Our goal until now has been the break down and analysis of MvC2′s combat system, but now we are going to switch gears. MvC2 has, hopefully, served its purpose and given us some usable ideas. Applying these ideas to an action adventure game is not like designing characters for a fighting game, just as designing cars for Gran Turismo is not like designing cars for Burnout; different styles of games have different design goals.
One of the major goals in a fighting game is to minimize your barriers to entry and maximize the potential for mind games. This is achieved through minimizing depth and maximizing breadth; by this I mean not that a character takes no skill to master, but that (in successful games) the mastery is applicable to numerous characters in the cast – I learn to Dragon Punch, I also learn to Tiger Knee. The challenge comes in judging and anticipating the moves of your opponent, not in executing your own.
Action adventure games, however, have a different goal: Accomplishment. This requires a depth of player and a breadth of cast. The player must grow and have a sense of depth, which applies to more than just his attacks. Every system the player learns (magic, climbing walls, world interactions) is a new system to master, so do not go crazy with the player’s attacks. Avoid superfluous attacks. This “back of the box” design has no place in compelling games. The player doesn’t need breadth, as he has no one to play mind games with. Who is he going to fool? He requires only the moves that get the job done, in the coolest way possible. Again, this is why MvC2 is so great, because everyone in that game is doing wacky, powerful shit all over the place. One can imagine the designers on that game standing on a box shouting, “Subtlety is for pussies!”, and I say Amen.
Ryu doesn’t give a fuck about your subtlety
The tight, focused and subtlety-free design of our player also applies to our enemies. We want breadth, but we want it to come from the cast as a whole and not the individual enemies. The monsters are not there to play mind games with the player, they are there to make me feel like a bad ass. I want to smash faces. If I want subtlety, I will play a fighting game. A game which is DESIGNED for mind games, and I’ll play it with real people who are infinitely trickier than a computer. This does not mean that your enemies cannot be tricky – they can and should have a trick. That is trick, in the singular. The player learns the monster’s trick, and once overcome, gives her a sense of accomplishment. She is getting stronger and better than her adversaries.
Accomplishment is a major driving force behind the best Action Adventure games, and though you may not be consciously aware of it, you know when games have failed to grant that feeling. Have you ever lost to a boss numerous times in a row, your frustration growing to a boiling point, until finally you squeak out a victory more through luck than anything? I’ve been there, and it sucks. Most regrettable is that the shitty feeling is directed more to yourself (why was that so hard for me?) than the game (who designed this bullshit).
The Conan final boss exemplifies frustrating over challenging
So if you want player’s feeling accomplished and not asking what idiot ruined their night, there are three things to keep in mind. First, you must always keep in the mind the roles your cast must fill. Second, you must type your cast in a balanced manner. Third, you must find your trick.
When discussing roles it is wasteful to speak in specifics. The mechanics of your game, which are unique to each game, define the roles for your enemies. In God of War, for example, the Gorgon’s beam attack is countered by using Kratos’s dodge, so her roll is to emphasize the dodging mechanic; a roll that makes her compelling in tight spaces or against heavily armored enemies that require commitment. With no dodge mechanic, the Gorgon serves little purpose, which leaves her boring and frustrating. We must instead instead view our cast from a higher, more generic level. Doing so forms a picture, independent of the mechanics, of four major reoccurring roles: Emphasizers, Enforcers, Smashers and Challengers.
Emphasizers should, when striving for mass market appeal, make up the majority of your cast. As stated, your player has several tools in her toolbox for dispatching the creatures she faces. An emphasizer is a creature that rewards, not requires, the use of one specific mechanic. The key is to have positive reinforcement. You are not penalized for using the wrong method, simply rewarded for doing it the “correct” way. God of War has several examples of emphasizers, but I particularly like the Gorgon.
The Gorgon is considered a higher tier creature, in that she poses not only a greater challenge to the player but also requires more work to implement and create. She is fast, avoids your attacks, and has her deadly gaze, which if the player stays in too long, will turn Kratos to stone. Behind the scenes, when the player is “inside” the cone of the Gorgon’s gaze the game starts a timer, and if the timer ever reaches a certain point Kratos is turned to stone; however, if the player ever uses his dodge (roll) the timer is reset, regardless of whether Kratos is still in the gaze. Dodging (rolling) gives the player an advantage against this creature, but Kratos is not required to do this. For example, if the gorgon is hitting me with her gaze and I attack the gorgon with a significantly heavy enough attack she will stop her gaze and react to my attack. They key here is “significantly heavy enough” attack. Not just any attack will be effective. Only Kratos’s heaviest “ender” attacks work, but it still gives the player a choice and that choice is what makes her a compelling monster.
Better start rolling!
Let’s say I have started to attack a creature and at the same exact time the Gorgon has started up her Gaze attack. I must now make a choice, do I continue with my combo in the hope that I will have time to hit the Gorgon with my heavy attack (risky), or do I forgo the damage I could do and roll away (safe). This meaningful choice comes from her emphasizing mechanics and not enforcing mechanics. Very rarely, if ever, should enemies be constructed with the purpose of requiring a specific action from the player. Emphasis rewards experimentation, while requirements brutally teach. The former flows naturally, and over time the player discovers the best course of action. The latter brings the game to a screeching halt, while the player must deign the correct solution. There are times when you should enforce a mechanic, and those times are when you want to teach your player something core to the game.
The majority of your cast should be emphasizers, but they do have a downside. By allowing for multiple killing solutions they lack the ability to forcibly teach the player. Sometimes you have a mechanic that is so core to your design that a player must learn it. Enter the enforcers. These creatures require a mechanic from a player, and without the player using it, they will not progress.
The Automaton forces Kratos to use his fire blades
The shield bearing enemies from God of War are the perfect example of Enforcers. You cannot grab them, you cannot hit them with light attacks, and the only way to get passed their shields is to hit them with a “significantly heavy enough” attack. These moves are known as his “crush” moves, and are made up of all the heavy ending moves of Kratos’s combos. (Square, Square, Triangle) — (Square, Square, Square, Square, Square, Triangle). These moves are so core to God of War combat that the game wants to make sure the player understands their power. Enforcers have their place, but their place should be rare. Use this only when something MUST be taught to the player, and do so with as much obvious flair as possible; this is not a time to be subtle. Subtly and enforcers do not mix well, and if handled poorly can quickly become frustrating.
These are the bosses, the difficult enemies, the ones you use all of the tools in your toolbox to defeat. Challengers are separated from your emphasizers and enforcers due to their complexity of design and cost to implement. Where most enemies in your cast will have their one or at most two attacks, a challenger might have three or four. Remember, the more attacks you give an enemy the more it can play mind games with the player, and mind games are dangerous. Catching a player off guard and providing a greater challenge, if handled well, can spice up the game and drive the player to break through to a new level of mastery. More often, however, they are a hell of frustrating and repeated deaths to overly cheap tactics that follow no pattern and offer no accomplishment.
One of my favorite questions is to ask for the difference between challenging and frustrating. While there is more than one answer, I prefer to define it succinctly: “Challenging is a struggle against oneself, frustrating is a struggle against the game.” Challengers, more than any other, are the enemies that attempt to walk that fine line between challenging and frustrating. These enemies control the flow of your game by inserting spikes in the pacing, and a well paced game follows a sinusoidal curve of difficulty. It starts the player off with simple tasks, increases the challenge gradually up to a climax, and then quickly eases back to let you cool down. Where the challengers control the mountains of our pacing, the final group makes up the valleys.
Providing the player with challenges is important, but sometimes you just want to destroy something – a lot of somethings. Smashers are the smaller, weaker and easily dispatched enemies that you throw at the player, sometimes alone, but most times accompanying other enemies, and they let you get your smash on. Remember our number one goal in these games is to give the player a sense of accomplishment, and letting your mass murderer out of the bag every once in a while feels really good. Where Challengers strive for difficulty, Smashers strive for simplicity.
The Infection form of Flood from Halo is a classic Smasher.
Note: this simplicity should be applied not only to their difficulty, but also to their implementation. The Smashers serve a secondary function. By making them lightweight in terms of Ai, poly count, texture size, and basic memory footprint, you can sprinkle these enemies liberally across the game, without having a major impact on your level designs, and we all know how important that is when memory becomes tight.
Two groups (Epmhasizers and Enforcers) are defined through the player’s mechanics. Emphasizers, the most common, reward the player for using a specific mechanic without requiring it, while enforcers teach a specific mechanic to the player. The remaining groups (Smashers and Challengers) are defined by difficulty and implementation, which again is independent of the specific mechanics. Smashers are weak and easily dispatched, while Challengers pose a great challenge to the player. These four role archetypes are important, but they are not enough if we want to have a balanced cast that is diverse in play style. For that we need to group our creatures by additional criteria.
A balanced cast is one diverse in style, complexity, and mechanic. In the old days, it was as simple and clean as a “skinny”, “medium”, and “fat” hockey player, but now balance has a more textured meaning. In God of War they break enemies down into several classes, which ensures clarity in discussion, ensures designers (and others) visualize their workload, and ensures there is a properly distributed variation in play. Classes range from “Pests” which contains all of the lightweight annoying enemies, all the way to “Bosses” which, obviously, tracks the bosses.
Ice Hockey for the NES
Clear and distinct classes are necessary for meaningful discussion. Why spend time and effort describing a monster’s presence when you could say he’s of class (to borrow the term) “Pests”, which starts you both on a mutual foundation. To reach this understanding requires your design department be both vigorous and consistent. If you are lazy, forgetful or inconsistent, you will seriously harm communication. The rewards, however, outweigh the dangers, as enforcing this lets other departments quickly understand not only what you want, but also how much work it creates (or saves if it’s cut). Visualizing your workload, while important in the beginning, is just as critical near the end when things are being cut. Your cuts need to save time and they need to leave the game without a gap in its play.
Classes can also help you to keep track of your play variation. In MvC2 you can break all characters down into three classes: Huge (Sentinel), Quick (Spiderman), and Ranged (Cable). Huge counters quick, which counters ranged, which counters huge – rock, paper, scissors. Keeping these three classes even maintains a feeling of balance, but say I need to cut three characters out of the game. Without class structure, I could unknowingly choose three characters out of the Huge group, and with fewer counters to the quick characters, leave the game feeling broken and unbalanced.
Roles and Classes, while appearing redundant, serve two distinct goals for the game. Roles are about the the player, while Classes are about your cast. The mechanics of your player demands enemies that work well against and with him, but only viewing your cast through that particular lens leads you to end up with lots of functionally distinct but visually similar enemies. The ultimate goal is a diverse cast, and having Classes helps to ensure visual diversity.
Everything must serve a purpose. If you cannot explain to me why a creature must exist – in less than two sentences – then it’s a safe bet the player is not going to enjoy killing it. Lacking purpose reduces your creatures, effectively, into very fancy desctrucible objects. A great designer I know always asks, “What’s this guy’s trick?” The question has stuck with me, and it’s a great question to ask of your enemies. A trick implies that you can fool me, but once I know your trick it loses its effectiveness. Being fooled keeps you on your toes, while providing you with the opportunity to learn and grow as a player, which leads to our ultimate goal of accomplishment.
And so I return, one last time, to MvC2. If ever there was a game that could be called a Bag of Tricks, it is this game, but there are even more tricks out there, existing in other games, that can add spice and vitality to your boring designs. Go, mine, study what they have done, and if you choose to take away only one thing, let it be this: ideas are meaningless, execution is everything.
Disgaea is a fantastic example of over the top ideas
Every move you can think of has already been created by someone. Mining their ideas doesn’t make you a bad designer, because, believe it or not, taking that idea and executing it to the same (if not higher) quality is harder than you can ever imagine, and if you are smart, you will choose to devote all your limited time and dwindling energy on executing to the fullest of your extent.