FRED and the Battle of Endor Syndrome

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The Infection Plagues Us All
by: Old Staff (Zarathud) - August 05, 1998 for Freespace Watch

FreeSpace is the first game that captured my imagination enough to design a level. I had toyed with many level editors before: Age of Empires, Battlezone, Command & Conquer, Duke Nukem, Lords of the Realm 2, Quake, and Starcraft to name just a few. You'll never see any of my levels for those games, mostly because I closed or crashed out of the level editor in frustration. My idea was usually so simple, but didn't translate into the game or couldn't be done or didn't feel right.

The FreeSpace Editor (FRED) changed all that. FRED is easy to use and the menus/checkboxes are intuitive. Numerous options exist for the properties of each object. The events functions are extremely powerful and somewhat familiar to anyone with a basic understanding of logic or programming. The briefings and objectives provide flexibility to put those dreams into effect. And, early on, I discovered Peter Drake's FRED FAQ and the FreeSpace Developer's List (FDL).

For all of the kudos that FRED deserves, FRED alone cannot explain why so many have flocked to FreeSpace mission design. It could be that people want to see for themselves just how much bigger those massive capital ships are compared to your little fighter. Perhaps 3D design is just plain easier when you don't have a small series of tile sets to work with and you don't have to worry about tunnels, walls, ceilings and the like. Maybe it is somehow easier to visualize a space conflict because of the tremendous influence of Star Wars during my formative years. Or possibly a number of other reasons all running around in the back my head.

After giving it some thought, I think the answer is Star Wars. Everyone remembers the Battle of Endor sequence at the end of the movie "Return of the Jedi." If you don't remember it, then you really need to visit your local movie rental center and probably have something better to do than read this editorial (like watch the movie!). It also seems to be the first thing racing through everyone's mind as they open up FRED...since most author's first missions released have been one version or another of that epic battle.

The result is what I have taken to calling the "Battle of Endor Syndrome" as I play through missions. Simply put, the "Battle of Endor Syndrome" is the temptation to recreate a massive space battle between the Terran, Vasudan and Shivan fleets. The more capital ships, the merrier. Fighter wings will respawn wave after wave. Something like a gunslinger battle of the old West, where each fleet will warp in 1,000 m away on a two-dimensional plane and then slowly begin marching towards each other.

The only problem is that FreeSpace wasn't meant for this type of epic space battle. At all. Those who own lower-end machines or must use software rendering mode know the reason: the mission will crash on their system. Even when the mission does run, it will rarely run at high frame rates. FRED is more powerful than the engine or your computer can support. Volition Inc. patched FRED to reduce some of the problems user-designed missions could create.

In addition, these designs usually suffer from a number of repeating design flaws:

  • The capital ship AI tends to defend itself against the tiny fighters rather than pounding away at the big targets.
  • The damage these capital ships seem to inflict on each other is minimal compared to the hurt that Alpha 1 can inflict in the same amount of time using a tiny fighter.
  • The capital ships will sit hovering in space because the AI wasn't given any orders. Other times, ships will end up ramming each other and causing interesting fender-benders and space traffic jams because of flawed AI movement orders (such as move fleet ship 1, 2, 3....101 to waypoint 1).
  • Either the fighters will die quickly to leave the capital ships hovering unprotected in space or the fighters will respawn wave after wave after endless wave.
  • The mission is either too hard (capital ships kill Alpha 1 instantly) or too easy (Alpha 1 can destroy lots of capital ships).
  • Few events, if any, exist to make the mission dynamic and interesting.
  • Few missiles, if any, are available on the ship loadouts to arm the player.
  • Often, bombers will be available but no missiles will be available to fill the bomb bays.

Volition Inc. never created any mission like the Battle of Endor. Why? For many reasons, surely. One Volition employee (Jason Hoffoss) commented on FDL that the key to successful mission design was "Zen and the Art of FreeSpace Design." I agree with this statement, and at least one person has predicted that I plan to author a book by that same name (to which I have to say "no comment", on the grounds that I might incriminate myself before others who suspect me of harboring secret Buddhist tendencies).

It seems that everyone's first impulse upon opening up FRED is to fill all that beautiful empty space, without realizing that space is supposed to be empty. That's what space is...vaccum and nothingness. Maybe a few particles here and there, but basically just space.

Why ruin the beauty of such empty space in the rush to create a mission? Few missions suffering from Battle of Endor Syndrome are any good. At best, these missions have a plethora of targets. At worst, the player has little influence on the battle.

Stay away from these Battle of Endor missions like the plague. Perhaps, after everyone gets this irresistable impulse out of their system, the FreeSpace mission design community will regain its sanity. Then we can all enjoy the good work.