What Makes a Good Mission?
by: Kellan - February 15, 2000 for Freespace Watch
There are some hard and fast rules for me on what separates a 4.5 or 5 star mission from a 1.5 or 2 star mission, but there are also several highly partial and interpretative issues involved. Generally speaking, a good mission will combine storyline, balance, design and gameplay into a whole that gels well and is more often than not better than the sum of its parts. This article is designed to help all mission designers to create the best missions they can and to explain how I review a mission. Throughout the article I'll be referring to particularly good examples, and giving tips at the end of each section.
'Storyline' refers to the overall plot of any mission, including the briefing and debriefing and the messages which take place during the mission. A good storyline provides a focal point for the mission to revolve around. The mission's messages will generally draw reference from the idea behind the mission and relate to it in some way or another. A good selection of messages will allow the player to suspend his or her disbelief, and hopefully drive the plot along too. Take, for example, the excellent messages in the 'Welcome to the Boonies' series by Agatheron, which not only immerse a player but also drive the story.
Obviously, execution is very important when dealing with the storyline. Good spelling and grammar will show off your own skill and attention to detail, while poor spelling will break the illusion of an immersive mission. If you don't trust your own spelling, get someone to proof-read your mission before it goes out on public display. Ship icons in a briefing should also match up with the ships they are meant to portray and have a matching ship class visible when clicked on.
Keeping the storyline tight is also important. Briefings should give the information the player needs in a concise manner, and not ramble, while still being be long enough to actually impart the necessary information. Similarly, debriefings should relate to the player's actions in the mission. Debriefings are also a good place to describe the effect of the player's actions or, if you are planning a follow up mission, to preview your next mission.
- Keep the storyline tight, don't ramble.
- Include in-flight messages to heighten a player's suspension of disbelief.
- Make sure all of the briefing icons are correct.
- Most importantly, proof-read your own work or get someone else to.
Balance is of critical importance to any mission. Without good balance, a mission is unlikely to score highly in the gameplay section and will therefore have a significantly reduced score. There are numerous examples of this in the review section of the site.
The key to good balance is, as Zileas has said, to have the actions of the player directly affect the outcome of the battle. This could range from shooting down bombs to disabling an enemy vessel. The other main point is to not make the mission too easy or too hard to complete. The only way to make sure of this is to test the mission yourself (something which I doubt is even done with some missions) and to get other people to test the mission out for you. Bear in mind that you, as the mission creator know what is going to happen and can predict enemy attacks, but players can't. Thus, players will often find a mission harder than you do. I've fallen into this trap several times. Solrazor's mission 'Nekhbet' was tested by a fairly large group of people before its release and the balance was near perfect.
One aspect of balance, which is frequently poorly realised, is the loadout for a player. Too often I have seen every weapon and ship available to the player, often including the multiplayer variants, which can't be used anyway. The idea of the loadout is to give the player some choice in the ships they fly of the weapons they take, but not to give them the option to fly in some super-ship with dual Kaysers, or a bomber with a dozen Helios bombs.
- Make sure the player's actions affect the battle.
- Modify ship and weapon loadout.
- Test the mission, and get others to test it!
The design of a mission can not only improve the flow of events or the player's understanding of the mission (through directives and messages) but also show off your skill as a mission designer. I don't consider good design to be critical to the success of a mission, but it will help the gameplay and storyline of a mission greatly if done correctly. A mission probably wouldn't score a 5 star rating with poor design, but if it has a good storyline and has good balance and gameplay, it could still receive a 4 or 4.5 star score overall.
Most sexps can be easily understood thanks to the excellent help for FRED2 that is available, but most designers stumble over a few of them. Most aren't crucial, but there are a few that really should be learned. For example, designers should remember to make use of the escort list, messages and directives above all other design aspects. Other useful sexps include the beam-free sexp (critical for a mission involving capital ships) and the cap-waypoint-speed sexp. Sexps such as send-message-list can be useful, but they aren't really necessary. Nevertheless, it's sexps like these that get you the higher design marks. A good background is also a nice touch, which can add those extra few marks while making the mission beautiful as well.
- Read the FRED2 manual for descriptions of sexps, or look at the information available in FRED2 itself.
- Learn the really important design aspects listed above.
- If you can, use the more complex sexps to improve your design score.
Gameplay is closely linked to the balance of a mission, though it's possible to have a mission that's well balanced and still has poor gameplay. This, however, is rare, but it's usually down to a poor storyline or design. Gameplay must be good for a mission to score highly - it's no good having a mission that's mechanically great but isn't fun to play.
Once again, the only real way to be sure of what is good gameplay in a mission is to get other people to test it and suggest improvements. However, as gameplay is a highly subjective thing there are bound to be differences in opinion. My best advice is to follow the greatest proportion of your testers' views. That is another reason to have more than one tester, because different pilots have different strategies.
Gameplay is an aspect of mission design that I can't give too much help on without trying the mission myself. Generally speaking, you have to ask these questions: "does my mission immerse the player," "does it provide a fun challenge" and "Is it long enough without being too long?"
- Test, test, test.
- When you've done that, test some more.
- Hope for a reviewer whose strategy isn't too different from yours… :-)
Common Design Pitfalls
During the course of my mission reviewing for DC I've some across several frequently made mistakes and unused FRED2 features. Here are some basic tips on how to implement them in your mission, which should improve it, because I'm ace at FRED2. Did I also mention how modest I am? :-)
I believe that the most important design point which most people don't seem to know at the moment, but should know, is what to do with the choice in the message sexps. If you have chosen this in the past as the source for a message you may have noticed that the game often doesn't send your message. The only way to get an any message to send in the game is to open the ship editor dialogue box and give all of the friendly fighters and bombers you want to use a persona from the drop-down list. The game will send the message from a surviving ship with the matching persona.
The send-message-list sexp is also one that few people can master. Their length and their use of milliseconds put off many people. It's not too difficult once you know how, you know… here's how.
When you create a send-message-list it'll have four fields. The first is source, the second is importance (which can just be ignored, always set it to High) and the third is message name, just as you would find in a standard message. The fourth field is the time delay in milliseconds after the previous message. For the first entry this should be 0. For any subsequent entry, the time delay should be the number of seconds you want the message to show up after the previous one plus enough zeros to make a four-figure number. For example, for a 5-second delay, you must put in 5000. If you want a 5.6-second delay, put in 5600. Additional entries are put in with "add data". See? Simple really, isn't it?
The other thing that's not always added to a mission is a background. Many people are put off by them, but they too are quite easy. Basically, you open the background editor (shift-I) and choose a nebula, planet or sun from the drop down list. Setting the scale factor at a number larger than one will create a larger than normal object. Reducing the number below 1 can create a smaller object. Then it's a case of placing the nebula according to pitch, heading and bank. Pitch will place the nebula above or below the horizon, heading will move it along the horizon, and bank will turn the nebula. All three work on a 360-degree system. All I can really recommend is practice. With some time, you can create beautiful backgrounds. The Restricted Access FS2 Reference Bible is also a useful source of information on background colours, command animations and much more besides.
I'm not saying that this is the definitive guide to what makes a good mission; I've barely skimmed the surface. However, this is what I look for in a good mission, as well as being the way I design my own missions. Hopefully it'll help at least one person out by writing these tips. To me this would prove I'm not wasting my time. Now I'm waiting for your quality missions to come flooding in!