Stealth At Breakneck Speed

In my last post I talked about how stealth games use safety zones to shape gameplay, either by challenging the player with navigating between spaces, or letting the player compete to make new areas safe. In the post I said that Rogue Process isn’t a stealth game in the most traditional sense of the word, and in this post I want to talk about that a bit by discussing active stealth, the idea that games can still be about stealth even when their world is full of explosions, fighting and alarms. I want to start by talking about one of the most underrated stealth games of all time: DOTA 2.

Yes, that DOTA 2, the one with the screaming and the eSports and the huge explosions of particles. If you’re not familiar, DOTA 2 is a team-based action RPG, and one of the biggest eSports in the world. You play as one hero on a team of five, gather resources which you spend on making them even more heroic, and fight another team of heroes to eventually kill their base. DOTA 2 isn’t a game we typically think about when we’re making lists with Metal Gear Solid and Thief on them. That’s because we tend to think about stealth games in terms of how well a game accommodates ghosting: never being seen, never killing anyone, never raising an alarm. The way I prefer to think about stealth, though, is that it’s not necessarily about not being detected but rather about making sure no-one has enough information to stop you doing what you want to do. Ghosting a level is one extreme example of this, but in DOTA 2 there’s an information economy that functions similarly to our idea of safety zones.

If you skip to 0:35 in this video (or click here to get a direct timestamp link) you’ll see an example of DOTA 2 in action, with two teams clashing over Roshan, a key game objective. As you watch the first 5-10 seconds, look closely at how Victoria (in the bottom left) and Fly (on the right, a blue dragon) are moving. The video doesn’t show it, but both of these players can only see part of what we’re seeing, because the game fogs out things not within vision range. Victoria is invisible to the other team, while Fly is unsure about where to stand: too close and he’ll be vulnerable to an attack, too far away and he won’t be able to help his team.

During fights like this, weaker ‘support’ heroes like Fly and Victoria here must constantly reevaluate the situation around them. Around 0:48 in the video, Victoria runs in from the bottom of shot because he thinks a fight is about to happen, but has to quickly retreat once he gets new information and sees extra enemy heroes nearby (the central cave area can’t be seen into from outside). In these scenarios players are constantly asking themselves: where is the greatest threat to me? Where do they think I am? Where are we both going to be in five seconds’ time?

There’s usually little doubt about whether a hero is present or not in a fight this important in DOTA 2, but the question of where someone currently is, and what they’re planning to do next, are ever-present and often not easily answered. It’s the same when trying to capture a point in Overwatch – every player knows that the entire enemy team is just a few dozen metres away, but we may not know exactly where a particular person is. Stealth in these games is not about ghosting – it’s about being in control of information flow, and always having the upper hand. It’s about ducking out of vision, and reappearing a few seconds later elsewhere. Everyone knows you’re here, but only you know what’s happening next.

It’s definitely possible, with patience and the right scripts, to ghost Rogue Process. Most of the time, however, you’ll be playing the game in a rolling ten-second window of stealth. By this I mean that when you do something in the game world, like knock out a guard or break open a vault, you have a fairly confident picture of what impact that will have on the next ten seconds or so. Outside of that window, though, anything might happen. Guard patrols may change because of an alarm you cause elsewhere; additional security might be activated and see what you’ve done; or you might simply just screw something up. In a normal stealth game this would worry us, because we’re trying to keep everything locked down, and we’re worried about making it back out safely. In Rogue Process I want to try and encourage you to take a different approach. When CorpSec closes a door, you jump through a window. Or blast a hole in the wall. Or jump through a waste disposal shaft.

The idea here is that stealth is collected in pockets. Say you’ve set off alarms and left a mess in the penthouse executive office – five floors down, the guards might be alerted to you being in the building, but they don’t necessarily know you’re about to drop from the ceiling and fire fifty thousand volts into the back of their head. Players will find their own sweet spot here between taking time to secure an area, and moving quickly through. Some players will try and spend the time expanding that rolling stealth window as much as possible, while others will barely stop to watch a guard hit the floor before they bust into the next room. Whatever happens, the plan is to keep people active, to reassure them that they don’t have to clean everything up perfectly. You’re not a ghost, you’re not a clean professional. This is a messy, dirty, grubby mission and you’re going to leave a trail of destruction behind you.

I know that on paper this might sound a bit uncomfortable, and I’ve definitely had to make some adjustments over time as playtesters have given feedback about what they liked and what they didn’t. Personally, I love ghosting in stealth games, and so designing Rogue Process in this way has helped me explore what I like about it and what I don’t. I’m hoping that when it’s all done, players will feel that it has a nice tradeoff between keeping things flowing freely in the long-term, and allowing micro-bursts of stealthy ingenuity in the short-term.

Thanks for reading! I’ve been working on new city sectors for the game lately (you can see some #screenshotsaturday stuff here) but I haven’t been able to do any video content due to all the ruckus from moving. When I’m done with the Industrial sector, though, I’m hoping to do a writeup here of some of the ideas behind the different sector types. Until then, say hi on Twitter and follow me there for more update gifs!

 

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