5 tips for first-person face-punching

If there's one studio that knows how to punch people in the face with style and finesse, it's Santiago, Chile-based ACE Team. Here, the team provides tips for designing first-person hand-to-hand combat.
If there's one studio that knows how to punch people in the face with style and finesse, it's Santiago, Chile-based ACE Team. The small team made up of brothers Andres, Carlos and Edmundo Bordeu, showed its worth originally through the weird and wonderful punch-em-up Zeno Clash back in 2009, and then again with Rock of Ages in 2011. Last month the studio released Zeno Clash II, and once again showed that it know how to go hand-to-hand with the best of them. Here, Andres Bordeu provides his top five tips for designing first-person hand-to-hand combat in video games, and what you should really focus on to make it feel just right.

1. Your design document is not your bible - study your competition

Whenever you aim to develop gameplay mechanics that are novel to your genre, you have to be predisposed to change your design throughout your development process, because things that you thought would work when you wrote them down on paper don't always turn out to be as fun when they're finally implemented. In the first Zeno Clash, we were making important changes to the player combat mechanics for the duration of the complete project. The more we iterated, the more we understood the real complexities of developing a proper melee system, even if we had previously studied other games that had a strong emphasis on hand-to-hand combat in a first-person perspective (games like The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, Condemned: Criminal Origins, Breakdown and Dark Messiah of Might & Magic). With Zeno Clash we also attempted to tackle some problems from approaches that had proven unsuccessful in other games, because we wanted to succeed in areas that had led other implementations to feel too hectic and lacking strategic elements. We were determined to prove that a proper implementation of a lock-on system would benefit hand-to-hand combat for players looking to perfect specific moves or techniques, and though we didn't perfect the system until Zeno Clash II, designing around this feature allowed us to develop a very satisfactory combat implementation that felt powerful and engaging. Iteration and continuous calibration were keys in getting the combat flow to feel right.

2. Animation is a game designer's job

In a first person brawler, animation plays a significant role in both the design and implementation of technical features and gameplay mechanics. You cannot ask an animator to simply animate punches and kicks that are pretty to look at. They have to have an extended knowledge of how the collision detection system works, of how the player reacts to incoming attacks (or follows up to attacks), of how the field of view can drastically affect the perception of the player to specific actions, etc. tip2.jpgUnlike first-person shooters where the action between the player and the objectives generally takes place at long range, the area of relevance to melee combat is not much more than a couple of square meters, where close to 90 percent of the player interactions take place in such a confined area. This has important consequences to your perception of depth and your attack range. Collisions will haunt you during the entire project and many times it's not because your algorithms are faulty. When you look at an attack from a first-person view you have no real perception of exactly where your body is or how much screen space is covered by your head. If a punch is to graze your face, how can you judge the distance by looking at an 'empty window' through which you can only see your fists? Many times we misjudged our collisions, spending countless hours discussing the implementation with the programmers, and we were only failing to notice that the animators had missed the target and the swing was actually never coming in contact with the player's head, but looking at it from the first person camera made it seem like it was clearly landing in an area that we perceived as a hit.

3. Your combat system has to be built around your NPCs - No PvP

Creating a compelling first-person combat melee system has as much to do with the player character as with the enemies you face. It would be very difficult to develop a system that was as engaging if you plan on featuring player versus player in your game. tip3.jpgThere's a reason that Dark Messiah of Might & Magic (another title which focuses on close combat in first-person) featured a completely separate multiplayer mode developed by a separate studio; their single-player campaign featured a strong set of interactions that were specifically designed to work against NPCs, not human players. This wasn't any different with Zeno Clash; Our combat system was designed to work with NPCs in mind. Most of the compelling parts of Zeno Clash's combat has to do with the counter-moves a player can perform on an enemy that is executing a specific action. Players are governed by completely different rules and will never react the same way an NPC does. If you look at PvP games that feature first-person combat, they play considerably different to Zeno Clash and all the other games mentioned in this article. In those games, players are constantly running back and forth to attempt to land a blow and evade potential hits.

4. Generate variety through contextual attacks

Since simply moving a character in a first-person game requires much more of your input device than 2D games (where fighting is a more popular theme), the initial approach of providing the player with a large set of base moves and complex commands made little sense. tip4.jpgIn traditional fighting games, characters generally rely on button combinations to execute the variety of stronger attacks, and this approach didn't seem appropriate for the first-person perspective. First-person shooters don't request complex inputs or combinations to perform offensive actions; firing a gun comes with the simple press of a button. We knew this simplicity had to be emulated in our combat mechanics, so we decided that to stay true to this concept where the complexity of our combat system would come from triggering specific attacks in specific contexts opposed to performing a set of complex input sequences. This approach allowed us to create a wide variety of moves and open up a set of strategic opportunities that didn't require the player to perform difficult button presses or complex combinations to perform special combat actions. We only assigned button combinations for the more expert level combos, but performing most of the stronger offensive techniques had to do with simple player inputs in different contexts.

5. Listen to your community

The feedback you will get from your community is incredibly important, even if you've thoroughly tested your design with people who are not familiar with it before you launch the game. Sometimes players will ask questions about gameplay elements, others will encourage your team or complain about something they didn't like, and most importantly others will report issues you or your QA team might have missed. This is not something that is necessarily specific to first-person hand-to-hand combat design, but it's probably more relevant when you're implementing non-traditional mechanics. Fighting games are well known for the importance in proper calibration and leveling. In a first-person brawler this is not any different. Just like traditional fighting games continue to tweak their game beyond release, a good first person fighting game should be watchful of necessary balancing and improvements.

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