When you enter a Patrol bubble, you’re presented with three to four beacons that offer a variety of small miniature activities that are very easily compared to grindy MMO quests, the kind that are a constant source of derision for the genre. The missions can each be represented by a single verb – Kill, Gather, Explore, and Scan. There is very little else to it – you’re ostensibly aiding the factions of the Tower by performing tasks for them, but there is otherwise zero fictional context for the activity. The four activity types are the same across all areas on a planet, and across all four planets. Four types of extremely rudimentary action becomes a very tough sell after you’re asked to do the same thing for the thousandth time and the only thing that changes is the color of the ground you’re standing on. But designing something more interesting that maintains the activity’s intended low level of engagement, under this structure, is a big ask.
So how do we make the patrol activities better? How do we make something that players can use to test out a weapon, or hang out with their friends without actually needing to commit to a thirty minute activity? I would propose, that the activities themselves become more complex, but commitment levels are evened out by removing the biggest engagement roadblock – don’t make players pick them up. As I mentioned before, you’re presented with a group of beacons when you enter a patrol bubble. If you see one that you like, you drive over and hold a button to activate it. You then wait for a generic blurb of dialogue to play and for the objective to appear on your HUD. There’s a lot of downtime that makes it all feel like a bit of a chore.
Instead, what if you were automatically assigned an objective the instant you loaded into an area? You drive out of the Steppes, “M O T H Y A R D S” appears in the corner, and a beacon pops up immediately: ELIMINATE – A group of Fallen bandits have taken up residence in a nearby grounded tanker. Eliminate the nest of elite enemies and recover what they’re guarding. Meanwhile, Lance Reddick gets on the horn and tells your guardian that this band of enemies is guarding a glimmer cache that the Vanguard could use. You, of course, will get a cut on top of earning the respect of the faction.
Other potential activity types might include:
- SURVEY – A series of beacons reveals the location of enemy high command. You are given a trail of scan beacons that begin to spawn in enemies to deter you from the miniboss that lies at the end of the trail. The modular nature of the beacon trail gives this more wiggle room than other activities to switch up the progression of the mission even in a small zone.
- SECURE – A tough nest of enemies is preventing Tower ships from landing in this area. The player is asked to clear a series of enemies that spawn in a clearing. Once the final enemy is destroyed, the player activates a beacon and a player ship comes in, spawning someone. The players wave at each other. Probably.
- LURE – The Tower wants to eliminate a high-ranking enemy official. Three lieutenants hang out at different areas around the map. The player must kill these lieutenants and collect their radios. The players in the activity then gather at a specified point and activate the radios, luring out a reasonably tough world boss that they need to kill.
Not needing to seek out the start point of each mission, get off the sparrow, activate it, and then get back onto the sparrow is, in my eyes, the removal of a really big mental roadblock. Like it or not, players are lazy. I don’t think it’s the complexity of the missions that matters in engaging players, it’s the ease of jumping into them. By presenting them on a silver platter, you encourage players to engage with the activity, with other players in the activity, and with the world. It makes the world feel like an active place, with context for enemies being there. The VO at the beginning of each patrol activity is an opportunity to give factions story context. The Vanguard wants to hit the enemy from the top down, taking out the enemy command. Dead Orbit wants to secure landing points for their ships, as jumping off points when they leave the planet. FWC needs resources to fund its R&D into whatever crazy multiverse machine they had in that grimoire card. The New Monarchy wants to map out their kingdom and eliminate those that would prevent them from retaking the empire. It’s not earthshattering stuff, but it gives even the slightest hint of motivation that has been desperately missing from their presentation up to this point.
Apart from benefiting casual players who want to have five minute chunks of gameplay served up to them, you elevate the activity slightly for more serious players. It’s not a series of very repetitive tasks, it’s brief bursts of combat with logical rising action and an endpoint that doesn’t revolve around waiting for resource-dropping enemies to respawn – if they want something they can sink their teeth into but don’t have the time to dedicate to a strike, now there’s something for them. A side effect of increasing the complexity of the activities is that the rewards can be scaled up in response – this is in part because the cadence of the activity completion is now slower. There’s no rapid-fire completions since only one is presented to the player per zone entry. This also increases the apparent variety of the objectives. Rather than showing up four at a time and taking a few minutes each, they’re showing up one at a time at a greater intensity, and taking a little longer to complete. You’re not finishing twenty objectives per load, you’re finishing five but being rewarded at a greater level and having more fun doing it. However, keeping this fresh across a longer period of time is tough. Will this hold up when you’e done all of the missions five times? Are the zones big enough to support a variety of each mission per zone? Can matchmaking be aggressive enough to support evolving objective types while seamlessly matching players into shared zones? How do we handle shared zones in terms of objective completion (I guess the answer is by not giving the same objective to the same party at any point – players can opt in to another player’s mission in the same way they do public events, maybe)? I don’t really know, and there are a lot of edge cases to think about.
So it’s hard, but maybe that helps with a couple of the activity’s issues. What’s left?
- The worlds are static – you’ve seen them once, you’ve seen them a thousand times.
- There’s no meaningful endgame progression to be gained from the activity.
The first can be addressed, but part of it is an expensive solution. First, expand the number of areas the player can spawn in. In the center of the map, a single Patrol button. It then randomly picks a spawn point based on the Secure activity – the world now feels a little more alive, and less like you’re picking something out of a menu. Then, split the world into static zones (typically the starting zones) and progression zones. In these zones, the environment tells a story. On Mars, you spawn in the Barrens after a player clears a landing zone for you. You progress through to the Scablands. The Cabal have their looming shield wall and bunker system active, mowing down Vex as they spawn. The next time you come through, though, things are different. The bunkers are powered down, and confluxes are starting to spawn at one end of the map. The fight is a little more even now, and heavier Vex units are starting to show up. As you continue to Patrol, you return to find the place is overrun by Vex architecture – the bunkers are now covered in stone, and the Cabal are pinned down. The story reverses in a back-and-forth fashion, with the Cabal pushing back and mining equipment being active on your next trip. The state of the zone is constantly in flux – it’s just loading a different world state each time you visit the planet, but it doesn’t feel that way to the player. It feels like this is a place that exists when you’re not around, someplace that is alive. Like I said though, this is a very expensive proposition. I think it adds a lot to the activity, but it’s a huge hurdle for asset generation and design load. In reality, there wouldn’t be a ton of unique art requirements, but encounters would need to be shifted and redesigned for each world state.
So what about endgame progression? There is one zone on the map that is reserved – players progress through it normally for story missions and to get between other zones, but for some reason no patrol missions spawn there. You’re a level 15 player that’s just reached Mars. After having some good luck in the Exclusion Zone, you roll through the Valley of Giants and notice six level 30 players scattered through the area. They’ve cleared out the entire area and are perched at specific vantage points. Simultaneously, they activate a button at each point. An enemy lumbers out of a nearby bunker – a huge Cabal Centurion – to you its level shows as ??. You sit back and watch as these six players open up on the enemy. Eventually after wearing down the boss significantly, they fail as more and more minions spawn in from dropships rush down from the sky. If the team had succeeded, they would have been rewarded with one of this world boss’s unique drops; a heavy weapon that acts like the Cabal projection rifle, or maybe plate boots that create a non-damaging shockwave with a physics impulse knockback when the player lands.
World bosses in public zones provide a goal to players still in progression – much like watching a group of six players try to open the door to the Vault of Glass, it gives a mid-level player the sense that there’s something waiting for them. To the endgame player, it provides an alternate progression path beyond raiding and gives a greater variety of weekly activities that actively move their character forward. I didn’t get gloves from this week’s raid session, but maybe I’ll get the Archon Lord’s Bracers from the world boss in Venus’s Ember Caves this time.
I never know how to end these.