Developer Diary - Liara, Stasis and the Shadow Broker

Developer Diary - Liara, Stasis and the Shadow Broker  

Now 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 Member    

One 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 Stasis 

Early 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 Challenges 

Did 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 Broker 

The 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.

Heavy Weapon Data

I collected a bunch of data based on people's comments on heavy weapons, thought I'd share it. This data is rough and generalized. It doesn't mean we'll be making any of the below changes for ME3 (but we might).

    - 65 respondants 
    - Participants were asked general questions about heavy weapons, response indicates the participant made a comment in this line. It's likely if respondents were asked specific questions like "would you have liked the ability to customize your heavy weapons" more would have said yes.

Heavy Weapons in Mass Effect 2 & 3


Heavy Weapons in Mass Effect 2 & 3 

I'd like some feedback on heavy weapons in Mass Effect 2
  • When you played through ME2 how often did you use heavy weapons?
  • When were heavy weapons most useful? What did you use them for?
  • What was your favorite heavy weapon?
  • What would have made heavy weapons more useful.
  • If you could change one thing about heavy weapons in ME3 what would that be?
Thanks! Your feedback will help make ME3 a better game.
Start the Conversation

Secrets of the Firepower Pack

Secrets of the Firepower Pack  

 I'm the lead gameplay designer for Mass Effect 2. I thought I'd do a blog post and share some information on the new Mass Effect 2 DLC - the Firepower Pack. The official release notes are here.

Game development takes years, but it isn't until you reach the home stretch that you start to fully understand your game. Because of this, the majority of content we create that ships on the disc, we start on before we fully understand our own game.

When your game is released, you immediately get a flood of new perspectives: Professional reviews come in, and gamers post their own reviews on social networks. Forum discussions disect specific systems, creatures, and areas. FAQs are authored that try to provide a full guide to your game. All of this affects your perspective of what you've created, and this perspective affects future content you create.

The firepower pack is a great example of DLC that was created with a full understanding of what Mass Effect 2 is. Each weapon in this pack was created to disrupt, not fit into, the existing weapon ecosystem. Designed for players already familiar with our content and weapons, these guns try to provide a new Mass Effect 2 combat experience in our existing game.

Geth Plasma Shotgun  

Shotguns in ME2 deliver high damage at close range, which is great if that matches you playstyle. If you don't like getting up close and personal, they're not that useful. The  Geth Plasma Shotgun was designed for those players -- its the "unshotgun".
Basic fire with the Geth Plasma Shotgun delivers a payload with a much tighter spread, so it can be used quite effectively at range. The tradeoff is, you don't get the same stopping power at short range.

But heavy hitting is part of the shotgun experience we wanted to keep, so we built a unique feature - overcharge. With overcharge you power up a blast by holding the fire button, releasing it to deal a double damage blast at the cost of two ammo. It provides a very satisfying experience. The sound and vfx on this gun is just awesome. 
To use overcharge effectively you have to change the way you play. You can't charge while you're safe in cover, so effective use requires getting out of cover. Out of cover, you rely more on strafing and high cover to protect yourself from enemies. It's a different higher-risk higher-reward experience.

 This overall design gives this shotgun a lot of utility. Even if shotguns aren't normally your thing, you'll want to bring this one around, because situationally overcharge is extremely useful. Also, don't worry Vanguards, you can still charge an enemy and then release overcharge when you land.

Phalanx Heavy Pistol 

 Heavy pistols are punchy, accurate, and overall great weapons. With the Phalanx we wanted to provide a different, novel, aiming experience that would spice up an already excellent weapon. With that in mind, we added a laser sight.
The Phalanx is hyper accurate. When the red dot is on an enemy's kneecap and you fire, that's where he gets hit. You can literally go through a level killing every loki mech you encounter by shooting off their left leg with a single shot (I've done this, for me it's quite fun!) My nick name for the Phalanx is the "dismantler".

The tradeoff with the phalanx is you have no crosshair when you fire. Centering a crosshair on an enemy is relatively easy, placing a laser sight on them is harder. Overall, aiming is more difficult, but when you hit you hit exactly where you want to.

Mattock Heavy Rifle 
 Assault rifles are the most popular weapons in ME2. They were designed to be reliable. They're always a good choice for any enemy, but not necessarily the best choice. 

With the Mattock we wanted to provide a novel firing experience, so we added selective fire. This is a fairly minor change, but it has a big impact on how you use the weapon. Each squeeze of the trigger lets loose a single, powerful, accurate, shot. Feather the trigger and you'll let lose a precise but powerful volley of shots.

We also balanced the Mattock differently. We gave it a lower amount of total ammo, but upped it's damage per shot significantly. This balances its high damage per shot and potentially high rate of fire by ensuring that each shot must be placed carefully to avoid risk of going out of ammo.  

So that's the overview of the Firepower Pack! I hope it helps give Mass Effect veterans a novel experience, as they play through DLC, and replay Mass Effect 2.