Matthew Vroman


Game Designer

Rant: Don't steal control

Lately I've noticed that some games have decided it's a good idea to introduce mechanics that take complete control away from the player. This isn't talking about quick time events or cutscenes. This is about preventing input from the player while gameplay continues around them.

There are very few circumstances where removing control from the player is a good idea.

Removing control from the player can be a very powerful thing. It leaves the player at the mercy of the game. It should be a rare occurrence that is NOT used lightly.

Removing control from the player during gameplay is acceptable if the instigator has a telegraph that warns the player and allows it to be avoided. For example, in a dog fighting space sim, when an EMP missile is fired, the ships computer flashes warning lights as alarm bells ring. The player has the ability to deploy decoys or fire up the afterburners and out maneuver the missile to lose it. In this scenario, the player knows an EMP missile is heading their way and if they don't avoid it, their ship will be a sitting duck. This builds tension and excitement as the player tries to avoid it. Because taking control away from the player in this situation is a punishment rather than an action, it works as an exciting motivator for the player. Now imagine if you replaced the EMP missile with an EMP railgun, a hit-scan weapon that only takes 1 frame to shoot across the universe and de-active your ship. Now there is less tension. One second you're in full control; the next second, your ship is shut down. No warning, no signal. The only chance to avoid this railgun would be pre-emptive positioning, and even then it still feels like bullshit when you're hit. The lack of control is no longer a punishment for the players failure to react, instead it's an action that could seemingly happen at any time.

Best Example: Mech Warrior Online

One of the best cases I've seen that make use of removing player control is the overheating mechanic in Mech Warrior Online. When the heat in your mech reaches 100%, your mech automatically shuts down, leaving you vulnerable until the heat drops to an acceptable level or the player overrides the shutdown and pushes the mech past its heat limit. This mechanic is AMAZING. It is a punishment for the players failure to manage their heat. Heat percentage can be seen at all times in the HUD, and warnings will sound when the mech gets close to its heat capacity. When the mech does shut down, the player has the option to override this command and continue to operate their mech. The tradeoff being that as the mech operates above 100% capacity, it is at a higher risk for its parts to blow up. This mechanic provides plenty of telegraphs before it takes effect. It also allows the player to override the effect at an increased risk of destroying their mech in the process.

Worst Example: Final Fantasy Explorers

One of the worst cases I've seen is status conditions in Final Fantasy Explorers such as Stop, Paralyze, and Freeze. The spells and abilities that the AI use to inflict these conditions have extremely short telegraphs and are usually followed up by punishing attacks. From my understanding, the idea behind these short telegraphs was to encourage a diverse team composition. For example, because a tank holding aggro is the most likely to be inflicted by these conditions, the team should field a white mage that can remove these status effects or keep the tank healed while they cannot move. This punishes teams who only use DPS and Tank classes, and rewards teams who bring healers and boosters. Unfortunately this idea doesn't work well in practice. In single player, when the player loses control, they have no way to regain it. AI companions are not smart enough and/or lack the necessary skills to remove the status condition. In multiplayer, it is quite difficult to find a reliable team that help relieve each other of status effects. In place of these status conditions, Explorers could have benefited from much larger telegraphs for these conditions, allowing the punishment to match the crime (failure to avoid a 2 second AoE circle for example). It also could consider removing them in favor of more light punishments such as Confuse, a status that inverts the controls of the player.l

Overall, I am very much against stealing control away from the player. However, like with all design rules, understanding what makes it fun and what makes it frustrating allows you to break the rule for some really cool gameplay experiences.