Analyzing the pivot in game design between Midnight Star and its sequel

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[~2800 words]

I used to play a lot of a mobile FPS game called Midnight Star and I thought it was pretty good. Several months ago I beta-tested its sequel, Midnight Star: Renegade. I thought the changes between the two games were fascinating to observe.

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Midnight Star is designed like an older PC FPS: it consists of large, hand crafted experiences delivering the developer’s specific vision to the player. Meanwhile, Midnight Star: Renegade is designed to consist of smaller, quickly iterated, quickly consumable experiences which focus on letting the player create their own “vision”. The changes feel like a microcosm of the changes taking place in the game industry in general, especially in the mobile market.

I thought the shift in game design was so interesting that I wanted to write this post back when I was playtesting Renegade, but I didn’t have time then (ironic considering I had the time to beta-test the game). At this point in time, both Midnight Star and Midnight Star: Renegade are available on the app store or google play store or what have you. They are micropay games where you can play for free and either grind a heck of a lot or pay real money to get equipment and upgrades.

Both games were developed by Industrial Toys, which was founded by Alexander Seropian (one of the co-founders of Bungie Studios and Wideload Games).

A note on screenshots and my personal experience:

Midnight Star: Renegade is meant for more recent generations of mobile devices. My mobile device is a much older generation, so I can’t really play the game anymore. The beta sort of worked for me when I was testing, but I’m not compatible with the final version.

So, my analysis of Renegade is based primarily on my experiences with the beta and not the release version. It should still be accurate though, since I focus on broad, general aspects of the game and not minutia.

This also means I can’t really get any decent screenshots of Renegade so I’ll have to just rely on what I can find through image searches.

“Artisan” crafted weapons vs. weapon crafting system

One of the biggest changes made between the games is the weapons (and armor; I won’t talk about the armor, but most of what I say about the weapons also applies to the changes in armor).

Midnight Star:

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Midnight Star was old school by having a select number of weapons designed by the developers to fit a gameplay niche. Each weapon had its purpose. There were some shotguns, pistols, snipers, etc. There were even alien weapons with special mechanics.

There was the Stormchain which could stun multiple enemies with chain lightning. Or, there was the Chronal Magnum which could slow enemies, and it wasn’t as good as the other weapons (it was just a pistol) but I loved it anyway (I should probably make a Fun Gun Award for the Chronal Magnum at some point).

It wasn’t the most balanced armory, but that’s beside the point.

Renegade:

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Renegade abandoned the “artisanal” weapons and replaced it with a weapon crafting system. There are a few classes of weapons and you can collect weapon pieces for these different classes. You can use them to build your own weapons. The weapon pieces can also be purchased with resources (which can be purchased with real money) or they can be won by playing levels.

In addition to having random stats, some components have certain bonuses or they alter your abilities. Some can provide fire damage, or ice resistance, etc. You can even change the behavior of your weapons by changing the projectile type (regular bullets, shotgun spread, or projectiles with homing ability) and firing mechanism (single fire, automatic fire, burst fire).

Analysis of change:

I am a big fan of “artisanaly” crafted weapons. I like it when there’s some purposeful or imaginative design behind something. I prefer the old school armory of Midnight Star.

However, the crafting system in Renegade is the smarter option. It makes the players feel more involved in the game. It gives them more sense of agency. It makes it feel like there’s more “game” inside the game.

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And the fact is, the crafting system is fun. I like swapping out components and creating myself a sniper rifle that electrocutes enemies and then swapping some more components to turn the same gun into a burst shotgun that sets people on fire. That’s fun.

It gives the player more to do, more reasons to play/spend money, and more ways to interact with the game. Which I imagine are important aspects of keeping players invested in modern (especially mobile) games.

Limited weapons vs. RNG weapon parts:

So, this builds off of the previous section.

In Midnight Star, there is an obvious limit to what you can get. There is a finite number of weapons you can purchase and you can upgrade them a finite amount of times.

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The limits of Renegade are a lot less obvious. Since the weapon pieces and their stats are randomized it makes it feel like there’s infinite possibilities, like there’s always something new and better to find. If you’re making money off of micropay transactions then that’s exactly how you want your players to feel: like there’s always something new and better around the corner.

I hate RNG systems, but I have to admit, from a business perspective this was the better way to go.

Special abilities vs. grenades

 

Midnight Star:

In the first game, in addition to your regular weapons, you had a special ability called Levitate. When you used it, a fixed number of enemies would be lifted up into the air where you could shoot them with ease. The effect had a time limit and the ability was on a cooldown timer so there was still some strategy involved.

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Midnight Star: Renegade:

The second game gets rid of any type of special abilities and replaces them with heat seeking grenades (also on a cooldown timer). There are several types of grenades including cluster bombs.

Analysis on change:

I actually prefer the Levitate ability (especially if there were other abilities to choose from). It subtly creates a little minigame where you have to race the clock to kill the enemies before the Levitation wears off. Also, it’s just fun.

But, the grenades were actually the smarter way to go.

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With the grenades there is no middle man. You don’t stun the enemies and then shoot them one by one and kill them one by one. With grenades you just kill the enemies, right now.

The grenades are more efficient and more direct. It makes the gameplay faster and speeds up the pace of combat. For most players it’s more immediately gratifying.

When you’re trying to appeal to a mobile gaming audience then quick, direct, immediately gratifying gameplay is probably the way to go.

Energy shields vs. swipe movement

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Midnight Star:

Midnight Star had an on-rails system where the players had no control over their movement. You’d stop at a location, waves of enemies would attack, you’d kill them, and then you’d automatically “run” to the next location. You could look around by tapping on-screen arrows, but you couldn’t dodge or get behind cover.

You’d defend yourself by touching the screen with two fingers at the same time and this would activate your energy shields which would absorb the damage of the enemy projectiles.

Renegade:

Instead of using shields for defense the player is given some control over his movement in order to dodge enemy projectiles. On every map there are “nodes” that you can move to. You swipe your finger on the screen in the direction you want to move and the character will slid to the “node” in the corresponding direction (or you can jetpack there if you have jumpboots).

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It works surprisingly well at dodging enemy fire and gives you a greater sense of freedom. (Aiming at enemies is done with arrow buttons and pinch zooming, and I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to use the arrow buttons for movement and the swiping for looking and aiming? Who knows.)

If you think about it, it’s almost like a on-rail system on a smaller scale, and initiated by the player.

Analysis of change:

Again, a really smart change from the first game.

I never really liked the manual shields in Midnight Star. When you saw an enemy about to shoot you, you’d activate your shields and just wait until the enemy was done shooting. It slowed down the pace of the game, took away from the player’s agency, and was kind of boring. The shields also became redundant after a while because with upgraded guns you could shoot most enemies so fast that they never got a shot off themselves.

Renegade’s swipe movement is a huge improvement. It gives the player an active roll in their own defense, it keeps the pace moving quickly, and makes everything feel more tense and action packed. It makes you feel like you’re a part of the game and, to a certain degree, like you’re part of the world.

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(This comparison between the two games, on-rails vs. free movement, suddenly made me realize how the players’ ability to move freely around a world is perhaps the most important factor in making the players feel really immersed in that world; maybe I should make a blog post looking more closely into that.)

In terms of just gameplay, I actually think this was the best change they made in the sequel.

Large, linear levels vs. Small, arena levels

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Midnight Star:

The original game’s level design followed in the footsteps of classic PC first person shooters: large, linear, with lots of decorative visuals, and some minor environmental storytelling.

The players progressed through levels on-rails. They would fight waves of enemies in one area and then once that area was cleared they would automatically be “run” to the next area where the process would repeat.

There are ten single player levels.

Midnight Star: Renegade:

Renegade changes this up a lot. In addition to the visual style being greatly simplified, in addition to the player being given control over his movement, the levels are much, much smaller.

You fight in arena-like levels which could be wide open with a few spots of cover or it could be three to four interconnected rooms.

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There are over a hundred single player levels, although some of them are the same level with a different composition of enemies.

Analysis of change:

Again, this was a smart change to make.

Levels in Midnight Star could take maybe 5-10 minutes to play (maybe less, I didn’t actually time it) and they had checkpoints. Levels in Renegade take about 1 minute to play, maybe less. This cut in playtime, these smaller chunks of gameplay, fit a lot better with a mobile platform than the longer levels of classic shooters.

During beta-testing the developers flat out stated that this change was there due to player feedback after the first game. When people are out and about they generally don’t want to invest 10 minutes into a play session.

There are also challenge levels where you fight infinite waves of enemies and these can last quite a bit of time, so people who DO want longer play sessions can have them.

The bite sized nature of the levels works for quick consumption and replayability.

Challenge modes:

Midnight Star:

Challenge modes in the original game involved just replaying the single player missions (sometimes with modifiers to make them harder or easier) and getting the best score against other online players by finishing quickly and without taking damage.

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Renegade:

I didn’t get into this much during beta-testing, but from what I did see there are a couple different challenge modes with exclusive maps (the maps are not used in single player as far as I know). In Renegade’s challenge modes you fight increasingly difficult waves of enemies until you die, and then you are ranked against other online players on the same challenge. It’s kind of like Horde Mode.

Analysis of change:

Again, a smart iteration on what came before. Unlike Midnight Star, where the challenges are just repeats of single player levels, Renegade’s challenge modes are an actual break from the single player campaign. They provide something different both in terms of levels, goals, and gameplay.

And, by giving the player the option of endless waves of enemies, it appeals to those players who want longer play sessions.

Detailed, “realistic” graphics vs. Simple, stylized graphics:

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Midnight Star:

Midnight Star had more of an old school aesthetic. The graphics were as detailed and textured as they could be. It still had a bit of a cartoon style, but it definitely leaned towards the more realistic end of the spectrum. Architecture and objects were made to look like recognizable materials such as metal, stone, glass, leaves, etc.

Renegade:

The graphics became much more simplified.

It’s almost got a cell shaded vibe to it. Walls and floors are broad solid colors with very little texturing. Same thing with a lot of the weapons and armor which some people said made the weapons look like toys. There is some good lightning and some cool looking, glowing decals.

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During beta-testing, a lot of people (myself included) thought that the graphics were just placeholders. And while the graphics WEREN’T finished they were actually pretty close to the final, intended version.

Analysis of change:

I was skeptical at first, but the graphics have grown on me, which doesn’t surprise me. I generally lean towards stylistic art in games more so than fidelity and quantity (e.g.: Another World, Windwaker, etc.)

Maybe the simplified graphics help speed up rendering? I don’t know.

It sort of makes sense though. Why put in details that aren’t going to affect anything? Renegade is not the story driven game its predecessor was, so what’s the point of putting barrels, and crates, and plants, and glowing computer gizmos? It’s a bunch of visual clutter that doesn’t communicate anything to the player.

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Visual clutter in the name of “MOAR GARFIKS” is something that I really dislike in modern games. There’s all this crap rendered to the screen and 85% of it has nothing to do with anything.

So, I’m kind of glad that the developers of Renegade decided to go with a more toned down aesthetic which I think is actually more visually appealing anyway. But, it might hurt the impression some players have.

I don’t know if this was a smart decision, although I liked it.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

I recommend that if you’re going to try out these games that you play them both. Side by side, or one after another, doesn’t matter. I think they are an interesting juxtaposition.

Most of the changes are deliberate and purposeful, motivated by the goal of appealing to an audience in a specific gaming market. Despite this, the changes are not made based on arbitrary trends in the mobile gaming market, either.

The game design was focused down to a very specific experience. Everything is narrowed down to the core game with very few things to distract the player from it.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such stark differences between a game and its sequel before. And that starkness really makes clear what the developers were thinking and how they were analyzing their own game and their own intentions.

And, I guess I should say this: Although I prefer and appreciate Midnight Star more, I actually found Renegade to be the one that felt more fun. Maybe that’s just because I’ve spent a lot more time playing Midnight Star than the Renegade beta, so make of that last statement what you will. I’m still mulling it over.

P. S.

Interesting side note that didn’t fit anywhere else.

Midnight Star: Renegade has very little story and very little storytelling. It’s predecessor, however, had a huge emphasis on story with CGI cinematics, comic book cutscenes, etc. The noted science fiction author John Scalzi took part in writing the story (although I don’t know how deeply involved) and he even wrote a comic book tie-in for the game.

Meanwhile, in the classical music soundtrack for the games we have Serj Tankian as composer, former lead singer of System of a Down. I don’t know much about music, but I think he does a good job with the soundtrack especially in the second game.

Anyway, I just found those things interesting. Like, if you had told me that the co-founder of Bungie, the writer of Old Man’s War and Fuzzy Nation, and the lead singer of System of a Down all worked on a video game together I would have been like, “lol, wat?? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯”

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