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The One Man MMO Project
The story of a lone developer's quest to build an online world :: MMO programming, design, and industry commentary
Lessons from Andromeda
By Robert Basler on 2017-11-19 20:57:31
Homepage: email:one at onemanmmo dot com

You might think I'm going to rip on Mass Effect Andromeda, because that's the cool thing to do, but there are some lessons on open world RPG design that I have been able to draw from my time in Andromeda that I can apply to make Miranda a better game. Truth be told, after 60 hours and playing through about 40% of the game, I can see the Mass Effect game they were trying to make and there are things I quite like about it. I play some games just to try to figure out how they are designed, but I wouldn't still be playing Andromeda if there wasn't some of the old Mass Effect magic in there.

[A view of Eos]

The first hour of Andromeda is spectacular. Bioware always really nails the first hour in their games. It is spectacularly beautiful, engaging, with lots of story, lots of action, and it moves at a good pace. Too many games don't make this effort and their first hour is like any other hour of gameplay. Designers would be smart to look really hard at what they put in, and more importantly, what they leave out of the first hour of gameplay to make sure players' first experience is amazing.

The next 8 hours I played I really had no idea what I was doing. I followed the little map widget around, going from place to place and ignoring everything but how to get to the next map point. I went to three planets, wandered around huge maps, I talked to people, I killed monsters, I struggled with the controls for the Nomad and the resulting motion sickness. I saw crafting, and research, and strike teams, and vendors, and resources and scanning. So much stuff. I had played all three previous Mass Effect games so I knew what there should be, but the menus are so buggy I just couldn't figure anything out. This fueled my frustration, confusion and growing desire to just ignore all of that and go shoot pretty things. This was not a fun experience, and it stalled me for months. Probably the saddest example of this was 25 hours in when I was trying to figure out how to get backup life support to work and the article I was reading said you assign them to the "weapon wheel." I was like "I have a weapon wheel?" (Press Tab to show the Weapon Wheel - I had to go to a second article to find what key to press.) Games need to tell players what to do and why, and if they haven't played for a while, they should tell them again.

I also collected a lot of loot during that time, but I never looked at any of it. I realized later that in Andromeda, loot is undifferentiated. It shows up in a big white list of 15 random things that are good for who knows what, you see the "take all" button and the game conditions you to hit space as quickly as possible to move forward. So you never know when you get something cool. When I play Guild Wars 2, if I get a good piece of loot, there's an "oh wow" audio cue that tells me to look closer. Yes, you can look through Andromeda's inventory and it tells you if you have something exotic, but the game's technical problems gave me every reason not to look closely at the inventory. Games with loot need the "oh wow" cue.

In those first 9 hours I only used the default gun. I had better guns presumably, but I just didn't realize it until I hit a mission where after 20 tries I couldn't even make a dent in a big monster. When I finally did crack that mission, the game crashed and lost my progress and I had to do it another 20 times. Oops, I guess that's a bit of a rip.

When I figured out how to change guns I got a sniper rifle and it broke the game. Andromeda's AI surprisingly doesn't handle snipers. Enemies just hide when you shoot at them - they don't shoot back or try to close the gap unless you get a bit closer. I could sit 100m out, picking them off one by one, then go in and clean up any indoor stragglers. That is a problem, but the bigger problem is with Andromeda's random encounter design: You might spend five minutes clearing out a group of Kett, but when you do, there's rarely any reward. Kett bases usually have nothing to scan, no loot, no reward of any type. You probably get XP, hard to say. Now I ignore Andromeda's random encounters, driving right past, or more often, driving the Nomad right over the attackers at full speed which is at least a bit of fun - but probably not what the designers intended. Scripted encounters need to give players an incentive to kill the same monsters over and over. The bonus lesson here: physics is funny.

For almost the entire time I played Andromeda, I played with the same squadmates - the pink guy and the angry lady. In earlier Mass Effect games the game would ask you who to take on each mission and you could try out different characters. Andromeda never asks. It turns out the choice is buried under a tab on the loadout screen before you go to a planet (just found that out now, I discovered how to change squadmates about 25 hours in on the forward station consoles on a planet.) If your game has a variety of content for players to experience, make them choose, don't bury important choices.

[An Architect I had to run away from.]

It's not until you have a planet to near 100% viability that Andromeda starts to really roll out the filler quests: visit these five points, visit these four points, touch these five seismic whatsits. This is a huge improvement over Dragon Age Inquisition which covered the world in filler quests right from the start (I was bogged down in the Hinterlands for weeks.) Open-world games need to know when to let players just be done.

I cannot for the life of me figure out why there are strike team missions in the game. Dragon Age Inquisition had the same mechanic where you have characters that you can send off to do missions for you that take wall clock time to complete. Sure, they give you rewards, but what is fun about picking random missions from and list and then waiting? If anybody knows why these are in the game, I'd really like to know.

Andromeda really started to be fun for me after I read a tips article that recommended four things to do:
  1. Fully upgrade the Nomad, it makes it a lot more fun and quick to get around.
  2. Get the perk that shows all the good loot crates in the world.
  3. Go to all the forward station locations, because that unlocks fast travel.
  4. Get the remnant bases on each planet up and running as early as possible, because watching the clock and dying from radiation or cold all the time is really annoying.

One last lesson: in Andromeda when you are on some missions the game disables the ability to save anywhere. I understand the designer is trying to up the jeopardy of losing, but given that the game still checkpoint-saves during that time, just let me save the game. Sometimes people just need to save the game and turn off the computer. Bonus lesson: There is no parent who loves checkpoint saves, particularly games where the checkpoints are 20 minutes apart.

Playing Andromeda makes me want to give Dragon Age Inquisition (which is a remarkably similar design) another chance.

Super Secret Feature Update

It's looking like a December release. Half this week was digging through the most complicated systems of the game's code to figure out how to fix some limitations that Super Secret Feature is kind of hammering on.

The first one was in the game's replication system which updates clients as the server's authoritative view of the game state changes. When units are moved out of the game world, I send them to a special location that the entire game has special-case handling for. The problem was that if you have a unit in that place, and other players have units in that place, they are "nearby" each other, so the game faithfully copies all those units' data to all those clients. Super Secret Feature was putting rather a lot of units in that special place, so I read a lot of really complex old code to figure out how to have the game only send updates for those units to their owners.

The other problem was in the code that sends commands from the client to the server. Because Miranda's commands are often for a large number of units, there's some clever code to reduce the network bandwidth required to transmit them. That system always had a limitation that it could only send one selection of units per game "tick". If the player selected a group, sent a command, selected another group, and sent a second command really quickly, the server would process both commands for the second group selected. Super Secret Feature has the potential to cause that limitation to be an issue as well, so it had to go. Always nice to be able to remove a TODO like this:

// TODO: Get rid of these, this is a bad idea. Bad bad bad.

I finished up the first playable part of Super Secret Feature Friday evening. I'll be starting playtesting on Monday. I am really looking forward to it.

By Kurt Ingleson on 2017-11-22 06:21:13
Homepage: email:kurt at pacomms dot co dot uk
Well for me i super excited about the secret feature ;-) hmmm wot can it be , for me i hope thats its some kind of Ai to fight against when noone is online ... and quests maybe or well who knows , for me +1 for Ai battles ...

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