Why players’ thirst for destruction could break developers instead
Rainbow Six Siege’s levels are elaborate, sprawling creations. Among them there’s a neon-lit, grimylooking strip club. A grand embassy complete with marble staircase and super-cooled server room. A family home with an expensive-looking basement gym and a maritime-themed kid’s bedroom. And a luxuriously outfitted take on Air Force One. It’s a selection that makes for a broad range of atmospheres as you move between gunning down terrorists in a luggage hold to attempting the delicate extraction of a hostage from a family home, but the one thing that ties these disparate environments together is that they are – to varying extents – rather fragile.
Even today, being able to shoot through walls at your targets feels liberating. While there have been plenty of experiments with similar tech in the past, there are relatively few modern games that grant you that liberty. Sandboxes are rarely as freeform as they purport to be, and designers still tightly control what you’re able to do – letting players off the leash entirely is a risky proposition that exponentially multiplies the number of considerations game creators need to keep in mind. Those of us imbued with a completionist mentality are just as likely to waste our time chasing elusive feathers inexplicably placed on medieval rooftops as we are systematically dismantling every single building we pass in Battlefield 1943.
Rainbow Six Siege’s unforgiving representation of mortality means that mucking about in an effort to strip a building bare isn’t an option, but the game still places limitations on your potential for demolition. For the most part, you’ll only take one or two wallremoving breach charges into the field, for example, despite the fact that you’re also able to carry an unlimited supply of wooden barricades to temporarily block doors and windows. And even if you play as the SAS’s Sledge, whose hammer can bash in weak walls all match long, you’ll still be stymied by all those pesky invulnerable walls and floors that constitute the building’s outer shell and many of its rooms’ borders.
Limitations such as these, where not a result of memory ceilings, are put in place to focus the action and ensure both attackers and defenders have a fair chance at victory. It’s an understandable compromise in an asymmetric, competitive online shooter. But they also fracture the logic in a way that asks your strategic brain to accept the existence of unbreakable walls in a game whose primary selling point is its destruction. The more freedom designers offer us, the more constrained we feel by the portions of gameplay or level architecture that conform to older design precepts.
Of course, plenty of other games perform this dissonant balancing act. The Battlefield series has long had destructible buildings and structures, and birthed the Levolution mechanic that sees scripted destruction change the way levels play. But among all of this, there’s still plenty of masonry you can’t break, no matter how many tank rounds you send its way. Just Cause 3 plays a similar trick by populating its world with breakable furniture but only allows you to alter the world itself in a handful of scripted instances. Unlike Rainbow Six Siege, Avalanche’s game hands you unlimited explosives with which to test the limits of its physics engine. It’s giddying fun to topple fuel tanks, aerials and despot statues, but there’s always that nagging part of your brain that can’t help but notice the unblemished Mediterranean architecture that remains standing after the smoke clears.
Other games have attempted to go further, not least Red Faction. By the time Guerrilla was released, the series had armed you with your very own sledgehammer and invited you to wield it at everything in its world. Bash out the base of a building and it will topple, wrecking anything else that it falls into. You can even tunnel through rock. Mercenaries 2 relies more on pre-canned animations than realtime physics, but that hardly diminishes the fact that it allows you to level entire cities in minutes. And Atomic Games’ competitive shooter Breach experimented in 2011 with exactly what Rainbow Six Siege is trying to do today, but allowed you to destroy any surface and even to topple ceilings down onto enemies.
The problem is that when you’re handed the ability to destroy everything, the initial novelty of being able to do so soon wears off. And, standing amid the playercreated rubble, designers are faced with additional challenges – ensuring AI can navigate an ever-changing environment, for instance, and that mission-critical objectives and characters don’t expire as their worlds are razed to the ground. These are problems that will be increasingly necessary to tackle as players become accustomed to the idea of destructible environments in the same way we have to complex physics, realistic lighting and hitting Triangle to steal a car.
Crackdown 3’ s online multiplayer will serve as the first field test of an action game environment that’s entirely destructible, and all of the potential issues that go hand-in-hand with that. Cloud processing allows for worlds in which it’s possible to track dizzying amounts of user-created fragments of level geometry. To players, that’s a thrill, but game creators will soon find themselves catering for an audience who won’t be prepared to accept that certain structures will resist their efforts to topple them. The result will be a new way of looking at game design and player freedom.
Atomic Games’ competitive shooter Breach experimented with exactly what Rainbow Six Siege is trying to do