Earlier this month, Strafe came out. It styles itself as a first-person-shooter in the tradition of Doom and Quake. The tagline even places it in the year of Quake‘s release: “Bleeding Edge Graphics and Gameplay (C)1996”. Strafe falls short of that goal. There are bugs and framerate problems, but there are also design problems that I think are worth dissecting.
In case you aren’t familiar with Strafe, here’s the launch trailer:
Skill Checks and Loops
When I want to understand what a mechanics-driven game is about, I look at the skills it checks and how it checks them. Generally, “skill check” is a term from tabletop RPGs where a gamemaster asks a player to roll some dice based on their avatar’s skill and determine where the action falls between success and failure. For digital games, if we think of the designers as the gamemaster, then by asking what kind of skills the gamemaster checks, we can determine what kind of game they want to run.
We can also think about the player’s actions and skills as part of several layers, or loops, based on how frequently each occur. The first loop is second-to-second decision-making that players internalize as they learn the game’s mechanics. The second loop is minute-to-minute decision-making, which can also become habit through practice. Additional loops can exist for session-to-session or hour-to-hour.
(Mind that this framework doesn’t work for all games, especially those with narrative focus.)
Skills in Strafe
The first loop is about surviving second-to-second gamepaly. The skills in this loop build on each other, and as players internalizes these skills they can shift conscious attention to higher-order skills.¹
- Controls and input: moving and shooting in 3D environments
- Kiting: moving through safe parts of the map with enemies chasing out of reach, like pulling a kite by the string. (Because most enemies in Strafe are melee, players can kite large groups and clear them without taking damage.)
- Seeing the signal in the noise: identifying acid pools, fires, enemy projectiles, and enemies against the environments and debris.
- Map knowledge: avoiding dead ends or unsafe territory while kiting enemies.
- Target prioritization: identifying the enemies that pose the greatest threat, and changing position or weapons to kill them or change the priority.
As the player gains mastery of the first loop, they begin learning the second loop of skills required to survive the minute-to-minute gameplay.
- Resource management and exchange: players can spend scrap to buy ammo and armor, but players can also “spend” health to preserve ammo and gain positioning, or spend ammo to preserve health or shields. Players can also spend scrap for credits, which players use for items, which in theory help the player preserve health or ammo.
- Signal and Noise during map exploration: identifying resources among the gore and trash is an essential optimization.
The third loop for Strafe is session-to-session, trying to beat the game. With this goal in mind, there are ways to activate teleporters at the start of each zone and skip to them at the start of the next run. This serves as a partial success state, or a checkpoint toward the larger goal. Spelunky has the same logic for its zones. Even if a player knows they will fail their run, possibly due to bad luck or a few errors, this gives them a reason to continue.
At least that appears to be the design intent. In practice, it is unclear what steps are necessary to fully repair any of the teleporters. Skipping ahead also limits the number of powerups and items a player could earn in a run, which makes the boss more difficult.
Based on the global Steam Achievements, this third loop is not successful. More people have completed the game without teleporters than have fixed the teleport in zone 2. (The achievements for fixing the teleporters in zone 3 and 4 are at 1.5% and 0.5% respectively.)
Bad Skill Checks
One way that skill checks fail is when there is a consistent, repeatable solution. This becomes boring quickly if there aren’t other challenges for the player. And when the skills in the first loop become boring, the second and third loop are often insufficient to keep the player playing.
If the goal is to create a game that players spend a long time playing, one solution is to add depth by improving the existing skill set. (To mix metaphors, raising the skill ceiling adds depth.) The other solution is to expand the low-level skills by adding more variety and ensuring more permutations.
In Strafe, combat has the same solution for most enemies and levels: eliminate ranged and acid enemies first, then safely clear melee enemies while kiting them. The level segments create two variations on this strategy. Tight layout features like the bridges, trenches, and hallways of zone 1 let players funnel enemies and turn the game into Duck Hunt (all shooting, no moving). The arena layouts in zones 2, 3, and 4 let players split groups to divide and conquer. Once players learn these simple strategies, there are few challenges left in the first loop of gameplay and players have to shift focus to the outer loops.
Another way that skill checks can be faulty is when they have a binary fail state. If a player died in one hit, then the player health would be a binary state: alive or dead. Another example of this is in stealth games where being discovered means instant mission failure. Because Strafe has a range of health and armor, and because none of the enemies can kill in one hit, there is room for partial failure in combat. This failure allows for recovery, which creates tensions. Partial failure also lets the player measure their progress toward mastery.²
This brings us back to “seeing the signal in the noise” as a skill check. In classic arcade games, isolating the information from distractions can be as important of a skill as reflexes.³ A player’s ability to overcome this kind of skill check is measurable in recovery time. The problematic signal and noise skill check in Strafe is different. When identifying an enemy or projectile against the environment, the player either sees it or doesn’t; there is no partial failure here. Worse than enemies and projectiles is trying to identify resources among gibs, gore, and trash.
For example, in the above screenshot from the arena mode “Murderzone”, there is some valuable scrap among the corpses, randomly dropped from one of the kills. This is not obvious without careful inspection, or by accidentally walking through it. In the main mode, scrap separates a successful run from one where a player died for want of ammo. Due to the noise, finding scrap can feel arbitrary instead of skillful, which limits the resource management skill of the second loop.
In zone 1, there are also keycards needed to progress through levels, or sometimes there are dismembered heads that need to be matched to an eye scanner. When trying to find a keycard amid the gore, there is no partial failure or partial success. The result of these item hunts is a slower pace with no gains for it.
Another way the game throws the signal and noise skill check at the player is with enemies that leave permanent acid pools on the floor and walls. These acid pools make no sound and deal a small amount of damage per second. As a result, a player who is backpedaling or strafing can take directionless damage and not know whether it is a hazard or a melee enemy, which are also sometimes silent. This clutters the mental map a player has to maintain while fighting, which burdens memory instead of attention.
By comparison, enemy projectiles in Doom have a sound effect attached to them with a fake Doppler pitch shift. The projectiles also play a sound when they hit a wall. These pieces of feedback allow a skilled player to dodge projectiles that they aren’t watching, and know when that information is no longer relevant. The skill in Doom is about threat priority and player attention, not about memory.
Another factor is missing feedback for a first person camera. With a different implementation, the acid’s effect on the player’s resources of health, shields, and map positioning could be an interesting obstacle. For example, Diablo 3 has similar acid-pool enemy attacks that prevent the player from kiting, or force the player to take the damage in exchange for positioning, but Diablo 3 relies on a top-down camera where the effects are always visible. Because Strafe has a first person camera, the same kind of acid-pool attacks require different skills from the player.
There are other problems with Strafe—ambiguous feedback around upgrades, bad balance around weapons and items—but these are not fundamental. Some weapons and items make combat easier than others, but the combat remains the same. Tuning the balance here would affect difficulty, not player behavior.
The purpose of this framework is to identify what a game is about based on where it checks the player’s skill. Strafe has kiting, target prioritization, and map positioning; these are the basics of Quake, and there are some good moments here. But once players master these basics, the game is about signal and noise and arbitrary resource management. The strafing in Strafe is the easy part.
A puzzle to gnaw on:
The problems with Strafe‘s acid and gore could be fixed at an aesthetic cost (remove or reduce the gore, make the scrap more obvious, add sound to the acid pools, let the acid fade after time, etc.). These changes would affect the play experience and identity of Strafe, remove its rough edges. But if all the rough edges are gone, what does it mean to make a 1996-styled FPS in 2017?
¹ My thinking on this topic is shaped by a GDC talk Matthias Worch gave in 2014, “Meaningful Choices in Game & Level Design”, http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1020570/Level-Design-in-a-Day
² In stealth games there is a related concept of expanding the failure-spectrum to create more drama. Randy Smith wrote about this for Thief 3, which Robert Yang summarized here http://www.blog.radiator.debacle.us/2011/07/dark-past-part-4-useful-post-or-randy.html Despite the obvious benefits of this idea in stealth games, this is a concept I seldom hear discussed for action games.
³ In Super Hexagon—which borrows from the arcade tradition of Tempest and Asteroids—the hue-shifting, value-inverting, and screen-spinning in themselves cannot defeat the player, but they can confuse and misdirect. Mastering Super Hexagon becomes a matter of learning to see what is real, and learning to see past what is not, a concept we also see in puzzle games like The Witness.