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Matt Allmer, Blogger

July 10, 2009

8 Min Read






  • Top-down shooter & narrative RPG

  • Tilt & tap-based combat

  • Interactive dialogue narrative


The following is a design analysis emphasizing focus. It works best if I have access to the designer’s written intentions (design documentation and/or game pitch) but as long as the focalpoints discussed are agreeably important, the observations and points are still helpful.


Developer & Platform
This is Bioware. One of the few well-known studios wherestory is valued as a core feature rather than a wrapper developed around core features. Galaxy is no exception. The evidence supporting the claim that story is a primary focus the mere fact that this game has a storyline. The vast majority of casual and iPhone games only go so far as establishing a theme and little else.


Focus #1: The Story
Therefore, a focal point of Mass Effect Galaxy is to present a tale involving two Mass Effect 2 main characters Jacob Taylor and Miranda Lawson. The playable character is Taylor, a former human Alliance soldier who is recruited, a la Rambo-style, for his unique position of operating outside military red tape but with the benefit of its training.

ME Galaxy definitely succeeds in featuring Jacob Taylor since he acts as the player’s connection to the game world and story. However, because of this, the weight of the focus shifts, heavily favoring Jacob Taylor’s role. In addition, Miranda did not physically accompany Taylor throughout most of the story’s key moments. She often appears before and after most key moments in hologram form because the story calls for her to stay behind in the transport ship. So, she can feel a bit disconnected from the heart of the experience.




The interesting observation I found about a story-based casual game is that a couple of hours seems too brief to present a well-rounded narrative. The main aspect missing in Galaxy—from a storytelling standpoint—is the character arch. And it didn’t seem to me that there were missed opportunities to build character arcs. It’s more that the story itself ended before character progression could get going. So then, the formula for this type of game might better lend itself to an episodic model.


Focus #2: The Player’s Role
Since the focus described above has little to do with gameplay or the player, this requires the need for a second focus: to allow the player to feel like they are contributing to the storyline.This focus is executed through one of the two main gameplay systems: Bioware’s familiar dialogue system.

I’ve separated the elements of this system into 4 segments:

  1. The UI symbols representing each options attitude/personality

  2. The UI scroll wheel that houses these attitude-based symbols

  3. The text itself that Jacob Taylor potentially executes

  4. The caliber and formulaic integrity of the writing

It very much felt like I was contributing to the narrationof a graphic novel by choosing the attitude and accompanying dialogue for the game’s hero. Each system element allows an unobstructed path to allow for an enjoyable narrative experience.

However, there is a fundamental flaw in the design, which isthe amount of time it takes for the player to browse through all the dialogue options. It’s an issue that has been with this system since the beginning. This gap in time causes dead air and impairs the cinematic aesthetic, but since the player is mentally focusing on (arguably) meaningful choices, it does not detract from the experience in a very noticeable way.


Focus #3: Combat
The two focal points described above cover the narrative space and the player’s role within the narrative space. But a key gaming focusis missing, so a third focus is needed to cover the game’s second main gameplay system: combat. Another reason to make this a key focus is that it drives the story’s action-based conflict.

This is also the weak link in the game’s three focal points. I have broken the system down into 6 elements. This automatically makes it amore complicated system than the dialogue system, which is an in-direct contributor to its faults:

  1. Tilt controls designed to move playable character

  2. Special attack inputs, such as breaking the enemy’s shields, launching a powerful grenade and freezing the enemy in place

  3. Layout of the combat environment

  4. The traits/attributes of the environment objects (e.g. some block enemy fire, others do not)

  5. The enemy AI and their behaviors and attributes

  6. The conceptual objectives during combat

While these elements are not failures individually, they fall short—as a whole—in allowing robust, tactical thought patterns.

Tilt Controls
As the player tilts the device to move Jacob, the image becomes skewed. While the mechanic is well tuned to minimize this side effect, it happens nonetheless. The tilt method also links to an issue that the special attacks feature encounters…

Special Attack Inputs
While the player is attempting to move the playable character around, the device is constantly moving. This requires the player to coordinate the other hand to both match the device’s movements and tap the intended special attack.

The main reason why these are negatives and not positives, is because of the type of action that is happening on the screen. That is to say, small character sprites move while the background (floors, crates andwalls) remain static.

It’s possible the designers imagined players bobbing and leaning to frantically stay alive and defeat the enemies. However, such an intention would be better suited for a game that caters to more on-screen action. For instance a racing game, where the one-point perspective and constant forward movement creates a state of action for every element on screenat all times.

Environment Layout
The layout of the environment does not adequately address the inherent lack of depth perception. Because we’re looking down at a floor,the design cannot utilize the advantages of vertical one-point perspective, since the floor cuts off the sub-conscious familiarity of converging objects.

Because of this, the fall back should be environmental perspective. Meaning, the farther the object is, the less contrast the object has. While the game’s levels utilize this solution, it doesn’t establish an effective range. Some levels have holes cut into the floor to show subject matter farther away. However the detail or difference in contrast is not great enough.

I found myself thinking Jacob would walk onto a floor panel in front of him only to watch him run into an invisible collision. It wasn’t until that point that I realized it wasn’t a floor panel but a hole meant to reveal subject matter below the floor.


Another solution that could have fixed the depth issue coincides with another issue I had with the environment layout: the combat space is constrained to the device’s screen space. If the levels were created to be larger, it would create movement between floor layer and the sub floor layer. Doing this would eliminate the floor panel/sub floor confusion and the combat zones would be larger and feel more dynamic.

Attributes of the Environment Objects
Part of this element is also related to the lack of depth of field. Walls and crates looked like they were the same height. However, some ofthe enemy fire would travel over some walls while other walls shielded Jacob from getting hit. Since it is nearly impossible to judge how tall an object is, the player will either lose trust in this tactic or be forced to learn through trial and error.

AI Attributes and Behavior
The differences in enemy strength is lost because all of the issues described above takes time away from assessing the best plan of attack. It’s very possible combat design called for more elaborate combination of enemy placement and player path but, because the player is unable to overcomeinherent obstacles, the level design had to be simplified. As a consequence, enemy AI are seen as mindless drones, similar to Pac-Man ghosts: the only apparent strategy is to avoid or prevent bunched together enemies that are heading your way. 

Conceptual Objectives
This leads to the main issue, which is a product of all the issues listed before it: the player must reduce and simplify their strategy. There is recognizable intention for many elements, such as, ducking in and out from behind walls and destructible crates, multiple path choice, eliminating multiple enemies by blowing up power circuits, etc. Unfortunately, the accruement of several minor issues causes the majority of tactical thought to be: move, special attack, repeat.

While this analysis may focus more on the flaws, I found Mass Effect Galaxy to be an enjoyable game. I especially recommend it to anyonewho wants to feel like they’re contributing to a graphic novel. This is an excellent base for more playable graphic novels and could certainly pave the way towards an episodic mobile genre.

Other topics left for another time: difficulty & progression, game flow, endgame pay-off, loading and the ever popular topic: risk vs. reward.

Matt Allmer

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Matt Allmer


Matt Allmer is a designer committed to the evolution of user experience, narrative and system design for consoles. He is credited for the patent of a gameplay mechanic and his experience includes development work at Electronic Arts and Page 44 Studios. He also has experience collaborating with publishers including Activision Blizzard and Disney Interactive Studios. His other interests include writing, concept art and producing short film & animation projects.

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