
  • Reduce visibility
  • Deal with character injury and limitation
  • Enemies that can't or shouldn't be killed and must be trapped or evaded
  • Take away the cover
  • Limit or remove ammunition
  • Limit or remove medi-gel
These variations can be mixed and matched for even more variety.

The old BioWare injury model is overdue for redesign. Your companions go down in a hail of blaster fire. Wherever you are, you push a button, lose a dollop of the mysterious medi-gel and your friends bounce back. Even if you can't be bothered with the medi-gel administration, as soon as the last enemy in the room falls, everyone immediately gets up suffering no ill-effects from taking those mass-accelerated metal slugs to the face.

This model lacks a certain verisimilitude. It also lacks drama. It would more interesting if Shepard had to play medic, fight her way over to the injured companion, and apply the medicine in person. After their revival, downed characters should suffer a bit -- make them sit out a few missions in sick-bay while they recuperate.

When Shepard takes a hit players are treated to the old Game Over screen. Mass Effect should never show a game over or reload screen. They are tired, drama draining, and unnecessary. What are space-faring friends for if not to help up a Shepard when she's down? Your companions could revive you. Or Shepard could be shown to summon the strength to apply her own medi-gel. Or team members from the mother-ship could come bail you out. Or you you could fail. Very few of the Mass Effect missions are essential to the core plot. Letting you fall short on a few and face the consequences would be more interesting than the string of endless do-overs and successes.

Game Over is a crutch. Players and designers lean on too much. It's time to throw it away.

BioWare has built its reputation on the strength of its characters and quality of your interactions with them. Good character interaction rests on three requirements:
  • Characters that are interesting and fleshed-out enough to care about
  • Having some ability to define and control the relationship between you and your companions
  • Allowing your choices and actions to determine the fate of other characters
BioWare does a solid job with the first requirement. They've created a number of interesting and memorable characters over the years and are getting better at it with each release. Mass Effect 2 also allows you to have an impact on your relationship with you shipmates. More than any other game, you get to opportunity to explore their past, shape their destiny, and get them killed. But here again there is vast room for improvement.

The loyalty system is fun but should more flexible and less binary. Every action, choice, and conversation should make your various party members more or less loyal. And that loyalty should have a significant impact -- influencing how effective, aggressive, accurate, and helpful they are.

The inclusion of so many character-based missions is great for the game and an excellent device for developing the characters. I was saddened when one of my party members started to shun me. And Jack, you never gave me the chance to tell you this, but I'm sorry. I'm sorry I didn't confront Miranda about how Cerberus tortured you and made you a psychotic, biotic killer. That was wrong. And I'm sorry that big rock fell on your head during the cut-scene and killed you.

The character-based missions worked and I want more of them. Every mission should have one or more characters volunteer to take part. Including the ones who step forward might be optional, but would offer the opportunity for extra dialogue, scripted awesomeness, and heroic sacrifice.

BioWare is notorious for their in-game romantic options. I was torn. Do I choose the bland but anatomically compatible Jacob or grizzled Garrus. In my heart of hearts, do I go for the black guy or the green guy? Garrus won me over and the inter-species liaison was handled with remarkable tact, humor and affection.

I want to explore a deeper relationship with all the characters. Offering a few romanceables should be just the beginning. Every relationship should have a next level. And there should be more variety. I want jealous rivals, greedy high-maintenance mercenaries, subtle betrayers, zealots following their own agenda, moral beacons, reliable right-hands, jilted lovers, and manulative lotharios.

These relationships shouldn't just be incidental to the game but central to it. BioWare's given us a tiny glimpse of the possibilities of character-driven computer games. I love them. Now it's time to take them to the next level.

Part of the Game Design Workshop series.


  1. Sorry this is a bit dated, I was going through some of your old blog posts that I hadn't seen. I think you really hit on something with the player directed story. I'm playing through Dragon Age Origins, another Bioware game. It is probably the closest to an interactive story I've played in a game, but I find myself having a lot of trouble defining my character and sticking to it.
    The gameover screen is a reminder that you are playing a game, as are save points. Whenever I don't get an outcome I like I can go backa nd replay that portion. There is no real consequence in even the small choices that I'm provided by Bioware.


    For example one of the more interesting characters in the game is Morrigan, a swamp witch with what seems to be a half demon mother. While I'm drawn to the character and find her callous but pragmatic attitude appealing I find myself playing the "good guy" this time through the game because I can't bring myself to slay a potential PC or miss out on a cool quest reward. Recently I had a conversation with her that led to losing some loyalty and I went back to the previous save file because I feel I can't afford to lose the loyalty.


    Now granted some of this is how I've been trained to play games, and I can go back and play through going with my instincts and try to roleplay the character more, or take a different alignment for a lack of a better word. But the game system itself promotes this style of play. When I watch a movie or read a book the ones that make me really angry or sad or dissapointed or mushy are the ones that I like to come back to. The hollywood ending where you move through in a linear fashion to a tidy ending are the least compelling. Hopefully some game studios can take a page from those successful stories. It won't be popular with the younger crowd but I think that mature gaming audiences will appreciate it.

    Thanks for the thoughts! Keep up the blogging. More Gaming stuff! I've been thinking about starting my own gaming blog since going to PAX East. I'd highly recommend you go next year if you didn't this year.


  2. Good to hear my new labels are serving their intended purpose.

    I had the exact same moral dilemma with Morrigan. But I bailed on Dragon Age before I decided what to do about it. I felt like that game had about 10 hours of dungeon slog for every 1 really interesting character quandary. I got 40 hours in, saw I was about 40% done and moved on. Mass Effect 2 is a more condensed experience and does characterization better.

    I just got Alpha Protocol which is supposed to have interesting RPG choice elements. Reviews have been very mixed. We'll see.

    On reason I've slowed down a bit on the blog is that a lot of my creative energy is being consumed by actual game design projects. Exciting stuff. But not something I can write about. Yet.