Depth vs Breadth in Combat

Being a good combat designer requires understanding the meaning and significance of both depth and breadth in your designs. To put it simply: depth is the Knowledge of How, and breadth is the Knowledge of Why. But what does this mean?

How do I perform that move? Why should I use this move? How come I need meter to do this move? How do I build meter? Why should I build meter?

Combat designers, the good ones, all understand the hows and the whys of the moves they are creating, but for those not seeped in the world of fighting games their meaning can be a little obtuse. One of the things I love about game design is finding new ways – either graphically, mathematically or visually – to express information, and so I have tried my best in this post to express Depth and Breadth in an interactive way that showcases not only their meaning, but also their implication.

Depth – the Knowledge of How

Good fighting games have little depth to their combat system. (Say what?) This sounds like crazy talk, but listen: you must divorce yourself from the misconstrued and often synonymous meanings of depth like lots of moves, tactical , execution heavy, or even skill. Depth is none of these things. Depth is the measure of the number of times your player must learn How to do something; this includes every new system, but not, as I will show you, every new attack. This is an important distinction, as multiple moves can be mapped to the same “how”. In Street Fighter, for example, when you learn how to perform Ryu’s Fireball and Dragon Punch, you also learn how to perform Sagat’s Tiger Shot, Tiger Uppercut, and Tiger Knee. The knowledge of how to perform those moves is the same. What’s more, each move has 3 versions (a light, medium, and heavy), so here you have a total of 15 separate moves that only require knowledge of 2 move inputs – thats a fantastic depth to breadth ratio.

Which brings us to my depth diagram. Below you will see a lot of clickable buttons with names on them. They list every character, mechanic, and motion the player must learn in Street Fighter – the Hows. Clicking on a mechanic is like saying “I know how to do this”, and it will show you what progress you have made in mastering the various characters. You can also click on a character to indicate you have mastered that character, and it will then show you how far along you are in mastering the other characters.

Some interesting things to try: clicking on Ryu, clicking on the “All Roll Motions”, or clicking on “All Charge Motions”. Notice that, after clicking on Ryu, you are well on your way to learning many of the other characters. That is what it means to have little depth. It is not that the game requires no skill, but that your skills (in execution) and knowledge are applicable across the entire cast.

This is a good thing. Great fighting games are about reading, anticipating, and countering your opponent; about understanding exactly where and when to use just the right move; and about spacing and timing it all just right for that clutch punish. That is the core of great fighting games. All of the systems and all of the moves exist to further the mind games you can play with your opponent (and they with you).

It is not the number of buttons, or the way they are mapped to the characters that controls how “accessible” your fighting games is to others. It is, and always will be, the number of “hows” they must learn that controls accessibility. To the lamen, Tekken, with its 4 buttons mapped cleverly to the four limbs, is more accessible than Street Fighter’s 6 button control mapping, but they could not be more wrong. Tekken’s use of long combo strings, stance switching, and other character-specific “hows” means that it has MUCH greater depth to it, and this depth, for better or worse, makes it a much less accessible game.

Execution is a requisite part of good fighting games, yes, but it should not be the great barrier that it is for some games. Long button string combos certainly add great requirements of skill to a game, but do they make the gameplay tighter? The mind games better? Nope. All they do is create unnecessary depth. Do you get mind games with depth? Some, but what we are looking for here is the Whys. Why should I use this move over that move. Where do I use this move? You don’t want your players asking How, you want them asking Why, because that is where the mind games live. They live in the Why.

Breadth – the Knowledge of Why

What does it mean to have breadth? It means having options, lots of options, and not always being sure why you were given those options. It means a system where every move is NOT created equal, but finding that one time out of ten where a weird move finds its purpose.

I spent a long time in Street Fighter 4 trying (and failing) to master Dhalsim, particularly because he exemplifies the fun of asking Why. Thanks to his stretchy limbs he has a lot of weird moves, and you cannot help but watch them and wonder where in the hell you would use them, but that’s what makes him fun.

Take anti-air. Dhalsims Back + HK is a fantastic anti-air, one of the best really, and it works / punishes a great deal of jump ins. Now, one might look at his Back + MP, another anti-air, and think, “why the hell would I ever use this?” But for certain situations, especially when someone goes for a cross-up, it is the superior choice. One of these (b.HK) is arguably more useful than the other, and if Dhalsim had to have one less move in his arsenal, you could make a good case for cutting the other, but I can’t imagine the game without it.

I can tell you right now, that anyone uses the phrase, “every move should be equally useful,” does not understand what they are asking for. First, that’s realistically impossible to achieve. Second, and more important, even if that was possible, why would you want that? Where would the fun be? If everything is equally useful, then everything is equally and knowingly countered, and if everything is equally countered, the match is over the second someone presses a button. What’s the point? You need uncertainty, you need the Why.

To try and show you what breadth looks like, I created a different chart – this time it’s pie (everyone loves pie)! It lists, around the circle, all of the possible actions that Ryu can perform when standing idle. By clicking on any of the moves it will then show you all of the moves that can be chained with that move. How deeply (or widely as the case may be) you traverse in this showcases the depth, while the number of options available at each stage showcases the breadth.

Some interesting terminology I should discuss: Links vs Cancels. This is showing Cancels. It is not showing Links. (What the hell is he talking about!) First, to understand the difference between links and Cancels you must understand the frames that make up a move (of which, there, are, many, resources). With that said, a Link is when, after hitting your opponent with a move, you can Link a second move because its startup is less than your opponents recovery (you have what is called frame advantage).

A Cancel, on the other hand, is when, after inputing your first move, you input a second move quickly (usually during your startup frames), and then when you hit (or usually once you begin your recovery frames) the game cancels that first move and goes right into a second move. See the difference? A link means that you must complete the first move, while a Cancel means you are altering the properties of the first move and going to a completely different second move. This is an important distinction when discussing depth vs breadth! You see, most times, especially in games like Tekken, certain moves can only be performed by Canceling into them. That means that they require “how” knowledge – depth.

The difference can be expressed thusly: You are watching someone play a fighting game and they perform a cool looking attack. You turn to them an say, “that was cool, how did you do that?” The response you get is vastly different between links and Cancels:

  • Link: Oh, after you land a crouching MP you can do a crouching HK – oh cool!
  • Cancel: Oh, you press, Left Punch, Left Kick, Right Punch, Left Punch, Right Kick – Uh, let me write that down…

Even reading it makes me not want to learn it.

Am I saying that Cancels are bad? No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that Cancels create depth. They create barriers of execution, and you should be careful. Still, even Street Fighter has Cancels (lots of normals can Cancel into specials, supers, or ultras), but their Cancels have a finality to them. They are not very deep.

Ok, you say, depth is bad and breadth is good. Forever more I shall strive to live up to this ideal in everything I design! Ehhh… not so fast buddy. You forgot about action adventure games.

Fighting vs Action Adventure Games

When it comes to depth and breadth, action adventure games are the complete antithesis of fighting games. (Is this guy for real?!) Good ones have little breadth, but they have depth, and while this is just one part of what sets them apart from fighting games, it is one of the primary reasons most action adventure combat is so bad. People that design action adventure combat love fighting games. I mean, why else would you be doing this job? So it is no surprise that they design them to be so similar. However, like most things in game design, different genres require different design philosophies. How you design cars in Gran Turismo is not how you design cars in Saints Row – sure, in both games you drive a car, but you really don’t want them feeling the same.

Your character in an action adventure game requires only the moves that get the job done in the coolest way possible. When your player asks the question, “Why do I have this move?” the answer is always, always, “So that I can accomplish great things.” He has no one to play mind games with, and no one should be playing mind games with him, so there is no REASON to be asking “why”. There is no need for breadth.

You can see this difference in philosophy by looking at a breadth diagram for Kratos, and contrasting it with the one for Ryu. Notice how deeply in the tree you can traverse in comparison to the one for Ryu. Kratos, unlike Ryu, makes great use of Cancels (not links!) to give him depth.

For the fighting game enthusiast, the concepts of depth and breadth are fairly intuitive – obvious, even, and more than likely this post was boring. But look: understanding what it means to have depth or breadth is a lot different than implementing combat systems that exemplify their principles. I love fighters (despite the fact that I’m pretty bad at them), and I love action adventure games. Despite a love of both, it wasn’t until I got to see their construction first hand that I realized their complete antithetical nature. You must ask the questions that are imperative to your systems: why are we giving the player this move, and can we imagine the game without it. Too often, especially with action adventure games, we strive to throw in the kitchen sink of combat (“more is better lol”) without understanding what that means. I hope these visualizations were helpful. Now, get out there and design the next killer combat system.

(Edit: I have edited this doc after a discussion with another combat designer. Thanks Greg! Combos was a muddy term to use, as it means a lot of things to a lot of people. I apologize, and it has been changed to Cancels)