Designing Stealth #1: Safety Zones

One of the tricky things about designing Rogue Process has been trying to capture right mix of action and stealth. Rogue Process is a game about infiltration and thievery, but it can also be a game about showing off, about huge bursts of energy, about blowing the side off a building in order to escape. You go into every new building unseen, undetected, but you often leave with a trail of destruction, bullets and broken technology behind you. There’s many different ways to think about stealth in games – today I want to talk to you about safe zones, and how Rogue Process (and other stealth games) fit into this model.

In stealth games, safe zone are regions of space with very low levels of threat. Most stealth games start the player off in a safe zone – Gunpoint begins with you standing outside of your objective, for instance, and Dishonored has you sitting on a little boat. In rare cases the safe zone is extremely large – think about the proportion of the Sapienza level you can walk around in Hitman before entering a restricted area. These starting safe zones let the player collect themselves, and if the game allows for it can also be used to scout out the level and plan routes or mark regions of interest.

Stealth gameplay is usually about making an unsafe area safe again, or moving between existing safe zones very carefully. Choosing when to move from one shadow to the next to avoid a guard in Thief is about identifying safe zones and deciding how and when to move between them. Knocking the guard out instead is a way of identifying unsafe zones and making them safe. Some of the most interesting stealth games, like Dishonored 2, make this latter approach have its own inherent danger, as other enemies will notice changes in a space and become suspicious (I was shocked by Dishonored 2 when a guard noticed a post was unmanned and began investigating).

In a lot of games, though, there’s nothing to stop me repeatedly expanding the safe zone by securing more and more ground. This gives rise to a highly cautious style of stealth play I like to call janitor syndrome where you iteratively expand your safe zone from the start of the game onwards, cleaning up every guard, every trap, every obstacle. You end up with a totally safe area you have complete control over – Deus Ex is a good example of a game that allows for this, and even encourages it. I used to play all stealth games this way. Then I played Invisible Inc.

Invisible Inc is designed to push back against janitor syndrome in a couple of very specific ways. First, unconscious guards always eventually regain consciousness unless someone is standing over them keeping them pinned. There are almost always more guards than you could have agents, which means some guards must be left undisturbed, and thus some sections of the level must be left unsafe. Alternatively, you can kill the guards outright, but if you kill every guard on the level, new ones are called in (and ammunition is incredibly rare and expensive). Regardless of your approach, some there will always be guards somewhere in a level, even if they’re staring at a wall.

In order to grow your safe zone, you need to sacrifice agents to keep guards pinned, which slows the rate at which you can explore and make new zones safe. If you knock out guards without pinning them, then your safe zone can grow faster but it becomes unsafe again over time. And if you don’t knock guards out at all, then you’re stuck with identifying existing safe areas and moving between them. This is a different way of playing stealth games – instead of growing, your safe zones move with the characters as they progress through the level. Behind them and ahead of them are all potentially unsafe, all you need to know is where are you currently safe, and where will you be safe next.

Rogue Process’ approach to stealth has changed a lot over time. In early builds a timer would start as soon as you entered a building, and when it reached zero the building would be flooded with soldiers. Players really hated this, though, as it didn’t give them enough breathing room to think and plan. I’ve tried to pull this back in the other direction without making it too easy to clear entire buildings. You should feel a sense of trepidation pushing you forwards. The game is about stealth, but not in the traditional sense of clearing buildings and not leaving a trace. It’s about stealth on a micro-scale, navigating unsafe zones that are screen-sized or even room-sized. The mess you left behind you doesn’t matter, because it might catch up with you any second, so all you need to do is make sure you’re at least three messes ahead of whoever’s looking for you.

Right now this manifests through small loops of activity, like cameras re-enabling themselves after being hacked. In early builds of the game cameras were permanently destroyed, which meant that returning back through a building posed little danger. A lot of security systems can change their state, become inactive, or redirect their focus elsewhere – but very few can be permanently disposed of. To use a crude analogy, the player should be watching for gaps in traffic to dash through, rather than trying to block the whole road off. I’m hoping it’ll provide the satisfaction of evasion and sneaking, as well as the empowering feeling of striking decisively.

Our next deadline is Indiecade’s submission at the end of the month, and I think once that’s done I’ll record a gameplay video and talk about where I am with the game. It’s going well, and the coming months should be a flurry of new mechanics and, most excitingly, new city sectors. I have more posts planned to talk about stealth games too – the next one is about procedurally designing stealth scenarios. See you then!

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