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Several FreeSpace missions suffer from bad mission balance. A poorly balanced mission stands on one extreme of the difficulty spectrum or the other, rather than at a comfortable and challenging midpoint.
Missions that are too difficult typically come about when very skilled players match a mission's difficulty to their abilities. These missions are too hard for most other players, who lack the gameplay experience of the mission designer. It is also possible that the FREDder makes a mission and tests it using solely one strategy. Players who take a different approach to the mission will encounter unanticipated difficulties. This reflects poorly upon the mission designer because the use of a single-strategy testing scheme will be apparent to other players.
Opposite the missions that are too challenging are missions that require nearly no effort from the player to successfully complete. Such missions typically include a hostile force that is woefully outnumbered and/or outgunned by friendlies and therefore present a minimal threat, allowing the player to heedlessly dash through the mission objectives or even fly away, while the friendly force is left to complete the mission itself.
Achieving balance in a mission (that is, challenging the player, without frustrating him/her) requires time, patience, circumspection, and enthusiasm. Make the mission very easy at first. Mission balancing is something you don't have to worry about until your mission is whole. Address technical concerns, such as messages, scripting, and the arrival, departure, and movements of major units, before dealing with balance. It is much less exhausting to repeatedly test an easy mission than an unbearably hard one. Testing events and scripting at the end of a mission can be impossible, if completing the mission objectives is initially too difficult. The mission, in its final state, must be appropriately balanced, but the technical aspects must function as expected as well, so initially creating a very easy mission separates the challenges of building a technically-correct and a well-balanced mission into two manageable components.
A mission designer must know how his flying skills compare to that of "the average FreeSpace player." What is appropriately challenging for a long-time multiplayer veteran will be overwhelming for other players. While it is possible for players to lower the difficulty level, they should not be expected to do so for specific missions. If a player must adjust the difficulty level for particular missions, whether it is upward to generate a challenge or downward to mitigate frustration, then those missions are poorly balanced. Finding balance can be easier for a mission designer when testing and optimizing the mission on the setting at which he/she normally plays. That difficulty setting will enable easier assessment of the mission's level of challenge versus other missions the designer has played.
Differences between the preferences of any two players must also be taken into account. It is possible for a player to be more skilled overall than another, but it is also possible for a player to be better in a given role than the other. A designer who prefers utilizing heavy assault fighters, armed with long-range missiles, may provide such craft as the GTF Hercules II or the GTF Ares in his mission to the exclusion of others. Since those playing the mission may be better suited to close-range dogfighting, in more nimble craft, a limited selection, including only these heavier craft will be more challenging and potentially more frustrating. Unless the story demands limited variety (such as in a scramble mission or in a mission set during a supply shortage), providing the player a wider range of ships and weapons can aid mission balance.
The first-time player has a major disadvantage compared to the mission designer, in that the designer has intimate knowledge of the intended course of the mission that the player will lack. The mission designer must carefully consider what information will be available to the player, or a mission that the designer considers simple may actually be quite difficult for players to complete. For example, a mission designer knows that the Moloch in his mission is scripted to self-destruct when the reactor subsystem is destroyed, but the player will not and may try a conventional assault, unless the reactor vulnerability is mentioned in the briefing or a message. Confusing—or contradictory—briefing stages will make any mission harder, because a player must base his actions on what he has been told.
If the player is supposed to lose the mission, such as The Great Hunt, in the main FreeSpace 2 campaign, state explicitly when the player's involvement in the fight is over. A return to base directive will do that, as will messages from Command and the player's wingmen. Don't assume that an insurmountable challenge alone is enough to stop a player from thinking he/she must overcome the odds. A player may become disgruntled and quit, assuming the mission was poorly designed, if there is not any dialogue to indicate that failure was the only possible outcome.
Additional people testing prerelease versions of the mission can be a great asset as well, since they can provide the perspective of both a first-time player and a player at a different skill level than the mission's designer.
Below are some general tips for altering mission difficulty in FRED.
- The most general hint is to test your mission every time you modify something gameplay-related in it. While spell-checking has no impact on how the mission is played, changing the position of a capital ship does. By placing, for example, an Orion 500 meters closer to its target, it may be able to fire a different set of turrets at the target from a different angle, and depending on its orders, its AI may behave differently.
- Remember that the more you change between testing runs, the more radically difficulty will change. If the difficulty level of your mission only needs a slight adjustment, making many changes between testing sessions may be overcompensating and carries the risk of imbalancing a mission in the opposite manner it had been before. (i.e. An easy mission may become too difficult, and a difficult mission may become too easy.)
- Adding more enemy/friendly fighters or increasing the number of enemy/friendly wings can have undesirable consequences. Add more units, only if a given side has a significantly higher chance of winning. If this chance is relatively small, this step can suddenly make the mission turn to the other side's favor.
- The AI uses certain weapons, such as the Tornado quite effectively. This can make a seemingly subtle change of ordnance create a drastic change in gameplay. For example, a wing of fighters with Subach HL-7's and Harpoon missiles may be an appropriate threat to a transport the player must escort, but the same wing with Tornado missiles in place of Harpoons will devastate the transport before the player can respond.
- Not only can you adjust the length of a mission by adjusting the arrival delays between new wings and waves in each wing, but you can normalize the number of fighters the player must defend against at any one time.
- Removing or changing the weapons on capital ships has a significant effect on balance. Consider the Aeolus: It is much easier to attack (and more difficult to defend) if a mission designer reduces the number of flak turrets in favor of laser turrets. The principle applies to other anti-fighter and anti-warship defenses as well. Again, this can have a significant effect on mission balance, if undertaken with a heavy hand. Consider carefully where a capital ship needs more or less defense and alter a few turrets in that area.
- The importance of distance is most apparent at escort missions: The player stands a better chance of defending something if the attacking force arrives farther from its target than if it arrives within firing range. Many bombers, for example, arriving too close to their target can render that target impossible to defend, but if those same bombers are set to arrive several kilometers further away, they may be too easily intercepted to pose a threat.
- AI skill levels provide a subtle means of affecting mission balance by improving (or diminishing, at lower levels) a given fighter or turret's accuracy and handling characteristics.
- Scripted events offer a powerful means of adjusting mission balance because of the wide range of options available to the mission designer. Take care when scripting events for the purpose of mission balance, though. Some events (such as repairing damaged wingmen at an opportune moment) are more subtle than others (such as applying a protect-ship event to Alpha 1, which will allow fighters and turrets to follow and track but, not fire upon, the player).
- Remember to update the orders of fighter and bomber wings throughout the mission. Wings that accomplish their standing objectives, without being given new orders, will loiter and may no longer play a major role in the mission, without prodding from the player. Remember that some players manage their wingmen more than others, so it is important that even friendly wings have some kind of goals set after their initial task is complete.