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A Balanced Battle System

The condition: Certain moves are more powerful than others. The problem: The player will try to use these more powerful moves even in detrimental situation. The solution: Make no single move more powerful than others.

Christopher Enderle, Blogger

November 9, 2009

7 Min Read

In my last post I examined strengths and weaknesses of combat systems and how they relate to the player doing what the player wants it to do. Now I’ll look more into possible ways to improve this connection between the player and the game. In a reply I mused, “Perhaps another facet needed for a more perfect combat system is the balancing of all components of that combat system, so an attack, a counter, a dodge, a block, whatever, are all equally viable moves towards eliminating opponents.”

Bear with me as I walk through the basic steps one might take to create a balanced combat system: You can always attack. If someone is standing there you can attack them. You can’t always counter. You can only counter when the enemy is attacking. You don’t want the enemy to attack you, though, you want to hit them before they can attack you.

So how can countering ever be prioritized on the same level as attacking? If countering is made too powerful (Heavenly Sword) the player will just not attack, they will wait to be attacked and then counter. If countering is too weak (Batman: Arkham Asylum) they will opt to attack even when they really should have countered.

Perhaps you could combine the two. If you attack a non attacking enemy you hit them. If you attack an attacking enemy you will counter them. Now the issue is how to appropriately challenge the player. I can’t imagine that being an insurmountable issue. A possible answer that sprung to mind as I wrote that question is to have blocking enemies.

The player can attack all they want but not make any progress towards defeating that enemy. As long as the actions the player intend to happen are happening. You can give the player a strong and weak attack (perhaps only the weak attack also counters), or require the player to move around the enemy (ala Arkham Asylum).

I would say as long as the player’s character is doing what the player wants, enemies now have a lot more leeway presenting other challenges. The task of the player now isn’t pressing the right button at the right time, but identifying what challenges are being presented to them by the enemy and then dealing them.

What’s key is to stay away from making those challenges “disrupt the player’s expectations and intentions.” Basically, expanding slightly on an example used in my previous post, when I try to punch a guy that’s approaching I feel frustrated when he decides to attack and disrupts my attack, but, if I see a guy training his gun on me, as long as I have a way to get to that guy before he fires, I don’t feel frustrated if he ends up shooting me because I opted to punch a closer guy first (as long as I intentionally chose to punch that closer guy).

What it comes down to is a meta game of expectations. The system designer, the event/encounter/mission designer all have to be on the same page as far as presenting and executing a logic which the player can easily understand and at a basic level grasp and then which, and this might be the real challenge, evolve and play out according to the player’s understanding and expectations of that logic.

This can be especially difficult as the designer often starts out seeing the entire picture, knowing what the combat will ultimately evolve into and how each component of combat can be woven together for optimal effectiveness, but the player doesn’t (or worse, can’t because XYZ has yet to be unlocked/received).

The player experiences whatever is first introduced to them and from that point on creates their own internal design doc, their own interpretation of the rules (this can start from just the very first button that is pressed. In most action games, how many people try out their attacking before dodging or blocking?).

Everyone might come to different conclusions based on that initial experience, so the designer has the challenge of doing everything in their power to direct what the player’s expectations should be. Having the player’s character “level up” and expanding combat over the course of the game adds another layer to this challenge (for both the designer and the player). The foundation is always the most important, though, and it can lead to the player either facing constant frustration as they play through the game or “getting it” and having a blast.

Also a clear delineation must be established in regards to rewarding, punishing, and remaining neutral to the player. Rewarding the player for a certain action in one situation but then punishing the player for that same action in a situation the player doesn’t distinguish as being different from the first is a sign of design failure all around. At worst, the effectiveness of the action should be neutralized, thus prompting to rethink their strategy, but never should it outright backfire and harm the player. That just frustrates and confuses.

Perhaps balancing combat between specific mechanics shouldn’t be focused on, but instead, in regards to complete game cohesion, emotions and immersiveness. In most action games the fighting doesn’t elicit a huge reaction in me. I see the action on screen and my reaction is “yep, there goes that guy, doing his thing.” It’s very blasé.

In Ico, though, I didn’t see it as just the character doing his thing. Now there are plenty of games with normal people having to fight (most survival horrors like Silent Hill 2) and the combat is horrible but excused by fans. In Ico the combat isn’t bad, per se. It’s basic, yes, but when the kid swings his wood plank you can really see his inexperience, his desperation, and that, in my eyes, makes the combat leagues better than the combat in most action games. That emotional bond is priceless.

Now in Arkham Asylum, the tone is much different, but the combat is none the less cohesive. Batman has complete control of the arena and his opponents, as long as you play “right” Batman will be able to counter any attack from any direction and take out any thug no matter where they are, all in the same combo (I can’t wait for the action game where the entire game can be played through using one long continuous combo. Perhaps they can steal the idea of the plot from Crank). And that personifies everything about Batman. Just in his combat, his character traits come through.

If they wanted to improve God of War’s combat I’d say make Kratos meaner, require him to block less, because blocking is a coward’s tactic. Sure his attacks are already fierce and he grunts and yells appropriately, but then comes the moment when you have to block and the illusion is shattered (even more so when you have to wait for the enemy to finish their long boring combo string or for surrounding enemies to also finish their attack as they attack you in turn without giving you an open frame to retaliate in). Maybe make Kratos get even more pissed off while he blocks so when you can finally make a move that frustration the player was experiencing can be released vicariously.

The more the action, the character, and the player jive the more you’ll be able to enthrall the player and truly deliver a memorable experience. Whether it’s addressing the mechanical or emotional side of this part of game design (and both should be) keeping things within the player’s perceived logic of the game world (while still offering surprises) is essential.

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