Designing Fun Combat

I have covered a lot of different topics about combat: How to design your enemies, how to design your combat encounters, how to define the gap, and the importance of depth and breadth. This covers a lot of ground, which is great, but it is high time we grasp for the slippery opponent that isfun. What makes Combat fun? Can we even answer a question so laden with meaning? Yes, I believe we can.

Combat is at its best when you provide the player with multiple valid Intentions and Action Sequences, and then constrain them through the situational context of their Goals, their Environment, and their Opponents.

Intentions And Action Sequences

There are three steps to an action: first, you form a goal; second, you choose an intention, which is the specifics of how you are going to achieve that goal; last, you generate the sequence of actions needed to realize your intention.

  • Goal – I want to kill my opponent
  • Intention – I am going to use my sword to kill my opponent.
  • Action Sequence – I am going to pull out my sword, walk up to my opponent, and press my attack button over and over.

Goals are simple. They are clear declarations of what you hope to accomplish, but they lack specificity. A goal never says how you are going to do it, and this is where intentions come in. Now, for any single goal there may be more than one path to its resolution. Let’s say I wanted to turn on a light. One possible solution is to reach over and flip the switch, but I could, if I saw a friend pass by, ask him to flip the switch for me. The goal has remained the same, but the intention has shifted.

What does this mean for combat? To put it in plain terms, options. Multiple valid intentions, therefore, is a phrase that means the player must have more than one way to approach a problem — more than one way to skin a cat, in other words. Where things get complicated, though, is that it is not always a one-to-one correlation between player-mechanics and intentions. Here, let’s study a quick example.

Kratos

Understanding what it means to provide Intentions to your player can be a bit confusing, but bare with me. Let’s start by listening some of the mechanics we provide Kratos.

  • Light Attacks
  • Heavy Attacks
  • Magic Attacks
  • Special Attacks
  • Throws
  • Dodging
  • Jumping

This is, I admit, a slight oversimplification. Do you list jumping and double jumping separately? Debatable. For now, though, let’s try and keep things simple, because you are going to see where I am going with this shortly. These are the mechanics that are built into Kratos, which, as you might guess, can be used to determine his combat intentions. Kratos’s goal is simple: kill his opponents. It is his intentions, however, where things are not so intuitive. Seemingly, he has three or four intentions: normal attacks, special attacks, magic, and throws. Is that it? Are these the intentions? Here’s where it gets dicey, because the answer is both Yes and No.

Throwing, which is a clear declaration of an intended strategy, works well as an intention; however, something like light attacks is more appropriately labeled as an action. Light attacks are a PART of a strategy, while throwing IS the strategy. Here is a better, but not perfect, list of intentions:

  • Poke – keeping on the move and using only light hits.
  • Crowd Control – committing to big moves, like special square, and controlling the crowd.
  • Crush – committing to big, slow, heavy moves
  • Flank – rolling and jumping around damaging attacks to get at the backside of a monster.
  • Launch – knocking things into the air and keeping them up there.
  • Throw – throwing is not only damaging, but also leaves you free from attack while throwing.
  • Nuke – magic is generally a get out of jail free card. All damage and no penalty.

These Intentions are the “verbs” of your combat. What’s the key difference here? Simply put, and with some fair exceptions, great intentions generate action sequences with variety. A single step intention is boring. If my intention was “light attacks”, then you are saying your action sequence is “stand and mash the light attack button”; conversely, if your intention is “pokes”, then you are saying your action sequence is a mixture of many mechanics: roll in, use two light attacks, roll away.

Clear demarcation of your intentions can be a tricky proposition for even the most well understood combat systems. I spent many a day crafting playgrounds for Kratos, yet I still find it hard to put them to specifics. If it is that hard for me, someone who is familiar, then you can imagine how hard it can be when starting down the barrel of a new system. I state this not to warn you off, or to scare you — no, actually, you should be frightened, as a little fear never hurt anybody. Instead, I bring this up to make you understand that failure is ok. It’s ok not to know, and it’s ok to get it wrong. Just approach the task with the deference it is due and you can’t go wrong.

This is only half of the equation, though. We now understand what it means to create multiple valid intentions, hopefully, but we have yet to review the second part of the equation. The best part of the combat is yet to come.

Constraints

Providing options is not enough, because options for options sake is an empty gesture to the player; moreover, extraneous options are damaging to the game and the player experience as a whole. Every time you increase the size and complexity of the player’s choice matrix you are increasing the mental workload they must perform. They have even creating equations to talk about this problem. It is called Hick’s Law, and it states, in short, that the time it takes for someone to make a decision is a result of the number of possible choices he or she has.

It seems intuitively obvious when you hear it stated like that, but it can be easily forgotten when designing combat. Combat happens quickly. A monster acts, which forces the player to react within a split second, and to react in the correct way. So how do we help the player? Well, that’s where constraints come in. You must challenge the player with strategic constraints, and these constraints come in three types: goal, environment, and opponent. That’s nice, but what does this look like in practice?

The first class I played in World of Warcraft was a warlock, and it is a fantastic example of providing massive amounts of options and then intelligently constraining them based on the context of the situation. As a warlock I had a vast multitude of actions I could perform and I had 3 different pets I could use, but ultimately I had two major intentions. I could focus on my damage over time spells, or I could focus on my direct damage spells. Let’s look at two different opponents, and we’ll look at how my choices become constrained.

Facing a Warrior
What am I going to do here? Well, I’m going to throw a bunch of damage over time spells on him and run away, because what can he do about that? Nothing, that’s what. He has no ability to remove them, and as long as I stay out of his range, he cannot hurt me.
I am constrained by my opponent, because I never ever want to let him catch up to me. His abilities have made a section of mine valueless, but that is ok since I have many more that have great value.
Facing a Mage
What about a mage, though; do the same tactics work? Nope! With a mage my intention is completely different. My best plan is to use one of my pets to temporarily stun him, get as far away as possible, unleash the heaviest damaging spells in my arsenal, and not stop until he is dead. My damage over time spells, which work fantastically against the warrior, do not work nearly as well, because the mage has the ability to remove them. Additionally, staying away from the mage serves zero purpose. He can travel faster than I can, and his spells have just as much if not greater range. Again I am constrained by my opponents abilities (and he, mine).

What happens when I am up on a ledge? Now we are dealing with environmental context. In the case of the warrior, all bets are off. He can’t even get to me, so I can just roll my face along the number keys and laugh at his impotence; meanwhile, the mage doesn’t give one lick that I am on a ledge, as this particular bit of environmental constraint does not apply to him. Is the mage completely immune to environmental constraints? Nope! See, and this is where things get interesting, he has to worry about what is called “Line of Sight”. He cannot cast a spell at me unless he can see me, so the longer his casting time the harder it can be to hit me in an environment with opportunities to hide. As a warlock, however, I have many “instant cast” spells, which means that I have a much easier time casting those particular spells. So you see, in this environmental context, my intention against a mage shifts to use one set of abilities to another. That’s interesting combat.

Where things get really interesting, though, is when you change the goal and see how that affects the intentions and action sequences. In both those scenarios above my goal was to kill my opponent. What if my goal was different? Let’s say my goal was NOT to kill them, but to simply stay alive as long as possible until help could arrive. Suddenly I am going to make use of a completely different set of abilities. That, to me, is the sign of a great system.

Genres

Right now this all seems a little heady, a little academic. Words like intentions, constraints, and even, though I haven’t brought it up, affordances can all seem a little bit stuffy. “It’s just video games, man.” I disagree, obviously, and I have good reason. Meaningful discussions are how you overcome important problems, and great discourse is only possible when you all share the same lexicon.

One of the great difficulties of being a designer is switching genres. Our knowledge and skills acquired in one genre are not always directly applicable to another genre; this is especially true when dealing with level design; even more true when going from action adventure to first person shooters and vice versa.

How you design combat encounters in a shooter is completely different than how you design them for an action adventure game, and this difference can pose great problems to designers trying to make the transition; and yet, what makes combat fun is still defined the same way: you provide the player with options, and then constrain those options through a situational context. It is in their choice of constraints that they differ.

Action games, in the most general sense, choose to constrain you through your opponent, while a shooter places greater emphasis on constraining you through the environment. This is a critically important distinction to make, and through this lexicon we can discuss the difference in a meaningful way.

We’ve already looked at Kratos, so we shall forgo the double comparison, but what about shooters? What are my intentions? Let’s look at Halo, because it brilliantly showcases the difference between understanding your mechanics and understanding your intentions. It might appear, at first glance, that the weapon selection — shotgun, sniper rifle, battle rifle — provides you with a set of intentions, and while this is a great guess, it would be off.

Remember that intentions are the specific way you are going to achieve a goal, and they are used to create a list of action steps. You wouldn’t say “I’m going to shotgun this guy” – I mean, you could, but it is more likely you would be saying, “I have a shotgun, so I’m going to flank him”. Do you see the difference? Your intention is not the shotgun, but instead flanking, and your constrained choice of a flanking maneuver is a combination of your weapon choice and the design of the environment.

In a game like Halo, or any shooter I like, the options provided to you include options on the field of battle. The goal is to kill your opponents, but your possible intentions are formed through a combination of what weapons you have, the possible ways to navigate a combat space, and the positioning of your opponents. What sets Halo apart, of course, is that their AI forces you to alter or adjust your intentions as they dynamically move through the space. The flanking maneuver might be the optimum choice, until they move to the left side of the arena. Now, instead, the better choice to is switch to your battle rifle and catch them as they advance through gaps. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to you, a brute has used the very flanking path you ignored. Shit!

This is in pretty stark contrast to a melee focused game, like God of War, where the environment is, for the most part, meant to get the hell out of the way – flat, always flat! What is important to understand, though, is that the principles of their combat is the same. Design options, design constraints, and then finally communicate them to the player.

Communication

This brings us to the culminant point: clarity. All of this, both intentions and constraints, is contingent upon there being absolute clarity. The player must know what their options are, and though they may not know their purpose, they must always know their essence.

Clarity of purpose and clarity of essence feel putatively similar, but do not be fooled. There is a meaningful difference here, which, like the subtle balance of too much or too little choice, is difficult to thread. The essence — what it is; how it looks, feels, sounds, acts, and reacts — of something will outline its unique place in the big picture; it is not, however, going to spell out its purpose. It has a purpose, yes, but it isn’t going to tell you — at least not right away. It leaves that up to the player to learn. It speaks to the player, and it can, at times, play a game of Hot and Cold: showing what you did was good, or showing what you did was bad. But it shouldn’t, unless core, be spelled out.

This battle of options, constraints, and clarity can feel Herculean. We provide our player with as many tools as possible, but never so many that he is overwhelmed with too much choice; we constrain the player in various situations, but never so much that we remove all choice and personality; lastly, we communicate with clarity, but never in a way that removes all doubt and discovery. Like zen teachers we are constantly in search of the middle road, and there is some wisdom in that; as one of my favorite quotes says, “Add things until it starts sucking, take things away until it stops getting better.”

Closing

Combat is at its best when you provide the player with multiple valid Intentions and Action Sequences, and then constrain them through the situational context of their Goals, their Environment, and their Opponents. It sounds simple, when you read it, but we both know that it is not.

Admittedly, I tend to write with great force — all “musts” and “requires” — but know that this is not a rule. It is simply a tool, a guide, and like all tools it has its time and place. Take comfort in it, as in all likelihood it will guide you to the right questions, but do not become married to it. Look at the combat you are designing and ask the good questions: ask yourself for a list of the intentions; ask what constraints you can impose; ask what happens if you change the goals; ask if you are showing it all with clarity. Most of all, though, ask if you are having fun. You can’t go wrong with that.