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Incorporating level design in Melee combat systems.

This article compares whether level design or enemy design is more important for melee combat systems and how the contribution of level design to the engagement and variety of the combat system can be increased.


This is the final article in a three part series about how Level, Enemy, and AI design can make melee combat systems more engaging. These articles discuss several major titles and feature input from leading combat designers.

The games analyzed for this article series are DmC: Devil May Cry, God of War 3, Bayonetta, Ninja Gaiden 2, Ninja Gaiden 3, Batman: Arkham City, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Assassin’s Creed 3, and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. These titles were chosen to represent a selection of titles that span over a decade of combat design, commercial success, and middle ground of expectation for players’ experience levels, for example Assassin’s Creed 3 aims at an audience that has a solid understanding of gameplay mechanics but does not present a high level of difficulty, whereas Ninja Gaiden 3 has similarly high expectations of player performance to the Dark Souls/Demon Souls games. The Souls games and the recent Bloodborne represent an unusually extreme set of player expectations and as such are not a key reference point for this series of articles, but I may write about them in future in comparison to the principles seen in the selected titles.

The professionals I interviewed and their main titles are: Alex Sulman, who was involved with combat design on Heavenly Sword, God of War 3, and God of War Ascension; Rahni Tucker, the combat designer for DmC: Devil May Cry; Anthony Newman, the melee combat designer on The Last of Us; Ben Ruiz, a combat design consultant and designer of Aztez; Daniel Nordlander, who worked on the combat of Dead Island 2; Doug Walker, a systems designer on multiple Killzone games and responsible for designing the brutal melee system; Berendine Venemans, a designer on Killzone: Shadowfall and Watchdogs; and Tom Bird who worked as a programmer on the Overlord series.

In the first article I went into depth on level design for melee combat systems (read it here). In the second article I went into depth about the enemy design and enemy AI (read it here). In this article I will compare which of the two has the most impact on melee combat and how the contribution of level design to the engagement of the combat system can be increased.

Level Design vs. Enemies

Based on the interviews that I have conducted, I believe that the games industry currently values enemies as being more important for good melee combat than level design. As demonstrated by the examples in the previous articles, melee combat systems are mostly affected by enemy design and AI, and level design has less impact on the combat. That does not mean level design is not important for good combat, as bad level design can still ruin a otherwise good encounter.

Inherent Design goal

A depiction of melee combat in an empty space.

The purpose of enemies is to challenge the player and make the various attack options viable to use in different situations.

“Combat is essentially an interaction between the player and the enemies.” Tom Bird, Overlord

Enemies challenge the player’s mastery of the combat system. Melee combat systems are designed to give players different ways to deal with various enemies. Level design does not challenge a player’s mastery of the combat system. As a result of these priorities, levels are usually designed as empty rooms to give enough space for the fight and manoeuvring around without interfering with the core combat activity.

“Even if you aren’t integrating level design mechanics into the combat system, you still need air tight enemies. No matter what kind of game it is, that needs to be really good.” Ben Ruiz, Aztez

For all games researched the melee combat system would still work well, and be fun, in a completely empty space, which is often the essence of the level design surrounding them; however, the level design would often not be especially interesting without diverse combat encounters to add variety to their traversal.

“You can have really good melee combat on a flat plane.” Doug Walker, Killzone

Games like DmC and Bayonetta often contain ‘arena challenges’ wherein the player has to complete a combat related objective (e.g. defeating all enemies while in the air) in a large empty arena. This also reflects the history of the genre where two characters fighting in a blank dojo space was the early focus (e.g. Karate Champ), which then moved to scrolling, mostly flat arenas (e.g. Golden Axe and Double Dragon). It was the advent of 32 bit computers and consoles that allowed worlds to become more complex, moving the focus of melee combat games away from solely fighting towards also including traversal challenges (e.g. MediEvil).


Enemy design is more reusable than level design. Various enemy types usually keep returning, being encountered by the player in different group compositions as well as the same group compositions returning. Additionally, enemy AI is applicable to the entire game and can even be reused for other projects. Level design, and particularly the associated artwork that complements it, varies throughout the game and thus requires more attention for each new combat encounter. Usually areas where the player fights enemies are, in terms of their collision boundaries, empty rooms of various sizes which are dressed with models outside the bounding box (to not obstruct player or enemy movement). These areas are cheaper to create as they require less attention from a combat design point of view, and so the core activities of the player are more predictable and require less testing to ensure a consistent experience. The degree to which levels can be re-used depends on the overall game, but in many ‘adventure’ melee combat games the changing scenes in which combat takes place is one of the appealing aspects for player progression, alongside the escalation of complexity of combat. The playable-space of the level design will likely remain very similar between encounters, but the dressing will often change considerably.

Contribution of level design

Level design can enhance the combat experience and contribute a lot to a fight being fun. Placing interesting and complex combinations of enemies in a simple arena can results in memorable combat experiences. Equally placing simple enemies in an interesting level layout makes that encounter memorable because of the level design. Both can result in interesting fights, either based on the space or the enemies. Ideally, games would be created with synergy between the two, where the important aspects of both regularly contributes to amazing fight sequences.

For more handcrafted, linear games such as God of War, level design and enemies can be equally important at different times. In open world games it becomes more difficult to control the enemy’s position and player’s entry point. A combat system needs level design to show off the best side of the enemy design. Bad mixing or placement in a bad arena can easily break an otherwise great enemy.

“With regard to a melee combat system the enemies tend to be more important, but it depends on the game.” Rahni Tucker, DmC

Some gameplay systems, such as stealth, require good level design. A classic form of stealth, such as hiding behind objects, does not work in an empty space. This is seen more in games which include ranged combat or other mechanics than in games which only focus on melee combat. Shooting also relies heavily on level design as cover and line of sight blockers make the shooting interesting. Other traversal mechanics within the game also rely on the level design to be fun, and the mix between these in games such as the Uncharted series can be a significant part of their appeal. As Rahni Tucker argues, it varies between games whether the level design or enemies are more important for the game to be fun as a whole.

Integrating Level Design into the Combat

Using the above research and the interviews, several opportunities are available to improve the impact of level design on the combat. These methods are all intended as systems which can be used throughout the entire game instead of as a single set piece. When first encountered within the game they can be tutorialized to teach the system to the player. It is also very important to keep the style of game you are making in mind as these methods might not fit every game or every main character. When they are implemented as systems available throughout play, instead of individual set pieces, interactions with a level´s geometry can become a complementary option for the player to use+ when used these mechanics can be gameplay highlights because players will often feel that they have triggered an uncommon or unique event that they have figured out themselves.

Attacks depending on the Level Image of the wall run attack from Ninja Gaiden

The first method of using level design to diversify a player’s combat experience is to give the player character attacks which require certain pieces of the environment to be triggered. These attacks require a specific feature from the environment to be used, such as an attack which swings around a pillar or while sliding down a slope. These attacks do not necessarily have to damage an enemy, such as hitting enemies into a wall to stun them. As with most attacks, there should be a risk to using these attacks, and a reward when they are executed successfully, to prevent them from being overpowered. These kinds of attacks can be more difficult for the player to execute than regular attacks as they need to coordinate with the level while trying to hit the enemy. If balanced correctly, this additional layer of complexity can add variety to a combat encounter that otherwise is identical mechanically to many previous encounters in the game.

“It can be really cool, yet the flip side of it is that you lose some consistency within the combat system. One is not better than the other, it depends on what kind of game you are making.” Rahni Tucker, DmC

This mechanic will add more meaning to the environment during the combat but it also has a trade-off: with this mechanic the same input from the player can result in different attacks depending on the player’s position within the level, and as a result it can be frustrating for the player when it happens unintentionally. Enemies have to be designed to give players room for error in this area. Implementing such a system also requires rule sets for the assets created by the art department, such as only placing interactive pillars away from walls to allow for player animations to be executed without clipping through the environment. Consistency in such a system can make locations feel the samey, because they somewhat restrict the range of options available to artists who are dressing the collision world. When implementing this mechanic extra attention is required to prevent these two problems.

A variation of this mechanic would be non-combat abilities which only work with the environment, but that could be useful during combat. An example of this would be the ability to walk on walls. This gives the player more movement options within the level and adds another layer to the gameplay. Enemies could be designed with this in mind, giving some special enemies the ability to walk on walls as well. This kind of mechanic depends more on what the rest of the game is about.

Interactive objects in the environment

Some objects can be designed to contribute to the melee combat experience. These objects could be used for varying purposes such as moving the player, damaging enemies, affecting enemies in another way (stunning them, status effects, etc.), and changing the combat arena.

An example of these are the blue orbs in DmC. These give players the ability to quickly relocate themselves and possibly create some distance when being overwhelmed by enemies. Another example is a pillar supporting some rubble: the player can destroy the pillar to make the rubble fall on the enemies. Items such as these ideally should have several varying looks to prevent it from feeling like artificial repetition, but still need to retain clear signposting so that players are aware of the interaction possibility. Preferably, these interactions should also have their own button if the player needs to press a specific button to trigger the interaction with them. It causes inconsistencies in the game if these interactions are placed on the same button as other attacks, which can cause the player to use environmental attacks unintentionally. It should be clear and simple for the player how to interact with, and use, these objects to avoid distracting players from the combat.

“The grappling hook in Batman: AC works great in that game because they do not use the same grapple interaction for grabbing a baddie as for grabbing a gargoyle” Rahni Tucker, DmC

These objects can be implemented in varying ways, with their use being optional or mandatory. Some players will also prefer to defeat the enemies themselves over using elements from the environment. Such things are often included as set-pieces and generally require the player to use them to progress in the game, enforcing the use of the mechanic. When making the use of these objects optional the game allows players to feel smart when they do use them. It is also possible that some enemies can only be defeated this way and thus adding an extra level of challenge and variety to encounters with these enemies. These enemies would be termed ‘enforcers’ as they force the player to use the environment (see the previous essay in this series for more discussion of AI types and terminology). Giving such objects multiple uses would further enhance the impact of the level design. A good example of this are doors in Dead Island 2, which can be used to buy time by closing them or to knock back enemies behind them when kicking them open. This adds a variety of ways the player can use these objects when encountered within a level.

Context sensitive interaction with the environment

Context sensitive interactions with the environment are differing animations of an attack depending on the environment close to the player. It allows for unique moments based on the combination of scenario and environment around the player.

“For the games that include these, it’s generally less about how you kill the guy and more about it looking cool.” Rahni Tucker, DmC

In Killzone there are alternate melee attack animations for different locations within the level or when near specific objects. If it is something which happens incidentally it can become a talking point for players to discuss or post videos about online. It works best as ‘cool’ accents to the combat which happen in varying situations and not something the player is trying to set up and use strategically.

Currently such events are mostly pre-scripted with very specific requirements for these objects.

 “We’re not quite there to the point where we can generate the assets required to make something truly as flexible as it needs to be to sell the idea of a completely dynamic system, though procedural animation systems are getting there.” Alex Sulman, God of War

The systems are currently limited by the number of directions which the animations can be triggered from and the amount of animations which can be created. It will also need an environment which looks and feels interactive. As procedural animation systems improve it will be possible to generate and trigger context sensitive interaction with the environment more dynamically.

Hazards damaging the player and enemies An image of an environmental hazard in a combat arena.

Hazardous areas can be placed within a level to damage players or enemies that enter them. These add to the complexity of combat by requiring players to avoid the hazardous areas themselves while also being able to kick enemies into the areas using knockback from attacks.

“This works very well with moves which put the enemy somewhere, such as grab and throw moves, aiming an enemy in a new direction to cause a different outcome.” Rahni Tucker, DmC

A variation of this can be kicking enemies over a ledge. In God of War 3 they had a system which prevented the player and enemies from falling off edges, yet in certain circumstance, such as using heavy attacks or throws, allowed players to push enemies through this invisible barrier. These hazards can be constant or timed and can be stationary or moving. Enemy AI should prevent enemies from walking into/off these hazards without player involvement because it breaks the illusion of intelligent enemies. These hazards bring variety to the player’s experience, and gives them a feeling of mastery for optimising their combat approach to suit each arena.

These hazards can also be created dynamically by enemies or the player: in DmC there is an enemy which can create a hazard on the ground around them, and many games use a variety of poison area-of-effect attacks. These hazards could tie in with enemy weaknesses, e.g. an electrical attack while standing in water, or they can be triggered using specific enemy attacks.

The level could also change its geometry, forcing players to react to it. This can happen at fixed intervals or randomly. It can directly damage the player when they do not respond adequately or simply put them at a disadvantage. Another possibility is to have spots which can contain a hazard without the hazard being defined yet. This would give players the option to choose the hazard they want and set up the area before the combat starts. These dynamic hazards allow for different interactions between the player and the level, increasing the contribution of the level design to the combat.

Using enemies to reach or unlock places

An additional method for using level design to diversify a player’s melee combat experience is by using enemies and manipulating them for something other than killing them. This can be tied in with the level design in ways such as breakable areas within the level which require an enemy’s attack to be opened or certain areas which can only be reached by interacting with enemies (such as jumping up from an enemy’s head).

“That’s a really good example because you are using a mechanic that you’ve already given the player. You have not sacrificed anything or created inconsistencies, all you’ve done is reinforce the thing that you are trying to get the player to do anyway.” Rahni Tucker, DmC

When such a system is used during an otherwise normal combat encounter, instead of being pre-scripted, it can create moments where the player feels they did something clever or discovered something. If this extra feature is designed to be important for unlocking levels, it is important to either clearly communicate the possibility to the players or teach them to look for such opportunities within the game. These additional challenges can strongly add to the appeal of combat encounters, as players will often spot a possibility in the level and then change their combat approach entirely to exploit that opportunity.

Some of these examples are already used a lot within games, yet there are also other possibilities. Making an enemy ram into or through a wall by dodging the attack is present in a lot of games. Using different variations of this within the same system keeps the game fresh. This could be as simple as a different aesthetic presentation: as a wall of fire appears different to an electrified wall, while still fulfilling the same gameplay objective. Another possibility is to interrogate enemies to get key information instead of manipulating them to do something different. This information could then be used to open up a new area or a secret. It feels more fresh to players when trying to implement this in new different ways and helps to keep players engaged in the game.

Multiple routes into combat

Multiple routes which lead into the combat area allow players to choose which enemy to engage with first. This allows players to think about their encounter in a more strategic manner than if it begins with no player control.

“When you have different routes you need to know what the consequence of each route will be.” Daniel Nordlander, Dead Island 2

It is important to inform players about the advantages beforehand. A possibility is to give certain moves extra damage when the player comes in from above or from behind. An addition to this is giving the players the ability to also exit the combat arena, so they have the opportunity to re-strategise and re-enter the fight again. This could also lead to vantage points to give the player an advantage over enemies, such as routes the player can take where enemies cannot follow. This adds multiple layers of use within the same space and can easily be added to a large encounter. The player would then use hit and run tactics to take out all the enemies while still keeping themselves safe; however, the power of these spaces must be balanced carefully to not allow the player to feel like they are either exploiting an over-powered mechanic, or that they are being forced to adopt an overly cautious play style due to otherwise unfair standard melee combat balancing.

If the game includes multiple player classes, there can also be paths which are class dependant.. Adding class dependant routes into combat can bring variety into the game for multiple play-throughs, or even give an additional tactical layer in multiplayer melee combat encounters.

A large encounter can also be split up into multiple smaller fights with multiple routes through the area. This gives players the opportunity to decide in which order they want to engage these smaller fights.

An image depicted an area overview which overs multiple paths into combat. “The positioning becomes much more important when there is stealth and awareness, or similar mechanics.” Daniel Nordlander, Dead Island 2

Other game mechanics can increase the importance of these optional routes. There can be some advantage added for the player to use different routes, rewarding them for their exploration and curiosity, alternatively the mutliple routes can be added purely to accommodate a variety of play styles. Examples of this can already be seen in games such as Assassin’s Creed: the player can choose a stealthy route and take on the smaller fights individually; however, if the player fails at stealth or favours melee combat then they have the option to deal with all the enemies at the same time.

Alternate goals

Another method for using level design to diversify a player’s melee combat experience is to give them objectives which require the level to be completed through traversal instead of killing the enemies. An example of this is having to reach the end of the level before a timer runs out. This turns enemies into obstacles the player has to avoid instead of being the challenge the player has to overcome. This is often framed in a narrative context such as a collapsing building, a bomb timer, or a flooding mine. A time limit could be added by itself, or additional challenge can be added by combining it with enemies that are necessary to be exploited to escape the area. This needs to be done sparingly to still keep the game focused on combat instead of avoiding enemies, but this is a matter of understanding priorities in the game’s focus and demonstrates the power of level design and mechanics to completely alter the flavour of a melee game.

An alternate example of this, discussed in an earlier essay of this series, is where enemies have to be killed to fill an engraving on the floor with blood. These examples turn the enemies into an obstacle or make them part of the goal, instead of being the goal itself.


Over these three articles (part 1, part 2) I have identified the main elements of level design, enemy design, and enemy AI that influence a player’s immersion in a flow state during combat and overall memorability of combat encounters.

For level design these are:

  • a combat arena which complements the combat system;
  • enemy placement which encourages players to engage in combat;
  • level design which allows players to get close to enemies (for games which also include ranged combat).

For enemy design these are:

  • clear tells which communicate to the player what the enemy is about to do;
  • distinct enemies which each encourage players to use different strategies to fight them.

For enemy AI:

  • a system which prevents players from getting overwhelmed by enemies, usually grouping them in a near and far group, and gives players a chance to react to the enemy’s actions while creating the illusion that all enemies are actively partaking in the fight.

I have also found that level design, while not fully exploited yet, has potential in the key areas of player and enemy interaction with the environment. These can be enhanced in the following ways:

  • giving the player attacks which require specific pieces of level architecture to be executed;
  • adding interactive objects in the environment which can be used during the fight;
  • context sensitive interaction with the environment;
  • hazardous areas within the level which damage players or enemies when they enter;
  • ways to redirect what enemies are doing or interact with them in another way than dealing damage to reach or unlock places within the level;
  • multiple routes which lead into the combat area, each with their own advantage;
  • objectives other than killing the enemies which incorporate the level design.

These can all be implemented as systems to be used throughout the game’s levels to diversify a player’s melee combat experience. All these elements focus on enhancing the melee combat experience and adding variety, allowing the player to utilise every aspect of the combat system to its fullest. Not all features should be used in all encounters and, as with variety in enemy design, mixtures of different options should be used sparingly and with sensitivity to the overall game flow to create a compelling experience.

Using the base of knowledge here, practical implementations of the improvements in level design would be able to test whether these ideas are truly valid. These implementations can be tested on games which focus on melee combat and on games which also include ranged combat. From there further research can be done to examine ways to easily incorporate these features into designs, and best practice guidelines for tuning them to fit the overall player experience. Ideally this would result in games which are more fun for the player and allow for a larger contribution of level design to the melee combat.

I hope you have enjoyed this article. It is the final article of a three part series. The first article in this series focused on level design for melee combatsystems (read it here). The second article focused on enemy design and enemy AI for melee combat systems (read it here).

If you have any feedback or comments, or simply liked this piece, please add a note below. Thank you for reading!


About the writer: Bart Vossen is a designer looking for awesome companies to work with and can be contacted via

Editor and contributing author: Prof. Mata Haggis is the Associate Professor of Creative & Entertainment Games at NHTV University in Breda, The Netherlands. His own Gamasutra blogs can be read here: He is working on a playable interactive narrative experience (PINE) game called Fragments of Him (, and occasionally blogs about that on

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