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Design Lessons: Metroid Dread

Metroid Dread is a return to the original style of Metroid for the Nintendo Entertainment System, but some of the mechanics have evolved over the past 30+ years.  Unfortunately, parts of the game don't feel retro, so much as regressive.

Metroid Dread is interesting to contrast with Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which also took some designs from the original NES game.  The eternal dilemma is how to define what makes a game 'feel' like a part of the games that came before, while modernizing or innovating various elements.

With BOTW, the game embraced the open world, "go anywhere" mechanic.  For me, this is the essential element of Legend of Zelda games.  The original Metroid and Super Metroid both have a similar 'explore the world' mechanic, with the original Metroid being more open world than the original Zelda.  Metroid Dread definitely takes a more linear approach to the game.

Summary

If you have not played Metroid Dread, the game is a side scrolling game where you control Samus, who explores and upgrades her weapons and abilities.  The upgrades will open up new paths to explore, as well as allowing the player to gain items and access new areas in previously explored areas.

The player is given an interactive map that allows them to select a feature, such as a missile upgrade, and see all the missile upgrades on the map.  The player can also place markers on the map.  They have access to a mission log, that keeps track of high level achievements, such as gaining a new weapon or ability.

Issue #1

Metroid Dread is heavily linear.  While this can be a guide for the player and prevent them from meandering through the immense area of the game, it feels very retro, but in a bad way.  The game will often give a player an item that will now let them gather an earlier health or ammo increase, only to arbitrarily block the player from backtracking.  Later in the game these barriers are removed, albeit slowly.

The game even goes so far as to shoehorn the player into a boss fight in the middle of the game.  After getting an upgrade that allows Samus to survive in extreme cold, the player is forced to travel to a specific area and fight one of the harder battles of the game.  The player has many places to explore now, but is simply frustrated.  This also limits the players ability to upgrade Samus to make the battle easier, if they wish.  Loss of agency is universally frustrating.  It is especially galling when the game presents itself as an exploration game.

The Fix

This issue has been addressed by many games, by simply allowing the player to explore as they want.  To a degree, the issue is really about exploring vs backtracking.  One is seen as a good goal, the other is seen as a chore for the most part.  When a character is finally allowed some degree of freedom to move around as they want, it can feel like a chore to go backtrack to the old areas, just to grab two more missiles.

Issue #2

There is another issue with the corralling technique.  At a certain point, the game seems much more open, and to determine where to go, the game has a series of obstacles which can now be overcome with the newest upgrade.  In some ways, this is very cool and and leads the player to the next area of the game.  The highlight feature of the map makes it easy to see the way forward sometimes.

However, this feature works best in the moment.  When you walk away from the game for even a short while, it can be tough to remember where you were going or even what upgrade you recently found.  The game has a Log feature to assist, but until you discover that trick, you can wander quite far off course.

The Fix

This issue has been addressed by many games, by simply highlighting the next location for the player to visit.  The player periodically talks to a computer system, that could update the map, but instead sometime says, "visit this area", which is then buried in the log.

Issue #3

The layout of the game makes for difficult navigation at times.  The game rarely allows a player to move in the direction they want.  Each room often has 3 or more exits.  Even after several play throughs, the only way to to find your way, is to enter a room, bring up the map, and see which exit is the one you want.  Because often times, the exit of a room that you want, is not the one in the direction you want to go.

This really brought me out of the game.  Traveling any distance is much more of a chore than it should be.  While there is a minimap, it is so zoomed in as to be without use much of the time.  For example, at one point you travel counter clockwise, but you really want to travel to the North East, but you actually have to travel West, South, East, North, South, etc.

Relying on players to memorize such a complicated map is also a fail.  Previous games where more spread out, while Dread overlays paths and relies on arbitrary shutting down some of those paths.  But it really leads to players spending time staring at the map or traveling a bit, only to run into a dead end.

The Fix

There is an easy fix and a harder to fix.  The easy fix is to make the mini-map show enough of the map that players can navigate.  For the most part, I would have preferred to turn off the mini-map to get the screen real estate back.

The better solution would have an auto-path feature, where you can place a marker and the game will show you which door you want to take (via highlighting or some feature) while controlling Samus.  This would allow the player to remain 'in the game' more.  I personally spend 30-40% of my traveling time in the map.  Which is not enjoyable, particularly compared to previous games.

Issue #4

A core switch feature is the save anytime-anywhere mechanic.  The precedence was set by BOTW, but features in enough games, that when it is ignore, it is very jarring.  Metroid dread handles this in a mixed way.  While the game has save stations, the players are left to discover that various other places offer a soft-save.  Also, any 'gold' room on a map will save, even if not an explicit save station.

The soft-save (or temporary respawn point) is a great feature that lessens frustration.  However, these spots are not marked, but when you die in a boss fight,  you will respawn at a point shortly before entering the boss fight, this sometimes allows the player to find more upgrades before attempting the boss fight, but only at times.

In very linear portions of the game, there isn't any upgrades you can reach.  There are areas that perform this as well, such as after travelling to a new area (in the game it is an elevator, train, teleporter, etc.).  If you die, you will respawn back at the train/elevator/etc.  Again, the player isn't told this, just something they discover if they do 'continue', if they stop and quit for the day, they never discover that feature.

The frustration of the inflexible save is very apparent when you exit while trying to overcome a boss.  Boss fights often take a bit of time with many deaths.  But if you have to exit out of the game, you lose all progress since the last save.  Items found, secrets discovered,  etc. are all gone.

The Fix

Again, this design issue has been fixed for decades.  Offer a save anywhere option (or outside of fights save option) or offer a 'quick save' option.  There are so many better ways to handle this to allow the player to play on their schedule, instead of the games.

Admittedly, this issue comes up with shared system much more often than otherwise.  While a handheld switch is easy to think of as a personal console, the Switch can also be docked and a significant portion of Switch owners only play in docked mode.  Games should allow for quick saving at any time.

The soft-save feature is a huge improvement over a game such as Hollow Night that will always make the player travel from the last save spot back to the boss battle, making boss battles a more punishing, tedious process.

Issue #5

MD can be a very frustrating game at times, unnecessarily so.  The biggest issue is the complete loss of information after death.  There are killer robots that will one hit kill Samus throughout the game.  As they chase you through particular sections of the map they patrol, you have to quickly navigate complex rooms.  Many times I have ended up in the same dead end (literally) because I had forgotten which way to go.  

It is possible to bring up the map and try to remember which way to go every few seconds, but this takes players out of the game and really diminishes the adrenaline rush.  The excitement of the chase quickly gives way to tedium and frustration where instead of trying to stay ahead of the robot, you are looking at a map every few seconds.

A good feature of the design is that the rooms usually allow the players to loop around and try to keep moving, even when going the 'wrong' way.  However, that makes the dead ends much more frustrating.

The Fix

This is an easy fix and again, not new.  Simply allow the explored map to carry over beyond death.  If the player quits out of the game, then reset the map back to last save, otherwise, reward the players for doing what they could and trying again.

There is a Confucian proverb, that there are 1000 lessons from defeat, but only 1 in victory.  Games like MD that have a lot of player death, need to decide what is the point of players dying.  What does  death mean?  If game design is just following previous games, without understanding the meaning, that meaning will be lost.

Player death fed into the arcade quarter eating mechanic.  If a game never ended or was too easy, it generated low revenue.  By giving Samus a life meter that could expand, this was another game geared towards the home console, where quarter grabbing wasn't the biggest motivator.

What does the design accomplish when I die 20+ times fighting an enemy? Or in the case of the end game boss, over 50 times (more than two hours).  I certainly didn't feel a sense of accomplishment proportional to that investment.  I learned how to avoid most attacks, but at the same time, the attack patterns are partly random, so I might have just brute forced into an easier battle.

Metroid Dread is a mashup of several different games.  It has exploration, as well as platforming.  It is a fighting game during boss fights, but it now has a sneaking aspect, but it doesn't change it's design to match.  Like Little Nightmares, if the big bad (robot for MD) catches you, cut scene to automatic player death.  There is almost no chance to escape or avoid your death, so what is the point?  A player doesn't die from taking one hit from an enemy (normally), but with sneaking, one mistake is it?  It isn't consistent design and it isn't innovative or engaging.

Issue #6

While the map is very useful, it does have some unexpected failures.  Not all map elements are shown on the map.  Such as a particular room that has a door that isn't shown on the map.  The game forces the player to rely on the map, then occasionally will not show that there is more areas to explore.

One of the few hints the game gives the player is that areas with hidden items will flash on the map.  However, this is  very selective.  There are many hidden items that do not have any kind of indication on the map.  On my first play through I had eliminated every flashing area in an area, yet it was still not 100% complete.

The game at least gives the player a tool to find hidden bricks, which makes exploring much easier.  It also is given to the player early enough in the game to be useful.  However, it is also easy to miss since you aren't forced along a path to get it.  In my first play through, it was the first major item I missed finding until quite late in the game.

The Fix

Clarify that the flashing areas will only reveal particular secrets or simply to have a system on the map that accurately shows where there are hidden features.

Issue #7

A big issue I had is the lack of player feedback.  In a game that wants players to deduce or learn by observation, clues have to be kind of observable.  There are parts of the game where I couldn't tell if damage was being dealt, or subtle clues about being able to counter-attack, etc.

This ties back to showing information on the map.  It is the same mentality that a clue works for the designer and damn the players that don't think like them or see everything they do.  It is why puzzles in games are so much harder than challenges.  Every obstacle a player has to overcome should have more than a single clue to indicate how to do it.

Some designers are still acting like they are the only template for the players they are creating for.  It is easy for creators to get too close to a project so that they don't see the issues and disconnects for players.

The Fix

There are many ways to fix this issue, and MD isn't the only game with it.  The issue stems from a couple different places, but is ultimately about usability.  A game is created for players to play.  If the game has usability issues, then it won't be engaging for a portion of your audience.  

There are many ways to address usability issues.  Listen to feedback from playtesters.  Have a diverse group of play testers.  Utilize usability testing.  Think about the game from different perspectives.  Stop assuming that there is just one type of video game player.  Have multiple clues leading players to a solution or solutions that work.  Many designers are still stuck in a linear, on-rails way of directing player experiences, that they are limiting the experience of different players.

Issue #8

Some features of the game are never told to the player.  This is frustrating and can lead a player to feel incompetent.  Some of the features are critical to collecting 100% of the upgrades.  Some just make the backtracking less tedious, such as at a certain point, teleporters will allow travel from any teleporter to another, instead of just between the color coded teleporters.

The Fix

Simply tell the player what they need to know.  If a player wants to 'discover' some of these advanced features, they can exit the Feature Explanation screen that shows whenever you gain a new upgrade.

This is a recurring issue I have with games, but allowing the player to decide how they will play the game will result in a larger number of players enjoying the game.  Some players want a lot of hints, some don't.  So allow a player to decide how many hints they get, how much information they gain, or if they don't get any hints at all.

Issue #9

This game felt like it needed a strategy guide, which is a design flaw.  Having difficult puzzles isn't a flaw per se, but if the game can't make it clear where the player does next to proceed, that is squarely on the designer.  This issue is related to the issue above, but I want to focus on the whole online eco system.  Over the years, game guides have gone through a series of evolutions, to only being on a few sites, to being accessories to games, to being integrated into the review ecosystem.

Sites that review games now all have walkthroughs or 'how-to' sections for the games they review.  This feels like a crossed streams situation.  Can sites that make an economic profit off of how to play a game, not be influenced or inclined to give the game a better rating?  The more players picking up the game and playing it, will increase the likelihood of them hitting an ad infested walkthrough page.

The Fix

This one is harder to address, as this isn't necessarily a design issue.  However, games that are designed to require a strategy guide, will provide more profit to sites that make money off of them, which may influence those same sites to inflate their review.

For example, NintendoLife gave MD 10 out of 10 stars.  That is an incredible rating.  They also are making money off of the strategy guides for MD.  Add to the fact that NL isn't a sole operator, but part of a broader corporation, which wants to keep the big companies happy with favorable reviews, as well as encourage traffic to their money generating content.

When a game like MD comes out with suspiciously absent information on how to solve certain puzzles, or how to proceed at certain points of the game, it raises concerns.

Conclusion

While I found playing Metroid Dread fun and rewarding, I am not sure if that entirely offsets the pointless frustration I felt playing parts of it.

I am partway through my 3rd play through, so there is something there I enjoy.  It is very different from Breath of Wild, in that you really can't control your own challenge level or make decisions about how the game is played.

Something that can be viewed as a positive feature, is that each upgrade adds to the player's powers and abilities.  The player doesn't have to turn off upgrades or switch between different weapon types, something Super Metroid required.  However, the controls aren't perfect.  To engage a key ability, you have to use the very awkward, joy stick button feature (pushing down on the joy stick while using it normally).  That control is very frustrating in general, but particularly in MD.

Metroid Dread did give me a new experience I hadn't had in a while and made me see why people enjoy games like Dark Souls.  The first few times I fought Kraid, I was just trying to brute force my way through.  I kept dying and trying again, but then I learned the attack patterns and it really clicked for me, that the tactics for each section of the battle are different.  It was cool and fun when I beat Kraid.

While I found Metroid Dread both frustrating and fun, I would say the design puts it above Metroid for the NES, but after Super Metroid for the SNES.  The SNES game was much better for exploration and certainly better designed for navigation.  Similar to how Twilight Princess really puts Link on a set of rails, Metroid Dread is pretty heavy handed for much of the game.

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