You can design a game better when you can keep in your head two clear, separate pictures at once: what the game motivates the player to do and what the player wants the player to do. Often, designers have an idea of what players want, so playtesting consists of doing these things and making sure they are working properly. Despite the designer’s clear vision, players do not have access to it and it follows the game’s incentive structure. Even a relatively small misalignment between intent and design can make the end result look significantly different if not broken. For example, an RTS with some disproportionate unit design will see players ignoring most of the available unit types to build one unbalanced unit or counter.
Designers can keep an important distance from work and relearn the game to play in a way that is independent of their preconceived notions of how the game will be played. This is not an easy task, but practicing analyzing the incentive structure of a game where the designer’s intent is not yet known will give you the tools to achieve a threshold distance and analyze the impact of incentives on player behavior in your own game.
The basic process is as follows
- Choose the kind of decision that feels good to you.
- Note the design factors that influence that decision.
- Put yourself in the same situation again, check your list and make your decision again based only on the factors you wrote down. See if there are other viable options to choose from based on these factors.
- Carefully consider the listed elements and add them until your selection is the only one imaginable. (There are also toys that remove a factor if its instantiation cannot change its decision.)
- Trace elements back to design elements and do thought experiments like “What would you do if X behaved like Y instead of Z?” Start with the simplest changes you can make to correct a bad decision.
In this article, we will analyze some of the incentive structures for tactical combat in XCOM 2012. The goal is to learn why the best strategy is to slowly move your squad around the map revealing the minimum number of tiles each turn when not in a shootout with aliens.
XCOM 2012’s combat system is otherwise dynamic and tightly designed. Players should be encouraged to fully embrace complexity. The design should encourage players to exhibit aggression so that they can more often engage in exciting and dangerous situations and experience the full intellectual and emotional realm that a combat system can provide.
In this article, we will analyze the incentive structure of tactical missions in XCOM 2012 to find the causes of tedious and degenerate map navigation tactics, and then discuss how XCOM 2 tried to improve its previous design in this area.
In XCOM, players and enemies take turns, any character can act. Players can give commands to their characters in any order, but each command is permanent. A player’s turn ends when all of the player’s characters take an action or double move. Each character can move and act or double move. Actions include firing at enemies, reloading weapons, using special abilities, and playing Overwatch.
(Image source Fantastic Let’s Play in Beaglerush.)
Players can only see tiles within the current squad member’s line of sight (LoS). Most of the map is shrouded in darkness. Several enemies hidden throughout the map (called “pods”) move each turn. Hidden enemies don’t move in a predictable way. Some missions have a small number (or only one) of pods either in a fixed location on the map or patrolling a very small area, such as a UFO’s main room.
If the player does not encounter an enemy for several turns, the game gives the player a clear visual cue that tells the player the general direction of nearby pods. In addition to this, players can get hints on the location of hidden pods when a flaw in the War Fog allows players to see faint traces of opening doors or breaking windows that are out of sight of the squad.
The challenge of every mission comes from defeating enemies on the map. At any given time, enemies are either active fighting the player’s squad or inactive, “wandering” around parts of the map the player cannot see. When a member of that pod earns LoS for a member of the player’s squad, the player activates the entire pod. A player cannot have less than one pod active at a time, so pods represent the basic unit of risk in a mission.
When a pod is activated, members of the pod gain one free move each, which they normally use to enter cover. If a pod is active on a player’s turn, the player’s turn continues normally after enemies “scammer” it. If an alien enters a player’s LoS during their turn, the alien scavenger and alien’s turn ends.
The objective of a mission usually involves killing all enemies or reaching a specific location. Either way, players must move across the map into uncharted territory to achieve their goals. Each tile the player reveals can contain an enemy, so the pod can be activated even if the player is currently engaged with another pod.
Soldier and alien LoS are reciprocal. When the player sees enemies, they become active. A notable exception is the “combat scanner” item, which allows a soldier to throw away to gain a temporary view of an enemy, preventing them from being activated. In most cases, the player activates an enemy by moving one of their characters to gain sight of the enemy.
Characters can play Overwatch instead of shooting guns. In Overwatch, characters fire at the first enemy they move within their LoS. When a character is playing Overwatch and the pod is activated, that character will fire an Overwatch shot at enemies that are scavenging LoS. On the next turn that comes before the alien shoots, that character can fire another gun. Overwatch effectively grants additional attacks to soldiers on aliens that have just been activated.
Dealing with one pod is easy to handle, but can be tricky. Dealing with both can be fatal. Dealing with three has the potential for a player to sacrifice multiple characters or wipe out her squad entirely.
The cost of unnecessarily risky attempts in XCOM is high. Characters that die in a mission are gone forever, and characters that are wounded may not be usable in multiple missions.
XCOM’s strategic hierarchical design consistently raises the challenge level of tactical missions with minimal consideration for player success or failure. The game doesn’t give a player in a tough situation a break, and the accumulated resource loss across multiple missions often plunges her into a vortex of death at the end of the campaign. The death spiral takes the form: The player’s most powerful character is injured. This means that the inferior character is more likely to perform the mission and suffer injury or death. The higher level character is injured, so he does not gain experience and cannot advance. Weak characters take on missions beyond their abilities, making it harder for them to survive to build power. Overall, less skillful players will fall behind on higher and higher difficulty levels, and will suffer defeats that feed on defeat.
The game makes it clear enough both thematically and mechanically that the player should not be injured or killed for any reason if it could be avoided. The simplest way to avoid these traps is for the player to engage as few enemies as possible and engage them one at a time.
Mechanics shape the battle as a test of your risk minimization skills. Players rely on deterministic damage modalities like grenades and rockets, crawl forward and fight as few aliens at a time as the game allows, in pursuit of the safest engagement.
Incentives limit players to playing in a way that reveals as few tiles as possible on their turn, and allows multiple squad members’ turns to deal with pods that may be activated. The resulting play is intentionally crawling the map. The player’s first move is to advance the frontmost character. Then let the first tile reveal the tile without moving along with the rest of the squad. Most player commands reveal nothing, and most of the player’s time is spent waiting between turns or watching character execution animations.
What do players gain by completing missions quickly? The game system doesn’t give you an incentive to do this, but players can get bored playing as conservatively as the game allows. Knowledgeable players who try to do their best find themselves in the awkward situation of having to choose between spending a lot of time the boring but right way or spending less time playing the more fun way, but with a lower chance of success. There are no in-game benefits.
This trade-off between fun and efficiency hurts the design. This design punishes players for engaging in the most provocative and exciting dangerous battle situations. The design gives players no reason to pursue a challenge, so smart players zealously avoid it.
In the next article, we will look at how the Enemy Within extension for XCOM2 and XCOM2012 attempts to solve this problem.