This map in particular is supposed to be an introduction to this kind of gameplay, teaching the player how each mechanic works.
Each aspect of the light fighter is explored, and given context with various challenges the player has to overcome.
The challenge for me there was to structure the mission in such a way that it wasn’t a lecture, didn’t hold the player’s hand too much, and yet wasn’t prohibitively difficult.
So, this level is a tutorial. But, more than that, the tutorial is wrapped in a micro narrative. At the end of the tutorial, the player is given an open-ended challenge that they can overcome only through creativity and skill.
One of the critical metrics I set for myself was keeping the time-to-fun as close to 0 as possible, while still presenting a complete message. This, as well as the general technical implementation details, took several iterations to fine-tune.
Grease-monkey scifi (StarCraft 2 universe)
You’re a brand new pilot working for a scrapper named Coulston. You arrive at a seemingly deserted shipyard. As you’re running errands for Coulston, you discover that someone else beat you and your boss to the punch, and they’re not happy to see you.
30-second intro setting the scene.
- Pick up the probes.
- Destroy the enemy “Gopher” drones
This phase is essentially coming into the wading pool and gradually walking across to the deep end.
Short cutscenes (10/15 seconds in length) are triggered by certain events. All of them are meant to tutorialize the gameplay while supporting the theme.
You, as the player, explore the docks of the shipyard you’ve gotten to. Environmental storytelling hints at a sudden evacuation, with signs of violence about the small port town.
With minimal training, Coulston straps you into an interceptor and all but shoves you out of the ship to run a few errands without any flight training
He’s sure you’ll be fine.
You’ll quickly run into Coulston’s probes and some fancy dismantler drones who belong to someone else. Coulston orders you to destroy the drones, which is easy with your interceptor’s basic guns.
The drones’ owner doesn’t appreciate that, and deploys the base’s missile turrets.
After destroying all the drones and collecting Coulston’s probes, you’re called back to base.
A cutscene introducing a hazard you’ll have to overcome wraps up this phase of the mission.
- Explore the Airfield
- Sneak past the laser gate (hidden)
- Destroy the generator (hidden)
- Shoot down the enemy fighters (hidden)
Coulston’s bloody-minded rival, Jensen, has taken over the shipyard’s automated systems and has turned them against you, protecting the manufacturing center and the airfield, where a whole flotilla has been left abandoned. Coulston needs you to overcome those obstacles while he figures out how to beat Josiah at his own game.
The first obstacle is a series of turrets and laser gates. In both cases, trying to simply fly past will destroy the fragile interceptor. Good thing you’ve got McGuffin-powered respawning abilities — Coulston has a few lines to say every time you die about that. This tutorializes the interceptor’s afterburner ability, which boosts your speed at the cost of maneuverability.
Once you dash past, you’ll be introduced to the interceptor’s most powerful weapon, the Heatseeker missiles.
Jensen, likewise, escalates. He deploys automated fighters which are exactly the same as your fighter in performance and abilities. This is the first time the player is at a technical disadvantage — you’re outnumbered by enemies just as powerful as you.
Skill is your only edge. This gives the player a chance to really hone their abilities in the ideal gameplay experience I was aiming for with all the interleaved systems I created.
Of course, that’s not the end-game for the level. After defeating the fighters, Jensen takes your continued intrusion personally. Like before, he doesn’t back down; he escalates.
The final boss spawns during a cutscene with dramatic flaire. Coulston knows you won’t be able to beat him in a straight-up fight.
The heavy fighter is specifically designed to counter interceptors — more on that in the next section of this run-down. The end of phase 2 happens whether you manage to escape or you’re shot down.
- Kill the heavy fighter
- (Optional) Use the hacking module
You’re given an implicit option here: Use Coulston’s plan, or face Jensen head-on. Both are valid, but the latter is much harder to pull off. Coulston’s plan involves setting a trap for Jensen using the missile turrets deployed around the map. Both options also engage the skills you’ve learned throughout the tutorial, leveraging them to destroy a far superior enemy.
This is an open-ended phase. The only real objective is to shoot down Jensen.
After Jensen launches his ship, Coulston calls you back with… some urgency. If you make it back home, whether by respawning or by escaping, he lays out the plan he cooked up. Using a hacking module, you can flip the allegiance of the turrets around you.
After testing it out, Coulston will tell you to go ahead and take out Jensen in whatever way you can. Once Jensen is destroyed, in most likely an epic battle between a nimble David against a formidable Goliath, roll credits.
The mission introduces the world, the mechanics and characters. It’s balancing a lot of needs to the benefit of some (the tutorializing) and the detriment of others (the characterization). However, even within that compromise, it accomplishes all of the goals set out for it.