A few months ago I put up an analysis on the action game genre here, during my article I talked about the concept of a "panic button" in action titles. Recently I started thinking about it more and realized that this kind of mechanic is not limited to just the action genre. For today's article I'm going to go deeper into the mechanic and explain the right and wrong ways to implement it.
To start with in my opinion here is a base definition for the panic button mechanic:
A mechanic or system that gives the player a clear an absolute advantage for the given situation.
There are many different examples of this mechanic, from the star power up in the Mario series , Pac-Man's power pellets and Devil May Cry's Devil mode to name a few. What they each have in common is that they each act as the player's ace in the hole. Before we start talking about some bad examples there are some conditions that need to be present for the mechanic to be good.
1. The panic button cannot be activated 100% of the time.
2. The panic button cannot be a one shot deal.
3. The game must never be balanced around the panic button.
4. The enemies of the game cannot circumvent the panic button.
5. No regular mechanic or system should act as a panic button.
#1 is self explanatory; something can't be used for emergencies if you can turn it on at anytime without a limit. #2 means that the mechanic should not be usable once per game and be done with. If you limit the mechanic to that degree then most players will not even use it similar to the item hoarding issue seen in a lot of rpgs. Where the player will intentionally not use items to make things easier and instead just keep hoarding them.
As for #3 this one is special and where designers can easily get it wrong. The purpose of the mechanic is to give the player an advantage over the challenge at hand. If you balance the design of the game around the use of the panic button then you risk an imbalance in the game when the mechanic is not present which in turn raises the difficulty of the game unfairly.
One of my favorite examples of this would be with The Suffering series for those that missed it, it was a third person shooter/ horror title. In both games you played as Torque who after being sent to prison had to fight monsters while trying to escape. In both titles Torque could transform into a monster himself which was the game's panic button. In the first title Torque would easily outmatch any enemy in the game when transformed and he could only spend so much time in the form.
The second one however changed things in the wrong direction. Now Torque had to deal with metallic versions of the monsters that were completely immune to normal damage and could only be killed with the monster mode. Right off the bat this can screw the player up if they use up the monster mode before the fight and are then required to wail ineffectively on the monster to replenish their monster time. It also means that most players will conserve it for these fights instead of using it during a section that is giving them trouble.
The Suffering 2 takes this annoyance even higher with the final boss, not only do you have infinite spawning metallic enemies, but the boss has the power to knock you out of the monster mode which by the way is the only way to damage him. To say this fight was poorly design was an understatement and was the brick wall that prevented me from beating the game.
#4 Ties back to my example from The Suffering; the panic button mechanic is not really a panic button if an enemy can stop it. Now the overall strength of the panic button is debatable, for example going back to the power star in the Mario series, being invincible does not protect Mario from lava or bottomless pits. In Devil May Cry, while Dante becomes stronger in Devil mode, he will still take damage from attacks, just a smaller amount.
The designer has to make the determination of how strong the panic button will be in the game; which is a segueway to point 5. This is one of the basic rules of balance; there should not be one choice out of X that is inherently better than the rest. For example if I play a FPS and my weapon choices are a knife, a fork and a rocket launcher we all know what would be the best option.
Recently I played Alan Wake which was my first experience with a game that had horror elements using a "panic button" (and the inspiration for this entry). Both flash-bangs and flares acted as panic buttons giving the player a few seconds of respite before the enemies start to converge on Alan again; if the designer can work the use of the panic button into the game as a potential strategy that is even better.
With the Geometry Wars series the player can use a smart bomb at any time to clear the entire area, however if you do this you will not receive any points for those defeated enemies only the multiplier bonus items. This forces the player to wait for the exact time that they are about to die before using the smart bomb for maximum enemy saturation.
Starcraft 2 interesting enough has a panic button on the Terran's side in the form of a nuclear missile. Normal use of it is to drop it in your enemy's base to wipe it out. Crafter players I've seen actually use it to force an enemy army back instead of engaging their forces to give them time to retreat.
There is one game I know that had the perfect implementation of a panic button and my final example for this entry. Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter for the PS2 was a strange game, both from the series perspective and from most JRPGs. Like most games I could spend an entry analyzing it but for now I want to talk about its panic button.
After a specific point in the game you unlock the power to transform the main character into a half man, half dragon creature. In this mode you are completely invulnerable to damage from any enemy including the final boss. Your attacks do increase damage and you have access to a skill that raises the damage of your next attack. This skill can be used multiple times and if you use it at least three times in a row your next attack will be strong enough to kill any enemy in the game in one hit and yes that includes the last boss.
Sounds overpowered right? Well it is however there is one other mechanic that goes with dragon mode. After unlocking dragon mode a counter appears in the upper right that goes from 0 to 100%. The counter will very slowly fill up while you are wandering around. Any use of dragon mode including its skills will cause the counter to rise dramatically, if it hits 100% at anytime during the game it's an instant game over.
Now the use of dragon mode is in check, using it in every fight will raise the counter too high and you won't make it to the end. This forces the player to conserve it for the times they truly need it. What I did during my game was conserve it at all times until I reached certain bosses and use it then to wipe them out in four turns. Each time I played the game I’ve never, ever fought the second to last boss as I always had enough for that fight.
One important guideline for this entry is that the panic button should not be an automatic given for any game. There are plenty of amazing titles, both from the action genre and others that don't give the player a panic button. This is yet another one of those subtle mechanics that the designer needs to think about and the right and wrong way to implement them in their game.