Windshields and Pacing

 

Decisions, Decisions

I first heard the term from Darren Grey of Roguelike Radio fame. I seem unable to find the tweets now but he was trying to convince me that “Windshield Enemies” were good for game pacing – that is, enemies that the player can basically smash through with little expenditure of time, effort, or resources.

Aside: As mentioned below in the comments, Darren feels a bit misrepresented here as he was not so much advocating windshield enemies as opposed to commenting on their design purpose. Apologies! (Still no hex tiles, though.)

I did not care for this idea. I wanted every enemy to be some sort of non-zero challenge. I wanted every step, every action to be thought out in advance or DOOM, DOOM shall befall the player for their carelessness. I feel like I more or less achieved this in Steam Marines, and I thought it made the game interesting and replayable.

Aside: Some quotes about Steam Marines that I enjoy to this day.

 

“There are a lot of tactics. It’s such a brutal game and it makes it even more brutal that you didn’t realize how brutal it is when you start. Then you realize you died because you made one, literally one, wrong move.”

– Joe Fisher, IndieGamesAAA.com

 

“Steam Marines is a dark and compelling game, which will force you to learn to play the hard way and make you deeply regret every mistake you make.”

– Kevin Read, TheIndieHut.com

 

Players must control their Steam Marines and try to get as far as possible through the ship’s elaborate, procedurally-generated levels. When I say “try”, I really do mean it.”

– The Wargamer

 

“IT WAS A DOOR. IT CAME OUTTA NOWHERE.”

– Jesse Cox

But enough of my gloating. What if I’m wrong?

 

What is Best in Life?

To win or die trying, I think most permadeath players would say. Or something close to that. It is central to procedurally generated, permadeath games that your deaths should be meaningful and of the player’s own doing. Some people do enjoy being instantly and fatally messed with by the random number generator, but I sort of feel that type of design is degenerate. I’m on team “It Has To Be Your Fault.”

But back to windshield enemies. The reason I resisted Darren’s argument was because I didn’t like the idea of the game letting up. (Permadeath) games are supposed to get harder as the player progresses, correct? The player gets stronger, the game gets meaner. Power curve et cetera, et cetera. But what if windshield enemies are a tool to lull the player into a false sense of security?

You’ve killed a Big Baddie, and you’re on a high. You got some great loot and your character is stronger than ever. Next level. Ah, crap what is this? New enemies? Gotta be careful… and you steamroll them. Huh. Fluke? You steamroll them again.

Okay, okay, okay maybe the developer didn’t balance this part that well. Maybe that loot was randomly above the curve. Maybe you get a little complacent. And then you die miserably.

That does sound like an experience I’d like to inflict on people who paid me money.

 

Hard, Hard, Hard, Easy, Harder, HARDER

If this is a tool for pacing, then it’s linked to time. Time to overcome the hard stuff, time to get complacent, time to smack the player in the face at that critical point. But shouldn’t a game be filled with interesting decisions? That’s what I’m told and I think I believe it. Offering easy challenges seems to run contrary to that idea. What are windshield enemies if not uninteresting decisions? Whatever you do, you can just squash them; failure rate essentially zero.

I think I’m in the minority here, but I really love the idea of bonuses and penalties coming hand in hand. It didn’t poll very well in Steam Marines – players were adamant in their pursuit of strictly superior upgrade paths – but I think there’s design space there left unexplored by my acquiescence. I think you just have to approach it thematically as opposed to mechanically to get players on board.

Steam Marines 2 deviates from its forebear in that ammunition is a single value shared across the entire squad. Your Support class marine rips off with her machine gun? Squad ammo deducted. Your Leader class marine fires her shotgun? Squad ammo deducted. Marines can no longer melee. If squad ammo gets too low marine damage and accuracy suffers.

This makes easier enemies still a bit of a hassle because you must still expend ammunition on them. Boss/elite units typically crop up later in missions and this will be a consideration. Is maneuvering around enemies a better idea than engaging? Maybe this is not appealing to all players – moving is generally less satisfying than shooting in move and shoot games, after all.

It also begs the question of is it better to constantly force the player to regulate their ammunition or not. Is that simply micromanagement and tedium?

 

Gears Within Gears

I wanted to remove class talent trees from Steam Marines 2 for months. I finally did this year and it felt great. The system was overly complicated, had too many builds, and made the UI a mess. XCOM EU/EW/2 has soldier talent trees and they work well in that game. The difference, I think, lies in the way they approach microdecisions.

XCOM asks you a question per soldier per turn: Where is my best position with regards to cover?

Steam Marines 2 asks you a question per marine per turn: Where is my best position with regards to retreat or hitting multiple enemies?

Both questions are driven by the same overarching tactical considerations of player unit survival and enemy unit destruction. The main differences are that XCOM has a streamlined action system with regards to movement, attacking, and weapon reloading. Steam Marines 2 has a bit more granularity with movement and attack since they operate on separate resources and there is no weapon reloading mechanic.

There is a much higher chance of death in Steam Marines 2 because there is no cover system – a marine simply relies on 1) enemy accuracy stats, 2) her armor, and 3) range and line of sight to survive. But marines can dance. Marines can move, attack, and retreat behind a corner all in one turn. This is something XCOM does not have – everything is rolled into the cover system and flanking. The class abilities are there to bolster that single impactful thing a soldier can do each turn.

Steam Marines 2 has single tile corridors and doorways and terrain that cannot be destroyed. This means marines can guard chokepoints more effectively and can even completely block pathways entirely by standing on specific tiles. XCOM is much more open, as anyone who has winced as a Thin Man dodged three reaction shots, jumped into high cover, and spit poison can attest to.

XCOM EU starts off relatively easy. It throws a few Sectoids at you and on lower difficulty levels this should pose no real challenge. XCOM 2, I feel, learned from this mistake. It starts off with a brutally hard first mission where a revamped Sectoid can singlehandedly wreck your squad. It establishes what kind of game it is right off the bat and let the rest roll in. Granted they may have had the luxury of that because it is a sequel.

Steam Marines 2 starts off… well, I don’t want to say, really. Let’s just say there are no windshield enemies as of yet…

 

Downtime

… which is not to say I ignored Darren. There are pacing elements in Steam Marines 2, just not within the tactical combat. There’s a ship interior/roster area where players can review their squad. There’s a Universe View where you can control a human steampunk spaceship and engage in marine dialogue. I also have further content planned for that little game branch.

Aside: Steam Marines did not take place anywhere but inside ships. Having access to human ships, alien ships, robot ships, and being able to fly around in the universe? That opens up a lot of potential content. It makes me a bit giddy.

*Is promptly eaten by the scope creep monster.*

So the player gets a chance to breathe, relax, and retool before heading off on a new mission. Steam Marines did not have that – it was just 30 levels of more, more, more, New Game Plus! GO GO GO!

So there you go, Darren. I took your advice a little bit. I hope you’re happy. No hex tiles, though.

Square Tiles. Sorry, Darren.
Square Tiles. Sorry, Darren.

 

Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

You can contact me at [email protected]Twitter, or leave a comment below!

  • Darren Grey

    I can’t help but feel misrepresented a bit here. Very few of my games contain windshield kills and I’m frequently criticised for it! People find them a slog, or find all enemies end up samey because they represent about the same amount of challenge. I’ve tried experimenting with windshields as a resource (you get bonuses for players killing x amount in time y), but it’s hard to get players to take that too seriously.

    I don’t fully agree with windshields, but I also understand there are design decisions for including them. But it depends entirely on the game. In an ammo-based game there can never be a true windshield – every enemy demands optimal tactics to defeat them with the minimum of resource expenditure.

    Steam Marines was very easy, so I’m not sure why people talk about it in such brutal terms 😛 I think the big reason every decision matters in the game is that healing is non-trivial. Many other roguelikes let you recover quick enough from fights, so that even if you screwed up a little against a weak enemy it isn’t going to make things too much harder for the next fight. So mistakes stacked upon mistakes aren’t necessarily the end of the game. If you wanted to change that atmosphere (why would you?!) then you could add regular healing pods.

    And yes, downtime can be achieved in a variety of ways. In a lot of roguelikes this can simply be moving around an emptied map. For a squad based game that movement is less trivial 😉

    • James Seow

      Hum, now I feel bad because I couldn’t find those tweets to check! Mostly I remember tweeting something along the lines of “Why do people want easy enemies?” and you being all “Something something windshield enemies something pacing, Bums!”

      I more or less agree with your other comments, although SM2 does allow ammo refills between missions so it’s not quite as harsh as it may have come off in my post.

      Do none of your games (with windshield enemies) have bosses/mini-bosses? That’s the traditional way to bump up challenge. Chaining/combo killing is a great mechanic, but it does have to be more center stage to pull off.

      An idea I had was to have periodic items spawning in random locations to encourage mobility and resource gathering. It sort of does and doesn’t work with superior enemy numbers and AI tweaked to deny the player resources, though.

      I’ll add in a note about your actual position in the blog post 😛

      • Darren Grey

        That Twitter conversation likely happened as you described, but an explanation from me is not the same as a defence or justification! I was simply pointing out one reason developers use them, when they’re used consciously at least (often I think they simply exist without any thought going into them).

        My games are pretty well known for their bosses (by the few that play them). They provide big spikes in challenge in the game, which is maybe why the other enemies end up feeling samey. Maybe my problem is not enough gradations of enemies – I have challenging enemies and fucking hard bosses, and nothing in between.

        Item spawning sounds like a recipe for farming 😛

        • James Seow

          Get you some balance, Grey! (Palette swap to the rescue!)

          Yes, it would be a delicate balance between temporary map farming versus throwing resources at the player to warrant it. I’m working on that xD