Game Design Critique — Mass Effect Andromeda: The Friction of Exploration

Nothing captures the imagination like cresting that hillside and looking out over a strange new alien landscape. And nothing destroys the magic of that moment more than the friction filled experience of getting in and out of your car.

Today, I want to discuss the intersection of open-world environments, Points of Interest (POI’s), and traversal.

Andromeda, like many modern day RPG’s, is an open-world game. Which means that its content is spread out across a wide environment; and whether your on a planet caught in an eternal winter or a mountainous world filled with springs of sulfuric acid, you’re going to need to travel in order to experience all of it.

The majority of Andromeda’s quest content is found at POI’s and involves multiple steps that often change location repeatedly. Which means a gameplay loop is often: Travel to Location -> Interact with item/talk with character -> Combat Encounter

The thing to note here is that the step Travel to Location can often be the longest step in the process and that is perfectly acceptable in a game featuring an open-world. However that step is rift with friction filled elements that turn the excitement of exploration and discovery into a slog.

The primary culprit is your vehicle, the Nomad.

There are 3 things that hold the Nomad back from being a partner on your adventure: Approachability, The Whistle, Gated Upgrades.

  1. Approachability: The Nomad is a large vehicle, which makes it difficult to approach. One of the core activities you will repeat dozens if not hundreds of times is the simple act of getting into and out of the Nomad. However you can only do this from 2 angles. Your character must be standing next to the passenger or driver door in order to interact and get into the Nomad. This is completely logical, it’s how we get into our own cars every single day. But from a gameplay stand point, its an area of friction. Very rarely am I every returning to the Nomad from angle that delivers me directly to either one of those doors. That extra time that it takes to get within offer range (the zone where the interact prompt appears) is something that will slowly grate on a player over the course of a 50+ hour experience.
  2. The Whistle: One of my favorite things about playing open-world games set in either the old west or fantasy genres is that I can whistle. And within moments my horse shows up and immediately I’m off towards the next POI. I wish I could whistle and get the Nomad to come to me. Often I have spent frustrating minutes running across an empty landscape back to my vehicle, at its worse player exploration is being punished by long stretches of tedious sprinting.
  3. Gated Upgrades: As a systems designer I often appreciate when systems are modular enough to be broken down and used as a element of progression. However that shouldn’t be an excuse to gate meaningful changes to how the Nomad mechanically performs. Torque Management (6WD) is a upgrade that affects the Nomads movement speed on graded terrain. Without it, going up slopes is a painful process. Often I would go out of my way to waypoint to another position on the same altitude just to avoid having to climb a slope.

Destiny, The Witcher 3, and Horizon:Zero Dawn are all great examples of how to build frictionless transitions between walking and riding. Hopefully in a sequel somewhere in the distant future or through Biowares post-release support roadmap, the Andromeda series might find a way to keep me excited about whats beyond that next strange alien landscape.

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