Friday, August 4, 2017

Mass Effect Changed My Life. How Can It Again?

I wrote this back in March, just before ME: Andromeda came out, partially to work through my feelings on a new addition to a series than meant so much and partially as an attempt to pitch something. Needless to say, it never got published anywhere, but I've been reminiscing a bit and figure why not put it out. So, without further ado, here's the piece. -----

Mass Effect is the first game I ever fell in love with. I’d played games before, of course, but Mass was always something different.

Let’s start at the beginning. When I was around 14, in 2008, I discovered Mass Effect on some top 10 list somewhere - what a prosaic start to something so special! I already knew BioWare from their previous work on Knights of the Old Republic, and Mass Effect looked like exactly my sort of game.

It was. Mass Effect grabbed me instantly. The slow prologue on the Normandy, the hints at something grander on Eden Prime, and the absolutely magnificent introduction to the Citadel were compelling in a way like nothing I had played before. I met Garrus, Wrex, Tali, Liara - characters who in some ways feel more real than people I’ve known. I saved the colonists of Zhu’s Hope from the insidious plant-like Thorian, I freed the insectoid Rachni queen from a life in a cage. I encountered Saren, and Vigil, and Sovereign. I saved the galaxy from total annihilation. Every moment is etched into memory.

There’s something different about experiencing a story at that age, I think. Early in life, a lot of media consumption is largely dictated by what’s readily available; my defining experience as a kid was reading from my mother’s bookshelf. I grew up on Tolkien, Asimov, and Harry Potter, and I still cherish that, but Mass Effect was something I really chose for myself. At a time when I was starting to discover what it meant to be me, it became integral to how I saw myself and the world. Grand, wondrous, aspirational, and somehow still willing and able to care about the little guy and the nitty gritty, Mass Effect was a vision of the world as I wanted it to be, as I wished it could be.

Since that start, I’ve played Mass Effect half a dozen times, the rest of the trilogy nearly as often (it’s a yearly ritual when I can find the time), and spilled thousands of words of digital ink exploring the series from every angle I could conceive of. It drew me into the wider world of video games and video game criticism. I’ve met more people who are better friends, better collaborators, and people who push me further in my work and my life than any classmate ever did through spaces I traveled because of Mass Effect. In some ways it feels like it opened my eyes to the world.

My relationship to the rest of the series all follows from that first. Mass Effect 2 was the first game I followed before release and played on launch. I spent hours on forums and blogs and social media debating the relative merits of Mass Effect 3, including the infamous ending - an experience I now realize helped prepare me for a lot of the current realities of this subculture I’ve found myself totally immersed in, and maybe even its controversial relationship to the larger societal climate. I can follow many of my interests and proclivities directly from this one moment, this one turning point, this one game. Mass Effect, both as a single game and a series, changed my life.

And now we come to the question that has dredged all this up and forced me to confront it: How do you follow that up? How do you possibly expect someone else to? How do I even bring myself to dare to hope something could even come close to matching that experience, five years after it seemed finished forever?

I know it’s unfair to compare Andromeda to something that is obviously so much more to me than just a game, but I don’t think I can avoid it, especially when it has made such a compelling case for its own existence. The main idea, the promise, of Mass Effect: Andromeda, is one of new frontiers, new worlds, new beginnings. But I don’t know if I can give it that chance.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Equipment Progression in Mass Effect: Andromeda

Let's get this out of the way: I don't like the equipment progression in Mass Effect: Andromeda. It's a whole lot of busy work that has me spending too much time flipping through menus and worrying if I have enough beryllium. That said, complaining about the specific way the latest AAA RPG screwed up crafting isn't particularly novel or interesting.

So here's how I'd do it.

My main design goals for this are:

1: Allow the player to experiment with different equipment choices while allowing a sense of progression as they go through the game.

2: Emphasize the role of the Andromeda Initiative where ever possible. The Pathfinder doesn't do everything themselves, after all, they merely clear the way.

3: Make sure the player isn't worrying about the exact numbers or combing the world looking for something in particular too often.

My main inspiration for this is RTS building trees, except replace the different units and upgrades with weapons, armor and modifications.

Basically, the core loop is that the Pathfinder finds sites for the outposts to collect resources and research new tech. Instead of the current system, where you deploy probes, mine mineral nodes, and scan everything in sight, the Pathfinder investigates potential building sites on a somewhat larger scale. For example, in the current game, where there is now a mineral site, the pathfinder finds some problem preventing the Initiative from harvesting in that location, solves the issue, and moves on, unlocking the main outpost to expand into that location and harvest the resources. You could make this as much of a narrative beat as you want - something as simple as clearing out a Kett patrol or as complex as a lengthy, planet-spanning quest.

You can expand this out to a lot of other areas as well, although scope would be an issue. Limiting ourselves to what's already in the game, distinct Remnant sites and mineral locations would take the place of the current research points and materials and increase the viability of the colony, allowing the main outposts to use the Andromeda Viability Points or something similar to create facilities to develop new weapons, armor, and modifications. You could have different materials and research types required to develop the different tech categories (milky way, andromeda, remnant), but instead of unlocking individual weapons for development, I would go by rarity - unlocking all the common items first, then upgrading the buildings to unlock the rare and ultra rare items. (Incidentally, I don't think the inventory or equipment tiering add anything to the system, so they can go too. Tiering would likely be pretty simple to plug in, though.)

I particularly like how this system might represent the idea of a growing and developing colony, something that the current game significantly lacks, as far as I've seen. A place might start out wild and dangerous, but as the pathfinder moves through and solves problems, people move in and start making it a home. I also think it would be a great way to characterize each individual planet in a fashion I've not seen - lots of little problems dealing with the peculiarities of the planet, instead of just "once we clear out the radiation this planet will be viable for our colony." It also bypasses the invisible perks on the Nexus, where I don't think it makes sense for the pathfinder to have much authority anyway, and focuses on the ground colonies and how they develop over time.

Something that would require some more work is the details of how the main outposts function in the system - consideration should especially be made for developing the assets to represent these buildings. My current thought is marked off plots, with certain types of buildings (or building trees) able to be built in specific locations, allowing a unique, identifiable character to be attributed to individual outposts while still allowing a fair amount of customization.

You could also extrapolate this out to add a lot of other systems - food, housing, defense, etc etc (like a less freeform Fallout 4), but would quickly explode to the point where it detracts from the other aspects of the game. That said, I think this system as I've outlined here would do a lot to eliminate many of the frustrations I've had with Mass Effect: Andromeda and better represent its thematic and narrative ideas.

P.S. This idea as laid out would admittedly require quite a bit of art and other assets, which are time-consuming (and thus expensive) for a development team. I believe you could make a version of it minimizing that aspect without compromising functionality - basically just having it work similarly, behind the scenes, without a visible representation in the world. That said, this being tied to one of the main thematic beats of Andromeda, I personally think it would be worth the investment.

P.P.S. Thus far I've only explored most of Eos, but given the way it's been set up so far I feel confident that at least this aspect of the game isn't going to get much better.