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July 2, 2020
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Protect the Moron!

by Shelly Warmuth on 06/09/13 01:57:00 pm

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Songbird Takedown

Players hate escort missions.  They take to the forums and, worse, to our favorite game websites and write things like Escort Missions Suck  and The 10 Worst Video Game Escort Missions Ever. Even worse, we’re players first.  We design games because we love to play them.  So, we (players) hate escort missions, but we continue to put them in our games.  

I started looking into this problem after the “Defend the Core” mission in Bioshock Infinite.  In reality, this is more a defend mission than an escort mission.  The core merely stands in one place with a limited life; a beacon of light calling attention to every enemy in the galaxy.  You could not stand and defend it, however, so it feels like an escort mission and the imbalance of pacing and difficulty recalls everything we loathe about these kind of missions.  

Then, I played the mission in Neverwinter Online’s Beta in which I had to escort Dorothea through the sewers.  Dorothea becomes a huge liability during this mission.  If you don’t continually feed her sips of her medicine, she turns into a monster that is worse than any enemy you come across and you must beat on her until she calms down.  

Everyone has their own examples of escorts they love to hate.  The NPC you are protecting usually has a death wish or a hero complex.  They run straight at enemies or unintelligently through the environment.  Sometimes, they leave you and aggro more enemies while you are still fighting the battle they got you into in the first place.  They fearlessly start battles with enemies that would have ignored you otherwise.  In Lord of the Rings Online, for instance, Flik would run up and smack the grodbog gatherers.  While they weren’t very hard to kill, they were a mob that would completely ignore everyone unless you picked a fight with them.  Since LOTRO, I’ve started calling all escort missions “Protect the Moron” missions.  That’s what they feel like.  

Pacing often makes it difficult to loot the enemies you’ve dropped.  Where resources are at a premium, having to make the choice between finding ammo or protecting the moron who has just run into rush hour traffic is a dilemma.  When you’re fending off waves of enemies, you need time to reload, find resources, and restore your own health.  In many games, your health slowly returns when you are out of combat.  But, during escort missions you aren’t out of combat long enough to allow this to happen.  If, as was the case with LOTRO, your health potion is food and you can’t eat food while you are in combat, this becomes even more problematic.  Alternatively, an NPC that plods along behind you when your character’s pace is set to run means you have to dumb down your own character to allow the NPC to keep up.  Often, you’re not allowed to run ahead and clear a path--which is what you’d most likely try to do in real life.  

In Bioshock Infinite, the “Protect the Core” mission was just jacked up.  It didn’t really fit into the rest of gameplay and didn’t serve a real purpose in furthering the story.  It played more like feature creep.  We finally get to use the scary bird in our favor, which was unique and fun.  But, to do so, we had to defend the ship’s core which, until now, we’d never seen anyone attacking.  Nor had we attacked them on other ships to take the ships down.  The enemy waves were the hardest ones to kill in the game.  On the forums, the advice of other players was to drop your difficulty down.  Indeed, if you die too often on one task  in Bioshock Infinite, the game tells you to lower your difficulty level.  This should never happen end-game.  Pacing was such that, even when the bird was ready, there was not always a ship available to sic it on.  You could bring it down on your enemies on the bridge, but then you’d have to endure the cooldown while a gunship swooped in and made swiss cheese out of the core.  

If players hate them and they’re so difficult to get right, why do we keep putting them in games?  Is it just lazy design?  No.  In the right setting, escort missions do serve a purpose.  Partly, they get used when the mission objective list becomes too repetitive.  If every mission in your game says “go here and kill all the things,” you are going to look for another way to add interest and these missions become a change of pace.  If your story requires the player to get to a new area and you have a supply train going there anyway, it’s a good two-birds-with-one-stone quest that has a purpose to gameplay and directs the player down the path you want them to follow.  Your hero can make sure the place he needs to go anyway gets the supplies they desperately need.  Or, perhaps, your hero needs to get out of a dungeon and the NPC knows the way out.  The scientist you’re protecting might have vital information that could help the cause.  Used correctly, escort missions provide purpose to the storyline.  

So, how do we fix this?  An NPC that runs unintelligently through an environment and aggros everything within a country mile makes your AI look really bad.  That’s the first step.  Polish the AI.  

Guild Wars 2 handles pace in escort missions by creating NPC’s that stand still and don’t freak out so the NPC doesn’t become a distraction.  There isn’t a constant sense of “Oh, god, I’m failing and he’s dying.”  Because the one you’re defending is standing still, players can actually draw the battle away from them.   Instead of rushing into the danger, enemies come out of the woods and off the roadways to attack your defenseless charge.  Pacing is not an issue because you can move a little ahead of the NPC (although, bandits can come from behind and attack) and the NPC won’t move forward until he feels safe to do so.  It’s also an open world designed so that multiple players can jump in to assist or leave at any time.  

Players like to feel powerful, helpful, and like they’ve earned their victory.  If the one in need of protection is truly defenseless, they should act like it.  Stay in the back, find cover, keep up with me, don’t run ahead.  You’re not going to be very motivated to help an adult who acts like a three year old in the face of danger. My attitude to that is similar to Mel Gibson’s in Lethal Weapon:  “Do you really want to jump?  Do you wanna?....  Let’s jump.”  If an NPC has a death wish, I’m happy to oblige.  They don’t need waves and waves of enemies to commit suicide.  

But, you could make your NPC powerful in their own right.  Helping a ranger arrive at an outpost is a viable escort mission.  The NPC now has a reason to rush into the fray, but being a good soldier, they’re going to be a bit self-protective.  If he’s less powerful than the player, the player feels good about themselves and heroic for being called upon to help.  Making sure your ranger doesn’t die on the way causes the player to be more attentive and cooperative with the NPC.  He could deflect enemies on the road ahead, but he’s forced to make sure that the ranger is holding his own against the four that are on him, instead.  Cooperation trumps being compelled to protect the defenseless.  

In summary, escort missions do have a purposeful place in games. We just need to tweak them a little to lessen the blow.  

  1. Polish the AI so that the defenseless don’t cause more trouble than they’re worth.  If they’re defenseless, then they need to stop, take cover, and stay close to me.  

  2. Pace is important.  Things need to line up. I shouldn’t be getting to a door and waiting for my protectee or racing to keep up.  If I have a badass songbird that can knock gunships out of the sky and I’m surrounded by gunships, don’t make me wait to line the two of them up.  I’m busy fighting off patriots, dammit!

  3. Give it a real purpose.  Use this type of quest to get players where they need to go and give them a good reason to take this person with them.  Make sure it progresses gameplay and story in some way and that it fits the situation.

  4. Cooperation beats protection.  Players feel more empowered by assisting someone who has some power of their own versus walking a four year old through the middle of a war zone.  It’s better to let them fight alongside someone than merely protecting against collateral damage.  

In researching this, I found it difficult to find examples of games that have done escort missions well, so I’m looking for your thoughts on that, as well as other ways we can improve escort missions.  Thank you for your time.  


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