On the Saturday of GDC this year, I went to two talks on Mass Effect 2 and two talks on other subjects; since I have a fair amount to say on both pairs of talks, I’ll split them up into two posts.

9:00 am: Where Did My Inventory Go? Refining Gameplay in Mass Effect 2, by Christina Norman.

(Slides here; I’m a bit afraid to embed them because having that page open is making my computer swap uncomfortably. Though y’all probably have rather more memory than I do, so I’m probably worrying excessively! It’s the first time I’ve seen Prezi used live; it certainly does a better job of bringing out Levels of Scale than the vast majority of Powerpoints that I’ve seen.)

I am enough of a Mass Effect 2 fanboy that I went to two talks on the game during my last day at GDC; it didn’t hurt, of course, that the Mass Effect 2 talk I went to last year ended up being my favorite talk of the conference. And this talk gave me no reason to doubt that policy; it was a fascinating discussion of how she and her team dealt with design problems that Mass Effect 1, despite being an excellent game, had: how they figured out where the problem areas were, how they honed in on solutions.

They started by analyzing player feedback, both qualitatively and quantitatively, mapped out design goals (more satisfying combat, better inventory, better balance, among other things), and then started planning fixes to these. Design documents were generated; none of the features in the design documents shipped, however. They tried prototyping using the Mass Effect 1 engine; that helped a little bit, but really all they could do there was make the guns a bit more accurate: they weren’t able to investigate possible solutions for most of the areas at all. Though a useful lesson did come out of that prototyping: they learned that they had to rebuild major components of the gameplay system.

Their first focus was on the shooter gameplay: it was an area where BioWare doesn’t have a lot of experience, and where they’d turned up a fair number of flaws. So, to make sure that the team didn’t let the RPG mechanics carry week shooter mechanisms, they turned off the RPG mechanics!

Here, I should go back a bit in her talk, and discuss the ways in which Mass Effect 1‘s shooter mechanics were flawed. Of which, to be honest, I had no memory; I’m not sure how much of that has to do with the time that had passed since I played it, how much had to do with my not being a shooter fan, and how much had to do with its being so much better in that regard than its predecessors. (In particular, than Knights of the Old Republic, which I played only a year and a half before playing Mass Effect 1.) But, like KotOR, there’s a lot of randomness in whether your shots hit in Mass Effect 1: the result is that the assault rifle, towards the start of the game, feels like it could barely hit the broad side of a barn. And you have to stop constantly to select which power to use or to wait for your weapons to cooldown; in addition, the cover system didn’t work very well.

Mass Effect 2 attacked all of these directly. Which, I’m a bit embarrassed to say, I didn’t notice: the truth of the matter is that I didn’t mind stopping frequently, to the extent that I never bothered to map the powers that I used the most to buttons on my controller! But I really enjoyed watching her examples of ME2 characters going smoothly through fights, mowing down enemies, popping in and out of cover and dodging as appropriate, combining powers with bullets all in a series of graceful moves; very impressive, I’m tempted to pick up the game again and try to play it that way.

Some of the improvements to the combat flow are obvious: you can do a lot more without pulling up a menu if you have five face buttons to map to powers than you can if you have only one. But some of them are a bit less obvious: for example, they switched from having per-power cooldowns to a global cooldown. I’d noticed that this improves the affordances of using powers (because your targeting reticule lets you know whether you can use your power), but it also means that it’s no longer an optimal strategy to constantly go through all your powers in sequence, so you can instead stick with your mapped powers much of the time.

They improved the affordances of enemy buffs, as well: once you learn a bit about the game, you can tell just by looking at the enemy’s health bar which powers will work on it and which won’t. They made the guns much more usable at low levels, but also made it easy to stick with your favorite gun over a long period of time, by switching the way weapon upgrades were handled. And they handled upgrades differently in general: you never upgrade your character or your weapons during a mission (other than picking up a new heavy weapon), instead you handle all of that on the ship once the mission is over. And they made lots of small improvements that really improve the fit and finish, e.g. preserving your aim point when you get out of cover.

The weapon upgrades bring us to another point. (One which Blizzard’s Rob Pardo had brought up earlier in the week, but not nearly as effectively.) To my mind, one of the great things that Mass Effect 2 got right is in its emphasizing of Strong Centers. On a broad scale, the last few paragraphs are all about strengthening the shooter gameplay as a center that can stand up to the RPG gameplay. But your improved interaction with weapons brings each individual weapon out an a center in its own right. The streamlined character upgrade system brings out your powers as centers. (The only exception being the “combat mastery” upgrade, which just sounds cool!)

They were prepared to cut classes if necessary to heighten them as centers; they eventually ended up with the same number of classes, but made them much more distinct. (I was very impressed with the two class-specific combat videos she showed; for the last few years I’ve had a policy to avoid game pre-release hype, but maybe I should have been paying attention to the Mass Effect 2 class introduction videos they produced!)

There’s a bit more in the talk, but I won’t go through it all here; watch her presentation if you’d like to see it. Suffice it to say that it was a great talk: a great story, with insights both specific and broad. And I’m very excited to see what Mass Effect 3 will bring: after last year’s GDC, it looked like the team had gotten their development process on a solid footing, and now it looks like they’ve got their gameplay engine on a solid footing, so they should be able to go at full blast when working on the third part of the series.

1:30 pm: Get Your Game out of my Movie! Interactive Storytelling in Mass Effect 2, by Armando Troisi.

This talk, unfortunately, wasn’t nearly as good as the other Mass Effect 2 talk that day. It started on a bad foot: the speaker and a technician spent a full fifteen minutes fiddling with the laptop’s video output before giving up and using a backup laptop. (Which they’d had ready all along, the speaker just didn’t think it would be powerful enough to show the videos well, but the videos turned out just fine.)

And the talk never really grabbed me once it got going, either. A lot of what he started with seemed vague or banal, unlike the concrete examples and story animating Christina Norman’s talk. He spent some time talking about how the Mass Effect series was supposed to be quite different from BioWare‘s other RPGs, because the others are “subjective” (so you, the player, are the center), while the Mass Effect series is “objective” (focusing on a story that you don’t really control). The thing is, though, that, in the grand picture, all of their RPGs are “objective” by that definition in comparison to, say, a tabletop RPG: your role playing choices are severely constrained by what’s present in the game.

He then dug into an example of what it means to be “objective” in more detail, namely the fact that, in Mass Effect, you don’t choose the exact dialogue in dialogue trees: instead, you choose more of an expression of the general direction you want the dialogue to go in. But that’s a false distinction: a more traditional dialog tree selector still only has a handful of options, options that are exceedingly unlikely to represent exactly what you would choose to say at that moment, and not even particularly likely to represent more than the general direction in which you want to take the conversation! So maybe there’s more to the subjective/objective distinction than I’m seeing, but I left unconvinced.

He spent a fair amount of time talking about the meanings of the locations on the dialogue wheel, including showing examples of how they were misused. That would probably be interesting to somebody new to the series, but I didn’t see anything there that I hadn’t seen before.

The one part that was new to me was his discussion of quick time events in the game: I hadn’t thought about that very much. For example, you never get both a renegade and a paragon option at the same time: they’d tried doing that, but people were unable to make that choice satisfactorily in real time. (Whereas choosing between one of those options and doing nothing was a choice that people were willing to make, while feeling a pleasant amount of tension in the process.) Also, one problem with QTEs is that, unlike the dialogue wheel, they didn’t have a good way to telegraph to the player more or less what action Shepard would take (other than the very broad stroke of paragon / renegade); they solved this by adding visual telegraphing before the QTE. The example that he showed us was a situation where, right before the QTE, Shepard cracked his knuckles; after that, it wasn’t too much of a surprise to see Shepard deck the person he was talking to when you selected the renegade QTE.

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