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Saturday, October 03, 2015

Mea culpa

Apparently one of my game design innovations is a "trend that needs to die", as far as The Escapist is concerned:
Escort missions

Is there anything more annoying than an escort mission? You have to make sure that one NPC get from point A to point B, and you have to make sure they get there alive. Almost invariably, the NPC gets himself into trouble. Maybe he walks too slow and you're constantly waiting on him, or he walks too fast, plunging into danger before you clear the way. Sometimes they take a path all their own, and it's never the shortest one to your destination. In a similar vein, let's do away with Assassin's Creed's eavesdropping missions as well, since they're just escort missions wearing a Halloween disguise.
Yes, believe it or not, Rebel Moon Rising was publicly recognized by Computer Gaming World for being the first shooter to introduce escort missions. The issues the writer mentions are all legitimate, but they were obvious from the start and I believe we handled them pretty well. Other designers would not have followed in our footsteps if it hadn't worked, but it seems not all of them have been as successful in addressing them.

Of course, the pathing is considerably easier in a 2.5D game than a 3D one, although I don't know why escorted NPCs wouldn't have an optimal path pre-programmed into them in the first place.

What I find a bigger problem with the escort mission is the way in which the story situation is so often handled ineptly. That first escort mission in RMR involved escorting baby aliens, who naturally wouldn't know to run or to defend themselves if attacked by soldiers with lasers. But escort missions where armed adult warriors don't defend themselves or even run away when attacked are just poorly designed, so it shouldn't be a surprise if there are other problems with the implementation.

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63 Comments:

Blogger Daniel Babylon October 03, 2015 12:22 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

Blogger Salt October 03, 2015 12:30 PM  

All I really play is WoW and some escort missions cannot be done solo so you wait around for someone else who needs it too.

OpenID Jack Amok October 03, 2015 12:40 PM  

It's just a matter of a little bit better AI and better mechanisms for controlling the NPCs. I would love to have escort missions that let me tell the VIP "you stay here with Rocko while I make sure the way is clear."

Blogger JN October 03, 2015 12:43 PM  

@2 Salt
I hate missions or achievements that require someone else. I don't always want to play nice with others.

Blogger Aurini October 03, 2015 12:45 PM  

I keep hearing these complaints about escort missions, and to be honest I've never had an issue with them; maybe it's that I play very few games, so presumably I've managed to avoid the bad ones. If I played a new shooter every week I suppose I'd get sick of the tropes rather fast.

But I dunno... it always sounds like the writer is complaining about something else, and they're merely blaming it on the cosmetic factors. Sewer Levels, for instance; they can be great - or terrible. It's all about the creativity.

Blogger EIA October 03, 2015 12:47 PM  

I hated escort missions in WoW back in the day. They are fun in Guild Wars 2 because:

1. Open recruitment questing means other players will help out without prearrangement.
2. If the NPC can fight, it will, and pretty well at that.

Blogger Civis Silas October 03, 2015 12:49 PM  

Very little sympathy for The Escapist on this. I like the chaotic nature that an escort mission can take on, particularly when they go a little too fast. Too slow is tolerable as long as it doesn't take too long. As long as the NPC is smart enough to navigate around obstacles(as opposed to walking directly into a wall when knocked off track) I don't mind it.

Final note: Eavesdropping missions are fun and require creative thinking on one's feet when done well. Perhaps the writer would prefer a button-masher of a fighting game?

Blogger Krul October 03, 2015 12:50 PM  

I'm guessing one big problem is that the player usually has no reason to give a damn about who/whatever it is he's supposed to escort. He has to do it because of story contrivance.

I dunno, maybe if the escorted NPC were a really likable character so that the player genuinely want's to keep it in the game... but that's unlikely. Or maybe if the NPC did something useful, like healing or power-ups, then the player would have some incentive to keep it alive.

Blogger IrishFarmer October 03, 2015 12:54 PM  

Examples of good escort missions: Resident Evil 4. The president's daughter is vulnerable and cowers in fear, but that worked well against the relentless waves of enemies they send after her. Puts a lot of pressure on you. Also Starcraft 2. I find defending helpless targets with an army is more satisfying than just destroying enemy bases.

Blogger Were-Puppy October 03, 2015 12:57 PM  

A lot of escort issues involve pathing.

Who hasn't want to join the enemy and kill their own stupid escort when he wanders 10 miles out of the way into enemy territory?

Blogger Krul October 03, 2015 12:59 PM  

@9 IrishFarmer - " I find defending helpless targets with an army is more satisfying than just destroying enemy bases."

When you put it that way it sounds like tower defense. Tower defense games are loads of fun. Just spitballing here, but maybe if an escort mission were executed like a tower defense, but with a moving tower...?

OpenID xsyq October 03, 2015 1:04 PM  

The main problem with the escort mission is that it's really easy to sink to the lowest setting. It too often devolves into a frantic scramble to stop the suicide bombers while their target blunders on its merry way, which only requires setting up a path for the target and spawning in attackers.

Blogger Conscientia Republicae October 03, 2015 1:05 PM  

Vox, you were the guy that came up with the escort mission? I hate you.

Blogger pdwalker October 03, 2015 1:05 PM  

Bah. I detest escort missions.

Bad patching, brain dead ai, helpless victim, all those things. It makes me want to frag them myself.

My opinion only.

Blogger epobirs October 03, 2015 1:14 PM  

Many games have executed this poorly, so I hate the whole concept.

Movie X was a very poor entry into genre Y, therefore the entirety of genre Y is garbage.

Blogger Keith Glass October 03, 2015 1:20 PM  

Just an attempt to deal with Team Dickwolf. . . whinging over a web comic laughing at how WoW implemented escort missions. .

http://www.wired.com/2013/09/penny-arcade-expo-dickwolves/

Blogger Kathryn Hadley October 03, 2015 1:21 PM  

Daniel, there's tons of them in the Zelda games. Though in that case, the NPC will usually help with puzzles.

Blogger SirHamster (#201) October 03, 2015 1:38 PM  

Vox, you were the guy that came up with the escort mission? I hate you.

AWCA.

Blogger Tar Heel October 03, 2015 1:39 PM  

IrishFarmer has the right of it, though what Resident Evil 4 did was change it up. Typical "have escort follow you to Point A" structure was more or less removed by telling Ashley to hide in dumpsters, but covering for her when she runs to turn one crank after another was one of the most intense gaming experiences of my life so far.

I haven't played Rebel Moon Rising, so perhaps its genesis was a happy, or at least benign, one. Just because lots of other designers have rendered the design convention dreadful doesn't change its origins.

Blogger Mindstorm October 03, 2015 1:42 PM  

Escort missions would be bearable if your wards could follow several simple orders like "Hold", "Come here" and "Take cover".

Blogger epobirs October 03, 2015 1:44 PM  

Notably, much of the rest of the article is 'I don't like being a grownup, everything was so much simpler when I was a kid.' Players demand game designs of unprecedented complexity but also want a set date for the product to be perfect, rather than the rolling Beta that is common for nearly every other kind of software project that doesn't have the opportunity to kill people. And those can get a bit expensive.

If you find Day One patches unacceptable, wait for the GOTY edition or stick to games of far lower complexity. Even those, judging from the update activity on my Android devices, are updated on an almost weekly basis within a year of initial release. Much of that is from the diversity of devices being supported but just as often it is from continuing improvement of the game. In the early 90s we would have thought that was pretty amazing, but now some regard it as a dire imposition.

Tough shit, kids. You live in the broadband age. Part of that means a game isn't cast in stone once some discs are printed. And you should be glad of this. The sheer volume of good product coming out today, because of how distribution has changed to be accessible for very small capital outlays compared to the past of pre-recorded media, is all the ways that really matter a great improvement.

Blogger ray October 03, 2015 1:45 PM  

Yeah. Everybody is an Expert Critic, and nobody is a creator.

When I used to write fiction, I finally just ignored the nitpicks, and accepted critical help from a few trusted peers.

"The president's daughter is vulnerable and cowers in fear, but that worked well against the relentless waves of enemies they send after her."


I know very little about gaming, but the logic here seems off. WHY would any sane person want to save the 'president's' daughters? Yikes. Shouldn't there be a mission to save us FROM them?

Blogger Doom October 03, 2015 1:54 PM  

That was YOUR bad? While I agree, a well implemented escort isn't too bad, so few are well done that I flinch when I realize there is one in a game. Now, after, perhaps, a decade of hugely pooch screwed implementations, it seems most have gotten the memo that games will not even be bought if there are horrid things in it, poorly implemented escorts among them. Word gets out, no one buys, and we have started to hold off buying and reading real reviews (avoiding lamestream suckups). They really seem to have stopped putting in botched works, mostly. Can't remember the last bad.

I still don't like them though. Warriors do not, as a general rule, babysit. That's for bureaucrats with guns. Covering fire for weaker/vulnerable forces, fine. Kidnapping prime targets, and sitting on them until they can be offloaded, check. But helping a non-combatant get through a warzone? Not so much. Especially when, as you said, they are fit combatants who aren't trying.

Oh, wait, I do remember the last one. Sort of. In Max Payne 3 (sort of), I had to use a sniper rifle to cover my allies passage through an area. I said sort of already. Anyway, my huge problem with that was while I was killing guys, he had plenty of opportunity to pick up firearms and ammo, but refused to do so. He could have helped out, even buying me just a bit of time. But, no. I promise, if you are covering me with a rifle, I will help myself as well. Idjits.

Blogger Danby October 03, 2015 1:56 PM  

Golden Eye....Natalya... D*** THAT BITCH!
Escort missions can be fine. The most important requirement is a simple "Stay" or "Take Cover" command, like Half-Life does with scientists. That alone would make most of the worst ones bearable.
The problem is they are done very very badly. Bad AI, bad pathing, and a seeming requirement to run the level 50 times before the stupid nit fails to kill herself are the rule.

I think what irks people is the lack of control. You're doing fine, killing the baddies, and for no particular reason, Package MacGuffin wanders into the line of fire and dies. Over Andover and Dover.

Blogger Floyd Looney October 03, 2015 2:18 PM  

Escort missions for an online or multiplayer game might be interesting if one of the players was the one being escorted. Or maybe the defenders can only hear the player being escorted (who has radar-sensors the others don't for some reason) who also has to play commander and tell the others where to defend. It would definitely make being escorted tougher.

Blogger luagha October 03, 2015 2:36 PM  

The thing is that escort missions are real life. We train them in my martial arts school. The scenario can come up many different ways, from as fabulous as being a bodyguard and escorting and ambassador to having to get your wife and kids out of a hostile situation.

It's no crime to draw from life.

Blogger Hunsdon October 03, 2015 2:40 PM  

You know, I had some bad coffee once. I mean, this coffee was terrible. It was brewed too weak and served too hot.

I still drink coffee, though. I just don't drink shit coffee.

OpenID eidolon1109 October 03, 2015 2:55 PM  

I think one problem with escorts is that they rarely have the same priorities you do, so they end up being an anchor you have to drag around. They just create annoying problems for you rather than acting reasonably. Usually they either charge ahead blindly, activating tons of enemies you have to deal with, or they stop and fight every enemy when time is of the essence and/or you're trying to protect their health. Plus insta-fail when they get themselves killed in some stupid way is infuriating. But I think escort missions can be good.

My example for this is Dead Rising. First off of course, it gives you the "go over there" or "follow me" tools that you really need. But also, escorting people back to safety is important, but it's only one of several things you do -- and time is always important as various events happen only for a certain period of time. Thus you're always prioritizing people's safety against reaching your objectives.

You find yourself thinking "can I keep these people alive while I fight this boss? Otherwise I'll miss the event" or "that guy missed the load screen -- I don't have time to go back and still finish this story mission. I'll just have to let him go." You actually make decisions about who to save and who to let die organically. I love those games, and escorting, while it can be frustrating at times, is a core element that makes them good.

Blogger Jack Aubrey October 03, 2015 3:15 PM  

Your reputation as an award-winning cruelty artist is well deserved.

OpenID Steve October 03, 2015 3:20 PM  

I understand how hard escort missions must be to balance against expected player skill/gear. What I didn't like was when on a PVP server you would still be pvp-flaged & have to start all over again. Just be glad you didn't have escort quests like the secrete service during the Clintons, were you had to escort hookers back and forth.-bgs

Blogger Athor Pel October 03, 2015 3:29 PM  

An escort mission in a MMO with PvP is likely the most annoying type.

You start the mission and along comes a player from the other faction. They don't try to kill you. They kill the NPC you're escorting so you fail the mission. Or they pull monsters into your path so you get overwhelmed and fail the mission. Or they distract you just enough that your escortee gets whacked and you Fail The Mission.

You end up having to call in high level friends to camp the area just so you can do One Single Mission. Or you just go hide and wait until the enemy player gets bored and leaves.

Of course this assumes you don't just drop the mission and pledge to never do it again.

Blogger Aeoli Pera October 03, 2015 3:29 PM  

Your reputation as an award-winning cruelty artist is well deserved.

I didn't realize it at the time, but when I was trying to beat Descent: Freespace on the highest difficulty level he was there in spirit, bombing the Galatea.

Damn you Vox!

Blogger Chris Mallory October 03, 2015 3:34 PM  

The only thing worse than an escort mission is a jumping puzzle.

Blogger ajw308 (#98) October 03, 2015 3:48 PM  

I the npc was smarter than you he wouldn't need an escort. Maybe he's old and walks slow, maybe he's panicked and just breaks for it, maybe he has something he's looted, stashed in a safe place and picks it up when you're escorting him. X-Com is rescue missions, Jagged Alliance (and its sequels) have a lot of rescue missions (and don't ever forget the warning about the medic with the addiction problem). Different types of missions break up the routine and like real life, there are those tasks that need to be done that a annoying. Why hasn't someone developed & marketed some good AI and made for smarter npc's. Minecraft seems like the perfect wide exposure sand box where improved AI could be demo'd.

Blogger jaericho (#107) October 03, 2015 4:23 PM  

@32 that's the first game I thought of when I saw this post.

Blogger Salt October 03, 2015 4:35 PM  

You end up having to call in high level friends to camp the area just so you can do One Single Mission.

Sometimes those become major battles; guild v guild.

Blogger Anachronda October 03, 2015 5:00 PM  

@2 All I really play is WoW and some escort missions cannot be done solo so you wait around for someone else who needs it too.

Some of them *could* be done solo with a little preparation if it weren't for that triplet of mobs that pop up when you get to the end of the NPC's path.

Sometimes you run across one of those triplets just standing around (like that trio of scorpids at the end of the robot chicken escort quest in Tanaris) and you know someone failed an escort quest.

Blogger CM October 03, 2015 5:21 PM  

I remember that wizard in Morrowind I had to escort... the first rat I came to on our way, i died instantly because of his AOE. At some point, I just told him to wait and ran as far away as I could.

Blogger Nate October 03, 2015 5:52 PM  

the problem with escort missies is they take one of the primary escort tactics out of play. You can't control the speed of the guy you're protecting and you can't alter the path. Pisses me off. Its always pissed me off. just make me defend a train. Its the same thing and not nearly as frustrating.

OpenID Jack Amok October 03, 2015 6:10 PM  

Different types of missions break up the routine and like real life, there are those tasks that need to be done that a annoying.

Yep. If you cut out escort missions, what do you replace them with? More fetch-it missions? More kill-the-monster missions?

Why hasn't someone developed & marketed some good AI and made for smarter npc's

Because it's hard.

Blogger CM October 03, 2015 6:17 PM  

Why hasn't someone developed & marketed some good AI and made for smarter npc's

Because it's hard.


Processing power? Though I thought the engine on the ps4 was being hyped up as powerful enough to handle more advanced AI... before its release, anyway.

Blogger Cee October 03, 2015 6:22 PM  

I did some token grumbling about escort quests in WoW, but I actually found them an interesting challenge. Especially as Blizzard got gradually smarter about it, and made the escorted NPCs faster and less helpless. Once I get over my initial annoyance I genuinely enjoy missions with actual time pressure, provided it's reasonably possible to complete them. (Although this may be a sort of Stockholm syndrome on my part; doing challenge modes at the end of Mists of Pandaria took me from "WHY WOULD ANYONE DO THIS" to "that was fun actually".)

And now they have NPCs (bodyguards) who can escort YOU, who are often great but could use slightly better AI in some instances. And the squishy warlock bodyguard really should not have taunt, even if she is supposed to be the counterpart to the Alliance protection paladin.

Blogger Aeoli Pera October 03, 2015 6:37 PM  

@35, that just means you've got good taste. I wouldn't change a thing about Freespace except the current ownership of the IP.

Blogger Cail Corishev October 03, 2015 6:49 PM  

Processing power?

Not really. AI itself is hard. Scripting is one thing, but real intelligence where an object can look around, see whatever it can see, and decide what to do next, is really, really hard. And that doesn't even take into account things that the human brain does almost automatically, like extrapolating from the seen to what might be unseen, or making educated guesses about the future.

It's one thing to do it on a chessboard where the possibilities are tightly restricted. In a game where there's terrain, individual traits like health and morale, unknowns about the enemy forces, randomness, and other factors -- and you're trying to do it in real time -- it's exponentially harder. I'm no expert, but I'd say it's practically impossible, so coding AI is more a matter of faking it -- making opponents seem intelligent -- than replicating anything like what human intelligence does.

Blogger Athor Pel October 03, 2015 7:00 PM  

"41. CM October 03, 2015 6:17 PM
...
Processing power? Though I thought the engine on the ps4 was being hyped up as powerful enough to handle more advanced AI... before its release, anyway.
"


It is a genuinely hard programming problem. It isn't just one kind of problem either. Go look at some pathing or pathfinding algorithms and then imagine making it work with other units on screen at the same time in three dimensions. And that's just so they don't get in each other's way and all get to where they need to go. There is also vision, combat, inventory use and player interaction.

Processing power becomes a problem for AI in games with many units on the screen. Each unit is taking up a non-trivial amount of memory and CPU space. Certain RTS games have this problem. Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander are two games you might have heard of that have good unit AI and lots of units, (hundreds), on the same map. These games don't get lower frames rates from pushing graphics but from unit AI.

I have now exhausted my knowledge of game AI.

Blogger Retrenched October 03, 2015 7:05 PM  

Yeah, I have to agree that escort missions really suck for the most part.

Blogger maniacprovost October 03, 2015 7:15 PM  

First escort mission I played was in Syndicate. Difficult but didn't break immersion.

Blogger CM October 03, 2015 7:34 PM  

Athor Pel,

I played a lot of Sims 3 and its pathing was notoriously hellish. My only experience with 3d programming was a single open gl class in college, so I have very little knowledge of the limitations or abilities with modern game design.

My brainstorming has always involved priority and evaluating points on a path over time. Each NPC instance evaluates their path and is given right of way on the most efficient path. The next instance would compare path to the previous instance(s) and yield/alter their path if it there is collision on a point. No matter how I try to simplify it, the evaluation process is so far from efficient that the entire game would just be pathing due to processing demand.

It truly makes you appreciate how the human brain is capable of processing such mundane minutiae as stepping over toys and dodging running kids in your path.

Blogger maniacprovost October 03, 2015 7:45 PM  

If you generated a mesh of traversable areas beforehand, it should be pretty easy for units to pathfind in real time.

Blogger Roy Lofquist October 03, 2015 8:01 PM  

The penultimate, most bestest, magnificent escort mission evah - Bioshock Infinite.

Blogger Doom October 03, 2015 8:15 PM  

Gah! If I had been more awake before posting, I wouldn't have posted. Vox is just counting, pointing, and laughing. No counting coup, counting bloody scalps he is. He doesn't care that we have bled because of his... work. Oh, I'm not bitching. A bit jealous maybe. Most of my "bads" were more on the local scene. I too have pride in some of my work. Nothing like inviting hate that is so strong people threaten and attempt, to hurt you. Never mind. Most wienies wouldn't understand.

And yet, I have to say... good shot, man.

Blogger Were-Puppy October 03, 2015 8:35 PM  

@38 CM
I remember that wizard in Morrowind I had to escort... the first rat I came to on our way, i died instantly because of his AOE. At some point, I just told him to wait and ran as far away as I could.
---

Far more annoying than any escort quest were those ridge racers in Morrowind.

Blogger CM October 03, 2015 8:45 PM  

If you generated a mesh of traversable areas beforehand, it should be pretty easy for units to pathfind in real time.

Only if the environment isn't modufiable by the user. In WoW, that should be feasable (and I believe it is done that way).

Far more annoying than any escort quest were those ridge racers in Morrowind.

Yes. It took a lot of willpower not to download the mod for those.

Blogger Tallen October 03, 2015 9:16 PM  

My experience with escort missions has generally differed by game style.

In a FPS, escort missions have been fine. Hell, in Enemy Territory you were usually escorting a fellow player not just a NPC, which was great.

In MMORPGs, not so much due to reasons many have pointed out: you just can't control anything about the NPC and the mission is either too difficult or too boring (may even vary for the exact same mission depending on the number of people around).

@6 Good God, no! GW2 escorting is horribly at the mercy of the number of players in the vicinity who may or may not be contributing.

Blogger SciVo October 04, 2015 6:33 AM  

Of course, the pathing is considerably easier in a 2.5D game than a 3D one, although I don't know why escorted NPCs wouldn't have an optimal path pre-programmed into them in the first place.

You're making me think. Okay, the common following behavior could be easily combined with pre-programmed pathing by shaping the geography to railroad. Then just add commands to stay, follow and hide, and sounds like most would be happy.

Blogger Mindstorm October 04, 2015 7:37 AM  

@53 Even making them mute would be enough. At least their feathers could be used to brew levitation potions.

Blogger SciVo October 04, 2015 9:33 AM  

I don't know why escorted NPCs wouldn't have an optimal path pre-programmed into them in the first place.

With as many escort missions as have been programmed over the years, it's a bit transparent when the geography is canyons or the equivalent. So, anyone who wants to subvert that expectation has to put it in open terrain, which is challenging.

Blogger Cail Corishev October 04, 2015 9:49 AM  

And the "optimal path" may vary based on your style. Your optimal path might be a charge through the center of their lines, while mine is a slow sneak around their flanks.

Blogger Lost Pilgrim October 04, 2015 11:39 AM  

You're responsible for "Lalia" in LOTRO? You must bear the weight of that sin for eternity!

Blogger Lost Pilgrim October 04, 2015 11:39 AM  

You're responsible for "Lalia" in LOTRO? You must bear the weight of that sin for eternity!

OpenID Jack Amok October 04, 2015 12:19 PM  

coding AI is more a matter of faking it -- making opponents seem intelligent -- than replicating anything like what human intelligence does.

Yep, but you can use the player's own brain to help if you're sneaky. Human brains really like to find motivations behind seemingly random events (e.g. conspiracy theories), so...

If you can use your AI to eliminate obviously stupid options, and then randomly pick between the plausible options that are left, players will think up a strategy that the AI must be using. Of course, eliminating the obviously stupid options is still incredibly difficult.

Blogger JP October 05, 2015 4:16 AM  

Escort missions are fine if the "package" has the good sense to run and hide when shit goes down. I think the worst escort mission I ever played was Peter Puppy in Earth Worm Jim.

OpenID true-poser October 06, 2015 8:33 AM  

Nah, it's not your fault, I remember escorting Draymans in Wing Commander 1 (or was it secret missions?).

The problem with escort missions lies much deeper than pathfinding and AI, though.

Definitions first.
An escort mission is the one where you must get an entity or entities distinct from entities you can directly control, that can't fully evade enemy fire in all circumstances, keeping both them and at least one of your controlled entities alive from point A to point B.

Why can't you directly control escorted entities? Because then, in a way, any first person game becomes an escort mission, as you struggle to keep your HP more than zero, while travelling from point A to point B. If you're playing a game about armored trains, your precious cargo platform is not escorted. You don't also feel that Space Run is an escort game, though it would be if not for that definition.
Why can't they fully evade enemy fire? Because then the mission would be a usual onslaught with waves, just with different decorations for each wave.
Why your token controlled entity must be alive till the end? Because if from some point escorted entities are capable of getting the job done without player's input, that's effectively the end of the mission.
And if your entity is linked with a protected entity/entities, you're just a turret gunner, not exactly escort.

That done, what's bad with escort missions defined as above?
1) Lulls of inactivity between attacks. As you can't exactly calculate how much a player will spend repealing an attack, you're bound to leave a time buffer. War is boring, sure, but it's a game we're playing. Proper pacing is crucial, but hardly obtainable here.
2) Helplessness due to the inability to prevent threats. The best escort is the uneventful one. However, an escort mission should have thought out tools for the player to do that (choosing routes, sending recon, etc) which hardly mix well with all genres.

These issues can be mitigated, but at the stage of preproduction. I.e., a conscious decision should be made very early that the escort missions are not a filler and are somehow adding to the game.
And that is the thing differing escort missions from the crowd. Most other types are more pliable and can be added/modified at much later stages.

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