In Defense of the Escort Mission

Through a rather convoluted (but interesting) path, I came upon an Escapist article from earlier this year which trashes one of the whipping boys of game design, the escort mission. While I certainly wouldn’t disagree that there are tons of terrible escort missions in games, I think that escort missions don’t have to be terrible. Dare I suggest that they could actually be fun?

I wanted to expand a little bit on the article’s reasoning about why a lot of escort missions are unpleasant experiences, and what I think can be done to make them less dreadful.

  • The article mentions AI deficiencies with the convoy being escorted (along with some…uh, unusual similes by Red Storm/Ubisoft designer Richard Dansky), which can certainly be the case. This tends to be at its worst when the AI is trying to follow the player — if the AI gets hung up while following the player up a ramp, or through a tricky area, the player justifiably feels that the mission failure was unfair. These types of escort missions have problems similar to that of squad command systems — it’s difficult for the AI to understand what the player is really trying to do (and coordinate their actions accordingly), and the sort of second-to-second guidance and chatter that makes real-life escort missions possible isn’t practical with current control schemes.

    While missions that involve self-guided convoys still have issues, I think they are preferable to convoys that follow the player. It’s far easier to ensure that the convoy AI works correctly in this situation than in the case where it’s trying to follow an unpredictable player. Additionally, it helps to ensure a certain minimum pace to a mission, which might be another way to change up the feel of gameplay.

  • There’s also some discussion about attempting to create a sense of drama or sacrifice through escort missions. I agree that pretty much every attempt I’ve seen at this has fallen flat. Without being able to fail the escort and still continue with the game, all drama is removed. I have many more memories of “noble sacrifices” by my X-COM soldiers or lone catapults in Civ than I do from any sort of game featuring a pre-scripted sacrifice.
  • Escort missions that focus on a single AI tend to be more unforgiving and more prone to AI sketchiness than ones that feature larger convoys. Ensuring the safety of 4 of 6 AIs is probably going to be easier and possibly less stressful for the player than protecting a single AI which will get dog-piled by enemies, caught on a wall, or otherwise waylaid.
  • The article talks a bit about an EverQuest 2 mission which involves escorting an invincible dog — a clever way to mine a bit of drama from players who don’t pay too much attention to what’s going on. However, the article doesn’t really talk about what I believe is a primary reason for why most escort missions are dire — completely helpless “convoys.” If the convoy can shoot back at enemies (or can assist the player by taking out certain kinds of enemies), the group being escorted feels less like a complete ball and chain. I personally felt that escorting survivors in Dead Rising was way more palatable than typical escort missions because you could arm them, they could help each other out to a limited extent, and, once you discovered the benefits of the “go to the reticule” command, were fairly capable at defending themselves.
  • Another idea would be to reverse the usual difficulty ramp of a mission for an escort mission — make the early part of the mission the most difficult part (particularly important for games that don’t allow saves or don’t have checkpoints). Then, the difficulty would be ramped down throughout the rest of the mission, taking advantage of this “breather” to reveal more story or otherwise change things up. While this wouldn’t necessarily make people like the escort mission more, it would make it a lot more likely that people would be able to finish it.

Okay, so maybe I was a bit optimistic in saying that escort missions could truly be fun, but I still think that they can be much less of a burden than they currently are…

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