By kitaekatt 47 Comments
Developer Diary - Liara, Stasis and the Shadow BrokerNow that Shadow Broker is out I wanted to write up a couple developer diaries on the design of Shadow Broker.This diary contains some very mild spoilers, so if you want a 100% spoiler free experience I recommend you play Shadow Broker first.
The major topics I'll be discussing in this blog post are creating Liara as a squad member, and creating her stasis power. I'm a gameplay designer, so I won't be talking about the story aspects of her character.
Who am I? Christina Norman, lead gameplay designer for Mass Effect 2.
Liara as a Squad MemberOne thing the team really wanted to do with Shadow Broker was bring Liara back and put her in your party. This was no easy decision, because we had to put as much work into Liara as any other squad member, and her time as a squad member was limited to the Shadow Broker DLC. We also considered having her follow the player as a scripted NPC through Shadow Broker, but in the end we went with the choice we thought would be most satisfying to fans.
We also wanted to give Liara different biotic powers than other biotic henchmen. We ended up giving her stasis and singularity, two powers that no other biotic henchman has.
In ME2 singularity is only available to the adept. This was part of a more general strategy of ensuring the player always has access to a cool power that no one else has. Since Liara was a shadow-broker only character, we thought it was safe to break this rule, and help expose more players to the awesome AoE crowd control of stasis.
Stasis is an ME1 power which we wanted to bring back for a variety of reasons (discussed below). Liara had stasis in ME1, so she represented a great opportunity to reintroduce this power.
Stasis and Biotic Combat
Part of the feedback we've received on biotic combat in ME2 is that players want more options, particularly on higher difficulties where shields and other power-blocking resistances are common. In the core ME2 combat experience, biotic players must regularly use weapons (or the bonus power energy drain, or squad member powers) to strip shields so enemies are vulnerable to biotics.
We wanted to add a new biotic power that would be effective versus shielded enemies. We didn't want that power to kill those enemies, as that would reduce strategic depth, and make existing powers obsolete. Stasis from ME1 seemed like a great fit. Stasis freezes a single target in place but makes them immune to all damage as long as they are frozen. This is a new way of dealing with enemies that doesn't invalidate existing powers.
Using the bonus power system, we were able to then make Stasis available to Shepard. After finishing Shadow Broker, you can even start a new adept and pick Stasis as a bonus power at level 1.
Personally I like stasis as a bonus power for any class as it solves a more general gameplay problem - the point blank Krogan. In ME2 if you close point blank with a shielded enemy you can melee them if they are a humanoid, but larger enemies like Krogan are unstoppable. Stasis fills this niche nicely by giving you an "oh crap" power that can save your life, and give you time to reposition.
Balancing StasisEarly versions of stasis had a fairly long cooldown. We wanted to let Stasis work on even powerful enemies, but we didn't want the player to be able to lock enemies down indefinitely. The long cooldown ended up feeling really punishing though, what is the point of freezing an enemy with stasis if it blocks you from using other abilities for a long time?
We adjusted the design to include diminishing returns. This let us make stasis have short cooldown, and a fairly long duration.
We weren't able to solve all gameplay issues with stasis. We weren't able to find a great way of communicating diminishing returns to players. Damage immunity is also difficult to communicate visually (the health bar communicates info, but we don't like relying on health bars). If we have stasis in ME3, we will want to work on those issues.
Stasis Technical ChallengesDid I say Liara was as much work as other squad members? She actually ended up being much more because of Stasis!
Stasis is a very complex power compared to most powers in the game. In ME1 it was a source of bugs, and with DLC we didn't have the option of patching the game executable. When we first started working on Stasis we were actually advised by programming that it would probably not be possible. It took several weeks of creativity and hard work before stasis was functional and fairly solid.
Even so not every enemy in the game reacted well to stasis. Other fights became pretty boring when stasis was added. For this reason we did make several powerful enemies in the game immune to stasis. QA did several full playthroughs of the game, heavily using stasis, to help us find issues and make these decisions.
Back in ME1 we discovered during testing that most players are irritated by squad members using the stasis power. Regardless, we really wanted Liara to use stasis in Shadow Broker because it is her signiture power in ME2. To facilitate this, I wrote a custom AI for Liara that helped her user all her powers without irritating the player.
Learning from Shadow BrokerThe counter intuitive thing about doing all this work for Shadow Broker is that the overall exposure of Liara as a squad member, and the stasis power, will be relatively low. Regardless, I see this as a great learning opportunity for us for ME3.
It will be useful to see how fans react to and use the stasis power. This will help us decide whether or not stasis should be in ME3, and will help us figure out what additional biotic combat improvements are necessary for ME3.
The AI improvements we did for Liara could also help us produce more customized AIs for squad members in ME3. By writing more specific logic for use of individual powers, we may be able to add more personality to individual squad members beyond their basic power and weapon loadouts.