Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Escort Service

The escort mission is broken.

Game developers have been screwing around with this concept for years. It basically goes like this: you're playing a game, and you've done the first few levels, and you're feeling pretty confident in getting around without seeing a "game over" screen. So to mix things up a bit you're given the task of escorting a non-player character safely from point A to point B, while along the way some enemies try to stop you.

Escort missions have one thing in common. They suck. Calling an escort mission "relatively painless" is the equivalent of showering it in praise. They're never good. No one raves to their friends about "that awesome escort mission".

It's not that escort missions are being done badly. It's that escort missions are inherently a losing proposition. They're fundamentally flawed. Here's why:

1: Shift of narrative focus
Your game is a narrative, whether a shallow one or a deep one. It tells the story of the player's journey through an environment. The player is the protagonist; he or she is the center and driving force of the plot. Escort missions, by their very nature, shift the narrative focus onto the character being escorted. They marginalise the player, making them a spear-carrier in their own story.

2: Non-flexible pacing
Escort missions move at a set pace. Sometimes that's dictated by the escortee moving along a fixed path, and sometime's it's just that the escortee can only take so much damage before you fail the mission. Either way, it removes the ability of the player to determine their own pace. You can never do an escort mission slower than the game intends, and it's rare to be able to do one faster. Removing a player's ability to experience your game in the way that they most enjoy is seldom a good move, and certainly not worth doing for the sake of a lousy escort.

3: AI
Escort missions have a history of being notoriously buggy. There are a lot of things that can go wrong, even with escortees who only follow a fixed path. Event triggers can misfire and enemies can fail to spawn or spawn too early. With escortees who follow a variable route you face added problems of pathfinding, clipping and basic intelligence. If the AI is expected to defend itself it becomes exponentially more complex. You're ultimately making the player's success or failure dependant upon another non-human character; if the AI is poor the player will frequently lose and become frustrated, but if the AI is too good the player's input will be redundant and the mission will be trivialised. If the escortee is a named character in the game's story, creating this kind of scenario is a great way to destroy the player's sympathy and respect for that character.

4: Non-core gameplay
Whatever your game is good at, it's probably not escort missions. With the exception of Ico, no one builds their core game mechanics around escorts. They build gameplay around fighting, or jumping, or exploring, and then realise that those mechanics could support an escort mission. But in the immortal words of Admiral Ackbar, it's a trap. Core gameplay shines stronger when the player's interaction with it is pure and unfettered. If your core gameplay is honestly so dull that you need an escort mission to spice it up, then forget the escort mission and spend the time fixing your core gameplay.

In short, stop trying to fix escort missions. There is no good escort mission, just like there is no fun ebola. Give up, move on, and make something that will actually be enjoyable to play.


Post Simian said...

I completely agree with what you are saying here.

I would like to point out that I definately hate escort missions in games. I can't wait until they finish.

However I am currently quite enjoying resident evil 4 on the Wii. This game is primarily focussed on a long term escort mission. I haven't finished it yet but I assume this pretty much continues throughout the duration. It took a bit of getting used to but I am actually really appreciating it's weight on the experience. To the point that after a section of the game without her I got my little follower back and I felt more at ease.

I think the impact of knocking you out of a gameplay complacency can be a good thing and cause you to appreciate the rest of the ride.

Greg Tannahill said...

I've got RE4 sitting on the shelf to play but I keep intending to play the earlier Resident Evils before I move on to it; my last attempt at RE Zero got about halfway through before I got distracted by another game.

I'm willing to allow a few exceptions to the escort rule; Ico is one and I'll take your word that RE4 is another.

ryanlb said...

I concur. Escort missions are the bane of my gaming existence.

Greg Tannahill said...

Again, thanks for stopping by, new commentor. Also, those are some sweet DCU figurines you've got on your page.

Josh said...

You summed up my complaints on escort missions pretty well. I say RE 4 did it pretty well (probably second to ICO). I think the escort section in God of War 2 has every complaint you have about escort missions in general in it.

Greg Tannahill said...

That's actually my complaint with the God of War games in general; they don't seem to understand that all people want from them is to slice up minotaurs with big fuck-off swords, and they keep trying to inject platforming and other such nonsense into the mix.

"Stick to your core gameplay" is kind of my rant-of-choice at the moment.

PublicMutual said...

LOLX ! Games and escort service